A Letter Without Words – a documentary about a Jewish grandmother who dared to film life in Berlin during the rise of Nazi Germany after filmmaking had become illegal – was a winner at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and was screened as part of the United Nation’s celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. The project, by New York’s Lisa Lewenz and Ella Arnhol, was also assisted by the New York-based Fund for Jewish Documentary Filmmaking, a new sponsorship source for any filmmakers working with Jewish themes and needing finishing funding.
As a division of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, the documentary fund was endowed with a US$650,000 grant from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation three years ago and was recently renewed indefinitely.
Grants administrator Ariana Reaven says the documentary fund was established to help documentary filmmakers complete their projects. Applicants must be American citizens or residents must have their projects at a director’s cut stage and allow it to be screened in order to receive funding of up to US$50,000.
‘We want to support films that will succeed in film festivals, both national and international, and deal with a wide range of Jewish issues, both contemporary and historical,’ says Reaven. About half of the average 70 applications per year come to the documentary fund without any other assistance, she adds.
While the 1998 grant winners were expected to be named at press time, the six 1997 winners shared US$160,000. Joining A Letter Without Words as 1997 winners were: Arguing the World (New York-based Joseph Dorman), which documents the lives and careers of New York intellectuals Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer; From Swastika to Jim Crow (Hudson, New York-based Steven Fischler and Joel Sucher), about exiled Jewish scholars who find teaching posts in the black colleges of the southern U.S.; Silence (New York-based Tana Ross and Orly Yadin), the story of a child Holocaust survivor told through animation and cello music; Trembling Before God (New York-based Sandi Dubowski), an exploration of the struggles of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews; and, Either/Or (New York-based Susan Korda), a personal account of the effects of the Holocaust on the second generation.
Many fund-assisted projects, says Reaven, have gone on to play Jewish film festivals along with prestigious festivals such as Sundance and Berlin. Others have been aired on pbs stations. A Healthy Baby Girl, a fund recipient in 1996, went on to win a Peabody Award. The documentary by Judith Helfand is about a woman coming to grips with her exposure to des, a drug taken disproportionately by pregnant Jewish women between 1947-1971 and related to a high incidence of cancer of the reproductive organs in their daughters.
According to the guidelines for The Fund for Jewish Documentary Filmmaking, eligible applicants must have creative, editorial, and budgetary control of the proposed project, and must own the copyright of the completed film or video.
Priority will be given to those works-in-progress that combine intellectual clarity with creative use of the medium, can be completed within one year of the award, are standard one-hour or half-hour broadcast length, and are likely to be broadcast. Pre-production funding is not provided.
No grant will exceed US$50,000 or 50% of the total project budget, whichever is less. Most grant awards are expected to fall in the US$20,000-30,000 range.