Monday, July 14, 2014

Interview with Award Winning Chicago-Israeli Filmmaker Shuli Eshel: A Pioneer in History & for Women

Shuli Eshel is an award winning filmmaker, born in Jerusalem, Israel.  She is a feminist and human rights advocate.  Many of her films proved important firsts in the United States and Israel and can be attributed to history, politics, the women's movement and the Jewish communities. Some of her works even impacted Israel’s legislation early in her career. Shuli obtained her Master of Fine Arts in film and television in London, England at the Hornsey College of Art after receiving her B.A. in English & American Literature and Linguistics from the Tel-Aviv University in Israel.  She realized very early that women were not being treated equal. This led to a pursuit in film with a feminist consciousness.

Shuli worked for Israeli television in the current affairs division from 1975 to 1977 as a production assistant. It was when the reporter she was working with had a family emergency that she had the opportunity to impact legislation, by producing a half hour documentary about illegal abortions in Israel. The documentary was so controversial, that a group of Israeli parliament members came to view it and the following week, the Israeli parliament legalized abortion in Israel.

The young filmmaker was active in politics, demonstrating and fighting for women's rights in Israel. This call for change is what led Shuli to join the Women’s Party ticket in 1976 and run for the Israeli parliament. Founded by Marcia Freedman, an American-Israeli activist and feminist leader, Shuli was a model candidate for the new party. However, this career in politics was short lived when the party needed someone to do commercials to influence the vote. In light of this, Shuli removed herself from the party’s ticket. “So I decided at that moment that I would rather use film to influence people’s thinking than be a politician,” Shuli said. In a campaign commercial, Shuli revealed that housewives of Israel were not even aware of their important contributions in the 1977 election. Eshel made housewives realize their roles as being equal hard-working contributors to Israel’s society.

Eshel has always had ambition and is a stark advocate of human rights and equality.  She prioritized these convictions over family. “I felt that men expect you to be in a certain role and that you cannot really have a career and have children. That was a thing that really bothered me when I was younger. I am aware now that a lot of women are able to do both. But I think it is very difficult. And I chose a career rather than be a homemaker.

When Shuli returned to the United States in 1989, she was confronted with a set of challenges. She wanted to make a life for herself.  Shortly after arriving, her marriage started crumbling and she got divorced: “Life is full of challenges all the time …when I first came to the United States it was a big cultural shock for me because I came from a different culture. And I felt kind of like an immigrant and I had to adjust and find work and so forth,” the documentary maker said. In 1991, she started teaching part-time at Columbia College with a given salary of $800.00 a month. “And that was not enough to sustain me and so I had to look for other work. And uh, it’s a struggle. It’s a challenge. You talk about challenges? That was a challenge. You have challenges all the time in life.

However, Eshel eventually had a breakthrough and was awarded a contract to do commercials and fundraising videos for Carol Moseley-Braun, the first African American woman to run for the U.S. Senate. Braun won. On account of her success, Shuli co-founded a company called Cavalcade Communications Group with Roger Schatz, a fellow professor at Columbia College. This was an opportunity to make a substantial living for the very first time.  “Continuing to make independent films under Eshel Productions was a challenge but it was not my livelihood. I had to continue working and making money through my regular company. All the films that I am making are in addition to making a living. That is number one. Number two, because the money trickles in slowly, it takes longer to create the film,” she said.

Looking back at her feminist contributions to Israel, Shuli states that legislative roles have increased for women, though the country has some of the same barriers as the United States. Even though Golda Meir was elected as the first woman prime minister in Israel, Shuli feels that Israel still has a long way to go. She hopes that Former U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2016.

Today, Shuli is promoting possibly one her most notable contributions to world history, A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald, a film that confronts the truth about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the role he played before and during the holocaust. The film shines light for the first time on the efforts of James G. McDonald to warn world leaders of Adolf Hitler's plans for the Jews. These accounts are based on a recent discovery of the diary of James G. McDonald, first U.S Ambassador to Israel. Below is a timeline of many of her most important works, including her most recent film, and the events surrounding them.


