Seventeen years in the making, my feature documentary about Holocaust survivor, Steve Ross, is rounding third base and heading for home. What started as a one-minute TV profile of a “Hometown Hero” turned into a multi-decade labor of love called ETCHED IN GLASS: THE LEGACY OF STEVE ROSS.
My assignment to produce a weekly, 60-second profile turned into my vision of a long-form documentary as soon as I met Steve Ross. My initial phone call to him lasted two full hours, as he recounted his harrowing experiences in the concentration camps. I was blown away…and hooked. I knew his story had to be told.
We met for an interview at the iconic New England Holocaust Memorial on the Freedom Trail in Boston. He brought photos from the bitter times and a little American flag that he was given by a US soldier upon his release from the concentration camp at Dachau, Germany. That fl ag ultimately led Steve to America to find the soldier who had shown him an act of kindness, and to work with
disadvantaged young people…to steer them toward education and jobs and away from trouble.
The production of this film encountered many bumps in the road. There were multiple starts and stops. Having to constantly scrape up funds put the project in jeopardy. The stock market crash, the Madoff Ponzi scheme and Steve’s health issues provided obstacles over the years.
But giving up was never an option. The saving grace may have been my meeting Tony Bennis, a fellow former WBZ-TV employee whose stint at the station never overlapped with mine. When I told him about the film, he was deeply interested in it, in part because Tony’s mother grew up in Lodz, Poland—the same city in which Steve Ross was raised. He’s become my shooter, editor, co-producer and shrink, picking up my spirits when the odds seemed too great to overcome.
At one point, Steve’s son, Mike, told me that he and his father planned to take a trip back to Poland which we would film. I laid the groundwork for a week of shoots in Poland, finding a production company that offered facilities and transportation, and was working on getting permission to shoot at Auschwitz, but health problems arose for Steve and the financial state of the economy put the plans for the trip on hold.
Tony and I continued to set up video shoots to tell Steve’s life story. I always felt it was a story that would resonate with people young and old. It’s the story of how an act of kindness can have unforeseen circumstances. For Steve, it inspired resilience and the desire to do great things, as a sort of payback. In America, Steve was a force—a force for good and a forceful voice and advocate for young people in the Boston area for over forty years – first as a youth worker in the streets of his adopted city, and then as a licensed psychologist for young people in Boston schools. And, of course, Steve was the founder of the iconic New England Holocaust Memorial.
At one point I felt that maybe Tony and I should just edit a short documentary with the footage we already had. So we actually started cutting a short piece that we would post on the website, steverossfilm.org, if not somewhere else, like You Tube. I didn’t want the story to die in the dustbin of history
Then, in November 2012, I got a call from Mike Ross. He told me that Steve had been found by the family of the U.S. soldier who showed him kindness at the liberation of Dachau. There was going to be a ceremony at the Massachusetts State House on Veterans Day and the family was going to meet Steve there. I thought to myself, “This could be Act Three of the film!”
So Tony and I went to shoot the ceremony on November 11, 2012. It was perhaps the most inspirational and emotional moment I could ever have imagined. Steve met the Sattler family, the descendants of the tank commander who had given young Steve some rations, a hug and the little American flag which Steve still has today. It’s his dearest possession.
The State House event sparked us to accelerate production on the film, aiming for a feature-length documentary once again. And we never looked back.
Now, in 2017, production on the film is just about complete. We have been participating in the festival circuit, screening it at the Rhode Island International Festival in August and the Boston Jewish Film Festival on November 10th and 20th. We hope to screen it in several other select festivals in the near future, in part, to help us land distribution deals.
We have gotten wonderful feedback from people who have seen it, including a sneak preview screening at the West Newton Cinema. Public television stations have expressed interest in airing the film in the near future. We’re also connecting with a variety of fi lm distributors and are considering numerous platforms on which to screen it. The film has received kudos from many members of the press. An Associated Press article about the film was picked up by over 300 news websites around the globe. The Boston Globe and Brookline/Newton TAB published very positive stories, as did the Jewish Journal.
