Israeli filmmaker Dana Goren enjoyed her residency in Pittsburgh
"Israel is a place where stories are everywhere. Conflicts are everywhere. And conflict is the key element in filmmaking."
Israeli filmmaker Dana Goren currently is en route to her home country and its wealth of stories, after a four-month residency in Pittsburgh. She will continue to work on the script for her first narrative feature and will begin new projects. But Ms. Goren also will be editing footage shot in Pittsburgh, part of a new component of the program that brought her to town.
The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation installs talented Israeli artists in residence throughout the United States (among many other programs). Typically, these visits last two to three months, marked primarily by teaching, discussions, and exhibitions of the artists' previous work. Ms. Goren, however, was challenged to do more with her time in Pittsburgh.
JFilm: The Pittsburgh Jewish Film Forum served as host for Ms. Goren's residency. When organizers pitched a new residency to the Schusterman Foundation, they had an additional component in mind: They wanted to give a filmmaker the opportunity to practice his/her craft in Pittsburgh.
"I had no idea what to expect," said Kathryn Spitz Cohan, executive director of JFilm. "I had this goal in mind -- giving an artist an opportunity to make art while they were here -- but I had no idea whether it was realistic or not."
The need for time to work led to an extended residency. The Schusterman Foundation (which would be footing about 80 percent of the cost) approved, and the search for an artist began.
"We vetted probably a dozen filmmakers," Ms. Spitz Cohan said. "I think about it now, and I can't even imagine having anybody else, because [Ms. Goren] has been so great. We all feel like it was meant to be."
Ms. Goren's reputation is still growing on world screens, but she is highly regarded in Israel.
Her first full-length film, "Diplomat," won the top prize at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. It's currently being shown at festivals in China and Europe and received a special screening at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
That film goes inside Jerusalem's Hotel Diplomat, once a posh hotspot, now an unlikely homeland. More than 600 refugees from the USSR were placed there in the early 1990s as a temporary housing solution; as politics and circumstance intervened, it became a permanent home.
Ms. Goren was immediately struck by their confined lives.
"They have created a very rich, surreal world indoors. They have their own choir. They have their own stores," she said. "There are no interviews; it's visual interpretations of episodes of their lives. It's a very intimate portrait of the residents and their world that was forgotten."
Finding a story in Pittsburgh would be a different challenge, however. Ms. Goren trusted she would find something to film here (and JFilm provided a list of possible topics,) but she didn't know whether four months would be enough time to search.
"I'm not always driven by subject," she said. "It could be a story, it could be a character. 'Diplomat' started with just a visual. Plus, even if you find a subject or a topic, you need to know how to tell the story. I went to a lot of different places, meeting a lot of people, trying to understand and maybe have a catch somewhere."
Ms. Spitz Cohan confirms that her search was exhaustive.
"The joke is that we've all been living here for years, and Dana knows more people in Pittsburgh than any of us." Eventually, though, Ms. Goren discovered Bill Strickland and the Manchester Bidwell Corp., which are currently in the very early stages of establishing a center in Israel. Ms. Goren had found that "catch."
Mr. Strickland says that, although they are just at the beginning of the process, they are aiming for a comprehensive program. "The idea is that we're going to try to build a center that reflects vocational education as we practice it here at Bidwell, and a real focus on arts education. To use this as a strategy to bring the Arab-Muslim community and the Jewish community together."
Ms. Goren was intrigued by the idea, as well as Mr. Strickland himself.
"I call him the charismatic dreamer," she said with a smile. "There are a few elements in his life, in his personal story that I thought were very good for the screen. But I also thought that this was something that could interest the American audience as well as the Israelis."
Four shooting days were not enough to produce a finished product, but Ms. Goren feels there is potential for cutting that footage into something more. It is unclear what that will be -- perhaps a long-form trailer or footage to show potential producers for a longer feature -- but Mr. Strickland believes the story is in good hands.
"Dana is really bright and really sensitive," he said. "I think she really gets it."
As with any pilot program, there are still refinements to be made to JFilm's residency. "We will probably take the next bit of time to evaluate," Ms. Spitz Cohan says.
Still, with all involved reporting an undeniably positive, engaging experience, it seems that Ms. Goren is not the last Israeli filmmaker who will visit Pittsburgh. And to hear her speak of her temporary home, it seems that future guests will be more than happy here.
"I loved it," she said. "I've found that people are so nice, so friendly. And as an Israeli, you come with a certain amount of cynicism built in. And you come to a place like Pittsburgh, and the layers of cynicism just drop."
First Published January 7, 2011 12:00 am