(1977)- “Artificial Abortions” (Translation from Hebrew) 

Artificial Abortions was a half hour documentary produced for Israeli television. As a production assistant in the current affairs division at a local TV station, Shuli Eshel was working with a reporter who was doing a documentary on the subject of abortions in Israel, which was illegal at the time. The reporter had to take a sudden leave of absence and she was given an approval to take over this one production. Shuli attributes the success of  the documentary to her strong feminist perspective that helped influence Israeli parliament which ended up legalizing abortion the following week. The members of the Israeli parliament came to the television station because some of the members did not get to see the documentary... They had a private screening. And after that, they took a vote and voted for legal abortions in Israel,” Shuli added.

(1981) To Be a Woman-Soldier: The Role of Women in the Israeli Army 

To be a Woman-Soldier: The Role of Women in the Israeli Army was Shuli Eshel’s first full length groundbreaking documentary. Shuli made women become aware of their role as second class citizens in the army. The film exploded the myth of equality between the sexes not only in the army but in Israeli society as a whole. People thought that there was equality in Israel but her documentary exposed the truth about the role that women play in the military. Shuli was the first to make a documentary of its kind. “I exposed the myth of equality in Israel. Because up until then, everybody thought that because women served in the army that there is equality in Israel,” she said.

(1992) Carol Moseley Braun 

Carol Moseley Braun is a documentation of the first African American woman that was elected to the U.S. Senate. Shuli was selected to produce former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun’s commercials and fundraising videos. Though she was already working on Mudpeoples, which focuses on the first all African-American women artists collective in Chicago which was released later, Shuli stated that the project prepared her for the film on Braun. “Everything I did was from a social perspective. I am against discrimination against women, color, ethnic groups, religion and everything. I am very much a fighter for human rights,” Shuli said.

(1994) MudPeoples: A Portrait of Clay Artist Marva Jolly
MudPeoples. A Portrait of Clay Artist Marva Jolly is a documented story about Clay artist Marva Lee Pitchford Jolly, an African-American woman who grew up on a farm in Crenshaw, Mississippi. Shuli said she had a knack for being the first to tackle certain issues. She wasn’t aware of this at the time, but Mudpeoples Studio, and Sapphire and Crystals, founded by Marva Jolly were the first all African-American women artists collective in Chicago. The film premiered at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1994 and then aired on WTTW.

(2000) Gutman – Life and work of Israeli Artist Nahum Gutman

The 2000 release of The Life and work of Israeli Artist Nahum Gutman was a possible result of a desire Eshel made to the universe. “I said that I wanted to make a film for Israel’s 60th anniversary in 1998,” said Eshel.  She believes this statement led her to the production that documented the life and work of Nahum Gutman who is not only an artist but a hero to Israel. She made the film for the Gutman Museum in Tel-Aviv, Israel and it is been shown permanently at the museum for schools from all over Israel. The film discusses the history of Tel Aviv from 1909 to 1980 through the lens of an artist. Shuli produced, directed the film and raised the money for the production. She donated the film to the Gutman Museum, though she kept the rights to sell it in the museum’s gift shop and all over the world.

(2002) Maxwell Street: A Living Memory.  The Jewish Experience in Chicago

Maxwell Street: A Living Memory.  The Jewish Experience in Chicago recaptures the memories of Maxwell Street a historical market place in Chicago, built by Eastern European Jewish immigrants. The film premiered at the Chicago Historical Society, now renamed The Chicago History Museum to a record crowd of over 1,000 people, according to Shuli in 2002.

