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The Role of Artistic Creativity in the Lives of Israeli Émigrés in Los Angeles

UCLA Jewish Studies, Winter Quarter 2017

The Assimilation and Acculturation of Sam Firstenberg into American society through the lens of Hollywood cinema

Sam Firstenberg: Biography

by Will Taylor and Müge Solak

"My pleasure comes not only from the final product, but also from the process of creating the film. Coming up with solutions for the myriad of problems which arise daily gives me great satisfaction and makes each day interesting." Sam Firstenberg

Firstenberg directs Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones and Lucinda Dickey in Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (Photography by unknown).

Biography

Sam Firstenberg was born in Poland in 1950 and migrated with his family from a war-ravaged Europe to Jerusalem, Israel. His upbringing was not influenced by European traditions, as he was fully immersed in Israeli culture. As a young boy he was introduced to American film at his local neighborhood cinema, where he developed an intense fascination for visual storytelling. However, he wasn’t able to initially pursue his interest in film because Israel didn’t have any film schools and the industry was still underdeveloped. Instead, he went on to study electrical engineering, but abandoned the profession after fulfilling his military obligations in 1971. His passion for Hollywood cinema prompted him to migrate to America to enroll in film school at Columbia College Hollywood. There he befriended the Israeli producer that offered him his first role as director for the film Revenge of the Ninja. Overall, filmmaking enabled Sam Firstenberg to transition into American society, as it provided him with numerous opportunities to learn, interact, and network with many people from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Interview

Did you have any background in cinema before you migrated to America?

Despite not having traditional access to film school or training, Sam Firstenberg still vividly imagined the possibilities that film could provide. That motive fueled him to migrate to America to receive formal training and be in close proximity to Hollywood, the world’s most influential film industry during the 70s.

Why did you move back to Israel after graduating from a film school in Hollywood?

Firstenberg always wanted to be a part of the film industry in Israel, so after graduation, he relocated back to Israel to work as an assistant director for Menahem Golan.

You mentioned that you studied electrical engineering in Israel, how did you become interested in cinema?
There was a neighborhood cinema which Firstenberg made frequent visits to. There he saw how a group of people without any obvious connections could unite on an emotional level. Since movies never disappointed him and always found a way to create a synergy, he was intrigued and also enamored by them. These visual stories made him go to the theatre repeatedly, and affected his taste in cinema. There he got acquainted with Hollywood and perceptions of American culture.

What types of movies were screened in your neighborhood cinema?

Were your parents supportive of your decision to migrate to USA?

Firstenberg elaborates on the complexity of embarking on a creative career without his parents having the necessary understanding to believe in his visions. However, they didn’t forcefully intervene and attempt to alter his unanticipated decision. His loyalty to developing Israeli movies is a clear testament to the traditional values that his parents instilled in him.

Why did you direct many action movies despite having an interest in socially conscious dramas?

Firstenberg’s first featured film, Revenge of the Ninja (1983), enabled him to solely hone in and focus on his capabilities as a director. The film’s debut success prompted Canon Films to reward him with a plethora of opportunities as a lead director.

How did you manage to direct various American ninja movies?

Firstenberg’s first break in American ninja movies is a testament to his creative ingenuity and courageous ambition. His unequivocal ability to capture the essential of martial arts is a direct reflection of his ability to migrate and culturally assimilate into American society.

Comparative Analysis

Comparative Analysis: The Learning Curve of Firstenberg's Creative Journey in Hollywood Cinema

Sam Firstenberg admitted that he had absolutely no knowledge or experience with action based ninja movies prior to directing Revenge of the American Ninja for Canon Films. Despite the initial unfamiliarity, he eagerly accepted the offer. He produced an American ninja film that proved its success by warranting 3 sequels. Similarly, before receiving the script for Breakin’ 2- Electric Boogaloo, Firstenberg had no cultural proximity with hip-hop culture, but still managed to direct a film that paid homage to the merit of urban break-dancers. His openness and acceptance of other cultures speaks volume to his character and life experiences.

Home entertainment set made of wood that Firstenberg built, accompanied with DVDs of the movies he has directed on the shelf below. (Photograph by Müge Solak, 2017)

The Creative Interconnectedness of Firstenberg's Journey

We believe the furniture Firstenberg builds proves how his education in different areas helps him to express himself. A creative mind is always in need for new projects even when officially retired. This picture is an example. Firstenberg might be considered unlucky for not having the chance to study film as soon as he wanted to. He might have taken classes which were not directly useful for the profession he eventually went into. However, we see that the skills he had acquired in those years still contribute to his creativity in his work and during retirement. Moreover, his works do not solely have a technical aspect, but also a cultural one. The sophistication of these works and his ability to capture different cultures’ craftsmanship are results of an open personality. Going through immigration twice and successfully adapting to a new culture accentuated this openness and made him fearless in his explorations. This photo, showing one of his homemade furniture projects and a collection of his movies, is an illustration of a life that will always be full of creativity.

Conclusion

Firstenberg’s curiosity for the unknown is the energizing urge behind his creative inclination to visually articulate the human experience. The director, whom we visited to learn about his creative journey in the film industry, surprised us by showing us the furniture he had built. We thank him for proving that a productive mind can find many ways to express oneself and the journey never ends!

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