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Movie Legend and Peace Project

Haskell Wexler Photo: Institute for Policy Studies-Flickr.com. Text and photos: Lydia Aisenberg

Invited to North America a decade ago to give talks about Israel, I had the opportunity to meet Haskell Wexler, a renowned Jewish cinematographer, film producer and director. His was a much-revered name in Hollywood and he was judged to be one of film history's ten most influential cinematographers in a survey of members of the International Cinematographers' Guild.

A mutual friend had told Wexler, who recently died in California aged ninety-three,, about an Israeli peace education campus and the impending visit of yours truly on behalf of that organization, Givat Haviva. He expressed an interest in hearing more, and I was invited to his Santa Monica home and turned up laden with pamphlets, maps and, - truthfully - with little knowledge about the man I was about to meet. 

Haskell Wexler and Lydia Aisenberg at his Santa Monica home in 2006. Below: Poster for the 1966 Burton/Taylor movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for which Wexler won the last Oscar ever awarded for black and white cinematography

Our mutual friend had already given the Oscar-winning filmmaker - and proud owner of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame - a promotional CD about the Givat Haviva Jewish-Arab Center for Peace. When we arrived, he was viewing the CD, in which this writer briefly appears showing a group of American students around one of the Arab villages near Givat Haviva,

The tall, softly-spoken and very gentlemanly Wexler opened the front door and as I entered, I heard my own voice explaining about the Wadi Ara region coming from the apartment. Talk about timing – and slight embarrassment, I might add. We all ended up laughing and Mr. Wexler commented on my British accent which he had already caught on to in the promo.

I have traveled abroad many times within the framework of my work at Givat Haviva. Much of the travels and experiences are remembered, but quite a lot not. However, meeting Haskell Wexler, sitting around his kitchen table – maps of Israel spread all over the check patterned tablecloth, palm trees wafting to and fro in the sand outside, I remember vividly.

In the forefront of what would have been the artistic elite of his heyday, Haskell Wexler was known for both his outspokenness about causes that were close to his heart and his adamant refusal to recognize artistic or political limitations. His long and illustrious list of film credits also included the last Oscar awarded – in 1966 - for black and white cinematography, the film being Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. His second Oscar was awarded in 1976 for the cinematic biography of Woody Guthrie, whose musical legacy includes scores of songs and ballads, many of which were political in nature. The two men had met during the Second World War when both served in the Merchant Marines. 

During the war his ship was torpedoed and the U-boat captain was filming it. Wexler wondered if he was shooting in black and white or color!

During this service, a ship Wexler was serving on was torpedoed and as the ship sank he found himself in a lifeboat with twenty other servicemen. A friend later interviewed recalled Wexler's account of what happened. He claimed that following the sinking of the ship, the U-boat had surfaced as the sailors were desperately swimming towards the lifeboats, fearful of being machine-gunned in the water. But in fact that was not the case. Apparently the U-boat captain, using a small camera, was filming the successful kill. Haskell Wexler had wondered whether the captain was shooting the scene in black and white or color!

During my memorable meeting with Haskell Wexler, we spent an hour going over maps, dealing with the complexities of the Oslo Peace Accords, the security fence constructed by Israel after the second Intifada in the year 2000, the Wadi Ara region where Givat Haviva is situated and much more. He was also very interested in life on a kibbutz and the ideology of the Hashomer Hatzair movement (Givat Haviva is the education center of that movement to this day.)

Some years after meeting Haskell Wexler, I was invited to give talks in Canada. In atrocious weather, with blizzards of a ferocity I had never before experienced, flights were constantly being cancelled. Somehow I made it to all my appointments in various cities over the course of a week, eventually ending up in Toronto airport for a flight to New York, which was duly cancelled minutes after I had sent my baggage through the check-in.

During the ten-hour delay until flights were resumed, I got into conversation with a gentleman sitting next to me in the airport lounge. He turned out to be a filmmaker and as the conversation developed, he mentioned a close friend in Santa Monica – Haskell Wexler, of course. It was from this gentleman that I heard a great deal more about the Hollywood legend in his lifetime.

Haskell Wexler's son Jeff posted the following announcement on his father's blog:

It is with great sadness that I have to report that my father, Haskell Wexler, has died. Pop died peacefully in his sleep, Sunday, December 27, 2015. Accepting the Academy Award in 1967, Pop said: "I hope we can use our art for peace and for love". An amazing life has ended but his lifelong commitment to fight the good fight, for peace, for all humanity, will carry on 

 

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