I have made TV appearances on WGBH’s “Greater Boston” with Mike Ross in Boston, plus Providence’s WPRI’s “The Rhode Show” and ABC 6’s local newscasts. Mike and I also were heard on RIPR, Providence’s NPR radio station. Tony and I plan to continue generating press coverage to help build interest in this vital film.
We’re developing a distribution and marketing plan to convey the captivating story of Steve Ross to as many people as possible, both domestically and internationally. And we hope that, in the future, we can also develop a curriculum that can help teach the lessons of Steve’s life.
Steve Ross never gave up and I won’t either.
Roger Lyons is a Boston based producer who has been featured in IMAGINE Magazine. He is also an IMAGINE “Imaginnaire.”
For his upcoming documentary film, Gabriel Polonsky had the perfect subject: a talented, innovative, renowned artist. It was also a subject he had close proximity to: the artist in question is his own father. So one would think it would all be easy, and simple to tell the story.
Until, that is, he started to learn the story. As he began making a film about his father, Arthur Polonsky, Gabriel wound up teaching himself about his father’s life and work as well as a little-known, but seminal group of mid-20th century artists known collectively as the “Boston Expressionists.”
“I’m making this film for many different reasons. Five years ago I went to a movie at the Museum of Fine Arts, about a prominent Boston painter named Hyman Bloom—also an Expressionist— who was a friend of my father’s. My father was briefly in the film, and I thought, ‘where is the full story on my father and the group of other key artists in their circles?’
“(My father) has had an interesting life. His work is breathtaking. He’s one of the best artists I’ve ever seen, and I would think so even if he wasn’t my father. Yet he never quite attained the recognition he deserved, nor has the movement. I want to expose his art and that of the other Boston Expressionists to a whole new audience.
“So I decided that when my father turned eighty five, I’d go over to his house and just start filming. It was now or never. At first I didn’t have a plan; I just knew that he’s a fascinating character. He’s brilliant, funny, and has an amazing story to tell: from son of Russian immigrant tailors in Lynn, MA, to an MFA scholarship recipient painting in Paris with friends like Ellsworth Kelly in 1948.
Amazing, also, to his son, is the environment in which his father works, and what he does with it.
“He lives in this unusual house. It’s sort of a ‘Grey Gardens’ style Victorian house that’s decaying around him, while he’s still creating this beautiful art work in it. He does these really crazy “Rube Goldberg” household repairs. He took the radiator hose from his 1962 Renault, and attached it to the two faucets in the Victorian marble bathroom sink, to mix the hot and cold water.
“I think that these DYI repairs are as interesting and beautiful as his paintings that hang in museums. But what is most unusual is to capture him painting, which is a rare gift; he has never opened his studio and artistic process to the public before.”
Thus inspired, Gabriel Polonsky began filming his father’s story—and, in the process, learning about it.
“I didn’t know much about his career. He didn’t talk about it when I was growing up, or maybe I wasn’t listening very much.
“The movie took a much different course than I ever expected, growing much larger than I ever anticipated and it is generating a lot of interest. Almost every museum and university I speak to, including the MFA and ICA, has asked to screen it once it is completed. And I am amazed and grateful for all of the help and support we’ve received from the Boston film and art communities. So, this is quite a journey for me as well.”
How did Gabriel’s vision for the film change from his original idea? “I started learning about this whole movement of Boston Expressionist painters, my father’s role in it, and realized that though their work is held in prominent collections, they are little known by the broader public.
I learned about his world of art—all these amazing people he’s known since the 1940’s. Curators, collectors, other painters, authors, former students.”
“Every inch of his house is full of art, towering stacks of news clippings, photos, books and articles about his career and the history of art in Boston since the 1940’s—it’s a virtual museum. And at 88, he is still painting and having major exhibitions.
“So I go over to shoot cinema verite footage of my father at home, drawing and painting. He starts opening up about his life before he had the family, as a young artist, and to his journey as an artist now in his late 80’s. I realized that my father, and the artists’ movement he helped initiate, was a much deeper, broader subject than I had known about.
