Unless you’re Michael Moore, it’s hard for a documentary filmmaker to garner a lot of attention. However, on Jan. 21 the Montclair film company JEMGLO screened their latest work, “Flory’s Flame,” at a distinctly prestigious venue: the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The documentary tells the story of Flory Jagoda, a folk musician who received a National Heritage Fellow award – the highest honor given by the U.S. to traditional artists – and her 2013 Celebration Concert at the Library of Congress.
Jagoda’s story is a dramatic one. She was born in Sarajevo to a musical family whose roots stretched back to Spain for hundreds of years prior to the Jewish expulsion during the Inquisition in 1492. She spent most of her youth in Vlasenica, Bosnia and Zagreb, Croatia, where she absorbed the songs and lyrics of her culture, and was one of the few members of her family who survived the Holocaust. Now 91, she has spent her career composing, recording and performing this music worldwide, much of it in ladino, a language spoken by the Spaniards of the 15th century and preserved by Sephardic Jews. “Flory’s Flame” tells the tale of her mission to spread her family’s cultural legacy through her music.
At the Library of Congress screening, the significance of Jagoda’s legacy was underlined by Croatian ambassador H.E. Josip Paro. “Flory Jagoda is indeed an extraordinary person,” said Paro in a statement. “She has made it possible for the genius of multiple cultures to speak and sing to us in one voice, in one language saved from oblivion. The simple story of her life told in this movie is meant to save us from oblivion.”
“They were among the most powerful comments I’ve ever heard from a political leader,” said JEMGLO president Ellen Friedland, “and they were so heartfelt. He was touched by Flory, and he was thrilled to meet her in person. She’s somewhat legendary in Croatia.”
She’s far from unknown in Montclair as well. Jagoda’s daughter, Betty Murphy, is a Montclairian, and is a former co-president of Bnai Keshet, where Flory herself has performed many times over the years.
Inevitably, Friedland heard about Jagoda’s story, and deemed it a perfect subject for JEMGLO. Friedland, a former attorney who had become political correspondent for the New Jersey Jewish News, started the company in 1996 with cinematographer/editor Curt Fissel. Their first documentary, “Poland: Creating a New Jewish Heritage,” told the story of the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland and was picked up by several PBS stations across the country. “NJN was happy we were doing this,” recalled Friedland. “They said, ‘You can use our equipment to do what you need to do, as long as we get first dibs at broadcast.’ So it kind of worked out for everybody.”
Since then, JEMGLO has produced more than a dozen films, many of them focused on Jewish themes. “I would say our documentaries have more of a Jewish related cultural angle,” she clarified. On deck for the company is the upcoming “Yellow Stars of Tolerance,” which examines the history of a synagogue in France that still bears the titular yellow markings painted by Nazi sympathizers. However, its villagers have kept the stars as a reminder of the need for tolerance.
Given such emotional subjects, it’s no surprise that JEMGLO’s documentaries are a labor of love. To help finance their films, Friedland and Fissel operate a corporate video production business called Voices & Visions Productions, with offices in Montclair, Los Angeles and Dallas. “You know, when we started doing documentaries, it was clear that we wouldn’t be able to earn a living doing them,” said Friedland with a laugh. “So at the same time we were doing all these films, traveling to all these places, we were out trying to build up the business, and it’s been a really interesting road.
“We’re storytellers,” she said, “and this is our medium for doing that. It impacts people who watch it. And our hope is that it helps to educate, and through education create positive change.”
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