Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Yoo-Hoo, Aviva Kempner!

On Sunday, November 8, Bryn Mawr Film Institute welcomed Aviva Kempner, director of the acclaimed new documentary Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. A reception and Q&A with Aviva followed the 1:00 pm screening of her film, which explores the career of Jewish broadcasting maven Gertrude Berg whose radio and television shows The Goldbergs pioneered situation comedy. Many thanks to the event’s co-sponsors, the former Philadelphia Weekend Film Festival’s Lonnie Levin, Marsha Beck, and Pam Schneider. Keep reading for highlights from the Q&A.

Filmmaker Akiva Kempner (second from left) with Murray Levin, Lonnie Levin, David Beck, Marsha Dorman, and BMFI President Juliet Goodfriend (seated)
Aviva Kempner previously garnered rave reviews for her work as the writer, director and producer of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, a film about the Jewish slugger who fought anti-Semitism in the 1930’s and 40’s. The 1998 film was awarded top honors by the National Society of Film Critics, the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Greenberg received a George Peabody Award and was nominated for an Emmy. Akiva also produced and co-wrote Partisans of Vilna, a 1986 documentary on Jewish resistance against the Nazis, and was the executive producer of the 1989 Grammy-nominated record, Partisans of Vilna: The Songs of World War II Jewish Resistance. She also writes film criticism and feature articles for numerous publications, including The Boston Globe and The Washington Post.

Akiva received the 1996 Guggenheim Fellowship, the 2000 DC Mayor’s Art Award, the 2001 Women of Vision award from D.C.’s Women in Film and Video chapter, and the 2001 Media Arts award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. She recently received the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s Freedom of Expression Award for her significant contribution to creating positive images of Jewish heroes in film and her work as a Jewish film curator.

Akiva Kempner signs Bryn Mawr Film Institute's guest book at the reception

Highlights from the Q&A with Aviva Kempner:

How did you get into filmmaking?
I went to law school and did well but I was never good on standardized tests. My mother hates it when I say this, but I flunked the bar twice, so I became a filmmaker. My mother passed as a Polish-Catholic in Germany and her parents were killed in Auschwitz. My father was one of the American forces, a Lithuanian who had moved to Pittsburgh, and I was born in Berlin. My filmmaking is my way of working out being a child of survivors, and the need to make films about under-known Jewish heroes.

Why Molly?
Thirty years ago, I decided to make a film about Jews fighting Nazis and it turned out to be about the Partisans of Vilna, the Jewish resistance in the Vilna ghetto. As I was getting ready for the Partisans opening, I heard that Hank Greenberg had died, on September 4, 1986. For my dad, as an immigrant Jew, baseball was the way that you became American. I’m happy with that movie [The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg] because it counters the stereotype of the Jewish “nebbish”. When I was at the Jewish Museum in New York I saw an exhibit called Jews Entertaining America where they recreated the Goldberg’s living room and I said, ‘That’s next’.

Why don’t more people know about Gertrude Berg today?
Well, Shout Factory is releasing a DVD of Goldberg shows, but she is not known because the show was never syndicated, in part because it was shot in Kinetoscope, but also because of her co-star [Philip Loeb] being blacklisted. Also, I have a ‘pioneer theory’ that the first ones are not noted until there’s a New York Times obit or they’re awarded a Nobel Prize.

What’s your process as a documentary filmmaker?
For every film I’ve made there’s an hour longer film. With Molly, there was really a strong 2-1/2 hour version, but you can only do about 90 minutes. First I go for the best stories, interview the best people, and I overshoot. Then I research for the best [archival] footage and stills; I only think as a director. Then I still have to turn around at the end and think like a producer and pay for the incredible footage.

How did you film Molly?
My previous work was all shot on 16mm and edited on a Steenbeck before Molly; now I’ve given in. I shot Molly in high-end HD and used Final Cut Pro [to edit].

What are some of the things that didn’t make it into the final film?
I had to cut stories about Anne Bancroft and Steve McQueen appearing first on The Goldbergs and twenty more minutes of Eli Mintz stories [about the actor who portrayed Uncle David].
I’ll tell you one now about Philip Loeb [who played Mr. Goldberg]. He was a jokester. Zero Mostel and his wife Kate were his closest friends. One night Kate called Philip saying, “Come over tonight for dinner, come as you are.” The Mostels lived in a building where the elevator went straight to their floor. When the doors opened, there was Philip, naked, wearing just a tie. No one says a word about it all night until Philip’s about to leave. Then Zero says, “Your fly is down.”

Do you know how your documentaries will end when you begin?
I’ve been very lucky with my third acts. With The Partisans of Vilna, I knew that some survived. But I didn’t know that when Hank was unfairly traded to Pittsburgh in 1947 he was the most welcoming to Jackie Robinson, because he knew what it felt like [to be discriminated against]. When I started Molly, I didn’t know about the blacklisting of Philip Loeb. With that dramatic third act, there’s a much richer movie.

How did you get to interview Ruth Bader Ginsberg for Molly?
I saw her at an embassy party and went over and introduced myself... After we finished filming her interview at the Supreme Court, I sent an email to all of the people I went to law school with saying, ‘Aviva finally made it to the lawyer’s lounge of the Supreme Court, but she did it her way!’

What’s the international response to Molly been like so far?
The film plays best to us Americans who remember her, but it does have universal appeal. So far it’s playing in Canada—Toronto right now, and the reviews were good—but not as many Canadians grew up with her. I’m waiting to hear from the Berlin Film Festival. I try to show all my films there... Molly will show in Israel this summer.

What’s your hope for this film?
Well, I spent last night talking to Alan Ball [Six Feet Under, American Beauty], and I told him that the one thing I hope to get out of this film is that someone make a dramatic film about [blacklisted actor] Philip Loeb. He was never a communist, just a dedicated Union activist. He unfairly lost his livelihood for his union beliefs.

What’s next for you?
I’ve co-written a script with a Native American screenwriter. It is not about an underdog Jewish hero; it is about an underdog Native American hero, but it is still tribal. For me, there are two more documentaries I really want to make. The first is about the “Rosenwald schools”, started by Julius Rosenwald, a part-leader of Sears, Roebuck who worked with Booker T. Washington and built over 5,000 schools in the Deep South to promote the education of African-Americans in the first half of the twentieth century, before Civil Rights. The second project is about union leader Samuel Gompers, first President of the AFL [American Federation of Labor].

Gertrude Berg as Molly Goldberg, the first woman of television
(Courtesy of the Goldberg Family Estate)

Gertrude Berg began her media career as the creator, principal writer, and star of The Goldbergs, a popular radio show about a Jewish family living in New York City. The radio program premiered a week after the stock market crash in 1929 and remained a favorite for its seventeen years on the air. Following World War II, Berg took the opportunity to reinvent the show for the exciting new medium of television, and, in 1949, The Goldbergs became television’s first character-driven domestic sitcom. Combining social commentary, family values, and lots of humor, Berg won the hearts of America and blazed a trail for women in the entertainment industry. The Oprah of her day, she published a cookbook, created a clothing line for housewives, and wrote an advice column called Mama Talks. Her television show was even made into a Paramount Pictures movie called Molly, with Berg as screenwriter and producer. In 1950 she received the first ever Best Actress Emmy, and in 1959 she won a Tony for Best Actress in A Majority of One.

Akiva’s documentary explores this fascinating and powerful woman’s journey by using archive footage and interviews with luminaries including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actor Ed Asner, producers Norman Lear (All in the Family) and Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties), and NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg.

Find more information about Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, Aviva Kempner, and Gertrude Berg at

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