Sunday, June 26, 2011
Friday, November 05, 2010
Yup, I'm gonna be that guy for the next six weeks, asking you, my loyal friends, to support my new documentary BATTLE FOR JERUSALEM. Click the image above to see brand new video from our first shoot in Israel, donate to the campaign, and get some great perks in return. THANK YOU!
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Perhaps as the Universe’s response to my working on production for the National Christmas Tree Lighting last year, this one ended up being chock full of Jewish-oriented clients and projects.
The most exciting of these is my new documentary, currently titled Battle For Jerusalem. I started production in Israel this past summer, thanks to a seed grant from—surprise!—a Jewish organization focused on innovation. The project is in very early stages but is intended to showcase art and activism in Jerusalem in the face of the city’s growing ultra-Orthodox population. They city is at a crossroads and its future is being determined now, so I think I am really onto something with this story.
I have been and will continue behind-the-scenes blogging for the film here, but meanwhile here’s a teeny tiny glimpse of some footage from this summer in a piece I put together on the Israel Museum’s re-opening.
After finishing my film Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land, I was concerned about being pigeonholed as a “Jewish filmmaker” and forever relegated to that niche. I made extra efforts to distance myself professionally while staying connected personally. And then this year rolled around, and I did work for The Joshua Venture Group, a Jewish social enterprise incubator; Reboot, a Jewish cultural organization; Repair the World, a Jewish nonprofit; and MyJewishLearning.com. I also did video trainings at Tablet, a Jewish cultural magazine, and the Jewish National Fund.
Jewish, Jewish, Jewish! It’s like that old joke: How many Jews does it take to employ Liz Nord? It feels good to come to a place where I feel comfortable having my feet (or rather, my camera) in both worlds. After all, I am a Jewish filmmaker and I bring my cultural history and sensibility with me to every project.
So now that it is officially the Jewish New Year holiday season, I want to thank the Jewish community for providing me more than just income in 5770, but inspiration, as well. May 5771 be sweet, productive, and creativity-filled for all of us.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Unfortunately, both packages got cut from the lineup before I even put them together. I was mostly sad because I really wanted an excuse to bring this photo to the public at large:
Fortunately, due to Ocean’s aforementioned coolness, he still found some work for me to do during pre-production, and even asked me to come along and help produce the live-to-tape show in DC! This was going to be the most start-studded National Tree Lighting ever, hosted by Randy Jackson and featuring the following lineup as described by their site:
- Nine-time Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow
- Hip-hop artist, actor and author Common
- Pastoral folk, railroad blues, and front porch country artist Ray LaMontagne
- American Idol Jordin Sparks
- Jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau International
- Irish music phenomenon Celtic Woman
THE SANTA CLAUS(E)
It might seem strange to have the Jewish girl find the Santa suit. However, I did manage to convince Katie McPhee’s little brothers somewhere around Christmas 1987 that I was an elf because obviously only Jews work on Christmas Eve, so maybe I was cut out for the job after all.
By the way, turns out that our Santa was actually a Tony-nominated performer who was currently on tour with Young Frankenstein. How did he manage to get time off for this show? Well, as a matter of fact, he has a CLAUSE in his contract that allows him to play Santa each year. A Santa Clause. You can’t make this stuff up.
To add insult to injury, I called the DC Macy’s store to see where they rent their Santa costumes from. The gentleman on the other end of the line left to find me an answer and after several minutes came returned for this exchange:
CUSTOMER SERVICE: We don’t rent our costumes.
ME: Oh, you own them?
CS (without a hint of irony): No, we have the one and only real Santa.
GROAN! Really?! Must everything be one, gigantic, jolly, bit of Christmas cheer?
Anyway, I finally found the costumes, the best part being when the shop owner asked me, “Will Santa need extra belly?”
THE CREW IS ME, THE CREW IS YOU
Before we left for DC, I also produced the on-air promo and some show elements with Derek, an Orbit editor who’s been working with Alex Coletti Productions most recently on Elvis Costello’s music/talk show, Spectacle. Derek stole my heart as soon as I saw the Star Wars poster on his suite’s wall, and we were trading bodily function jokes within minutes.
Alex Coletti Productions was also running the National Tree Lighting show. Alex has had a prolific career, and is the kind of guy that calls big celebrities by their first names, in a totally sincere and somehow non-obnoxious way. I didn’t find out until the train ride down to DC that he had created and produced MTV's Unplugged series in the ‘90’s, an absolutely iconic and important show for music lovers of my generation. The Nirvana Unplugged episode in particular was pivotal to my own relationship with popular music. I had to stop myself from totally dorking out over it on the train, but I am going to have to hear more stories from Alex over a bottle of whiskey one of these days.