(2007) Jewish Women in American Sport. Settlement Houses to the Olympics 

Jewish Women in American Sport. Settlement Houses to the Olympics confront the stereotypes of Jewish women. “When I told people that I was making a film about Jewish women in sports they asked, “Are there any? The stereotype is that Jewish mothers want their daughters to marry lawyers and doctors. And so sports is not really an element in the Jewish culture,” Shuli said. This film was a result of studies led by Professor Linda Borish of Michigan University who was doing research on Jewish women in sports. This research and eventual collaboration led to Shuli’s production. It premiered at the Spertus Museum in 2007. Shuli exposed the vital role Jewish women have played as athletes, administrators and activists from the settlement houses in the 1880s into the 21st century, confronting ethnic and gender constraints, and changing American society. This was also a first because no one had made a film about the role of Jewish women in American sports.  It does not only include Jewish women as athletes, but also many women who have won Olympic medals were often trained by Jewish women in all aspects of sports. The film has been bought by many universities, colleges and libraries throughout the United States, and is slowly changing the perception of Jewish women in sports.

(2013) Passion for Dancing: The Story of Shulamith

Shuli wanted to be a ballet dancer but had an accident at age 13. In 2003, she reconnected with her childhood passion for dancing through Salsa. Passion for Dancing: The Story of Shulamith is also an autobiography on Shuli Eshel which discloses much of her life and work and passion for dancing. I felt it changed my whole life. Once you reconnect with your passion, you become alive. You become younger, more vital and energetic... And it reconnected me to Chicago. Because until then, I did not know if I wanted to stay in Chicago because of the cold winters. But once I reconnected to my childhood passion, I became apart of the Salsa community...Also, when you are on the dance floor, you are like one with God. It transforms you. When you are connected to your passion, you forget about all your worries, and all the stress and everything, and you know you are on a different level and I also felt it was very spiritual and it was very transformative,” she said.

Eshel was able to raise $10,000 for the film. Most of the funds were retrieved from the Salsa community and private donors. The film was completed last year and premiered on May 19, 2013 to a full house at the Instituto Cervantes of Chicago which is dedicated to offering programs to promote the Spanish language and culture.  “It was amazing, the love and the reaction!” Shuli explained that the last third of the film includes her friends from the Salsa community who have enriched her life. She started The Voice Among the Silent, her most recent project right after this film.

(2014) A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald

The Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald is a documentary that is based on the recent discovery of the of diaries of the first U.S. Ambassador to Israel, James G. McDonald. The diaries reveal McDonald’s attempts to warn world leaders including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the future Pope Pius XII about Adolf Hitler’s plans for the Jews. After a face-to-face meeting with Hitler, McDonald worked diligently to warn the world of the impeding doom he foresaw. Through humanitarian efforts, McDonald helped over a 2,000.00 Jewish refugees flee Nazi Germany. James G. McDonald served as the League of Nations’ commissioner for refugees and as an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Shuli says that, “A Voice Among The Silent urges people to speak up when they are confronted with evil. It is very important to bridge age, color, religion and hold hands together and fight for human rights and human justices. And it is very important at this stage in my life. And James McDonald did that and we can learn a lot from his activism, experience and foresight.

This controversial film confronts a myth about the former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Holocaust. “And there are those who think that he did everything he could to save the Jews and there are those like me that think that he did very little. And the facts show that he did very, very little to save the Jews of Europe. The film has already confronted controversy even through FDR’s attitude to the Jews of Europe and has been documented in other films. People even today do not want to to tell the truth about what happened because they are worried that if you attack Roosevelt who was a Democrat, and by the way, so am I, the current president will be attacked. But my film has nothing to do with my political stance. It’s to do with the truth based on the meticulous diaries kept by James McDonald. And the truth is that Roosevelt was probably a little anti-Semitic and did not do much to save the Jews in Europe...I think that people had not learned enough about how to speak up and fight against genocide. And that is why the film that I made now is relevant to what happened under Clinton’s watch and what happened in Rwanda. It is relevant today as much as it was 80 years ago because it can happen again.”

