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Part III of a Four-Part Q & A with Pulitzer-Winner Isabel Wilkerson on Her Book, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration’

February 29, 2012 4 comments

 

The most significant book I have read in the past few years is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.  I recently interviewed the author in advance of a talk she’s giving in Omaha, where I live.  The Omaha Star newspaper is running the Q&A I did with her in a four-part series, and I am sharing the series here.  If you’re anything like me and you thought you knew what African-Americans faced in the South that compelled so many to leave and migrate North and West, well, you soon find out in her book that there is a great deal about that experience that you didn’t have any clue about or any real undestanding of.  She tells this important story in a way that will capture your mind and your heart and prompt you to ask, “Why have I never heard of this before?”  I highly recommend the book and if you have a chance to hear her speak, I heartily recommend you listen.

 

 

 

 

 

Part III of a Four-Part Q & A with Pulitzer-Winner Isabel Wilkerson on Her Book, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration‘ 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in The Omaha Star

 

Part III of my interview with Isabel Wilkerson describes how she came to focus on three protagonists in her book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. The late Ida Mae Gladney, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster and George Swanson Starling represent the major migration streams from the South.

Wilkerson will deliver a free talk about her book and sign copies April 12 at 7 p.m. at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific Street, in Omaha.

LAB: These three figures provide an intimate, inspiring prism into the migration.

IW: “I actually get inspired when I hear readers say they feel a connection to them because the goal was to have the reader see themselves in these people and imagine what would I have done had I been in this situation they were in.

“It’s a leap of faith to even settle on one person…that their story will carry forth in this narrative. I interviewed over 1,200 people. I narrowed it down to about 30, any of whom could have been the three, and then I narrowed it down to these three on the basis of multiple things. I needed to have one person to represent each of the migration streams. I needed to have people who left during different decades. And I needed to have people who left for different reasons.

“And I also needed people who would be distinctive on the page, people who you would recognize when you first get to them. I needed to have three beautifully flawed and yet accessible and full human beings through whom to tell the story. And people who were at the point in their lives when they would be willing to tell their story. And finally there had to be this connection between them and me because I was going to be with them for a very long time. It actually ended up being years. So you might call it chemistry.

“They were just delightfully full human beings who had a great sense of humor despite all they had been through.”

 

 

 

 

LAB: What do you most admire about them and what do you carry from each?

IW: “Each of them had distinctive survival techniques that gave a window for how anyone could survive any challenge they might face, even today. And I think I took something away from each one of them as a result of how they discovered what worked best for them to get through what they were enduring.

“For George it was this stalwart effort to confront and question and deal with the challenge head-on, no matter what the consequences. He chose the path of integrity whenever he was confronted with injustice and I think that is a tremendous lesson for anyone. It takes a great deal of courage to do that, to stand up for what you believe is right and to stand up against what you know in your heart to be wrong, and he did that, and he paid something of a price for it. He ended up having to flee for his life. He knew when to let go of a fight that was not winnable. The gift of perseverance and integrity I take from him.

“From Dr. Foster one learns the importance of excellence in all that you do. His view was it’s not worth doing unless you do it the best. He took it to an extreme.

“And from Ida Mae it’s a completely different message. It’s the one I often find myself turning to. I often hear people say, ‘I love Ida Mae,’ and I think they’re saying that because she’s the one who had the least resources of the three. She was born poor. She was a sharecroppers’ wife. They worked from sun-up to sun-down with very little in the way of renumeration. Her clothes were burlap sacks. She knew poverty beyond what most people can even imagine. The unpredictability and dangers faced on a daily basis would be beyond  the comprehension of modern day Americans

“And in spite of all that she had a way of looking at the world that was without judgment and rancor and bitterness and a sense of shame. She lived every day in the moment. It was second nature to her. She had a way of walling off negative emotions. She always looked at the world as the best it could possibly be in spite of all that she had seen, and I think that’s a lesson for everyone.”

 

 

 

Alexander Payne Delivers Graceful Oscar Tributes – The Winner for Best Adapted Screenplay Recognizes Clooney, Hemmings and His Mom

February 29, 2012 3 comments

Alexander Payne‘s love affair with the movies began when he was a child in his hometown of Omaha.  The nascent cinephile’s frequent filmgoing companion then was his mother, Peggy Payne, who recognized her prodigy of a son expressed far more interest in grown-up films than children’s fare, and she indulged his serious passion by taking him to screenings of art movies.  Decades later the world-class filmmaker told the world how much he appreciates what she did for him when he dedicated his Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants to her.  In doing so he said “I love you” in Greek, thus acknowledging his family’s heritage, which he’s extremely proud of.  He also singled out one of his producing partner’s, Jim Burke, star George Clooney, and author Kaui Hart Hemmings, whose novel he and fellow Oscar winners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash adapted.

Alexander Payne with his mother on the red carpet

 

 

Alexander Payne Delivers Graceful Oscar Tributes – The Winner for Best Adapted Screenplay Recognizes Clooney, Hemmings and His Mom

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The obvious and not so obvious came into focus when native son Alexander Payne accepted his second Oscar in front of a live audience of his peers and a television viewing audience estimated at 1.2 billion during Sunday’s Academy Awards.

He shared Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, whose mimicking of presenter Angelina Jolie‘s power pose seemingly distracted and peeved Payne as he tried beating the clock with his thank-yous. Always the pro though, he quickly collected himself and offered one of the evening’s best grace notes with this tribute:

“We share this with George Clooney and the rest of the cast for interpreting our screenplay so generously and we also share it in particular with Kaui Hart Hemmings, our beautiful Hawaiian flower, for her novel.”

A radiant Hemmings sat next to the debonair Payne and his date for the evening, his well-coiffed mother Peggy, and it was to her and their shared Greek heritage he made the most moving gesture.

“And on a brief personal note if I may, my mother is here with me from Omaha, hold the applause, and after watching the show a few years ago she made me promise that if I ever won another Oscar I had to dedicate it to her just like Javier Bardem did with his mother (eliciting laughter). So, Mom, this one’s for you. Se agapao poly. (Greek for “I love you very much.”). And thanks for letting me skip nursery school so we could go to the movies. Thanks a lot.”

Payne has sometimes mentioned his mother and father both indulged his early childhood fascination with film, but it was she who took him to see the cutting-edge grown-up movies he preferred over children’s fare.

He could have quipped about her insisting that only her Countryside Village hair stylist attend to her tresses, which meant he had to fly the hairdresser out to L.A.

He could have used the stage to poke Nebraska legislators, as he did six weeks ago in Lincoln, for leverage in trying to get film industry tax credits passed here, lest he have to take his planned Nebraska project to, say, Kansas. He could have tweaked the noses of Paramount suits who gave him a hard time about his insistence in wanting to shoot Nebraska in black-and-white.

That he didn’t show anyone up speaks to his respect for the industry and his desire to not burn bridges. Besides, as he recently told a reporter, “I like the Oscars.” It’s obvious the Oscars like him. The only question is when he when he will take home Best Picture and Best Director awards.

My Forthcoming Book, ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012,’ Due for a Fall 2012 Release

February 24, 2012 9 comments

My Forthcoming Book, ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012′ Due for a Fall 2012 Release

As of February 23, 2012, I have entered into a contract with Concierge Marketing of Omaha to help me realize my book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012.  The book is a compilation of stories I have written about the celebrated winning writer-director of Citizen RuthElectionAbout SchmidtSideways, and The Descendants.  It hopefully bodes well for the book now that he is a two-time Oscar winner after sharing the 2012 Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for The Descendants with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.  Payne previously won in the same category for Sideways, sharing that award with Jim Taylor, one of his producing partners on The Descendants.

I have covered Payne for 15 years, doing dozens of interviews with him and his collaborators in that time, even watching him direct on set for a week’s time, thus making me something of an authority on his work.

