Jonathan Kalafer successfully following in father's footsteps as a filmmaker
By BOB MAKIN
September 24, 2009
CENTRAL JERSEY Steve Kalafer has been nominated for three Academy Awards.
He owns a champion minor-league baseball team and a chain of
profitable auto dealerships.
But none of those successes bring Kalafer as much joy as seeing his
son Jonathan, 34, succeed as both a teacher and a filmmaker.
"I have been in his classroom," Kalafer said. "To watch the way these
students look at their teacher, who happens to be our son, the
experience was surreal and one of the most fulfilling in my life ...
I had tears of joy."
About filmmaking, he added, "Jonathan obviously knows me very well,
so he knows what I expect. That makes our processes run a lot more
smoothly. It also makes any success that we have together that much
sweeter. The real benefit is enjoying it with my son."
An English teacher at Dickinson High School in Jersey City, Jonathan
Kalafer considers filmmaking an extension of teaching.
On Sunday, Oct. 4, he will return to his alma mater, Rutgers
University, to screen and discuss a film he co-produced with his dad,
as well as directed. His directorial debut, "We Love You," a
38-minute documentary about the annual Rainbow Gathering held by
anarchists each Fourth of July in a national park, is slated to be
shown at the New Jersey International Film Festival and repeated on Oct. 9.
That film soon will be followed by a documentary based on the book
"The Soprano State: The Culture of Corruption in New Jersey" by
Gannett writers Bob Ingle and Sandy McClure.
"I first learned about the Rainbow Gatherings from a couple I was
friends with while an undergrad at Rutgers," said Jonathan Kalafer, a
1998 Rutgers grad with a degree in English and a master's from the
New School in secondary education. "I didn't believe half the stuff
they were telling me. When the annual was in Pennsylvania in 1999, I
figured that I would go and see for myself. It was an amazing
experience. I was really surprised that it was as unbelievable as my
friends had told me."
While there is no official organization to create a mission
statement, the hippy-rooted Rainbow Gathering has drawn tens of
thousands of people every summer since 1972 to create a temporary
city deep in the wilderness of the country's national parks. For a
couple of weeks, they gather in lean-to kitchens around mud stoves,
on makeshift stages and in circles chanting in solidarity with the
earth and each other; all nary pursuit of park permits or any
recognition of surrounding site officials.
For 28 years, the anarchists say they have been harassed by federal
agents, but in 2008 in Wyoming, they actually were attacked with
high-velocity projectiles of pepper spray. Making the situation more
frightening: the attack was initiated in Kid Village, the Gathering's
day care center and playground.
"You don't want to see that happen, shooting high-velocity
pepper-spray projectiles around the children, and in the film, you
see the look on the kids' faces of just absolute terror," Jonathan
Kalafer said. "You see how under reported that was. You would think
an action like that taken by federal agents against Americans would
be national news. In a national forest, that that would be national
news. Yet, the press coverage was less than some garage sales get."
"I respect their quest for freedom: freedom to assemble, freedom of
speech," Steve Kalafer said. "Those are things that this country
stands for, and they are freedoms that should be protected."
As much as freedom, love is the theme of "We Love You," a call and
response the Rainbow Family shouts throughout its gathering. Whether
"We Love You" will be loved enough to garner an Oscar nomination
remains to be seen.
Having won Best Documentary at the Academy-accredited Los Angeles
International Short Film Festival on Aug. 31, the film has a shot.
The Oscar nominations will be announced early next year.
In the meantime, the Kalafers will work on their next releases, which
in addition to "The Soprano State," will include an animated
expression of reflections upon the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001.
Family also is important to the Kalafer clan, so much so that Steve
and his wife, Suzanne, are moving soon from her native Hunterdon
County to Peapack-Gladstone so they can be closer to Jonathan's
family: wife, Kori, and their sons, Zachary, 3, and Broden, 18
months, who reside in Mendham.