“As I began interviewing other people, one of the first was Nick Capasso, who at the time was head curator of the DeCordova Museum. I asked him, ‘Tell me something about Arthur Polonsky.’ He said, ‘Arthur Polonsky was one of the most important Boston painters of the 20th Century… period.’ That amazed me. So, I decided to set out for the next two years with my camera to find out exactly what Nick meant.
“I ended up doing over thirty interviews. I spoke with Boston’s leading curators, collectors, authors, my father’s former students, and my whole family of artists.”
Why did it take the production of this film to allow Gabriel Polonsky to learn so much about his father? “It was a combination of things. As with many kids I wasn’t listening to a lot of what my dad said when I was younger! Also, he was very modest and self-deprecating, and for certain reasons, he just didn’t talk about that part of his life very much when I was growing up.
“Both of my parents are artists. They had studios in the house. It was creative chaos. My father made etchings in the bathtub with nitric acid. I would see them working, and I would go to their art openings, but I didn’t quite ‘get it.’ I was eight years old, and my father would take me to museums with his work hanging on the wall. These interesting artists and students would come up and tell me how much they adored him and admired his work. They had this long history with him that I wasn’t familiar with. He taught at Boston University for twenty-five years, and Brandeis before that and at the Boston Museum School for eleven years before that.
“These were parts of his life that were all connected, and were outside of the way I knew him as a father.”
In particular, the “Boston Expressionism” movement which is recognized by curators and academics is not always accepted by the artists themselves. Like many of his fellow artists from that period, my father rejects the title ‘Expressionist,’ they don’t really call themselves anything but ‘painters!’
“But it does describe a way of working and a style that many of them were doing, though not always with intentionality.
“I almost feel that now I have a PhD in the history of Boston Expressionism. Not by reading about it in books, but by talking to the surviving people who lived it and wrote about it. And my father was one of the prominent Boston Expressionists. He played a major role in creating this artistic movement since the late 1940’s, and he’s still part of it.”
And What is Expressionism?
“The simple answer is that (Expressionism) is a type of art or painting that’s done from imagination, and frequently involves the figure. It’s different from Abstract Expressionism, which was popular at the time, and came out of New York with Jackson Pollock, (Willem) de Kooning and (Mark) Rothko among others. Those artists’ paintings were nearly devoid of the figure. Expressionism often has dreamlike, imaginary, distorted figures. The brushwork is usually coarse, agitated and dramatic, and the colors are vibrant. There’s sort of a mystical, emotional theme to it. These are words often used to describe my father’s work.”
And how did one particular form of Expressionism emerge in Boston?
“Boston Expressionism really started in the 1940’s at the Boston School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Before and after the war, some of the prominent European Expressionists came over and began the program. The majority of Boston Expressionists were first generation Americans from Eastern Europe. Many of them were Jewish; my father’s parents emigrated from Russia. (Arthur Polonsky grew up in Lynn, Massachusetts.) They studied Expressionism, and created this historic movement in American art. But, it was unheralded. It never reached its due and hasn’t been promoted to the extent that Abstract Expressionism has.”
But according to Gabriel Polonsky, it was in Boston, not New York, where Expressionism first took root in America. “They were called ‘The Bad Boys of Boston.’ They were breaking all the rules. Some of my father’s work looks like a beautiful nightmare. At the time, it was disturbing and controversial. They were changing art.”
From what Gabriel has learned, it is almost a historical accident that this movement began in Boston; it just happened to be the place where so many of these European immigrant artists came from. But there were some aspects of Arthur’s Lynn, MA boyhood that may well have influenced his later artistic visions. “There were big marshes near the Saugus Iron Works. They used to burn off the dead grass to prevent natural brush fires. He saw that when he was a kid, and he liked the color of the fire. So, that may be the reason that he incorporates fire into many works. Of course, the reviewers see that, and say, ‘Polonsky has this raging inferno from within, that comes from deep inside his psyche.’ This makes him laugh.
