Moving in for the Close Up: Storytelling on Film

Filmmaker Ilana Trachtman interviewing sisters for the Leah/ Rachel play, Seattle 2017.

By Ilana Trachtman

[This is the second article in a series about the role of storytelling in Jewish Education, written by grantees of The Covenant Foundation.]

Growing up in the 70’s, Jewish education was the whispering in the walls of my suburban childhood home. My mother is a life-long Jewish educator, so Debbie Friedman’s Aleph Bet played on the station wagon tape deck, there were Hebrew reading primers around the house, and the rhythms of the synagogue created our family calendar. Yet when I reflect on my parents’ Jewish expression and 12 or so years of Hebrew school, it’s not the maps of Israel or the homemade-hardware-store menorahs or the posters of Jewish history that I remember. What I remember is the stories.

I remember the stories of Biblical characters, of my Great Grandma Rose’s journey from the Old Country, of Mrs. Fishman’s Israeli in-laws, of Bar Kochba, of Mr. Ellis marching for civil rights. Through stories I made meaning, absorbed values, ingested what it meant to be Jewish. When the stories involved people I could care about and relate to – flawed Biblical mothers; loud relatives serving too-spicy food; a scared teenager standing up for a principle – and if learning is defined as the expansion of one’s soul to incorporate a new concept, I can honestly say I learned quite a lot in Hebrew school.

As a filmmaker committed to Jewish education, story and character are my ply in trade. I believe Judaism’s extraordinary survival is due, in part, to the power of our stories, and the primacy we place on passing them down.

For my films, good story = good characters. I believe that it’s the humanity, distilled, which make us respond with open hearts to the stories we hear and see. For me to invest the years of effort to make a film, the characters have to move me.

I made the documentary film Praying with Lior because I met a 12-year-old with Down syndrome who fascinated me with his ability to pray. Lior and his family let me and my camera into their lives, to tell their story and thus create teaching about spirituality, Bar Mitzvah, family dynamics, Jewish rituals around death, disability, kavanah, and the power of inclusion. Educators write to me often, to say that Praying with Lior teaches more about any of the above, in 80 minutes, than any kind of lecture ever can.

How to tell a story on film about, say, a Jewish idea, a cultural shift, a piece of Jewish history? In my work, I shrink the scale. I find the people whose experience represents the meaning, and then get up as close as I can. I pursue immediate, irresistible human recognition. This kind of connection enables us to care about someone we’ve never met, from a world we don’t know.

I’m currently working on a film about a little known civil rights protest that happened in 1960, likely the first time a white (and largely Jewish) neighborhood collaborated with a group of black students, to integrate Washington DC’s Glen Echo Amusement Park. The events have significant historic implications for the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, partnerships between African Americans and Jews, the development of the American Nazi Party, actions of the US Supreme Court, and the impulse to activism. Taking on such a film is a daunting honor, and one that keeps me up at night. But truth be told, I am more interested in humanity than history. So I am telling this story from the point of view of 8 people who participated in the protests. In sharing their memories of how they came to picket for ten weeks during one of the hottest summers in DC history, and how they’ve changed as a result of that experience, I hope to give viewers accessible heroes. By recognizing parts of themselves in the people on screen, viewers will learn a great deal of history, and maybe consider their own ability to challenge the status quo.

Last year, a grant from The Covenant Foundation allowed me to experiment with minimalism in filmmaking, for more immediate connection and education. Working with actor Jon Adam Ross and director Chantal Pavageux, we created “The Leah/ Rachel Play” with the Jewish community of Seattle. We selected themes from the Biblical story of Leah and Rachel to discuss with almost 80 sets of Jewish sisters in city-wide “Sister Salons.” We ultimately filmed 18 sets of sisters in tight shots with high definition cameras against a white backdrop. The sisters’ reflections on their own relationship were woven into connected stories and projected onto enormous screens, as Jon performed multiple characters interacting with them.

By filming the sisters in “limbo,” there was no context to distance the audience, and by projecting their faces in large scale, we could create profound intimacy. The sisters become familiar and relatable, and the audience can receive them without filters.

We created midrash about the Leah/ Rachel story, inspiring the audience to think about the nuances of the story that are missing in the text, forcing them to engage because of the “right there-ness” of the women on screen.

Our tradition teaches us to love thy neighbor, to embrace the stranger. But this can be facilitated, to profound effect, with a forum to reveal the stranger’s humanity. If I can tell you a story, cinematically, that convinces you to care about the praying child with Down syndrome, the housewife protesting segregation, or the sister confessing her fears, then I can re-arrange the landscape of your heart. This is what is at stake in my work, as a filmmaker and Jewish educator.

Ilana Trachtman has produced and directed Emmy award-winning nonfiction programs for over twenty years, for networks such as PBS, HBO Family, ABC-TV, Showtime, Lifetime, Discovery, A&E, and the Sundance channel. Concerned with bearing witness, Ilana’s work strives for immediate, irresistible human recognition across difference. She has told stories about a diverse array of topics, including champion high school mariachi musicians (Mariachi High, PBS), the legacy of slavery in Peru and Mexico (Black in Latin America, PBS,) social activism among Gulf coast shrimpers (Our Heroes, Ourselves, Lifetime,) and glassblowing apprenticeships for incarcerated youth (The Arts Advantage, ABC-TV.) Ilana’s independent feature documentary, Praying with Lior, about the spirituality and Bar Mitzvah of a boy with Down syndrome, played theatrically in 60 cities in the US and abroad. The film received six Audience Awards for Best Documentary, the Grand Prix at the International Disability Film Festival, and was a critic’s pick of The New York Times. Most recently, Ilana’s film for WHYY The Pursuit: 50 Years in the Fight for LGBT Rights was awarded the Mid-Atlantic Emmy for Best Documentary. Ilana lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two daughters.