Skokie filmmaker honors complicated hero
A quiet moment in combat: Commander Yoni Nethanyahu during the 1973 Yom Kuppur War.
Updated: July 12, 2012 5:51PM
After beginning his filmmaking career right out of college in the early ’90s, Skokie-born Ari Daniel Pinchot (whose 16-year-old piano-playing nephew Edon Pinchot is currently wowing them on TV’s “America’s Got Talent”) became a successful producer, with credits including the documentary “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” the Will Ferrell drama “Everything Must Go,” and George Clooney’s “The Ides of March.”
Pinchot is making his co-directing debut this year with the documentary “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story.”
Pinchot worked for 16 years, off and on, on “Follow Me” (he also produced this “passion project”), which explores the character of Yonathan Netanyahu, the Israeli special-forces commander who led the 1976 rescue of 102 Israeli hostages at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport, though he was killed during the raid.
Pioneer caught up with the filmmaker while he was in town for the Chicago release of “Follow Me” for a chat about his career, the importance of Netanyahu’s example in an age of self-absorption, and why he is “a real 21st-century hero.”
Q: When did you decide to become a filmmaker?
A: I was an English and literature major at Yeshiva University in New York. But then I did an internship at MGM in my senior year and really caught the bug. I decided to have my mid-life crisis right away and went into the film business right after school.
I was very lucky to get a job with Charles Guggenheim, one of the country’s best and most-honored documentary filmmakers [the director of “Robert Kennedy Remembered” won three Oscars and was nominated for 10 more].
Working as a researcher for him was basically my film school and it was a remarkable education. I was very, very lucky to be there. After about two years, though, I met Aviva Kempner, who was directing “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” and wound up working for her as an associate producer. That was a remarkable experience because we basically made the film in her attic. And it went on to become one of the top-ten highest grossing documentaries.
Q: After making a successful transition to features, why did you go back to documentary with “Follow Me”?
A: I’ve always wanted to make features. Making documentaries was really a means to that end. But this film has really been a passion project for me. My first-born son is actually named after Yoni Netanyahu. I started working on it about 16 years ago, but I kept getting sidetracked by other films. I kept coming back to this one, though. It was something I really wanted to do.
The main reason for that is my four children, As I was raising them, I began noticing that the culture in this country seems to be getting more and more self-absorbed. People these days tend to focus exclusively on their own lives and success without thinking much about anything else.
I’ve been inspired by Yoni’s story every since reading his book of letters because he was a man — a young man; he died at 30 — who easily could have gone the self-absorbed route. He was a talented athlete, he was remarkably intelligent, and he was a really good-looking guy as well. But he kept going back to Israel, heeding the call of his country and living his life for a higher purpose. As my kids got older, it seemed more and more important to me to bring this sort of role model to light.
One reason his story serves as such a good example is the access we have to the thoughtful, almost poetic letters he wrote to his wife and family. They give us the opportunity to see the personal ramifications of the choices he made. You get to see the turmoil and the angst that went along with his decision to fight for his country. And the personal sacrifices he had to make. This is not a superficial, romantic portrait. It’s the story of a complicated man who had mixed feelings about the life he chose. That’s what makes him a real 21st-century hero.
Q: How is he remembered in Israel?
A: It’s interesting. Most people in Israel think of him as an icon, almost as a myth — a one-dimensional character. We’ve been really happy about the positive response to the film there, because this film is the first chance they’ve had to see the depth and complexity of his story.
His wife, for instance, speaks about him for the first time in this film and she provides some really remarkable insights. I think she chose to speak to us because she saw we were interested in telling a three-dimensional story.
That, plus the fact that 35 years has passed.
I think that made it easier for his family to speak frankly about him, including his brother Benjamin, the prime minister. Everyone involved seemed willing to be open with their feelings toward him, and even to acknowledge his negative side, because they realize that doesn’t take away from his heroism. It just makes him more of a human being.
For more information on the film, see www.followmethemovie.com.