By Betty Gabrielli
If you scanned the arts and leisure section of the New York Times this summer you would have seen not one but two glowing feature stories dedicated to A Life Apart: Hasidism in America, a documentary film codirected and photographed by Oren Rudavsky '79, and narrated by Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker.
Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the film explores how a religious people known for reclusion have adapted enough to survive in America. The work premiered in January at the New York Jewish Film Festival and is scheduled to air on PBS later this year.
A Life Apart and its attendant notices--"beautifully shot, startlingly intimate interviews;" a "stunning documentary"--prove that years spent toiling in the trenches of documentary making can pay off if one has Rudavsky's talent, grit, and vision.
Notes Jewish Week: "Not only is Rudavsky a highly experienced and well-regarded filmmaker with a resume that includes several excellent Jewish documentaries, most notably At The Crossroads: Jewish Life in Eastern Europe Today, he also has an outsider's perspective on the Hasidism."
Oren has brought an outsider's perspective to each of his projects. He is driven, he says, by a consuming desire "to give a voice to those who don't have one." Oren began his first documentary while enrolled at Oberlin.
A caregiver at Lorain County's mental-health agency asked him to make a film showing the real people behind the stereotypes of the mentally ill. Oren created a highly original 28-minute short: Dreams So Real: Three Men's Stories. A portrait of three men, featuring the animated films they created, the documentary went on to take first place in the 1981 New England Film Festival and win several other awards.
"I went to Oberlin to seek out a community that was not about just its own needs. The cross pollination between my work in the county and Oberlin's tradition of social action opened my eyes," he says, "and led me to what I do now."
In the 16 years between Dreams So Real and A Life Apart, he has seen his work as a producer, director, and/or cinematographer air on ABC, CBS, PBS, (including the station's prestigious POV series); and on several cable networks. His work has also been seen in England, presented by the BBC, and on Japanese television. A-list film festivals that have frequently chosen to present his work include the Berlin, Telluride, and Sundance.
None of this means that Hollywood is knocking on his door, or even that he wants it to. But it does mean is that Oren, at 40, is still committed to a very special perspective that has carried him through the ups and downs of a satisfying, yet grueling, career choice.
Last March he began filming his latest work, a joint project with his wife, Judy Katz, a free-lance producer formerly with National Geographic. The outsiders this time are Manhattan women who, despite the barriers thrown up by society, became single mothers by choice. Oren says that by telling their stories he hopes to distill what it means to want to bring new life into the world. And he should know. He and Judy Katz met while the film was in development. They married June 12, 1994, and their first child, Eli Katz Rudavsky, arrived April 24, 1995.
Betty Gabrielli is senior staff writer for the Office of College Relations.
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