Brian Bain's grandfather died a few weeks ago, at the ripe age of 101. But before he passed away, Leonard Bain offered his grandson two major inspirations: to become a filmmaker and to discover his seemingly conflicting Southern and Jewish heritages.
A former editor in silent films, Leonard Bain regaled Brian with stories of filmmaking in the days before sound, and eventually Brian got into producing commercials. A few years ago, though, Brian decided to tap into another wealth of knowledge from his grandfather, and a trip to Miami served as the springboard for the well-received documentary Shalom, Y'all. This breezy, 60-minute film has been wowing audiences at Jewish and non-Jewish film festivals across the country and makes its local premiere Saturday at the New Orleans Film Festival. The film features Brian and his crew criss-crossing the South, looking at how Jews have assimilated into the Bible Belt while still maintaining their heritage.
And he owes it all to Leonard Bain.
"I really felt like I was in a race against time to get it done so he could see it," says the 34-year-old Brian, a native New Orleanian. "We finished in May on a Friday and premiered it Vancouver two days later, and, right after, went down to Miami to show it to him. It was such a moving experience to share it with him, and see him on film. 'It's a real movie! It's a real movie!' he kept saying. He and my grandmother kept watching it over and over."
Like many of his peers, Bain says he grew up rarely thinking about the seeming dichotomy of growing up Southern and Jewish. But in recent years, the University of Georgia graduate started to think about it and turned to his grandfather. Casual conversations on film turned into a physical and spiritual journey that landed Bain and his crew, which included producer Susan Levitas, in several cities through Mississippi (Natchez, Jackson, Tupelo and Utica), and Georgia (Atlanta, Savannah), as well as in Charleston, S.C., and Kerrville, Texas -- the latter for a hilarious interview with singer Kinky Friedman.
Throughout the making of the film, Bain developed a long-distance courtship (captured on film) with Julie Koppman, a sister of a childhood friend whom he initially interviewed for the film but eventually married after coaxing her back from New York City.
"Things just sort of clicked between us," says Bain, who was intrigued with Julie's decision to move away from New Orleans. "It was a special relationship. I realized it was just that shared thing; here was this Jewish girl who was Southern. There was something about it that made it special. She says she went up there for work, and at the time she felt more connected with her Jewishness than being Southern. But as time went on and we talked, she came around a little bit to (being Southern) as well."
When not wooing his future wife, Bain met several people who helped provide a mosaic of Southern Jewish culture. In Natchez, he meets Zelda Millstein, a hoop-skirted seventysomething who is a tour guide at a plantation. In Savannah, he interviews Leo Center, a Golden Gloves boxing champion who learned how to box by literally fighting his way to get to synagogue. In Tupelo, he meets Jack Cristil, who makes up for announcing Mississippi State football games for nearly a half-century on Saturday -- the Sabbath -- by serving as a lay leader at his temple. ("I get the best of both worlds," Cristil says with a smile.) In Atlanta, former mayor and civil rights leader Andrew Young explains the Jewish contribution to the movement. ("Rabbis came directly from the Rabbinical Association meeting and joined the Freedom Rides," he points out.)
And then there's the irreverent Kinky Friedman, who with his band the Texas Jewboys happily embraces his dichotomy -- and jokes about the similarities. "About the only thing I can figure the cowboys and Jews have in common is we both like to wear hats indoors and we attach a certain amount of importance to that," Friedman cracks, while juggling a stogie, the steering wheel and several dogs inside his pickup truck.
Shalom, Y'all has played at about 20 film festivals, and Bain says the response has been almost overwhelming. Recently, the film swept the Best Documentary jury award and the Best Documentary audience award at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Birmingham, on the same weekend of his grandfather's passing. "These were the little things I wanted to share with him," Bain says.
The film winds up in his hometown, New Orleans, with images of Krewe du Jieux parades and music by the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars. New Orleans is also where Bain and his wife have picked up their attendance at St. Charles Avenue's Touro Synagogue, the oldest Jewish house of worship in America beyond the original 13 colonies. At night, just before bed, they say their shema prayer together.
Just a little something Brian Bain can share with his grandfather. That, and a legacy on film.
- Noland Roger
- Zelda Millstein, a tour guide at a plantation in Natchez, Miss., is one of the many Southern Jews director Brian Bain interviews in his documentary, Shalom, Yall.