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Thursday, Jul 27, 2017

Film to focus on Israeli spy network

TAMPA - Leora Chai was in elementary school in Israel when she first read about Sarah Aaronsohn. The story of the woman who led a group of Jewish spies during World War I captivated Chai. She loved Aaronsohn's bravery and the suspense and sadness of the book. But other things took precedence as she grew older and moved to Tampa. She became fascinated with how movies came together, and after graduating from Gaither High in 1995, she enrolled in Full Sail University's film production program and later the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She immersed herself in stock car racing and directed and produced a documentary, "Walk of Legends," and independent movie, "Speedland." She worked in production on the Will Ferrell movie, "Talladega Nights." She founded the Tambay Film Festival in 2001.
But a couple of years ago, she got a nagging urge to revisit the story she loved as a child. She began to research the Nili, Jews in Palestine who ran a spy network for the British against the Ottoman Empire, hoping for a Jewish homeland. At Nili's helm in the early 1900s were siblings Aaron and Sarah Aaronsohn. "This story hit me somewhere deeper than any story I've ever read," said Chai, 33. Israeli schoolchildren usually read Devorah Omer's book, "Sarah, the Heroine of Nili," and take field trips to the Aaronsohn homestead, now a museum. Outside of Israel, it is not as well-known. Chai was born in Afula, Israel, to an Israeli father and American mother and grew up in Israel and Tampa. She decided to make the spy network the focus of her next documentary to keep the memory alive. In March, she will travel to Israel to complete filming on the "Freedom Fighters of Nili." Chai began contacting people for potential interviews in 2008 with little luck until someone suggested she speak to Ran Aaronsohn, a Hebrew University professor and descendent of Sarah and Aaron. He agreed to serve as an adviser and introduced her to his son, Doron, a filmmaker. Doron Aaronsohn, 28, had a television and cinema degree from Tel Aviv University and cofounded a production company for commercials and other promotions. He agreed to serve as Chai's co-producer in Israel. Chai could not believe her luck to find someone with a film background and an Aaronsohn connection to help her reach her dream. He adds authenticity to the film, she said. Aaronsohn said in an e-mail that it has been a privilege to work on "Freedom Fighters." People in Israel always ask him his connection to the family, but the Nili deserve broader exposure, he said. "This is why I think what Leora is doing is such a remarkable thing, and of course I'm thrilled to be part of this storytelling," he said. "I hope this movie will be shown in a lot of communities and TV stations across the nation, as it has certain values and iconic figures that can really touch many people." It talks about Sarah sacrificing everything, including her life, to try to free Palestine from the Turks. It talks about Aaron, a renowned scientist who foresaw danger and was inspired to act. It has subplots about love and loss, ships transporting information on moonless nights and torture and death when the plot is exposed by a wayward carrier pigeon. Chai visited Israel once last year on a research trip. Aaronsohn has been filming in her absence, including taping an interview with Omer, the children's book author. After this trip, Chai faces about a year's worth of editing. Then she will need to promote the film. Chai hopes to get it shown on PBS or distributed among schools and has even translated an Israeli study guide from Hebrew to English for teachers to use with the documentary in elementary or middle school classrooms. It also will take fundraising. Chai estimates production costs will range from $70,000 to $100,000 and is hoping for grants or sponsors. She does not get paid unless it turns a profit - she works a day job at Congregation Kol Ami in Carrollwood. The time, effort and money spent are worth it, Chai said. "This is why I have a passion for filmmaking," she said. "I need to tell stories." She can't think of anything else she'd rather work on: "After this story, I don't know what other story to tell."

Reporter Courtney Cairns Pastor can be reached at (727) 451-2343.

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