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DOC NYC Women Directors & Producers: Meet Roberta Grossman and Nancy Spielberg – ‘Above and Beyond’

DOC NYC Women Directors & Producers: Meet Roberta Grossman and Nancy Spielberg - 'Above and Beyond'

Roberta Grossman (Above and Beyond‘s director) is an award-winning filmmaker with a passion for history and social justice. She has written and produced more than forty hours of documentary film and television. Her most recent film, Hava Nagila (The Movie), was
the opening or closing night film at 46 of the 80 film festivals where
it screened, had a theatrical release in 2013, and is now available on
Netflix. Grossman’s previous film, Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh,
was shortlisted for an Academy Award, won the audience award at 13 film
festivals, was broadcast on PBS, and nominated for a Primetime Emmy. Grossman is the producer of Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning for PBS/American Masters (Fall 2014) and was the series producer and co-writer of 500 Nations, the eight-hour CBS mini-series on Native Americans hosted by Kevin Costner. Her feature documentary, Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action, aired on public television stations in November 2005.

An accomplished businesswoman, fundraiser, and philanthropist, Nancy Spielberg (Above and Beyond‘s producer) has in recent years turned her energy and talents to producing
documentary films. She served as consultant on the Oscar-winning
documentary Chernobyl Heart and is executive producer of Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals, which aired nationally on PBS. Before creating and producing Above and Beyond, Spielberg produced a project for the Israeli government, Celebrities Salute Israel’s 60th, which was featured in Times Square on the NASDAQ screens for one month. Spielberg
grew up surrounded by the film industry, where she worked on her
brother Steven’s early films. She is founder and co-founder of
several charities, including A Bid for Charity, Children of
Chernobyl, Project Sunshine, and the U.S. branch of The Jerusalem
Academy of Music and Dance. (aboveandbeyondthemovie.com)

Above and Beyond will play at DOC NYC on November 16 and 20. 

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

RG: Above
and Beyond
is the unknown story of American Jewish WWII pilots who
survived one war, only to turn around and volunteer to fight in another: Israel’s War of Independence.

NS: This is the story of a handful of American WWII pilots who, after
returning from their service to the US as celebrated heroes, got
involved in clandestine illegal operations — smuggling planes and
recruiting their buddies to fly them for Israel in 1948 just as Israel
was voted into statehood and attacked by all of the surrounding, well-equipped Arab armies. These pilots — some Jewish, some not — made up a
volunteer “band of brothers” who felt it was their duty to help another
in need. 

W&H: What drew you to the story?

RG: I
was asked to direct the film by producer Nancy Spielberg, whose passion
for the story was contagious. I am endlessly fascinated by Jewish
history, and so the opportunity to dig into American Jewish identity post-WWII and to learn about the 1948 war was very appealing.

NS: I was
first drawn to this story when I read an obituary titled “Godfather of
the Israeli Air Force Died” that went on to describe how an American
TWA flight engineer was credited with smuggling planes out of the US against an embargo and basically masterminding the creation of Israel’s
Air Force. It read like a fictional action-adventure, replete with
swooning women, bar brawls, and heroics. But it was true!

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

RG: The
biggest challenge was how to fit all of the story into a watchable
film. There was the story of six individual pilots (and we had to know
enough about them to care about them), the story of the birth of the
State of Israel, including the role of the British, the role of the UN,
and the role of the American Jewish community. We also had to fit in
the story of the creation of the Israeli Air Force and the story of the war itself, including the complex and painful problem of the Palestinian refugees.

NS: The
biggest challenge was probably trying to tell this unique piece of
history without falling into political potholes. We wanted to focus on
these brave fly boys and their Yankee roots and sentiments — what was
their motivation? Also, finding these pilots alive and in good health
and of sound mind to interview was another tough hurdle. 

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

RG: How
brave those guys were! I hope after seeing the film, people will think
about the idea of throwing one’s self into the “fight,” standing up,
volunteering, trying to make a difference.

NS: I
want people to ask themselves, What would YOU do to help another in
need? To what extent are you willing to risk your own life? I also want
people to acknowledge these veterans and their brave service and to look at Israel without the jaded PR that exists today, to remember that Israel has a right to exist. 

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

RG: Be prepared and be confident. Be a good collaborator. Don’t give up.

NS: I
guess I would say that there’s no topic that can’t be tackled. Roberta
Grossman, the film’s director, Sophie Sartain, the film’s writer, and I
all jumped head first into a “man’s” story without intimidation. In fact,
I think our interviewees were actually much more emotional and open to
talking about their relationships with their mothers and fathers because
we were doing the interviewing. That whole “macho” piece fell to the
wayside. 

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

RG: I won’t presume that people know my work enough to have misconceptions about it.

NS: That
my brother has financed it or had a major role in it. His major role
was being a loving and supportive big brother, full of pride for his
littlest sis. 

W&H: How did you get your film funded? 

RG: Producer Nancy Spielberg raised all the funds for the film through our Berkeley based non-profit production company, Katahdin Productions. All funds were donations. The donations came from hundreds of individuals and private foundations.

NS: The
film was structured as a not-for-profit. We applied for grants and we
approached individuals that we felt would connect with the story. The
biggest issue was shooting down (sorry, I’m still in fighter-pilot mode)
the notions that money will come from the big brother and his buddies.
Also, in a sense, we had a crowd-funding campaign, although it was not
intentional. We had cut a seven-minute sample reel that someone had leaked
on the Internet and shared with thousands. When we saw the number of
views we were getting, we put a donate button on the site, and money came
through! We had over one million hits. 


W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

RG: Mira Nair. I love her films. And she gave me a guiding idea
once a long time ago when I interviewed her for something (can’t
remember what it was for!). She was talking about her films, and she
said, “Sometimes you catch magic in a bottle, and sometimes you don’t.” In other words, you can work just as hard on a film that turns out badly
as a film that is transcendent, and that transcendence is something
magical that happens once in a while, if you’re lucky.

NS: Roberta Grossman’s films! Why? Watch Above and Beyond.

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