Volunteers helped Israel Air Force get off the ground

If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to interview rock stars right after a concert, try getting a word with Nancy Spielberg, the producer of “Above and Beyond,” the true story of the heroic American volunteers who started the Israel Air Force, and Lou Lenart, one of these pilots, after a screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

When Lenart stood up at Spielberg’s urging after the July 15 screening, he received a standing ovation. The 94-year-old Lenart, who served as a Marine in World War II and led the IAF’s first mission on May 29, 1948, deflected compliments, telling many well-wishers in the effusive crowd, “I’m honored to meet you.”

From “Above and Beyond”

The documentary, directed by Berkeley filmmaker Roberta Grossman, will have its North American premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It screens Sunday, July 27 at the Castro Theatre in S.F., with subsequent screenings in Palo Alto and Berkeley.

Spielberg got the idea for the film after reading an obituary about Al Schwimmer, an American World War II veteran and flight engineer who has been called the godfather of the Israel Air Force.

“I thought, how did an American become the godfather of the Israel Air Force?” she said. Spielberg, who had done promotional writing and had produced and worked on several documentaries, among them “Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals,” had one hesitation before she proceeded in moving ahead. “It sounded like a Spielberg movie,” she explained.

Once her brother, Steven, who had thought of making a movie on this topic at one point in the ’90s, gave her his blessing, she immersed herself in everything to do with the Machal — volunteers from abroad who helped the Israeli army during the War of Independence, particularly those who created the IAF. “I learned a lot out of doing research, talking to these guys,” she said.

Spielberg went looking for a director and found Grossman, who had made a number of acclaimed documentaries, among them “Hava Nagila” (which opened the 2012 S.F. Jewish Film Festival) and “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh.” There was only one hitch. At first, Grossman wouldn’t take her calls, which puzzled Spielberg.

Then she discovered another one of the perils of having a brother who is among the most famous directors on the planet. “Roberta always [joked with] her assistant, ‘If Spielberg calls, tell him I’m busy.’ ”

Once Grossman understood that it was Nancy Spielberg on the line, however, the plan took off. Spielberg and Grossman started work together and interviewed the surviving pilots. Spielberg also assembled the archival material she knew she would need for the film.

During her trip to Israel this month, Spielberg visited her daughter, Jessica “Jessy” Katz, a contestant on “The Voice,” who lives in Tel Aviv, and noticed, “People were standing outside trying to film the rockets as they fall. But back when the IAF was starting, Israel had no money for cameras. There wasn’t time or energy to document what they were doing the way we do today.”   

But she did manage to find wonderful photos and even some live-action footage, although she somewhat reluctantly supplemented this with carefully done re-creations of some of the action.

“One of the hardest parts of making the movie was deciding what I had to leave out,” she said. “There were so many capers, so many stories, you can’t include them all.”

There was no room for all the details of how Schwimmer actually created dummy companies in order to be allowed to buy planes, and how some of the pilots were arrested when U.S. Treasury agents discovered that the planes were headed for Palestine.

In addition, “There were certain basics that we have all been taught in the Jewish world, that I had to include so that it would hold up for a mainstream audience.”   

The film is headed for a theatrical run in 2015, and Spielberg hopes to make it widely available afterward via DVD and live streaming.

Next up: “The feature film version of this story.” That’s a big switch for Spielberg, who has spent years distancing herself professionally from her brother, and is proud that she accepted no financial help from him for “Above and Beyond” and did her own fund raising. But she feels comfortable now working in filmmaking.

“When the shoe fit, I put it on,” she said.

“Above and Beyond,” 7 p.m. Sunday, July 27 at the Castro Theatre in S.F., 6 p.m. Monday, July 28 at the CinèArts in Palo Alto, 2:15 p.m. Aug. 3 at the California Theatre in Berkeley. Producer Nancy Spielberg and director Roberta Grossman will appear at S.F. screening. (87 minutes)

Reprinted by permission from the Jerusalem Post,