Payne is the subject of much media coverage but a collection of stories about him has never been published.  That will change with my book.  This compilation of my articles about Payne charts the arc of the writer-director’s feature career.  For the first time, film fans and scholars can follow his cinematic journey from promising upstart to celebrated international artist and along the way learn in-depth his creative process.

The Oscar-winner long ago became the object of intense interest.  My rare access to Payne has put me in the unique position of sharing an entire body of work about the filmmaker in a single volume.  In story after story, I lay out the progression of the filmmaker’s journey, liberally quoting Payne talking about his own work and methodologies.  There are also ample insights by some of Payne’s closest collaborators.  Introducing each set of stories is my own cogent analysis and behind-the-scenes context.  I bring to the project not only a personal archive of Payne interviews, observations, and stories but a lifelong cinema passion. As a film buff I have not only seen lots of movies and read scores of film books, but for several years I served as a film programmer for various art cinema series.

Bringing this deep knowledge and long insider access to bear, I provide the most comprehensive look to date at Payne.  Readers will come away from the book with a fuller understanding of Payne and his movies.  Because I write for general audiences, my articles and analyses are eminently readable and free of any academic jargon that could otherwise stand in the way of appreciating the filmmaker and his films.  I explore Payne’s journey from cheeky provocateur to master cinema satirist, noting all the pertinent way-stops and detours along the way and speculating on where he might be headed next.

My blog will feature excerpts from my book in the coming months.  Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective will be available for purchase here, on Amazon, and in select bookstores in the fall of 2012.

Part II of a Four-Part Series with Pulitzer-Winner Isabel Wilkerson, Author of ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration’

February 19, 2012 5 comments

Part II of my interview with Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, follows.  Wilkerson, who makes many appearances to speak about her book and its subject of the 20th century’s Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and West, will present a free talk and signing April 12 at 7 p.m. at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific Street, in my hometown and place of residence, Omaha.  After reading her book and interviewing her there is no way I am going to miss her speak.  She has done a great service to the nation with her work connecting the dots of this epoch movement in history that so changed the face of America.  If you have not read her book, do so.  If you have an opportunity to hear her speak, go.  Her insights into how the migration proceeded and the impact this experience made on the participants and on the cities they left and settled in are fascinating and revelatory.

Isabel Wilkerson at a book signing

 

 

Part II of a Four-Part Series with Pulitzer-Winner Isabel Wilkerson, Author of ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in The Omaha Star

LAB: What interest in the Great Migration do you note in the wake of your book?

IW: “When I go out and talk about the book, wherever I go, there are people of all    backgrounds who show up. There was a woman who brought her father and they both came up and spoke with me and the daughter said, ‘Now that I’ve heard what you’ve said and I’ve got this book I’m taking him right now to a coffee shop and he’s going to tell me what happened.’ She was determined, and he agreed he would do so. So those are the kinds of things that are happening. Stories that had never been told or shared before people are feeling comfortable enough to talk about them.

“When I was in Columbus, Ohio a woman said after she read the book it made her think about how her family had gotten to Ohio and she immediately called her mother and said, ‘How did we get here?’ It turned out an uncle had been lynched and almost the entire family left as a result. Here she was in middle age and she had never known that, no one had ever sad anything. I hear that all the time – that some act of violence or threat of violence propelled somebody in the family North. They had to get out immediately and they went to Cleveland or Detroit or New York or I’m assuming even to Omaha. The fact that people hadn’t talked about it meant there’s a whole world that has existed but no one knew about it and this book attempts to uncover that.

“This is a universal human story. I like to say black history is truly American history, For one thing much of black history involves white Americans. White abolitionists helped get black americans out of slavery. In the book there’s a case of white southerners who helped ferry a single black person out of Mississippi and it could not have been done without the involvement of white Mississippians and Alabamans who helped in this elaborate effort.”

 

 

 

 

LAB: Did you grow up knowing about your family’s migration?

“No one in my family talked about the Great Migration in those terms. I knew where my mother and father had come from and I didn’t know why they did what they did or what the circumstances of their lives had been where they were from. In hindsight I am aware their circle of friends were all people from the South. But no one talked about it. It’s only in the course of the research for the book that I came to know things about my own family I didn’t know before.

“My mother was the most difficult interview of all. She did not want to talk about it. Her attitude was, ‘This happened a long time ago, why do you want to dredge up the past? what has this got to do with what were doing now? I left that a long time ago.’ The only reason she began to talk about it was I was working on the book and I told her things I was hearing and I read to her parts of the book, and then it would trigger some memory in her and make mention of something I had never heard of before.”

LAB: I imagine this suppressed history exacerbated the great open wound of race?

IW: “I completely agree with you. I talk to people all the time who have read the book…On my Facebook page I get a chance to see how it’s affected people or how they’re moved by the stories or to maybe do more research in their own family life or they see their grandparents or great grandparents and come to a greater sense of gratitude over what their forbearers did. Regardless of their background, migration is a human universal experience. It’s just a matter of knowing who and how and why they did what they did. The book triggers lots of memories.”

The Star and The Reader (www.thereader.com) are collecting migration stories. If you or a loved one migrated from the South and ended up in Omaha or Greater Nebraska, then please email leo32158@cox.net or call 402-445-4666 to schedule an interview.

Walter Reed: From Out of the Past – Former Hidden Child Survives Holocaust to Fight Nazis as an American GI in World War II

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

 

About nine years ago I was given the opportunity to meet and profile Walter Reed, whose story of escaping the Final Solution as a Hidden Child in his native Belgium and then going on to fight the Nazis as an American GI a few years later would make a good book or movie.  Here is a sampling of his remarkable story now, more or less as it appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  You’ll find many more of my Holocaust survival and rescue stories on this blog.

 

Walter Reed

 

 

 

Walter Reed: From Out of the Past – Former Hidden Child Survives Holocaust to Fight Nazis as an American GI in World War II   

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Imagine this: The time is May 1945. The place, Germany. The crushing Allied offensive has broken the Nazi war machine. You’re 21, a naturalized American GI from Bavaria. You’re a Jew fighting “the goddamned Krauts” that drove you from your own homeland. Five years before, amid anti-Jewish fervor erupting into ethnic cleansing, you were sent away by your parents to a boys’ refugee home in Brussels, Belgium. Eventually, you were harbored with 100 other Jewish boys and girls in a series of safe houses. You are among 90 from the group to survive the Holocaust.

Relatives who emigrated to America finagle you a visa and, in 1941, you go live with them in New York. You abandon your heritage and change your name. Within two years you’re drafted into the U.S. Army. At first, you’re a grunt in the field, but then your fluency in German gets you reassigned to military intelligence, attached to Patton’s 95th Division, interrogating German POWs. If this were a movie, you’d be the avenging Jewish angel meeting out justice, but you don’t. “The whole mental attitude was not, Hey, I’m a Jew, I’m going to get you Nazi bastard,” said Walter Reed, whose story this is. “I had no idea of revenging my parents. We were really more concerned about our survival and getting the information we needed.”

By war’s end, you’re in a 7th Army unit rooting out hardcore Nazis from German institutions. You don’t know it yet, but your parents and two younger brothers have not made it out alive. You borrow a jeep to go to your village. Your family and all the other Jews are gone. You demand answers from the cowed Gentiles, some you know to be Nazi sympathizers. You intend no harm, but you want them scared.

“I wasn’t the little Jewish boy anymore,” said Reed. “Now, they saw this American staff sergeant with a steel helmet on and with a carbine over his shoulder. At that point, we were the conquerors and those bastards better knuckle under or else. I asked, What happened to my family and to the other Jewish people? They told me they were sent to the east into a labor camp. That’s about all I could find out.”

