Teen screen: Student films zoom in on Jewish identity

The black screen brightens to a wide shot of San Francisco’s Mission District, then the camera zooms in on busy taquerias and smiling children on the sidewalk. Cue Salvadoran music and voiceover as the narrator walks into the frame.

This is the opening scene from “Lalo’s Jerusalem,” a 12-minute short film that explores the disparate identities of Ed “Lalo” Baraona, a Jewish Salvadoran- American teenager who grew up in San Francisco.

But Baraona isn’t just the subject of the film. He also wrote, directed, filmed and edited the piece, with the help of several peers and professional filmmakers.

One young film crew was part of the New Jewish Filmmaking Project, a seven-year-old initiative that each year allows a cohort of teens to create short documentaries about Jewish identity.

The project is a partnership of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and Citizen Film, an S.F.-based nonprofit documentary production company. Throughout the creative process, the teens are mentored by professional filmmakers.

The resulting film is “Lalo’s Jerusalem,” in which Baraona and his peers chronicled Baraona’s first trip to Israel during his senior year at San Francisco’s Mission High School.

The trip inspired him to reflect on his family history. His maternal great-grandmother escaped Nazi Germany and fled to El Salvador in 1937. Her children and their children married Latin American men. Baraona only learned of his Jewish heritage when he was 13.

“I didn’t know what [being Jewish] meant at first — I thought it was interesting, but I also felt like, ‘Well, what do I do now?'” said Baraona, now 22 and a film studies student at U.C. Davis.

Once he began to learn about Judaism, his curiosity deepened in high school upon traveling to Israel as part of the New Jewish Filmmaking Project.

“I came to realize that Jewish identity is living and unbreakable,” he said.

“Lalo’s Jerusalem” was finished two years ago and has since screened at the S.F. Jewish Film Festival and the opening of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Other shorts from the NJFP have been broadcast on “Video i,” a program on local PBS station KTEH-Channel 54.

In August, the S.F. Jewish Film Festival will screen the short film “Holidaze,” in which this year’s group of teens tells three autobiographical stories about celebrating Jewish holidays.

It’s not finished yet, but Jewish Film Festival Executive Director Peter Stein has it on the schedule for Aug. 7 and 9.

“It’s a commitment I’d make to the [New Jewish Filmmaking] Project, even if I haven’t seen a frame,” Stein said.

The teen filmmakers, Stein added, “have such an authentic voice that we don’t often hear. The New Jewish Filmmaking Project gives them space to express themselves, and they don’t often get a chance to tell their stories publicly.”

Citizen Film is located in a well-lit loft on Bryant Street in San Francisco. The exposed brick walls and tall windows make for an artsy atmosphere.

The production company was founded and is still directed by Sam Ball, an accomplished documentarian. Ball also created the New Jewish Filmmaking Project, which typically accepts eight to 12 students per year. He’s working with an eight-member crew this year.

Most Monday evenings since March, the teens stop by Citizen Film to work on their short films using Final Cut Pro, digital editing software used by professional filmmakers.

This year’s participants shot and recorded a variety of video and audio clips throughout the spring. They’re currently condensing many hours of footage to create “Holidaze,” a three-part story about Yom Kippur, Passover and Chanukah traditions.

Through the process, the teens come to understand filmmaking isn’t all glitz and glamour. One day last month, for example, students recorded their voiceovers … again and again and again.

Andrew Herwitz, a sophomore at Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, parked himself in front of a microphone. The thin, serious 16-year-old sat upright as he recorded one small line — “so we set off on foot through the city” — more than a dozen times, each time tweaking his cadence in an attempt to pinpoint the perfect tone.

By the final take, he sounded like a seasoned Hollywood narrator as he explained how he, a secular Jew, observed Yom Kippur with an Orthodox friend; the voiceover was to be added to a re-created scene of how they broke the fast at a taqueria.

“The way I prayed at my temple was simple,” he narrated. “It was calm. You would stand up, sit down and chant and sing and hold the Torah [sic] in front of your face so people wouldn’t see you nodding off.

“The Orthodox do it differently,” he continued. “They seem nervous and spastic and energetic, their lips moving quickly, their bodies convulsing and shaking.”

He paused, removed his oversized headphones and listened to the playback.

“Let’s do it once more, while we’re here,” Herwitz told his filmmaking mentor. “I think good sound is important. It separates the amateur from the professional.”

A month later, Herwitz listened to that recording as he stared intently at a computer screen while selecting the bits of audio to layer atop the footage.

“It’s tedious, but editing makes the movie — it’s where it all comes together,” he said.

The same day, Karni Zemel, a freshman at Lowell High School in San Francisco, had climbed the loft’s spiral staircase and was upstairs watching footage of Zemel and her mother making homemade sufganiot (jelly donuts). She and friend Sivan Rachmany, also a freshman at Lowell, discussed the best way to edit the frames.

