Despite sharing her famous filmmaker brother Steven’s last name, Nancy Spielberg says she didn’t set out to enter the movie business.
“I love writing, and writing was my thing,” she said in a phone interview Aug. 16. “I sort of fell into it in a roundabout fashion. … People would ask me for help with their stories, developing their voices, and I was consulting on some projects and stuff, and it just sort of happened, and it happened organically.”
Spielberg, 61, was in her 50s before she jumped into film production, and even then she opted for the documentary approach instead of Hollywood blockbusters. “Even though I scramble for money … it’s still easier sometimes than going the Hollywood route, where you can sit on something for 10 years.”
Spielberg, who made a big splash at the 2015 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival with the opening-night film, “Above and Beyond,” and had another hit this year with “On the Map,” will be back in Atlanta in September for the Women’s Philanthropy fall event for the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.
She said she’s excited to come back to Atlanta, “except I have nothing to wear. The women there really know how to dress and really know how to make themselves up. … I’m going to have to get my act together before I get to Atlanta.”
Having grown up amid a lot of anti-Semitism in Phoenix and without the support of a strong Jewish community, Spielberg said she has come to appreciate the importance of Jewish Federations as her relationship with her Jewishness has evolved. “I think a lot of people are surprised that there’s a Spielberg who keeps kosher and has a home in Israel.”
She naturally gravitates toward Jewish subjects for her documentaries, including her current project, “Who Will Write Our History,” about the efforts of a group of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto to hide documents that would tell the story of what the Nazis did.
A historian in the ghetto, Emanuel Ringelbaum, gathered with others on Saturday nights — leading to the name of the group, Oyneg Shabes — to collect 30,000 documents, which they buried in milk cans and tin boxes in the hope that someone would survive to dig them up and “scream the truth to the world,” Spielberg said.
“Basically, it was a form of resistance with pen and paper, and, boy, today is this timely in terms of having your voice heard in different ways,” she said, adding that the treasure-trove of preserved writings is like the Dead Sea Scrolls of World War II.
The film reunites her with “Above and Beyond” director Roberta Grossman, who bought the rights to the story seven years ago. They’re trying to finish post-production work by January, so it will be close whether “Who Will Write Our History” will make the next Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.
Because of the Holocaust topic and its relevance to anti-Semitism today and to European history, Spielberg said the film already is getting interest from people in Eastern Europe and Poland for distribution. The Polish government even contributed a little bit to the production costs.
That sort of appeal isn’t universal for Spielberg’s preferred subject matter. “Above and Beyond,” which tells the tale of the American fliers who helped Israel win its independence in 1948, came out during the last Gaza war in 2014, and she said no one in Europe wanted to show anything about Israel.
The film was a hit at the 120 or so film festivals, most of them Jewish, where it did play, but Spielberg said the Israel factor limited its appeal. “I couldn’t get broadcast for ‘Above and Beyond’ in this country. Nobody wanted to broadcast it. What does that tell you?”
But more than three years after its release, the film is still going strong on streaming services, which are an important outlet for documentaries because of the expense of theater distribution.
Spielberg said she’s open to talking about anything during her Federation appearance, but she wants to be sure people understand the importance of Federation itself.
She’ll speak about what Federation has done for her family, including support for Moishe House. Her daughter lives in the Moishe House in West Hollywood, Calif. “I think it’s important to drive that message home. Federation isn’t just about helping those other people in our Jewish community. … It helps each and every one of us in the room.”
Who: Filmmaker Nancy Spielberg
What: Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy fall event
Where: InterContinental Buckhead, 3315 Peachtree Road
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 14
Tickets: $72; register by Sept. 5 at jewishatlanta.org