Realize that feature filmmaking is half a creative activity, half a business activity — we creative types have to learn and teach skills of having a successful business, and use these skills as often as our other creative skills.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Harvey Stein of Jerusalem New York Productions.
Harvey Stein (director, producer) is an Israeli-American impact filmmaker originally from New York City. He now lives in Jerusalem, where his impact film company, Jerusalem New York Productions is based. His current impact feature documentary project is “Green Rebel”, about the American-Israeli solar energy visionary, Yossi Abramowitz.
His last feature documentary, “A Third Way — Settlers and Palestinians as Neighbors”, about Rabbi Menachem Froman (the notorious “settler rabbi for peace”), Ali Abu Awwad, and others, has been shown extensively in impact screenings in synagogues, churches, mosques, universities, and elsewhere — both in the United States and Western Europe, as well as limited theatrical release. It has also been shown in multiple Jewish Film Festivals, including the Copenhagen Jewish Film Festival. He has been Artist-in-Residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts, and has received grants and Awards from the Zellerbach Family Foundation, San Francisco Arts Council, Djerassi Foundation, Phillips Family Foundation, and the City of Oakland (California). He has also made over 100 short documentaries for websites and outlets such as Time Magazine, ABC News, GlobalPost, Forward, Tablet, Israel21c, Jewish Journal, and others.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
I’ve always been a storyteller and my favorite stories are often about the meeting of two cultures. I’ve loved the many months I’ve spent in cultures different than my own. I often tell stories of my home culture in new cultures, and then take back stories of a foreign culture, to my own.
In my twenties, I lived in Tokyo for a year, and performed music <mostly Western classical and folk music> on the streets many times, for tips. While I was there, I wrote poetry about my experiences — then had a book of my poems about that time published in the USA when I returned.
Another time, I wrote a funny, surreal “performance poem” about assassinating the president <during Reagan’s time, who I didn’t like at all. Then I went to a theater festival in Moscow, and performed that surreal poem for them — they loved it, Russians seem to have an immediate connection to surreal, and violent images.
I’ve always been engaged with political conflicts also. When I traveled in China, I tried getting as close to Tibet as possible — I met several Tibetans while traveling, and learned about their experiences being strongly oppressed by the dominant Chinese culture. The first time I traveled to Israel <I’m Jewish>, I traveled all around, including in the West Bank, with my eyes wide open to the painful situation between Israelis and Palestinians.
Eventually, I discovered video cameras and new media, and my storytelling expanded. Almost all of my movies have been about political or social conflicts, and usually involving conflicts or situations between two cultures.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
I witnessed many interesting stories. In one documentary project, I followed Khaled Mahameed, an Israeli Palestinian who was trying to educate people about the Jewish holocaust, but with the goal of making better conditions for Palestinians in current times. He was next to a riot in the West Bank, where some Palestinian teens were throwing rocks at several Israeli soldiers. He <with me following> dodged a few rocks to get to the small group of Israeli soldiers, in full battle gear. He was wearing his Palestinian keffiyah, as he walked up to the commander. Khaled pulled out a small photo about the size of a calling card — an old black and white holocaust photo of an emaciated Jew in a concentration camp, showed it to the commander: “Look — why are you shooting tear gas at them?”
As the soldier started walking away, Khaled walks with him, continuing: “Tell the children how six million Jews were killed — it’s much stronger than all the bullets in the world. You’ll influence him to think of things in a new way. Believe me — we will come to peace within two months — no need for war, or F-16’s. No need for weapons, just one little photo like this.”
The commander made a very, almost imperceptible nod of agreement at Khaled’s words. The other soldiers stared at Khaled, totally silent.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I’ve followed many interesting people. Besides Khaled Mahameed, I also followed Rabbi Menachem Froman, a unique peacemakng rabbi, who was also a settler in the West Bank. For me, contradictions didn’t bother Rabbi Froman, who believed that they would lead to new possibilities. Once some young settlers defaced a mosque one night in a West Bank village. Rabbi Froman took a small group of his settler followers and went to the village, to express sympathy. There had been many violent interactions between villagers and neighboring settlers in this region. Rabbi Froman stood on the steps of the mosque, with about three hundred Palestinian villages standing below. His first words were, “Allahu Akbar!”, the traditional Moslem greeting/prayer. They responded, “Allahu Akbar!” From that point on, there was a connection, and the meeting went on with good feeling.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
My current feature documentary project, “Green Rebel,” is about an American-Israeli solar energy pioneer who lives, like me, in Jerusalem. Yossi Abramowitz and his solar company have been working hard to bring israeli solar technology to build solar fields in neighboring Africa — where six hundred million Africans have no electricity at all. Yossi, like Rabbi Froman, is an expert in creating bridges across cultures. He often meets with African religious leaders as the first step in his negotiations with African governments. The religious leaders are usually Christian or Moslem, and they and Yossi make immediate bonds, as they all share a strong connection to Jerusalem. I videod a meeting with Yossi and an African bishop. The latter tenderly put his hand on Yossi’s hand, and said, “Prophetically, the Bible says, ‘Israel shall give Light’. It is so spiritual that Israel now came physically to give light into Africa.”
