Filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver is a maverick storyteller who helped open the doors for a new generation of women directors. She first brought her passion for deep personal stories to the big screen in 1975 with Hester Street, which she wrote and directed based on Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novella, Yekl: a Tale of the New York Ghetto.
As filmmaker-in-residence for this weekend’s Sixth Annual Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival, Silver will be on hand to discuss that film, as well as her other projects, which include several documentaries.
Growing up in Omaha, Neb., Silver says she always loved movies.
“I was a little girl before television, and television didn’t come to Omaha till late,” she said. “So I had many, many years to go to the movies and fall in love with them.”
Silver, who now lives and works in New York, laughs at the memory.
“Pather Panchali is one of the most famous great movies,” she said. “To this day I can hardly believe that I responded that way.
“… It’s almost embarrassing, but I can remember very strongly when I saw that movie. … What it was about and the way the story was told. It just affected me so strongly and I really wanted to do it myself.”
Trying to do it herself took a long time.
“Although I was able to get jobs writing features, I was not able to get a job directing a feature,” Silver told Noozhawk. “I was getting real down about it.”
While Hester Street earned $5 million and a best actress Academy Award nomination for star Carol Kane, Silver’s husband, Ray, a real estate investor at the time, actually stepped forward as her producer and raised the film’s $400,000 budget.
“He finally said, ‘Just make the film. If you can do something that’s inexpensive, then I’ll go back to my investors and see if I can raise the money for a low-budget film,’” she said. “He wanted to see me get a chance to direct a film. And then, of course, what happened was he produced it and got to like it, and now he’s a filmmaker, too.”
Silver knew the importance of what she was doing.
“Frankly, I thought it might be the only film I’d ever make so I wanted to do something that would count for my family,” she said. “My parents were immigrants and I grew up in that kind of a family. So that was Hester Street.”
That was also the beginning of a stellar film career for Silver, who went on to direct Crossing Delancey (which screens at 3:45 p.m. Saturday at Paseo Nuevo Cinemas, 8 W. De la Guerra Place, as part of the Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival) Head Over Heels, Loverboy, In the Presence of Mine Enemies and Hunger Point, among other films.
Affectionately, she gives some of the credit for her success to her husband.
“I would definitely say he was the hero of my story, because I don’t think I would have gotten the chance to get started,” Silver said. “I was so depressed that I couldn’t get to do it. I kept trying and trying, and it just wasn’t working. I actually had an executive from one of the studios say to me that feature films are expensive to make and expensive to market, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.”
While women filmmakers still haven’t achieved parity, thanks in part to trailblazers like Silver there are many more opportunities for women today.
“Oh, there are so many wonderful filmmakers,” she said. “You know this year three of my favorite films were made by women directors. Last year, Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award for her film (The Hurt Locker).
“So, it’s just a very different world for women directors. They still aren’t 50 percent of all the directors but we’re getting there. Why not, right?”
Silver will discuss that very topic — the status of women in Hollywood then and now — at 8:45 a.m. Sunday at Congregation B’nai B’rith, 1000 San Antonio Creek Road. The program starts with a full breakfast and Silver’s presentation begins at 9:30 a.m.
Silver is currently writing a feature film script as well as working on two documentary projects, both with Jewish themes. One is recounting the history of the Catskills, that great incubator of Jewish entertainers in New York’s Catskill Mountains, and the other is tracing the history of the bagel. The Catskills project is one that she and her husband have been working on for a long time.
“On a feature, you struggle very hard to get your financial backing, but once you get it you go and make the movie,” Silver explained. “But with a documentary it’s a much more stop-and-start kind of a thing. You raise some money and then you shoot some, and then you raise some more money and you shoot some more.”
“I wanted to get some information on food in the Jewish Catskills,” she said. “He gave me a wonderful interview and then he told me that he wanted to make a documentary about the bagel. He quoted to me a line that made me just totally want to join him. He said he thought of the bagel ‘as an immigrant that comes to America, struggles and strains, finally prospers and then assimilates.’”
A perfect metaphor.
“I thought, ‘wow,’” she said. “That’s the perfect line to describe not only our movie but also there’s something in film called the log line, which is being able in one sentence to describe not just what your film is about but the line of action of the film.”
When asked how being Jewish influences her work, Silver, who has three grown daughters, offers some insight.
“I think everything you are influences what you do and what you think, and how you write and how you direct, and how you do your work,” she said. “It’s all part of who you are. It’s not a certain category but it’s certainly part of my life.
“I grew up with a very strong Jewish identity and a sense of being Jewish in a city that did not have a large Jewish population. But they had a tiny little Jewish bakery to which my father took us every Sunday so that we could buy bagels.
“That was a distinct part of my growing up. … I guess the very fact I think when you’re part of a small group, but you’re proud of that group, it makes you more determined to talk about it and study it and all the rest of it.”
Sixth Annual Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival Schedule
(Unless otherwise specified, all films will be shown at Paseo Nuevo Cinemas, 8 W. De la Guerra Place in Paseo Nuevo.)