“I really like film. I wanted to mix that and also be proud of my Judaism,” Zemel said.

Seldom do participants have any previous experience making films or videos. Nonetheless, students dive into the project, which usually lasts a year. They choose the topic of their documentary, write scripts for voiceovers, film and tape interviews if necessary, coordinate shoots and collect still images to put into their films.

Ball believes the process is just as important as the product. He wants students to wrestle with the technical and emotional challenges of telling stories through cinema.

Alumni of the program agree with Ball.

“I can’t say the film brought me back to Judaism in a significant way,” said David Wegbreit, who made “Not Another Jewish Movie” with 10 peers in 2002. “But engaging with the art and engaging with each other, and being taken seriously as filmmakers and as people, was exciting and stimulating in a way that my religious education wasn’t.”

Wegbreit grew up in Palo Alto and graduated from the University of Southern California in 2006. He currently writes screenplays and film reviews while also working as an editor and writer in Los Angeles.

While the staff at Citizen Film assists every step of the way, the professionals insist there’s no handholding. They want the teens to learn.

“I’m there to ask the questions so they can find the answers,” said Danny Plotnick, who joined the NJFP this year and has mentored the teens since March. A longtime underground filmmaker and a high school film instructor, Plotnick said teens are uniquely focused on their creations.

“You can see the synapses firing and light bulbs going off,” he said.

Adult staff members believe the NJFP to be one of a kind. “There’s [no filmmaking initiative] as sustained or as professionally mentored as this” in the Jewish world, Stein said.

Added Ball, “The care and attention we give to the stories and relationships is completely unique.”

Ball started the New Jewish Filmmaking Project in 2001, when he was associate director for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. A grant from the now-defunct Joshua Venture Foundation helped him get the project off the ground.

He had previously taught teens about film at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, “but there was no ethnic or culturally focused storyline,” he noted.

Ball easily connected the dots between Jewish identity and film. The 39-year-old grew up in France and Massachusetts and is a dual citizen. As an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal, he won a prestigious award for his achievements in Yiddish studies; later, he pursued documentary film production at Stanford University.

Ball said he always intended for the NJFP — and, more importantly, the films — to focus on “the border of Jewish identity, not the center.”

Thus, what often inspire the filmmakers and shape the narratives are the perspectives of participants, who often are Jewish immigrants, Jews of color and Jews with multiple ethnic or national identities.

Ball felt “the project really struck a nerve. We’re telling stories about the edge of the Jewish community that the institutional world is only just now catching up with.”

Foundations have taken notice, too. The NJFP is funded by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Covenant Foundation, the Natan Fund and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Forty teens have worked on films since the project began. Ball promotes the program at public, private and Jewish high schools in the Bay Area, though most participants have come from public schools.

Ball selects students who have an interesting story to tell, have time to work on a demanding, creative project and who exhibit a responsible attitude. These guidelines, he added, make “finding the kids the hardest part of the project.”

Students make three or four short films on a specific theme, one which examines some element of their burgeoning Jewish identity.

In 2005, for example, several participants were Russian émigrés, so the full group made “As Old As Our Eyes,” three films about the challenges and joys of balancing the urge to live as an American with the desire to keep alive their grandparents’ Russian culture.

Baraona worked behind the scenes on “Klaira’s Story,” one part of “As Old As Our Eyes.” The following year, he worked with Ball to write and direct “Lalo’s Jerusalem,” which examined Baraona’s Jewish and El Salvadoran roots.

In the film, he talks about the first time he went to the Western Wall, how he was unsure of what to do or how to feel. He thought “it was just a wall.”

But when he wrote a prayer for his family, “I actually felt different,” he said in the film.

Stein said he’s heard from people who think that the mostly disconnected teens making these films might be inspired to someday make aliyah or become a rabbi.

However, Stein said, such an assumption misses the point of the project. He said the true power of the NJFP is that it helps teens figure out how to incorporate Jewish identity and expression with their otherwise secular lives.

“I think it’s very empowering for parents to see young people naturally expressing themselves as Jews,” Stein said, “when sometimes adults don’t even have the tools to express themselves that way.”

For more information on the New Jewish Filmmaking Project, contact Citizen Film at (415) 206-1880 or visit www.citizenfilm.org. To learn more about the teens or watch clips from their films, visit their blog, njfp.wordpress.com.

“Holidaze” will screen with several other short films 9:30 p.m. Aug. 7 at the Roda Theater in the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. It will also screen in a program starting 1 p.m. Aug. 9 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. For tickets and more information, call (925) 275-9490 or visit www.sfjff.org.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.