Despite my utter lack of experience in live TV production, I was lucky to be welcomed warmly into Alex’s absolutely fantastic crew, most of whom had worked together on various shows over many years. Walking off of the train in DC and rolling down the platform with several of the crew members, it almost felt like we were a gang claiming our turf—“Here we are, National Christmas Tree Lighting, and we will OWN you!”
Once on-site, I was so impressed with the pros on Alex’s team, especially his right-hand-gal, Liz, who co-produced the show with Ocean. The woman is 8 months pregnant, and seemed to glide through 12+hour days with grace and candor.
A TREE GROWS IN WASHINGTON
Soon after arriving and touring the set, stage, and production areas outside the White House and in the shadow of the Washington Monument, we had a large production meeting. The group included someone from the National Parks Service who was actually wearing one of those Yogi Bear park ranger hats, and someone from the Secret Service who was actually wearing those Men in Black sunglasses. Representatives for the President and First Lady were also there, and it was fascinating to witness how carefully (and understandably) calculated their movements had to be at this public event—a good 10 minutes of the discussion dealt with the best way to move Michelle Obama out from behind the security glass to her position for reading "Twas the Night Before Christmas"--about 10 yards away.
Wednesday, our big rehearsal day, was a mess. It was pouring rain from early in the morning, and the production and audience seating areas were becoming one big, muddy swamp. Fortunately, I spent most of the day in “the truck.” The truck is the central command, where the all the stuff happens that makes a live event into a TV show. It’s about the size of one of those pay-by-the-month storage spaces and full of people: a tape operator, graphics person, sound guys, teleprompter, technical director, and show director and producers.
(Our production truck on the right, with audience seating, the National Tree, and the White House in the background)
Inside the truck, I mainly worked with the graphics, or “duet operator” person to create all of the chyrons (or lower thirds) that would appear on screen during the show. I also worked with the “tape ops” person to make sure that the elements I created before the show were properly imported into the truck. It’s amazing how specific people’s roles are in the truck. The tape operator’s whole job—and they are experts—is bringing in and spitting out different types of tapes. Despite all of the technology in the truck, something felt very old school about it.
So on prep day, I was mostly between the truck and running around doing whatever else Ocean needed (Can you make sure the “Director of Elf Services” has a briefcase to bring on stage with him?) but I was lucky enough to sneak out to rehearsals with the Marine Band and a couple of the artists later in the afternoon. A highlight was Ray LaMontagne. If I have one thing to be thankful for with this opportunity, it’s being introduced to his heartbreaking vocal talent.
HO, HO, HUH?
I stayed up until about 1 AM working on the final list of credits, and our call time on the big day was 6:30, but I was so pumped that it didn’t even matter. We had a lot to do, particularly because the rain the day before held us back some.
Fortunately, when the sun rose, it came a-shining and things began to dry out quickly. That meant that some people who didn’t get to rehearse the day before got the opportunity in the morning…including Santa!
So I finally met Santa, Mrs. Claus, and the “Director of Elf Services,” for whom I had done my first task. The charming threesome called themselves “The First Family of Christmas.” And family they were. In real life, Mrs. Claus is Santa’s sister, and the elf is his boyfriend. Wait, what?! Oh, and there’s more. SANTA IS JEWISH. Wait, what, What, WHAAAT?!
Now, you just hold on one cotton-pickin’ minute. Here I am, thinking I’m the sole heathen who has infiltrated the system and then, lo and behold, it turns out Santa is a big, gay Jew. But you know what? I gotta hand it to my Hebrew homie. When he hit the stage, he was the most wonderful, most believable, jolliest Santa I’ve ever seen!
One reason that we had to hustle so much in the morning is that Secret Service had to do a mandatory sweep of the area and the entire place—truck, production tents, stage, EVERYTHING—had to be completely evacuated from noon to 3 PM. And, oh yeah, when they let us back in they were also going to start letting audience members in. Yikes!
Everything went by in a blur, and yet somehow was crystal clear at the same time. Our live pre-show started at 5 PM and I swear the last credit screen was built at 4:59.
Once the truck was fully “on,” with its flashing screens, headsets, and blinking lights, it was like being inside R2D2’s brain. Alex was the conductor, communicating simultaneously with the people choreographing the stage and all six cameras and the other people in the truck who make the onscreen stuff happen, to ensure that each instrument was played to its finest and a harmonious symphony emerged.
