Local women become documentary filmmakers

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

It wasn’t that the three women didn’t have enough to do in their lives. They work. They are volunteers. They are friends. They are wives. They are mothers — with 11 children among the three of them. And now they are documentary filmmakers.

The world premiere of their first film, The Stem Cell Divide, takes place during the 17th Annual St. Louis International Film Festival. The film is the first venture for friends and co-producers: Jill Mirowitz Mogil, Sharon Harris Pollack and Barbara Langsam Shuman.

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The film covers a two-year period beginning when State Senator Matt Bartle reintroduced a bill to ban a stem cell technology called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) and follows through to the 2006 ballot referendum on the issue. The story of the three friends starts much earlier.

Shuman and Mogil had been next door neighbors for 12 years. Mogil is an optometrist who loves documentaries. Shuman is a journalist, writer and had previously worked at KETC Channel 9.

Mogil and Pollack knew each other because they both had children at H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy. Pollack has a degree in biology and is a scientific/technological writer. The two women discovered they worked well together as they collaborated and co-chaired on a variety of school projects and events.

Then Mogil told Shuman and Pollack she was interested in producing documentaries. The three women formed their documentary company eight years ago. Each of them brings their individual strengths into the partnership which they find complement each other to insure a collaborative effort.

“I took two dear friends and made them business partners and we’re all still good friends,” Mogil said.

The first decision was to choose their first project. They considered several projects including: topics affecting youth and education, medical issues and social issues.

Stem cell patient advocate Cynthia Kramer is a friend of Mogil’s. The two women ran into each other right before Kramer’s trip to Jefferson City to speak to legislature about the stem cell issue.

“Cynthia told me we wouldn’t believe what was going on in the legislative arena concerning stem cells,” Mogil said. “There is lots of disinformation out there and it is such an important issue. We couldn’t believe what is at stake.”

Though the first thought was to follow Kramer as a patient advocate, the idea quickly expanded to examine the stem cell debate in Missouri.

“The film brings it all together to show the story from all points of view: politicians, scientists, business, religious leaders, patients and advocates,” Pollack said. “They all struggle, with everyone being well meaning, as they try to understand the issues.”

The filmmakers went to great lengths to make sure to show everyone in a respectful manner said Mogil. They also tried to dispel misconceptions of the position of different branches of Judaism and other groups on their support of stem cell research.

“There is an assumption that people who oppose SCNT oppose all stem cell research,” Shuman said. “Which is not true.”

It was a challenging and time consuming project to pursue acknowledged the three friends. They learned the business from the ground up and in some cases didn’t know what they didn’t know. They did a lot of networking and took two courses in video production from Sue Wilson at St. Louis Community College.

“We spent a lot of money of filming before we knew the focus of the project,” Shuman said. “But we don’t regret it. It was all good learning and background material.”

They traveled around for filming including trips to Kansas City and Jefferson City. Then they had the challenge to whittle down 100 hours of footage to 90 minutes.

Though their husbands and children were and are very supportive, everyone is glad the project is finished. It was a long road and will make other projects in their lives “seem less daunting now.”

Over the years life intruded on their work.

“We had many other responsibilities,” Pollack said. “There were a lot of life changes over those years including bar mitzvahs, life transitions and kids going to college.”

The three friends loved the whole process and are already thinking up ideas for their next documentary. It was an exciting journey though they admit it was a big leap from conception to finished product.

“Persistence pays,” Shuman said. “We had compassion and commitment to the project; we found the right people to work with; and we respected each other and were kind to each other.”

Since all three friends are committed Jewish women who do their best to live by the mitzvot, they did not work on Shabbat or holidays. They also tried their best to avoid embarrassing anyone or they were especially conscious of avoiding Lashon hora (gossip, negative remarks).

“Everybody was coming from a good heart,” Mogil said. “We wanted to shed more light than heat.”

The world premiere of “The Stem Cell Divide” takes place during the 17th Annual St. Louis International Film Festival. The film will be shown on Sunday, November 16 at 2 pm at the Tivoli.

For festival and ticket information visit: www.cinemastlouis.org.