Early Fall River upbringing influenced director’s latest movie

Posted

Nancy Cooperstein Charney, born, raised and schooled in Fall River, is an award-winning movie and theater director/producer.

Cooperstein Charney, 81, is married to actor Jordan Charney. The couple have two children and five grandchildren and live in New York City.

The following interview was conducted in late February 2021, and has been lightly edited.

How long did it take to make your latest documentary, “Who’s Next?” and why did you make it?

It took from 2016 to 2019, from genesis to finish. The idea started to germinate when [former President] Trump started running for president. I felt that he had a very good chance of winning, and it made me very frightened as to what that could mean for the country.

Trump had lived and worked in New York his whole life. I knew people who had had very bad and dishonest dealings with him, and I knew of his dislike for the black community. I worried about his stand on all minorities – mine, of course, included. I started to have a dream – more like a nightmare – that I hadn’t had since I was a child.

Did your upbringing and education contribute to this film?

Yes, my upbringing and education in Fall River was a major contributor to this film. One of my earliest memories, which has stayed with me until now, happened at lunchtime one day. I was standing in front of my father’s office (he was a doctor) in a poor neighborhood. Our family lived upstairs, my dad’s office was downstairs. The kids from the Borden School, who happened to be patients of my fathers, were coming home for lunch.  Three of the little girls stopped in front of where I was standing, behind the gate of my house. They stopped, and in a singsong manner started to repeat, “You killed Jesus, you killed God.”

Since I knew I hadn’t done that, wasn’t guilty of killing anyone, and they wouldn’t stop – they were having a wonderful time – I ran crying into my father’s office – something I wasn’t allowed to do when he was seeing patients. My father wanted to know what had made me so upset, and when I told him what had happened, he apologized to his patients, took my hand, and together we walked to the local church. I had never seen my father so upset.

When we got there, my father demanded to talk to the priest. “He is busy,” said the secretary. My father said, “interrupt him” (my dad treated all the patients who lived in the Catholic Home in Fall River for free).

The priest came downstairs and wanted to know what the problem was. He could see how upset my father was, so he invited us upstairs to his office.

Once we were sitting down, my father asked me to tell the priest what had just happened. After I finished, my father said, as I remember so vividly, “and the reason that they said that to Nancy was because your religion teaches that. You teach that in your catechism, in your prayers, in your services, and I demand you to take it back.”

“You take it back,” he said again, looking into the eyes of the priest. “Grace (my mom), Nancy and I will be at your services on Sunday and I need for you to take it back.”

On Sunday, at services, the priest did. He told the congregation that Nancy, then 3½, did not kill Jesus. The priest then talked about how good my father was – treating people in the neighborhood for free if they couldn’t afford to pay, how he got up at 5 each morning to go to the Catholic Home to treat everyone there for free; that my father, his wife and daughter Nancy were good people. There were many good Jews living in Fall River. No doubt all of them.

That’s as far as he could go. But it was something, now, wasn’t it ....

That [provided motivation to make “Who’s Next?”], along with the air-raid drills with curtains closed, members from the Jewish community who had escaped from Russia during the pogroms gathering in our home at night to speak quietly and desperately about their sons who were off in Germany fighting, my father waking up with the nightmares of having seen a member of his family killed as they escaped from Russia to America, that it was happening again in his lifetime and that we Jews were all at risk yet again. Yes, all of that, and no doubt more, contributed to who I have become and thus my need to make this film.

Were you constantly on the set during the filming?

Since I did all the interviews, yes, I was there every moment. Together, with the director of photography, Luke Geissbuhler, we created the ambience and the planning of the shots. During the editing process, Jay Keuper, the editor, went off to do a first cut of each of the sections of the film and then he and I sat for endless days, weeks, months putting it together.

At what moment did you know the documentary was finished?

The moment that it became clear to me that I had enough material and the right material for this film … was when I came up with the idea of the Muslim march. If you watch the film, which is available on Amazon Prime, you will see that march at the end of the film and you will understand why I knew that I had come to the end.

Your favorite directors?

I favor foreign directors, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Agnes Varda.  Michael Apted’s series of documentary films following a group of English children, from age 7, at seven-year intervals. They are now 56. The series is brilliant, and I recommend it.

What advice do you have for future filmmakers?

If you have something you are dying to say, if you have things burning in you that you feel need a visual space in order to say them, then go to school (I did not) and learn everything you can about the technical ways that you can use to make your vision come to life. Don’t let anyone disabuse you of your need. Go for it.

If, instead, you are doing this because you want to be rich and famous, find another job.

What’s next?

My next project is what I call “My Jew Project,” which I have been thinking about doing for many years … and now is the time. I have done much research, and now it is time to put pen to paper. I am energized just thinking about it.

MEL YOKEN, Ph.D., is the Chancellor Professor Emeritus of French Language and Literature, French Legion of Honor, at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.