BY SIMON YAFFE
THERE is no doubting that some of Paul Berczeller’s most powerful work has been influenced by his background.
The writer, producer and director, a twice Royal Television Society winner, is attracted to making films about those who have an interesting history and story to tell.
Take, for example, his latest drama-documentary, Seven Days in Summer, which was screened last week on BBC One.
It tells the story of the ordinary people caught up in the bloody partition of India in 1947 when millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were caught up in an historical event.
“The partition took place, of course, at the same time as Israel was becoming a state,” New Yorker Paul told me.
“If you are Jewish you have to acknowledge the tragedy, violence and the scope and suffering that millions of people went through.
“In a way, both the partition of India and the creation of Israel were about Britain dealing with the end of its empire.
“I am always interested in how history is told and, when it came to explaining the partition, it was always told by the people at the top.
“My goal with the documentary was to tell more of a people’s history abut the partition itself and not a story about Indian and Pakistani independence.
“Displacement, which is a huge part of the story, is something which is always on my mind.”
That is because Paul’s father, Peter, and his grandparents, escaped Austria at the onset of the Holocaust and found refuge in New York City.
Peter was interviewed in last week’s Jewish Telegraph about his life and the publication of his debut novel.
Paul, whose late mother, Adrienne, was born in The Bronx of Romanian descent, said he comes from a left-wing Jewish family.
“It was the typical American Jewish experience — we did the seders at Pesach and so on, but I wasn’t barmitzvah, which I feel a bit bad about now,” he said.
“I feel culturally Jewish and I am very proud of it.”
He recalled how Austrian non-Jewish friends of his Vienna-born father would visit the family home in New York.
“They treated us as special and, thinking back, I think it was there way of saying ‘sorry’,” Paul said. “I appreciated it, but, just because I belong to a group, it does not mean I deserve any special treatment.
“I don’t think that the Holocaust gives us the freedom to say or act however we want.”
After reading international relations at John Hopkins University, in Baltimore, which included a stint at its European campus in Bologna, Italy, Paul attended the New York Film Academy before working for a newspaper in Baltimore and then as a freelance reporter.
But his life was turned around when his mum was diagnosed with a brain tumour.
He moved to France to help take care of her, but she died in 1997.
Devastated, Paul has friend Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst to thank for him moving to London.
“She brought me to England, scooped me up and helped me put myself back together,” he recalled.
His first film, a mock documentary he wrote and starred in, Here To Where, was based on the true story of a stateless man, Merhan Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who lived at France’s Charles De Gaulle Airport for 16 years.
It won a commendation for best British film at the Edinburgh Film Festival.
Director Steven Spielberg later made The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks as a refugee living at Charles De Gaulle — not that Paul received any commission.
The 54-year-old went on to make numerous documentaries and television series, including the comedy Loving Ludmilla, starring Toby Jones, which he wrote and directed for Channel 4’s Coming Up strand; Once Upon a Time in Siberia, about Russian mafia boss Vitaly Dymochka; The Miracle of Carriage 346, the story of the 7/7 London terrorism survivors; and Inside the Gangsters’ Code, where he spent time in a notorious maximum security prison in the Philippines.
He said: “The most scary was probably Once Upon a Time in Siberia. I had to tell a mafia boss, who was a stone cold killer, to do this and that and don’t do this. I really felt the challenge.
“With Inside The Gangsters’ Code, I spent time in this prison in Manila with the leader of the main gang there. He was a convicted kidnapper.
“The presenter of the programme was Lou Ferrante, a former Mafia enforcer who was raised Catholic, but converted to Judaism in prison.
“He actually became frustrated with me because he thought I should be more observant!”
One of his most impactful documentaries came with the BAFTA award-winning This Is a True Story.
In December, 2001, the body of Takako Konishi was found in the woods by a hunter.
The media reported that she had left Japan with the misunderstanding that the Coen brothers’ film Fargo was a true story and that there was a stash of money hidden somewhere in the snow on a road by a tree.
“Lots of times you need to know the end story at the beginning, which is what happened with This Is a True Story,” Paul explained.
“It is not that easy to do, especially in television.
“I have always been attracted to outsiders and telling the stories of those whose stories have not been told.
“I an interested in making films which have a connection — I think there is a fine line between fiction and documentary.”
That fine line was never more evident as in Paul’s 2008 film My Way, which told the story of James Hewitt’s affair with Princess Diana.
“I had James direct scenes out of his own life, so I filmed him making a film about his own experiences, with actors playing him and Diana,” Paul recalled.
“To understand history you need to be in it.”
More documentaries have followed in the past few years, such as the BBC social history series The Secret History of Our Streets, for which Paul received a Royal Television Society award for his episode, Caledonian Road, and the Radio Times Reader’s Choice award at the Grierson Awards.
Last year, he spent time in Manchester for Messages Home — Lost Films of the British Army.
The documentary was about films made by the British government during the Second World War which interviewed British serviceman deployed to fight in Burma.
“The film reels were actually found in the basement of Manchester Town Hall,” Paul said.
“These soldiers, who were in Burma fighting the Japanese, were filmed giving greetings to their families back home.
“It was an amazing portrait of how it was for these young men.”
As an American who has lived in Britain for nearly 20 years, making Meet the Trumps: From Immigrant to President, which was screened on Channel 4 earlier this year, was fascinating for Paul.
He added: “I spent a load of time working on that and talking to people who knew Trump.
“His father was a German immigrant, so I find his attitude towards immigration so hypocritical. I believe Trump has always had a problem with race.
“As was in the documentary, a federal case was launched against the Trump Organisation for discrimination against black people and other minorities.
“I spoke to the prosecutor in the case and he told me that Trump had come up to him and said, ‘come on, admit it — you wouldn’t want to live near these people’.
“I would say there is a basic level of racism in him. Just because he has a Jewish daughter and son-in-law does not mean he is not an antisemite.
“And if he isn’t, he is helping people — those on the far-right — who would like to kill Jews.”
Paul, who also directs commercials, is also concerned about some American Jews’ support for President Trump.
He explained: “It is an incredibly dangerous route to turn back from. The Jewish community in the States is flirting with right-wing popularism, which always ends up hurting the Jews in the end.
“The thing about being Jewish, for me, is caring about ALL people — it is not about setting people against each other.”
Paul, who has been married to Yasmin for 14 years, has two children. They aren’t Jewish, but Paul said they know about their background.
Reform Movement leader Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner is also a family friend.
Paul is currently teaching documentary-making at the National Film and Television School, in Buckinghamshire, and working on a drama script.