Hoopla is one of my favorite words. I guess it’s because it was a word that people used to express some exciting event when I was a kid. And it is a word that describes what we are feeling about our documentary “The Gefilte Fish Chronicles”.
Over the last two years we have worked at getting some attention for what started out as a small family movie. The Dubroff family, that’s my Mother’s maiden name, has been celebrating Passover in the same way for about 100 years. We never thought much about it until David suggested that it was unusual and we should document the event for our children and their children and on and on (we hope unless we have another President like this one..)
So about ten years ago David interviewed the surviving Aunts, Helene, Peppy, Sophie, and Rosie, Uncle Jack, and Aunts Fritzie, Sarah, and Betty all died in the 80’s and 90’s. The tape was OK but the sound wasn’t broadcast quality and my Uncle Moishe, in whose home the Seder always took place, wouldn’t allow David to take movies or pictures at the Seder because it was a Yom Tov – no riding in cars, no work, no turning lights on and off, no nothing. You can imagine that the tape was nice but not what he really wanted to do to capture the event. In addition, he didn’t spend very much shooting time while she was doing the preparations, so it didn’t capture the sensibility of the process—that would be the dynamic between the Aunts. Dynamic in this sense means the yelling, screaming, and arguing, that goes on almost non-stop. That is not to say it is an ugly, angry time. It is quite the contrary. They loved the arguing. It went on all their lives with only one rule established by my Grandfather. No one could go to sleep angry. So they always made up before they closed their eyes for the evening. And there were always moments of laughter scattered throughout the fights, and moments of tears when they reflected on what things used to be.
Anyway, David decided he wanted to do another shoot. He went to Aunt Peppy and explained that he could only do it if she allowed him to shoot the Seder as well as the preparations. She agreed and it wasn’t even reluctantly. She admitted that she always wanted to see what her Seder table looked like on film, because during the Seder she was so busy she didn’t have a chance to notice. We had no funds to do the work and Billy Kaplan, the eldest first cousin, generously gave us enough to start the work, do an edit find the music and give everyone video’s.
Jimmy Robinson, another in law and fine still shooter, yearning to exercise his video expertise, volunteered to work with David on the project. The started to film after Purim, when Aunt Peppy puts up the beets for the horseradish. They covered all the important moments in Seder development, all the food preparation—including but not limited to soup, matzoh balls, gefilte fish, cholent, and sponge cake. a trip to the butcher and the burning of the chometz (non Passover elated food stuff). They shot film of the cousins setting the table and kibitzing about life. And they were there for a matzoh brie morning when family members gather once again for breakfast. My Aunt asks “Is it possible for people to eat matzoh brie for 4 hours? Yes it is.”
They filmed the second Seder in 2004. There was a smaller crowd than usual—only about 50. We consider it a smaller crowd when we don’t need to set up a tent. We took the raw footage to Dick Swanson, a photojournalist turned editor turn a little more and he’s always a photojournalist. He edited for about six week before we saw anything. And it wasn’t easy because he knew that we thought everything was important, but everything couldn’t be included. The first time we watched it we saw about ten minutes, the second time there were fifteen and the third time about twenty. When we got in the car to drive home, after the third time, we knew it was more than just a little family movie. But we didn’t know exactly what it could be. After Dick finished his edit I sent it to friends from the television business, friends who were not religious, and I sent it to Milwaukee where Tine found people who weren’t Jewish. Almost without exception, (David’ brother was the single only person who thought it was unwatchable), people loved it and felt that it was about all families and celebration and you didn’t have to be Jewish to understand it.
Then we had to make a decision. The original funding was gone so would we make an additional financial investment or just walk away. I said we should send it to my friend at WETA the PBS station in Virginia and see what he thought. He thought it was terrific and they wanted to use it as a fundraiser. And for the next 8 or 9 months we negotiated a contract that should have taken a week. Their lawyer was incompetent and short sighted. Our lawyer was happy to know that if ever he needed a place to go which required no knowledge of the law, there would be a place for him at WETA. It didn’t work and we were heartbroken but had come so far that we knew we couldn’t give up. Then Stephanie came into our lives. Actually Stephanie is my friend and mentor Kay’s, sister-in-law. She absolutely got it. So we invested another few thousands of dollars to do a final edit, change the music, work on the sound, get the releases back in order, and I wrote a companion cookbook. www.gefiltefishchronicles.com for more info). When everything was complete we sent it to Jewish Film festivals and to Barry Schulman, a colleague and chum (don’t you love the word chum—and no one uses it anymore but I’m going to), with whom I worked at USA Networks and was at WNET, the PBS station in NY.
Last week we got the word that WNET wanted to air the show the night before Passover, April 1 at 7:00pm. We thought that was unbelievable. They sent a contract, we sent it back and within a few days the deal was done. There’s a lot of hoopla in the Burnett house this week. We’re sending save the date’s to everyone we know in and out of New York because we don’t care if they see it, we care that they know about it. It’s a product about which we are very proud. So go on the web site, take a look, and share our joy.
The movie was best described by a stranger in Denver who said, “it made me laugh and it made me cry.” What else is there? We’re just sayin....