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Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Enid Zentelis of ‘How My Grandmother Won WWII’ Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Edward Sylvan

My podcast focus is ultimately justice for all people now. I draw clear lines from the fascists of WWII to white supremacists in the US today. Every story I am inspired to tell is rooted in social justice. My last feature, Bottled Up, focused on opioid addiction and enabling- it highlighted the realities of this situation for working poor people.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Enid Zentelis.

Enid Zentelis is an award-winning director and writer. She recently created, executive produced and hosted a nonfiction narrative podcast, How My Grandmother Won WWII. This 6-part series follows a granddaughter’s journey to discover her Hungarian Jewish grandmother’s covert work for British Special Ops.

Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival, and awards at New York Film Festival, Tribeca, and winner of Best Director prize at Sonoma FF, her features include: Evergreen, Sundance, Dramatic Competition, and Bottled Up, produced by Olympus Pictures (Beginners), nominated for The Nora Ephron Prize at Tribeca Film Festival, stars Oscar winner, Melissa Leo (The Fighter.) Commercial director work for clients including The Clinton Foundation/Radical Media, Warner Records, Universal Records, including films on legends Eric Clapton and The Impressions, and acclaimed band WILCO. Her indie series pilot, Au Pair, premiered in Episodic Competition at the 2017 Geena Davis’ Bentonville Film Festival. She was an NBC-Universal Directing Fellow on Tina Fey/Tracey Wigfield produced series, Great News. She is also developing her next feature and original series.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

My grandmother. I was an undergrad and was focusing on comparative literature. At the last minute, I switched focus to film and made a thesis film on my grandmother’s Holocaust survival story. I next interned for a major Hollywood producer, got into NYU Graduate Film School and then, The Sundance Institute and Film Festival with my first feature, Evergreen- about a young girl living in poverty with her mom, who mistakes her sexuality for her self-worth. My childhood was tumultuous, my mom survived the Holocaust, and my father fled Stalin. They ended up in the U.S. and struggled to earn a living, and battled trauma-related depression. But my childhood was also full of great books, art, and brilliant, curious parents who were political and creative. They inspired me to see art as activism.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

As a director for hire, you can find yourself in some extraordinary situations. Radical Media hired me to direct a short work on The Clinton Foundation. I was paid nearly nothing and interviewed former President Clinton for a half-hour. He was so impressed with how prepared I was and knowledgeable on all the issues concerning his philanthropic work around the globe. He spent time with the crew and me afterward discussing policy off camera. It was amazing! What was also amazing was how flat broke I was as a female director, unable to find regular directing work and virtually never getting paid what my male counterparts were.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Mary Kay Place is one of the most interesting and humble actors I have ever worked with. She is a wildly talented actor who also happened to sing with The Eagles. She shared with me a story about giving Willie Nelson a haircut that I will treasure always. Spike Lee was my directing professor at NYU. He was the first hero of mine in a film to believe in me as a director, and it had a lasting effect.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I have just released a podcast that I created and hosted, called How My Grandmother Won WWII. It tracks my journey to uncover the truth about my grandmother’s work for British Special Ops in Hungary during the Holocaust. I am working on a scripted series adaptation, and I am excited to bring it to life in a completely original genre-bending way.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

Women from all backgrounds took risks to make this a better world. Women were largely unheralded in history-most completely erased. My grandmother is my answer. She was a young mother of two, her father had been taken to Auschwitz, her husband and brother taken to labor camps, her home and neighborhood took by fascists, and she said to herself: I will fight back, I am unafraid of death, I only want to live in a just world and so I will do everything I can to make it that way.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

My podcast focus is ultimately justice for all people now. I draw clear lines from the fascists of WWII to white supremacists in the US today. Every story I am inspired to tell is rooted in social justice. My last feature, Bottled Up, focused on opioid addiction and enabling- it highlighted the realities of this situation for working poor people.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

Social justice is my leading cause. I was born with this cause because of my parents and my childhood. My Aha moment was when I decided to switch to filmmaking in college and made a film of my grandmother. I felt how powerful and empowering the medium was — how it could reach people- this type of storytelling. And I knew, because of the pure joy I experience scripting stories, that this was what I was meant to do.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