Steve Kalafer's passion for film and filmmaking rubbed off on his son
at an impressionable age. Just around the time of Jonathan's bar
mitzvah at 13, his dad produced his first film: the 1988 independent
feature "Night Train to Katmandu."
Ten years later, Kalafer was nominated for his first Academy Award as
producer of the animated short "More," directed by Mark Osborne. His
other nominations came for producing "Curtain Call," a 2000 short
documentary directed by Chuck Braverman about an aging actors' home,
and "Sister Rose's Passion," the story of an 83-year-old Catholic nun
who devoted her life to combating anti-Semitism. The latter film also
won the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival Short Documentary Award.
"Sister Rose's Passion" was the first film on which Jonathan Kalafer
worked. For 2006's "The Diary of Immaculee," he was promoted from
intern to co-producer. While not nominated for an Oscar, the
well-received "Diary of Immaculee" dealt with the struggle of Rwandan
woman in the face of genocide.
"Diary of Immaculee, the project being largest one we've ever done,
going to Rawanda, Jonathan really stepped up into a producer's role
and embraced it," Steve Kalafer said, "and allowed me to sleep in
Rwanda, while he was up all night worrying about the next day's
shooting and the logistical aspects of shooting a major film in Africa."
Kalafers talk documentary, annual freedom fest
September 24, 2009
The following is a conversation with three-time Academy
Award-nominated Hunterdon County-based film producer Steve Kalafer
and his oldest son, Jonathan, who recently directed his debut
documentary, "We Love You," about the annual environmental-minded
freedom fest, the Rainbow Gathering. The Kalafers produced the film
together and will screen it Oct. 4 and 9 at Rutgers University.
Question: Comment on how you are looking forward to screening and
discussing the film at a home-state audience at the New Jersey
International Film Festival.
Jonathan: I am very excited about screening "We Love You' in my home
state and at Rutgers, where I did my undergraduate study. Screening
in L.A. was great because it is the center of the movie industry, so
that audience is a litmus test of sorts, but I am really looking
forward to screening at the New Jersey International Film Festival
since so many of my friends and family will be able to attend.
Q: Did your dad's work in film influence you to go into filmmaking?
Jonathan: Absolutely. It gave me a familiarity with the process. I
see it as an extension of my teaching. It's a larger classroom.
At times, it's fun. At times, it's not. But it's something I feel
called to do at the same place I feel called to teach. It was
something I didn't know I wanted to do until I did it. I had been a
part of the process of previous films. He asked me to help out with
various aspects of production, but never had a central role.
We produced "The Diary of Immaculee,' which is a documentary about
the gripping story of an inspirational woman who survived the
Genocide in Rwanda. I was invited to be a producer on that project by
my father. I had worked on some of his projects before but with this
one, he asked me to do a lot of the heavy lifting, since he was
occupied with his other businesses. I never had it before, but I got the bug.
Steve: "Diary of Immaculee,' the project being the largest one we've
ever done, going to Rawanda, Jonathan really stepped up into a
producer's role and embraced it, and allowed me to sleep in Rwanda,
while he was up all night worrying about the next day's shooting and
the logistical aspects of shooting a major film in Africa.
Q: What is your connection to the Gathering, how did you come to find
out about it? When did you attend previous Rainbow Gatherings?
Jonathan: I first learned about the Rainbow Gatherings from a couple
I was friends with while an undergrad at Rutgers. They were telling
me about the Rainbow Gatherings and it seemed fascinating. Quite
frankly, I didn't believe half the stuff they were telling me. When
the Annual was in Pennsylvania in 1999 I figured that I would go and
see for myself. It was an amazing experience. I was really surprised
that it was as unbelievable as my friends had told me.
Q: Were you OK with Jonathan attending the Rainbow Gathering or were
you against it?
Steve: I was good with it. I know Jonathan has had a lot of outdoor
experiences and can handle himself. Of course, I wasn't aware the
conflict with the federal agents was a possibility. Had I known what
I saw in the film was going to happen, I probably would have been
worried about that.
Q: What inspired you to make "We Love You,' and what do you hope
people get out of the film? What impact do you hope it has?
