Novelist Terry Pratchett wrote, “The whole of life is just like watching a film. Only it’s as though you always get in 10 minutes after the big picture has started, and no one will tell you the plot, so you have to work it all out yourself from the clues.”
How two American guys came to be in Jerusalem, meet and launch Cinemad Productions proves this to be true. The storylines of Jeff Handel and Drew Feldman are nothing if not unexpectedly winding and curving, the stuff of good movies and lives fully lived.
Handel loves movies. He always has. He grew up in Culver City, California, where Sony Studios donated a substantial amount of money to the Academy of Performing Arts at his local high school. This enabled him to nurture his love of film from the age of 13 and even take courses with University of Southern California film professors who came to teach at the academy, and shoot 16mm film as well.
“I always fancied myself a film director,” Handel adds. “I wanted to be the next Steven Spielberg.” Handel then went on to Boston University, where he was able to explore cinematography and production as well. Handel was nominated for the American Society of Cinematography’s Student Award and his senior thesis film, Fratelli Breaks, won the Sumner Redstone Film Festival. The film centers around two Italian brothers from Boston’s North End, who reunite every year on the anniversary of their father’s death to play a game of high-stakes pool.
A year after graduating from BU, Handel decided to travel to Israel, where he subsequently fell in love with the land and with Judaism, and stopped working in film for a while. The six-year hiatus found him undergoing an Orthodox conversion in Boston (his father is Jewish but his mother is not) and attending several yeshivas in Israel.
Ironically, it was in yeshiva that Handel found his way back to filmmaking. A friend, Joseph Shamash, asked him to work on a few film projects together. This led, in 2013, to the two young men going out into the streets of Jerusalem and asking people, “If you had one wish that could be fulfilled today, what would it be?” They filmed people from all demographic groups: Arabs, Jews, secular and religious.
The short film they created quickly garnered a hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. So they decided to make a few more short films in a similar vein, and started a non-profit organization called the One Wish Project, using the films as educational tools in schools, camps and synagogues. Their mission became using film to bridge the gap in dialogue between people and conflict. The One Wish Project is currently dormant, but the foundational ideology – that storytelling through film can make a difference – is something Handel still carries with him.
“I WAS living in LA off and on for two years while we had the One Wish Project going,” Handel says. “One day I had a conversation with a friend of mine who’s an artist. He had been working in education for a number of years, and he came to a point where he hit 40 and decided to quit his job, take some savings money and spend it all on art supplies. He committed himself to creating art for six months and ended up painting hundreds of canvases. I was really inspired by his story. So I went out and bought a good camera and decided that I was going to stop doing all of these other things, like working in real estate that I really didn’t care about, and commit myself to filmmaking.”
Handel threw himself full-force back into filmmaking. His first project was a micro-documentary called Throwing Paint, about the artist who inspired him. In 2016, he moved back to Israel and entered a film competition. Although he didn’t win, he utilized it as a launchpad to get his name out. In the process, Handel reconnected with a friend from yeshiva and the two launched a digital marketing agency called Tribe Creative, with a focus on commercial content for businesses.
The partnership lasted for about two years before Handel decided he wanted to focus more exclusively on film and video content creation over marketing as a whole.
For Handel, Tribe Creative was trying to be all things, doing too much at once. His passion is for storytelling through filmmaking and it was time to marry that passion to a career. But he needed a partner who shared his vision, and most of all, shared his deep commitment to telling captivating stories. Cue Drew Feldman.
Feldman grew up in Dallas, Texas. He recognized a passion for theater from a young age and focused on it throughout middle school and high school. One of Feldman’s teachers pulled him aside and told him he had what it took to do theater professionally. This boost of confidence helped empower him. “I applied to a bunch of conservatories throughout the US, which is a fancy word for a four-year bachelor of fine arts program in some kind of theater discipline,” Feldman explains. “I went to Oklahoma City University, which is one of the jewels of the South in terms of their performing arts program.”
Feldman pursued a BFA in acting and took a semester off to do an intensive program with the National Theater Institute in Connecticut. The four-month training further honed his acting skills, but he also discovered that he liked to direct. Immediately after graduating college, Feldman landed a job as an actor touring with a national Shakespeare company. During that time, he still had the itch to direct. In fact, it was only getting stronger.
