Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion called them the Diaspora’s most important contribution to the fledgling Jewish state.
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He was referring, of course, to Mahal, the Jewish volunteers, most of them World War II vets, who came to fight for Israel during the War of Independence.
Nancy Spielberg, the president of Playmount Productions, thought she ought to do a film about them before it was too late (two of her subjects, in fact, passed away during the course of production.) But rather than tell the story of all 4,000, Steven Spielberg’s youngest sister decided to focus on one particular group of volunteers: the Jewish-American pilots who rushed to Israel’s rescue during the 1948 war, manning the handful of rickety fighter planes that eventually changed the dire course of events. In the process, they also helped create what was to become a world-class air force.
“Above and Beyond: The Birth of the Israeli Air Force” is set to have its first public screening on July 15, during this year’s Jerusalem International Film Festival, which opens next week. The 87-minute documentary tells the story of a group of pilots, barely home from one war, driven to fight in yet another – this time out of their own free will. As one pilot, looking back, explains his motivation: “The idea that Jews were going to fight, I found that exciting.”
It was a chance email, recalls the film producer, that sparked her interest in these idealistic young men, today all in their nineties, whom she refers to as “my boys.” Spielberg had just completed work on a previous documentary about the hunt for Nazi war criminals that aired on PBS, when a friend sent her the just-published obituary of Al Schwimmer, the American-born founder of Israel Aircraft Industries who had been convicted in the United States for smuggling planes into Israel during the War of Independence.
“’This should be your next movie,’ is what my friend wrote,” she recounts in a phone conversation from Los Angeles. “When I read the obituary, it had so many incredible little details. I said to myself, omigod, this is ‘Catch Me if You Can,’ ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘Band of Brothers’ – all three rolled into one.”
Bracha from brother
But before she could proceed, Spielberg needed to get clearance from one very important person in her life: her Academy-award-winning brother. “I remembered that at some point he had talked about making a film about Israel’s early days and I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be stepping on his toes,” she relays. Using the Hebrew word for blessing, her big brother told her she had his “bracha” to go ahead. He even let on that he could see a possible role for himself in the project at a future date. “What he said to me was that a great documentary will open the door for a feature film.”
Her next big challenge was raising money for the project. Although her famous last name helped open doors, Spielberg discovered that it didn’t necessarily help open wallets. Eventually she convinced S. Daniel Abraham, the 88-year-old billionaire founder of Slim-Fast, to make a hefty contribution to the cause. “After he called and told me he was in, I just started screaming and doing an Irish jig in the kitchen,” she recounts.
Her brother, the Hollywood legend, did kick in a bit of money, but Spielberg says she preferred not to rely on him for funding. “The first thing people would say to me is, ‘Why isn’t your brother giving you the money?’ and I’d say, ‘You know, I’m not asking. This is my project, and I’m just not asking.’” More important than any financial contribution from her famous brother, she says, was his response when he saw the trailer. “He sent me a little note that said I made him cry. And he said ‘I am so very proud of my little sister, who is producing the biggest mitzvah ever.’ And that just lifted me.”
Spielberg understood that to keep audiences engaged, the film would have to make use of recreations, a device she ordinarily hates. “Clearly I couldn’t make a film that was all talking heads,” she explains. “I mean how many people are going to want to watch 90-year-olds talk for 90 minutes?” For that reason, when she began searching a director, her top priority was finding someone who could handle recreations “gently,” as she puts it. And that’s how she eventually hooked up with veteran documentary filmmaker Roberta Grossman, whose recreation work in the award-winning “Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh” won her over.
Spielberg says it was also important for her to find a director with a reputation for being collaborative “because I knew that I was going to stick my nose into every aspect of this film.”
“Above and Beyond” opens in the U.S. next month at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and from there, the film will make the rounds on the international festival circuit.
Married with two daughters, Spielberg transitioned into documentary filmmaking after a career in jewelry manufacturing. Her oldest daughter, Jessy Katz, a singer who immigrated to Israel three years ago, made headlines a few weeks ago when she was selected as a participant in the new season of The Voice Israel. Her younger daughter, Melissa, is an accomplished equestrian, and to hear her mom talk about her, she’s also the most talented filmmaker in the Spielberg family.
Although she’s been living in New York for the past 35 years, Spielberg calls Israel her “home” and is even building a residence for herself in Jerusalem. A vocal advocate for Israel, she says she hopes her new film “reminds people of a time when nobody questioned the country’s right to defend itself and its existence.”