Cheryl Halpern perceives documentary films as storytelling platforms. Perceptive, compassionate and thought provoking, she is most successful at making films that maintain hard reality while connecting with a wide, mainstream International audience. At Cannes this year, she received the Artisan Festival International World Peace Initiative Award and her documentary film was titled Cannes World Cinema Initiative “Best Historical Documentary”. In an exclusive interview, the award-winning “storyteller” talks about her compelling need to share the experiences of remarkable individuals, her own enlightening experiences which led to making award-winning films and a unique perspective of Cannes.

 

Tell us about yourself.

 

I was born in New Haven, a small college town in Connecticut. My father was a Congregational Rabbi and our home was open to people from all walks of life. Both of my parents were on call 24–7 to answer the needs of others. So I was raised in a home where I was constantly exposed to others’ stories which required sensitivity, discretion and compassion. It was in this home environment that I learned the art of ‘storytelling’. Since then, I’ve focused on different platforms that promote storytelling i.e. radio, television and films.

 

When I went to Barnard College of Columbia University in New York City, I joined WKCR-FM and had a weekly radio program. I also engaged in campus freelance photography. Both radio and photography were storytelling platforms. Years later, President George H.W. Bush appointed me to serve as Director of the Board for International Broadcasting. Afterwards, President Clinton appointed me to serve as Member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. During the administration of George W. Bush, I was appointed to serve on the board of The Corporation for Public Broadcasting that I was subsequently elected to chair. Now I’m a partner at HQ Creative LLC. , a multifaceted digital production company.

 

What inspired or motivated you to make films? How did it happen? 

 

My parents taught me through their actions that we all have a responsibility to do what we can to make a difference; regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or religion. I have been guided by these values and the sense that every day is an opportunity to listen, learn and make a difference. This awareness has taken me, the girl who grew up in a small town, to visit places and meet people whose stories go beyond the borders of my imagination.  As such, I felt a compelling need to share the experiences of these remarkable individuals.

 

Do tell us about “Two Zions: The Living Legacy of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon” produced and directed by you and showcased in Cannes.  

 

The ”Two Zions:  The Living Legacy of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon” relates the story of people from two seemingly disparate countries who share a bond originating in biblical times. The designation of Zion is a powerful symbol of freedom, peace and unity for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and Jews. In Ethiopian Orthodox tradition the ‘Two Zions’ refers to the original birthplaces of the world and humankind; in Jerusalem as well as in Axum. In Jewish tradition, during the synagogue services Jews face towards Zion in Jerusalem and recite the prayers for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple and the coming of the Messiah. Through a strong belief in their historical legacy and in Zion, Ethiopian Jews and Orthodox Christians continue to observe a parallel spiritual and cultural lifestyle. By documenting this unique bond, we are introducing our viewers to the shared legacy of two people and two faiths that has continued for more than 2500 years.

 

Will a screening at Cannes help promote the film? What are your hopes and dreams for the film? What has the feedback been so far? 

 

Screening at Cannes provided the opportunity to introduce a global audience to people from Ethiopia and Israel who celebrate their diversity with respect for their shared roots. It is an attitude that has survived the multitude of challenges, including violence, of more than two millennia. I, together with my partners, hope that this story will help influence others in their aspirations for peace and struggles for freedom. I am pleased that in the aftermath of the screening in Cannes, requests have been made by several museums to include the documentary in their libraries as an educational resource.

 

Alongside the screening you were honoured at Cannes for your humanitarian work. Please share some details about the nature of work and how you felt when honoured at such a huge platform.  

 

I was taught that according to the Talmud, one of the central works of rabbinic Judaism, ”The world exists only because of the innocent breath of school children.” If this is indeed the case then it is essential to provide education for every child. This has been one of the goals that I have pursued through my adult life. Illiteracy is inexcusable. I’ve been privileged to meet and work with others who are similarly committed. In Uganda, Ethiopia, Israel and the United States I have been able to support educational opportunities and provide assistance to children and young adults. I cannot adequately express my feelings when I read the simple notes that are sent to me… when I receive an embrace… when I’m able to visit and engage with these young people whose minds are expanding through the opportunity to read and learn. The documentaries that I’ve been able to produce are yet another educational initiative. I take pride in sharing stories about others who can serve as role models. To receive a humanitarian award in Cannes during the film festival, with so many in attendance, who I did not and do not know, was a rather humbling experience.