Feldman had an opportunity to start a theater company with a friend from LA, so he moved there and launched unMasqued. “Everyone goes there for film, but I started a non-profit theater company,” Feldman says. “While I was in LA for a little under a year, I was primarily directing and I had an idea for a film that I had developed with a friend. Luckily, LA is full of filmmakers.
“A FRIEND of mine was a director of photography and he gave me the confidence to think that I could be a film director. He said he would teach me everything I needed to know about the technical aspects, and I already had experience working with actors, so I made this short film with him called We Are ROM3, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I learned a lot from him. Primarily my focus as a director was working with actors and being able to craft performances, as well as gesture and blocking.”
Word got out that Feldman had directed a quality short film, and he was soon asked to direct another Shakespearean adaptation. Suddenly, he was being hired to direct films. He also tried his hand at making music videos. Feldman won an award for his editing on We Are ROM3, and the film garnered several other awards. “I think it was because I understood rhythm and tempo,” Feldman says. “I just opened up Adobe Premiere and gave it a shot. All of a sudden I found myself doing a lot more film producing and directing than anything else.”
Feldman then found himself back in Dallas and connecting more with Judaism. He grew up in a Conservative household, where his family would go to shul a few times a year. But while he was working on a project, Feldman met a rabbi who inspired him and began asking the kind of soul-searching, existential questions that can only come from someone who has been seeking meaning for years. A short time later, Feldman applied for and received a Drama League Directing Fellowship, the premier fellowship for emerging theater directors in the US.
“It was the best thing I’ve ever done as a theater director,” Feldman states. “I got to direct a major production in upstate New York. But afterwards, I decided that I was going to go to yeshiva. I thought if I didn’t do it then, I would probably never do it, because things were going so well.”
Feldman packed up and left for Israel, where he attended Machon Yaakov in Har Nof for two years. He describes his time there as amazing and challenging. The yeshiva’s academic and intellectual environment was not something Feldman was used to after so many years in theater.
“I had not really sat down and studied a book intensely since high school,” Feldman recalls. “So it was a shock to my system a little bit. During that time, it was important to me to keep myself busy with creative projects. I think that creation is a way of giving back to the world. People who lock it away end up suffering later in life. I’ve seen people like that. I was really inspired by a book called The Artist’s Way [by Julia Cameron] that helped guide me through.”
FELDMAN AND Handel met just after Passover in 2017, and clicked immediately. They had similar goals, and most important, similar ardor. They began hiring one another for projects and it soon became clear that they worked well together. By the time Feldman left yeshiva, he decided that he wanted to stay in Israel, make aliyah, and continue seeing where his work with Handel could go. “It seemed to me that everything is moving forward here in Israel, whereas in America it can feel stagnant,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of that. Jeff and I also thought that there might be a need for well-done English content, especially for companies and organizations here that need to reach Western audiences. Who better to express that story than two Americans?”
Feldman and Handel officially launched Cinemad Productions this past fall. The name is a combination of nomad and cinematic. Both men have been nomadic travelers throughout their lives, in terms of external locations and in their inner landscapes. Both have traversed countless miles on their journeys for meaning and mission. They recently hired a business developer to help streamline things at Cinemad.
The production company contains two aspects: projects in Israel for start-ups and other companies, and passion projects (aka original content). Their goals are to focus on businesses in Israel that need their stories told, as well as international social and non-profit causes. In this vein, Cinemad recently produced a video for Prince EA (an American spoken-word artist) that garnered hundreds of thousands of views.
“We want to tell people’s stories in interesting ways,” Feldman says. “If it’s a tech project, we want to find an exciting way to share that product with the world. Then with Cinemad Films, we can produce narrative work and things that we really want to see.”
The pair hit the ground running this summer when they wrote and created their first short film together, which they titled Master of Return. They raised the money to make a short version that has functioned like a proof of concept for a feature, which they hope to begin shooting in August. During this process, they found an investor who is supporting the production.
Feldman and Handel are currently writing the script, which is loosely based on Handel’s life, but is also largely hyperbolic while drawing on stories from other people they’ve known. Master of Return focuses on a guy who starts selling marijuana in order to pay off his large student-loan debt. While lost in the insatiable chase for money, he begins to realize there is more to life than greed. He eventually finds something more meaningful and purposeful in Orthodox Judaism.
“We love filmmaking, that’s our passion,” Handel shares. “It’s the most powerful tool for storytelling in the world today, like the pen was for thousands of years. We want to focus on helping people tell their stories, and also telling our own.”
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