Documentarian's Tenacity Pays Off in Fundraising

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner cultivates a closely guarded list of donors. Her next film, "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" opens this summer.
Filmmaker Aviva Kempner cultivates a closely guarded list of donors. Her next film, "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" opens this summer. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Thomas Heath
Sunday, May 24, 2009

Aviva Kempner drives me crazy.

The 62-year-old documentary filmmaker -- "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" -- phoned me every week or two a few years back when I was covering the events leading to the Washington Nationals' arrival in D.C.

A big baseball fan, she would tell me what was missing in my stories. Or e-mail me to complain that the evildoers at Major League Baseball were trifling with Washington. Or to tell me that the city's bozo leaders were blowing it.

I would nod into the phone and say, "I know, I know."

Now I realize there is a small-business lesson in her methods.

Kempner is just as relentless in her search for money to fund her films as she was in her determination to bring baseball to town. It pays for what she calls her mission in life: turning the spotlight on little-known Jewish heroes, the latest being "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg," which opens in New York July 10 and at the Avalon Theater ("which I helped save") in Northwest Washington a week later.

The movie is about Gertrude Berg, who was the creator, principal writer and star of "The Goldbergs," a popular radio show and one of television's first situation comedies.

"My fundraising is based on the last line of a 'Streetcar Named Desire' -- 'I depend on the kindness of strangers,' " Kempner said.

She aims big.

"All In the Family" producer Norman Lear, billionaire David Geffen and film executive Jeffrey Katzenberg -- even HBO -- have helped bankroll her movies. Steven Spielberg's foundation gave her an $85,000 grant for "Yoo-Hoo." New York businessman Joseph S. Steinberg gave her $101,000 -- the most she has ever received. Barbra Streisand and Ed Asner have also contributed.

Kempner was born in Berlin, where her father was stationed with the U.S. military. Her mother grew up in Poland, where her blond hair and green eyes allowed her to pass as a non-Jew and avoid the Nazi death camps. Kempner became interested in stories about Jewish heroes from Leon Uris novels.

She chose to be a filmmaker after failing the D.C. Bar exam. She knew some people in the documentary film industry from her days as a human rights activist, and they introduced her to attorneys who helped her start a foundation to fund films. Thus was born the Ciesla Foundation, named for her grandparents and an aunt who were killed at Auschwitz.

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