Steve: The main reason we produce documentary is to help stories get
told. We wanted to tell stories and provide information that is
important and that might not get told. It is easy to forget that we
live in such an interesting time and a world full of wonderful
stories. The Rainbow Gathering is that kind of story. Really no one
has heard of them, but it certainly isn't because they aren't
anything noteworthy. The fact they have managed to continue every
summer for 38 years is quite incredible and their story now will be told.
Q: Did you just happen to be there when the federal agents shot at
children in the Kiddie Village (and pointed a taser at your face) or
were those kinds of attacks something that happened in previous years
that made you want to expose the situation in 2008?
Jonathan: While I was planning the shoot, I heard many reports from
Rainbows about harassment from the various law enforcement agencies
at the Gathering. Mostly people were talking about check points and
random searches. I remembered that from the Gathering I went to in
1999. I could never have expected to see what happened in Kid
Village. The Federal Agents were using paintball guns to shoot high
powered gas projectiles in the children's area, when I held up my
press ID to make my presence known, an agent halted me, pointed his
taser in my face and said "I don't give a f*** about your press ID!
Get down the hill or I will tase you!' There were aiming lasers
dancing on my shirt. You'd never expect something like that to happen
anywhere, anytime, ever.
You don't want to see that happen, shooting high-velocity
pepper-spray projectiles around the children, and in the film, you
see the look on the kids' faces of just absolute terror. You see how
under-reported that was. You would think an action like that taken by
federal agents against Americans would be national news. In a
national forest, that that would be national news. Yet, the press
coverage was less than some garage sales get.
Steve: It was cartoonish. Talk about homeland security, that was
Q: Was there a Rainbow Gathering this year, and what were the results
as far as dealing with federal agents?
Jonathan: The Rainbow Gathering in 2009 was in New Mexico, which I
attendeded, and there were incidents but nothing like 2008 (in Wyoming).
Q: What exactly is a Rainbow Gathering?
Jonathan: It is impossible to say what a Rainbow Gathering exactly is
because there is no official organization to create a mission
statement. In fact, attendees often refer to The Rainbow Gathering or
the Rainbow Family as a non-organization or a dis-organization. There
are no official leaders, no spokespeople, no roles, no rules. Yet,
somehow tens of thousands of people have come together every summer
since 1972 and co-create this temporary city deep in the wilderness.
The basic needs food, healthcare, water, childcare, sanitation of
this population are there despite no one being forced to contribute a
dime or buy a ticket or anything. It appears like very organized
anarchy. In some ways, it's like the hippie music fests of yore, but
it isn't just a music festival. The main event is a gigantic peace
ritual on the Fourth of July showing the highest respect for the
United States, where almost without exception, everyone there prays
for peace together.
Q: Comment on how the statement "We Love You" relates to both a
Rainbow Gathering and to the film.
Jonathan: Well, not only does it appear several times it is the
central theme. It is one of the many unique things at the Gathering.
You'll be walking down the trail and all of a sudden, you just start
to hear groups of people throughout the forest shouting "WWWEEEEE
LLLLLOOOOOVVVVEEEE YYYYYOOOOUUUU.' One group will start it, and other
groups will call back and it becomes this unbelievable wave of sound
in the forest. One Rainbow in the film also said this to the federal
agents as they were shooting pepper spray projectiles in the
children's daycare area.
Q: Comment on how the Rainbow Gathering is very much a labor of love,
especially things like the ovens made from mud and the water lines,
for those who gather, and what kind of impact they hope that has on
mankind and his relationship with the earth.
Jonathan: The Rainbow Gatherings are very much a labor of love. There
is an incredible amount of work involved in setting up a city in the
middle of the wilderness, providing sanitation, water, food,
healthcare, etc. Remember, no one is being paid to do this work, so
it must be a labor of love. As for what all these people are working
so hard for, that is personal to each person. There is no official
doctrine or dogma at the Rainbow Gatherings. The Gatherings mean very
different things to different people.
