Who are The Klezmatics? Filmmaker Erik Greenberg Anjou takes audiences into the microcosm of this group in his new documentary film, The Klezmatics: On Sacred Ground, set for a 2009 release. The Klezmatics, whose name is derived from the term "klezmer," which is a traditional style of dance music practiced by a sect of Eastern European Jews that date back to the 15th century, was originally formed in 1986 in New York City’s East Village. The group has undergone many changes in their lineup over their 22-twenty years of duration, and today, The Klezmatics are comprised of trumpeter Frank London, bassist Paul Morrissett, drummer David Licht, vocalist and accordionist Lorin Sklamberg, wind instrumentalist Matt Darriau, violinists Alicia Svigals and Lisa Gutkin, and clarinetists David Krakauer, Margo Leverett and Kurt Bjorling. The film has been 3-years in the making for Anjou, who was there when The Klezmatics won their Grammy Award in 2006 for "Best Contemporary World Music Album" with their album, Wonder Wheel, which features words written by Woody Guthrie.
Though the making of this film has been a huge challenge for Anjou who has needed to cover the activities of the members of The Klezmatics, it has also been a wonderful life experience for him. He defines his mission as a producer on this film is to represent so many different worlds on one canvas, something like the way Dustin Hoffman‘s character in the movie, I Heart Huckabees demonstrated in a scene when he pulls out a large white sheet of material and suggests that everyone in the world can be found on this one sheet, with each section representing somebody in the world. Anjou approached this movie in a similar way.
"To me, the creation of ‘art,’ however you’d like to define it, is the collision between all worlds: imaginative, creative, personal, familial, economic. I was never, and am not now, an aficionado of klezmer music. Their choice to create and re-create in this genre, their passion for it given their own wildly divergent background and influences, and their utter dedication to it over the course of more than twenty years against, in a sense, any kind of financial logic. Their passion and dedication against all odds is the heart of the story, and yes, that Includes a look into their personal lives and sacrifices."
Anjou’s storyboard for this documentary was to capture the spontaneity that guides the band members lives. "There is kind of a loose script when I begin. There are topics I wish to cover, questions I wish to ask. But then the answers to those questions inform the ‘next draft’ of the script, which is what unfurls as the filmmaking itself progresses, and perhaps the band members answers are quite different then what I expected and lead me down a different path. We’ve been working on this project for going on three years. Who would have guessed that the band would win a Grammy, then part ways with its manger after such a success, and then basically spend the next 6-8 months not touring and figuring out from Step 1, ‘Where do we go from here?’ There’s no way to script things like that. It’s part of the fun, the unpredictability, and the chaos of documentary filmmaking."
He tells, "The documentary was shot in various locations from New York to Los Angeles to Madison, Wisconsin to Poland and Hungary. Interviews were conducted across the country, and we captured concerts in various venues in some of those cities. There will NOT be a narrator in the film. My choice is to let the characters and their music tell The Klezmatics story."
He notes that during the course of filming, "The process has gotten smoother with time, like a good wine. The band members are extraordinary people and musicians, but I wouldn’t say having a camera in their faces was the most natural or relaxing process for them. They’ve been a team for 20-years and know how to do things and how they want things done. The camera slowed them down. It was particularly challenging during the recording of their Grammy Award-winning Wonder Wheel. But, the ultimate victory of this challenge is the existence of some wonderful footage reflecting the band’s process and ascent."
Anjou proclaims, "I think that The Klezmatics embody a personal and religious variety that transcends Judaism. Hey, you’ve got a Quaker bassist who plays fifteen instruments, so the doors are wide open. Aside from that, the concerns and drives of the band from family to earning a living to keeping their work alive, are issues that many are intimate with and attuned to."
He expresses that the camera equipment used for the filming made for high quality images. "Our A-camera, used for some 90% of our principal photography, was the Panasonic Varicam. It’s an amazing and expensive High-Def camera, and you definitely need to be working with a professional camera house to procure it."
He reveals, "The process will be three years in November ‘08. I am aiming high and hard for a Spring ‘09 release. I believe that there will definitely be a place for the film in theatrical venues. I’ve also been in the business long enough not to believe in predictions. A few distribution queries have been received, but I believe it’s best to wait for a finished film to secure the right deal."
Now that the film is coming into post-production, Anjou has time to reflect about the adventure. "I learned primarily about the way the band makes decisions as a group. It is a blessing and curse. A blessing because every band member has a say in how things are executed creatively and infrastructurally. A curse because this open forum creates a sometimes open-ended and long series of discussions and delays. Sometimes band members are traveling to other gigs, etc., so the information flow is often frustratingly slow. The band itself becomes stronger due to the process, but for others, filmmakers, managers, promoters, etc., it can be quite frustrating."
Anjou’s interest in making this documentary was sparked by The Klezmatics trumpeter, Frank London, who composed the music for Anjou’s previous film, A Cantor’s Tale, which was released to theaters in 2006. "I moved to New York from Los Angeles in 1996," Anjou recalls. "Previous to that move, I’d been long removed from Jewish culture. New York and personal events preceding It were the fuel for a re-entry into that universe. I certainly was aware of The Klezmatics, but it was really working with Frank London on my documentary film, A Cantor’s Tale, that sparked my passionate interest in the band."
