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Close Encounters of the Spielberg Kind

Although Steven Spielberg is one of the world’s most respected and successful directors, earning critical acclaim and billions at the box office, he hasn’t been the subject of a feature-length documentary — until now. In more than 30 hours of interviews conducted over a year, filmmaker Susan Lacy (PBS’ “American Masters”) got the Academy Award-winning moviemaker to talk at length about his influences, his films, their themes and how his life has informed them, resulting in an HBO documentary, “Spielberg,” which premieres Oct. 7.

“He is very shy about interviews, does very few. So this was quite an extraordinary experience to hear him really open up,” Lacy said at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour. She also got more than 80 of Spielberg’s colleagues, collaborators, friends and family members to comment as Spielberg dissects his work in the film.

Full of anecdotes and fun facts about iconic movies, the documentary also is intensely personal, with revelations about Spielberg’s childhood and family and how both affected his movies. His parents’ divorce and its impact on his family influenced “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” “Saving Private Ryan” was inspired by the stories he heard from his father, a pilot who served in World War II.

“His early movies drew on what he knew,” Lacy said of Spielberg, who grew up in the Phoenix suburbs watching television, reading comic books and chasing his sisters Anne and Nancy around with a Super 8 camera. He was also the target of bullying and anti-Semitism, which made him ashamed of being Jewish.

“He didn’t want to be connected to Judaism as a child because he didn’t want to be a pariah. Growing up in the suburbs of Phoenix in the only Jewish family on the street, it made him an outsider,” Lacy told the Journal.

Neighborhood kids would laugh when Spielberg’s grandfather called him by his Hebrew name, Shmuel. “I always wanted to fit in, and being Jewish, I couldn’t fit into anything,” he confides in the film. “I began to deny my Jewishness … I didn’t want to be Jewish.”

Lacy explained that when Spielberg met actress Kate Capshaw, who converted to Judaism before their wedding in 1991, “She said, ‘You must reconnect with your faith.’ Then he made ‘Schindler’s List,’ and it brought him back completely into the fold, and proud of being Jewish.”

Spielberg had read Thomas Keneally’s book about Oskar Schindler in 1982, but held onto it for a decade until it was the right time to make the film, which earned him two Oscars and led to the creation of the USC Shoah Foundation.

“It was, emotionally, the hardest movie I’ve ever made,” he told Lacy. “It made me so proud to be a Jew.”

Capshaw and Spielberg’s seven children are not in the documentary, but his sisters, his father and his late mother are “because they were there at the birth of his becoming a filmmaker and could talk about who he was at that time in his life,” Lacy said.

With 2 1/2 hours to work with, Lacy focused on Spielberg’s film directing, eschewing other projects and giving less play to his less successful movies, including “1941” and “The Color Purple.”

“He was not reticent to talk about failures,” Lacy said. “But if you want to tell a real story with a beginning, middle and end, and in any kind of depth, you simply cannot cover everything.”

It was more important, she said, to highlight the common themes in his oeuvre, including families’ separating and reuniting, the resilience of children, fighting for freedom and good people trying to do the right thing against all odds.

“Steven is actually an incredibly personal filmmaker,” Lacy said. “The box office has never been what’s driven him. What has interested him has changed and matured as he’s grown up. But that boy who loves movies, loves moviemakers — that kid is still in him.”

Just 21 when he made his first television movie, “Duel,” he stood up to the network, refusing to blow up the menacing truck at the end of the film. He insisted on shooting “Jaws” on the ocean, although it was a logistical nightmare to do so. “Having a vision and sticking to it, not letting anybody get in the way of it — that’s probably the best lesson you could learn from Steven Spielberg,” Lacy said. “ ‘Schindler’s List,’ a 3 1/2-hour, black-and-white movie about the Holocaust, could have been a huge flop. But it was something he needed to do, he knew how to do it, and he stuck with that.”

Lacy appreciated that Spielberg “in no way tried to steer this film and did not see it until it was finished.” So when he called to tell her he liked it, “I almost fell on the floor. What happens if Steven Spielberg doesn’t like your movie?” she said. “I’d set a very high bar, and I was nervous all the time that I would not achieve it. I hope I did.”

She came away from the project secure in the knowledge that Spielberg “is exactly who he seems to be. Sometimes you’re disappointed when you meet a hero and that did not happen with Steven,” she said. “He was everything I expected him to be and more. I’m not trying to be gushy here, but he’s a really, really good human being. He’s a mensch.”