The Voice Among the Silent will premiere in Chicago on November 9th at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in conjunction with Kristallnacht ("the night of broken glass") which was the beginning of the holocaust. “On November 9th 1939, the Jews were killed and sent to concentration camps. It was a horrible, horrible day for humanity, never to be repeated again.” Shuli noted.

Also, the film will be shown in Indiana University Cinema in early December in conjunction with the third volume of McDonald’s diary being released in the middle of November.
The film will also be premiered in New York at a date to be announced. An educational screening of the film was moderated by Congresswoman Donna Christensen in April this year on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C, in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

With the help and support of McDonald's daughter and other donors, Shuli was able to overcome one of the biggest challenges in making independent documentaries- funding. With her assistance, she was able to garner donations from private donors. In addition to the financial support for A Voice Among the Silent, photographs of Hitler that have never been seen before were donated to the project and can be seen in this film.


You can support history by visiting:

A VOICE AMONG THE SILENT: The Legacy of James G. McDonald

Shuli Eshel


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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Interview with Danish Filmmaker Berit Madsen for SEPIDEH

Photo Credit: Mikkel Völcker

Danish filmmaker Berit Madsen documents a story of a young Iranian girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut in-spite of the hurdles. In Conservative Iran, women are encouraged to prioritize and pursue marriage and family. The film Sepideh- Reaching for The Stars which is Madsen’s first long feature documentary reveals a girl by the name Sepideh, who's a young dreamer and faces some level of ostracization. However, she is fueled by the support of her mother, friends and astronomy club teacher who is depicted throughout the documentary championing her efforts.

Sepideh does the unthinkable. She ventures out late at night to gaze at stars with fellow young astronomy enthusiasts- many of them being male accomplices. These are are not traditional activities for any girl in Iran.  This is what led filmmaker Berit Madsen to explore the controversial activities of the astronomy club.

I heard about that there was this very particular place- we are talking about 800 miles south of Iran, you know its quite far away from big city stuff, where there was astronomy activity, where there was this physic teacher wanting to build an observatory and especially I noticed that rumor that boys and girls would go out at night.  I was like whoaaa. It was one thing when people do in secret but this was publicly known so I just had to go there,” says Berit

Berit wanted to particularly document Sepideh. She was keen on becoming an astronaut, regardless of the obstacles. Sepideh rigorously indulged in astronomy research and anticipated winning a contest to fund her attendance to a university. She was well beyond her years in her studies and insistent on ascertaining her goals. In times of desperation, she sought inspiration by journaling to Albert Einstein. For filmmaker Berit Madsen, the story just seemed intensely ambitious.

...this tiny girl, I was really surprised that she was there and coming on her own. She was working, almost being obsessed being out there at night, watching the stars and moving the telescope. So I came to her family house the next day and I opened the door and saw images of Albert Einstein on the wall, then started to get the first pieces of information that about her life and this crazy dream of becoming an astronaut. And the father had died and the promises she had given to her father to go find life,” adds Berit.

Madsen expresses that this documentary is paramount in introducing other models for girls and women in conservative countries like Iran. It wasn’t another grim story about a woman who was defeated and subdued by her family and culture. Sepideh’s story was a beacon of hope for more girls like her.

Be that as it may, paths like these clearly have a certain level of complications, especially in places that restrict girls and women from having careers and ambitions. The young stargazer’s mother was supportive of Sepideh’s intentions, even though she worried about the consequences of her daughters actions. She was widowed and relied on the aid of extended family. These actions incited disapproval which ultimately toughened the circumstances for the two of them, and intensified the lack of support they were already getting from Sepideh’s uncles.

On one hand she wants her daughter to do what she is doing but on another she is trying to pull her back because she is afraid that there is going to be consequences and if she is going make too much rumors about her. Because in Iran is a country even though it is a -------- state in a way where you have to rely on good will from people and if you lose that and if you misbehave and lose that, life could be difficult for you,” says Berit.

