In Conversation With: Ferne Pearlstein

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Ferne Pearlstein is an American filmmaker and cinematographer. In 2004, she won the Cinematography Award for Documentary for her work on Imelda, a biographical feature about the former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos. Pearlstein’s new documentary, for which she was the cinematographer, editor, producer, co-writer, and director, is The Last Laugh.

The film investigates the appropriateness of joking about the Holocaust through the lens of Jewish experience around the world. Pearlstein assembled a “who’s who” of international comedians and humorists, including Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Etgar Keret, Robert Klary, and Rob Reiner for the movie, which had its World Premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. The Last Laugh opens in New York on March 3, 2017; in Los Angeles on March 17; and in further national dates throughout 2017. Ferne Pearlstein spoke with Sean L. Malin about taking inspiration from graphic novels, working as a “one-woman-band,” and Gilbert Gottfried’s body language.

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Sean Malin: Independent filmmakers and documentarians often tell me that making a “personal” movie requires eating humble pie for the simplest of favors and appealing to old friends’ sympathies. It’s not just a process of finding the money anymore. Did you find that, in making this film and getting it seen, you were required to ask many favors directly?

Ferne Pearlstein: That’s a great question. On the one hand, having directed, shot and edited the film, and often feeling like my own intern, I have been like a one-woman-band chugging along with this thing all by myself. On the other hand, I literally could not have made this film without the help of my 100 closest friends and family members! This was a difficult film to make on so many levels: the topic made it hard to raise money, getting comedians to agree to be filmed was a challenge, the logistics around shooting those interviews wasn’t easy, and I was shooting a documentary on Super 16mm film! Hard. So yes, I do have lots of people to thank for the many hundreds of favors.

SM: By the time I was in Hebrew school in Los Angeles in the late ‘90s, there was already a movement of people like Amos Oz and Avraham Burg arguing that the Jewish people should “rise from the ashes” of the Holocaust – to move on in some way. How do you think most of the people in your doc would feel about this? Are they mostly “never forget” kinds of people, or “let’s move forward” folks?

FP: I think “never forget” is the predominant feeling, but at the same time, the film also appeals to a young audience that realizes that time marches on and we constantly have to think about how our response to the Holocaust is changing with that passage of time. That was one of the impulses behind this film: as the final generation of survivors begins to disappear, what are the new modes we can use (and should or should not use) to approach this enormously grave subject matter?

SM: I noticed something in the body language of some of your subjects that I rarely see in documentary – a distant, but personal, comfort between them and the camera (you). Judy Gold, Gilbert Gottfried, and Etgar Keret don’t talk to the fourth wall like they are talking heads on Real Time with Bill Maher. Instead, they lean in, they goof, they get close. How did your relationships with your subjects influence their work in the film?

FP: I take that as a huge compliment. I only met the comedians just before interviewing them, but I hope what you are saying is I did a good job drawing them out on camera. I’ve always taken pride in my wide, static, interview style and I attribute that to my background in documentary photography. Producers who have hired me to shoot their docs don’t always agree with me but I don’t think you have to zoom in to guide the audience what to feel. I like for the subject, the subject’s body language or the image itself to help tell that story.

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SM: The footage in The Last Laugh was shot over the last several years – how has the atmosphere and creative charge regarding what can and cannot be discussed in comedy changed? Do you think the line of what’s appropriate and what is not for comedy has shifted since you began making the film?

FP: I think it’s shifting all the time. It has definitely changed during the five years we were making the film, and is continuing to change even now. One of the most telling moments during production was when we asked Rob Reiner to reel off some of the ethnic slurs that were said on camera in All in the Family. He laughed and said he could never do it; he’d be crucified. It’s true. The culture has changed so much that those terms can’t even be used in satire or parody anymore; they’re just considered too offensive across the board, in any context. We recently saw Blazing Saddles again, at Radio City (with Mel Brooks doing a live interview onstage afterward) and it was really eye-opening. There’s no way you could make that film today and use the language that Mel and his writers used in 1974. So even as society is arguably becoming more open (and to some people, more coarse), it’s also becoming more guarded in other ways. It’s very complex.