Q: It is interesting to me that the Rainbow Gathering apparently was
the first event to do source separate recycling and now many
municipalities do that. I like how the guy said, "We don't need
credit for it. We just need more towns to do it.'
Jonathan: This is one of the amazing things about the Gathering.
20,000 people in the woods for a week, and they really leave no
trace. They go as far as re-seeding the impacted areas with native
species. Even the Forest Service, who obviously has problems with the
Gathering, commends them on their cleanup. They give them a letter of
commendation for it. You can view this letter here
They even picked up the casings in the Kid Village from the spray guns.
Q: Do you think that the Rainbow Gathering will grow because of "We
Love You,' and do the organizers want to see that growth? Why do you
want to see the Rainbow Gathering grow?
Jonathan: It is hard to say the impact that this film will have on
the Gatherings. Again, there are no official organizers of the
Gathering, but I have heard many different opinions from Rainbows
about if the film causes growth. For some, it would be the best thing
in the world, for others the worst. We'll see.
Q: Does "We Love You' have a shot at an Oscar nomination? Does
winning the L.A. International Short Film Festival improve its
chances of an Oscar nom?
Steve: We are very appreciative that the L.A. International Film Fest
has chosen "We Love You' as the Best Documentary of 2009. It is an
Q: How does producing a film your son made compare to the other films
you have made? Does the personal connection make the results a little sweeter?
Steve: Jonathan obviously knows me very well, so he knows what I
expect. That makes our process run a lot more smoothly. It also makes
any success that we have together that much sweeter. The real benefit
is enjoying it with my son.
The world is changing so quickly, he is also teaching me a lot,
particularly with the Internet.
Q: What will the next film projects be for each of you and will it be
something on which you will collaborate?
Steve: There are projects in the pipeline, including an animated
short documentary about Jonathan and his (wife) Kori's experiences on
9/11 and a feature documentary about political corruption in New
Jersey called "The Soprano State: The Culture of Corruption in New
Jersey the Documentary.' We bought the rights to the book by two
Gannett writers, Bob Ingle and Sandy McClure.
Q: Are any of your other children involved or interested in
filmmaking? What about selling cars or owning a baseball team?
Steve: My other son is Joshua, the owner of the Princeton Auto Group,
which has authorized franchises for Audi Landrover and Volkswagen.
Josh and Jonathan own Clinton Honda and are both vice chairmans of
The Somerset Patriots, which involves of lot of community outreach.
Q: What is your wife's name and how long have you been married?
Steve: Suzanne my wonderful wife of 38 years has been a foundation of
support for all of us.
Q: Have you ever worked for you dad in any of his other business or
Jonathan: I have various roles at The Somerset Patriots, and I
started waxing cars at the dealership when I was 11. I love helping
people find the right vehicle for their needs.
Q: Steve, having many business interests, you appear to be a part of
the establishment that the Rainbow Family is rebelling against. Would
you agree with that? If so, why make a film about them? If not, why not?
Steve: I have had good fortune in life, but I don't feel the Rainbow
Ggatherings are rebelling against me in any way. You can't really say
the Rainbow Gatherings are really rebelling against anything. There
is no official doctrine at the Gatherings and their politics are
inclusive. Politics of individual Rainbows follow the full spectrum,
so I didn't even really see that as an issue.
The beauty of Jonathan Kalafer is, even as a little boy, he always
was absolutely open to every experience. That is why this film is so
encompassing. He has so many experiences in his life. It was from his
experience at a Rainbow Gathering 11 years ago that led him to want
to tell a story that might not be told. That hasn't been told for 38 years.
Jonathan: One of the themes is that we're not really as different as
we all like to think. It's easy to fall into stereotypes, but in
reality, the Kalafer Family has a lot in common with the Rainbow
Family. It's surprsing. But if you know my dad, he's a pretty
surprising guy. I've known him my whole life, and he still surprises me.