With that being said, Sepideh’s story is no different than any other ambitious young person who may be attempting to overcome some sort of difficult situation.  They are determined to beat the odds and refuse to succumb to some sort of restriction being imposed on them. This story is universal to all young people or anyone that dares to step outside of certain boundaries.

There were many challenges in making the film. Throughout a five year span, Berit Madsen traveled back and forth to Iran over nine times. Each time she was told that it would be the last shoot. But she would later decide that she needed more footage. A co-producer was even arrested for charges unrelated to the film and spent months in jail. There were many restrictions for journalists and filmmakers throughout the country. It was a time that incited a lot of fear because things seemed unstable within the country.

In Iran, we were facing more and more challenges like the media houses were shut down, all the guilds were shut down. It became more and more difficult for everybody in Iran probably because after the green revolution, it sort of became obvious that there was a lot of uncontrollability in media. You can send images to the rest of the world and I think they made a focus on the filmmakers,” notes Berit

The film Sepideh is a victory and a token of things taking shape in Iran. Madsen discusses how this new generation of Iranian women are truly setting the tone for the country and how the recent campaign that started on Facebook, which champions Iranian women that are removing their hijabs is relative to this sort of change.

“It tells a story about the young generation of Iran, you know women of Iran, just wishing to be in control of their own lives. They want to decide their own future. They are full of energy and spirits and pushing borders their way with a wish of being able to live their life which is according to how they’d like to live their life. And I think that kind of movement of young generation, you will find on many levels,” says Berit.

The girl day-dreamer is omnipresent in almost any culture, which is why a filmmaker from Denmark felt that it could inspire women across the globe. Having been seen in more than 20 countries, Berit says that people respond in the same way everywhere. They walk away with tears and triumph.

Madsen finally adds that, “I am sitting here in my own easy society and though we may have our own challenges, I think it’s fantastic when women can cross continents and be inspiration for each other.

The documentary Sepideh continues to be seen around the world and has been featured here in Chicago at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Also it has been selected for the 2014 Sundance Film Festival- World Cinema Documentary Competition. The film’s site can be found at

Monday, March 3, 2014

Interview with Carolina Buglione, an Italian Global Philanthropist

Carolina amongst children in Congo. Click on photo to view the rest of the slide.

Carolina Buglione, had just spent four years in what some have branded the most dangerous place on Earth. A job opportunity in Washington, DC enabled her to leave behind a destination located in the Democratic Republic Of Congo (DRC). The late endeavor enabled her to participate in the installation of the American version of a Spanish NGO, called CODESPA, an organization that works towards eradicating poverty and has managed around 800 international development projects in 33 countries to this day.

Though it is presided by HRH the Prince of Asturias and in collaboration with various multilateral organizations such as the EU, Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank, CODESPA, finds itself attempting to rebrand its efforts in the United States and garnering further interest in its initiatives, creating CODESPA AMERICA. Over the past year and a half, Carolina has been part of that reestablishing process. However, she departs in key timing as the organization enacts a strategy.

Buglione’s current role at CODESPA America is Executive Director. In Congo’s capital Kinshasa she was the  country representative for Fundación CODESPA and presided over multiple programs that aided the very poor. “Our work there was mainly providing vocational training services to young people… We would support  very small micro enterprises that need help in different ways, especially in access to credit, training, basic equipment... ”.

CODESPA wanted her to lead their efforts after making contact with her at a youth center in Goma, Congo, where they provided the vocational program training. My experience in Congo started in Goma, which is located on the border with Rwanda. It’s one of the most difficult towns in the country, with a complex war going on since more than  20 years”.
Her destination in Goma was an appointment awarded in scholarship by the Italian government. She was assigned to an Italian NGO by the name of VIS Volontariato Internazionale per Lo Sviluppo (VIS). In Goma, VIS dedicates its efforts towards training minors in a Salesian ran youth center called Don Bosco Ngangi.  Don Bosco aids vulnerable and displaced children, such as those that are affected by HIV/AIDS, and even  child soldiers, refugees, orphans and street children. Carolina states that, “They provide assistance to around 3000 kids everyday in school and food and different kind of health services and professional training”.

