Baba Knows Best

More than three years ago, when he was working as a paid production assistant on Fernando Trueba's shot-in-Miami Two Much, Herschel Faber soaked up the moviemaking vibes while solidifying, once and for all, what he wanted to do with his life. "As I was watching the film being made," he recalls now, "I thought to myself, I can do this."

And so he has -- well, at the very least he's made a start of it with Chasing Pavarotti, a fifteen-minute short he wrote and directed. It screens this Monday as part of the Miami Jewish Film Festival. Sweet and charming, Faber's first film chronicles the affecting relationship between Miami twentysomething Josh (Fred Berman), an aspiring acoustic guitarist who is palpably reluctant at the prospect of entering medical school (his doctor father's desire), and his hobbled-by-infirmities, opera-loving grandmother, Baba (Sylvia Gassel), who recounts to her grandson how she once met, and encouraged, the young tenor Luciano Pavarotti during his U.S. premiere years earlier.

"It's an homage to my grandmother," the 28-year-old Faber explains, speaking on the phone from New York City, where he's in his last year of grad school at Columbia University. "She was an opera singer, and she told me about the time when she'd met Pavarotti during his debut performance in the States. She said something to him that was very inspiring, and I was inspired to write about that moment. I had this fantasy of kind of reuniting them."

When Pavarotti was on the cusp of performing in Miami Beach in 1995, Faber's grandmother, a long-time Miami resident now in her nineties, told Faber about her in-the-flesh encounter with the singer. At the time Faber had just punted the idea of attending med school and had begun working in commercials and films. He'd collect his grandmother and take her out to restaurants. "I miss the times we had together," he notes, "and I wanted to commemorate them, and that's what the film is about."

That would make the Josh character "semiautobiographical," admits Faber. "There are some similarities. But my father actually didn't want me to go to medical school because he thought I never wanted to be a doctor. He thought I wanted to do something else, whether it be writing or making films. So I took some dramatic license and made the film a little less than autobiographical."

Faber shot Chasing Pavarotti in Miami Beach in October 1997, collaborating with his two cousins: cinematographer Anthony Cobbs and composer Shane Faber, both based in New York. (The three already are conferring about Herschel's next film, "a low-budget, feature-length, weird, magical-realist romantic comedy," as he terms it.) Herschel coralled New York actors Berman and Gassel to star, and, in a mini-harmonic convergence, discovered that the latter was familiar with his real-life Baba: "She knew things I didn't even know about my own grandmother." Perfect.

Ditto for how things worked out with the actor who plays Josh's med-school-pushing dad: Avrohm Faber, M.D., Herschel's own father. Seems that Herschel and the actor he'd originally hired to play the dad character ran up against what the writer-director calls "creative differences." They parted company, leaving Faber without someone to fill a critical role. "Then my dad popped up on the set," Herschel remembers. "He'd come to see his kid at work. I thought to myself, He could do it." Despite the fact that Dr. Dad had zero acting experience, Herschel thinks his father delivered: "He did a credible job. Of course, I see everything that's wrong. I started to direct him, telling him, 'Okay, do this, do that, do this.' Eventually I realized that he wasn't going to respond to my direction, and he's going to be who he is. And that served the film well."

-- Michael Yockel

The Miami Jewish Film Festival runs from December 12 through December 17 at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach. See "Calendar Listings," page 45, or call 305-576-4030 for ticket information.

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Michael Yockel

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