Steve: It's not surprising because people know that we are willing to
explore topics that have a theme of originality and uniqueness. It
was very simple to say we have to do this. As things in my business
life appeared to be growing and stable, I was able to exercise my
desire to tell stories of a contemporary and historical nature.
Q: Do you respect the Rainbow Family?
Steve: I respect their quest for freedom: freedom to assemble,
freedom of speech. Those are things that this country stands for, and
they are freedoms that should be protected. I also respect their love
of the environment and their wanting to protect it.
Q: It's interesting that at the very end of the film, you see your
credit, Steve, as producer with someone singing, "Mama," but, of
course, referring to Mother Earth. Yet, to me, because I am very
familiar with you, Steve, as a frequent subject in the Courier News,
it struck me how much family means to the Kalafer family. And you
reiterate that Jonathan by giving credit, saying that the film would
not have been possible without the support and love of family. This
article will give you a chance to expand upon that credit and more
fully thank your family, Jonathan, for their support and love. Go ahead.
Jonathan: You know there is the archetype of the "acceptance speech,'
which is often a long emotional "thank you.' I have to admit I never
really understood it until I directed a film. Working on an endeavor
like this, you realize how important your wife's, your children, your
parents', your brothers' support is. It is one of the greatest gifts
to come out of this experience.
Q: Tell me about the "Communications and Music Technology' class you
created and the grant you received to develop it
Jonathan: I use software such as FL Studio and Final Cut in the
course I designed, and I have obtained a VH1 Save the Music Grant
(for $100,000) for our district My work in education also has been
acknowledged by the George Lucas Educational Foundation and the State
of New Jersey.
I started teaching English was using music and video production
software. Started doing this program with students after school. It
was just hugely popular. I approached the adminstration about
creating an elective class. They had seen the work that the students
did. In a place like Jersey City, we look for any opportunity to
engage the students. So I wrote curriculum with a committee and
developed this course. It's really popular with students and
administration. In fact, they they just expanded it and hired another
teacher to teach with me because they are so impressed with the work
that the students have produced.
I'm an English teacher, so I align all my curriculum with the New
Jersey Core Curiculum Content Standards for English within the
program. Principal Arlene Farrell and Superintendent Charles T. Epps
Jr. were incredibly supportive. They recognized that is really innovative.
Steve: It's the first program of its type. And it's been adopted by
Jonathan: Vermont, New York. I've done consultations to help them set
up similar labs.
Steve: It's the trojan horse for increasing literacy skills.
Jonathan: I use it like a carrot on a stick. They make music and
create video. That enables me to get them to write and improve their
literacy skills. I'm really proud of it.
The love that I get from my students is so rewarding. They really
appreciate someone being there for them, working hard, teaching.
Steve: I have been in his classroom. To watch the way these students
look at their teacher, who happens to be our son, the experience was
surreal and one of the most fulfilling in my life. ... I had tears of joy.
I remember the time Martin Luther King III came to visit the class.
As involved as the students were in meeting Martin Luther King III,
it was, "Mr. Kalafer, Mr. Kalafer, Mr. Kalafer,' and it wasn't Mr.
Jonathan: I wear a few different hats. My true calling is teaching.
For me that is the ultimate creative medium. That's my dream job and
I'm living it, teaching is my favorite hat.
Obviously, I am a filmmaker too. Documentary is really an extension
of teaching and it gives me continued experience in the field and
allows me to research and teach about things from a different
perspective. I also share my experiences during production with my
students, giving them a window into real-world decision making.
Sometimes, they even become a part of the process.
When I was hiring the cinematographer I showed my classes each
candidate's resume, demo reel, and told them about the meetings. I
had them vote, and they chose Bradford Young.
Bradford ended up being the perfect choice and has since blown up
recently, making Filmmaker Magazine's 25 New Faces of Independent Film feature.
My students are amazing. Dickinson High School pulls from so many of
the immigrant neighborhoods in Jersey City. I have kids from all over
the world, the Middle East, South Asia, Caribbean, South and Central
America, Europe, Africa, everywhere. It is like traveling the world every day.