“My father and I went back to Lynn, with a camera crew. We drove around while he told stories about growing up there. We went to the Lynn Public Library where he spent much of his childhood. On the wall is an enormous, painted mural that depicts the creation of man, with angels and cavemen. When my father saw that mural as a little kid he said to himself, ‘I want to be a painter. I want to be able to do that.’ So, I had to film him returning to the library to see the mural once again, while talking about how it inspired a lifetime of painting”
Fortunately for Gabriel, one of the important periods in his father’s life was already on film—film that he was able to use in his documentary.
“When he graduated (from the Boston Museum School), my father received a two-year fellowship to the booming art scene of post-WW II Paris. That was a life-changing experience for him. It was an amazing time. He lived up the street from Picasso and drew every day with friends like the aforementioned Ellsworth Kelly. Arthur was featured in LIFE Magazine, had acclaimed international solo shows, and was in group shows with Pollock and Picasso. From what I’ve learned about it, my father lived a real-life Woody Allen MIDNIGHT IN PARIS experience.
“He had a girlfriend in Paris and did many beautiful drawings and paintings of her. I found out that she’s alive and well, and living in Massachusetts. So, I ended up doing a great interview with her and struck gold! She had this amazing B&W 8mm movie footage of them in Paris together. All these artists in the street, it’s like a Fellini movie. My father is young and handsome, with his pipe. She’s in the footage, too. It’s an incredible document of an era to include in the film.”
Also in the film will be scenes describing the impact that Arthur Polonsky’s work—and that of other Boston Expressionists—has today, and the following that their work has attracted. Among such followers is Katherine French, Head of the Danforth Museum, Arthur’s friend and lifelong collector, Carol Klein, and Boston’s Herbert Grey, known as one of the biggest private collectors and an admirer of Boston Expressionism. Such people are in the vanguard of a revival of interest in Boston Expressionism, which Gabriel’s film, inevitably, will spotlight. There is little doubt that the completion of this film will raise the profile and value of these works. According to Gabriel, this film is the first feature length film which will cover Boston Expressionism.
As for Gabriel’s own career, the Boston native has his own extensive portfolio of work as a filmmaker, artist, animator, and educator. In 1992, he founded Gabriel Polonsky Studio. (Gabriel’s awards include a national Emmy nomination.) The documentary film about his father is the Studio’s latest production.
The film’s working title is RELEASE FROM REASON. It comes from a statement Arthur Polonsky gave in an interview: “In a world where reason is the goal, I think that art is the release from reason.”
The film has completed all primary filming and production work, has over 150 hours of interviews and scenes recorded and is now raising funds to begin post-production. Gabriel Polonsky can be contacted directly at info@releasefromreason. com, or by calling 617 515-5642. Updates are available at http://releasefromreason.com/news/.
Hartley Pleshaw has been a writer for IMAGINE since 2006. He has worked in Boston-area media and theater for over three decades. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It began as a simple assignment—to produce one-minute profiles of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. One turned out to be an inspiring story, worthy of a feature-length film. The subject was Holocaust survivor Steve Ross, founder of the New England Holocaust Memorial. His story was beyond remarkable. Producer Roger Lyons arranged to meet him at the Memorial in downtown Boston.
Steve was articulate and compelling, explaining why he had been so determined to build a memorial. He said he wanted to create a place where he and other survivors and descendants could pay their respects to the family members who had died in the Holocaust.
STEVE ROSS: GIVING BACK TO AMERICA was born. My intent was not to make a “typical Holocaust film” but to tell the story of someone who had not survived, but triumphed over adversity, evil and hate…and dedicated his life in America to helping others do the same.
Steve’s journey began in Lodz, Poland. As a 9-year-old child, his family hid him from the Nazis at a farm. But the Nazis found the Jewish child, nee Shmulek Rozenthal, hiding in the woods.
He was sent to ten concentration camps over five torturous years, where he endured savage beatings and horrific medical experiments. Selected many times for extermination, he miraculously eluded death—once by clinging to the underside of a moving train leaving Auschwitz and another time hiding in the waste of an outhouse.
