Still amazing: Grace Paley on film

Israeli-born filmmaker Lilly Rivlin brings her documentary on the iconic writer and political activist to Jerusalem’s Jewish Film Festival.

December 5, 2010 23:13
3 minute read.
Israeli-born filmmaker Lilly Rivlin

311_Lilly Rivlin. (photo credit: Courtesy)

‘With Grace Paley, what you saw was what you got,” says Lilly Rivlin, the director of the documentary film, Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, which will be shown on Wednesday, December 8 at 7 p.m. at the 12th Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. Rivlin will be present at the screening and will be joined for a discussion following the film by Professor Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi.

There will also be screenings of the movie at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque on December 9 and at the Haifa Cinematheque on December 12.

Rivlin, a New York-based director was privileged to know Paley, the renowned short story writer, poet and political activist, personally. She wanted to make a film about the writer because she “combined the best of all possible worlds – literature, politics, and love of humanity.” Although she had long mulled making a film about this writer and friend, in 2006, when Paley became ill, “I rushed to make the film. I heard she was really bad, and thank God I got to her in time.” Rivlin was able to do two long interviews with Paley, including one in which she had to brave a snowstorm to make it to Paley’s home in Vermont. Although Paley grew up in New York City and never lost her Bronx accent, late in life she moved to Vermont with her second husband, Robert Nichols. Paley died in August 2007.

Rivlin concedes it was far from simple to make a film about such a beloved, iconoclastic poet and short-story writer, whose books include The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and Later the Same Day, as well as several collections of poetry and writings about politics.

“It was a challenge to say the least. I wanted to take all of her in: The master writer, the political activist and Grace the mensch, who reaches out to her friends, family and kids,” says Rivlin.

ALTHOUGH PALEY’S large circle of friends, including the writers Alice Walker and Alan Gurganus, were not only willing but eager to talk about Paley, there are also interviews with her daughter and her husband. Rivlin was also happy to receive what she calls a “treasure trove” of photographs from Paley’s cousin, who supplied baby pictures and other rare photos.

But while deciding how to piece it all together, Rivlin came up with the idea of presenting it a series of short films, all on different ideas or themes that were important to Paley’s life.

“That idea was a lucky stroke,” says Rivlin. “The film parallels her writing,” which is known for its directness, humor and simplicity. And as much as you may think you know Paley the writer, there are surprises here, including rare footage of her reading some of her best stories and poems during the last years of her life. The fact that she studied with W.H. Auden at the New School for Social Research is also not widely known.

A friend recalls what that he told her: “Why are you trying to write like me? You’re a woman, you’re from the Bronx.” Paley credited Auden with helping her find her own voice. Although her writing may read as if it were effortless, Paley speaks of her difficulty completing pieces, and recalls her great pride when, as a working mother in her thirties, she finished her first short story.

Grace Paley: Collected Shorts has been screened widely at festivals in the US and won the audience awards at the Woodstock Film Festival and the Starz Denver Festival. It will also be shown next month at the New York Jewish Film Festival and the Palm Springs International Jewish Film Festival.

Rivlin has a strong connection to Israel (her cousin is MK and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin) and her last two films, Gimme a Kiss (a look at her parents’ lives) and Can You Hear Me?: Israeli and Palestinian Women Fight for Peace, were shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Still, due to some commitments in New York, Rivlin hesitated before committing to attend the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival.

“But then I thought: What would Grace say?” says Rivlin. And she decided that Paley would have told her, “ ‘Go, show the film. Try to engage with the young people in the audience.’ Young people and children were so important to her. So I knew I had to go get on the plane.”

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