Filmmaker Scott Berrie was a little wary about transplanting his family to Israel for a year. A proud secular Zionist and son of the late toy magnate and philanthropist Russell Berrie, the Englewood native nevertheless imagined that religious confrontation and Jewish-Arab violence might mar the experience.
But he need not have worried. “I have found it to be spectacular and beautiful here,” said Berrie, who arrived in mid-July. “We are experiencing history, culture, and diversity here. We are hearing a million different languages all the time.”
While his wife and three children settled into the rhythm of life in their temporary surroundings in Jerusalem’s Talbieh neighborhood, he began laying the groundwork for the next film in Emmanuel Benbihy’s “Cities of Love” series. His company, Impulse Creative Productions LLC, is licensed to produce “Jerusalem I Love You.”
Berrie is hopeful that this full feature-length film, due for release in the spring of 2012, will put a new spin on the holy city for viewers across the world, just as his time here has proven unexpectedly delightful. It will present a montage of scripted short stories about falling in love in Jerusalem.
“This film will provide an opportunity to tell a different story about love and hope and possibilities – the human aspect of Jerusalem instead of the headlines – from multiple points of view,” Berrie said. “We hope to create something beautiful and touching and meaningful.”
Soon to turn 45, Berrie spent his first year of life in Fort Lee before his family relocated to Eastwood Court in Englewood. When he was 6, they moved a few blocks away to Mountain Road, where his mother continued to live after she and the elder Berrie divorced.
“When Scott finished college, I expected him to work for his father, and instead he went to serve in the Israeli army,” said Kathy Berrie, a Moroccan Jew who described her three grown children as “very big Zionists.” She looks forward to joining Scott’s family in Israel later this year for his oldest child’s bar mitzvah.
Berrie vividly recalls his mother crying on her way to Yom Kippur services at Tenafly’s Temple Sinai in 1973. War had just broken out, and she was worried about her brother, who had made aliyah the previous year, and her mother, who was visiting him.
After attending the University of Colorado in Boulder, Berrie spent a few months tending fish ponds on a kibbutz near Haifa. He returned to join his father’s New Jersey-based business and philanthropic Russell Berrie Foundation, of which he remains an active trustee. He made aliyah in 1989 and served for a year in a combat engineering unit (“I dealt in explosives and all that stuff”). As Scud missiles fell during first gulf war, he was translating news stories and setting up interviews for ABC News.
Berrie returned to the States, where he earned two master’s degrees, in Middle Eastern studies at Columbia University and in business from New York University. Eager to meld his interests in social justice and entrepreneurship, in 1999 he co-founded a venture devoted to designing and distributing fashionable and affordable reading glasses worldwide. He sold his share in the venture and turned to independent movie production in 2008.
“Film is an incredible method for conveying the complexity of human emotions,” he said. Impulse Creative Productions allows him “to be committed to public service as well as the bottom line.”
“Jerusalem I Love You” presented a welcome opportunity for Berrie and his wife, Patricia, to take their three kids abroad for a year. “I loved the business world, but I always longed to come back to Israel with my children,” he said.
Backed by private investors and a grant from the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund – the first ever awarded to an international production – Berrie has signed up an A-list cast of Israeli talent, and has invited American and European directors to join them.
His production partner is David Silber, producer of the Oscar-nominated “Beaufort” (2007) and Venice Film Festival award-winning “Lebanon” (2009). One segment will be directed by Joseph Cedar (“Beaufort”), and prominent novelist/screenwriter Etgar Keret is to contribute an original story.
Also on board are the authors Meir Shalev and Amos Oz, as well as prominent Israeli-Arab journalist/television writer Sayed Kashua. Berrie is in negotiations with Hagai Levi, creator and director of the Israeli TV series that inspired HBO’s “In Treatment,” and Ari Folman, writer/director of the Oscar-nominated 2008 animated documentary “Waltz with Bashir.”
“We’re asking all the directors to write their own short stories or work with stories from different writers,” said Berrie.
His wife is on sabbatical from her job as a news producer for WNYC radio, and the kids are doing well in public school, still perfecting the Hebrew that their father speaks fluently.
Rather than religious tension, the Berries have experienced warm acceptance among “a very special group of people who have invited us into their homes for holidays and Shabbat.”
Berrie enjoys biking, hiking, and Sunday night softball with a cadre of English-speaking Jerusalemites. “They’re all smart and fun to be with, world experts in this or that. This is an amazing, stimulating environment to be in, with fewer distractions than in Manhattan.”
Mayor Nir Barkat is among fans eagerly awaiting the movie’s debut. In addition to its hoped-for positive impact on the city’s economy, “Jerusalem I Love You” could be a fine homage to the city.
“We can portray Jerusalem in all its beauty to the world,” said Berrie. “I hope it will make the Jewish community around the world proud and that it will make people want to come and visit.”