In the initial stages, Buglione was a bit distressed by her deployment. The realities were far more disparate than what she had been used to “...I was pretty scared in the beginning of course. It was really tough and it’s a very difficult environment”.  

Rightfully so, Congo is also considered the most dangerous place for women. Aside from the sorrows of children, women are likely victims, caught between rebels and soldiers that have been designated to protect the villagers. In-spite of the risks, Carolina explains that there are many women that work for the NGOs in Congo. “In Congo, generally speaking, there was a majority of women working with NGOs, also at higher level and in  big organizations”.

Even though there are organizations like CODESPA or VIS that are making significant strides, Buglione is concerned about the country’s stagnant progress. “Congo is such a complex country. It’s such a complex situation, that actually when I left, the situation especially in Nord Kivu where Goma is, was exactly the same as in 2008 when I arrived...The population was still suffering at exactly the same level. The level of insecurity was very high”.

Safety is a big issue. You have curfew... especially in Goma there were moments when we were evacuated in Rwanda for example because the rebels were coming in town; there were shooting and everything...there was a cholera epidemic, so we were evacuated again...then managed to deal with that, taking thousand of precautions 20 times a day and try to be careful,...the life you live there is very small somehow because there are so many things you can not do, like walk around by yourself

However, Carolina believed in the work that she was doing which is why she is a strong advocate of sustainable techniques. “In my opinion most of the time the humanitarian aid is just the giving of things and equipment. It’s not sustainable. And it doesn't really help the population from real improvement. It’s always very temporary. And it creates a very particular view from the population on international aid. We are perceived as some sort of actors that arrive and provide things. And you can find yourself in front of a situation where some local community is actually waiting for someone to come and bring, food or stuff instead of like putting themselves to work.

Though she doesn’t negate the necessity of humanitarian aid, justifiably so, Congo’s conflict puts it at high risk. However, she is a champion of sustainable action. “Even though the humanitarian aid is sometimes extremely necessary,... especially in a place like Congo, where its conflict situation is going on for so long...So you have a whole generation of people that was born and living under this situation, …’s like kids that now has grown up have seen this humanitarian aid like a very important part of their economy…This is very sad for me”.

She doesn’t regret her time spent there. Actually, she came to enjoy the country. However, It’s realities started to wear thin. “It was really tough and it is a very difficult environment and you come so close to difficult realities. It kind of changes the way you see things”.

Buglione was fortunate. She found love in the belly of the harshness. Her husband-to-be was working for the United Nations, in particular on forest management issues. She talks about the survival rate of relationships and family that are comprised of people who prioritize traveling from mission to mission. “I think that it’s much more difficult when people work really into the humanitarian sector. Because what they do is travel from crisis to crisis. You meet those people they’re  like, last year I was in Sudan, and the year before, I was in ... and year before that I was in Afghanistan. I mean they go from tough place to tough place”. Eventually, Buglione and her husband found new assignments and relocated to Washington D.C. “Coming to Washington has been a good change and a good change in life...I wanted to get out of Congo. It has been hard. After four years, I think it was enough for me. “

Some could say that her work in D.C. has been merely a time for reflection and transition, as she embarks on a journey comprised of a new union and their collective interests. Her husband has taken another assignment located in Panama. Just in a few short days, they will reunite after being separated for a month. She is a proponent of family. Even though she misses her own back home in Italy, she realizes that her husband is part of that. They support one another. “We both have curiosity in each other’s interests...experiencing the world and traveling. So we are not afraid of that”. However, Carolina is unclear of what career choices will await her in this new territory. She’s optimistic and focused on family, which makes her choices distinctive but wise, when choosing a career path in global philanthropy.