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First-Time Directors Offer Splices of Life
For her first film, Katie Halper was able to secure the kind of endorsement that makes marketing departments swoon.
OK, maybe “endorsement” is too strong a word for describing what conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh had to say about Camp Kinderland, the summer camp that is the focus of Halper’s new documentary, the provocatively titled Commie Camp.
If the camp’s name sounds familiar, that’s because it was the subject of a series of tirades by Limbaugh in 2012. Following President Barack Obama’s nomination of Erica Groshen to head the Bureau of Labor Statistics last year, Limbaugh latched onto the fact that Groshen had sent her children to Kinderland, which he called a “politically left-wing Jewish summer camp with communist roots” that “indoctrinates” campers with un-American ideologies.
Commie Camp is one of five films by first-time directors to be featured in this year’s Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, which runs from Nov. 2-16. In a departure from years past, these new filmmakers’ works will be integrated into the festival at large, rather than being spotlighted in a New Filmmakers Weekend.
According to festival director Olivia Antsis, “new filmmakers have always been important to the festival.” But this year, as part of the festival’s evolution, the leadership at the Gershman Y, the longtime organizer of the festival, “wanted to better integrate their work into the main festival rather than isolating them into their own weekend.”
Halper, whose film will be shown on Nov. 5 at the National Constitution Center, is a 32-year-old lifelong resident of Manhattan. She had been working on her film before Limbaugh brought so much attention to the camp, but she certainly didn’t mind the free publicity.
She says that while Commie Camp wasn’t made in direct response to Limbaugh, it was done because she wanted to set the record straight about what Kinderland was — and wasn’t.
“I wanted to show what the place was like,” she explains, “the reality of the camp that people either don’t get or totally misrepresent.”
To show that Kinderland, Halper got to do something most adults can only dream about: She got to go back to camp.
As a former camper, CIT and counselor at Kinderland, she had a relatively easy time getting access to the camp that advertises itself on its website as a place “to inspire, to raise awareness and introduce new ideas” while staying true to its “history of progressive politics and its heritage of secular Jewish traditions and its legacy of promoting social activism.”
For her film, she followed four campers as they learned about social justice, Holocaust awareness and the Peace Olympics, the camp’s answer to color wars. But she also said she had to constantly guard against presenting a biased view of the camp. “It’s not supposed to be a puff piece,” she insists.
As a writer for The Nation, Huffington Post and Salon, Halper can tell a story. When asked why she chose to make a film — a medium she only worked in briefly as an undergraduate at Wesleyan, where she made a student film — instead of in a column or article, she replies: “With a documentary, you can be fun, whimsical and entertaining — while still taking on serious issues.” She adds that the increased eyeball count doesn’t hurt, either.
The documentary, which starts out somewhat irreverently, becomes much more serious as it goes along, a reflection of the filmmaker’s journey from past to present, part of which involved re-examining her Judaism. For someone who jokes that she didn’t realize she was Jewish until she left New York City, observing how Kinderland handled Judaism, specifically “secular Jewish history, secular Jewish culture — the idea that you could be a Jew and not be religious” — helped strengthen her own identity as a secular Jew.
A world away from Commie Camp, both geographically and thematically, Sophie Lellouche’s debut film, Paris-Manhattan is an assured work that effortlessly navigates moods and styles that swing from scenes reminiscent of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne sparring in My Favorite Wife to the wittily incisive self-examinations of Woody Allen’s oeuvre.
It will come as no surprise, then, that Allen is a major presence in the film. Alice, the main character, has conversations with a giant poster of the filmmaker she has hung in her bedroom. In scenes that echo Allen’s own work in Play It Again, Sam, Lellouche has Allen answer Alice back by splicing in appropriate dialogue from his films.
“When I was 15, I was a little like Alice,” Lellouche says. “I was very much in my dreams. At 18, I wouldn’t go outside — just watch movies. Each time I went to see a Woody Allen movie, I would say, ‘It is my dream to be friends with this man.’ ”
The 43-year-old Parisienne did the next best thing: She wrote a script that not only had Allen’s bons mots playing major roles, but also wrote a small but pivotal one for the man himself. “It’s like a fairy tale,” she recalls. “For me, the magic will be Woody Allen inside my movie. Maybe he can say no, but I can ask and maybe he can say yes.”
As it turned out, Allen did agree to appear. The film stars two other musicians in addition to the world’s most celebrated clarinet-playing director. Alice Taglioni, a former classical pianist, plays Alice, a pharmacist who is constantly being set up on dates by her family. Patrick Bruel, one of France’s biggest pop stars, plays Victor, a security expert who woos her. Lellouche says the actors’ innate sense of musical timing was essential to the fast-paced comedic scenes in the film. “Both of them have very good rhythm, and for comedies, the rhythms have to be very fast” to make the film funny.
Lellouche isn’t far off when she describes making her film as a fairy tale. After graduating from the Sorbonne, she worked briefly in the film industry, where she was encouraged by the director Claude Lelouch (no relation) to make her own films. “But I got married, and it was time for me to have some children,” she says. “After I got to be 36 years old, I said to myself, ‘If I don’t make movies now, it is all over.’ So, I started to write.”
And she wrote what she knew. “It is my first movie, so there are a lot of things that are autobiographical. I am Jewish, so it was easy for me to write about a Jewish family. I know these characters very well. They are not my family exactly, but I know every one of these characters in my life.” After finding yourself enthralled by this 77-minute confection, you will feel like you know them as well.