SM: The Day The Clown Cried, as well as several of Brooks’s movies, gets mentioned by the participants. If you had to make a list of supplementary texts to help someone engage with The Last Laugh, what material would make the list? Would you put an Elie Wiesel book there? What about Life is Beautiful? Or The White Ribbon?

FP: I don’t know if I feel qualified to answer that wholly, but I can tell you about the specific works that inspired my story, like Steve Lipman’s Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor During the Holocaust; Chaya Ostrower’s thesis “Humor as a Defense Mechanism in the Holocaust” and then her recently published book It Kept Us Alive: Humor in the Holocaust. But Art Spiegelman’s Maus was the inadvertent genesis of the project, so I can’t go without including that. It was the subject of a conversation my old friend Kent Kirshenbaum and I had with an elderly survivor in 1990, which was the inspiration for an academic paper Kent then wrote called “The Last Laugh: Humor and the Holocaust,” which became the inspiration for the project.

SM: You are undoubtedly aware of the legendary F.W. Murnau film that shares your film’s name. If you’ve seen the film, you realize that it shares very little else on the surface with your project (though Murnau was a diasporic director.) What is the relationship between the titles?

FP: I was aware of it, naturally, from the very beginning of our endeavor, but there isn’t really much of a connection. I suppose there’s a certain irony in the idea that Murnau’s film is an allegory about Germany’s humiliation after World War I, which is what led to World War II. But I don’t want to make too much of it.

SM: Jews and the Shoah have been in the news recently with the omission of the word “Jews” from the Holocaust Remembrance Day statement by the Trump Administration last month. It raises the question of why we never seem to hear comedy in the U.S. about, say, Romanian gypsy experiences or the death of homosexuals in fascist Germany. Do you think that it violated a taboo to remove the word “Jews” from a Holocaust Remembrance Day statement? Or do you see it as an act of inclusivity?

FP: I don’t know if I would say that it was a “taboo” per se that the administration violated, but I do think that the omission of any mention of Judaism from that White House statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day was a deliberate act, trying to masquerade as “inclusiveness.” If the purpose had been to be inclusive and to remind the world that other groups were also victims of the Nazis, the statement would have—and should have—referred to the “twelve million dead including six million Jews.”

SM: If you could have spoken to any other Jewish comedians, living or dead, who would you have included in the documentary?

FP: Well, Joan Rivers for sure. She was the first person to agree to be interviewed but her schedule was so busy that we couldn’t pin her down for years. Then we finally set a date, and tragically she died two weeks before! As far as others no longer with us, definitely Lenny Bruce–a comedian who really felt the consequences after breaking these taboos.

SM: As we speak, there is a mass of hate being lobbed online towards any comedian or entertainment figure who tries to speak up about their social or political opinions these days. Several of these most controversial figures, of course, are in your documentary. What public responsibilities do you think these entertainers have – Gottfried, Silverman, Lampanelli, David Cross in particular – at a time when free speech is legitimately threatened by public policy in the United States?

FP: I wouldn’t say any entertainer has a “responsibility” or an obligation exactly, but they certainly have a great platform to defend free speech. Sarah Silverman is a great defender of free speech, and points out in the film that censoring controversial ideas just makes them more attractive. Mel Brooks addresses the issue of responsibility when he says in the film, “Comedians are the conscience of the people, and they are allowed a wide berth of activity in every direction. Comics have to tell us who we are, where we are, even if it’s in bad taste.” The idea that a celebrity shouldn’t voice their opinion strikes me as absurd. Actors and comedians are citizens too and have just as much of a right to free speech as anyone else. If people are turned off by hearing it, that’s a different issue. But where do you draw the line? How do you stop one celebrity from voicing their opinion but another one from running for president?

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