There have been many moments with Yossi like this, and his story, and his amazing partnerships with Africans, will be the backbone of “Green Rebel”.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
Inspiring people in history for me are usually the ones who create peace and social awakening and change against great obstacles: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and more recently, people like Greta Thunberg.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
As I said, my main documentary project involves Yossi Abramowitz, an American-Israeli solar energy entrepreneur/activist. This movie <like my last feature film, the one about Rabbi Froman, “A Third Way”> is designed as an “impact film” — besides theatrical distribution and VOD, it will have hopefully hundreds of “impact screenings” in houses of worship, NGOs and businesses, conferences and elsewhere. These impact screenings will all have a discussion, or even an action plan, built into the event. The screening of the movie will be a jumping off point to education, inspiration, and often to action. “Green Rebel” spotlights the issues of the need to address climate change through green energy, the challenges of helping underdeveloped nations like in Africa, and finally, Yossi’s belief that Zionism and Israel can be positive, non-polarizing forces in the world — not just negative, as is often the case in the eyes of many these days. I feel passionate about all these issues, and it gives me energy to work very hard on the difficult task of finishing this feature film.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
For me, my commitment usually begins with meeting a particular person who will be my “teacher” in an issue. I have known Yossi for about ten years, and he is literally my neighbor in Jerusalem. We see each other often, including in Friday night synagogue. After watching his endless positivity and creativity in building productive partnerships in his difficult work, especially the partnerships he has built across culture — I realized he would be an ideal person to spend more time with, and to tell the world about his amazing work.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
My last feature film, “A Third Way”, was about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I tried to show the work of creative, courageous individuals on both sides. In one of my favorite impact screening events, at Trinity College, in Dublin, both representatives of the Israeli embassy, and the Palestinian mission were invited to the event. After the screening, both insisted very loudly in expressing their views, and stared at each other with hostility.
I stood up front as the moderator, and on a table next to me, I had a small white china teacup, with a little tea spoon next to the tea. I immediately held up the spoon and said, “Okay — we must give everyone a chance to speak. This is the talking spoon. When someone has this spoon, please don’t interrupt them, letting them speak. After you speak, give this spoon to the next person.”
I gave the spoon to a Trinity student first. Eventually, many people had the chance to speak, including both the Israeli and Palestinian representatives. The event went smoothly, with many interesting things said from many perspectives. As the event finally ended, both representatives came up to me with big smiles, and I shook both their hands warmly. It seemed like the little spoon had calmed egos, and created an environment where all have equal rights, at least for a few minutes.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
- Use films and filmmaking more as tools in education — including using “impact films” as discussion tools, and encouraging students of all ages to learn to make short videos <using the many simple apps available to edit, and cell phones or cameras to take clips>. These short videos can both be tools of “telling my story”, and of learning content <for example, making short biography videos about famous scientists or activists
- Put more funding into the making and wide distribution of impact films — right now, especially in the United States, popular films are totally dependent on “selling tickets” — a new incredibly popular documentary form on Netflix and elsewhere is “inside stories” about various murderers or violent criminals.
- Contribute to us finishing “Green Rebel”. Our crowdfunding page <a new form of “democratic fundraising”> is here: www.jewcer.org/project/kaptainsunshine
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Realize that feature filmmaking is half a creative activity, half a business activity — we creative types have to learn and teach skills of having a successful business, and use these skills as often as our other creative skills.
- Large projects are always partnerships. Don’t try to do everything yourself!
- Be in the moment with lots of creativity, but also make a step-by-step plan for success.
- Learn how to write a great, entertaining and enlightening Proposal <or Business Plan> — and try to have fun doing it!
- Keep asking yourself, “How can I use my films to speak to people on all sides of an issue, not just ‘preaching to the choir’? “
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
The entire world is at a critical point now. It’s clear everywhere, in all countries, that fear and uncertainty levels are high. Many political leaders try to capitalize on these fears and uncertainties to control citizens through demagoguery, partisanship, and even fomenting hate towards the “other”.
How can we keep alive another way of living? — modelling and telling stories of dialogue, of empathy for all humans and all sides, stimulating intellectual complexity and depth <not black and white thinking>, and the use of non-violence as a daily tool of living and working on social change? How can we be peacemakers, even in the service of the strong need for social, political and environmental change?
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Ayman Odeh in Israel — amazing Palestinian-Israeli member of the Israeli parliament. He has been the subject of much racism by Israel’s current government. Last year, Netanyahu was quoted as saying, “Hamas and Hezbollah are Israel’s external existential threats. And Arab-israeli politicians are our internal existential threat. Odeh responded the next day on Twitter — he posted an incredibly sweet photo of him in a chair in his livingroom, with his two young children sweetly sitting on him. His words were, “Putting my two existential threats to bed.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in USA — incredibly innovative young politician, on the forefront of change.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” — James Baldwin
When I worked on my last feature documentary “A Third Way”, I videod many touching meetings between Israeli settlers and Palestinians. Often, I heard a Palestinian tell a dramatic story of violence against a member of his/her family, and how it made them feel. The Israeli just listened. Then the Israeli calmly told a similar story. And after their stories, there was a glow of emotion and warmth — of how fear and hurt was expressed on both sides, and how this expression helped the fear and hurt lessen, helped them have less power in everyone who was part of the heart to heart conversation.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!