ABOVE AND BEYOND a documentary about the American, British, South African and other english-speaking WWII pilots who volunteered (with two Israelis) to create the Israeli Air Force in 1948, had its New York City premiere this week at the DOC NYC Documentary Film Festival.
It was produced by Nancy Spielberg and directed by Roberta Grossman (Blessed is the Match, Hava Nagila), with remarkable special effects by Industrial Light and Magic.
The documentary begins in post-WWII Palestine; the United Nations votes to partition the British Mandate in Palestine and create two states. Arab armies and Egypt’s Air Force’s Spitfires prepared for war against the nascent Jewish State, and Harry Truman’s U.S. government and the U.K. embargoed arms sales to Middle East parties. A group of Jewish American pilots answered a call for help. In secret and at great personal risk to their lives, freedom, and citizenships, they smuggled surplus planes out of the U.S., bought some planes based on the former Nazi Messerschmitt Me-109G’s, trained in Ceske Budejovice in Czechoslovakia and flew their planes and jets for Israel in its War of Independence.
The film interviews several surviving members of the volunteer pilots. In one notable scene, the son and widow of one of the heroic American pilots sit in a Sarasota synagogue and they read from his diary. The former American and Royal RAF pilot was Milton Rubenfeld – a man so cocky that some said he swaggered even when sitting. His son – who reads from the diary – is actor Paul Reubens, known to many as Pee Wee Herman.
Grossman recreates the aerial footage of training and battles. It was hard to believe that these were recreations. In a fascinating bit of serendipity, the filmmakers later found out that the jet they used for the recreations was actually one of the first IAF jets, now refurbished and residing in an American museum.
The film got its start when Nancy Spielberg read an obituary for Al Schwimmer, 94, in June 2011. He had organized the purchases of arms for Israel’s War of Independence and went on to found Israel Aircraft Industries. He was found guilty of breaking American law and lost his U.S. citizenship; he was pardoned decades later by Bill Clinton. Nancy, a filmmaker and the youngest sister of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, realized that the story of the North American and other volunteers from abroad, known as “the Machal,” and Schwimmer’s plotting to get planes from California to Panama to Brazil to Spain to Italy and then to Tel Aviv seemed like an exciting story that could make a fascinating documentary. After researching the topic, she approached Grossman after the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and convinced her to direct the project. Some of her $1.3 million budget – which took 3 years to raise – came from S. Daniel Abraham, the founder of the Center for Middle East Peace in Washington, D.C., and the founder of Slim Fast.As filmmakers, they have as much swagger as the surviving pilots they feature, including former US Navy torpedo bomber pilot Leon Frankel, Marine Corps fighter pilot Lou Lenart, and Army Air Force pilots Gideon Lichtman, George Lichter (z’l), Harold Livingston, and Coleman Goldstein (z’l).
At the screening I attended, which included relatives of the Machalniks, and Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who seems to have been very familiar with one of the pilots in 1948, several audience members opined that the film should be shown to every Hillel member and Birthright Israel traveler. In my opinion, the film, or no film for that matter, is a drug that will initiate engagement, or at least no more than Operation Thunderbolt or Raid on Entebbe would. Ms. Spielberg is establishing a preservation and education program around the film, similar to the one that was founded for Schindler’s List.
If you are in NYC, there is an added screening of the film on “>Thursday, November 20, at 4:45PM at the SVA Theater.
A Trailer with music by Hans Zimmer.