A Spielberg is coming to the Axelrod Israel Film Festival on Sunday, July 19 — not the familiar bearded director of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, but Nancy, his younger sister, who has produced a documentary about a band of American adventurers as dashing and daring as any of her brother’s make-believe heroes.
Nancy, who heads up the film production company Playmount (an English translation of Spielberg), started by their father Arnold 53 years ago, will speak after the screening of her film Above and Beyond, on the final night of the festival.
The full-length feature relates how, in 1948, a group of Jewish Americans who had flown in World War II, plunged back into danger to help the fledgling State of Israel in its War of Independence. Surviving pilots — all of them over 90 years old — describe how they ducked and dodged American and European authorities to get their planes where they were needed and to protect ground forces beleaguered from all sides.
“I had expected to hear wild adventure tales — evading the FBI, chasing after girls, racing through the skies in aerial dogfights — but what surprised me was the heart and emotion each pilot brought to his interview,” Spielberg told NJJN. “Most of them did not grow up with a lot of Jewish pride in an era of widespread anti-Semitism. Some of them volunteered purely for the adventure of it.
“But in their interviews, they shared how their experiences in Israel awakened their Jewish identities and transformed their lives.”
She came up with the idea after seeing an obituary for one of those pilots, Al Schwimmer, which described him as a founder of Israel’s aerospace industry. She set about learning all she could on the topic. To direct it, she brought in Roberta Grossman, who had made a number of acclaimed documentaries, among them Hava Nagila and Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh.
Spielberg told NJJN via e-mail, “My biggest hope is that viewers will come away with a huge sense of American-Jewish pride, and the feeling that we can all (and we should all) do something extraordinary to help a brother in need. Ordinary Joes can be extraordinary heroes! And I want to honor these fly boys; they deserve to be honored and their stories preserved, their legacy sealed for the future.”
Though new to this topic, Spielberg worked on her brother’s early productions. She studied film at Sarah Lawrence College and the New School in New York, and has served as consultant on the Oscar-winning documentary Chernobyl Heart and as executive producer of Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals, which aired nationally on PBS.
She and her husband have a deep attachment to Israel. Their daughter Jessica Katz made aliya in 2011, and last year auditioned for the reality show The Voice Israel. A few years ago, Spielberg produced a project for the Israeli government, Celebrities Salute Israel’s 60th, which played on the NASDAQ screens in Times Square for a month.
Her ambition for Above and Beyond reflects the same pride: She said, “I want people to ‘fall in love’ with Israel again.”
As it happens, New Jersey also holds a place in her heart. She was born in Camden and lived in Haddonfield before the family moved to California in 1957. In 1983, she married Shimon Katz, whose father, Rabbi Dr. Leon Katz, led a congregation in Passaic for over 50 years. The couple lives in Riverdale, NY.
While the documentary was made entirely independently of her brother, the siblings might be teaming up for a new take on the “fly boys.” Nancy told NJJN, “Nothing in Hollywood is definite, but a feature is in development. Whether my brother is involved is yet to be seen — stay tuned!”
Between screenings of Above and Beyond on July 19, at 4 and 7 p.m., there will be a reception, talk, and Q&A session with Spielberg.