Finally liberated from the hell of Dachau by American troops, one soldier showed Steve particular kindness—giving him food and embracing the sickly youth. This GI also gave him a small American flag, which he still carries with him today. Ross spent much of the next seven decades trying to find that “angel” who freed him and showed him that human love and compassion still existed in the world.
Steve’s life after the war is the focus of this story. Arriving in America as an uneducated orphan who spoke no English, he eventually became a licensed psychologist—the ultimate at-risk child working with at-risk youth. He worked with inner city kids, steering them from the street to school. He touched countless lives and inspired people with his example of resilience.
Steve made the New England Holocaust Memorial a reality, with the help of then-Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. Today, the Memorial stands in downtown Boston, where visitors are engaged and enlightened by the striking glass towers and rising steam, paying homage to the millions whose lives were taken in the camps. Steve was determined to build this space as a way to tell present and future generations that the Holocaust was both real and unimaginable.
Over the last thirteen plus years, my crew and I have documented many compelling events in Steve’s life. We’ve captured his lectures at Boston schools, where inner city kids hung on his every word—in awe of what he had gone through compared to their lives. We recorded two Holocaust Remembrance events at Faneuil Hall. At one event, Steve reads a Yiddish poem he learned in the camps. At the second one, he recounts his life in captivity. Following each event,we go with Steve from the hall to the Memorial, where survivors and descendants alike pay their respects to the family members who had died in the Holocaust.
We’ve recorded events where dozens of people were sworn in as new citizens. Steve spoke to them about his love for America and his life here. At the John F. Kennedy Library event, Steve meets with a new citizen from his native Poland and speaks perfect Polish, having not spoken the language in decades.
Throughout the film, we witness Steve’s search for that American soldier who made such an impact on his life. Remarkably, the soldier’s granddaughter discovers a TV show on You Tube, featuring Steve’s story and his search for his “angel.” The film climaxes with an emotional reunion at Boston’s State House on Veteran’s Day.
After more than a decade of gathering material, we have arrived at the stage where we need finishing funds for edit and post to complete the film. My hope is to finish the film soon and share Steve’s story with young people and adults all over the world.
Ideally, Steve’s story warrants a theatrical release and is a good candidate for European and Israeli foreign sales and distribution, American Public Television, History Channel, VOD and DVD. It is sure to be a favorite on the film festival circuit, especially Jewish Film Festivals, and has a multitude of web and school distribution possibilities.
Steve’s story is one of perseverance and hope. It’s a lesson in never giving up, and I won’t give up on getting this film completed in order to honor Steve for all the people he’s helped in his adopted country.
Producer Roger Lyons is seeking finishing funds for STEVE ROSS: GIVING BACK TO AMERICA along with foreign sales/ distribution and domestic distribution opportunities.-PUB
“I am a storyteller first, and sometimes an unexpected, reluctant activist second.”
By the time you read this article, Cynthia Wade may or may not have won her second Academy Award in five years. As an accomplished documentary filmmaker who focuses on social issues, winning another Oscar is not what is important to her – creating compelling stories is.
Cynthia’s desire to become a documentary filmmaker began when she was a theatre major at Smith College in Northampton, MA. Spending her time traveling from audition to audition, and landing few roles, she was left feeling frustrated and absent from the creative process. When Cynthia found a camera her sophomore year and began filming her friends, she realized being behind-the scenes was where she belonged.
During her senior year Cynthia decided to apply to the Smith Scholars Program, a special study program where instead of taking classes, she could make a documentary. In 1989, she completed her first film – about women’s dating lives and romantic expectations at an all-female college. Cynthia compared her story to that of her grandmother’s time, a 1939 Smith College graduate.
On graduation day, Cynthia’s documentary screened in front of 800 people. The film included scenes from lesbian and bi-sexual dances, and many considered it too edgy and controversial. Days later, the then-President of Smith College held a meeting in which she announced that she would not run an article about the film in the alumnae magazine because the presence of lesbians at Smith upset some of the older alumnae.
