Fund-raising effort sends local filmmaker to the Oscars

Muckraking Jewish journalist George Seldes lived by the motto: "Tell the truth and run."

Berkeley resident Rick Goldsmith did the former — documenting Seldes' life. Now he's doing the latter — all the way to Los Angeles, possibly to capture an Oscar for best documentary feature.

"I don't care to speculate," said Goldsmith, 45, shortly before leaving for the Monday, March 24 Oscars ceremony. "I know I have a good shot. But how it goes is anyone's guess."

It's been a twisty road to the Academy Awards show at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for Goldsmith's "Tell the truth And Run: George Seldes and the American Press."

The 111-minute film has already won wide acclaim. It took Best of Festival at the Northwest Documentary Film Festival in Seattle, the Golden Spire-Best Bay Area Documentary at the Golden Gate Awards at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the John O'Connor Film Award at the American Historical Association and the Gold Apple from the National Educational Media Network.

But the film, narrated by Susan Sarandon and Ed Asner, was shot on video, making it ineligible for an Oscar nod. The film had to be produced on either 16mm or 35mm stock, and be shown in New York or Los Angeles for at least one week.

Goldsmith had let go of the idea of an Oscar long ago because unlike video, film was too costly. In fact, he began his efforts in 1988 without a cent.

Time was of the essence.

Seldes — noted foreign correspondent in World War I turned press critic and editor-publisher of the alternative weekly In Fact — was already 98 when Goldsmith taped him in his home in Vermont.

"I wanted to let the camera roll without worrying about the price of the film. So we did it on tape," Goldsmith said. "In the big scheme of things, it was financially not in the cards to go with [celluloid] film.

"I knew it was solid in the educational market. Distribution has already begun. But I didn't think it would have a theatrical life because it wasn't shot on film. I shelved the idea."

Judy Schaefer, a board member of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, resurrected the notion of turning "Tell the Truth" into a film at July's festival.

After the video's screening, which was dedicated to the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California during its 100th anniversary, Schaefer approached Goldsmith.

"I went right up to him and said, `I think you should get an Academy Award,'" Schaefer recalled.

Flattered, Goldsmith explained why his work wouldn't qualify for an Oscar. He told her it would cost about $20,000 to transfer the video to 16mm film and $40,000 to 35mm film (most films are shot on 35mm).

Schaefer told Goldsmith: "I think I can help you."

Because the film portrays Seldes' fiercely independent spirit, "It has a significant way of motivating and moving people in a way few other things can," said Schaefer, who believed that would help her fund-raising efforts.

In 1923, Seldes was forced out of the then-Soviet Union for circumventing the Bolshevik censors. Later he was expelled from Italy for filing reports about the brutal underbelly of fascism under Benito Mussolini. In his independent weekly newspaper In Fact, Seldes published reports linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer decades before the establishment press would touch the story.

Inspired by Seldes, Schaefer arranged for private-screening fund-raisers for the film-transfer project. At the end of the first evening she had secured enough money to transfer the video to 16mm film.

"I said if we can do it once, we can do it twice," Schaefer said.

To date, Schaefer and Goldsmith have raised $35,000.

Because of an Oct. 31 Academy Award nomination deadline, they had to move quickly. With fronted money, Schaefer and Goldsmith had the video transferred to film.

In order to qualify for Oscar nomination, "Tell The Truth and Run" showed for one week in October at the Laemmle Monica Fourplex in Los Angeles.

Now everyone is waiting. And Goldsmith is renting a tuxedo.

"I'm an independent filmmaker. I don't own a tuxedo," he said.

Regardless of the results, Goldsmith already received his just rewards in September 1994, when he sent Seldes 50 minutes of rough-cut footage.

"It was a sense of closure. I didn't suspect he would be around when we finished," he said.

Seldes died in 1995 at the age of 104. Before his death he told Goldsmith the film was "very professional."

"I took that as a supreme compliment," Goldsmith said.