Following the success of his most recent documentary, “A Wing and a Prayer,” award-winning filmmaker and Penn State assistant professor Boaz Dvir was invited back to Baltimore by the Rabbi Mark G. Loeb Center for Lifelong Learning at Beth El Congregation and the Louise D. & Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education to preview his current project, “Cojot: A Holocaust Survivor Takes History Into His Own Hands.”
Dvir plans to complete the “Cojot” rough cut in early fall, but last year’s “A Wing and a Prayer” screening was such a success that he was invited to return.
If hosting an event for an unfinished film sounds unusual, the good news is that Dvir has done it before. This will be his third preview of “Cojot.” Last year, he presented to a sold-out crowd in Manhattan for the American Jewish Historical Society. Recently, he presented the project in Philadelphia.
“I’m honored to be invited to discuss a work-in-progress,” Dvir said. “I appreciate the opportunity to receive early feedback on this film.”
“Cojot” uncovers the story of a French business consultant, Michel Cojot, who is given two chances to right history. It will be screened at Beth El on May 3 and is slotted to air on PBS in 2018.
Dvir discovered Cojot’s story while teaching as a part of an overseas program at Colombia University’s Paris campus.
Besides teaching, he worked on a short documentary about the 1976 Operation Entebbe, during which Israel rescued more than 100 hostages in one of the 20th century’s most daring special-forces operations.
Four terrorists — two Germans and two Palestinians — high-jacked an Air France flight on its way from Israel to Paris and diverted the plane to Entebbe, Uganda.
“The hijackers wanted to free terrorists who were in prison in Israel and raise awareness for the pro-Palestinian movement,” Dvir said.
Michel Cojot was a passenger on that flight. His story reveals a key part of Entebbe that no one knew before.
“I thought I knew Entebbe really well,” Dvir said. “It was something I had grown up with, read a lot about and wrote articles about, but I had never heard the name Michel Cojot until I started working on the Entebbe documentary.”
Cojot’s story starts with the re-discovery of his Jewish identity. His father died in Auschwitz. When he discovered that the Nazi responsible for his father’s death, Klaus Barbie, was living free in Bolivia, he relocated his family to Caracas, Venezuela, determined to carry out justice.
Nonetheless, after standing a few feet away from Barbie with a pistol in his hand, Cojot let the Nazi go. He felt that the murder would have made him no better than the Nazi.
However, Cojot struggles with his decision and when given a chance to redeem himself aboard the hijacked Air France flight, he does not hesitate.
“He is very poised, alert and very much in the mindset, ‘I’m going to do the right thing,’ and he does,” Dvir said.
Aboard the flight with his 12-year-old son, Olivier, Cojot negotiated the release of 150 out of the 250 passengers aboard. For those remaining, he requested accommodations such as mattresses and anti-malaria medicine.
“Because he spends so much time with the terrorists, he befriends them. He has a real accurate and detailed picture to deliver to the Israelis.”
Cojot’s inside information, which he delivered after his release, convinced the Israelis they had enough credible information to carry out the operation.
Cojot’s story is a reminder that behind many historical events lie complexity.
“It’s good to see it from different points of view and to realize that maybe sometimes there isn’t an easy answer,” Dvir said. “I feel this project can help the conversation about certain important issues like the Holocaust, the search for identity and counterterrorism.”
The two hosts of the event, Eyal Bor, director of education at Beth El’s Loeb Center for Lifelong Learning, and Amalia Philips, director of Israel and Overseas education at the CJE, agree and are excited that the presentation aligns with Israel Independence Day.
“It’s important because if forgotten, who would make sure that things like that would not happen in the future? There is an anti-Israel and anti-Semitism wave in the U.S. and Europe. What Dvir does is bring awareness to our past, which should not be repeated,” said Bor.
Philips sees film as a powerful medium to educate.
“There is a need to teach Israel in a different way, and we know that films grab students and people because they are visuals and tell a story,” she said. “Boaz is a terrific presenter.”
It’s difficult for Dvir to attend every screening, but when he was asked to present in Baltimore, he did not hesitate to say yes.
“They are great people,” he said.
He hopes the audience will open their eyes and hearts to the notion that things are not always as they seem and that everyone has a chance to change history.
The screening, which is free and open to the public, is on May 3 at 7 p.m. at Beth El Congregation, 8101 Park Heights Ave., Baltimore. A Q&A with Dvir follows. Visit bit.ly/Cojot.
Alexis Settineri is a senior Spanish and nutrition major at Penn State.