It is only later you learn they were rounded-up, hauled away in wagons, and sent to Izbica, a holding camp for the Sobidor and Belzec death camps, one or the other of which your family was killed in, along with scores of friends and neighbors.

Walter Reed, now 79, is among a group of survivors known as the Children of La Hille, a French chateau that gave sanctuary to he and his fellow wartime refugees. A resident of Wilmette, Il., Reed and his story have an Omaha tie. After the war, he graduated from the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism and it was as a fund raising-public relations professional he first came to Omaha in the mid-1950s when he led successful capital drives at Creighton University for a new student center and library. “Part of me is in those buildings,” he said.

More recently, he began corresponding with Omahan Ben Nachman, who brings Shoah stories to light as a board member with the local Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation. A friend of Nachman’s — Swiss scholar and author Theo Tschuy — led him to accounts of La Hille and those contacts led him to Reed. In Reed, Nachman found a man who, after years of burying his past, now embraces his survivor heritage. With Reed’s help, Tschuy, the author of Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz and His Rescue of 62,000 Jews, is researching what will be the first full English language hardcover telling of the children’s odyssey.

On an April 30 through May 2 Hidden Heroes-sponsored visit to Nebraska, Reed shared the story of he and his comrades, about half of whom are still alive, in presentations at Dana College in Blair, Neb. and at Omaha’s Beth El Synagogue and Field Club, where Reed, a Rotary Club member, addressed fellow Rotarians. A dapper man, Reed regales listeners in the dulcet tones of a newsman, which is how he approaches the subject.

“I’m a journalist by training. All I want is the facts,” he said, adding he’s accumulated deportation and arrest records of his family, along with anecdotal accounts of his family’s exile. “I’m simply overwhelmed by the wealth of information that exists and that’s still coming out. In the last 10 years I’ve found out an awful lot of what happened. I don’t have any great details, but I have vignettes. So, my feeling when I find out new things is, Hey, that’s terrific, and not, Oh, I can’t handle it. None of that. Long, long ago I got over all the trauma many survivors feel to their death. I vowed this stuff would never disadvantage me.”

As he’s pieced things together, a compelling story has emerged of how a network of adults did right amid wrong. It’s a story Nachman and Reed are eager for a wider public to know. “It shows how a dedicated group of people, most of whom were not Jewish, coordinated their actions to prevent the Nazis from getting at these Jewish children,” said Nachman, who paved the way for the upcoming publication of a book by a La Hille survivor. “They chose to do so without promise of any reward but out of sheer humanitarian concern. It’s a story tinged in tragedy because the children did lose their families, but one filled with hope because most of the children survived to lead productive lives.”

 

Purim at orphanage for Jewish children in Brussels

 

 

 

It was 1939 when Reed made the fateful journey that forever separated him from his parents and brothers. Born Werner Rindsberg in the rural Bavarian village of Mainstockheim, Reed was the oldest son of a second-generation winemaker-wine merchant father and hausfrau mother. His was among a few dozen Jewish families in the village, long a haven for Jews who paid local land barons a special tax in return for protection from the anti-Semitic populace. Reed said Jews enjoyed unbothered lives there until 1931-1932, when Nazism began taking hold.

“I was aware of the growing menace and danger when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I recall constant conversations between my parents and their Jewish peers about Hitler. The Nazis marched up and down our main street with their swastika flags and their torches at night, singing their songs. This was a very close-knit community of about 1,000 inhabitants and you knew which kid had joined the Hitler Youth and whose dad was a son-of-a-bitch Nazi. Pretty soon, the kids began to chase us in the street and throw stones at us and call us dirty names. Then, the first (anti-Jewish) decrees came out about 1934 and increasingly got stricter.”

Pogroms of intimidation began in earnest in the mid-1930s. Reed remembers his next door neighbor, a prominent Jewish entrepreneur, taken away to Dachau by authorities “to scare the hell out of him. It saved his life, too,” he said, “because that hastened his decision to get the hell out of Germany. This stuff was going on in other towns and villages where I had relatives. In those places, including where my mother’s brothers and sisters lived, the local Nazis were more rabid and…they hassled the Jews so much they left, and it saved their lives.”

Things intensified in November 1938 when, in retaliation for the assassination of a German diplomat by an expatriate Polish Jew outraged by the mistreatment of his people, the Nazis unleashed a terror campaign now known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). Roving gangs of brown-shirted thugs attacked and detained Jewish males, vandalizing, looting, burning property in their wake. Reed, then 14, and his father were dragged from their home and thrown into a truck with other captives. As the truck rumbled off, Reed recalls “thinking they were going to take us down to the river and shoot us or beat the hell out of us.” The boys among the prisoners were confined in the jail of a nearby town while the men were taken to Dachau. Reed was freed after three nights and his father after several weeks.

In that way time has of bridging differences, Reed’s recent search for answers led him to a group of school kids in Gunzenhausen, a Bavarian town whose Jewish inhabitants met the same fate as those in his birthplace. The kids, whose grandparents presumably sanctioned the genocide as perpetrators or condoned it as silent witnesses, have studied the war and its atrocities. Reed began corresponding with them and then last year he and his wife Jean visited them. He spoke to the class, and to two others in another Bavarian town, and found the students a receptive audience.

“Frankly,” he said, “I find these encounters very worthwhile and uplifting. I was told by the teachers and principals it was quite a moving experience for the students to come face-to-face with history. My visit is now on the web site created by one class. On it, the students say they were especially moved by my stated conviction that the most important lesson of these events is to hold oneself responsible for preventing a repetition anywhere in the world and that each of us must bear that responsibility.”

When his father returned from Dachau, Reed recalls, “He looked awful. Emaciated. He wasn’t the same man. When we asked him what it was like he just said he’s not going to talk about it.” It was in this climate Reed’s parents decided to send him away. He does not recollect discussions about leaving but added, “I recently found a letter my father wrote to somebody saying, ‘I finally persuaded Werner to leave,’ so I must have been reluctant to go.”

A question that’s dogged Reed is why his parents didn’t get out or why they didn’t send his brothers off. It’s only lately he’s discovered, via family letters he inherited, his folks tried.

“Those letters tell a story,” he said. “They tell about their efforts to try and get a visa to America. My dad traveled to the American consulate in Stuttgart and waited with all the other people trying to get out. They gave my parents a very high number on the waiting list, meaning they were way down on the queue. There are anguished letters from my father to relatives referencing their attempts to get my brothers out, but that was long after it was too late. In no way am I castigating my parents for making the wrong decision, but they could have sent my brothers (then 11 and 13) because in that home in Brussels we had boys as young as 5 and 6 whose parents sent them.”

 

 Chateau de la Hille

 

 

 

Home Speyer, in the Brussels suburb of Anderlecht, is where Reed’s journey to freedom began in June 1939. Sponsored by the city and afforded assistance by a Jewish women’s aid society, the home was a designated refugee site in the Kinder transport program that set aside safe havens in England, The Netherlands and Belgium for a quota of displaced German-Austrian children. Where the transport had international backing and like rescue efforts had the tacit approval of German-occupied host countries, others were illegal and operated underground. Reed said the only precautions demanded of the La Hille kids were a ban on speaking German, lest their origins betray them as non-French, and a rule they always be accompanied outside camp grounds by adult staff. Despite living relatively in the open, the children and their rescuers faced constant danger of denouncement.

The boys at Home Speyer, like the girls at a mirror institution whose fates would soon be mingled with theirs, arrived at different times and from different spots but all shared a similar plight: they were homeless orphans-to-be awaiting an uncertain future. Reed doesn’t recall traveling there, except for changing trains in Cologne, but does recall life there. “For a young boy from a small Bavarian farm village,” he said, “Brussels was an exciting city with its large buildings, department stores, parks and museums. We made excursions into the beautiful Belgian countryside. And there was no more anti-Semitic persecution.”

