SIR BERNARD ZISSMAN
BACK IN the 19th century, Theodor Herzl had a crazy dream — that one day the Jewish people would h a v e t h e i r o wn homeland where they would be safe from antisemitism. Against all the odds, that dream became a reality. Now, more than 100 years later, Sir Bernard Zissman, businessman, author and former Lord Mayor of Birmingham, has what some might think is a similarly crazyandunrealisablenotion—tomake the life of Herzl into a feature film. And as with Herzl, it looks like this project is also going to come to fruition. But unlike his hero, Zissman hopes it will happen in his lifetime.
This is an unpromising time to make a movie about the founder of modern Zionism,whatwiththecurrentfinancial crisis and Israel’s public relations difficulties, but Zissman, looking relaxed in a open-necked shirt over a tomato juice, is adamant that the project will be completed — in fact, he is hopeful that film- ing could start as soon as this autumn.
His obsession with Herzl goes back to his own days as a teenager in the Habonim youth movement. But his desire to makeamovieisamorerecentobsession — the result of a book he wrote about Herzl.
Zissman recalls: “My book was called Herzl’s Journey. It was a kind of imagined conversation between the two of us. In the first half I go back in time to meet him in the Sacher Hotel in Vienna and I get to know him in his era and go on his journey with him. In the second half of the book he travels forward in time to my era and I show him the results of his vision. The state is founded, the desert is blooming, but the country is at war with its neighbours. The book was published by a Jerusalem publishing house and sold around the world — not quite John Grisham or J K Rowling, but it did quite well.”
It occurred to Zissman that there had never been a film made about the life of this visionary. He wondered whether it might be possible for him to pull it off himself. However, there was one problem. Zissman had never made a film and had never had any involvement in the movie business. He was a successful businessman with a notable career in local politics but did not have huge personal wealth to call on. This did not discourage him, however.
“Starting a new career at my age [he is in his 70s] is in itself a challenge. But the basic thing about the movie industry is it’s the same as any other business. You first of all need to have a product, then youneedthemoneytofundtheproduct, then you need to market the product. If you make shirts or if you make tables, it’s the same. The only difference is that in the film industry, people do a lot of work on spec. They take very little money, if at all, when they are developing it and instead they rely on making their money when the film is made.”
The process is already well under way. In the 18 months since he started work, he has spoken to a number of senior film industry figures, including the producer, Lord Puttnam, raised a developmentbudget of £100,000 and has producers, scriptwriters and casting directors on retainers. He also has a director — the Hungarian Gabor Herendi — and the hunt is on for a lead-
Sir Bernard Zissman