"I’ve been to more than 100 cities with Above and Beyond, it’s been shown at more than 120 film festivals. I could write a book about all the responses it has gotten,” said Nancy Spielberg, interviewed at a Birthright Israel event in Cinema City Glilot on Monday, referring to the documentary she produced about the American fighter pilots who were instrumental in creating the Israel Air Force during the War of Independence. Above and Beyond, which had one of its first screenings at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2014, has since won over 13 awards at film festivals all over the world.
Spielberg was excited to be presenting clips from the film to the approximately 1,000 Birthright participants and to be the guest of honor at an event that marked the fact that more than half a million young people have visited Israel on Birthright trips.
Philanthropists and entrepreneurs Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, who have given somewhere in the neighborhood of $160 million to support Birthright, and Gidi Mark, international CEO of Birthright Israel, spoke at an evening event.
Billed as Birthright’s Cinema Day, the group turned the Cinema City lobby into an Israeli job/ education/aliya fair. In addition to Spielberg, Israeli filmmakers Gal Uchovsky, who wrote Walk on Water and produced The Bubble and Yossi & Jagger, and Talya Lavie, who directed Zero Motivation, spoke to the attendees.
Spielberg was pleased to be taking part not only because she feels her film can inspire young American Jews, but because her family has a very personal connection to Israel. She and her husband, Shimon Katz, recently built a small apartment building in the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem, where they keep an apartment, and her daughter Jessica “Jessy” Katz moved to Israel four years ago. Jessy Katz was a popular contestant on the Israeli television show The Voice in the summer of 2014. Spielberg’s husband and both her daughters accompanied her to this event.
“Jews are really affected by the film. I get thousands of emails, that say things like, ‘I’m a bad Jew at best, and this film has renewed my pride in being a Jew.’ I never expected this reaction. I just set out to capture this incredible story.”
She got the idea of making a film about the mostly US-born pilots who begged, borrowed and stole to bring planes to Israel and then flew missions during the War of Independence, when she saw the obituary for Al Schwimmer. Schwimmer was an American who is considered the father of the IAF, and who, after serving as a US flight engineer in World War II, smuggled 30 surplus planes into Israel in 1948, and was later indicted and stripped of his US citizenship. Eventually pardoned by president Clinton, he stayed in Israel and founded Israel Aircraft Industries.
As she began researching the lives of these pilots, she began to feel “it was a race against time” to interview them and make the documentary while they were still alive. Four of her interviewees – Lou Lenart, Leon Frankel, Coleman Goldstein and George Lichter – have passed away since she made the film.
Ben Lichtman, the grandson of one of the pilots, Gideon Lichtman, is here on a Birthright trip.
He spent Monday touring Hatzor airbase, the IAF base where his grandfather served, and received an award.
Speaking to the Birthright group, Spielberg acknowledged the 500-pound elephant – perhaps 500-pound dinosaur would be more accurate – that is always in the room at her public appearances: her brother, Steven.
As she talked about how she came to make Above and Beyond, she joked, “The difference between my brother and my film is that I don’t have any dinosaurs or aliens in my film, but I do have some real-life Indiana Jones guys. That is really the story that I want to share with you guys.”
She mentioned that she “died a thousand deaths” in the movies her brother made when they were kids, and said that it was difficult to raise money to finance a film when “Everyone says, ‘Why don’t you just ask your brother, or Jeffrey Katzenberg, or David Geffen?’” That she did not ask any of them for money is a point of pride for Spielberg. She also emphasized that she identified with the pilots and their desire to help Israel, recalling that she and her siblings were called “dirty Jews” by some of their neighbors when they were growing up in Arizona.
The enthusiastic audience listened and then watched clips from the film. After the Q&A, the charming and self-deprecating Spielberg chatted with the Birthright participants, asking them where they were from and playing Jewish Geography with them.
Spielberg has been busy this year, and not only with taking Above and Beyond to 120 film festivals.
She produced the television documentary, Mimi and Dona, about an elderly mother and her autistic daughter, which The New York Times named one of the best television programs of the year.
She is currently developing two documentaries, one to be directed by Roberta Grossman, who also directed Above and Beyond, about the Oneg Shabbat archives, a collection of diaries and other writings hidden by inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto and recovered after the war. Another project, to be directed by Dani Menkin, is called On the Map, and it tells the story of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team that defeated the Soviet Red Army team from Moscow, to win the European Cup Basketball Championship in 1977.
“I’ve done more things by accident than by intention,” admitted Spielberg, as she recalled how she had not yet picked a title when a clip she released on YouTube with the film’s working title, Above and Beyond, garnered more than a million views. “A lot of what I’ve done has been min hashamayim [from the heavens] and I’m so glad to be here and sharing it with these kids.”