Interview: Nancy Spielberg and Roberta Grossman of “Above and Beyond”

Posted on January 28, 2015 at 1:26 pm

Copyright Paramount Productions 2015
Copyright Paramount Productions 2015

In 1948, a group of World War II pilots volunteered to fight for Israel in the War of Independence. As members of “Machal” (volunteers from abroad), they not only turned the tide of the war, they also laid the groundwork for the Israeli Air Force. “Above and Beyond” is the first major feature-length documentary about the foreign airmen in the War of Independence, featuring new interviews with pilots from the ’48 War, scholars and statesmen, including Shimon Peres, to tell their story.  I spoke to producer Nancy Spielberg and director Roberta Grossman about making the film and why this story mattered so much to them.

Why tell this story now?

NS: First of all the, “Why now,” is any of the stories that are coming from this generation of World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors, that whole generation, whatever they did, are things that if we don’t grab them now, we’ve lost them and they are slipping through our fingers. And I think we’ve all seen that that the way that people learn, mostly way the the younger people learn is visual. They don’t read books, they don’t like history books, they don’t want black and white on a page. The best way to teach it, to capture it, is through a visual format.  And I think that the urgency of getting stories like these, is that the stories are just incredible. To me it’s a study in character, in human nature.  What makes these heroes? What makes these veterans, these World War II veterans that served their country, survived; one of them was shot down and wandered for a couple of months, another one almost crashed his plane. What made these people come out of war, get back to their normal lives or be supposed to be getting back and then drop everything to go help somebody else? And it is just sort of amazing because I think they are very matter of fact about it but it is a wonderful lesson for all of us.  To what degree, what extent would you undertake such personal risk to help somebody else? And I just think that is a lesson that we all have to hold onto.

What was it like doing the research and finding the archival footage for the film?

Pilots Lou Lenart, Gideon Lichtman, and Modi Alon in Israel in 1948. Copyright Paramount Productions 2015
Pilots Lou Lenart, Gideon Lichtman, and Modi Alon in Israel in 1948. Copyright Paramount Productions 2015

RG: Well, first of all I should say that there is a lot of archival footage in the film that was drawn from a lot of different archives around the world, primarily of course Israel and the United States. But there is a lot of footage in the film that is unabashedly made to look like archival footage and blend with our footage that is actually re-creations that we did in conjunction with Industrial Light and Magic.  So the conceit was to make re-creation look like archival footage when the fact of the matter is there were gun cameras. There were cameras on pretty much every  American plane in World War II but in the the ragtag Israeli Air Force in the 1948 war, there were no cameras since the planes could barely fly. So we pretended that there were those cameras there and created sequences that would match or illustrate the stories they were telling.  I strongly believe that documentary filmmakers get to use all the tools of cinema and using those tools as historically accurately as possible or else you lose the trust of the audience.

NS: Roberta, you have these connections more than I do with the archivists and people were so engaged with the story that they really dug around it. There is one shot we have which is authentic archival footage of this Egyptian spitfire that kept flying and bombing over Tel Aviv and all they could do on the ground was run in their houses and get the camera and film it because there was no fighting back.  They had no planes, they had no way to defend themselves, it was duck and cover. And the idea that this plane could just keep flying over at will, bombing whenever it wanted must have been a feeling of being so exposed and vulnerable for these people. But like Roberta said, this wasn’t World War II with a rich camera crew going off. This was people running for their lives that have nothing. So I think that finding that footage was huge and it really was the efforts here in America and over in Israel, and we had footage archives in Czechoslovakia, really all over.

RG: We really like to try to dig as deeply as possible as time and resources would allow because a lot of footage or archival footage gets recycled all the time because it is the stuff that bubbles to the top, we see the stuff over and over and over again. So if you want to find interesting material you have to keep digging.  Our editor, Chris Callister is really great with archival sequences, to really make scenes out of that footage, that’s the idea.

You touched on one of the key differences in aerial combat between the experience that these men had in World War II and the resources available and the documentation of the effort in Israel. Were there differences in strategy as well? What were some of the differences that these men had to adapt to?

