By Lee J. Green
A comedy feature from a Jewish filmmaker will open the 12th annual Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, August 24 to 26, rated by several sources as one of the top 10 film festivals in the nation.
“Supporting Characters,” co-written and directed by Daniel Schechter, tells the story of two best friends who are brought in to edit and rework a movie. But what starts as a business assignment turns personal. It is based on the experiences of Schechter and his best friend Tarik Lowe, a comedy actor who plays one of the leads.
“Much of the movie is fictional, but so much is taken from something that happened to us literally days before we would write those scenes. Since I don’t act, I hired an actor named Alex Karpovsky (of HBO’s “Girls”) to play a version of myself. It just so happened they had wonderful chemistry too and that’s really at the heart of this film,” he said.
Schechter is from Long Island and now lives on the Upper West Side in New York City, where “Supporting Characters” is set.
Ever since he was young, Schechter wanted to make films. The 30-year-old graduated from Boston’s Emerson College and in 2005 wrote and produced “Big Bad Slim,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. He added director to his credits with 2008’s critically acclaimed “Slamdance.”
“Supporting Characters” was also well-received when it played Tribeca this past April. Schechter said they started writing it in February 2011 and filming began that April. The movie was made on a very small budget by industry standards — $60,000.
“I wanted to make a small, inexpensive, personal film,” he said. “I am Jewish and Tarik is black. I wanted to make a movie about the relationships these characters were in with women, but we found that the dynamic and the relationship with the guys was more exciting. So it went from more of a (romantic comedy) to a buddy movie.”
Schechter said he hopes the Richard Pryor/Gene Hackman relationship vibe comes through in the film. “Our characters talk about race and religion in the movie — being Jewish and being black. But we turned down cheap laughs and some jokes so it could be more natural. The humor is perhaps more subtle and real in that aspect. We also stayed away from stereotyping or rigid typecasting. The Jew does not wear a yarmulke and the black does not wear a do-rag,” he said.
Schechter said he was very pleased when informed that “Supporting Characters” would open Sidewalk. “It is truly an honor and I look forward to my first trip to Birmingham,” he said.
His next film will be a much bigger budget independent film based on the Elmore Leonard novel “The Switch.” It stars Jennifer Aniston and Ty Burrell, of the television show “Modern Family.” It took Schechter only a week and a half to adapt the novel.
It will be the opening feature, August 24 at 8 p.m. at the Alabama Theatre.
A native of Birmingham’s Jewish community will have a documentary at this year’s festival. Sandy Jaffe’s “Our Mockingbird” will be screened on Aug. 25 at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, starting at 12:15 p.m.
Now living in Boston, Jaffe did a preview of the film last summer before Sisters and THREADS, two groups sponsored by the Birmingham Jewish Federation that bring together Jewish, African-American and Hispanic women, and to Anytown Alabama, a high school group that brings together teens from a wide range of backgrounds.
The documentary explores why Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” still resonates in discussions of race, class and justice. Much of the film revolves around a 2007 production of “Mockingbird” by two Birmingham-area high schools — the lower-income, predominantly African-American Fairfield, and upscale Mountain Brook.
“Birds” and “Heaven”
In 2011, fellow Jewish New York City filmmaker Joel Fendelman got good response for his feature film “David” — about the relationship of a Jewish boy and a Muslim boy in Fendelman’s home borough of Brooklyn.
That is also the setting of his short selected to be screened at Sidewalk this month, called “Birds of Brooklyn.” It takes place in the Russian Jewish immigrant neighborhood of Brighton Beach. It’s a poetic capturing of an aging woman who travels back to this neighborhood to rediscover a childhood memory.
Fendelman said the movie has no dialogue and the story is told visually (some sounds were added in post-filming). “I thought that was the best way to tell this story of nostalgia and community,” he said. “Brooklyn has so much magic and culture. It is such a melting pot. I wanted to make this movie without dialogue since I thought there would be more poignancy in the simplicity.”
Other short and feature films at Sidewalk this year with Jewish connections or themes include “In Heaven Underground.” This documentary by Jewish German filmmaker Britta Wauer centers on the Weissensee Jewish cemetery, Germany’s oldest surviving active Jewish cemetery, located just north of Berlin and more than 130 years old.
The Birmingham Jewish Federation is sponsoring the screening at Sidewalk.
Wauer said the film premiered at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the award for the best documentary film. It has since been invited to 40 festivals including Jerusalem, Vienna, Melbourne, San Francisco and Washington.
“It was not my idea to make a film about a cemetery,” said Wauer. “When I was asked if I could imagine to realize a documentary about the Weissensee cemetery I was full of fascination for Europe’s largest Jewish cemetery still in use — but also skeptical. Who would go to a cinema watching a cemetery film? The special nature of the Weissensee; the mixture of stone graves and wild, rampant nature; the miracle that this site survived the Nazi era without being destroyed, can best be experienced by going there oneself.”
“I felt that a film would have to show things that remain hidden to the cemetery visitor — the stories behind the gravestones,” adds Wauer. Naturally the era of Nazi dictatorship overshadows other events, but the history in the documentary goes back to the 19th century.
“Birds of Brooklyn” and “In Heaven Underground” will be screened August 26 at 10:20 a.m. at the Alabama School of Fine Arts.