Other highlights were the First Lady’s fabulous rendition of “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” Santa’s festive appearance (Word up to my man Robert Mancini’s highly entertaining script, which actually made me LOL), Ray LaMontagne, Jordin Sparks, and the (by the way, super HOT) Common.
After the show, a few of us stayed on to wrap things up and fix anything from the live show that we could before sending the tape to PBS for airing the following day and throughout the month (For example, covering up the little kid with the big yawn during Obama’s speech!). It ended up being somewhere around an 18-hour day, which is pretty crazy for a show that only lasted about one!
YOU, TOO, CAN CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS AT THE WHITE HOUSE
Live TV was very new to me but it was seductive. Seeing the highly orchestrated movements on stage and in the truck crescendo into a show before my eyes was thrilling. You can see the results here (but really, the best part is already captured below…)
Monday, December 14, 2009
I had the pleasure of joining doc-makers Margarita Jimeno (Gogol Bordello Non-Stop), Eddy Moretti (Heavy Metal In Baghdad), Jody Lee Lipes (Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same) and Matt Wolf (Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur
Russell) for a photo shoot in Williamsburg that eventually became the fabulous looking spread below (Click images to see larger.)
If anybody can translate the gist of the article, give me a holler. In the meantime, I’ll share my answer to one of the writer's more thought-provoking questions:
Chiara (to all): Most of your films are addressing ethnic/avantguard/political music scenes. Do you want to say something about why there might be a phenomenon pushing young directors such as yourselves to want to talk about influential, and "underground" music scenes?
Me: Many of the best known directors have made music films or music videos at some point in their careers. One of my favorites, Michel Gondry, started as a music video director. I don’t think it’s a new trend, but it’s a powerful one. Both music and film can be agents for social change, so they have a natural link. Music also lends itself to film so well because the pace and passion of the music can set the whole tone and aesthetic of the film. Also, musicians are often fascinating characters, and that’s what a film needs most of all. For my film “Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land,” the colorful and rebellious young punk musicians of Tel Aviv were the perfect characters to tell an alternative story about the complicated political situation in Israel.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
- Attended the funeral of a best friend and the wedding of another
Been to two foreign countries in two different hemispheres
Thrown the bridal shower for my closest-thing-to-a-sister, a friend of 27 years
Helped clean and move out the apartment of a beloved aunt who left 40 years of swingin’ NYC life for a retirement community upstate
Started and finished a short documentary, shot in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and edited in the richest one
Visited parents, in-laws and many friends
Participated in a conference in Israel where invitees were told that basically the future of the Jewish people lies in our hands
Only been home for a couple weeks at a time, during which I hosted two different houseguests
Been on 14 flights and in at least 10 different cities
And experienced just about every human emotion that I can imagine.
I am so tired that it hurts behind my eyes, but I am also strangely exhilarated. For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m truly living in the now. I haven’t even had time to think about the past or the future, and this is life—the good and the bad.
It seems very appropriate that the Jewish High Holidays are approaching this weekend. I’m grateful that Judaism insists upon an annual time to reflect and renew. To be honest, I’m a little afraid of what I’ll find when I start to contemplate these last few months but I don’t think I’ve ever needed to embrace the joy, sorrow, and daunting tasks of the High Holidays so badly.
Here’s wishing you all a sweet and meaningful New Year.
Monday, August 03, 2009
A filmmaker friend just told me about his 2 months spent in Chad, interviewing victims of Darfur. I was like, “Woah.” I then told him that I just returned from Haiti, having shot footage for a short documentary on Wyclef Jean’s inspiring organizaton, Yele Haiti. He was like, “WOAH!” I guess that should give you some impression of what I was getting myself into…
Haiti is a unique country—the first born out of a successful slave revolt, and currently the poorest in the Western Hemisphere—and we saw it through several unique lenses. By “we” I mean myself and Jenna, from Press Play Productions, who brought me on to the project.
(That's not Wyclef.)
There is also the lens of the NGO itself. Part of their job is identifying the biggest problems in Haiti in order to help alleviate them, and since our job is to tell their story, we witnessed several of these problems—poverty, corruption, hunger, lack of opportunities for women, lack of education, unsanitary conditions—first hand.
And, of course, there is the literal lens through which I was seeing the country—the camera lens. I was very grateful to have that physical separation between myself and my surroundings, to help me to focus on getting the work done in emotionally challenging circumstances.
