Film gets to the root of eating organic produce
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Film gets to the root of eating organic produce

Filmmaker Yoni Reiss grew up in Closter

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Yoni Reiss uses cinema as a teaching tool about what we eat.

Browsing the grocery shelves these days can pose weighty dilemmas: If a product is labeled “organic” does that mean it’s healthier or is it just another marketing scam? While an increasing number of consumers are buying organic, few actually know what they’re getting.

Such issues are at the heart of a recently released documentary, “In Organic We Trust,” edited by filmmaker Yoni Reiss, 26, who grew up in Closter.

The film’s message instantly resonated with him. “We explain what organic really means, and we give solutions to the problems in our food system, like urban farming and growing your own garden, and teaching it in schools – things that have microcosmic solutions,” Reiss said.

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Israeli heritage plays a big part in Reiss’s life and work.

Reiss was born in Israel and often visits his family there. “I’ve always supported organic food, even if I didn’t quite know it,” he said. “I always remembered the fruits and vegetables tasting much fresher in Israel. The lychee and cactus pears at the market in New Jersey could not quite replicate the taste of the ones by my grandmother’s place in Givat Brenner.”

Growing up, Reiss was always drawn to the television and movie screen. He was particularly fond of classics, such as “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” As he grew older, he was influenced by the Coen brothers’ film “Fargo,” and by “The Shawshank Redemption,” directed by Frank Darabont.

“Both of these films place personal struggle at the heart of a plot filled with dramatic twists and turns,” Reiss said. “I love to work on films that don’t fit neatly into one genre. I think it provides the viewer with a more complex and honest experience.”

He created his first socially responsible documentary when he was a student at the Northern Valley High School in Demarest. The movie focused on the high school’s “senior service,” program, in which seniors spend their last six weeks of school providing community service instead of attending class. The film was well received by the community.

Reiss credits the close-knit Jewish community with his first big break into the film industry. “I got my first job out of school because of a Jewish film editor who graduated a few years before me, who my teacher knew,” he said, adding that he called the editor out of the blue and got the job.

Reiss, who has recently moved to Los Angeles, has earned many awards for his work. They include a Bronze Palm Award at the 2012 Mexico International Film Festival for his first feature film, “Guadalupe the Virgin.” “Incommunicado,” a film he edited in college, was a finalist at the 2008 Mad Dragon Film Festival, and “Life on Earth” took top prize for a dramatic short at the Sandhills Film Festival.

“Beautifully Esther,” which he worked on with classmates as a final thesis film in film school, is his most Jewish film. Jewish culture strongly influenced its music, the production design, and the characters themselves, he said. The film centers on an old Jewish couple whose romantic spark has dwindled over the years. “The message of the film is that it’s never too late to live life,” Reiss said. It garnered several awards at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Reiss now is at work on a documentary about a Head Start program that teaches young mothers in poor rural and urban areas throughout the country about the benefits of early literacy.

A common theme that runs through his work are the personal stories. Even the movie about organic produce, which is a broader topic, is brought down to a personal level that viewers can relate to, Reiss said.

Reiss was born in Kibbutz Givat Brenner, the son of Gideon Reiss, a former Israeli basketball star and long jump champion. Gideon was the youngest of the renowned Reiss brothers, who became famous in Israel by winning several titles in the long jump and triple jump in the Israeli Championships, Hapoel Games, and Maccabia Games between 1966 1972, even though they all shared one pair of shoes. Gideon later was praised for returning to play in the Israeli basketball league after losing two fingers and his sight in one eye during the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

“I’m amazed by some of the things my father accomplished,” Reiss said. “He had a long and distinguished career in the professional Israeli basketball league as well as being long jump champion of Israel for six years. These successes were made all the more special by the fact the he fought for Israel in the Yom Kippur war and was injured.

“He was very celebrated when he returned to play basketball afterwards.

“I’m very inspired by his strength and composure during times of uncertainty. He never lets a difficult moment get the best of him, and I think that’s a huge part of his success in athletics as well as life after basketball.”

Reiss’ Israeli heritage plays prominently in his life. “I have definitely watched more Israeli films than anything else,” he said. His favorite Israeli films include “The Band’s Visit,” “Ajami,” and “Walt With Bashir.” His favorite filmmakers are the Coen brothers, who are Jewish and have Jewish themes running throughout many of their films.

“Growing up as a first generation immigrant, the culture and values were more European and that definitely shaped me. I feel very passionate about Israel,” he said.

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