26-year-old Jewish-Canadian director to launch Toronto Film Festival
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Interview'I live with my parents so I can devote myself to the movie'

26-year-old Jewish-Canadian director to launch Toronto Film Festival

On September 5, Daniel Roher’s latest documentary about a maverick musician, ‘Once Were Brothers,’ will make him one of the youngest filmmakers to open the prestigious event

  • Film director Daniel Roher during a CBC TV interview at a digital post-production studio in Toronto, Ontario, August 29, 2019. (Etye Sarner)
    Film director Daniel Roher during a CBC TV interview at a digital post-production studio in Toronto, Ontario, August 29, 2019. (Etye Sarner)
  • The Band, with Robbie Robertson at right. (Elliott Landy)
    The Band, with Robbie Robertson at right. (Elliott Landy)
  • Guitarist and performer Robbie Robertson. (Don Dixon)
    Guitarist and performer Robbie Robertson. (Don Dixon)
  • Film director Daniel Roher, right, at a digital post-production studio in Toronto, Ontario, August 29, 2019. (Etye Sarner)
    Film director Daniel Roher, right, at a digital post-production studio in Toronto, Ontario, August 29, 2019. (Etye Sarner)
  • Robbie Robertson, center, with The Band. (David Gahr)
    Robbie Robertson, center, with The Band. (David Gahr)

TORONTO — These are heady days for Daniel Roher. At the ripe old age of 26, he’s about to become one of the youngest directors to have a film launch the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). This Thursday, his feature-length documentary, “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band,” will have its world premiere as TIFF’s opening night gala presentation at the annual red-carpet event in the city’s 2,650-seat Roy Thomson Hall.

As TIFF is widely considered one of the world’s top film festivals, the opening night slot is a highly-coveted honor for any filmmaker, all the more so for someone so early in his career as Roher. Never before in the festival’s 44-year history has a Canadian-made documentary opened the 10-day film extravaganza.

With many of Hollywood’s crème de la crème sure to attend, as they do every year, the high-profile soirée marks the crowning glory in an all-consuming journey Roher embarked on two years ago after producers chose him to make “Once Were Brothers.”

The film tells the compelling story of how half-Mohawk, half-Jewish Canadian Robbie Robertson overcame adversity to become a gifted guitarist, perform with Bob Dylan on his 1965/1966 groundbreaking concert tours and then become a music icon in his own right as a leader of the legendary rock group, The Band.

Ahead of the September 5 screening, Roher was emotional about what it means to him.

“I’m trying to be level-headed and maintain perspective about it,” says Roher, speaking with The Times of Israel on a recent rainy evening in his parents’ Toronto home in the largely Jewish, midtown neighborhood of Cedarvale. “It’s very exciting. Having my work recognized and launched on a platform like this is beyond a dream of mine. How do you metabolize success like this? I tell myself I should enjoy it while I can because it’s going to be over in a snap.”

Film director Daniel Roher takes a break from putting the finishing touches on his new documentary, ‘Once Were Brothers,’ in a Toronto, Ontario park on August 29, 2019. (Etye Sarner)

Sitting at the dining room table in the house where he grew up and currently lives, with the family dog at his side, a goldendoodle named Rabbi Rubenstein, (Ruby for short), Roher had just arrived from a mixing session for the film downtown. In recent weeks, he’s been under the gun to finish it for the TIFF opening.

“This movie is a passion project,” says Roher, who first became interested in film after receiving a video camera as a bar mitzvah gift. “It shouldn’t have taken two years, but it did because we wanted it to be as good as it could be.”

“It required me to devote myself fully to this one endeavor, to be like a monk, an ascetic, and not have a balanced life. I still live in my parents’ home because I didn’t have the bandwidth to move out and start my life in that way while making the movie. I sacrificed a lot to do this,” Roher says.

Film director Daniel Roher, right, at a digital post-production studio in Toronto, Ontario, August 29, 2019. (Etye Sarner)

The result of Roher’s near-monastic dedication is a 90-minute film that depicts Robertson’s life and career until The Band broke up in 1976, plus a coda about his famously charged relationship with fellow Band member Levon Helm, who died in 2012.

A hero forged by fire

Born Jaime Royal Klegerman in Toronto in 1943, Robertson only learned at age 12, shortly after his parents separated, that his biological father was a Jewish gambler named Alexander Klegerman.

Klegerman died after being hit by a car in Toronto when Robertson was three. His Mohawk mother later married James Robertson, who adopted Robbie and gave him his surname. She often took Robbie in his youth to visit her family at the Six Nations Reserve 95 kilometers (about 60 miles) from Toronto, where he first learned to play guitar from relatives.