We arrived in Haiti and proceeded directly to the “Diplomatic Lounge” at the airport, which is where foreign dignitaries, government people, and the like wait while their customs info is being processed. We met a World Bank official, sat in plush chairs, and sipped on espressos. It was all very high brow compared to the zoo that was the Delta terminal at JFK. And then the lights went out. Twice. And everyone continued their conversations and Blackberry exchanges without missing a beat. Oh yeah, I guess I am in a third world country.
We went straight from the airport to Cite Soleil, known as the most dangerous slum in the Western hemisphere. BAM. Straight into the action. I was familiar with the area thanks to the documentary Ghosts of Cite Soleil, which I happened to select for the San Francisco International Film Festival when I sat on their Golden Gate Awards committee a few years back. The documentary took place during a particularly bad period in Cite Soleil, when the district was besieged by a violent war between drug gangs, so I was expecting the worst.
Fortunately, things have improved considerably in Cite Soleil in the last few years in terms of the violence, and it is hard to imagine it being so dangerous when the streets are filled with people. What I did witness, though, were unpaved roads, no trees protecting people from the relentless heat, dust, rubble, thick piles of garbage, concrete shacks, hollow eyes and an intense stench of many bodies and little sanitation.
The purpose of this first visit was to see some of Yele’s impressive projects and try to identify a family to feature in our video who could really portray the story of Yele’s success. We visited one of the Yele Cuisine kitchens which was apparently operational even through the crisis period in Cite Soleil. At the Yele Cuisine kitchens, women are employed to cook and deliver food to schools without cafeterias. This accomplishes multiple objectives—jobs for women, local food distribution, and encouragement for kids to attend school, as the meal provided will likely be their only one of the day.
From Cite Soleil we finally checked in at our hotel, where the real shock set in. The difference between the filthy slum and our gorgeous hotel up the mountain, reportedly the nicest hotel in Port-au-Prince, is hardly calculable. As we drove through the city, it looked somewhat healthier than Cite Soleil, with vibrantly colored buildings and more trees, but it was obviously poor everywhere until we ascended up the mountainside where the wealthier Haitians and foreign businesspeople live in well-protected homes and where hotels like ours cater to diplomats and NGO executives. From up there, looking down at the crystal Caribbean waters, leafy palm trees and mountains beyond, it was hard to imagine all the suffering that was happening below.
We only had five days to scout, cast and shoot our entire piece and, as always with docs, things came together in unexpected ways.
We knew that we wanted to tell the story of a mother who works in one of the Yele kitchens and whose kids are educated at a Yele-funded school. Originally, we planned to have the mother’s story intertwined with that of Killa, a former gangster who was influenced by a meeting with Wyclef to change his life, and now works distributing food to poor families with Yele.
Killa seemed like the perfect candidate—a charismatic and colorful guy with a fantastic backstory and a true investment in YeleHaiti. Unfortunately, he also has musical ambitions and a serious rep to protect. He wouldn’t even admit on camera to no longer being part of a gang, for fear that there would be repercussions with its members. After shooting for one of our precious full days with him, where he walked us through his ‘hood (“This is where I started selling drugs when I was 14…”), he pulled out and wanted nothing more to do with the project. He later demanded certain favors from the organization in order to continue.
I have to give Jenna major character-judgement kudos on this front. She sensed this potential outcome from our very first meeting with Killa. Despite our day of shooting with Killa, we still needed a critical shot of him handing rice from Yele food distribution off to our mother character, in order to link their stories together. It looked like we weren’t going to get it but, as always, the show must go on. I always say that the best AND worst thing about documentary filmmaking is that you never know what's going to happen.
So the next morning, we started filming with Lenise, our "mother character." Lenise is a handsome woman with short, elegant cornrows and a worry-creased face. She is a single mother with five kids ranging from age six to teenaged, and they all live together in her small, three-room concrete house, along with two of her nephews. She works in a Yele Kitchen at a Yele-sponsored school where her children attend class and participate in soccer training. Yele is literally providing a life for this family and preventing Lenise from, in her words, crying herself to sleep every night worrying about how she would take care of her kids, and doing "bad things" to help feed them.
One thing that really impressed me about Lenise was that, despite her circumstances, she managed to keep all the kids clean, polite, and more well-behaved than most kids I know. She does this in part by running a tight ship at home, where everyone wakes at 4 AM and does homework by candlelight while she cleans, prepares them for school and makes breakfast if she has any food, so that they can all be ready to take the dusty one-hour walk to school by 7:00. We shot these morning rituals and then piled Lenise and the kids into our cars and continued filming them at work and school for the rest of the day. This included shooting Lenise's work in the extremely hot Yele kitchen, where she and about five other impressive women cook using two countertops, four open flames, and no refrigeration for around 1,500 kids. During our interview with Lenise later, she said that she felt like a star and it had been the best day of her life.