This idyll ended in May 1940 when German forces invaded Belgium. Reed said the director of the girls home informed the boys’ home director she’d secured space on a southbound freight train for both contingents of children.

“We packed what we could carry and took the streetcar to the train station,” he notes. “Late that night two of the freight cars were filled by the 100 boys and girls as the train began its journey to France.”

Adult counselors from the homes came with them. The escape was timely, as the German army reached Brussels two days later. En route to their unknown destination, Reed said the roads were choked with refugees fleeing the German advance. Unloaded at a station near Toulouse, the children were trucked to the village of Seyre, where a two-story stone barn belonging to the de Capele family quartered them the next several months. It appears, Reed said, the de Capeles had ties to the Red Cross, as the children’s homes did, which may explain why that barn was chosen to house refugees.

“It lacked everything as a place to live or sleep,” he said. “No beds, no mattresses, no running water, no sanitary facilities, no cooking equipment. Food was scarce, Pretty soon we ran out of clothes and shoes. Everything was rationed. A lot of us had boils, sores and lice.”

With 100 kids under tow in primitive, cramped conditions, the small staff struggled. “They were trying to manage this rambunctious group of kids, who played and fought and caused mischief. The older kids, myself included, were deputized to sort of manage things. We taught classes out in the open. We worked on nearby farms in the hilly, rolling countryside, cutting brush…digging potatoes. For compensation we got food to bring back. It was like summer camp, except it was no picnic,” he said. “We all grew up fast. We learned about survival, self-reliance and cooperation for the common good.”

It was not all bad. First amours bloomed and fast friendships formed. Reed struck up a romance with Ruth Schuetz Usrad, whose younger sister Betty was also in camp. He also found a best friend in Walter Strauss.

The barn’s occupants were pushed to their limits by “the harsh winter of 1940,” Reed said. They got some relief when the group’s Belgian director, Alex Frank, got the Swiss Children’s Aid Society, then aligned with the Swiss Red Cross, to put Maurice and Elinor Dubois in charge of the Seyre camp, which they soon supplied with bedding, furniture and Swiss powdered milk and cheese.

With the Nazi noose tightening in the spring of 1941 the Dubois relocated the children to an even more remote site — the abandoned 15th century Chateau La Hille, near Foix in the Ariege Province — where, Reed said, “they were less likely to be detected.” It was here the children remained until either, like Reed, they got papers to leave or, like others, they dispersed and either hid or fled across the border. Some 20 children came to the states with the aid of a Quaker society.

As chronicled in various published stories, Reed said that in 1942, a year after he left, 40 of the children, including his girlfriend Ruth, were arrested by French militia and imprisoned at nearby Le Vernet. Inmates there were routinely transported to the death camps and this would have been the children’s fate if not for the intervention of Roseli Naef, a Swiss Red Cross worker and the then La Hille director, who bicycled to Le Vernet to plead with the commandant for their release. When her entreaties fell on deaf ears, she alerted Maurice Dubois, who bluffed Vichy authorities by threatening the withdrawal of all Swiss aid to French children if the group was not freed.

The officials gave in and the children spared. Reed said he has copies of records documenting Naef’s termination by the Swiss Red Cross for her role as a rescuer of Jews, the kind of punitive disapproval the Swiss were known to employ with other rescuers, such as diplomat Carl Lutz.

In getting out when he did, Reed realizes he “was one of the lucky ones,” adding, “Others had to use more extraordinary means to escape, like my friend Walter Strauss. He tried escaping across the Swiss border with four others. They were caught. He was sent back and was later arrested and killed in Auschwitz.” Ruth left La Hille and led a hidden life in southern France, joining the French Underground. She reportedly had many narrow escapes before fleeing across the Pyrenees into Spain and then Israel, where she helped found a kibbutz and worked as a nurse.

 

Walter Reed during one of his many public speaking apperances

 

 

 

It was at a 1997 reunion of Seyre-La Hille children in France that Reed saw Ruth and his former companions for the first time in 50-plus years. Keen on not being a “captive” of his past, he’d dropped all links to his childhood, including his Jewish identity and name. Other than his wife, no one in his immediate family or among his friends knew his survivor’s tale, not even his three sons.

For Reed, the reunion came soon after he first revealed his “camouflaged” past for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History project. Then, when his turn came to tell his biography before a Rotary Club audience, he asked himself — “Do I step out of my closet or do I keep hiding from my past?” Opting to “go through with it,” he shared his story and “everything flowed from there.” After attending the ‘97 La Hille reunion, Reed and his wife hosted a gathering for survivors in Chicago and another in France in 2000.

On the whole, the survivors fared well after the war. Two Seyre-La Hille couples married. A pair enjoyed music careers in Europe — one as a teacher and the other as a performer. Nine of the adult camp directors-counselors have been honored for their rescue efforts as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel. Reed has visited many of the sites and principals involved in this conspiracy of hearts. The Chateau La Hill is still a haven, only now instead of harboring refugees as a rustic hideout it shelters tourists as a trendy bed-and-breakfast.

For Reed, taking ownership of his past has brought him full circle.

“Even though our lives have taken many different paths all over the globe, nearly all my surviving companions feel a strong bond with each other. Many have strong ties to the places and persons that gave us refuge during those dangerous and turbulent years of our youth. I think a lot of things happened then that shaped me as a whole. It inculcated in me certain attributes I still have — of taking responsibility and running things.”

Above all, he said, the experience taught him “to resist oppression and discrimination,” something he and his wife do as parents of a child with cerebral palsy. “For me, recrimination and anger are not a suitable response. It’s important we strive for reconciliation and understanding. Then we live the legacy.”

Heart Strings, World-Renowned Cellist Alisa Weilerstein Refuses to Let a Chronic Illness Slow Her Down and She Encourages Others to Pursue Their Dreams, Too

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

 

Talent is an attractive thing.  I am drawn to it as readily as the next person.  In my work I get to speak with more than my share of gifted individuals, including performers of one kind or another.  Classical music has great appeal to me but I don’t take the opportunity as much I would like to attend concerts.  It just so happens that in the past couple yeara or so I have done a number of assignments that  involved classical music artists and so I have basked more frequently in the power and spelendor or that music than normal.  Of course, when it’s performed or interpreted by enormously gifted artists it’s even more special, and that was the case with this story from a couple years ago about international cellist star Alicia Weilerstein.  She was a delight to interview and she was an inspiration to see perform.  Her passion on stage is impressive.  Her playing, sublime.  It’s neat to be able to get to know the performer a bit and then see her  do her thing.  There’s something both ethereal and earthy about the way she performs that’s quite captivating. Her head and her heart both feed her work.

 

 

 

 

Heart Strings, World-Renowned Cellist Alisa Weilerstein Refuses to Let a Chronic Illness Slow Her Down and She Encourages Others to Pursue Their Dreams, Too

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine

 

Dynamic cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s breakthrough moment as a child both had nothing at all to do with her already planned music career and yet everything to do with it.

At age 9 she was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, the kind of news no one wants to hear, least of all someone with a fragile dream of performing on stage with the world’s finest symphony orchestras.

But a setback doesn’t stop the doers in life from fulfilling their wishes. That’s why the 20-something Weilerstein comes to her May 29 and 30 Holland Performing Arts Center concerts with the Omaha Symphony Orchestra this weekend on the fast-track to classical music superstardom.

In Omaha she’ll perform Franz Joseph Haydn‘s “Concerto in C Major for Cello and Orchestra,” a-long-thought lost piece rediscovered in 1961. It received its first modern performance in 1962. The concerto’s three movements display the soloist-orchestra concertante “agreement” of Haydn’s time — an 18th century classical music call and response style. The serene centerpiece adagio is for strings only. It’s bracketed by spirited passages in which cello and orchestra go wild.