Anjou explains that there are some similarities in the two documentaries, The Klezmatics: On Sacred Ground and A Cantor’s Tale, which is about the life of cantor Jacob Mendelson, though both stories are entirely different. "They are obviously different films," Anjou attests. "That being said, there are similarities: Jewish music, the ideas of defining and re-defining tradition across the generations, the extraordinary resilience of the music and people after suffering the Holocaust, how music defines culture and culture defines music. These leitmotifs all reflect upon and inform one another. The Klezmatics themselves are a much different ball of wax then Jackie Mendelson," he compares, "as different as Sun and Moon. Jack is a cantor first, a wonderful musician second. He creates first and foremost from within the tradition. The Klezmatics are musicians first and klezmorium second. It is their deep and diverse artistic backgrounds which allowed them to enter klezmer and re-make it to some degrees as per their vision. It’s also why they’ve been so successful in creating diverse and dynamic music in many different genres. They are inspired by, but not ruled by klezmer. I do believe that The Klezmatics documentary may be more readily entered and experienced by an audience that isn’t necessarily Jewish."
Anjou describes, "My first goal is always to make the most beautiful, effective film I can. Then, I hope and pray it finds, and connects with, an audience. You never know. We have found extraordinary success after extraordinary struggle in fomenting A Cantor’s Tale. It has been most moving traveling with the film, and hearing from audiences from Warsaw to San Diego to Baltimore, how affecting the film has been for them. A Cantor’s Tale has most definitely been significant in the Jewish world. I am hoping of course for the same success for The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground."
Both films show present day conditions which are allowing the Jewish culture to thrive. Anjou shares some thoughts on why that is. "Jack Mendelson has suffered tremendously. He wasn’t a slave, or assigned to a Nazi work camp, but he has most definitely wrestled with his deepest demons, and continues to do so. The reason why Jews have survived, and will continue to survive, is because they have the boldness to redefine Tradition. It is a tricky balance, to be utterly tied to the past, yet to have the guts and foresight to evolve, to change."
He assesses, "Many of the facets, which seem to definitely ‘define’ Judaism, were In fact revolutionary additions. Kol Nidre, the definitive anthem, was not instituted until the Middle Ages and not until after a brutal discussion. Kabbalah, an extraordinary spiritual trove and colloquy, was reviled and swept under the rug because it was perceived as heretic. Hasidism, which has become one of the most powerful streams of Judaism, only developed in the 18th century, and adamantly contravened the Jewish mores of the day. You didn’t have to be a Torah scholar or even literate to connect with God. What mattered was the direct experience. You don’t need a synagogue." He instructs, "Go into nature and connect. So there are as many different types of films as there are filmmakers. And Jews are not just one thing, but a fascinating and revolutionary work-in-progress. It is the process of that progress which fascinates me and how we take the Jews and Jewishness of yesteryear to create anew. That it is the struggle and the victory. We’re still here."
Anjou admits, "My first move into producing was A Cantor’s Tale. I did it simply because, I felt, if I didn’t step forward and take responsibility for making the movie, then it wouldn’t get done. I would say the same for my second documentary, Eight: Ivy League Football And America, and The Klezmatics film. I consider myself a writer and director first and equally. The producing thing, I wrestle with it. It’s a huge challenge, an indescribable amount of work that sometimes has nothing to do with the creative process, and a learning curve that informs and pressurizes my life. Knowing what I know about producing, I will, in some shape and form, remain a producer for subsequent projects. That being said, it is equally, if not more important, to form great partnerships. Producing shouldn’t be used as a platform for fiat. Great movies come out of collaboration, and the producer’s chair is first and foremost the platform for, and invitation to, creating a wonderful team."
Like the movies that he has produced, Erik Greenberg Anjou’s life has literally been a work in progress. He graduated with a BA from Middlebury College in 1983, and then acquired a MA from Northwestern University in 1985. He completed the Directing Program at The American Film Institute, but what has kept him motivated through all of this is one sentiment, "I love film and literature equally so," he declares.
His artistic influences, he says is "A very long question." To condense it, he lists, "Let’s include Charlie Chaplin, Peter Weir, Ryscard Kapuscinski, Ernest Hemingway, Alan Paton, Martin Scorcese, Billy Wilder, Mark Helprin, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, J.D. Salinger, as seminal influences. I know there are more."
Anjou’s first intentions was to become a screenwriter, which he achieved as the sole writer for the film, Road To Ruin in 1992. From there, he moved on to being the writer and director for the 1994 Columbia/TriStar feature film, The Cool Surface, starring Robert Patrick and Teri Hatcher. Anjou directed and wrote for a slew of films throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s before he produced A Cantor’s Tale.
When asked if he would be interested in developing television programs, stage production, curating film exhibitions for museums, or venture off into another avenue in the future, he responds, "I am open to the four directions. Artistically, I am driven first by compelling characters and story. That foundation can be found anywhere, stage, musical, feature film, documentary, novel, and poetry."
In addition to finishing The Klezmatics: On Sacred Ground, Anjou is working on another film entitled The Sixth Commandment, which he tells, "The Sixth Commandment is a feature screenplay. I was commissioned to write by the wonderful Israeli producer, Rony Yacov. Rony and I developed the story, which is loosely based on an Israeli novel that Rony had optioned. It is a bold, incendiary romance between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian journalist beginning in the 1967 war and bridging the first intifada. I’ve got several projects on the transom right now, but this is the boldest and perhaps the most ‘important.’ Israel and the Middle East are the navel of the world, and what happens there remains integral to the future of mankind. This story tells that story like no other I’ve read or encountered. Rony’s shoulder is to the wheel to make sure the movie happens, so we are working and praying. Next year in Jerusalem," he beams.
Maybe as long as there are stories like The Klezmatics and Jacob Mendelson who are motivated to do what they do because of their deep passion to do it, Erik Greenberg Anjou will have material to bring to the movie screen. He just returned from Israel, which can only mean that The Sixth Commandment is already underway.