While scouting at the school, we met Jimmy, their handsome young Administrative Director. As he assisted us with logistics, he told Jenna of his own story--having been raised in Cite Soleil himself but getting educated and deciding to work at the school to help make a better future for his community, despite better professional opportunities elsewhere. Once again, her producer instincts kicked in and she thought we just might have found a compelling replacement for Killa in our story.
As we got to know Jimmy better, it became more and more evident that he would be an amazing person to help tell Yele's story. The Yele folks wanted to make sure that we didn't just present Haitians as victims, and here was a young, passionate, articulate community advocate with high hopes for a better future for his country despite his own underprivileged upbringing. (Remind you of anyone?) We ended up shooting lots of great footage of Jimmy in Cite Soleil and at the school, and he gave us a fantastic interview. Ultimately, the Yele folks will decide between the two men, but no matter what happens, I am so glad that we got to meet Jimmy.
WELCOME HOME, OK?
Overall, It was a FASCINATING trip, and challenging too--both physically (shooting hand-held in direct 98 degree sunlight for hours) and emotionally (meeting kids who walk an hour to school in said heat to get one meal a day). When we arrived back in the U.S., I almost kissed the poor customs officer whose thick Brooklyn accent mumbled, “Welcome home, OK?”
As trite as it sounds, I really did think about how lucky we are to live in a land where, though we have many problems of our own, there are opportunities and freedoms that others simply don’t have. I thought it was no wonder that people want to come here from all over the world to try to make a better life. And then, lo and behold, my cab driver from the airport was Haitian! We had a long talk wherein he waxed poetic about the good old days in Haiti before Papa Doc’s outrageous corruption, when tourists visited and noone locked their doors.
It wasn’t until Jenna and I had shot in Cite Soleil several times that one of our hosts casually mentioned the slew of foreign kidnappings and beheadings that happened during the lockdown of that area about five years ago. I remember being asked about my dream career during a college internship. My reply included terms like “travel,” “education,” “storytelling,” and “being creative.” I am living that dream career now. Unfortunately that means that sometimes, in places like Haiti, I am witnessing other people’s nightmares.
As I embark on editing the piece this week, I take some comfort in hoping that our piece will help YeleHaiti spread its message more widely and ultimately do more good work.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Whether real or imagined, the weight of all of our projections of significance onto a place like Israel is heavy and palpable when you visit. Fortunately, in our case, this was balanced out by many moments of joy, beauty, and love. Check out the pics on Flickr, and here are a few highlights:
- Catching up with lots of old friends from all over the map, including several who have added babies to their posses, and now-grown-up punks from Jericho's Echo and most importantly, our long lost old friend THE SUNSHINE.
- Taking full advantage of our very first day in Tel Aviv, with a trip to Hilton Beach, a massive flashmob watergun fight with several hundred people in Rabin Square, and a late night rooftop party with my favorite Jericho’s Echo punks, Dennis and Tom from Smash4$ (who are now both Mohawk-less) and some of their crazy Russian vodka-swilling friends.
- Staying with Avital, the lovely and generous woman who hosted me for both the filming and screening of Jericho’s Echo back when she was a swingin’ single lady. The apartment was a little more crowded this time, with her husband Amit, unbelievably adorable daughter Shailah, and another girl on the way!
- The last night of our trip was the transition between Seth’s birthday (July 9) and mine (July 10) and it just happened to be that two different people from Jericho’s Echo were having their own birthday parties that night (Tom’s girlfriend Malki and Ishay from Useless I.D.) so we got to crash, and see so many of the folks from the movie…everyone from Asi of Chaos Rabak and Tsahi from Retribution (who are now in a new band together, Instinct HC) to all the Useless I.D. guys (who just returned from a European tour) to Roy from Punkache (whose short army crop from the movie has turned into an adorable curly mop and who also fronts a new band, Malkat Haplakat)
- Outside of our good times in Tel Aviv, we managed to travel to the complicated, controversial, beloved and beautiful city of Jerusalem; the heart of Israel’s “wine country” Zichron Yaacov; the hippie mountain town Amirim; and the center of Jewish mysticism, Tsfat. Whew. Thank goodness for the AMAZING cabin we rented in Amirim with a hot tub overlooking the Sea of Galilee!
This was my fourth time in the Holy Land, but the first in 12 years that (after the summit) was purely for vacation purposes, and vacation we did! What a great time.