Guitarist and performer Robbie Robertson. (David Gahr)

When Robertson was 16, after dropping out of school to play guitar in local bands, he caught the attention of well-known rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, who enlisted him in his band, the Hawks. It led to more seminal work as a key member of Bob Dylan’s backup band.

Roher first heard The Band in his youth by way of his parents, each of whom owns a successful, high-end clothing store in Toronto. He has fond memories of canoeing with his father, who would sing The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” as they paddled in Algonquin Park, north of Toronto. As a teenager, Roher saw Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz,” which captured The Band’s historic farewell concert in San Francisco in 1976.

Although the group’s repertoire dated back decades, it struck a chord in Roher.

“I was never keen to the music I was supposed to be listening to, the popular music of my time, which didn’t really do it for me,” says Roher, who was born in Toronto in 1993. “The music of The Band spoke to me. It seemed to come from a different place in the way it was composed, the way the lyrics and songs sounded. The harmonies were rough and sweet, the music timeless. In ‘The Last Waltz,’ The Band seemed like characters who had stepped out of their own songs.”

Chasing a dream

In late 2016, Robertson published his memoir, “Testimony.” After Roher read it, he wanted to turn it into a full-length documentary, mindful his chances were slim. Such was his determination, he convinced longtime Canadian entertainment and media impresario Michael Levine to see him, telling him it was his dream to make a film about Robertson, inspired by the book. To that end, he did preparatory work on spec, including a 30-page treatment.

Robbie Robertson, center, with The Band. (David Gahr)

“Michael is some kind of wizard,” says Roher. “I don’t really understand how and why he wields so much power, but it’s awesome because he lives by this credo that if you’re powerful, you must empower. It was quite something for me to actually see that in the way he was so committed to help me with my goal.”

Despite Levine’s advocacy on Roher’s behalf, those who held the book’s film rights decided to go with a more qualified director, Larry Weinstein. But when things soured between Robertson and Weinstein, a new director was needed.

When the producers invited Roher in to discuss the project, he thought they might offer him work as a researcher — the prospect of which he found insulting and was prepared to reject. At the meeting, he gave his vision for the film and what would be his approach. Roher clearly made a positive impression, because a week later they flew him to California to meet Robertson, who lives in Los Angeles.

“I always felt if I could just go and talk to Robbie that I could convince him it should be me, because no one would bring more to the film than me,” says Roher with the confidence and conviction of someone sure he can accomplish his goals. “I had so much passion and energy for it. I told Robbie, ‘Your story is absolutely phenomenal. If you let me do this film, I’ll work eight days a week, 26 hours a day to make sure the result is as strong as it can be.’”

Guitarist and performer Robbie Robertson. (Don Dixon)

Roher’s drive and commitment to his craft also caused him to identify with the man behind the music.

“I later heard that Robbie said he saw in me a version of his younger self,” says Roher. “I think what he was speaking to was my sense of ambition, drive and work ethic. When Robbie was developing as a musician, he’d play his guitar 14 hours a day until his fingers bled so he could be the very best and play all of Ronnie Hawkins’ songs on rhythm, lead or bass. He would do exactly what he needed to do. That’s very much the ethos and spirit I think he identified in me.”

No short rap sheet

Roher has long gravitated to creative pursuits. In Toronto, he attended an arts high school where he studied visual arts and filmmaking, supplementing his interest in photography, painting, drawing and comic books. While there, he turned The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” into a comic book for an art project.

Roher’s university career proved short-lived. He attended the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Georgia for three semesters, originally to study film, but quickly switched to creative writing while making short documentaries on his own.

Film director Daniel Roher during a CBC TV interview at a digital post-production studio in Toronto, Ontario, August 29, 2019. (Etye Sarner)

In 2011, while at SCAD, he made his first real documentary, “Never Far From Home,” an 11-minute film about two redneck teenagers, their families and small-town life in southern Georgia.

“What attracted me to documentaries was an insatiable intellectual curiosity,” says Roher. “I realized I’m just very curious about what’s going on around me, what motivates people, their lived experiences. I saw that documentaries involve all of that and are like a passport to a culture or place or experience, which was super captivating for me.”

In 2013, having created his own company, Loud Roar Productions, Roher traveled to Israel to make his next documentary. He spent a month in Sderot filming how the Negev town was coping with Palestinian missile fire from nearby Gaza. Titled “Kids of the Rocket Sirens,” the 17-minute film focused mostly on young people who had grown up with frequent attacks and how normalized the situation had become.

