Changing the World One Film at a Time

September 5, 2014

What is a catapult? “A ballistic device used to launch a projectile without the use of explosives.”


Lisa Kleiner Chanoff.

Thanks to the San Francisco film producer and philanthropist Lisa Kleiner Chanoff, it’s also a way to launch great film projects. Since forming the Catapult Film Fund in 2010, with local filmmaker Bonnie Cohen, they have channeled development grants to about 20 promising documentary films each year, at that crucial point where directors generally have a hard time raising the money to advance.

“I love supporting films at the crucial early stage where there is a great idea but nothing to show. We provide the support for filmmakers to do the initial shooting and editing needed to put together something that other funders can see,” Chanoff says.

“Right now, the former attorney-turned-executive-producer is enjoying the success of an award-winning new documentary film,“Watchers of the Sky,” which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and was featured as the Centerpiece Documentary at this summer’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It will have its New York premiere at the JCC in Manhattan on October 1, opening in theaters there on October 17.

The stunningly produced and timely film weaves together the stories of five individuals who defined the concept of genocide and lobbied world governments to to control, if not eliminate, the universal human capacity to commit group murder under certain conditions.

She has independently supported this and other films, such as the critically-acclaimed local drama Fruitvale Station. But ‘Watchers of  the Sky’ was the project that served as a catalyst — “a catalyst to Catapult,” she allows.


Fruitvale Station.

Chanoff, a longtime member of the JCCSF community, was not always a mover and shaker in the film world, but there is a logic to her trajectory.

She is the daughter of European wartime refugees and grew up the beneficiary of upward mobility in Silicon Valley; her father was Eugene Kleiner, one of original Silicon Valley engineer-entrepreneurs and co-founder of Fairchild SemiConductors.

Her parents’ experiences contributed to “a very strong interest in social justice issues,” she says, which set her on a course for a career in law.

After earning a political science degree from Tufts University in 1980, she returned to San Francisco, and in 1982 enrolled in UC Hastings Law School. In 1984 she and Matthew Chanoff were married. She worked as a San Francisco attorney for a couple of years; then in 1987 the couple moved to Washington DC, where she worked in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice while Matt earned a graduate degree at Johns Hopkins. Their first two children were born in Washington,DC. Returning to San Francisco in 1992, they had a third child and  Lisda immersed in family and community life, taking her three kids to preschool, swim lessons and other JCCSF programs.

People’s lives can change so much within two generations, she notes.

“My parents were lucky to get out of Austria and Poland, respectively,” she says. “I grew up in California, steeped in their stories and experiences. But for my kids, life is just — healthy!”

She was active in their classes at Brandeis Hillel Day School, and helped support education in their Potrero Hill neighborhood school as well as a girl’s school in Kibera, Kenya. The JCCSF’s current Jewish educator, Rabbi Batshir Torchio, taught two of the Kleiner Chanoff kids at Brandeis.

“As parents Matt and Lisa were always involved, unpretentiously,” she says, recalling their “kind and easy-going way of being in the world. They are passionate about family, education and creativity.”

At Brandeis, Chanoff formed a parent committee for the arts which brought in exhibitions and supported arts curriculum. That really ignited a passion for exhibition and education that combined with  her love for the arts, and she went back to school to earn a master’s in Museum Studies at JFK University. With that training, she did some work  for the Magnes Museum and Contemporary Jewish Museum. It was a period of her life that she really enjoyed, she says — and from it came the seeds of an idea to start something new.

The Kleiner family had always engaged in philanthropic giving, and Matt and Lisa as a couple have been actively involved in many educational, community development, human rights, and poverty alleviation programs in San Francisco, Kenya, Rwanda, and Israel.

But she wanted to focus on certain issues that were important to her in a way that would let her play a more direct role. Of all the arts, she felt that film had the greatest potential to illuminate social issues and to educate. Catapult Film Fund was the vehicle she created.

“For me film combines the two things I’m most interested in: issues and policy but also artful, compelling, accessible expression,” she reflects.

Genocide, the subject  of ‘Watchers of the Sky,”  is a challenging topic in terms of audience appeal. But the film, directed by Edet Belzberg and based on Samantha Power’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,  succeeds by exploring the subject through the stories of five individuals who have played key roles either in framing genocide as a crime, legislating it in international law, attempting to prosecute it, or working to heal survivors. The result is a work that illuminates what invested their lives with meaning: total devotion to a cause.

“It’s not something everyone can do, but it is so inspiring to witness,” Chanoff says.


Raphael Lemkin, credited with coining the term “genocide.”

The film starts with the story of the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who got out of Poland in time but lost 49 members of his own family to the Holocaust. It was he who coined the word “genocide” and as a young man asked the potent question, “Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?”

“Just about every issue in this film is one that I am very moved by, care about a lot, and am interested in,” Chanoff says.“There’s the Jewish history, there’s the Jewish lawyer, the Holocaust, international law, refugees and the impact of that through generations; and these individuals who relentlessly continue to struggle against all odds.”

Chanoff proved to have a great sense of storytelling, says director Belzberg, and helped her shape a coherent narrative flow out of the five intertwined stories buried in hundreds of hours of footage and thousands of images.The film won the Best Editing prize at the 2014 Sundance Festival and Best Documentary “in the Spirit of Freedom” at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July 2014.

“Lisa was incredibly supportive throughout the process,” Belzberg says. “She was always encouraging, always available, and never judged. I’m one of many filmmakers who were fortunate to be working with her and whose films would not be getting off the ground without her.”

There is a theme running through Lisa Chanoff’s life that has something to do with her love of reinvention, with new beginnings. Here’s hoping that with Catapult Film Fund, she’s in it for the long run.

View the original publishing of Changing the World One Film at a Time, from 3200 Stories, here.

Watch the trailer for the film, below:

by AudNews guest writer, Laura Paull

June Noel

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