Documentaries can tell us stories that rival the best fiction, with multi-faceted characters and events that no screenwriter could begin to fabricate. This is something you’re quickly reminded of when catching up with Leora Chai, who has been developing her career as a documentary filmmaker since graduating from our Film program.
Leora has spent the past three years working on her latest project, Freedom Fighters of Nili, which chronicles a little-known chapter of World War I history by focusing on a group of Jews living in what is now Israel who spied for the British in order to put an end to Turkish oppression in the country. Raised in Israel herself, the seeds of the film were first planted when she became fascinated with a children’s book about the events while growing up.
“When I read it as a child something just pulled me in,” she says. “At that time the area was run by the Turkish Empire, and one of the Jews contacted the British, and said that they could help them gain information in order to help the British get rid of the Turks. And so this group ended up exchanging information via a boat that would dock at night off the coast, and that’s what led to General Allenby invading Jerusalem in 1917.
“The story has everything, it’s about bravery, and tragedy, and there’s even a love interest. It has the makings of an epic, but it’s real. These are simple people that ended up being heroes – they had a passion for freedom and they were willing to risk their lives for it. Something in me was always drawn to that.”
Based on the strength of the story, Leora was able to secure backing for the project from the International Documentary Committee, which became a fiscal sponsor and provided a tax write-off for any outside contributors. Thanks to their support, she was able to assemble a small budget, and travel to Israel for a month of research, interviews, and location shoots. This experience led to her forming a relationship with Doron Aaronsohn, a filmmaker in Tel Aviv who is an ancestor of the original Israeli spies; Aaronsohn become a major contributor to the production, even after she flew back to the U.S.
“When you’re making a documentary a lot of things depend on luck, and I don’t know what I would have done without him,” Leora says. “He coordinated everything I needed from afar, and I feel like that was meant to be. Here’s someone who is part of the family, and a filmmaker, who’s here to help on this particular project. That’s something I never could have predicted, a descendent of the family helping me. I thought that was amazing.”
With filming now wrapped, Leora is deep in postproduction, where she’s using a variety of different footage to create a narrative that does justice to the subject matter, including interviews, historical reenactments, and photographs from the period. After having lived with the story for more than half her life, she’s excited by the prospect of finding the right company to help distribute the film, and pass along this forgotten piece of history to a wider audience.
“Not many people know about this story outside of Israel, and my goal is to get as many people as possible to see it,” she says. “It’s an educational piece, but also entertaining because it’s such a good story, and I think a lot of people will really be interested in it. I want to have a premiere, hopefully something in Israel, and I’d love to see if someone like HBO or PBS pick it up. I can’t believe the whole thing is coming to an end, but as I look back, it’s like it was meant for me to do this story, because it’s been such a journey. I’m really excited to see where it goes from here.”