‘ROSENWALD’ Q&A: Filmmaker Aviva Kempner Uncovers A Powerful Story That Should Be Seen By Everyone

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Julius Rosenwald. That’s OK. Aviva Kempner’s extraordinary documentary titled ROSENWALD is here to help.

Kempner’s dazzling film illuminates the man who was Rosenwald. He never finished high school, yet he rose to become the President of Sears and joined forces with African American communities during the Jim Crow South to build over 5,300 schools during the early part of the 20th century..

Fresh Fiction had the opportunity to speak with Kempner about ROSENWALD, the kind of stories she tells in her films, and why history seemed to gloss over this important event.

Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee Institute, 1915. Photo courtesy Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library/TNS.

Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee Institute, 1915. Photo courtesy Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library/TNS.

Looking at all the films you’ve made, starting with THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HANK GREENBERG in 1998, how long does it take between your films for you decide that your next film is going to be the next film you make? In other words, how long did it take for you to decide that ROSENWALD was the film you wanted to pursue after your last film, YOO-HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG?

Aviva Kempner: “Actually, 12 years ago, I was on the vineyard, Martha’s vineyard 12 years ago last month, and heard Julian Bond speak, and that’s when I decided I had to make the film on Julius Rosenwald because Julian talked so eloquently and wonderfully about how Julius Rosenwald helped build the schools. He talked so much about how his father and his uncle had gotten Rosenwald grants, so it was actually before I had finished HANK that I decided to make, or mildly that I decided to make ROSENWALD. It just took 12 years to raise the money, and that’s how it always is. HANK took 13, and then I also did a new DVD of HANK with so many extras.”

Will ROSENWALD see as much extras as HANK on DVD?

Kempner: “Yes. That’s going to be my next step. Right now I’m distributing the film and after I’m finished distributing the film I’ll be raising money to do the extras. I always have 2-3 hours of extras. There’ll be a second disc and there’ll be a lot more on the DVD.”

Oh, good. I’ve always been interested in why filmmakers decide to make certain films at the certain time in their life.

Kempner: “Well, that’s easy. I flunked the bar in ’76. I had gone to law school. I did very well in law school, but I could not pass the multiple choice questions, so I decided to go. I’m a child of a holocaust survivor and I just decided that I needed to go make the film about Jews fighting Nazis. That was very much my roots. My mother was a holocaust survivor. My grandparents had died in Auschwitz. Actually, The Ciesla Foundation is named after my grandparents to just keep the family name alive. It’s my mother’s maiden name; my uncle’s original name. That’s why I made PARTISANS OF VILNA (1986). When I was there I heard that Hank Greenberg had died. While I was opening up PARTISANS OF VILNA, I heard Hank Greenberg died and that was my father’s hero. I knew that that had to be my next film. That’s why I made THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HANK GREENBERG. That took a very long time to make because of the fundraising. I went to the Jewish museum and I saw this great exhibit of Jews on TV. I decided when I saw the Molly Goldberg, the Goldberg’s living room that was all redone was part of that exhibit, that that was the film I had to make next. Then I went to hear this lecture and I heard Julian talk this topic. Each one of my films is about fighting -isms. The first one was facism. The second one was antisemitism. The third one was sexism and also McCarthyism and this, of course, is racism.”

That’s wonderful. If you were familiar with Rosenwald’s story earlier before you heard that lecture, do you think your film would be any different if you were to make it earlier in your career?

Kempner: “Well, maybe I would have done the actual interview with Maya Angelou. I didn’t do it because she already had passed away and someone else had done it. I would have certainly gotten to her. I think it’s more about which interviews I would have done.”

When you make documentaries you obviously spend much time coming up with the questions to pull out the stories you do, but as someone who is in that profession myself, asking people questions, what is the art to a good interview?

