Having a ball with documentary-making

Most teenagers like to hang out at the mall. Sam Ball liked to hang out at the National Yiddish Book Center.

So maybe it’s not surprising he ended up devoting much of his working life to telling untold Jewish stories.

Ball, 36, is founder of Citizen Film, an S.F.-based documentary film company that often makes films about Jewish subjects.

The public will have a chance to sample Ball’s work when San Jose PBS affiliate KTEH broadcasts an episode of VIDEO i, comprised of three short films from Citizen Film. The show airs Monday, Oct. 24.

“We were looking to express the full range of what we do,” says Ball, “and the genesis of these three is very different.”

Included in the line up: “Poumy,” the story of Andree “Poumy” Moreuil, a Jewish woman who was a member of the French Resistance during World War II; a segment from “Irons in the Fire,” a series about the New York poetry scene; and “Klaira’s Story,” a short film about a Jewish Ukrainian teenage immigrant and her life in San Francisco.

Ball says his goal for “Poumy” was “to show audiences a piece of Jewish history we thought was missing, the story of women resisting the Nazis. Here was a mother of two who risked her life every day doing simple things: counting German tanks, translating documents intercepted by the Resistance, the small tasks that were very dangerous.”

The “Irons in the Fire” series, directed by Citizen Film’s Sophie Constantinou, consists of brief profiles of New York poets (many of them Jewish) and how they often intersect with the visual arts. Citizen Film is distributing the films online.

Last comes “Klaira’s Story,” part of a trio of films collectively called “As Old as Our Eyes.” Ball turned the camera over to three immigrant teens, allowing them to record their own impressions of their new lives, especially regarding their grandparents, who had more trouble adapting to American life.

“This was a pure community cultural development project,” says Ball, who teamed with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival for “As Old as Our Eyes.” “We saw these teens as a microcosm for what’s going on in society.”

Born in Paris and raised in both France and western Massachusetts, Ball grew up in a secular but culturally rich Jewish home.

He showed an unexpected passion for Yiddishkeit and the Yiddish Book Center (he made a film about the Amherst, Mass., center years later), but it wasn’t until his late teens that he wanted to become a filmmaker. Ball earned a master’s in documentary filmmaking at Stanford, and, after serving as curator for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival from 1996 to 2001, he set his sights on a film company of his own.

“I learned about all kinds of Jewish experiences,” he says of his days at the film festival. “It made me very open. When you get to know a community in a deeper way through seeing all kinds of aspects, it strengthens that connection.”

Citizen Film has made several short subject and

feature-length documentaries since 2002, with at least a third of those centered on Jewish themes. Seeking private funding remains an ongoing headache, but Ball has received support from local Jewish philanthropic groups such as the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.

“The numbers never add up to where you can relax,” he says, “but we’re lucky enough to have people who share a belief in the kind of work we do.”

Projects upcoming from Citizen Film include a documentary on a Salvadoran Jew who fled his homeland’s civil war in 1980 to make aliyah to Israel. Working title: “This Year in Jerusalem.”

Based in their three-room Bryant Street studio, Ball and his staff of four always have multiple projects going. The topics may vary widely, but all are documentaries. Has the filmmaker ever considered a narrative film?

The short answer is “No.”

“I find people fascinating,” he says, “and you only have so much time. There’s just something more interesting to me about real life.”

“An Evening with Citizen Film” airs 10 p.m. Monday, Oct. 24, on the program VIDEO i on KTEH/San Jose.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.