People are helped by my work when they see themselves or their experiences on the screen or hear them in my podcast. I hope that I make some kind of impact by constantly bringing up the issues I care about every single time I am given a platform.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

Support arts in this country. Teach history differently. A lot has been said on this topic. If we want to change the world for the better going forward, we need to change how we think about history and how and what we teach in schools.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

In the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, I wish I had known that women were virtually shut out of the field of directing in the early aughts so that I could have spent my time building my studio system instead of taking useless meetings there. Also, don’t be afraid to truly be yourself, even if the world is not ready for you.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would tell other filmmakers that they can entertain and create imaginative, beautiful films (Chloe Zhao, Barry Jenkins) and audio stories — -that also have to possibility to change the world if they dig deep and do their homework.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

Ava DuVernay is a film and activist hero of mine. Look at the scope of what she is doing and how she is doing it- there is no one like her.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A line in the poem The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It is relevant to me because it speaks to chaos and hardships that everyone experiences to a lesser or (much) greater degree in their lives, and that, nonetheless, every life is so precious and fleeting. It is a reminder that we can control our destiny and chart a meaningful path for ourselves every day, with every interaction and action. This is so empowering to me. It’s not false positivity. It’s a charge to take the life you are given and make the world you want to live in. Before I should have even known what despair felt like, and poems like this saved me, I felt absolute despair as a kid.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can subscribe to my podcast and learn more about me and my amazing grandmother here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/how-my-grandmother-won-wwii/id1550511220

Twitter @EnidZentelis

Instagram @howmygrannywonwwii

Website: EnidZentelis.com

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

About The Interviewer: Growing up in Canada, Edward Sylvan was an unlikely candidate to make a mark on the high-powered film industry based in Hollywood. But as CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group Inc, (SEGI) Sylvan is among a select group of less than ten Black executives who have founded, own and control a publicly traded company. Now, deeply involved in the movie business, he is providing opportunities for people of color.

In 2020, he was appointed president of the Monaco International Film Festival, and was encouraged to take the festival in a new digital direction.

Raised in Toronto, he attended York University where he studied Economics and Political Science, then went to work in finance on Bay Street, (the city’s equivalent of Wall Street). After years of handling equities trading, film tax credits, options trading and mergers and acquisitions for the film, mining and technology industries, in 2008 he decided to reorient his career fully towards the entertainment business.

With the aim of helping Los Angeles filmmakers of color who were struggling to understand how to raise capital, Sylvan wanted to provide them with ways to finance their creative endeavors.

At Sycamore Entertainment he specializes in print and advertising financing, marketing, acquisition and worldwide distribution of quality feature-length motion pictures, and is concerned with acquiring, producing and promoting films about equality, diversity and other thought provoking subject matter which will also include nonviolent storytelling.

Also in 2020, Sylvan launched SEGI TV, a free OTT streaming network built on the pillars of equality, sustainability and community which is scheduled to reach 100 million U.S household televisions and 200 million mobile devices across Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Samsung Smart TV and others.

As Executive Producer he currently has several projects in production including The Trials of Eroy Brown, a story about the prison system and how it operated in Texas, based on the best-selling book, as well as a documentary called The Making of Roll Bounce, about the 2005 coming of age film which starred rapper Bow Wow and portrays roller skating culture in 1970’s Chicago.

He sits on the Board of Directors of Uplay Canada, (United Public Leadership Academy for Youth), which prepares youth to be citizen leaders and provides opportunities for Canadian high school basketball players to advance to Division 1 schools as well as the NBA.

A former competitive go kart racer with Checkered Flag Racing Ltd, he also enjoys traveling to exotic locales. Sylvan resides in Vancouver and has two adult daughters.

Sylvan has been featured in Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and has been seen on Fox Business News, CBS and NBC. Sycamore Entertainment Group Inc is headquartered in Seattle, with offices in Los Angeles and Vancouver.

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Edward Sylvan, CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group

Edward Sylvan, CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group

Specializing in acquiring, producing and distributing films about equality, diversity and other thought provoking subjects

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