Q & A With Paul Castro

Paul S. Castro, executive director of Jewish Family Service (JFS), has spent his career working on behalf of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised. The 22-year JFS veteran, who became chief executive in 2000, has watched the agency grow exponentially over the past couple decades. Under his direction, JFS has worked aggressively to diversify its funding sources and has increased its endowment from $2 million to more than $7.4 million. JFS, which employs 430 full- and part-time employees at 25 locations throughout Greater Los Angeles, offers counseling, supports the elderly and disabled, provides housing for the homeless and feeds the hungry, among other services. The agency helps more than 60,000 people annually. Castro, a genial man who holds a law degree from Loyola University, said he is proud to oversee JFS as it celebrates its 150th anniversary. With budget cuts looming, though, his joy is tempered. As government tightens its proverbial belt, Castro worries it is the poor who will get squeezed the most. He spoke to The Journal about JFS’ prospects in these tough times.

The Jewish Journal: What are JFS’ most interesting new initiatives?

Paul Castro: Our most interesting new initiative is called a NORC, or Naturally Occurring Retirement Community. A growing segment of the senior population are now "aging in place" in their own neighborhoods. They want to live independently in their own homes, so the NORC will bring our services to them, creating a virtual retirement community. As the baby-boom generation ages, I believe the NORC concept of independent living will become the norm. We are one of just a few pilot programs in the country, supported by a grant from the federal government.

JJ: What are your biggest concerns?

PC: My biggest concern is whether we will be able to raise sufficient funds to keep the safety net strong for the thousands of people who rely on us. My biggest frustration is trying to convince our policymakers to look beyond the dollars and cents and see the implications of severe cuts in social programs. A strong safety net is good social and fiscal policy. For example, it’s much cheaper to provide in-home care to seniors than place them in nursing homes.

JJ: Do you find it ironic that more people than ever need JFS services because of the faulty economy yet government funding is getting slashed?

PC: For the social service community, this is the "perfect storm." At the center of this storm is the growing demand for services. A slow economy has made donors more conservative in their giving and low returns on investments have forced many foundations to cut their grants significantly. And now government is struggling to close funding gaps that are in the billions.

JJ: If funding gets dramatically slashed, how will JFS respond?

PC: It depends on where they cut and how much. But significant reductions in funding would mean reductions in services. There is no way around that, but we’ll do our best to maintain the highest level of service we can.

JJ: What services has JFS cut in the past couple years?

PC: We have made some cuts in our counseling programs. Funding for counseling has diminished or remained flat for a number of years now. Our costs continue to go up while our revenue lags farther and farther behind. We are seeing more clients who can’t pay and fewer clients who have insurance. It is a challenging situation, but we have no plans for future cutbacks.

JJ: How is JFS changing the way in which it lobbies Sacramento?

PC: We need to be proactive in protecting our clients and we can’t do it alone. The key is to build coalitions. I recently attended a meeting in Sacramento with representatives from The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee, the Jewish Public Affairs Committee and other social service agencies. The purpose of this meeting was to build a coalition to fight cuts in MediCal.

JJ: How has JFS managed to survive 150 years?

PC: JFS has survived by continually adapting to change. As an organization we have been fortunate to have strong lay leadership with a vision of a responsive and proactive JFS. Whether helping a poverty-stricken community during the Great Depression or resettling refugees after World War II, JFS has persevered in its mission to strengthen and preserve individual, family and community life. I believe this tradition will carry us over the next 150 years.

The Last Revolutionary

Yasser Arafat has a dilemma. He can’t decide whether he wants to be the father of his country or the godfather of terrorism.

President George W. Bush gave Arafat a chance to answer that question before the whole world last weekend at the United Nations, and the Palestinian leader blew it.

Bush became the first American president to endorse creating a state of "Palestine" and was prepared to launch a major push to make that a reality, but Arafat refused to meet Bush’s basic demand: a genuine and sustained effort to stop the violence against Israel.

Bush and his aides have made it clear that in the U.S.-led war against terror, Arafat is on the wrong side. The words were there but not the actions, so Bush refused to meet with Arafat while both attended the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

It was a humiliating setback for Arafat, despite the Palestinian leader’s efforts to put a good face on things by praising Bush’s reference to Palestine. It was also a slap in the face for his principle benefactors, the Saudis, who had taken the uncharacteristic step of publicly declaring they were "angrily frustrated" with Bush’s policy and urging him to see Arafat.

