Yonatan Nir makes inspirational films. He is adamant, however, that his subjects deserve all the credit.
“What I love to do is to take stories about people who didn’t get the best cards in their hand, and they try and they sometimes fail and they try again and they fail again, and sometimes they succeed,” the Israeli filmmaker explains. “The success is not reaching the top of the mountain. The success, for me, is just trying not to lose hope.”
The mountain in “My Hero Brother,” Nir’s deeply moving and insightful documentary that’s the centerpiece film of the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival, is literal as well as metaphorical. Nir accompanied a group of Israeli adults with Down syndrome and their siblings to India for a demanding expedition and climb.
“My Hero Brother” (2016) receives its Northern California premiere Nov. 5 in San Jose and Nov. 6 in Palo Alto. Nir will attend both screenings, to discuss his film and answer audience questions.
“When you spend two weeks with people with Down syndrome — not one-on-one but 24/7 — and you get to see them in very difficult situations, there are some moments of just pure magic,” Nir recounts in a Skype interview from Israel. “They just open your heart, that’s what they do. They press a button and they open your heart.
“I never shot a film where I was so emotionally involved behind the camera, laughing and crying, sometimes at the same time. I think they just don’t have so many filters like we have, and because of that they kind of push you to become the same.”
Originally a photojournalist, Nir discovered filmmaking while grappling with depression after suffering a shrapnel wound in the second Lebanon War in 2006. He was in Eilat diving with dolphins when a traumatized Arab teen arrived who had been severely beaten after texting a girl in his class.
“I knew I wanted to tell his story and telling his story, in a way, touched my own story,” Nir says. He told the young man’s story in the 2011 documentary “Dolphin Boy,” filmed over four years.
“Dolphin Boy” was “totally a process of rehabilitation,” Nir says, “and at the same time I started to make another film called ‘Cutting the Pain,’ and guess what? The protagonist was also a person with post-trauma. So I found myself dealing with two people who experienced really tough traumas — and at the same time dealing with my own trauma.”
Nir collaborated on “Dolphin Boy” with a more experienced Israeli filmmaker, Dani Menkin, who made last year’s widely seen doc about the 1977 Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team, “On the Map.” The duo are presently editing a portrait of Bay Area-based wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum that is slated to come out next year.
Menkin is based in Los Angeles while the 40-year-old Nir lives in a kibbutz in northern Israel where his wife grew up, just a few miles from the kibbutz where Nir was raised. He works two days a week in his home office, and drives the other days to an editing room in Tel Aviv.
Nir is visiting North America later this month and in early November to show “My Hero Brother” in eight cities and yet another new film, “The Essential Link: The Story of Wilfred Israel,” in five locations.
The latter film recounts the German-Jewish businessman’s successful crusade to rescue thousands of European Jews in the 1930s and ’40s via financial support, procuring documents and the Kindertransport.
Nir is frequently invited to lecture in Israel on the connection between storytelling and therapeutic processes. His focus isn’t how his films touch audiences but the way the filmmaking process itself contributes to his subjects’ recovery.
The filmmaker is clear about the benefits that accrue to him, as well. His experience in India with the people with Down syndrome and their siblings was profound.
“When I came back, all I wanted to do was hug people and spend time with the people I loved and call my seven brothers and sisters from different fathers and mothers,” Nir says. “I felt like I was full of love.”