 

Do share your complete experience of Cannes. Is it all it’s hyped up to be beyond the red carpet drama?  

 

The Cannes experience is unique. Not only do you have the official Cannes Film Festival you have screenings through the Marche Du Film. The Marche Du Film pocket guide to films and screenings was 187 pages long! Then there are many country pavilions that have their individual promotions running simultaneous with everything else. Security is tight and accreditation to enter dedicated areas requires ‘professional documentary evidence.’ I’d describe the experience as attendance at a huge film industry convention.

 

The red carpet drama is very real. Formal attire is essential in order to attend the official Cannes Festival competition film screening.  The gowns worn by many of the women are ‘over the top.’ I don’t think that I will ever forget seeing a woman at Majestic Hotel wearing a gown made up entirely of round light bulbs… that were lit!! She was truly wired.  The music and parties go through the night and typically do not end until after 4 in the morning. So be prepared for sleepless nights if you’re staying in a beachfront facing room in a hotel on the Boulevard de la Croisette.

 

You made a pioneering film “Natsanat” last year which won Best International Documentary at World of Women Film Festival, International Black Film Festival of Nashville, Best Documentary-Short at San Francisco Docfest and Female Eye International Film Festival, Rising Star Award at Canada International Film Festival and was Official Selection at Madrid International Film Festival and St. Tropez International Film Festival!! Do tell us how the theme of women freedom fighters evolved?

 

I was working together with the then First Lady of Ethiopia,  Azeb Mesfin, on an educational initiative for rural girls. During a breakfast meeting, the First Lady and her friends began reminiscing about their teenage years when they challenged all cultural norms while fighting for freedom in the bush. I was aware of some of the history concerning Mengistu and the Derg regime but I was completely unaware of what these women had endured. I felt compelled to share their stories and produced ‘Natsanat’ [‘freedom’ in the Ethiopian language of Amharic]. ‘Natsanat’ documents the heroic stories of young female freedom fighters in Ethiopia during the latter part of the 20TH century. These women, literate and illiterate, rural and urban, left their families and their homes to join the 17-year struggle to bring freedom, peace and democracy to their country.  They serve as role models for leadership and courage for women everywhere. I do believe that it is important to support and applaud women who have brought about positive changes locally in their communities and nationally within their countries and the most meaningful feedback for me came from a group of high school girls that were invited to view the film as part of the WOW Film Festival in New South Wales. They were truly inspired by the tenacity of teenaged girls to achieve, against all odds.

 

One of the first awards you received was from the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders who honoured your career in broadcasting and advocacy on behalf of women’s rights. How do these awards help in furthering your cause or career?

 

This particular award was given to me in celebration of  ‘Women’s History Month.’ When I received the award I was given the opportunity to speak with another generation of young women. If, with my remarks, I was able to spark the imagination of even one of the girls in attendance then the award did further my personal goal of helping to make a difference.

 

Are you working on any new projects at the moment? 

 

I just finished ‘WishMakers,’ a 34-minute short documentary to celebrate individuals who do for others. It is the story of the Tulip winery that was established in a residential adult special needs community — The Village Of Hope. The winery fosters a caring environment while providing employment, dignity and purpose for residents. Together they find joy and personal fulfilment in producing WishMaker wine and granting the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses with profits from the wine. It’s a special story of individuals doing for others within the range of their individual abilities.

 

Are there any plans to visit India and perhaps make a documentary or film here? 

 

I first visited India 37 years ago and have enjoyed every opportunity to return and share special milestones with friends. I would welcome the opportunity to film a documentary in India. However, first you need to share a compelling story with me!!