From young James Bond to a dying Yiddish comedian to the much-anticipated YSO Halloween show, film director Austin Kase ’11 has had his hand in countless projects. The most ambitious to date, “Kvetch,” premiers tonight at the Whitney Humanities Center. WEEKEND talks to the writer-director pre-screening to find out more about the film, where Kase is coming from, and where he’s going.
Q. Tell me a little about “Kvetch.”
A. It’s a short, tragic-comic indie film that I filmed last semester. The funding came from a Sudler grant and the Slifka Center for Jewish Life. It’s the story of a former Yiddish comedian, Berel Barenbaum, who is in the hospital and about to pass away. In his last moments he has some surreal experiences — getting visited by death, for example — but he essentially looks back on his past.
Q. What were some of your inspirations for the film? Your heritage, or experience … ?
A. In terms of personal interest, my grandparents spoke a certain amount of Yiddish, and that culture is something I was exposed to growing up. When I started thinking about this film, the area I was really connecting with is Yiddish culture. It’s so funny yet so sad. There’s this idea that when the whole world is against you — and you can complain, or “kvetch.” In some ways, it gives the kvetch-er a measure of control. If you complain about your hardships in a clever enough way, you have a bit of higher ground. It’s not necessarily tied to religion or culture either. I think chronic dissatisfaction is a pretty common thing that a lot of people can relate to.
Q. It seems like this is a passion project, but how did you initially become interested in film? Have you been doing this for a long time?
A. I was never really interested in film until a summer program I did between junior and senior years of high school. I was there for music, but I saw many of my friends doing film. It really intrigued me, and I saw that they were having a great time, so I decided to make a film for my senior project. The first movie I did was a James Bond parody where he is a high school student. After that, I kind of caught the bug — I was hooked. With each project, I kept challenging myself to produce higher quality films. By the time I got to “Kvetch,” I was really ambitious. I had never done anything quite to this scale before.
Q. So you were planning on an ambitious project, but how did the specific idea for “Kvetch” come about?
A. I had been collaborating with a good friend of mine, Josh Price, since freshman year — we would make these short comedy movies for Hebrew class. Last year we decided to make a bigger project, using what we learned from the small projects, but upping the scale. Then it turned out that Josh knew this guy, Lazarre Simckes, and introduced me to him. He is a former Yale professor who lives in New Haven and is still very much a part of the Yale community, especially at the Slifka Center. Lazarre has an irreplaceable personality, he’s really one of a kind. He is fluent in Yiddish, and that culture and mindset are very much a part of him. He really inspired the film.
Q. How is the film connected to Yale?
A. The movie itself is definitely connected to Yale. One of the main characters is an old Yiddish director, played by the rabbi at Slifka. He gave a wonderful performance. I credit the Yale community, especially the Slifka Center, for making the film happen. The Slifka Center became an informal hub of ours during the whole process. It was where we would meet, talk about the film, and even find extras. The best thing was that Slifka gave us bagels every morning during filming.
Q. Were all of your actors from within the Yale community?
A. No, actually some of the actors were professionals from New York. It was great — two of them came from the only remaining professional Yiddish theatre in the country: the National Yiddish Theatre of Folksbiene. What brought the actors was the same thing that drew me to the project: an interest in Yiddish culture. They had the same recognition that Yiddish culture is fading away, and have the same desire to preserve it through performance and story telling. We also had some New Haven actors who brought local talent, and the soundtrack was provided by the Yale klezmer band.
Q. Like you said, each project is more ambitious than the last. What do you see in your future? Will you pursue film?
A. I am definitely going to pursue film. How and where and when is up in the air, but that’s the plan. I might go to film school, but if I am able to find other jobs related to film, I would be happy to accept. And the Yale Symphony Orhcestra Halloween Show. We’re still in the process of filming and editing, but it’s looking great. So I guess that’s in my future as well.