Berkeley directors Kathryn Golden and Judith Montell offer two stories of Jewish migration to America in this month’s 22nd annual Jewish Film Festival in San Francisco, Berkeley and Menlo Park.
In making “Across Time and Space,” Golden’s Searchlight Films company crossed three countries to capture the life of the Bondy family, innovative educators driven from Nazi Germany. Montell and collaborator Bonnie Burt’s “Home on the Range” explores the culture of the Eastern European Jews who settled in Petaluma in the early 20th century to become, of all things, chicken ranchers.
The transplanted directors (Montell was born in New York, and Golden in California’s Central Valley) have been fixtures in documentary film making for the past two decades. Montell has been based in Berkeley since 1986. Her 1991 documentary, “Forever Activists: Stories from the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade” was featured in that year’s Jewish Film Festival. Golden graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute. Her 1984 film “American Treasure” won the Smithsonian Institute’s National Heritage Award.
Both current films took circuitous routes to the final stage. Montell first discussed the chicken ranch documentary with Burt in 1991. Golden read an article by Annemarie Bondy Roper five years ago and began research then. “ I felt like the person who had written the article was speaking a language that I understood,” says the director.
“Documentaries don’t generally make money,” says Montell. So the directors are on a constant cycle of shooting and fund raising, looking for ways to get the project done in a timely yet thrifty fashion. Montell says, “That’s what takes everything so long! You apply for grants, you go to friends, you have house parties.
Golden says, “You also depend on the kindness of your friends who are in the similar positions and have skills to offer.”
Luckily, the Fantasy Building on 10th Street in Berkeley where Montell and Golden toil is full of movie production companies whose cameramen and other specialists can sometimes be cajoled.
Sometimes unexpected stories emerge during filming. Bonnie Burt made a second, short film on Scott Gerber, whom they met during the filming of “A Home on the Range.” The result was “Song of a Jewish Cowboy,” which also makes its debut at the festival. “We didn’t want him to take over the film because his story is quite different. I said to Bonnie, ‘You go ahead, you do it, I can’t take on anything else right now.’ ”
Montell lent another kind of expertise: “I did help her work on it, holding a ladder in the middle of a field of cows as she tried to get a perspective on it.” She laughs.
Then there’s the editing. Both films are less than one hour, yet Montell estimates she whittled 40 hours of interviews into the story. “The question becomes, ‘What stories do you leave out?’ ” she says. As for Golden, “I don’t want to remember that part. I did as much as I could until I had to stop and raise more money. We edited for about four months, and then we stopped for a year (to do other work). Then came back to it and edited for another six months.”
Both Montell and Golden see the potential for films as a means of social change in these turbulent times.
Says Montell, “I think the festival has done remarkable work in showing a wide spectrum of films and having the courage to show some of the Palestinian films, and I applaud the stand that they’ve taken and their consistency. I think that films play a very important part in widening people’s understanding and opening their minds.” Golden says of her subjects, “ They came to this country and they said, ‘We have to do it ourselves.’ The film shows how we can really be involved to make the world different for the next generation.”
In the end, both films are truly about creating community in difficult times. Montell says, “I found that it was a very unusual community that was created in the early 1900s by Jews who were fleeing pogrom in Eastern Europe and sweat shops in New York and Los Angeles. They became a community that was very close and at the same time very argumentative. Luckily we had two of the original generation (to interview).”
“I think it’s much wider story, of an immigrant community that becomes Americanized and what they give up and what they maintain,” says Montell.
This film was influenced by Barbara Myerhoff’s “Number Our Days,” which was about a similar Jewish community in Southern California.
Montell went on to discuss the significance of social responsibility in her work. “I’m attracted to stories that deal with people living their lives in a way I find encouraging or enlightening. How do I want to live my older years? I look for people who have somehow made their lives rewarding and ways to show that to myself and an audience. And the liveliness and the intensity of the Petaluma Jews spoke to me.”
Golden echoed the sentiment. “(This film) is talking about challenges we have when we come together as a community and how we can make schools better and have that experience ripple out to whatever students do after that. A big part of making the film was to personalize that experience.”
Both directors are honored to be part of the ongoing tradition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.