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First-Time Filmmakers Honored

April 10, 2013 By:
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Ben and Miriam Weissenstein are the subjects of "Life in Stills."

As it has for the past 16 years, the 2013 Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival’s final events will celebrate beginnings. The New Filmmakers Weekend, which will take place April 20-21, will honor three first-time directors for their big-screen debuts.

“We act as a springboard” for promising directors who are in the early stages of their careers, says the festival’s director, Olivia Antsis. “A lot of the award winners go on to do really great things,” she adds, noting that one of last year’s winners, Steven Pressman, just premiered a newer version of his documentary, 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus, on HBO on April 8.

Antsis says that all three films — Tamar Tal’s Life in Stills, Judy Lieff’s Deaf Jam and Bud Clayman’s OC 87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger’s Movie  —share a common theme. “Although the films are each unique, the thread that seems to bind them all together is the determination to preserve or express one’s identity, no matter what obstacles present themselves. I really feel that there is a universality to this experience — everyone can identify with the journey to express oneself.”

The drive to preserve self-identity certainly describes the winner of the International Award, Life in Stills. Tal, a 33-year-old Israeli native, picked a subject that, as a photographer herself, she knew intimately. The documentary focuses on 96-year-old Miriam Weissenstein and her grandson, Ben, as they try to save The Photo House, a Tel Aviv photography studio that has been in operation since before Israel reached statehood. Antsis and her selection committee are not alone in praising the film: It has received numerous other awards, including a Best Documentary Ophir, Israel’s equivalent of the Academy Award.

For the festival’s National Award, the committee, which sifted through submissions every three weeks for a year, chose to recognize Deaf Jam. Antsis says that it is exactly the kind of film the group looks for during the process, because it affirmatively answers so many of their core questions and criteria, such as: “Does it uphold Jewish values; how does it connect to Jewishness; is it something that is important to learn about Jewish history; is it about Jewish culture; and will it inspire the audience?”

Deaf Jam is a documentary that delves into the slam poetry movement in New York City, as seen through the experiences of Aneta Brodski, a deaf high school student who teams up with a deaf Palestinian-American spoken-word poet to perform using American Sign Language. The stunning performance footage should come as no surprise — the New York-based Lieff is a dancer, and the 50-something director also earned an MFA in experimental film/video and dance.

Bud Clayman, the winner of the Local Award, also earned a degree in film. The 1979 graduate of Akiba Hebrew Academy earned a bachelor’s degree from Temple in Radio-Television-Film. His film, also a documentary, is by far the most personal of this festival. OC87 (the title refers to the year that he suffered his first major breakdown) represents the triumph of a life resumed for the 51-year-old Philadelphia native.

After graduating from Temple, Clayman moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film, an ambition that was nurtured at Akiba, where his senior project was a 38-minute public relations film for the school. A succession of mental and emotional health issues, including depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, spurred Clayman to move back to Philadelphia, where he spent eight years at Project Transition, a treatment facility in suburban Philadelphia.

Proving that he learned the Hollywood lesson of always working connections, Clayman wound up hiring Scott Johnston, a program director at the facility, as one of the film’s three directors (three different times during an interview, Clayman takes pains to point out that he considers himself to be the film’s third director, with Johnston the second, and documentary filmmaker Glen Holsten as first).

Clayman, who says that he made the movie to create awareness about the prevalence and stigma of mental illness, readily acknowledges that for someone with OCD control issues and Asperger’s-related socialization difficulties, the dynamics of being the subject of his own film and sharing directorial duties with two other people was challenging. “Challenging, but good,” he says. “Working with them pushed me out of my comfort zone.”

IF YOU GO
Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival’s New Filmmakers Weekend
April 20-21
The Gershman Y
401 S. Broad St., Philadelphia
www.gershmany.org

Latimer House Opening Night Filmmakers Reception
April 20, 6-8 p.m.,
244 S. 12th St., Philadelphia
To purchase tickets to this event, call Ellen Steele at 215-446-3003

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