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A Rabbi’s Tale From the Temple to Sundance

Lauren Viera is a Times staff writer

The 1998 Sundance Film Festival may be over and done with, but some ambitious independent filmmakers have already started planning for next year. Long Island-based Rabbi David F. Nesenoff is one of them.

You’ve heard of models-turned-actors, but a rabbi-turned-movie producer? Nesenoff, who holds degrees in drama, psychology and speech in addition to his master’s degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, is an exception to the rule. He started dabbling in filmmaking a few years ago while teaching his anti-prejudice programs to local high school students. With money from the state and encouragement from a driver’s ed teacher lacking a creative anti-alcohol campaign, Nesenoff was sought to shoot “Inbound Mercy,” a short film about the serious aftermath of underage drinking and driving.

Though 1996’s “Moving Day” was his first official project, Nesenoff has recently taken a more serious interest in filmmaking, and plans to submit a documentary titled “The Sundance Rabbi” to next year’s festival. And given the positive feedback from “Inbound Mercy” at last month’s Sundance and encouraging words from industry higher-ups, Nesenoff’s split career is a growing success.

“Inbound Mercy,” written, directed and produced by Nesenoff, premiered at New York City’s Angelika Festival in early 1997, went to the Music Hall in Beverly Hills for Thanksgiving, and was welcomed at last month’s Sundance--the first time a rabbi’s work has been officially selected for viewing at the festival. In 11 minutes, “Inbound Mercy” back-tracks a fatal series of events from a teenage couple’s arrival at a drinking party to their car crash that follows. The realistic ambulance dialogue and grossly dangerous binge drinking scenes are standard shock material for preventive education shorts, but the difference with “Inbound Mercy” is its creative effort.

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Shot entirely in black-and-white, the fast-paced trauma of the ambulance shots are paired against slow-motion flashbacks to the party, from end to beginning. Between cutbacks to the paramedics, viewers slowly watch the teenagers chugging beers and inhaling smoke in eerie reverse motion. The film concludes with their arrival at the party, at which point the victim’s memory meshes with the foresight of his death.

“We found people to be very moved by it,” Nesenoff says of the Sundance crowd reactions to “Inbound Mercy,” which he co-produced, with Glenn R. Schuster. “As a rabbi, I have a feeling for how to move people and I try to do that with the film.” Last year, “Inbound Mercy” received the first place Chris Award at the Columbus International Film Festival, a Humanitarian Award at the Long Island Film Festival, and the top award in the National Council on Family Relations’ Media Awards Competition.

Through filmmaking, Nesenoff, 38, has creatively enhanced his obligations in rabbinical studies and welded his two passions together. “The fact is,” he says, “that synagogues and churches have platforms, and there is a reason for that: It is a performance industry. You really are in some ways actors trying to get your message across in the most poignant manner.”

Nesenoff takes “Inbound Mercy” along to his motivational talks at high schools. He says the film, which is also being distributed through Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is designed to make kids think. "[During the film], it’s silent, and then when it’s over, there’s thunderous applause and questions on everything from drinking and driving to filmmaking,” Nesenoff says. “I tell them, their first goal in high school is to survive the weekend--to make it back Monday safe and alive.”

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The film showed five days at Sundance, but the rabbi was pursuing a different project in the process: the making of “The Sundance Rabbi” documentary. “I went to Sundance with a camera and I filmed from the morning I woke up till I went home, nonstop,” he says.

The novelty of such a concept is hardly unique, given the background of the festival, but Nesenoff aims to please. “I don’t mean to be cocky, because I know it’s a very tough business, but with this, I’ll let the studios and distributors fight over it. It’s a very special little film.”

In the meantime, Nesenoff has his hands full with his latest project, “Under Heaven,” not to mention his daily rabbinical duties. Centered on a 16-year-old pedestrian’s accidental death by a distracted driver, the story incorporates a knowledgeable study of Nesenoff’s own religious ties. The boy’s older brother, Tom, is studying to be a priest at the New York Catholic Seminary, and his friend David studies across the street at the Rabbinical Seminary. The two end up swapping summer internships, focusing on ethical issues and Tom’s own bouts with faith and dealing with his brother’s death. Sounds like a downer, but Nesenoff swears “Under Heaven” holds a lot of comedy and life.

“My films are not preachy,” he says. “I like to suck people in, and then once I’ve got them in my chamber, I’ll clunk them over the head with a message when they least expect it.”

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