A screenshot from Daniel Roher’s film ‘Kids of the Rocket Sirens’ (Courtesy)

Since then, Roher has created an eclectic body of work, reflecting his inquisitive nature and resourcefulness as a producer, cameraman, editor and often soundman. Collectively, his 10 documentaries cover a broad range of poignant subjects.

“Resolute,” shot in Canada’s far north, examines a dark chapter in the country’s history in which the government forced Inuit residents to relocate to the High Arctic in the 1950s.

“Bashir’s Vision” tells the story of a blind man in Uganda who copes with his vision loss through boxing and athleticism.

“Dilveen” spotlights an 11-year old Yazidi girl’s courage after ISIS invaded her Iraqi village in 2014, executed her father, and forced her into sexual slavery before she escaped, reuniting with her family and settling in Canada.

A screenshot from Daniel Roher’s film ‘Bashir’s Vision’ (Courtesy)

For “Once Were Brothers,” Roher combined archival footage and new material he filmed. It features interviews he did with Robertson and many of his musical friends and collaborators including Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, and Martin Scorsese (one of the movie’s executive producers). Since leaving The Band, Robertson created soundtracks for many of Scorsese’s films.

‘One hand in the tepee, the other in the synagogue’

In reading “Testimony,” Roher discovered Robertson was half-Jewish.

“It helped me understand what I think motivates Robbie and where he comes from,” says Roher. “In speaking with him, it was interesting to see in subtle ways how his Jewishness comes through. It’s sort of an intangible thing, a genetic inheritance of his Jewishness.”

“What’s relevant to his story is what his Jewish relatives, the Klegermans [his father’s brothers], who he didn’t meet until he was 12, what they showed him. They taught him about ambition and imagining something for your life, that you don’t have to settle for the banality of what everyone else is doing,” Roher says.

A screenshot from Daniel Roher’s film ‘Resolute’ (Courtesy)

Robertson once told a journalist: “I always like to keep one hand in the tepee and the other hand in the synagogue. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a combination of the two?”

Roher often wonders about his own Jewish identity and its impact on him.

“When I think of my work and how my Jewishness motivates me, the aspect of my Judaism I really identify with are the social justice values of contemporary, progressive Judaism, like tikun olam,” Roher says, referring to the concept of repairing the world.

“For a long time, I felt quite alienated by my Jewishness, almost embarrassed by it. I think part of it was a lack of understanding and just being ignorant. When I was younger, my gut reflex was if you told me I had to do something, I wouldn’t want to do it,” he says. “That’s sort of my disposition now. So with my Judaism, it was the type of thing I had to come to on my own. It’s only recently I’ve come to embrace it and understand it’s a fundamental part of who I am.”

A screenshot from Daniel Roher’s film ‘Kids of the Rocket Sirens’ (Courtesy)

Roher first visited Israel in his early teens on a family trip. Since then, he’s returned many times, in part to visit relatives.

“I’ve always struggled with Israel,” he says. “At first, I was like, ‘What’s the big deal about it?’ Then I got there and I thought, ‘What’s the big hullabaloo? This patch of desert is what everybody’s getting so uptight about?’ I didn’t really understand it.”

“It wasn’t until I learned more about contemporary history of world Jewry, especially European Jewry and the Holocaust, that I had more appreciation for Israel,” Roher says. “I’m very much on the [Yitzhak] Rabin political spectrum and as such I’m very disappointed and alienated by the Netanyahu government. It’s very damaging and unfortunate and plays to people’s worst instincts.”

Roll the opening credits

“Once Were Brothers” will be released in cinemas in Canada’s three largest cities later this month, and will be shown on Canadian TV later this year. American distribution is now being worked out. And as Roher prepares to celebrate the pinnacle in his career so far, two people are top of mind.

The Band, with Robbie Robertson at right. (Elliott Landy)

“I’m very excited for my parents,” he says. “This is also their victory. When I told them I was dropping out of school to make documentaries, they were great and said ‘How can we help you?’ This is for them.”

Despite feverishly attending to the finishing touches on “Once Were Brothers,” Roher is already focusing on his next film, albeit discretely.

“It’s one of those things where it’s like bad juju if I talk about it too soon,” says Roher. “For many of these projects, it’s often fragile at first. Before contracts are signed and things are solidified, they’re just ideas and passions. I don’t want to jinx it. All I’ll say at this point is if you were to ask me what subject would I pick for my next dream project, I’d say a comedian.”

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