For 10 days in January every year since 1985, the epicenter of the film world moves to Park City, a small town in Utah that serves as the home of the Sundance Institute’s Sundance Film Festival. This year, it is where Ben Berman and Josh Cohen will find themselves participating in the whirlwind of screenings, parties and meetings that makes Sundance mandatory attendance for those on both sides of the camera and the box office.
Berman, 31, an Allentown native, and Cohen, 33, who hails from Northeast Philadelphia, will be there to present their short film, I Am a Mitzvah. The film, which is the duo’s first independent effort, is a darkly comic meditation on dealing with loss. It stars Ben Schwartz, best known for his work on the NBC comedy, Parks and Recreation. He plays David, a 20-something who is tasked with retrieving the body of a friend who has died suddenly in Mexico, and bringing it back to the bereaved family. When his flight is canceled, David has to find ways to get through the night with his friend’s casket by his side. These include a halting rendition of the Kaddish read off a laptop while wearing a coffee filter as a yarmulke, an al fresco party with locals and an impromptu trip to the beach.
Despite how it sounds, the film never goes for cheap laughs, which is not a surprise, given each man’s history of working on offbeat comedy projects, like Comedy Central’s Jon Benjamin Has a Van, which Berman directed, and Cartoon Network’s Eric Andre Show, where Cohen works as first assistant director.
The script, which the duo wrote together, treats David’s sense of isolation and loss with both respect and detachment. Schwartz gives a quietly unsettled, nuanced portrayal of someone thrust into a completely foreign situation where he needs a Spanish-language dictionary to construct even the most basic sentences.
If this sounds like a premise that could be found in a film by an off-center director like Spike Jonze, Jim Jarmusch or the Coen brothers, it’s no surprise: Berman and Cohen both cite those filmmakers as inspirations.
“Josh went to Hawaii on vacation by himself,” Berman says in response to a question about how the duo came up with the story idea. “In my opinion, he is a guy who likes to party hard. I thought there was a 50 percent chance he would die in an overdose and I would be asked by his mother, who could have been so debilitated by mourning, to go pick up his body. He came back, and I said to him, ‘This could have happened.’ ” Cohen agreed, and in short order, the pair, who reconnected in Los Angeles in 2004 after attending Temple University two years apart, wrote the script. They provided the bulk of the production costs for the 18-minute film themselves, securing the final $10,000 through a successful Kickstarter campaign (a $1,000 pledge came with an optional co-executive producer credit and a copy of the DVD).
It all came together very fast. “I had just worked with Ben Schwartz on Comedy Bang! Bang!,” Berman recounts, referring to the IFC series he directs, “and within 24 hours, he said yes” to doing the film. “A month later, we were shooting; a month after that, we sent it to a friend who was a producer, and he wanted us to submit it to Sundance — and they accepted it!”
Berman and Cohen still sound slightly disbelieving of how quickly I’m a Mitzvah went from an idea to the festival circuit, where it is also headed. “I always wanted it to go to Sundance and to other festivals, but I didn’t want to rush it — I ruled out this year,” Berman says. Cohen says that Berman was actually embarrassed that they made the movie — he thought it was that terrible.
But Cohen recalls having the opposite reaction. “I teared up after the first viewing,” Cohen recalls, “and I said it was amazing.
“We were just so hungry to make something of our own. I didn’t care if it was accepted by a mass audience; to have it get into Sundance proved that we weren’t filmmaker hucksters.”
The level of wistful pathos generated by the protagonist’s struggles with trying to honor his friend by following what Jewish rituals he knew, like preventing the Mexican coroner from embalming the corpse and improvising the Kaddish, is ample evidence that Berman and Cohen are far from filmic flimflammers. They are obviously earnest about their craft, even if they have difficulty maintaining that seriousness for the duration of an interview.
When asked if they had any expectations going into Sundance, Cohen’s response, which was seconded by Berman, was: “I hope Ben falls in love with a young, petite, redheaded Jewish woman.”
A young, first-time festival honoree finds himself in a strange town, thrown into a torrid relationship with a beautiful stranger? Sounds like they’re already planning for Sundance 2015.
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