Filmmaker peels off labels in favorite neocon doc

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For her forthcoming documentary, “My Favorite Neoconservative,” filmmaker Yael Luttwak had no problem coming up with a compelling, hyperarticulate and controversial character: her father.

Born in Romania during World War II, raised in Sicily, educated in London and based for decades in the United States, Edward Luttwak has long enjoyed an influential career as a multilingual author, military strategist, public intellectual and intelligence operative.

Yael Luttwak

Behind the scenes, as the primary strategic planner of the bombing campaign for the first Gulf War, Luttwak was a regular in the war room. To the public, he was a ubiquitous presence on cable news and talk shows in the 1990s.

Although more international in his upbringing and perspective — he speaks at least eight languages — Luttwak, 70, is associated with fellow Jewish conservative power players Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen and Norman Podhoretz.

But Luttwak’s opposition to the second Gulf War caused a break in those longtime friendships.

“He’s not a textbook neocon, and that’s what I find out in the film and what I think the audience will find out,” says his daughter, currently a visiting artist in residence at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. “I went into [the project] looking at him as a label. But you spend time together, and he’s a person and he has contradictions. He’s not in a box neatly tied with a ribbon. He’s more than that, like we all are.”

She adds, “The intention is not to demonize or to glorify him, because either one is totally uninteresting for me. It really is about a process of discovery.”

Luttwak, 40, was well aware as a child of her father’s access and sway in Washington’s inner circles. She was impressed only up to a point, understandably.

“I just struggled so long with being his daughter,” says Luttwak, who grew up in the Washington suburb of Chevy Chase, Md. “He’s not the normal dad. He’s larger than life. He’s very brilliant. He even said at one point, ‘I’m just much more interested in why the Chinese are doing whatever it is, or Babylonian coins, than what you did in school today.’ ”

She adds, with hard-earned maturity, “You accept them as they are and what they have to give, and then it kind of frees you.”

Luttwak is constructing “My Favorite Neoconservative” around a trip she took with her father some four years ago to the Naval Surface Warfare Center in landlocked Crane, Ind. “It is a classified trip,” she says, “so a lot of times [the viewer will] feel like you’re in this weird world that you don’t know everything, but you know the gist. Then he gives a speech that I am allowed to film. You really get a sense of another world.”

She concedes that her first pass at writing the narration and shaping the material was overly serious, and being in San Francisco — the antithesis of Washington, D.C., in her view — has proven hugely beneficial in changing the tone of the film.

“I’m not an agenda filmmaker,” Luttwak explains. “My type of filmmaking is more quirky and lighthearted.”

Her first film, “A Slim Peace” (2007), took an offbeat approach to the Israeli-Arab dilemma through a group of Jewish and Muslim women who meet in the West Bank with the shared goal of eating healthier and losing weight. The movement has since grown and spread to other countries; Slim Peace ( comes to Boston in January with four additional U.S. cities on the horizon.

Luttwak was born in Israel (her mother is Israeli) and her parents moved to the U.S. when she was 3 months old. She was exempt from Israeli army service because she grew up in America. However, Luttwak volunteered, eventually becoming a tank gunnery instructor.

“That’s a whole other story and that will be a whole other film and not a documentary,” the ebullient filmmaker says, laughing. “We do things to please our parents.”

Luttwak, who will show the trailer and clips from “My Favorite Neoconservative” in a SFJFF event in February — she’s here until March — is aiming to finish the doc in 2013.

“My dad is so unusual in this respect: I can really say, hand on my heart, he does not care what other people think,” Luttwak declares. “He completely doesn’t care about the camera. He’s exactly himself. There is no on-camera, off-camera. He’d say, ‘I don’t care. I have nothing to hide.’

“That’s kind of the beauty of him. Some people love that about him and, of course, some people hate him.”

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.