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Spielberg tells untold story of pilots who saved Israel



She may be the sister of the world’s most famous filmmaker, but Nancy Spielberg is a force in her own right. And just like her brother, Steven, she’s committed to telling in-depth stories of Jewish life, culture, and history with her own unique style and vision.

This is made clear in her documentary Above and Beyond, which captures an unbelievable story lost to history. Perfectly titled, it tells how a ragtag group of volunteer fighter pilots and friends of the Jewish people went above and beyond the call of duty to save the fledging state of Israel from destruction in 1948.

“How did I find this story? It literally fell into my lap,” she told the SA Jewish Report, a day after she generously allowed the newspaper to screen the film in a webinar, to the delight of a worldwide audience. “A stranger sent me an email saying, ‘This should be your next story.’

“It was the obituary of Al Schwimmer, an American World War II flight engineer who told David Ben Gurion, ‘You don’t have a chance if you don’t have an air force. I’m going to help you build one.’ The title of the obituary was ‘father of the Israeli Air Force dies at age 94’.”

“I was stunned that an American would be given credit for the establishment of the Israeli Air Force, which is one of the strongest air forces in the world. And I said, ‘This is an incredible story, this has to be told.’”

She got that email around November 2011, and started filming in 2012, finishing in 2015. She produced the documentary, and Roberta Grossman directed it.

But it wasn’t the best time to be launching a film about the founding of the Jewish state. “Even though world opinion [of Israel] is worse today, it was pretty bad then too,” she reflects. “Not one country in Europe wanted even to hear about Israel. It was a tough time, and it definitely limited distribution.” But she soldiered on, and the film has reached many audiences since.

“After my brother did Schindler’s List, I think all of us realised the importance of documenting visual testimonies,” she says. “We are a visual society. Seeing is believing.”

But she quickly realised that capturing the story on screen might slip through her fingers because every day, the very people she needed to speak to were ageing or passing away. “I would set up an interview and then I’d follow up the next week to solidify it, and I would hear that person was sick or had passed away.

“We realised that they were what we call ‘endangered interviews’. We had to run, we couldn’t wait until we had the money. We knew that time was of the essence.”

Some of the pilots had no Jewish identity or were even ashamed of being Jewish. But they felt an unexplained sense of duty to come to the aid of the Jewish people. For many, it changed their relationship with their roots, and was the defining moment of their lives.

The film includes archival footage that takes the viewer into the heart of the action. “Any documentary filmmaker knows that they’re going to have to use archival footage, which costs a fortune,” says Spielberg. “But there’s not a lot of archival footage during the War of Independence. Because unlike the United States and other countries which had camera crews that filmed wars and had cameras attached to airplanes, Israel didn’t even have an airplane, and didn’t have the time or the resources to document the war. They were scrambling for their lives.”

But they dug deep. “It’s funny because there’s the Steven Spielberg film archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. When I called them, they said, well, this is what it costs. I make my films as not-for-profit and I have to raise every penny, which is hard. I was on a very limited budget, so I said ‘Well, do I get a family discount?’

“And they said, ‘You should know better, we need the money to preserve this film.’ So I had to pay full price! But in any case, we hired an archivist and we dug deep in some cases. We used World War II footage that was out there, and tried to make sure everything was 100% authentic.

“And we got a lot of photographs from the pilots’ families, which was incredible – to see these guys in their youth. They were dashing. Even if I sat across from a 90-year-old face, when I looked into those eyes, I saw that 25-year-old.”

How did she find her subjects? Essentially because these men are really a “band of brothers,” they brought her into their network. The first person she spoke to was the late Israeli President Shimon Peres. “My lawyer in Israel, Yair Green, said, ‘I’m friendly with the president. Do you want to ask him questions?’ So they gave me 25 minutes with the president. He started to tell me stories about his own participation, how he was sent to America to help raise money, to bring back weapons.” He landed up talking to her for almost an hour.

“He mentioned Lou Lenart [who is featured in the film] and [Harold] Smokey Simon – who was South African, and was the most incredible guy. He got married, and three weeks later, the two of them went to Israel and volunteered.”

She says because Smokey ensured all the volunteers remained connected over the decades, “he was my key” in connecting her to the volunteers, especially the ones that he knew would have the best and most accurate stories to tell. In turn, they connected her with their buddies, and so it went.

“There were a couple of situations where two guys hated each other!” she remembers. “And I thought, ‘We’ll never have a premiere with all these guys in the same room because they may be with crutches or walkers and in their nineties, but they’re gonna have a fight!’”

The film has had a hugely positive impact, Spielberg says. “I get email from people saying, ‘This made me want to be a better Jew’ or ‘This made me proud to be a Jew.’ In this day and age, it’s so important, with people finding it difficult to wear their Judaism proudly and because there’s so much anti-Israel sentiment.”

In addition, “I wanted people who don’t like Israel to think back about what it was like. There was a plan, a two-state solution. The Jews accepted it, and the other side refused. So when everybody talks about Israel being this ‘occupier’, they have to go back to what happened: Israel defending itself and that there was a plan on the table that was refused.”

What surprised her most about making the film was how “in some ways, I found myself identifying with some of the guys who said they didn’t care about Israel [but still volunteered]. I grew up without a Jewish community for the most part, I grew up with people yelling, ‘The Spielbergs are dirty Jews!’ and I didn’t know anything about Israel.

“But then I went to Israel and I realised we’re all Jews and Israel is my homeland. I felt such a deep connection. I’m an American and I love America, and I’m a Jew and I love Israel.

“The other thing that surprised me, was that we didn’t ask, but each pilot felt the need to tell us two stories. One was about how their moms cried [about them going to volunteer], and you could see it still bothered them. And they all felt the need to tell us about the Altalena [Affair], when there could have been a civil war between Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin.

“South Africans were so much more involved than the Americans in so many ways with their passion, with their experience,” she says. One of these was Eddie Cohen, who is featured in the film, and died on the very first flight that the first four fighter planes took to stop the Egyptians, who were almost in Tel Aviv. “He was 27 years old and 25% of the air force.

“[South Africans’] passion and commitment ran deeper,” says Spielberg. “I’m not sure why but from what I’ve been told, they had a very Zionistic upbringing. So maybe they were just more hardwired for living in Israel, staying in Israel.

“Even today, I see South Africans in Israel that are so passionate, like in Telfed. I think I was afraid of the South African audience saying, ‘Why didn’t you include us?’ I tried to, but I had to limit the story. You can’t have too many characters because you lose your audience.”

To the South African Jewish community, she says, “I’m coming back!” She has visited Johannesburg and Cape Town, and says, “I felt like I fell into a vat of warm chocolate” because the community was so warm and welcoming. “It’s like having family on the other side of the globe, and I love it.”

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