A flowering of Jewish filmmaking – from wrenching Holocaust redux to lighthearted exploration of Jewish-American identity – is unfolding at USC.

JUDY MEISEL WAS JUST A TEENAGER
when she watched her mother disappear into a Nazi gas chamber. Horrified, and determined to escape the raging Holocaust, the young Lithuanian Jew and her sister fled a death march and wandered north through Poland, posing as Catholics to survive. Several months later, when they finally found their way to safety in Denmark, the 16-year-old Meisel weighed 47 pounds.
In 1963, Meisel was watching on TV as a race riot engulfed nearby Philadelphia. The unrest had been set off by the arrival of the Bakers, a black family, in an all-white neighborhood. “Here I was in the City of Brotherly Love, and it was like Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938 … and nobody was doing anything about it,” recalls Meisel, by then a mother of three. She baked a batch of cookies and paid the Bakers a visit. That social call began Meisel’s involvement in the American civil rights movement. Later that year, she helped organize the famous March on Washington, meeting Martin Luther King Jr. and bringing her lifelong struggle against bigotry full circle, two decades and 5,000 miles removed from the Nazi death camps.
Judy Meisel’s moving story was told by three USC cinema-television students in the award-winning 1998 documentary film, Tak for Alt (Danish for “thanks for everything”). Looking for help to realize their vision, the students had turned to faculty member Mark Jonathan Harris, whose own documentaries on the Holocaust – The Long Way Home (1997) and Into the Arms of Strangers (2000) – have both won Academy Awards for Best Documentary.
Harris’ presence, as a filmmaker and as a mentor to students, is one of the reasons why Jewish film studies is enjoying a remarkable flowering at USC. Two organizations – the USC Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life and the Jewish Filmmakers Forum – are also contributing to a climate that, many agree, has never been more nurturing to the genre. With a group of students, faculty and alumni who are producing an impressive body of work, and with film festivals and campus screenings that promote and probe such work, USC is adding to its world-class environment for film a focus on Jewish cinema that may be unique among educational institutions in the United States.
Named for real estate developer, philanthropist and USC trustee Alan I. Casden ’68, the Casden Institute examines the contributions of the Jewish community to the commerce, culture and politics of the United States with a special focus on the American West. The Filmmakers Forum, on the other hand, is a consortium of Jewish film students who simply want a community in which to share their creative interests.
Both groups have held screenings and festivals to promote the diverse body of films being made about Jewish issues, both at USC and outside. The Filmmakers Forum hosts the only Jewish student film festival in the country. The Casden Institute has held lectures and conferences on scores of topics, but “film has a central place within the [West Coast] Jewish community,” says Barry Glassner, the institute’s director and a professor of sociology.
Today, USC’s legendary film tradition is distinctly joined with the legacy of the first Hollywood moguls of the 1940s and 1950s – men with names like Goldwyn and Mayer who built the industry. “It would make little sense to be studying the Jewish community in the West,” Glassner says, “without including, as a central interest, film.”


JUDY MEISEL'S STORY first gripped Laura Bialis MFA ’00 when she was a history major at Stanford. In the fall of 1996, Bialis began graduate studies in the USC School of Cinema-Television, and that year she and classmates Sarah Levy MFA ’99 and Broderick Fox MFA ’99 decided to make a short documentary film about Meisel’s life.

DARK HOMECOMING Filmmakers Levy, Fox and Bialis trail Judy Meisel as she visits Fort Nine, a detention and execution area outside Kovno, Lithuania, where thousands of Jews perished during the Holocaust.
Admittedly it was an ambitious idea: three first-time filmmakers taking on
the heaviest possible subject. And at first they encountered obstacles. The cinema school couldn’t provide equipment because the film was to be shot outside the confines of a class. When they asked a Jewish television executive in Los Angeles for financial support, he laughed at their inexperience.
“We were bursting with enthusiasm, and he was so unimpressed,” Bialis remembers. “We left, and we were like, ‘We’re going to show him!’”
On the advice of friends, Bialis and her partners met with Harris, a USC professor of film production who happens to boast one of the most impressive resumés in the documentary world. Shortly after their first meeting, The Long Way Home, a film about the aftermath of the Holocaust that Harris had written and directed, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Harris’ second film about the period, Into the Arms of Strangers, won this year’s Oscar in the same category.
Harris proved to be an invaluable resource, a filmmaker’s filmmaker. “He challenged us to think of how to make this film different,” Bialis says, from the scores of others that had been made about the Holocaust. “He is understanding of the need to move on, but also of the importance of telling a story. We came up against all kinds of opposition, and then Mark said, ‘Go, you guys. You can do it. We’re so proud of you.’ It was a great feeling, some much-needed moral support.”
In the summer of 1997, the young filmmakers purchased cameras and followed Meisel through Lithuania, Poland and Denmark, where she retraced her dramatic journey to freedom. Months later, using borrowed editing equipment, they completed Tak for Alt. The documentary toured the film-festival circuit, picked up several awards, enjoyed an exclusive theater release in Los Angeles in 1999 and later aired nationally on PBS stations and on Danish television.
“The best experience of film school was having supportive faculty like Mark,” says Bialis. Recently, she was tapped to direct another film about a heroine of the Holocaust resistance, Hungarian-born paratrooper Hannah Senesh. It was Harris who recommended Bialis for the project, and Bialis turned to him for advice before accepting the offer.
In April 2000, the USC Casden Institute held a screening of Tak for Alt, followed by a discussion with Judy Meisel, Holocaust survivor Bent Lernø and the filmmakers. “The panel was great,” Bialis remembers. The audience raised questions about the filmmaking itself: “How did you work with Judy? How did you make the decisions you did?” With Lernø, a Danish survivor, participating, the screening also served as something of a tribute to Danes – “fitting, given the title of our film,” Bialis says.

 Photographed by Fred Meisel

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