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Two for the Ages

May 28, 2009 By:
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Dad and daughter frame HBO's "Beginning Filmmaking."

You Oughtta Be in Pictures!

At 4, Ella loves her dollys.

But then, she also enjoys the pans and long shots and, oh, that catering table at the end of a long day's shoot.

Steven Spiel-birth? Little Ella Rosenblatt is the focus of "Beginning Filmmaking," which begins and ends with the heart as a frame of reference.

Take five? She was only 4 at the time:

The short -- to be shown beginning May 28 on HBO -- is long on insight as the youngster, introduced to a Camcorder for her birthday, gives new meaning to crib notes.

It's a few weeks short of Father's Day, but for multiple award-winning documentarian Jay Rosenblatt, it's one family tie that he can hang around his heart with pride. This is his fourth film featuring his lovely daughter, but her premiere as director.

Enfant terrible of the toddler movie world? Maybe it's not the pictures that got small, but the kids making them.

And the under 4-footer casts a long shadow: The film's twists and turns are like a Slinky of slo-mo shots, as Ella illuminates the screen even as she befuddles her father.

"It was clear to me," says Dad, "that I had to stop after this movie. She has a very normal childhood, and I want it to remain that way."

Get her rewrite? It's all right with Jay, whose work has been a familiar focus of HBO airings, as well as a step above others at Sundance, that her career as filmmaker may very well be over.

"There would be a sequel only if the idea came from her," says the father who embraces his child and the need for knowing not to push.

What comes from her is delightful: Giving names for different angle shots, she eyes herself in the camera and declares it, not a close-up, but an "Eye Shot."

"I" is the operative word here as little Ella addresses the camera as auteur adorable; she may be the only actress-director who thinks "Sleepless in Seattle" is a primer on naptime.

But what "Beginning Filmmaking" begins to show is not just a youngster approaching her first film, but the parameters of parenting.

The scenario is scripted with laughs and love as Jay and Ella play their parts perfectly."

It took me a year to look at the footage," says Jay, "and I often was surprised at my reaction" of annoyance and frustration.

"But the experience was mostly positive, and Ella really enjoyed the process. I got to do the two things I love: work with my daughter and make a film."

The child is singular; the films plentiful, including many with a Jewish focus: "King of the Jews," which examined Christian anti-Semitism and the filmmaker's own feelings as a child about gentiles, took the crown of grand prize at the USA Festival.

Rosenblatt's "Four Questions for a Rabbi" is more Talmud than Tinseltown, and provided the answer to "Who will win the Director's Choice Award at the Black Maria Film Festival?"

It's not a question of "Jewish Jeopardy" but Jewish engagement; his films often are identity bracelets, linking him to his heritage.

A plus to his credits: "Underground Zero," which zeroed in on the 9/11 tragedy.

Rosenblatt's reel efforts educate and entertain; he's taught extensively, with credits at Stanford, and has also couched his career with a stint as therapist.

"This," he says of "Beginning," "is a natural extension of my teaching. In this case, I'm asking, 'How can we do the best we can for our children?' "

What could be a better present for Ella than the one she gets from Dad for each birthday?

Maybe one day, says Dad, "I'll put them all together as a series of shorts."

Better make it a musical.

Ella the filmmaker has found a different muse these days at age 8. Take a hike, Hollywood; is she Broadway-bound?

"She loves to sing," says her biggest fan.
 

Finding Love Amid the Ruins

Love, look at the ... three of us? "Steal a Pencil for Me," airing May 28, at 9 p.m., on WHYY-TV12, is a documentary of stolen moments and forever dreams.

Jack Polak, ready to separate from his wife, Manja, became smitten with another woman, Ina Soep, whom he met at a birthday party.

But the party's over: Within months of that fateful 1943 encounter between the two, all three of them were shipped off to Kamp Westerbork -- a holding camp run by the Nazis -- before all were eventually decamped to Bergen-Belsen.

Love amid the ruins?

It was all chaste, even as all three were treated as chattel in the camps. Now, after more than 60 years of marriage, Jack and Ina -- former wife Manja died relatively recently -- find themselves new-millennium "movie stars," in a letter-perfect rendition of their lives now shown on screen.

Adapted from the same-named book of love letters clandestinely exchanged between the two at the camps, where pencils were at a premium, this movie of forbidden love bids for greatness as it details hope and heroics amid the detritus of death and the dying.

Ina, 86, laughs at the notion of being a celebrity.

"All these years," she says, "I never thought our story was that unusual, but the book -- and the reaction to it -- changed my mind."

Now the movie, released earlier but making its debut as part of PBS' Independent Lens series, puts into focus a most unusual love story.

But this was no merry-go-round: "If you think about it," says Jack, "I was poor, 10 years older than Ina, and had everything going against me."

Not to mention his marriage.

On top of everything, as mentioned in the movie, "Ina had a boyfriend" in the camps, "and she didn't hesitate to tell me that if he returned, she would go to him."

How could Jack go for it under the watch of the Nazis?

"Westerbork was unique," he recalls, with Ina, adding, "there was some freedom allowed there; and there were only 30 guards in the whole camp."

Still, this was the Holocaust, and those were Nazis on detail. And it was all, reflects Jack, still terrifying circumstances.

But Jack says that he "felt no guilt" when it come to the "illicit" love letters written by moonlight. "Manja and I had decided to divorce by then."

Letters exchanged, yes -- but no scarlet letter, please. "I was not a homewrecker," notes Ina.

It may not have been home, sweet home, but "there were no problems" between Manja and Ina. Manja "objected more out of ... pride."

But when push came to shove (and survival), Manja shoved a piece of bread into the hands of her husband's inamorata to help her stave off starvation.

Jack and Ina are not starved for attention these days; both are in-demand as speakers, and Jack continues to pursue his commitment to Holocaust education. Among many roles, he is a member of the New York State Commission on the Holocaust and chairman emeritus of the Anne Frank Center USA.

And for his work on bringing light to a benighted time in history, he was knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.

The swain still has a sweet song in his heart for his sweetie.

"He's very romantic," professes Ina.

Poetic justice: "I'm 96, the oldest film actor alive," kids Jack, director of a public company and still an investment banker.

His best investment?

Easy, even in these awful economic times, he says of his secret weapon and mutual fund of respect: "My wife."  

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