Filmmaker brings Israeli soldiers, and their stories, to Aspen |

Filmmaker brings Israeli soldiers, and their stories, to Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Courtesy Nina Hawn ZaleNina Hawn Zale of Aspen, center, with Israeli soldiers Yogev Menashe and Yinon Cohen, who appear in Zale's documentary "Beyond the Boundaries," which has its world premiere Monday at the Isis Theater.

ASPEN – Last October, Nina Hawn Zale of Aspen, a photographer, former real estate agent and mother of five, but not a filmmaker, went to a symposium in Los Angeles on the basics of independent documentary filmmaking. Her mission was truly the basics of filmmaking: All she wanted to do was find a team to make the film she had in mind.

“There were a lot of people from the industry, the big independent documentary producers. But everybody’s doing their own project they were in the middle of,” the 60-year-old Zale said, noting that she even approached Sebastian Junger, the writer-turned-filmmaker who earned an Oscar nomination for last year’s “Restrepo,” about the war in Afghanistan. “You learn fast, people aren’t going to jump on your idea. It’s an egocentric medium, in that you have to have the passion for the project.”

While Zale didn’t land a filmmaker, she had no trouble locating the passion for her idea. Since becoming involved with Golshim L’Chaim – Ski to Live, a local program which brings injured Israeli soldiers to Aspen for ski vacations – she has been moved by the soldiers’ experience, and how they speak about the transformative power of a few days on the slopes, engaging with a new activity, away from Israel. Zale got busy with her own transformation, into a film producer. The first phase of filmmaking was on the phone, hiring an Israeli director and production crew, sight unseen. Then she went to Israel, where she spent January strategizing, writing and filming, and mid-June through mid-July editing, working with a composer on the score, and recording her own voice-over.

“Beyond the Boundaries,” Zale’s hour-long documentary on Golshim L’Chaim, has its world premiere at 5:30 p.m. Monday at the Isis Theater; a reception is set for 4:30 p.m. Proceeds from ticket sales and the reception go to Golshim L’Chaim, which is organized by Chabad Jewish Community Center of Aspen and UJA Aspen Valley. The director is Yonatan Nir, who last week earned special recognition at the Jerusalem Film Festival for “Dolphin Boy.”

Zale traces her project back to her own physical challenge, a bout with breast cancer. After chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she got involved with raising funds to battle the disease.

“I found it to be oppressive. It was too much cancer. I wanted to moved away from it,” she said. Around the same time, Rabbi Mendel Mintz, inspired by a Challenge Aspen program that brought injured vets to Aspen, began bringing a handful of Israelis here. Zale volunteered and found it a relief from cancer-related activities: “It wasn’t sympathy that I felt; that’s not what they want. They totally look past their disabilities. They don’t feel handicapped. They deal physically and emotionally with what they’re going through. I felt stronger around them.”

On Rosh Hashanah last September, Zale heard Mintz give a sermon about “this being the year of your great masterpiece,” she said. “I had an epiphany – I would do a film on the program.” “Beyond the Boundaries” focuses on four soldiers who participated in Golshim L’Chaim this past March. The soldiers are young, between the ages of 23 and 28, and they were injured even younger; most of the injuries date back seven or eight years. Zale finds an inspirational message in these soldiers, who know that their injuries will affect them throughout their lives, but are determined not to be defined by disability. The footage of them on Aspen’s ski slopes shows how the soldiers are reaching into the future.

“They have five ski days, and within those five days they all learn to ski or snowboard – one in sit-ski, one double amputee who skis on prosthetics – and they talk about what this experience meant,” Zale said. “It’s the freedom. It’s not feeling different from anybody else on that mountain struggling to learn to ski. And it’s so different from their reality. It’s something they don’t ever imagine they will do, so the reality of doing it has an extreme effect.

“And they have the most uplifting attitudes. The words that come out of their mouths – I couldn’t pay a screenwriter a million dollars to write.”

Zale is working on setting up screenings from Chicago, where she lives part-time, to Vail to Palm Beach. She also has her eye on the festival circuit – the Haifa International Film Festival first, then the 300 or so Jewish film festivals in North America. All proceeds from screenings will go to Golshim L’Chaim, which she hopes can expand with more participants and summer excursions.

“I forget how many thousands of disabled vets there are in Israel. A staggering number,” she said. “And we’ve only brought in about 40, and each one says it was the best thing that’s happened to them. You hear that, and you want to bring thousands of them.”

Zale has also taken an expansive look at her own future. “Beyond the Boundaries” might be her first film, but she says it will not be her last.

“I spent so much time in Israel,” she said. “You meet people, you talk, and ideas emerge.”