Film fest panelists tackle social justice and fundraising

When the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival hosts a “Take Action Day” panel, you can expect calls to repair the world. And at least one panelist finds inspiration in the Bible.

“The Torah’s a cool book,” filmmaker Judith Helfand told the audience of around 150 who gathered July 31 at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. She sees parallels between the Torah commentaries delivered at Shabbat services and the issues she tackled in “Blue Vinyl,” which deals with the dangers of polyvinyl chloride or PVC.

Rick Goldsmith

“When you hear them, you realize it’s a series of crises that are being reinterpreted so you can understand [them],” she said, pointing the way to how “the world could work as opposed to the way it does work or doesn’t work.”

The panel, which was hosted by Academy Award-winner Debra Chasnoff, also featured Melissa Donovan, Rick Goldsmith and Aviva Kempner, whose social-justice-themed films played that day at the Castro and at Oakland’s Lakeside Theater.

The panelists tackled such issues as building wells, hospitals and schools; partnering with mental health organizations; promoting support hotlines and creating online fundraising drives.

“Zemene,” Donovan’s film, focuses on a 10-year-old girl in rural Ethiopia battling a severe medical condition and her encounter with Dr. Rick Hodes, who treated her. Hodes, who is medical director in Ethiopia for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, is an observant Jew and he introduced Donovan — who is not Jewish — to Shabbat dinner and explained his own calling to save lives.

“One of the things I really identified with was the idea of dealing with whatever comes in front of you on your path,” Donovan said, and in this case, it was Hodes, whom she met unexpectedly in a coffee shop. “He does whatever he can to help somebody for the common good.”

Kempner’s film, “Rosenwald,” reveals the little-known story of Sears’ CEO Julius Rosenwald’s philanthropic efforts funding black empowerment projects around the country.

Aviva Kempner

Kempner said she makes her films to build up Jewish identity. “I want people to walk out — first and foremost, Jews to walk out — and feel better about themselves and their heroes and then maybe the rest of the world will learn what we’re all about.”

But aside from ties to Jewish values and identity, much of the panel’s time was spent discussing the challenges faced by filmmakers interested in covering social justice issues, particularly the difficulties in securing funding and the need to demonstrate the potential impact of their work in order to attract donors.

Goldsmith said that with the traditional media industry shrinking, investigative reporting was increasingly becoming the domain of documentarians, something that was not true 10 or 20 years ago.

“More and more of the exposés on social issues and the public’s understanding of the social issues are coming from documentary filmmakers, and that’s new,” said Goldsmith, whose film “Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw” documents a former basketball star’s struggle with mental illness.

But filmmaking requires budgets much larger than those of print reporters, and all the panelists recounted financial struggles. Kempner said “Rosenwald” had taken 12 years to make because of funding issues, and that she had not drawn a salary for the past seven months.

To attract donors, Kempner and others on the panel are now using their films to promote the causes that spurred the making of their documentaries.

“Zemene” focuses on health issues in Ethiopia.

Kempner is using a website to raise money for the restoration of “Rosenwald schools” — schoolhouses funded by Rosenwald for black youth across the rural South. She also screened her film at the NAACP convention this summer as part of an effort to partner with Jewish and black groups across the country.

Goldsmith premiered “Mind/Game” at a mental health convention and held a screening for a conference focusing on suicide in the black church. He has also partnered with the Peninsula-based Positive Coaching Alliance to support athletes struggling with depression and other mental health issues.

Meanwhile, Donovan used her film to raise funds to build a schoolhouse in Zemene’s village. She also wants to use the film to raise funds for health care in Ethiopia.

Finally, Helfand’s “Blue Vinyl” fueled a consumer boycott of products that use PVC, including school binders and water bottles.

The filmmakers were all proud of the tangible impacts these efforts were having, but Chasnoff pointed out such measurements of impact were limited.

“Trying to fund our work, we often have to spend a lot of energy quantifying impact, which at times can seem to be onerous, especially if the kind of change we’re trying to see happen [involves] changes in attitudes or behavior,” Chasnoff said.

Indeed, Kempner said “Rosenwald” may be her last film and Goldsmith said he was “looking to retire,” because of the difficulty of bankrolling documentary projects. Nonetheless, his belief in the medium remains resolute.

“[As] hard as it is to make documentary films, there’s a lot of energy out there, and people continue to do it,” Goldsmith said. “I would just encourage them in spite of the obstacles, to continue, because the only way we’re going to survive as a democracy is to be able to focus on the issues, and the big media’s not doing it.”

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.