RG: The differences were tremendous. In World War II, the American pilots that flew in that war were part of a giant machine. And in Israel there were so few that they each became their own machine and probably made much bigger strides in the overall war efforts.
Because in fact in May 29, that one battle where they were just right outside of Tel Aviv, there were supposed to be five planes to fly against them and these planes had been brought in in pieces and assembled and one plane wouldn’t work so instead of five they had four and they had five pilots. I mean working with bare-bones. So only four planes could go out and try and stop an army.

And in that battle, one of the men died.  So in the very first aerial battle, 25 percent of the Air Force was lost. So it was sort of incredible because it’s such a smaller fishpond and so these guys were bigger fish and I think that strategy wise, I think their training supposedly helped a lot but they had to wing it a lot because it’s not like this is a wealthy country with lots of supplies.  They had to be pretty versatile.  There was a 26-year-old put in charge of the Air Force and there really were only two Israeli pilots that were experienced enough to be able to take command but there wasn’t a lot of order back then. There weren’t manuals and operational guides. It was really sort of “fly by the seat of your pants.”

So they had a young guy who tried to keep it together. But what he was trying to keep together was also a group of foreigners that spoke different languages. Most of them spoke English and English was the official language of the Israeli Air Force. It’s the language almost everybody knew.  The Israeli Air Force was really molded from the British Royal Air Force and American Air Force and South African. So they had access to those manuals and later on they used those as guidelines.

When you interviewed the men, was this a story that they had told before or was it something that was a surprise to their families?

RG: It certainly wasn’t a surprise to their families, their kids knew about it. But I think in some cases when their kids saw the finished film, they saw a fuller and heard a more wonderful story than they had heard before because they heard not only their father’s story but they heard about it in an historical context and they heard of the entire efforts. And so I think that a lot of the kids, the children of the pilots were really, really so excited and so happy about the film not only because the film honors their fathers in such a wonderful way but because it gave them a fuller picture of what their fathers had done during the period.

NS: The grandchildren actually love it. They think that their grandfather is the coolest dude around. They really related to him in a different way.

RG: But some of these stories are new because the interesting part of the question is that there wasn’t a lot of talking about this chapter because of the legal ramifications of it. And when the guys first came back and I think many years afterwards, they didn’t go around boasting about it because it was illegal to fight for a foreign country, it was illegal to smuggle a plane. Some people did go to jail for it, one lost his citizenship. It wasn’t something that people talk about a lot. It’s been really interesting everywhere that we have gone and shown the film. People just kind of came out and said, “Oh, my uncle smuggled machine guns,” or, “My grandfather was part of this.” Just on and on and on. It was just like people just are very excited to put all the pieces together.

NS: In fact one person said to us he thought the FBI were going to come always knocking on the door so he really never wanted to share these stories. And another gentleman brought a personal photo album that had never gone out of the house. We used some of those pictures in the film.

Do you think today’s audiences have an understanding of the origins of Israel? And do you think this movie will change their ideas about Israel?

NS: I do not think that people bother too much to think about origins of Israel. And I say that in this sense because I think people are caught up with a CNN version of Israel and don’t go beyond that.  When you stop for a second and go, wait a minute, there was a partition plan for a two state solution and the Jews agreed to it. I don’t know, I am not naïve but that could have changed a lot of things and so in some ways the idea that Israel was there, Israel was interested in a two state solution. Israel was attacked, Israel defended itself. I think those things just have to be emphasized again.

What do you want people to learn from this film?

NS:  I hope that they will consider a few things. First of all the idea that these guys went to help somebody in trouble, that’s a great universal lesson that we should be there for other people, we should be there to help each other. I also do hope that people will just go, “Hmm, let’s not be so harsh about Israel and Israel’s right to exist.” That is personally important to me but my most important thing is sort of focusing on some feelings of American pride, of Jewish-American pride, of the idea that being a volunteer is a good thing and that you should do it because it is the right thing to do, not for the glory necessarily.

RG: I hope they understand how urgent the situation on the side of Israel was at the time of its creation, how right and necessary it was, how different things might have been if the partition plan had been accepted and how tenuous the state was in its beginning, how it could have easily gone another way and how threatening the issue was in 1948.  I think just to take another look. Obviously it is a very fraught issue but I really think that the discussion is so one-sided these days. We’ve got sort of frantic anti-Israel sentiments; believe me I understand why, but it is really nice to have a story that talks about what the intentions were, what the need was, what the spiritual standing of the state was.

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