August 26, 2004
Jewish Advocacy, Guerrilla Style
The set is a converted garage in Pico-Robertson. Eight Hollywood hopefuls dressed in T-shirts and cargo pants, holding shovels and frying pans, are waiting for the camera to start rolling.
A boom mike looms overhead and a klieg light shines in their faces, but for screenwriter Shlomo Heimler, these things matter less than the fact that for him this shoot, which advertises volunteering in Israel, is one with soul.
"This is the most meaningful work I have ever done," the 38-year-old former advertising art director said. "When you go to work, there are typically no emotions involved, but this is all heart and soul, for everyone."
Heimler, who is from Chicago, is one of 15 fellows of Jewish Impact Films Fellowship (JIFF), a local organization that is training budding filmmakers from all over America and Israel to make short films that will serve the Jewish community and Israel. The fellows were chosen from 100 applicants for their commitment to -- and idealism for -- Jewish causes. They came to Los Angeles to spend three weeks in a Jewish film boot camp that gave them a crash course in the basics of filmmaking as well as lectures in Israel advocacy and Jewish philosophy. They were also assigned to write, direct and produce three or four short films on Israel and Judaism.
JIFF's mission mirrors that of another local organization, JFlicks, which also wants to use the tools of Hollywood to create meaningful and fun films that will repackage Judaism for a media-savvy generation. But while JFlicks are 8- to 10-minute documentaries, JIFF films are 1- to 2-minute one-concept affairs, more like commercials than films. Like moveon.org and reelectbush.com, Web sites that revolutionized grass-roots political advocacy with their "homemade" advertisements that users can send in, JIFF wants to create a guerrilla-style Jewish advocacy. Organizers hope the program's short, sharp, very-low-budget films will spread like a virus from Jewish computer to Jewish computer via e-mail and Web ads, inspiring all who watch them to be proud of being Jewish and ready to go to Israel.
"The Internet is such a powerful tool to get the word out," said Michael Borkow, a senior fellow at JIFF and the co-executive producer of the Fox sitcom "Quintuplets." "I just think this is a brilliant idea to use the talent and resources that are available here in Hollywood to try and get some positive and well deserved publicity for Israel and Jewish themes."
JIFF was developed by Borkow along with David Sacks and Jason Venokur, two observant TV producers; David Weiss, an observant screenwriter; and Rabbi Yaacov Deyo from Aish HaTorah.
During the first week the organizers bought in guest lecturers like Danny Kaufman, an experienced commercial director, who spoke about getting a message across in film; Barry Edelstein, a Shakespearean director from New York who lectured on directing actors; and Bob Hayes, who gave the group a crash course in lighting. In addition to that, the group heard from actor/comedian Larry Miller, who spoke about his journey to Judaism, representatives from Palestinian Media Watch and the Middle East Media Research Institute and received lectures in Jewish philosophy from Rabbi Daniel Feldman of Yeshiva University. The group also had many brainstorming sessions where they tossed around ideas about different short films they could make and they started writing the scripts, which Sacks and company critiqued for them.
Production started the second week. The fellows worked together assembling actors who would work gratis, finding locations and getting props, all for a budget of $50 per film. By the end of the fellowship they had made 30 films in all, ranging in subjects and concepts.
Some, like Heimler's "Stop the bleeding" which showed red-colored news photos of terror attacks in Israel, which were meant to draw attention to the Middle East conflict and stopping terrorism. Others like Bonnie Lipsey's "The world is an unreasonable place. Meet it on its own terms. Do good deeds without reason," highlighted an aspect of Jewish philosophy. Lipsey said the quote belongs to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The film showed a grown man sitting and playing with toys in a toy store; in the next shot he goes to give the toys to sick children in hospital.
"I came to this program a little leery, because a lot of the Israel advocacy people I have known are a turn-off," said Katie Reisner who will be a sophomore at Brown University this year. "Even though I have strong feelings on the subject, I veered away from the debates in school because they were so polemical. This program showed me a fine balance, and I have been really impressed with the nuances that people are willing to delve into."
One of Reisner's films is of a woman who is arguing with herself about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The fellows themselves say the program has inspired them not to win Academy awards, but to become more involved in Israel advocacy and Jewish observance.
"It clicked to me that I need to go [to Israel] and help out in any way and for a long period of time," Heimler said. "This inspired me to actively support Israel physically."
For more information, visit www.jewishimpactfilms.com .