The American soloist, who began playing professionally at 14, has been called “a young old master.” Major symphony orchestras and music festivals in America and Europe clamor to engage her virtuoso talent. Icons like Yo-Yo Ma and Zubin Mehta sing her praises. Reviewers commend the bold passion she expresses in her intense, energetic performance on stage.

She does all this despite her diabetes. A daily regimen of insulin injections, blood sugar monitoring and strict dietary practices allows her to maintain a schedule of 100-plus concert/recital dates a year. Her exuberant life and work exemplify just how much one can accomplish when properly managing the condition.

 

 

 

 

Wherever she goes these days she delivers this empowering message of hope as a Celebrity Advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, whose mission is outreach, education and finding a cure. In Omaha she’s invited area children with diabetes to attend an open rehearsal session and then meet her at a reception backstage, where she’ll do an informal Q & A. Her role is to encourage anyone coping with diabetes with her own inspiring personal story.

“The message I want to get across is, one doesn’t have to abandon any ambition because of it,” Weilerstein said by phone.

Omaha-Council Bluffs JDRF chapter executive director Shawn Reynolds said it’s a needed message: “Diabetes can be life-threatening and life-limiting, and ambassadors like Alisa inspire individuals with Type 1 diabetes to face their dreams for their lives without fear.”

Courage is a process. After the jolt of finding out she had diabetes Weilerstein gritted her teeth and did what she had to do to keep her dream on track.

“It was overwhelming and, actually, I think I was more in shock than anything,” she said. “I didn’t try and deny it. I thought, ‘Oh, this sucks, but this is what it is and I’m going to do the best I can to take care of it.’ I had great doctors who assured me I would live a very long, healthy, productive life with it and it was completely possible to do whatever I wanted to do with the monkey I now had in my life.”

Then came her next challenge — conquering the needle by teaching herself to self-inject. She was a determined little girl who wouldn’t let anything, much less an illness, stand in her way. She learned to do it.

“I’ve always been very self-motivated and focused. If I decided I really wanted to do something or fix something I’ve always put my whole energy behind that.”

As she’s discovered, managing her disease and mastering her art require similar qualities. “Discipline and focus, that’s what they both have in common,” she said.

“They both take constant vigilance. Well, in a way one’s work is never done with the art and one’s work is certainly never done with diabetes. There’s always stuff you can do to improve it. It’s kind of this huge sort of juggling act to take care of diabetes and for sure to carry a full concert schedule with all the repertoire.”

Her ability to handle it all with aplomb is why many in the music world were surprised when she revealed she’s been a Type 1 diabetic since childhood. Until last year only family and friends knew about Weilerstein’s diabetes. She didn’t go public before because of questions her affliction invariably elicits.

“The reason I was private about it is that there is a stigma attached to it still unfortunately — about the complications that are possible to get,” she said.

She abhors the suggestion her disease might slow her down or necessitate a scaled-back career or touring slate. She doesn’t like making excuses.

“I just didn’t want anyone to entertain that thought remotely, so I kept it to myself and wanted to prove that I could handle any schedule that was thrown at me. And now that I have proved that I feel completely comfortable talking about it. I feel like I’m at a point where I can help people, which is something I’ve wanted to do.

“I am luckily in a position to reach more people because I travel so much and it’s a nice way to take advantage of that.”

 

 

 

 

Thus, she uses music as a medium for reaching out to others as a creative artist who just happens to be diabetic.

Music is a family legacy. Her father, violinist Donald Weilerstein, was a founder of the Cleveland Quartet. Her mother, pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, is equally accomplished. Her parents have their own separate touring careers and the family occasionally performs together as the Weilerstein Trio.

Alisa felt the call as a preschooler. “I knew exactly what I wanted from a very early age — I wanted to be a professional cellist,” she said. “There was no question in my mind. I can’t remember not wanting to play the cello.” Why the cello?  “I think it has the widest range of emotion of any instrument. It’s the closest to the human voice. We have the deepest bass, the highest soprano. I really think it’s capable of producing an indescribable amount of color, of emotions, of touching so many people.”

She begged her folks for a cello at age 4. They acquiesced. She began taking lessons. Her parents resisted pressure to tap her soon-evident prodigious gift.

“When I was very little there were people who were saying to my parents, ‘Alisa’s very talented and why aren’t you demanding more from her?’ My parents said, ‘Well, we want her to be a kid and to love the instrument and not think of it as just work.’ They were quite smart about it,” she said, admiringly.

At 9 her training turned more rigorous. “I went to teachers who had me work in a methodical way to really build a solid foundation and from then on I started practicing much harder. You know, hours of scales, arpeggios and etudes. I went through a ton of repertoire in a very, very careful manner and I really credit that for my technical development.” Despite pressure, her career progressed gradually.

 

 

 

©photo Erin Baiano for The New York Times

 

 

“My manager, I give her a lot of credit. She went very carefully with me,” said Weilerstein, who interrupted her touring to attend Columbia University. “I really feel like I had a full experience as a kid and as a young adult. That’s something I felt very, very strongly about. I wanted to meet different people from different backgrounds and to not constantly be surrounded by musicians and to also get a real education. My family was one hundred percent behind me.

“I never felt pushed into anything, and I just feel incredibly lucky things have worked the way they have, not just because they’re going so well but because things went very slowly.”

Since resuming music full-time, she said, “things have really jumped. The quality of work has gotten so much better and I’ve also been playing a lot more. I’m very grateful for that.” The whirlwind she’s on now can be “grueling and tiring,” she said, “but for me, at least at this point, it’s really worth it.” Besides, she’s paid to do what she loves. “I’m really enjoying it, I really am.”

Two more benefits of her life in music — working with great artists and meeting a diversity of people. She has friends now all over the globe. She expects to make some new friends in Omaha. “I’m looking forward to meeting some kids and families dealing with diabetes. It’s really nice to work with young people.”


Nebraska Legislature Once Again Wrestles with the Film Tax Incentives Question; Alexander Payne and John Beasley Press the Case Home

February 18, 2012 3 comments

George Clooney in Up in the Air (some airport scenes shot at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield terminal)

 

 

Here we go again.  Nebraska media reported in mid-January that homegrown film stalwarts Alexander Payne and John Beasley appeared before the state legislature cajoling elected officials to adopt tax incentives for the film industry.  Nebraska is one of only 10 states without any film tax credits, which helps explain why so few features of any size or consequence are shot here.  Outside of Payne’s first three features made here, you can count on one two hands the number of feature-length, medium budget films shot in Nebraska since the mid-1990s.  The state actually used to see more features, TV movies, and mini-series work before because Nebraska’s right-to-work status gave it an advantage, but that advantage has been lost in the high stakes incentives market.  It’s not the first time prominent Nebraskans in Film have tried impressing upon legislators the fact that Nebraska is losing a potential income stream to other states, including neighboring states.  Three years ago Payne made obstensibly the same appeal he made four weeks ago.  Then, as now, he used his planned film Nebraska as a leverage point in telling state senators, “Gee, wouldn’t it be a shame if I had to make a film called Nebraska in Oklahoma.”  Only now he’s saying he might have to take the production to Kansas.  It’s not just politics either.  He reportedly told senators, “I’m being pressured to shoot in Kansas instead of Nebraska and I’m hard-pressed to offer resistance. What do our counterparts in Kansas see that we don’t see?”  Even conservative Kansas, he noted, has adopted a 30 percent film tax credit program, whereas he added, “We have zilch.  That goes over like a lead balloon.  We Nebraskans now enjoy sensational cultural opportunities in opera, symphony, ballet, theater and art.  Film remains the missing element.  It’s crucial to have something in place here – even something modest – or filmmaking both from outside and home-grown has no chance in Nebraska.”

