“As a filmmaker, space represents our desire to know more about who we are and who we can be,” he said. “The more you know about who you are, the more you can understand about where you’re going.”
It was this love of space, combined with his passion for filmmaking, that sent him on a seven-year journey to tell the stories of a famous astronaut, a physicist, and a rabbi connected by a small Torah scroll in his film, Article of Hope, which will be shown at the Merage JCC August 19.
On February 1, 2003, Cohen was glued to his TV set as the Columbia Space Shuttle exploded. On that shuttle was Col. Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut who Cohen referred to as “Israel’s Neil Armstrong.” However, what wasn’t as well known was that Ramon was carrying a prized possession aboard the ship.
Cohen found out through an article buried deep in the Washington Post that Ramon brought a small Torah scroll with him to space. It was not just any scroll, though – it was owned by scientist Dr. Joachim Joseph, lovingly known as Yoya, who brought it with him out of Bergen-Belsen during the Holocaust.
The scroll was no bigger than the size of a water glass, small enough for a rabbi to smuggle into Yoya’s barrack at the concentration camp. The rabbi asked Yoya if he wanted a Bar Mitzvah. Yoya agreed, and he and the rabbi studied quietly with the scroll.
At 5 a.m. one morning, Yoya had his Bar Mitzvah in the camp. It was only 10 minutes long, but as a gift, the rabbi offered the scroll to him.
“The rabbi told him, ‘I am not going to survive, but I think you will,’” Cohen said. “‘You can have it as long as you tell the world what happened in Bergen-Belsen.’”
It was a story that Yoya told to Ramon, whom he had befriended with while Ramon was training for five years before he went on the Columbia mission. Ramon, himself the child of Holocaust survivors, asked Yoya if he could take the scroll up with him.
“He said, ‘I want to show the world what you can do when you go from the depths of hell to the heights of space,’” Cohen said. Through the items that Ramon brought up with him, he found out about who he was.
Ramon’s story of self-discovery through his trip to space inspired Cohen throughout the seven-year filmmaking process, which took him twice to Israel to interview Yoya, the rabbi’s surviving children, Ramon’s commanding officer, and former prime minister Shimon Peres, who made the decision to send an Israeli astronaut to space. For Cohen, it was a labor of love.
“[A] documentary is a project of passion,” Cohen said. “You don’t get into documentary to get rich. You really have to have a passion for the story.”
Early on in the process, Cohen found Christopher Cowen with Herzog and Company, a production group in Los Angeles. The idea of the scroll was originally brought to Cowen as a feature film concept, but once he heard that Yoya was alive and willing to be interviewed, he realized a documentary would be ideal.
“I knew that it was a film that would set itself apart from any other film about the Holocaust,” Cowen said. “There are other people involved in this story of different faiths, of many different upbringings, who were touched by Ilan, by (Yoya), and who were inspired to see the fulfillment of a promise come to a close.”
Cowen approached Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks with the project. According to Cohen, Hanks fell in love with the idea once he was told about it, and signed on as an executive producer along with his company, Playtone.
Cohen has faced many obstacles with the film, from funding to financing, but one of the most prevalent issues was that he didn’t want it to be an exclusively Jewish film.
“As a filmmaker, I want to reach the broadest audience,” he said. It was an obstacle as he initially pitched the documentary, as people were pegging the story as a “space-shuttle story” or “a Holocaust story” or a “Jewish story.” However, he feels that the final film has pulled off the difficult task of being a universal story that all people will relate to, adding that in private screenings it has been well-received.
Cowen, who is Catholic, said that he felt the story had a lot more to it than just religion – partially because of Yoya, who Cowen said was, “the most gracious, kind, and inspiring human being.”
“The triumph through tragedy story is something that we all as humans can be inspired by,” he said. “That’s why we made the film. That’s the spirit we made this film with.”
Currently, the film is being toured through JCCs throughout the country, and Cowen said he anticipates that the film will have a run on the film festival circuit. Cohen said it will run on the Israel Broadcasting Authority February 1 of next year – the exact day that Columbia said its last farewell eight years previously.
They are currently working with PBS on getting an airing date, which Cowen said would probably be in 2011. His goal is to make sure as many people see it as possible – particularly younger people.
“There’s a need for young people to see this, so we don’t repeat history, and for kids to look at somebody like Ilan Ramon, who was an outright hero,” Cowen said. “The man was truly a remarkable, exceptional person, and knew what he was doing every step of the way.”
The Merage JCC will show a preview engagement of An Article of Hope on Thursday, August 19, 2010 at 7:30 pm. Director Dan Cohen and producer Christopher G. Cowen will be on hand for a discussion after the film. Tickets are $12 each ($8/each in advance for JCC members) and are available by phoning (949) 435-3400 or on line at www.meragejcc.org .