“I didn’t mean for it to be controversial, I was just trying to figure out what college dating life meant to students. This was the first time I realized there was real power to a documentary film,” said Cynthia.
This experience solidified Cynthia’s desire to become a documentary filmmaker and she went on to receive her Masters in Documentary Filmmaking from Stanford University.
In 2008, Cynthia won her first Academy Award for her short documentary film, FREEHELD. This 39-minute film follows the life of Laurel Hester, a police officer who is dying of cancer, and simultaneously fighting for earned pension benefits for her partner, Stacie Andree.
Although FREEHELD was released during a very controversial time in the United States – when the subject of gay rights was being talked about on every media outlet in the country – Cynthia had no idea how big of an impact the film would have. “I just fell in love with the women in that story and their relationship – the love and care that they had for each other. My passion for a film always starts with the people. I am a storyteller first, and sometimes an unexpected, reluctant activist second.”
FREEHELD was televised on Cinemax and won 15 film festival prizes, including the Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. FREEHELD is set to be a major feature film, with Ellen Page already signed on to play the role of Andree.
Amidst her hectic lifestyle post-Oscars, Cynthia said she realized — while walking up her fourth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn — that never before had she had her own sacred place. “What I yearned for was a quiet place, a special place, for my family. I dreamt of having a little house with a fireplace, wood-plank floors, and a private space for me, my husband and two daughters. After her Oscar win in 2008 Cynthia said to her husband, “I need to go some place where it’s just us as a family.”
Cynthia’s wish came true when she found the perfect home in South Egremont, Massachusetts – a real-estate listing she found on Craig’s List. “The house was crooked, small, cozy, and had wide plank floors and a fireplace. It needed work, and I loved it,” Cynthia states. Originally a weekend getaway, the family moved to the Berkshires permanently 2 ½ years ago.
At a time where people can do their work anywhere, Cynthia feels very fortunate that she can live in the countryside and still have just as successful a career. “The Berkshires,” Cynthia says, “has the potential to have the same creative vibrancy as Brooklyn does.”
The Berkshire community rallied around Cynthia for her second Oscar nomination. Melissa Bigarel, owner of the Great Barrington store Louisa Ellis, was her stylist for the dresses leading up to the Oscars; Anni Crofut, jewelry designer and owner of Anni Maliki, lent some jewelry; and Annie Okerstrom-Lang, local realtor and co-owner of the Great Barrington Okerstrom Lang Landscape Architects, introduced Cynthia to her brother Todd Okerstrom, head of Personal Shopping at Bergdorf Goodman. Todd connected Cynthia with NYC designer Randi Rahm. Rahm lent her a gold beaded gown for the awards ceremony.
This time around, Cynthia’s documentary, MONDAYS AT RACINE, moves people in a different way. The 39-minute film focuses around a Long Island hair salon that, every third Monday of the month, closes its doors to the public for women who have cancer and are undergoing chemotherapy. During this time these women enjoy free beauty services, and along the way, have become a major support system for one another. The sisters, who own the Racine Salon and lost their mother to cancer, will be Cynthia’s dates to the Academy Awards.
Andrew O’Hehir, writer for Salon.com, writes of MONDAYS AT RACINE as “a modestly scaled film with a modest suburban setting, about the ramifications of a disease that has touched most American families, but Wade’s blend of intimacy, hopefulness and profound tragedy ultimately makes it much, much bigger than that sounds.”
Currently, Cynthia runs her own production company, Cynthia Wade Productions Inc., and is traveling all over the world – one day she’s working in Indonesia and the next she’s in Manhattan. How lucky we are to have Cynthia, and her masterful storytelling talents, here in western Massachusetts. To learn more about Cynthia Wade you can visit her website at www.cynthiawade.com
Lauren Zink is the Communications Manager for the Berkshire Film and Media Commission. Reach her anytime at Lauren@berkshirefilm.com. To keep up-to-date with the film scene in western Massachusetts you can read Lauren’s tweets at @BerkshireFilm.