Aviva Kempner’s Rosenwald is the incredible story of Julius Rosenwald, who never finished high school, but rose to become the President of Sears. Influenced by the writings of the educator Booker T. Washington, this Jewish philanthropist joined forces with African American communities during the Jim Crow South to build over 5,300 schools during the early part of the 20th century.
Inspired by the Jewish ideals of tzedakah, (charity), and tikkunolam, (repairing the world), and a deep concern over racial inequality in America, Julius Rosenwald used his wealth to become one of America’s most effective philanthropists. Because of his modesty, Rosenwald’s philanthropy and social activism are not well known today. He gave away $62million in his lifetime.
Initial date for theatrical release of Rosenwald is Aug 14th in NY, more cities on Aug 21st, Los Angeles on Aug 28th.
Bijan Tehrani: What did motivate you to make Rosenwald?
Aviva Kempner: I had the pleasure twelve years ago of listening to Julian Bond, a civil rights activist, talk about Blacks and Jewish relationships, and I thought I was going to see a talk about the Civil Rights era, but in fact he went years back and talked so much about Julian’s role and everything he had done in tandem with African-Americans. Either building these over five thousand schools, or giving them fellowships of Arts and Leisure. He talked about also the Roosevelt fund fellowships that were given to great African-American writers and artists and performers that I realized that had to be my next film.
BT: Rosenwald is a very interesting character because with all he has done, there are so many people that have not even heard about him.
AK: I pride myself on making films about under-known Jewish heroes, but I have to say this man is the most under-known, and I think first of all to bring to light what his philosophy was, which was tzedekah, to live, and tikkun olam, “let’s all work together to repair the world”. So that was one big, big perspective. The other perspective is that I don’t think all of us could give away obviously sixty-two million dollars, but there is all of us who has a Julius Rosenwald in us, that we could all look at our community, look at the world and say, “What can I do to improve things?” I think that’s going to make a big, big difference.
BT: In our world today we have a huge growth in number of the people that make over millions of dollars every year and may be your film could help them to understand how they could help the world they are living in using their wealth.
AK: Thank you. Yeah, I am very proud of the fact that there is such an incredible role model in terms of my character and that we could put that forward and also in terms of what a difference an education makes. What a difference just caring about people and seeking out what they want and the kind of changes that they want, and of course the difference about education goes without saying, don’t you think?
BT: Sure, absolutely. Also, how much time did you spend on research and what were your research resources for this subject?
AK: Yeah, well I am very lucky, just like happened before with my previous films, there is always books done just before the film is made. I decide to research it, so that makes a big, big difference to have the ability to be able to look at books, and Peter Ascoli, who is in the film–he is a grandson–has incredible work that he has done in terms of research, and also Stephanie Deutsch. So of course, in terms of researching footage and in terms of researching stills, it took months and months not only to find the stuff, but also to interweave it into the film.
BT: One thing which is very amazing is this style of your film because you bring the fiction of storytelling style into this film that entertains people who are watching it. How did you come up with this style?
AK: Okay, well, when you are dealing with a topic that is over a hundred-and-fifty years ago, except for maybe re-creating scenes, which I tend not to do. I think Hollywood sometimes just really gets it right, and I was able to find these different scenes from TV shows like Rawhide or Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and I have a unique distinction of having Clint Eastwood speak Yiddish in my film and you usually see if you are talking about a peddler. Frisco Kid kind of shows that. You talk about how Julius Rosenwald’s company Sears & Roebuck would send people packages by role of delivery. There is a great song in “Music Man” that goes to that. So we are trying to have some fun, but also something like when you show the crowded, crowded conditions in Chicago. After “American Neighborhood,” you use something like “A Raisin in the Sun” which was written by Lorraine Hansbury who grew up in Chicago, whose family died very young, but also their father was a desegregation lawyer. So it is important to have that kind of footage created already on the screen and be able to use it. I might add though, it doesn’t come cheaply. This line of negotiations in trying to make sure that I am able to use and pay for the rights to use the footage.
BT: Did you have a screenplay from the beginning, considering all the footage, or did it come up to you when you were doing the post-editing?
AK: No, no, no,no, no. It’s as we are researching it, and then there was a lot more, but when we went to the DVD we eliminated because it is just too long, some of the scenes, and we had to wait until the DVD comes out to add some of these other scenes.
BT: What are the ways that people could watch this bit of the film? Will it have a theatrical release and a DVD release?
AK: I am very excited talking to you today because next Friday will be the commercial first release in New York, and then it is going to run in about thirty cities all around America. I feel very much that I am a film maker and that I want the films to be seen first on the screen, and that’s what I am all about and that’s what I am doing.
BT: Are you working on a future project right now and on similar topics?
AK: Well, it is sort of a split thing because on the one hand, I am not going to work on anything that I can’t get funded, so I am with the caveat that only if I can really get the funding to do it. I would like to do something on the book, the writing of the book and how it inspired resistance of other places, especially in Jewish ghettos during World War II, and that is the Austrian writer Franz Werfel’s “Forty Days of Musa Dagh”. So that’s one thing, and then there is a Jewish baseball player named Moe Burg, and the book on him said it was a catcher who was a spy, that he did stuff for the war effort in World War II.
BT: Working on these subjects for a long time, have you ever been tempted to make a feature fiction of these objects?
AK: Funny you should say that because that was the one thing I was going to say to you. I have co-written a script about another kind of hero, a Native American hero, who I knew when I was a volunteer and he kidnapped a mayor of Gallup (New Mexico) because of the kind of inequity that I thought was happening in Gallup, New Mexico, and he died in a shootout. So my screenwriter and I co-wrote it and then I was finishing this film, and we are going to go back to it.