Would you risk everything – your future, your citizenship, even your life – to help a brother in need? So begins filmmaker/producer Nancy Spielberg’s fascinating feature-length documentary about the foreign airmen, members of Machal ‘volunteers from abroad’ who smuggled planes out of the U.S. and Britain to fight in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
In 2011, Spielberg had just finished executive producing the documentary Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals, when she came across the obituary of a man named Al Schwimmer that read: “Father of the Israeli Air Force Dies at 94.” The obituary detailed how an American flight engineer for TWA, had smuggled the first planes to Israel, recruited volunteer pilots to fly them in the ’48 War and, in so doing, helped create the Israeli Air Force. Spielberg thought, “This has my name written all over it!”
Realizing that surviving pilots would already be in their 80’s and 90’s, time was of the essence, and Spielberg hired director, Roberta Grossman and writer, Sophie Sartain, and assembled a crew to start filming interviews immediately. All told, there were nearly 5,000 volunteers from 56 countries, including 150 pilots, mostly Jewish, who’d flown fighter planes for the U.S. Air Force, Marines and Navy during World War II.
“I had expected to hear wild adventure tales of evading the FBI, chasing after girls, racing though the skies in aerial dogfights – but what surprised me was the heart and emotion each pilot brought to his interview, “ said Spielberg. “ Most of them did not grow up with a lot of Jewish pride in an era of widespread anti- Semitism. Some of them volunteered purely for the adventure of it. But in their interviews, they shared how their experiences in Israel awakened their Jewish identities and transformed their lives. “
“ That’s why I’ve always loved the documentary film format because there is so much authenticity to it. It’s real life and just grabs people and really resonates with them,” says the vivacious Spielberg, youngest sister of Steven, by phone from Chicago. She and director, Roberta Grossman been on a whirlwind tour of Jewish and other major film festivals from Jerusalem to San Paulo and throughout North America.
The exploits of the pilots are fascinating and heartfelt- Leon Frankel, a former U.S. Navy bomber pilot, recalls having been trained in secret, sitting in the cockpit of his worn aircraft, wearing a German uniform, helmet and parachute, and wondering “what’s a nice Jewish boy from St. Paul doing here?” At the end of the conflict, after flying 25 successful missions, he speaks of watching Jewish refugees from death camps coming into Tel Aviv, “getting down and kissing the ground,” and realizing without question why he joined the team.
Q & A WITH NANCY SPIELBERG:
MM: The ‘vintage’ flying sequences in Above And Beyond are extraordinary. How were they were created?
I really needed those Spitfires to look convincing- and I was very nervous because if it looked crappy the whole project would go out the window, Spielberg confides, laughing. I knew George Lucas had created amazing WWII dogfights for a film he did called Red Tails. So there was only one company that could do the CGI work – Industrial Light & Magic.
MM: Will Above And Beyond be submitted in time to be included in the Best Documentary Feature Category for the next Academy Awards? Wouldn’t it be so nice for the other Spielberg to win an Oscar for a change!?
I don’t think we’ll be in time as the deadline is in November and it has to open theatrically and run for a certain period of time first, but maybe for next year,” said Spielberg. I honestly didn’t make it thinking of awards but in the spirit of volunteerism and how a small group or individual can still make a big difference.
MM: Any thoughts about making this subject the basis for a feature film? Would this be something you and Steven could collaborate on?
Yes, I’m thinking about that. There were so many fantastic stories about the pilots that could have been included. When Steven saw Above And Beyond he said ‘it made him cry and that he was so proud of me.’ So did my parents, ages 97 and 94 and that means everything to me. About collaborating – who knows? I do have Steven’s phone number you know!