A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

Get daily updates delivered right to your inbox

Local Jewish filmmaker’s documentary is featured in this year’s festival

‘Mr. Z: What Happens Early in Life Lasts A Lifetime’ is a short documentary directed by St. Louisan Barbara Langsam Shuman.

Among the many films featured in the 32nd annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival, which runs Nov. 9 – 19, is a short documentary by St. Louis Jewish director Barbara Langsam Shuman called “Mr. Z: What Happens Early in Life Lasts a Lifetime.” And since SLIFF is a qualifying venue for the Academy Awards’ short films Oscar, Shuman’s film has the chance to become a nominee for Best Documentary Shorts Oscar.  

The film focuses on a warm, charming, dedicated educator, Stephen Zwolak, with an unusual path to teaching, someone committed to making a difference in the lives of his young students at Ladue Chapel School and then at University City Children’s Center.

“Mr. Z: What Happens Early in Life Lasts a Lifetime” will be shown as part of a program of four documentary shorts, “Documentary Shorts Program 8: Documenting St. Louis” on Nov. 15. Recently, the Jewish Light spoke with Shuman about her film. The interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Your short film “Mr. Z: What Happens Early in Life Lasts a Lifetime” is a real heart warmer. What drew you to this subject? 

Originally, we planned to produce a documentary on quality early childhood education, and how it can impact the lives of underserved children, with a focus on Steve [Zwolak] and his work at University City Children’s Center and LUME Institute. As we continued to work on this documentary, PBS broadcast a multi-part documentary on early childhood education and its impact on young children. So, we shifted our work to an even more focused documentary: on Steve Zwolak, Mr. Z, and why this man decided to enter a profession with very few men, and how he devoted his career to transforming early childhood education and transforming the lives of the children and families he has served. 

If you just met Stephen Zwolak, you would never guess he has such an unusual personal story and pathway to teaching young children. What surprised you the most as you worked with him on this film?”

Steve began by teaching preschool, and he’s continued to teach and lead preschools, beginning with infants. I [had] heard a lot of his life story – how he came from a tough neighborhood in Philadelphia, one of five children in a working-class family. The first time I met him, he told me that most of the guys he grew up with either ended up in the priesthood, in prison, or dead. What did surprise me as I worked with him was that Steve’s father physically abused him, and that he hung out with kids who had drug habits, [but] how those guys protected him.

Could you tell me something about yourself as a filmmaker? Other films?”

I have two documentary partners and co-producers who also are members of the Jewish community here: Jill Mirowitz Mogil and Sharon Harris Pollack. We formed Triumph Documentaries, with the Triumph derived from the three of us (tri). And we met with filmmakers who we knew or knew about and took a class in filmmaking. And [we were] drawn into a story that was unfolding in Missouri: the controversy over embryonic stem cell research. Our first documentary, ‘The Stem Cell Divide,’ was born through a long and painful birthing process. That film premiered at the SLIFF in November 2008.

Were there any obstacles to making or shooting this film?

We were fortunate to find a brilliant videographer and editor, Aaron Holdmeyer, who also has a great temperament. Nothing rattles him. However, he’s so great that he is quite busy. There were times when it was difficult to coordinate with his schedule and our opportunities for interviews and shooting events. We found other videographers [to help out].

The University City Children’s Center, of which Steve is CEO Emeritus, fosters tolerance through its diverse mix of children, not just of racially, religiously and so forth, but from both very affluent to disadvantaged backgrounds. Would you like to say something about the school?

I love UCCC. As you said, it has a truly diverse mix of children. Part of that was Steve’s initiative. He has children from the Early Head Start program, and to make the school sustainable, which it wasn’t when he came aboard, he committed to having a sizable percentage of the children from the families of Wash U faculty and staff. That was a way to have families who could afford to pay full tuition, and also a way to have a more diverse population, ethnically, religiously and culturally.

In addition to diversity, the school is a place where there is love, support, nurturing and encouragement not only for the children, but also for the teachers and the staff. I always say that it is the way the world should be.”

Much of the footage is shot at Ladue Chapel School, where Stephen started as a teacher, rather than University City Children’s Center, where he founded his LUME Institute on early child education. Why did you decide on that?”

That was a decision that was made as we began editing. Aaron, who is credited as an associate producer as well as our videographer and editor, convinced us that Ladue Chapel Nursery School was key to Steve’s development as an outstanding early childhood educator. The director of the nursery school at that time, Mary Ross, was Steve’s mentor. She even taught Steve the importance of speaking well. When he began teaching at Ladue Chapel, he was saying ‘dem’ and ‘dose,’ and using double negatives and dropping his ‘g’s’ in ‘ing’s.’  She told him that he wouldn’t get anywhere unless he learned to speak properly. Steve said (it’s in the documentary) that the principles she taught at Ladue Chapel were similar to the concepts Steve embraced and taught at University City Children’s Center.  Also, it was the first time that Steve was thrust into a world of ‘haves’ when he’d be raised as a ‘have not.’ He taught and worked with children from affluent families who were hurting, who’d experienced trauma in their young lives. That was important in Steve’s professional education.

SLIFF is a qualifying venue for the Oscar for short documentaries. Any dreams about that? 

Yes, I have dreams of being short-listed for the Oscars, and to be one of the nominating short documentaries. That would be incredible. We’re certainly not counting on it, but dreams can come true. 

‘Mr. Z: What Happens Early in Life Lasts a Lifetime’

Part of the St. Louis International Film Festival

WHEN: 7:15 p.m. Nov. 15
WHERE:  Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in the City Foundry entertainment complex
HOW MUCH:  $15, at cinemastlouis.org
MORE INFO:  The 24-minute film will run with three other short documentaries focused on St. Louis people and places, which altogether total 118 minutes. 

More to Discover