Ferne Pearlstein is is a prize-winning cinematographer, a feature film editor and a writer/director whose work has won numerous awards and been screened and broadcast around the world. In 2003 Pearlstein‘s feature documentary “Sumo East and West” — which she directed, produced, photographed and edited — premiered at the Tribeca, Los Angeles and Melbourne International Film Festivals, and was shown nationwide on PBS’s “Independent Lens” series and broadcast around the world. Her other director credits include “Dita and the Family Business” (PBS) with Josh Taylor, and three short films including her debut “Raising Nicholas,” which premiered at the 2003 Sundance and San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals. (Press materials)
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
FP: “The Last Laugh” is about taboos in humor, starting from the premise that the Holocaust would seem to be an absolutely off-limits topic for comedy…but is that actually true? History shows that even the victims of the concentration camps used humor for survival and resistance.
But where’s the line? If we make the Holocaust off limits, what are the implications for other controversial subjects — AIDS, racism, 9/11 — in a society that prizes freedom of speech?
W&H: What drew you to this story?
FP: An old friend of mine and I were in Miami in 1991 with a group of journalists who were being given a tour of Miami’s then-new Holocaust Memorial, led by an elderly survivor. My friend had just finished reading Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” and asked the guide what she thought of the book. She reacted very strongly against it and said to him, “You cannot tell this story through the funny pages! There was nothing funny about the Holocaust!”
That moment stuck with him, especially because she hadn’t read it. When he went back to school for his PhD he wrote a 40-page paper called “The Last Laugh: Humor and the Holocaust.” A few years later, when I was graduating from the documentary film program at Stanford, he handed me the paper and said, “Make this into a movie.” And I eventually did.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
FP: We want to provoke debate and discussion — to introduce these issues and stimulate a serious conversation about freedom of speech, our collective memory and how to remember the past while keeping it vibrant.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
FP: There were several! It was nearly impossible to get grants for this project because of the nature of the subject. We were finalists for more than four large grants, but in each case we were ultimately rejected.
We had a strong academic team behind us explaining why the subject was important, and how it offered a new approach to something that felt like it had been looked at from every possible angle. But it was still risky. Understandably, no one wanted to offer what might look like an endorsement of the idea that “it’s okay to laugh at the Holocaust.” Even though that was not at all what we were saying.
The next big challenge was finding the first comedian who was willing to be in the film. Fortunately, Rob Reiner agreed. Once we had Rob onboard a whole world opened up to us because of the universal love and respect for him. I think the attitude was, if he believed in and trusted us, we must be okay.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
FP: We received one modest grant from the New York State Council of the Arts. The bulk of our funding was from one anonymous donor who believed in the project from the beginning. Once we got to picture lock, an investor came in with the finishing funds we needed.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
FP: Well I think if you are making documentaries that are not social issue docs — or if you care too much about how the documentary imagery looks — you are perceived as making films that are not “important” enough.
As a documentary filmmaker who originally trained at the International Center of Photography in Documentary Photography, I was taught the opposite to be true. The success of your image was as much about the strength of the image as it was about the aesthetic appeal.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
FP: The worst advice for me personally: “If you’ve directed and/or shot your own film, you won’t have the perspective to edit it.” I understand that premise in theory, but that’s why I work so hard to have consultants and trusted friends around me to make sure I have that outside perspective that’s desperately needed.
The best advice: When I was graduating from Stanford, one of my professors — Jon Else, who is a brilliant documentary director and DP– told me, “If you want to be hired to shoot documentaries in film, you need to buy yourself a film camera so you can be a package deal.”
So I bought a used Aaton LTR that was so old the serial number was in the double digits. And I made a career shooting documentaries in film. The first feature I shot with that camera was “Imelda” by Ramona Diaz, which I won the Sundance Cinematography Prize in Documentary for. The most recent feature I shot with it was “The Last Laugh.”
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
FP: Persistence. Persistence. Persistence! And don’t hear “No!”
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
FP: “Lost in Translation” by Sofia Coppola has such a special place in my heart. I started my career as a still photographer working for two Japanese newspapers, and spent some time in Japan — which I fell in love with — and then made my first feature documentary there , “Sumo East and West.”
When I wandered around in Japan as a photographer, alone with my camera, I remember feeling as though I had somehow walked inside the pages of the most beautiful fairy tale I had ever read, mixed with the occasional horror of never being able to escape those pages. I remember watching her film and sensing that she understood that feeling too.