'An unfair advantage in filmmaking'

Trey Miller
January 04, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It was 1948 when Holocaust survivors Ozer Grundman and his wife, Rivka Schindler, were living in a displaced persons camp in Italy. With 2-year-old twins, they knew they had to move to better conditions.

Rivka wanted to go to America. Ozer wanted to go to Palestine to fight for the creation of a Jewish state. When they boarded a ship, Rivka thought they were heading to America. She began to get a bit suspicious when they got to shore and saw an Israeli flag flying.

Ozer immediately departed for the Negev Desert to fight. He had lost most of his family in the Holocaust. Now, he was in his home country and wanted to defend it. Time passed, with his platoon having very few weapons. Then, one day, crates showed up with enough rifles and ammunition for everyone.

Excited, Ozer gripped his rifle and looked closely. What he found on the metal of the rifle was a German eagle with a little swastika in its talons.

“That’s when my grandfather stopped telling me his story, looked at me and asked, ‘Do you know where we got these weapons?’” said Boaz Dvir.

Ozer, the grandfather of Boaz Dvir, assistant professor of communications at Penn State, told him that story in 1991. Dvir, a longtime journalist and filmmaker, went on a search for the answer, which ultimately led to his production of the documentary “A Wing and a Prayer,” released on PBS in April 2015.

The documentary, which started to become a reality when Dvir conducted the first interview in 2009, tells a largely unknown story about World War II aviators who risked their lives and American citizenships to help stop what they viewed as an imminent second Holocaust during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

Since its release in 2015, the film has screened all over the world and garnered abundant critical praise. Most recently “A Wing and a Prayer” won Best Feature Documentary at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. The film has also aired on PBS stations across the nation, including all of the top 30 markets, where it aired mostly in primetime.

The St. Augustine Film Festival will screen “A Wing and a Prayer” Jan. 19 and Jan. 22 as an official selection. On Jan. 23, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) will host a special screening of the film at the Ritz East cinema in downtown Philadelphia.  

The film’s popularity has even surprised Dvir.

“I knew the story and characters were great,” he said. “I knew viewers would be engaged. What has surprised me is the film’s longevity, screening at film festivals nearly two years after it aired on television.”

Part of what has made the film so successful was that it tells a mostly unknown story. Even most members of the 1948 secret operation, Dvir said, knew only bits and pieces. That’s where his journalism background came into play.

Storytelling was always in Dvir’s future. When he was 8 or 9 years old, he lived in Israel in a small village between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. There, he conducted several shows over a couple of summers for children from his neighborhood. They would pay money and he would lead them in activities and tell them stories.

Fast forward, and Dvir wrote for Newsday, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Tampa Bay Times, The Miami Herald and the Jerusalem Post, among others. He also served as editor of the Jacksonville Business Journal and managing editor of the South Florida Business Journal.

He got into filmmaking in 2007 and his first film, “Jesse’s Dad,” showed at festivals in 2010. The film captures an uneducated truck driver’s transformation into a highly effective child-protection activist. Dvir has since produced multiple films and documentary shorts, and his journalism background has been vital to his success.  

“I think it gives me an unfair advantage in filmmaking, it really does,” said Dvir. “It has made me a better interviewer, a better researcher, a better storyteller.”

The background hasn’t just helped him in the filmmaking business. It’s been important in the classroom, too. Dvir said his experience as a journalist and filmmaker help him speak to industry standards and relay that to the students. In addition, he can help them learn from his mistakes and teach from experience.

While his work with “A Wing and a Prayer” has been great, it also provides Dvir with inspiration to pass along to his students. That was one of his goals when making the film.

“I do that whenever I get the chance, not just in my classes but when I screen the film and there are young people there. I say, ‘Look, these guys were in their 20s and they did this. You’re in your 20s. What can you do?’” Dvir said. “Look them straight in the eyes and challenge them: 'What’s important to you? Where can you make a difference?’”

The film inspires viewers and inspired Dvir as well. He interviewed 30 people around the world over four or five years, filming 140 hours of footage. He formed many relationships and bonds with his interviewees — tightening his already personal bond with the story. The pilots in the operation were some of the most vital interviews.

“These aviators who risked their lives and citizenship are really responsible for me being here,” Dvir said. “If they didn’t do that, then my grandparents on both sides, and my parents, who were all in Israel at the time, probably would have died.

“To be able to spend time with Al Schwimmer, the mastermind of the operation that saved Israel and my family, was an honor and a privilege. He’s my rock star.”

Going forward, Dvir will be able to use what he learned while making “A Wing and a Prayer” to help him with future endeavors. The film has taught him that it’s worth it to spend several years on a project. He also learned that even when you have to leave subjects out of the final product, it’s okay, because each interview provides insight and hones storytelling skills.

He said the most engaging part of a film is the story and its characters. He’s always interested in strong stories and compelling characters, which led to his latest project, “Discovering Gloria.” The film follows the emergence of an average inner-city STEM schoolteacher into a trailblazing innovator and a national model.

All of the films align perfectly with Dvir’s motivation as a storyteller and filmmaker, which is to stimulate discussion, effect change, shine light on untold stories and inspire people to take action.

“I’m lucky,” he said, “to be in a position to tell the stories of ordinary people who, under extraordinary circumstances, transform into trailblazers and game changers.”

Last Updated February 01, 2017