February 25, 2020

True Story Maven Donna Kanter

Writer-producer-director Donna Kanter has 21 films and television series to her name. The daughter of the late writer, producer and director Hal Kanter, she chose not to follow in her father’s comedic footsteps. Instead, she started out in the news industry as an investigative reporter, which led to a career in focusing on true crime stories.

Kanter recently completed the documentary “The Presence of Their Absence,” about a Los Angeles man seeking his roots in the ashes of the Holocaust. However, she also harked back to her father’s comedic chops after making the documentary “Lunch,” about 12 comedy writers who meet for lunch every two weeks. 

Jewish Journal: What was the impetus to become an investigative reporter? 

Donna Kanter: It was propelled in part by reading Meyer Levin’s “Compulsion” when I was 12. It was a reporter who cracked the Leopold and Loeb case, and I was transfixed until I noticed a lone woman reporter some years later giving Richard Nixon a proper grilling, and I thought, where are the women journalists? I decided I had to become one.  

JJ: What lessons did you learn from making “Lunch”? 

DK: The greatest lesson was how unique friendships sustained 12 Jewish comedy legends throughout their careers and lives. It was apparent to me that the Jewish sense of humor created our American sense of humor. The underlying theme I discovered was that of trust among those men lunching together for 40 years. They were vital and wise, appreciative of all that they had endured. We may not see the likes of those legends again for a long time, if ever.

“My Jewish identity was tested in Italy, where I heard vivid anti-Semitic remarks, read the works of Primo Levi and saw the struggle in Florence to rebuild Jewish life.”

JJ: What led you to conduct numerous interviews with Holocaust survivors for the USC Shoah Foundation, and what did you learn from them?  

DK: I wanted to contribute to the great collage of testimonies when survivors were beginning to share their experiences openly. I believe “Schindler’s List” made that possible through the formation of the Shoah Foundation. Our training on how to be a sympathetic interlocutor, allowing a story to unfold without interruption, was the best gift of all. [They are] tools that I continue to try to employ in my interviews today.

JJ: How has your relationship to Judaism changed over the years?

DK: My classmates and I had been together since kindergarten, and there were many bar mitzvahs and confirmations to remind me of our tradition. I attended Sunday school briefly but we were not a particularly observant family, except during the High Holy Days and Passover. I got most of my religious training from my maternal grandparents, Russian immigrants who shared stories and books.  

I think my Jewish identity was tested in Italy, where I heard vivid anti-Semitic remarks, read the works of Primo Levi and saw the struggle in Florence to rebuild Jewish life. When I came home to write about the Italian Resistance and studied with another anti-war activist, artist Corita Kent at Immaculate Heart College, the petite, fiery nun encouraged me to take courses with Rabbi Leonard Beerman at Leo Baeck Temple. And that was when I became more fully identified as a contemporary Jewish woman with respect accorded from the halachah.

JJ: What career advice would you offer to those seeking to work in the industry?  

DK: Find a way to make a short film to set you on your path, test your talents, your gut and ability to form collaboration while backing up your own instincts.  Starting with a good hands-on filmmaking course with a classicist not interested in reconstruction or poor wheel reinventing is the way to go. 

JJ: Do you have a philosophy of life?  

DK: Avoid wasting time and energy on brooding, or permitting boundary invasions that occlude my goals. I trust my instinct to turn down something unpleasant and say a positive yes to what matters, then go for it.

Mark Miller is a humorist and stand-up comic who has written for various sitcoms. His first book is “500 Dates: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Online Dating Wars.”