5:30 p.m. — Opening Night Gala, La Cumbre Country Club, 4015 Via Laguna. Pass holders will enjoy “Jewish comfort food” and live klezmer music.
7:45 p.m. — The Matchmaker (112 minutes, Israel, subtitled). In 1968, before JDate or Match.com, there is the matchmaker Yankele Bride. This Holocaust survivor and hopeless romantic prides himself on giving his clients “what they need, not what they want.” Yankele specializes in the hard-to-place, about whose chances for the perfect mate he is eternally optimistic. To screen (i.e. spy on) prospective mates for his clients, he enlists 16-year-old Arik Burstein. Arik is getting plenty interested in love himself when his best friend’s beautiful and rebellious American cousin, Tamara, comes to Haifa for the summer. This award-winning Israeli film looks at love in all its variations — requited and unrequited, licit and illicit, romantic and lustful, young and damaged. Poignant, funny and peopled with a most unusual cast of characters, The Matchmaker is one film you won’t easily forget. Bittersweet and funny.
1:30 p.m. — Shorts and Discussion with filmmaker Roberta Grossman (50 minutes). Enjoy two hilarious shorts, Mendel’s Tree and The Tailor, as well as documentary-in-progress Hava Nagila: What Is It? Discussion with filmmaker Roberta Grossman.
1:30 p.m. — Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story (91 min, USA). From the first professional game in 1846 to 2011, Jews have been players, managers, owners and even its current commissioner. Narrated by Dustin Hoffman.
1:30 p.m. — Yoo-Hoo, Mrs.Goldberg (90 minutes, USA). See the remarkable radio and TV pioneer Gertrude Berg, who created and starred in the very first sitcom, which brought an idealized Jewish family into millions of American homes.
3:45 p.m. — Crossing Delancey (97 minutes, USA). This delightful, classic story concerns a bookseller (Amy Irving) who thinks she’s too good for a pickle vendor (Peter Riegart), but her bubbe knows better. Q&A with the film’s director, Joan Micklin Silver.
7:45 p.m. — Protektor (98 minutes, Czechoslovakia, subtitled). A tense film noir, Protektor traces the crack-up of a Czech Jewish actress and her Aryan husband under Nazi occupation. Best Foreign Language Film nominee. The only Holocaust-themed film in the sixth edition of the SBJFF, Protektor is a tense film noir that has such an authentic period feel one would swear it was made in 1941 instead of 2009. The film follows a young Jewish actress, Hana Vrabata, who misjudges the precariousness of her situation when the Nazis invade Czechoslovakia. Hana is allowed to stay on in Prague during the occupation, albeit sequestered in her apartment because the authorities want her broadcaster husband, the Aryan Emile, to run their propaganda on the state radio station. As the occupation drags on, the Nazis step up the pressure and Hana and Emile’s lives spiral downward. She retreats into film fantasies and he betrays his scruples to accommodate his Nazi boss. Eventually something has to give. With its stunning visuals and gripping story, it’s not surprising that Protektor was the Czech Republic’s nominee for Best Foreign Film.
8:45 a.m. — Sunday Morning Live! (90 minutes) at Congregation B’nai B’rith, 1000 San Antonio Creek Road. Full breakfast. At 9:30 a.m. SBJFF’s filmmaker-in-residence, Joan Micklin Silver, will discuss Hester Street and Crossing Delancey, and the status of women in Hollywood then and now.
11 a.m. — Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Grey (57 minutes, USA). There were only 150,000 Jews in America during the Civil War, yet 10,000 of them served in the Confederate and Union armies, several winning the Congressional Medal of Honor. Who knew?
2:30 p.m. — Lemon Tree (96 minutes, Israel, subtitled). The screening committee’s third pick and closing film of this year’s SBJFF is the acclaimed Israeli feature Lemon Tree. Based on a true incident, the film depicts the events following the Israeli defense minister’s relocation close to the Green Line separating Israel from the occupied West Bank. The Israeli secret service considers the lemon grove next door to the new house a security risk, and a guard tower is erected to keep it under surveillance and a chain-link fence is constructed to keep terrorists at bay. The ultimate goal is to get the trees cut down altogether. The Palestinian widow who owns the grove — played by the incandescent Hiam Abbass — fights back, mounting a surprisingly vigorous legal case that goes all the way to Israel’s Supreme Court. Until the very end, the audience is left to wonder, who will prevail? Rabbi Evan Goodman, executive director of Santa Barbara Hillel, will lead a discussion following the film.
There are limited All-Festival Passes still available by sending a $125 check to the Jewish Film Foundation, P.O. Box 30057, Santa Barbara 93130 or click here for more information. Individual tickets can be purchased at the theater at the time of performance, based on availability. Ticket prices are $12 for adults and $8 for students. Single ticket holders will be admitted 10 minutes before show time once All-Festival Pass holders have been seated.