The president also rejected protests by Arab leaders who have maintained that attacks on Israelis by Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and other terror groups are legitimate acts of "resistance."

He warned them "there is no such thing as a good terrorist." Bush put regimes like the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Iran on notice when he declared, "The allies of terror are equally guilty of murder and equally accountable to justice."

Most Arab leaders have denounced the Sept. 11 terror attacks while simultaneously endorsing a major element of Osama bin Laden’s rationale — pro-Israel U.S. policies.

While Arafat stood before the United Nations to denounce "the terrorist, horrific, criminal and ugly acts of Sept. 11," back home his official Palestine News Agency, WAFA, agreed with bin Laden that U.S. Mideast policy was "the reason that caused the disaster."

It was typical Arafat, trying to have it both ways. The Europeans may lap it up, he didn’t impress many in Washington.

Bush’s National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice publicly let Arafat know, "You cannot help us with Al Qaeda and hug Hezbollah — that’s not acceptable — or Hamas." The Palestinian leader, she chided, must do "everything you can to root out terrorists," and that’s a job he doesn’t "take seriously."

More damning was a State Department official who said that through the intifada, Arafat is conducting "an ongoing process of calculated terror and escalation."

Arafat has lost credibility because he offers "good words, excellent rhetoric, nice instructions sent but very little in terms of confronting" the sources of violence, he added.

Frustration with Arafat is nothing new at the White House. Bush is the fourth president to try to persuade Arafat to clean up his act. Ronald Reagan, as a favor to the incoming Bush I administration, formally recognized the PLO at the end of 1988 and authorized the opening of a dialogue following a heavily coached statement by Arafat renouncing terrorism.

Bush I had no luck weaning Arafat off terrorism, nor did Bill Clinton, despite making the Palestinian leader the White House’s most frequent foreign visitor. Now 13 years and four presidents later, Arafat still can’t bring himself to give more than lip service to combating terrorism.

Ambassador Dennis Ross, who has probably spent more time with Arafat than any American official, said, "I have come to the conclusion that he is not capable of negotiating an end to the conflict because what is required of him is something he is not able to do."

Ross told an interviewer that may be because "he wants to be the last revolutionary on the Palestinian side." Evidence of that, he added, is Arafat’s failure to prepare his people for peace, but instead to resort to anti-Israel incitement.

That was evident Sunday from the U.N. podium when he accused Israel of "state terror," "ethnic cleansing" and desecrating Christian and Islamic holy sites.

Prior to Sept. 11, Bush was prepared to meet with Arafat, at the urging of Arab and European leaders who have been pressing for greater U.S. involvement in the Middle East, but since the attacks on America the White House has measured Arafat by what he’s done to combat terror.

Initially, Arafat promised to curb the violence but, once again, the only thing he sustained was the rhetoric; the terrorism quickly resumed. The administration let Arafat and the world know it was not fooled.

Secretary of State Colin Powell is preparing to announce a U.S. peace proposal in the next few weeks. It is expected to go farther toward meeting Arafat’s demands than the present Israeli government is ready for, and that could create more problems for Bush than it will solve.

Unveiling it before Arafat meets Bush’s demands for decisive and sustained moves to combat terror will be a major mistake.

Arafat continues to honor suicide bombers as heroes and martyrs. His persistent refusal to stand up to terror groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad has only strengthened them and weakened his own hold on a restive population.

He has reportedly declared Jewish settlers to be combatants and therefore exempt from his public orders against targeting "innocent civilians."

Arafat’s roots in terrorism go back over decades of Palestinian skyjackings, cross-border raids on nursery schools, and airport and synagogue attacks around the world. Black September, Munich, Achille Lauro, Maalot are familiar names in his pantheon of terror.

What the world hoped was a turning point at Oslo — with Arafat making the transition from terrorist to statesman and peacemaker — turned out to be a bad joke as Arafat continued operating as a terror chieftain, despite frequent visits to the White House and a Nobel Peace Prize.

Arafat missed his opportunity to create a Palestinian state when he fled in terror from Israel’s offer at Camp David last year, and he has only reinforced his reputation as the godfather of terror in the 15 months since then.

Arafat has survived numerous missteps; the future may not be as generous to the aging Palestinian leader.

Bush is learning, like his predecessors, that Arafat is part of the problem, not the solution, and any meaningful moves toward a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace may have to await a leader with the courage and vision to become the father of his country.