Beasley laid out a similar scenario, saying that the $12.5 million film he’s developing on Omaha native son Marlin Briscoe may also shoot in Kansas instead of Nebraska for the same reasons. “The investors in question,” he said, “want to see their money to go as far as it can go.”

More or less the same cast of characters who pushed for tax credits here in 2009-2010, namely Sens. Heath Mello and Abby Cornett, are the same ones at it again. The same lobbyin group active then, the Nebraska Film Association headed by Mark Hoeger, is active again.  This time Lincoln Sen. Colby Cash is helping lead the charge in the legislature and advocate voices like Payne’s and Beasley’s are being pressed into service.  Cornett’s introduced Legislative Bill 863 to put incentives in place.  She has legislature allies in Mello, Cash, and others.  Previous efforts have not really gotten very far, presumably because the Unicameral is a highly conservative body.  This time, there seems to be more support for the proposition, no doubt due in large measure to record budget shortfalls and a lagging state economy that’s forcing lawmakers to find creative new ways to generate revenues.  How much an impact  Payne’s and Broscoe’s power plays make is anyone’s guess, but it would be awfully embarassing if Nebraska snubbed its collective nose at favorite sons like these and they ending up taking their projects to Kansas.  Why wouldn’t you do everything you can to court Payne, Beasley, and filmmakers like them in the same way the state courts Google or some other Fortune 500 company to do business here?

I wrote the following story more than two years ago, when the tax incentives push last had this kind of star power buzz behind it.  Nothing happened then in the way of credits being adopted.  I assume something will happen this time.  My story by the way was published in truncated form, and here I present it for the first time in its entirety.  The piece tries to get at why this has been such a tough nut to crack in Nebraska and lays out a vision for how it might finally happen.  It appears now as if the groundwork laid down then may be finally paying off.

 

 

Alexander Payne testifying before the Nebraska Legislature, ©photo by Chris Machian, Omaha World-Herald

 

 

Nebraska Legislature Once Again Wrestles with the Film Tax Incentives Question; Alexander Payne and John Beasley Press the Case Home

©by Leo Adam Biga

A much shorter version of this story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Over the years Nebraska lawmakers have steadfastly refused to entertain adopting incentives for the film industry, leaving the state among only a handful not offering them.

Nebraska film incentives proponents are mounting their argument in what may be the worst possible climate for garnering political traction on the issue. That’s because many look at incentives as giveaways, not exactly what a group of mostly conservative legislators want to enact amidst a lingering recession, a mammoth deficit and the likely chilling effect of Iowa’s mismanaged, now suspended film incentives program right next door.

Incentivising other industries in Nebraska, meanwhile, is fairly common. Since going into effect in 1988, LB 775, later retooled under the Nebraska Advantage Act, has been a business incentives engine for many industries in the state. Nebraska Department of Economic Development director Richard Baier said the state targets certain industries with incentives, including Information Technology, data centers, insurance, transportation-logistics and advanced manufacturing.

Historically, lawmakers’ resistance to film incentives has centered around why filmmakers should be given special tax credits for products that are risky investments. State funding for the arts is not new, but America has a tradition of private arts funding. The murky thing with film is that it is both a business and an art. The vast majority of projects of any size are purely commercial enterprises, including feature films, documentaries, made-for-TV movies, episodic TV series, reality shows, music videos, commercials and industrials.

Then there are the micro-budget films that are so small they add little to the economy, much less stand any real chance of getting seen.

Skeptics wonder if film incentives are a revenue neutral or net gain proposition or whether states stand to lose money. The mismanagement of Iowa’s overly broad film incentives program, whose lack of restraints and oversights saw up to 50 percent in tax credits awarded some projects and some producers purchasing luxury vehicles on the state’s dime, recently led Gov. Chet Culver to suspend the program pending investigations. The Iowa fiasco illustrates states can give out more than they get back. Earlier, Michigan and Louisiana confronted their own incentives program failures that forced reviews and reorganizations, but Iowa’s problems resonate more as they’re more recent and closer to home.

Some ask why states would even put themselves in the position of being taken advantage of by film sharks. Other simply ask why shouldn’t filmmakers and their investors pay their own way and bear all their own risks.

There’s also a suggestion that a film incubator be created that coalesces film artists, crafts people, technicians and investors in a collaborative space that also provides training classes or workshops, all in the spirit of nurturing film activity.

The real debate centers around whether or not film production would generate enough economic development to justify the state offering a stimulus package. Even a leader in the pro-incentives movement here, Mark Hoeger, puts it this way: “The question is, is this a business Nebraska wants to attract here, and that’s not a simple answer.” Hoeger, a veteran Omaha filmmaker and co-president of Oberon Entertainment, heads the Nebraska Film Association. A nonprofit advocacy group formed earlier this year, the NFA includes representatives from segments with the most to gain from incentives — area producers, directors, Teamsters, et cetera.

 

 

Legislative Bill 863

©photo by Chris Machian, OWH

 

 

Under Hoeger, the NFA’s retained former Nebraska Department of Economic Development deputy officer Stu Miller to research the incentives issue. A well circulated report by Miller suggests a film tax credit formula of 20 percent will return a dollar eight cents on every dollar the state spends on incentives. He used the budgeted expenditures on Hoeger’s film, Full Ride, in devising his figures.

Proponents like Hoeger say that incentives would grow — from within and from without — the state’s nascent, somewhat scatter shot film community as it’s currently comprised into a sustainable industry.

Trouble is, no one really knows how many Nebraska residents work in film. There are some small production companies for whom filmmaking is their stock-in-trade. They range from one-person operations to minimal staffs. Rather than features, however, they produce TV commercials, industrials and documentaries. With the exception of those businesses and the documentary film units at Nebraska Educational Television and UNO Television, almost everyone that works in film in Nebraska does it as part-time, independent contractors. On film projects these freelancers fill such roles as grips, gaffers, makeup artists, costumers, set dressers, assistant directors and production assistants.

Then there are small firms that offer as an adjunct of their business film services, including casting agencies and sound recording studios.

As far as how many gainfully employed folks there are now and how many there might be, said Baier, “that’s not a number I can give you a feel for. That’s been part of our discussion with the film industry — and this is where it gets very complicated.” He said with a Pay Pal operation, for example, “you’re able to measure and quantify all of those things. In the film industry it’s much looser and much more difficult to get your arms around actual numbers.”

State Sen. Abbie Cornett, a film incentives advocate, chairs the Legislature’s Revenue Committee. She said “the film industry’s like any other industry that we incentivise in the state of Nebraska and that’s what we have to start looking at it as, as an industry, not as a one time event. We incentivised Yahoo to come here. It’s incentives, it’s giving a business reasons to locate here.” She concedes it will take “a long educational process” to cultivate the needed support for a film incentives measure to pass.

Baier said that what makes film incentives a tough sell here is that film is in fact unlike any other industry. When it comes to gauging hard economic impact, a brick and mortar call center is one thing, he said, and the traveling circus that blows into town with a film is another.

A call center has x number of employees earning salaries and wages. Those workers pay income tax and buy homes and everything else. The business pays property tax, purchases supplies, maybe invests in expansion and perhaps becomes a good corporate neighbor who gives charitably to community organizations.

The impact a film has when it comes to injecting new capital or creating jobs is debatable. That’s because there’s a wide spectrum of filmmaking in terms of budget, length of shooting schedule, cast-crew size, et cetera. Film budgets run the gamut from millions to thousands, production schedules vary from a few days to several weeks, cast-crew members number from a dozen to several dozen.

Only a portion of any budget is spent in any given locale. Payouts to on-screen talent, principal crew or department heads and to producers/directors/writers may or may not trickle to the local economy depending on where these individuals reside. Cast-crew size and the percentage of residents and nonresidents varies greatly and is a huge factor in determining how much lodging, eating, purchasing taxable dollars a film generates in-state. Even when shot principally or entirely in Nebraska, post-production aspects may be done elsewhere.

