‘Life is Rich’ filmmaker Bonnie Rich
Leading up to the 28th Washington Jewish Film Festival, we asked our filmmakers a few questions about their featured films.
In this edition, Director Bonnie Rich discusses Life is Rich
What inspired you to tell the story of your subject or the story depicted in your film?
I had been on Jewish autopilot for years, and felt an inner twinge to wake up my Jewish soul. My initial approach was to have fun, shop for a synagogue, and bring my grandfather’s oral history to life. He tells of his childhood growing up in a farming village in Russia. Synagogue was the center of his life, and he was heartbroken when the Bolsheviks shut it down in 1920. Soon after his family escaped to America.
Plus I was looking for an excuse to make family art with my twenty-something daughters, so I asked them to join me on my spiritual journey. They appreciated my zayde’s story and his religious struggles. But as we discussed the religious obligation of Judaism, I half-jokingly asked, “You’re going to raise my unborn grandchildren Jewish, right?” No one is pregnant. I’m just a planner. They expressed their doubt saying, “Religion doesn’t seem relevant.”
Now I had conflict! But seriously, our ambivalence bugged me. So I searched for meaningful ways to connect to Judaism, while trying to force each joyful discovery on my daughters. My hope is others can laugh and learn from my missteps. There were successes too, and I met many wonderful rabbis and creative collaborators.
And my daughters are still speaking and laughing with me.
What was a particular obstacle you faced while making this film?
My family readily agreed to be in the movie—at least at first. My daughters starred in of many of my family comedies as they were growing up, really only refusing to participate during their teenage years. Luckily for all of us during that time my focus turned to professional video work at University of Maryland University College (UMUC).
Having worked with a crew at UMUC, I wanted to achieve a similar professional standard in terms of lighting and sound. Unfortunately, I was working solo and my family soon lost their patience with me tinkering with microphones and lights. At one point they all said, “No more.”
If I wanted the project to succeed, I had to find a way to make the camera equipment invisible and our interactions more fun. Bringing in an outside crew was not financially feasible, plus it would have shifted the family dynamic. So I had to experiment with non-intrusive ways to film the action while often also hosting a meal. My husband, Alan, aka Super Mensch, helped me out a lot.
What do you want audiences to walk away with after screening your film?
First, I hope they had fun laughing in community. The collective positive energy from laughter during the August work-in- progress screening was amazing! Second, I hope that seeing four generations of my family and our changing relationship with Judaism will touch viewers and stir images of their own families. Ideally, the film sparks family storytelling and open conversation between older and younger generations.
At the screening on Mother’s Day, I hope folks bring their mom or mom-like person. And afterwards give them a big hug and ask them to tell their favorite family story (even if they have already told it 100 times).
Why do you think Washington, DC is a valuable location to screen your film?
LIFE IS RICH is a Washington, DC story. My family and I live in this area, and in the film we sample the vibrant Jewish culture around us. Rabbi Shira Stutman from Sixth and I advises me on how to pull my daughters into Judaism without pushing them away. Plus she shows my daughter Leah some perks of talking to a rabbi.
The production was propelled forward through the incredible creative and spiritual community in the DC area. In particular, I am grateful to the support from Docs in Progress. I was initially intimidated about entering into a community that tackled so many social justice issues, but they helped me see the value in both the themes and humor in the film.
And finally, the DC area is booming with a community that enjoys debating religion and culture and I hope they will find this a fun film that provides a gateway to discuss serious topics.
What films or filmmakers have been the most influential to you?
I am drawn to filmmakers who create personal narratives such as Alan Berliner, Nina Davenport, and Doug Block. At the August Docs in the City screening I was thrilled that LIFE IS RICH was paired with Doug Block’s 51 BIRCH STREET. I have been a fan of Doug’s work for years, and to be on stage with him during the Q & A was an incredible honor.
Why are Jewish-interest films important today?
Telling stories is an essential element in preserving culture and promoting conversation. The beauty of film is that stories are moved forward with words, sound, sight, and music, making it a unique artistic and emotional experience. It is essential to keep our stories of the Jewish experience alive and told from our perspective. Film is one of the many powerful tactics to fight fake news and anti-Semitism.