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Essex County honors documentary makers
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Essex County honors documentary makers

Husband and wife often explore Jewish themes in growing body of work

Documentarians Curt Fissel and Ellen Friedland, center, receive citations from Freeholder Pat Sebold and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo at a May 20 celebration of the county government’s Jewish Heritage Month.     
Documentarians Curt Fissel and Ellen Friedland, center, receive citations from Freeholder Pat Sebold and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo at a May 20 celebration of the county government’s Jewish Heritage Month.     

A husband-and-wife team of documentary filmmakers from Montclair were honored by the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders in a May 20 celebration of the county government’s Jewish Heritage Month.

Writer-producer Ellen Friedland and her husband, editor-cinematographer Curt Fissel, operate JEM/GLO, a nonprofit video production company dedicated to documenting subjects related to Jewish culture around the world. 

Presenting them with separate plaques for their 18 years of accomplishments was Freeholder Pat Sebold. She praised them as “creative people who share selfless dedication, talent, and commitment, not only to the Jewish community but to communities throughout the world.”

Sebold spoke from the podium of the freeholders’ meeting room in the Essex County Hall of Records in Newark.

“I often say my life, our life, is like a field trip,” said Fissel as he accepted his plaque. “Every day there is an opportunity to learn anew, discover fascinating stories, and while what we film often takes us to places that are not on a well-traveled road, the detours have given us insight into who we are today.”

The professional partnership between Fissel and Friedland began in the fall of 1997, while she was working as a political reporter at NJ Jewish News and he as a cameraman at New Jersey Network.

They met while covering former Gov. Christie Whitman’s economic mission to Israel.

“Curt was very interested in working on a documentary on Poland with me, and NJN told us, ‘If we get first dibs on airing it, you can use our equipment.’ It was a no-brainer,” she said. 

They formed JEM/GLO, an acronym for Jewish Educational Multimedia/Global Learning Outreach.

When they met in 1997, Fissel was not Jewish, but after attending many services in Polish synagogues he converted to Judaism.

Three years later they were married at the Pod Bialym Bocianem Synagogue in the town of Wroclaw, Poland. “We wanted to give more attention to a Jewish community that is usually bypassed” in organized tours of Warsaw and Cracow, she said. “It was the only Jewish congregation in town to survive Kristallnacht.”

“We made our first documentary on the rebirth of Judaism in Poland. It did pretty well. So we made another, and then another.”

They now have completed 10 films “on different topics that sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly relate to Jewish culture,” she said.

In 2003 they released From Refugee to Immigrant, the story of three Muslim Kosovars who came to the United States after being assisted by Israeli workers at a refugee camp.

In 2010, Delicious Peace detailed efforts by Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Uganda to put aside their differences to create a fair trade coffee cooperative.

One of their more recent works is Flory’s Flame, a one-hour documentary about the life and music of renowned 91-year-old Sephardi composer and performer Flory Jagoda. 

JEM/GLO is about to release Yellow Stars of Tolerance. It concerns a French synagogue in the Normandy town of Elbeuf. Long after Elbeuf’s Jewish community became extinct, one of the synagogue walls still stands as a memorial to tolerance, tarnished by the yellow stars painted by Nazi sympathizers during World War II.

The wall has been kept intact through the efforts of a New York City woman “who sees it as a symbol of the dangers of racism,” Friedland said.

To help finance their cinematic labors of love, JEM/GLO’s partners maintain a separate company called Voices and Visions Productions, which makes films for private equity and financial services corporations.

“It has enabled us to support our documentary habit,” Friedland said. Fissel works behind cameras and computers as cinematographer and editor, while Friedland does the writing and producing. 

Friedland said she was pleased and surprised by the freeholders’ honor.

“It was shocking to us. We do what we do because we are driven to do it. People watch much more than they read, and if there are more people buying fair trade coffee — which helps thousands of farmers around the world send their kids to school and we have played a role in that — that is our legacy,” she said.

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