Dana Nachman (center) during the filming of her 2018 documentary "Pick of the Litter." (Photo/Courtesy Nachman)
Dana Nachman (center) during the filming of her 2018 documentary "Pick of the Litter." (Photo/Courtesy Nachman)

Q&A: A documentary filmmaker who loves dogs and Batkid

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Filmmaker Dana Nachman has dived into some heavy topics. The documentaries she has written, directed and produced since 2008 include unflinching accounts of wrongful conviction, families ripped apart by terrorism and individuals fighting companies that produce harmful chemicals.

But the 48-year-old Los Altos resident began to show a softer side with “Batkid Begins,” an 87-minute, feel-good documentary about a 5-year-old cancer patient who had his wish come true in San Francisco: meeting Batman.

And her 2018 film “Pick of the Litter” is the heartwarming and sometimes suspenseful tale of a litter of pups birthed and trained at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, following them on their 20-month-quest to become service dogs. The film led to a six-episode docuseries — same title, different doggies — currently available on Disney Plus.

J.: What inspired you to make “Pick of the Litter”?

Dana Nachman: My mom, a retired journalist in New York, had written a newspaper series on guide dogs. In the back of my mind I thought that would make an amazing film. After I made “Batkid Begins,” which really is about philanthropy and people coming together to grant this boy his wish, I realized that these kinds of family-positive, inspirational movies were much easier to make in every sense.

What do you think makes “Pick of the Litter,” which has won several film fest awards, so appealing?

It is about disabilities, yet packaged in a film about cuddly dogs. It is also a competition film: Which dogs will make it?

You must have become attached to the sibling dogs: Patriot, Phil, Potomac, Primrose and Poppet. Did you have a favorite?

Yes, I loved Patriot!

You majored in Middle East studies and international relations in college, and got your master’s degree in broadcast journalism. How did you end up in filmmaking?

I just thought they were interesting subjects to study. I took Hebrew and I really loved Israel; I had gone there the summer of my freshman year. I finished my majors in my senior year and began taking creative-writing courses, but didn’t know what I could do with that. I became a TV producer on kind of a lark: My dad had a friend who worked at CBS News and I went there and was impressed by a producer. But it was very stressful work. I moved into special projects, investigations and documentaries.

Did you grow up in a religious household?

We lived near Rye, New York, and went to a Reform temple. It was similar to how we are in my current household. My father was involved with United Jewish Appeal and the Anti-Defamation League, doing a lot of work with refuseniks. We marched a lot.

What temple do you belong to now?

We belong to Congregation Beth Am. One of my kids just had a virtual bar mitzvah on Zoom. It was really lovely. We had a Torah at our house; you go and pick it up [from the synagogue]. That was pretty cool.

Your next film is set for streaming and release in theaters on Dec. 4. “Dear Santa” sounds like a Christmas movie.

I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I like it. “Dear Santa” is about Operation Santa, run by the U.S. Postal Service. The film is about the letters that get sent to Santa Claus every year and what happens to them. At its heart, it delves into poverty in America. I think it’s relevant for anyone to watch.

My movies do have serious underpinnings. My goal? I feel like if I can make you laugh, cry and get chills in one film, then I’m doing the right thing.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.