Filmmaker tells story of U.S. pilots who fought for Israel’s independence in “Above and Beyond” at Jewish Federation screening at City Stage on May 4
By Judie Jacobson
In 1948, just three years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, a group of Jewish American pilots answered a call for help. In secret and at great personal risk, they smuggled planes out of the U.S., and flew for Israel in its War of Independence. As members of Machal – “volunteers from abroad” – this ragtag band of brothers not only turned the tide of the war; they also embarked on personal journeys of discovery and renewed Jewish pride.
Now, filmmaker Nancy Spielberg tells their story in “Above and Beyond: The Birth of the Israeli Air Force,” a new documentary that will be presented by the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts on Monday, May 4 at CityStage at 7:30 p.m. A Q&A with Spielberg will follow the screening.
An accomplished businesswoman, fundraiser and philanthropist, Nancy Spielberg has in recent years turned her energy and talents to producing documentary films. She served as consultant on the Oscar-winning documentary Chernobyl Heart, and is executive producer of Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals, which aired nationally on PBS, and the forthcoming documentary Mimi and Dona. She is also executive producing Who Will Write Our History, with director Roberta Grossman (an interview with Grossman follows). Before creating and producing Above and Beyond, Spielberg produced a project for the Israeli government, Celebrities Salute Israel’s 60th, which was featured in Times Square on the NASDAQ screens.
Spielberg grew up surrounded by the film industry, where she worked on her brother Steven’s early films. She attended Arizona State University and UCLA and, after moving to New York, studied film at Sarah Lawrence College and the New School in New York. She is founder and co-founder of several charities including “A Bid for Charity,” “Children of Chernobyl,” “Project Sunshine” and the American branch of The Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.
The Ledger spoke with Spielberg from her home in New York.
Q: This is not a well-known story, to say the least – how did you learn about these men and why did you decide to turn their story into a film?
A: I had completed production of “ellusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals.” which aired on PBS in prime time and had a really wonderful reception. Following that, somebody sent me the obituary for Al Schwimmer, and it was titled something like “Father of Israeli Air Force Dies at 94.”
It went on to describe how this American was responsible for starting the Israeli Air Force, and he smuggled planes into Israel and was later indicted [in the U.S. for violating the U.S. Neutrality Acts]. It was just an incredible story. You know, I think of myself as pretty knowledgeable, but I never knew that Americans were involved in laying the ground work for the Israeli Air Force, and for being in the first fighter jets and flying and teaching Israelis how to fly. We consider Isael’s air force to be one of the most powerful and top air forces in the world – with all its sophisticated technology — and it is highly respected by the U.S. So the idea that the Israeli Air Force had its beginnings like this, I thought was pretty incredible. Why did I take it on as a project? It just had my name all over it.
Q; It’s been so many years since this happened. Did you have trouble locating these men?
A: Well, the first thing I did was I started to read everything I could get my hands on. And one of the books I read was called No Margin for Error: The Making of the Israeli Air Force, written by Ehud Yonay. And somehow I found him and started to correspond with him. I then went to Israel at the end of 2011 and one of our dear friends and our lawyer in Israel is friends with Shimon Peres. He asked me if I wanted to meet Peres, who was involved in all those operations. Of course, I said “Yes!” So, I sat with Shimon Peres and he told me the most incredible stories. The 45-minute time slot I had been given turned into an hour and a half. His next appointments were standing outside waiting to meet with him. During our talk, he was clearly transported back to that time. He had a little twinkle in his eye.
Somebody also lead me to a man named Smoky Simon. He was a South African volunteer during that time who happens to be head of the World Machal organization today. He was an incredible resource. He’ll be 95 next week and he’s so sharpt. He gave me phone numbers and names. From there, we started to call the guys. We would call one pilot and he would start telling a story; he’d tell you about his buddies and then he’d say ‘did you speak to so-and-so?’ And so, we would use that contact. There were not a lot of guys left who could tell the story.
Q: Besides teling the story of Machal, you’ve said that the film is also about passing down the story to future generations. What is it that you hope young people will take away from this film?
A: There is a universal theme to this film that I think future generations from all walks of life can learn from. It’s about going to great lengths to help somebody who needs helps. That’s the bottom line. It even speaks to the American spirit because Americans run to help others. We run to help when there’s a Katrina; we run when there’s a tsunami, we run to do relief work. There’s a very important message about volunteerism that engulfs this film.
I also want to preserve the history; I want the film to inspire Jewish kids to be connected to their roots. I also want the world to look at Israel again with a fresh eye; let’s not forget that Israel accepted the two-state solution and the Arabs vowed to fight and Israel needed to defend itself. That to me is something people really do forget today, as they try to discredit Israel’s existence.
Of course, I’m not really making a political film. I made a film about these men because we need to hold on to our history; we need to preserve the words of that generation – the Holocaust survivors, our World War II veterans – because they’ll be gone and if it’s not captured visually, which is the best way to reach kids, it will be lost.
Q: What’s next?
A: I want to make a feature film out of “Above and Beyond.” I’ve had several big producers contact me about it; so it’s getting interest. But if you go the big-producer-big-studio route you have an issue. I don’t think any big studio wants to do a film about Israel. And that is so sad. The bottom line is they’re looking at box office; it’s not about this as a wonderful story. Yes, it has to be a wonderful story; but it’s is a marketing decision first. So it could be that I need to find an independent producer. This is new for me; I’m not in the Hollywood scene – as much as everyone thinks I am. On the other hand, I do sort of know some people there. One thing I learned in this process is that you should speak with experts, and you should listen and be open-minded. I probably need a few months to put “Above and Beyond” out there – I’ve got screenings coming up all around the country – and then I’ll see where I go from there.
I’m also helping Roberta [Grossman] on her new project, “Who Will Write Our Story?” It’s her baby and right now I’m executive producer. I may get more involved, but it will depend on what happens with “Above and Beyond.”
The Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts will host Nancy Spielberg at a screening of her film, “Above and Beyond,” at City Stage in Springfield on Monday, May 4 at 7:30 p.m. After the film, there will be a question and answer period moderated by local filmmaker Julia Mintz, followed by a dessert reception. For more information on tickets or sponsorship opportunities, please visit http://jewishwesternmass.org/upcoming-events/film-above-and-beyond or call Michelle Everett at (413) 737-4313, ext., 239.