By Kathy Carlson
A film that almost didn’t get made will lead off the 2017 Nashville Jewish Film Festival this month.
The documentary, titled “Loving Henri,” tells the story of Holocaust survivor Henri Landwirth, founder of a nonprofit resort that provides no-cost vacations for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. The resort, Give Kids The World Village, is in Florida but the film has Nashville connections: The film’s producer, David K. Haspel, lives in Nashville and serves on the board of the Nashville Film Festival. A Nashville songwriter’s work is part of the soundtrack.
The film will be shown on Tuesday, Oct. 17 at 7:30 p.m. the Belcourt Theater in Hillsboro Village. The film festival runs through Saturday, Nov. 11 and includes 15 films. Full information is available online at nashvillejff.net and in the brochure included with this month’s Observer.
“Loving Henri” has been a labor of love for producer Haspel and writer-director Robert Black, whose son is the aforementioned Nashville songwriter, Jeff Austin Black.
Haspel had been looking for a story like Landwirth’s ever since he heard a chance remark at a party years ago.
“I was at a party in LA before ‘Schindler’s List’ was released,” Haspel recalled. “…One person said, ‘I don’t know why these people can’t get over this.’…
“You don’t get over it,” Haspel said. “You learn how to deal with it. The guy didn’t make the comment out of anti-Semitism. He made it out of ignorance.”
Haspel eventually met Landwirth and introduced him to Black.
“I felt Henri was the real deal,” Black said. “He loved the children and families he served and he was a magnet for the children. They would run to him and amazingly he reacted to them on their level.
“But in no way did that sway me. I couldn’t see a story.”
Later, driving to a location, Landwirth suddenly confided in Black. He said he could feel nothing, couldn’t cry at anything, even death. “At that moment, he reached out and grabbed my wrist, as if he wanted help and his face took on a look … ten centuries of pain,” Black said. “He said he would do anything to free himself from that horrid past.
“Suddenly, a light went on in my head. … I asked if Henri had ever thought of returning to the past as a way of freeing himself. … I asked if he would return to his old haunting grounds, Poland and the camps. He said he would. I knew there was a story because we had a hero who desperately wanted something and was willing to face the demon to get it.”
Black rewrote the script twice, in 2008 and 2013. Filming took place in North America, Europe and Australia and was completed in 2014. The focus of the film sharpened as it was being made, when Henri fell in love. His quest then was to gain freedom from the past so he could love one person fully. Henri, now 90, lives in Florida but cannot travel.
The film was edited between 2012 and 2016. It has been slowly released, with screenings in Florida and Texas and at a private screening in Nashville during last year’s Nashville Film Festival.
Henri and his story appeals to a wide group of people, Black and Haspel said.
Black talked about a screening in Jacksonville, Fla. “When it was over a whole bunch of people, (of) different races, religions … stayed to talk and ask questions and they really wanted to talk about it. I think it resonated because everyone has had failures, everyone has had problems and life didn’t go the way they wanted, but Henri’s problems were so horrific. … The way that he rose above was to try to heal himself by helping others.”
“Henri’s not a saint but he’s an angel,” Haspel said. “… He has flaws. He’s an amazing human being who really inspires people to do their best.” •