Kempner: “I think doing research. I over prepare. I’m lucky, for each one of my films were books before, so that really helped. Second of all, I overshoot. I interview a lot of people and one person leads me to another person who leads me to another person. That’s great. I think just trying to develop a rapport with the subject. Usually I’m asking them about something that no one else has asked them, so they’re just thrilled to talk about it. Oftentimes, in their later years as they say.”

Rosenwald graduates, from left, Leonora Gross, Norman Hall, Mae Williams and Corinthia Ridgley Boone gather at the Ridgeley School, now a museum, in Capitol Heights, Md. Photo courtesy of Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post.

Rosenwald graduates, from left, Leonora Gross, Norman Hall, Mae Williams and Corinthia Ridgley Boone gather at the Ridgeley School, now a museum, in Capitol Heights, Md. Photo courtesy of Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post.

Of all the people that shared stories with you, which story was the most interesting to you?

Kempner: “I think it’s a combination of what a difference the school’s made to them. The people who grew up in the Michigan government apartments. How important that experience was. Actually one of nicest things are people’s reactions now at the screenings where people say, ‘Oh my gosh. I grew up the Michigan government apartments, or my parents did, and they never told me about it, but I never realized what it was.’ Just being able to have the chance to finally put on the screen and bring to life something that they had heard about that were such positive memories in their lives.

It’s true about everyone. It’s true about those who loved, the fans of Hank Greenberg as well as the players who played the game back in the golden age. Is that how important THE GOLDBERGS show was to them? What a great feminist role model [Goldberg] was. Maybe because my family was so detrimentally effected by the holocaust. I was born in Europe after the war. I’m just happy to be able to make films that are uplifting and inspiring. This may be the most inspiring, I think. It’s going to call a lot of people to action.”

Yeah. I think so too. Why do you think his story was so overlooked?

Kempner: “I think because [Rosenwald] wouldn’t put his name on things. It’s not like a lot of things named after Rosenwald in the country because it was over 100 years ago, and because it might be more stories of African-Americans in the south of just Chicago mid-west. It’s not a current New York story.”

How do you feel that you’ve changed spiritually or internally since doing this film?

Kempner: “I’ve gotten older [Laughs]. I just feel, even in my own world, we’re collecting books at the movie theater. It’s showing in Washington. I’m very proud of that. I had heard that there weren’t enough books at the public schools, so I’m glad. I’m involved in voting rights. I think it’s just renews my interest in terms of people can get involved and make a difference. I think that’s how people are walking out of the movie, too, are feeling.”

One of my favorite parts of the documentary is this moment where Rosenwalkd had a revelation when he read Booker T. Washington’s book, UP FROM SLAVERY. He came to know the Jim Crow south, how awful it was, and how something needed to be done. What’s the biggest impact a book has ever had on you?

Kempner: “Oh, well, it’s interesting that you say that because I think part of the reasons I wanted to make PARTISANS OF VILNA was because MILA 18 by Leon Uris, which talked about Jews fighting Nazis; that always really interested me in making a film. Also, there’s a book by Franz Werfel called 40 DAYS OF MUSA DAGH. If I can raise the money, it might be my next film, because it really inspired the resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto and the film THE GHETTO. A lot of it is being, I believe, a child of a holocaust survivor and what that all means to me.”

I also read that you might pick back up where you left off with your feature script about the Native American hero?

Kempner: “Yeah. Larry Casuse was someone I knew who was a real hero back in New Mexico and hardly anyone knows him. It’s something that I’m hoping to do in the future.”

Lastly, if you could teach a class of your creation, what do you think you would teach?

Kempner: “Good question. It’s actually a class that I’ve spoken at about being a public intellectual. It’s one thing to do your part, but I think it’s also very important to be engaged in society. I think that would be something that would be of interest to me. As you can see, I asked everyone, ‘What would you say to Julius Rosenwald if he were alive today?’ That’s at the end, ‘Thank you for making a difference and not being a man of your time.’ That’s a really good question. I don’t think we can be artists in a vacuum. I think we have to really be involved in society.”

ROSENWALD opens this Friday, September 18.
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About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.