Abby Ginzberg, 68, has spent several decades producing and directing documentary films that address racial, economic and political inequality, including “And Then They Came for Us” and “Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa.” The award-winning filmmaker lives in Berkeley and is the president of the Berkeley Film Foundation, which awards grants to independent filmmakers in the East Bay.
J.: You are known as a filmmaker, but you started out as a lawyer. How did you make that switch?
Abby Ginzberg: There wasn’t a professional degree for a documentary filmmaker when I went to Cornell. I felt that I needed a career in the early ’70s. I was a student radical, so law seemed like an obvious profession to pursue. I wanted to be a female version of William Kunstler, following in the footsteps of radical lawyers defending those no one else wanted to defend. But after a 10-year deep dive into teaching law and criminal and litigation experience, I was looking for something else to do. I always loved film. When the transit strike happened in New York City in 1966, I was an 11th-grader at Julia Richman High School, a public school on the Upper East Side. During the 12 days of the strike, I went to see two films a day.
My very first film project was a series of four 15-minute training videos on occupational stress underwritten by some unions I had worked with. I learned how to make films by hiring good people I wanted to work with.
What about your background prepared you for what you do now?
There is something about growing up in Manhattan and being a public school kid. I’ve always been interested in and comfortable with people of different backgrounds. Put me in an all-white neighborhood — that’s not going to work for me. I come from a very mainstream liberal Jewish background. My father, Eli Ginzberg, taught economics at Columbia. He was interested in workforce development and was an adviser to many presidents, starting with FDR. I didn’t need to be in a major childhood rebellion because I grew up with progressive values and took them one step further.
My father was the major rebel by leaving an Orthodox home and becoming secular. His father, Louis Ginzberg, was a leading talmudic scholar. My mother was a distant relative of [Zionist leader and Hadassah founder] Henrietta Szold. Coincidentally, Louis Ginzberg and Henrietta Szold knew each other and had a complicated relationship. The J. wrote about this about 15 years ago. The story of Henrietta Szold is a film waiting to happen. I have always been interested in issues of race, inclusion and getting to greater equality. I do not make Jewish films, but the values of all my films are Jewish values.
But one of your films,“Soft Vengeance,” has a Jewish subject: Albie Sachs.
The film about Albie Sachs, the white Jewish South African freedom fighter and former judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa, played in almost every Jewish film festival. I made sure that we talked about Albie Sachs’ being Jewish. His family and those of many other Jewish anti-apartheid leaders were part of a Lithuanian-Jewish diaspora that had settled in South Africa.
And your most recent film, “And Then They Came for Us,” also focuses on the oppression of another minority group. What was its genesis?
There’s this beautiful coffee table book “Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment.” I was approached to make a film of the book, but I said, “I don’t make films about books.” But Lange’s photos are staggering, and then the Trump administration began talking about a ban on Muslim immigrants, so I wanted to link the Japanese internment [to what is going on now]. The actor George Takei [who was sent with his family to an internment camp during World War II] really elevated it. I didn’t know what a great storyteller he was until I started interviewing him.
What are you working on now?
“Waging Change” is in the final editing cuts. It follows restaurant workers and the movement for a minimum wage. I am also working on a film about my congresswoman, Barbara Lee, who has a lot to teach other women [entering the political arena].
What is the state of documentary films today?
The field is changing positively for the public consumer. The cultivation of documentary films and documentary film enthusiasts has really taken off. There are more agencies today that are interested in funding documentary films, there are more good stories being told, and there are more people competing for funding. There are also more short films that are telling a story in six to eight minutes. Living in an era of “fake news,” documentaries are thriving because they are truth tellers.
Can you provide a short list of must-see documentaries?
“Sweet Dreams” is absolutely magnificent. It’s about healing in Rwanda (after the Rwandan genocide) and focusing on women who become ice cream entrepreneurs.
“The Most Dangerous Man in America,” about Daniel Ellsberg (who stole and leaked the Pentagon Papers).
“The Rescue List” (about two children in Ghana who were rescued from enslavement to fishermen).