Filmmaker Sues Philanthropist Over Documentary


By E.B. Solomont

Published September 16, 2005, issue of September 16, 2005.
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A documentary heralding the achievements of famous Jews has triggered a bitter legal fight between the filmmaker and the philanthropist behind the project.

Filmmaker Gil Baker is suing developer and money manager Robert I. Lappin and his philanthropic foundation, claiming that he has not been paid for his work on “Great Jewish Achievers.”

Lappin, who first conceived of the film and whose foundation underwrote the project, said that Baker was paid. The philanthropist is countersuing, alleging that Baker made costly errors during the movie’s production, such as the mistaken inclusion of chocolate baron Milton Hershey, who was not Jewish. (Hershey was edited out of the final version.)

Sent last year to about 2,000 Jewish charitable federations, schools and camps, “Great Jewish Achievers” spotlights Jews who have recorded significant accomplishments throughout history, including scientist Albert Einstein, baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax and clothing manufacturer Levi Strauss. Last month, in Seattle, the film was distributed — with its sequel, “Great Achievements of the Jewish People” — at the annual Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education conference, a parley that attracted more than 1,000 Jewish educators from across the country.

According to Kenneth Schacter, a lawyer for Lappin, Baker was paid about $177,000 for producing “Great Jewish Achievers.”

“The foundation truly doesn’t understand what he is complaining about,” Schacter said.

The dispute stems from a verbal agreement made by Baker and Lappin four years ago. According to both parties, Baker was brought onto the project in September 2001.

At that point, Baker said, he agreed to work on “Great Jewish Achievers,” at cost, with the understanding that Lappin would put about $500,000 into a commercial film on which Baker was working, called “Bungalow 66.”

Baker testified in a December 2004 deposition that Lappin had told him, “I’ll make your dream come true if you make my dream come true.”

“That’s how it went down,” he said in the deposition. It “was done on a handshake.”

Baker alleges that Lappin later reneged on his part of the deal, paying Baker for his expenses but not for his labor. “In essence, he worked for free,” said Baker’s lawyer, Robert J. Shapiro. In retrospect, Shapiro said, Baker regrets not insisting on a written agreement. According to Shapiro, Baker had been a friend of Lappin’s son, so he trusted LapPin, considering him a “powerful person” who was like “an uncle or a friend.”

Lappin, the top donor to the Jewish Federation of the North Shore, near Boston, denied that he agreed to underwrite Baker’s commercial film.

“The foundation is not in the business of funding commercial films, particularly movies that have nothing to do with Jewish life,” Schacter, said.

Lappin is known for his staunch opposition to intermarriage and for his efforts to steer communal policies in that direction. According to Baker, the issue came up during production of the film, as he and Lappin argued over whether people with only one Jewish parent should be included.

Baker claims that he was instructed by Lappin, a strong opponent of intermarriage, to add a tagline at the movie’s end, urging students to “Be Proud! Stay Jewish!”

A copy of “Great Jewish Achievers” obtained by the Forward did not include the tagline.

In court documents, the filmmaker said he did not include himself in the movie’s credits. This was partly because he objected to Lappin’s efforts to push an anti-intermarriage agenda.

In a deposition, Baker said that by the time the project was finished, he had been “clued in” to Lappin’s goal of discouraging Jews from intermarrying. Baker said the film was akin to “propaganda,” adding, “I was happy to let [Lappin] take credit for it.”

Deborah Coltin, executive director of Lappin’s foundation, said the dispute has had “no bearing” on distribution. The foundation used a different filmmaker for the sequel to the documentary.

The two films were distributed at last month’s gathering organized by CAJE. The coalition’s communications coordinator, Judi Resnick, called the first film a “nice piece of education.” She said her group was “glad to distribute” 110 copies of “Great Jewish Achievers” and its sequel to conference attendees.

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