Said Baier, “The challenge with in-state crews is that many of them already have other kinds of film activities working with ad agencies and such, and so are you really creating new jobs or are you simply giving them more activity? Those are the kinds of things you would have to balance in that debate. If you’ve got somebody already doing it, should you give him an incentive to do one more project a year? That really lessens the economic benefit because from an economics perspective those folks already live here, they’re already working here, they’re already paying taxes here, all you’re doing is simply putting some icing on top of the cake.”

Payne and Beasley, ©photo by Chris Machian, OWH

 

 

All these considerations go into the incentives deliberation.

“There would have to be a lot of thought into how do we measure the long-term economic impact of the film industry to our state,” said Baier. “Are we creating jobs? Are we keeping people here? Are we raising the salaries? Are we creating capital investment and wealth in our state? We have to evaluate to make sure that we are providing an appropriate level of incentives to stimulate behavior without having a race to the bottom in terms of incentive policy from a state perspective. I would argue some of this has happened in other states, where the thinking became, Well, state x is doing this so we have to do what they’re doing, plus more, and that cycle continues until there’s no economic benefit to the state.

“And so as you look at these incentives programs there’s a real delicate balance between how do you impact behavior without giving away the store? We do that ongoing with all of our incentives and we’re very careful about how we administer our programs in Nebraska to make sure they are performance-based, which basically means we’ve gotta have jobs creation, significant capital investment, and if and only then if you do those things do you get any kind of incentive.”

Indeed, the state does recapture incentives from companies that do not meet performance goals. Those companies either forfeit or refund any incentives not earned. Some states with film inventives only cut checks to filmmakers once the project is complete and it’s been verified that the stipulated goals have been met.

The latest Nebraska legislator among a tiny but vocal contingent to take up the incentives bandwagon is District 5 representative, Sen. Heath Mello, who introduced LB 282 earlier this year with a proposed tax credit of up to 25 percent tied to Nebraska film crew hires. The bill, which didn’t reach the legislature’s floor for debate, also proposed a fiscal note or financial guarantee that is a major sticking point for opponents.

Mello, along with colleagues Cornett and Tom White, argue that incentives will equate to jobs and careers in a burgeoning industry.

Doubters express what might be termed a parochial attitude that says, Hey, this is Nebraska, who do we think we are to try and get Hollywood to come? The truth is, as incentives supporters point out, for years now states just like Nebraska, notably Iowa, have attracted scores of film projects, large and small, studio and indie, while Nebraska’s settled for the crumbs.

Cornett said, “If we do anything here we’re looking at something that would just make Nebraska competitive to draw some films here, we’re not trying to open our flood gates and say Hollwood come to Nebraska. But if you’re making a film set in Nebraska we’d sure like it to be filmed here.”

There is the occasional mid-major film by native sons: Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt); Andrew Robinson (April Showers); Nik Fackler (Lovely, Still). But their made-in-Nebraska works might be considered exceptions as these filmmakers have a special motivation to shoot here, incentives or not. There’s no question though that these artists’ indigenous projects do add to the area film culture, infrastructure and industry. Just as the Omaha Film Festival, the Nebraska Independent Film Project, the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, Film Streams and the University of Nebraska School of Theatre, Film and Television do.

Some proponents of incentives point to Omaha’s nationally prominent indie music scene as a model for the kind of industry-generating, image enhancement benefits a vibrant film scene might foster. They don’t mention that the major catalyst behind Omaha’s music indie phenomena, Saddle Creek Records, has energized things through entirely private means, without any props from tax credits.

Mark Hoeger

 

 

So why should film be treated differently than music? Proponents cite that film production costs generally far outstrip those for music and the number of artists and technicians attached to films generally exceed those on music projects. But what we’re really talking about is a feel-good, cool-quotient cultural amenity.

“Film is sexy,” said Hoeger. “Film is the kind of thing that is about glamour and excitement and all those intangible benefits that are greater than the direct economic benefits, and you know that’s not nothing. When you look at why Iowa’s justified doing what they have they saw one of their biggest challenges, as Nebraska’s is, is an aged population and trouble retaining young labor, especially talented, creative young labor.”

He said filmmaking would be another draw to keep people here and to attract new people here in the same way the Qwest Center, the new downtown ballpark, the Old Market, Lauritzen Gardens and the Henry Doorly Zoo do. It’s just that films are ephemeral things. They come, they go, the gypsies that work on them move on.

The idea of offering incentives to generate film production is nothing new. The allure of a film made in your own backyard has long been a powerful enticement. Filmmakers have long taken advantage of this vanity element to cut sweetheart deals with local-state government agencies, businesses and others eager to bask in the Hollywood limelight.

Several trends led filmmakers to ask for and get preferential treatment from state governments. Feature film production became increasingly untethered from its Hollywood base in the 1980s, in large part due to skyrocketing production costs. Filmmakers motivated to keep costs down headed to places like Canada, North Carolina and Texas, where film infrastructures took root. Once states realized the production pie was up for grabs, they began scrambling to offer more incentives. Bidding wars ensued. Together with these trends, independent cinema became the new model in the 1990s, leading to films being made wherever artists and investors could package financing and get the most bang for their buck.

The tech revolutions of cable and satellite television, VCRs, DVDs, personal computers cell phones, iPods, along with the phenomena of film festivals, social networking sites and services like Netflix, created new platforms for film/video viewing that expanded the demand for movies. A parallel revolution in home camcorders and digital editing put the tools of cinema production within the grasp of anyone, leading to an explosion in filmmaking. The age of garage films is upon us.

Even with all that, making the case for film incentives in Nebraska won’t be easy when elected officials must make hard social program cuts that affect people’s lives. On top of the budget woes, there’s the specter of Iowa’s film incentives scandal. The pro-incentives coalition acknowledges the Iowa situation hurts their chances to convince reluctant Nebraska lawmakers. Cornett called what happened in Iowa “a debacle” and “ridiculous.” “It’s going to negatively impact anything we do,” she said. “That’s something we’ll be battling.”

Hoeger and other incentives supporters believe Nebraska can learn from where Iowa and other states went wrong. One thing he and Cornett recommends is a deliberate program that ramps up slowly and carefully.

“If you’re just going to say, Here, come take whatever you want, we don’t care, then you’ll just be a sucker,” said Hoeger. “But if there’s a real strategy that says, Here’s what we’re trying to achieve and here’s what we’re willing to pay to get it, then I think it would be a smart move. Proper oversights are really important but I don’t think they’re the whole question either, although they’re an essential.

“The hope is and we shouldn’t proceed unless it’s more than a hope that you can show that we wrote a check for 20 percent  but we’re going to get back 25 percent, so you’re left with a net positive rather than a net negative out of this process. But if you can’t come up with a system that nets a return and achieves you’re objectives, then you walk away.”

He said any incentives would need to be tied to specific benchmarks, such as a minimum percentage of local crew used.

Iowa left the administration of an ever expanding and loophole-filled multi-million dollar incentives program in the hands of one overwhelmed film office employee. Nebraska Department of Economic Development director Richard Baier said Nebraska already has in place “a dedicated system” to administer incentives programs and this would be the logical mechanism to oversee film incentives.

“The Department of Revenue administers the actual auditing of our tax incentives programs for the State of Nebraska, which is great because that sort of puts a wall between what I would consider the sales team and the audit team,” he said. “Nebraska’s been very diligent and judicious about building a process in place to ensure compliance.”

Hoeger favors making any incentives program as transparent as possible, including a model like New Mexico’s that publishes on-line each film’s itemized budget.

Set of Nik Fackler’s Lovely, Still, a 2010 film shot in Omaha

 

 

Even though the Nebraska Film Office, which falls under Baier’s purview, would likely be only a liaison in the incentives process, it’s possible the office could be expanded. Presently, Lori Richards fills the film officer role on a contractural basis.

