December 10, 2019

Artist and Filmmaker Marc Bennett Pays Tribute to the Human Spirit

“History of the Star of David”

Marc Bennett is a man of many talents. The 61-year-old is an artist, photographer and documentary filmmaker. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and now residing in Aspen, Colo., Bennett currently is working on three projects including an installation of his “History of the Star of David” artwork at the Soroka Medical Center in Israel, as well as directing the animated film “The Tattooed Torah,” based on the 1983 renowned children’s book by Marvell Ginsburg. 

Bennett also is wrapping up filming the feature-length documentary “I Ride for the Living,” which follows an awareness-raising bike ride from Auschwitz to the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, Poland. The Journal spoke with Bennett about his connection to Israel, working with actor Ed Asner and filming in a death camp.

Jewish Journal: Growing up, were you always interested in art and culture?

Marc Bennett: I loved growing up in a big city (New York) and getting the exposure to all the culture surrounding museums and art and shows. I was always doing art from a very early age. I was involved in advertising and design for a while and through that I got interested in film and started taking classes. 

Art is a very singular thing. It’s very one on one. The marketing and the exposure is more collaborative but as an art form, it is very individualistic. Film gave me an opportunity to work with moving images and sound, which I found very exciting but there is something also exciting about the stillness of art and how it invokes movement in your mind.

JJ: What was the inspiration behind “The History of the Star of David” installation?

MB: In 2004, I moved to Aspen as I wanted to spend the second half of my life in nature. Aspen has this unique blend of culture and rural beauty. In 2014, I created “The History of the Star of David” artwork in conjunction with (Chabad) Rabbi Mendel Mintz to mark the opening of the Aspen Jewish Community Center. Growing up, I was always fascinated by the history and cultural aspects of Judaism. I wanted to create something that was inspirational and educational so I came up with the idea to show the Star of David as an icon; how it has mirrored the journey of the Jewish people through highs and lows. So this collage, which features 18 images, traces the evolution of the Star of David from its first known use through its most recent appearance on the flag of the State of Israel.

JJ: How did you get involved with the Soroka Medical Center in Israel?

MB: The day the installation went up, people started inquiring [about buying] it and [putting] it in museums. It became a much bigger thing than I imagined. This led to a number of prestigious institutions acquiring pieces from the series including the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and Sinai Temple. In the spirit of tzedakah, I joined forces with Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba as I was always taken by the Chagall windows and how they were used to promote Hadassah Hospital (in Jerusalem). 

I made Soroka my philanthropic partner because their mission is very similar to mine. It is about life and the future and that’s pretty much what this piece is about. They are installing the biggest “Star of David” piece in their new cancer center so it is very exciting.

JJ: How did “The Tattooed Torah” project come about?

MB: I was in Chicago promoting “Star of David” and was introduced to Beth Kopin, who was the daughter of Marvell Ginsburg, who had written  “The Tattooed Torah,” a renowned children’s book that has been educating young children about the Holocaust for over 30 years. Kopin was looking for someone to direct an animated short film based on the book. I said right on the spot that I will do it as I have always felt an affinity for children and the importance of knowing about the Holocaust and other genocides and never forgetting them.

So we are making the film and are almost finished. I got Ed Asner to be the voice of the main narrator as he is very philanthropic and very supportive of Jewish causes. He is a consummate professional. He came in super prepared and did a fantastic job. He lives his life for his work and goes at it a thousand percent. He has become a great friend.

JJ: What was it like working on the “Ride for the Living” documentary and filming in Krakow and Auschwitz?

MB: In 2013, The Jewish Community Center in Krakow came up with this idea to do a 60-mile bike ride from Auschwitz to the Krakow JCC, which could be seen as a kind of metaphor for leaving Auschwitz as an alive Jew instead of a dead one. So when I heard about the ride, I thought this was an amazing story. What started as just 16 people taking part has turned into over 250 people coming to participate from all over the world. The logistics of filming all those people riding through the Polish countryside at 60 miles [an hour] was crazy. We had drones, cameramen on motorcycles. We interviewed people during the three stops. The day before the ride, all the riders get a private tour of Auschwitz and we filmed a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor who had been in the camp and was taking part in the ride, in front of the bunk he was in and talking to the other riders. It was phenomenal. 

JJ: Had you visited Auschwitz before?

MB: I had never been to a death camp before. I lived in Europe when I was in my 20s and I guess I just wasn’t ready. I was afraid, I think. I filmed everywhere from the barbed wire fences to inside the gas chambers and crematorium. On one hand, it was horrifying and on the other a little difficult to really absorb it all because I was so focused on getting the shots for the film, so everything I felt I translated into getting the right shots and getting the best imagery to tell the story.

JJ: What do you want people to take away from the documentary?

MB: I want to hopefully stimulate a conversation of a much-needed dialogue about both the horrors of what happened but also the beauty of the resurgence of Jewish life in Krakow, which is a tribute to the human spirit.