2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival Freedom of Expression Award
Screened at SFJFF 2009
Aviva Kempner chronicles tales of Jewish heroism with tenacity, skill and endless passion. Her documentaries are artfully and painstakingly researched; the results celebrate and illuminate little-known stories of Jews who had heart and chutzpah. She has mastered that rare, miraculous phenomenon that great documentarians strive for: being a magical matchmaker between legends of the past and curious audiences of today who collectively fall head over heels for their newly discovered heroes, warts and all. In addition to her work as a veteran documentary filmmaker, Kempner is an accomplished curator and a journalist.
Kempner was the scriptwriter, director and producer of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (SFJFF 1999), a highly entertaining documentary about the Jewish baseball slugger who fought anti-Semitism in the 1930s and ’40s. The film received a Peabody Award and was nominated for a national Emmy and won numerous film critics awards. She produced and co-wrote Partisans of Vilna (SFJFF 1986, directed by Joshua Waletzky), a documentary on Jewish resistance against the Nazis in Vilna, Lithuania. She was also the executive producer of the 1989 Grammy Award–nominated record Partisans of Vilna: The Songs of World War II Jewish Resistance. Her AFI short drama Today I Vote for My Joey (2003) depics a group of older, feisty Jews and a Haitian nurse going to vote proudly for the first Jewish Vice_Presidential candidate, Senator Joe Lieberman.
Her newest documentary, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, is the humorous and eye-opening story of television pioneer Gertrude Berg. Berg was the creator, principal writer and star of The Goldbergs, a popular radio show (starting in 1929) that became television’s first character-driven sitcom in 1949. Berg received the first Best Actress Emmy, paving the way for women in the entertainment industry. In her own way, Kempner is a worthy successor to Berg’s legacy.
Kempner is a founder and former curator of the Washington, D.C. Jewish Film Festival, one of the country’s best. Born in Berlin, she is the child of a Holocaust survivor and a U.S. army officer. In her current hometown of Washington, she is an activist for voting rights for the District of Columbia. She was the recipient of a 1996 Guggenheim fellowship, 2000 D.C. Mayor’s Art Award, 2001 Women of Vision Award from D.C.’s Women in Film and Video chapter and 2001 Media Art award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. She has also written film reviews and features in newspapers around the country for the past 20 years.
Hats off to Aviva Kempner for her significant contribution to Jewish cinema!
—Nancy K. Fishman
SFJFF’s Freedom of Expression Award statuette is the creation of San Francisco–based, Moscow-born sculptor Misha Frid, whose design symbolizes “the never extinguished flame of Jewish daring and creativity.”
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