The Iowa program’s suspension has put several film projects in jeopardy or limbo, leading some producers to pull up stakes to shoot elsewhere. Nebraskans are prominently behind two of the affected projects. Writer-director-producer Steve Lustgarten’s feature My Own Blood was set to start shooting in Council Bluffs this fall when the plug was pulled on the Iowa program, forcing him to postpone the project, at least until the dust settles.

Alexander Payne is producing a film that was ready to roll when things blew up. Said Payne, “I’m involved in producing a film right now called Cedar Rapids, and where do you think that should be shooting? But its shooting in Michigan. We were all set to go in Des Moines and the incentives fell through, so we immediately high tailed it up to Michigan. There was something like a two or three million dollar difference” with Michigan incentives versus no incentives. The comedy starring Ed Helms (The Office) and John C. Reilly is directed by Miguel Arteta and is the first production of Payne’s company, Ad Hominem, which is also producing Payne’s adaptation of The Descendants, which begins shooting in February in Hawaii.

“As for my project,” said Lustgarten, “I’ll lose 100% of the funding without the Iowa deal. Will I sue? Wouldn’t want to tip my hand, though the Iowa attorney general says the state does have legal liability in regard to the contracts, so they’ll clearly be in breach.”

Incentives appear to be a Pandora’s Box that can’t be closed. They’re part of the film landscape now and all the wishful thinking or head-buried-in-the-sand grumbling will neither bring more films to Nebraska nor make incentives go away

Recently, Payne’s lent his clout to the NFA’s efforts. His public endorsement’s long been sought by advocates. This is the first time the writer-director of Sideways has participated. Where past film incentives efforts were reactionary, ad hoc blips, there’s now an ongoing apparatus to keep pressing home the message. All this made the filmmaker comfortable to put his name and his viewpoint out there.

“I think now they have a more concerted effort with a group and money behind it,” Payne said, referring to the NFA. Its president, Mark Hoeger, said the current pro-incentives camp is “by far” the most organized he’s seen it — “to the point that we’ve retained professional lobbyists to help us with getting organized and taking us through the (legislative) process.”

Payne directing Jack Nicholson on About Schmidt set in Omaha

 

 

Rich Lombardi is one of two lobbyists with Lincoln-based American Communications Group Inc. working with the NFA on what he calls “an uphill battle” in trying to persuade a majority of Nebraska legislators that film incentives are a good thing for the state. A longtime Nebraska legislature lobbyist, Lombardi said the question of film incentives “has been up and down the flag pole” before in the Unicameral and gotten nowhere. But he agrees with Hoeger that its supporters “never had this level of organization” in the past, adding they never “had a guy of Payne’s stature become like the unofficial cheerleader” for the cause.

On Oct. 12 Payne offered his perspective in meetings with Gov. Dave Heineman and other state lawmakers and policymakers. He also did a meet-and-greet with the film community at the elegant home of Thompson Rogers, a local film investor.

Admittedly “a show pony” in this effort, Payne neither exaggerates nor underestimates the value of his input. His pitch to the gov was short and sweet.

“I’m not a numbers guy, I’m not a film financier, I’m not a state economic development officer. I’m an artist,” said Payne. “So, Mark Hoeger was there to make part of the nuts and bolts case and lobbyist Rich Lombardi was also there to buttress the case and make points of his own, and I was there just to basically say two things:  ‘I make films in Nebraska, my next film after my Hawaii film is called Nebraska and I’m already getting pressured not to shoot it in Nebraska because there are no incentives here, and I would hate to have to retitle that film Iowa or Missouri or Kansas.”

Predictably, Nebraska incentives backers got a cool reception from Heineman, a fiscal conservative facing a huge state budget deficit in a tough economic climate.

“The governor has a lot on his plate and did not seem very interested at this point in pursuing it because it involves a certain degree of out of pocket expenses with the promise of some returned revenue in the future,” said Payne. “He just now can’t seem to justify anything out of pocket. But I’m confident and hopeful that he’ll start to understand more and not just the economic but the cultural benefits of doing such a thing.”

Payne said his argument for incentives is the same whoever he’s talking to.

“Look, I’m just there to say, I don’t know all the numbers but we have on our hands in Omaha, Neb. a blossoming cultural capital. It’s a world class city in miniature and fomenting film culture through such an act would be a super cool thing to do. I mean, the governor tends to look at just the numbers, which is his prerogative, but there are a whole host of cultural benefits to be had by doing such a thing. Sideways continues to unfurl millions of dollars into Santa Barbara county tourism. Granted that’s a very, very special case, but the economic benefits were not quantifiable at the time and they’ve been kind of infinite since then.”

Others use as examples Northern Exposure, Dances with Wolves, Field of Dreams and The Bridges of Madison County as shooting sites whose iconic locations have become popular tourist sites in states not generally thought of as meccas.

Hoeger said film “is the forum in which the world finds out who you are.” The inestimatable value of a state’s name or landmarks being featured in a film is something Stu Miller is trying to attach an advertising dollar equivalent to. Cornett calls it “a ripple effect.”

It should be noted Payne also got pressure not to shoot in Nebraska on his first three features but each time he managed to get his way. The state’s lack of financial incentives didn’t prevent those projects from being made here but he said a more competitive environment to attract the film industry has changed all the rules, and that’s another reason for him now speaking out.

“Yeah, it was different then, there weren’t that many (incentives programs). One of the only reasons I got to shoot Citizen Ruth here back in ‘95 was that it was a right to work state. That was the goal back then, there weren’t as many states with tax incentives back then, so back then you would think about Texas and North Carolina, they were states with some crew base where also you could shoot nonunion. Then it changed in the last eight years or so with these incentive programs that caught on.”

Hoeger conceded even without incentives Nebraska still “has some advantages and they’re some significant ones. For example, permits is a huge thing and Nebraska, permit-wise, scores highly. It’s very easy to get permission to shoot almost anywhere except Memorial Stadium. Even working with the highway patrol to close stretches of road or shooting in public places, you get a lot of cooperation.”

But, Hoeger added, “you can get a lot of that in places like Oklahoma and Iowa and get incentives, too, so if Nebraska wants to be in this game then it needs to do something, and if it doesn’t, if we cant put together a package that makes sense, then who cares, we just won’t have films get made here.” He said his own company, Oberon, is close to securing financing on two features, neither of which will be made here, in part because of a lack of incentives.

The fact is, films do continue to get made here. It’s just a question of how much is enough to stimulate something like a sustainable industry. Hoeger said where Payne “was able to get his Nebraska projects through on the labor part of it,” via largely nonunion shoots that kept the price down,” the trouble is now that, for better or worse, the incentives world has gotten so much more competitive that those advantages alone can’t get you over the hump.”

That’s not to say Payne still won’t or can’t make Nebraska here sans incentives. If he held out to shoot here, chances are someone with his standing — he’s an Oscar-winner, a critical darling and, most compellingly, a proven moneymaker — would get his way. He’s one of only a few filmmakers to enjoy final cut privileges.

It’s also important to note that in addition to or in lieu of tax credits, filmmakers use other ways to hold down costs, including getting talent to work for scale, eliminating perks and devising ultra tight shooting schedules. Also, producers routinely negotiate deals, such as reduced group rates at motels for cast-crew and volume discounts on transportation-equipment rental, supply purchases, catering services and other budget items.

But these are relatively nickel and dime considerations in comparison with the large savings, rebates, exemptions, even equity stakes, that filmmakers seek and get from taxpayer-fed, government-run incentives programs.

“There’s a lot of ways to bring the film industry here besides giving money and those I’m particularly researching,” said Cornett.

If and when Nebraska decides to enter the film incentives world, observers say you can expect a moderate, play-it-safe program that focuses on homegrown projects.

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