By Robert Gluck/JNS.org
For filmmaker Meera Menon, no honor could have been more fitting than winning the inaugural award named after famed Jewish screenwriter and novelist Nora Ephron, the woman whose work inspired her.
At the recent 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, Menon was named the first recipient of the $25,000 Nora Ephron Prize, given to a writer or director whose work embodies that of the late Ephron, who wrote the scripts for a number of hit films, including “When Harry Met Sally,” “Heartburn” and “Sleepless In Seattle.” Menon told JNS.org that Ephron’s work has inspired her because it epitomizes “how to take pain and suffering and turn them into laughter and joy.”
“Those qualities inspired me and my co-filmmakers,” Menon, 28, said. “Receiving this incredible honor in her name means more than I could ever articulate.”
June 26 will mark one year since Ephron’s death from complications from acute myeloid leukemia. Her work will now live on through the annual prize given at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Menon received the prize on April 25 for her film “Farah Goes Bang,” which follows a woman in her 20s who tries to lose her virginity while campaigning across America for presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004.
A writer, director, and producer of narrative and documentary films, Menon’s short film “The Seduction of Shaitan” secured online distribution through the South Asian culture and fashion magazine EGO, and her short film “Mark in Argentina” was an official selection of the 2010 Hollyshorts Film Festival. She has worked for documentary filmmakers on the PBS series “Destination America,” and she produced the documentary short “Polar Opposites,” recently purchased for broadcasting by The Documentary Channel.
Menon explained that Ephron through her scripts “recounts a particular female experience that is sometimes painful or shameful, but she finds the humor, the heart and the levity in those subject matters,” Menon said.
“In her iconic film ‘When Harry Met Sally’ and in ‘You’ve Got Mail,’ Meg Ryan’s characters, and her interpretation of Nora’s words, presented a new modern woman that we hadn’t seen before, one that was smart, funny and complicated, and she did all of the things that women aren’t allowed to do onscreen,” she added.
Jane Rosenthal, co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival with Robert DeNiro and Craig Hatkoff, told JNS.org the festival organizers were impressed with Menon’s “fresh, witty, and smart take on a coming of age story about girlfriends, passions and politics.”
“Her film captures the spirit and themes of Nora’s work,” Rosenthal said. “I’m proud to continue Nora’s legacy through this award and encourage women filmmakers to create the work that inspires them.”
The Tribeca Film Festival emerged in 2001 following the attacks on the World Trade Center, with the goal of spurring the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan through an annual celebration of film, music and culture. Since its first edition in 2002, the festival has screened more than 1,400 films from more than 80 countries, attracted an international audience of more than 4 million, and generated $750 million in economic activity for New York City.
Rosenthal said Ephron “was a great friend to the festival since its inception, and I had the privilege to know her and be in absolute awe of her.”
“She did it all brilliantly, with wit and wisdom that went straight to the heart, and she cooked, too,” Rosenthal said. “I am proud to honor her memory and continue her legacy with this award, which I hope will inspire a new generation of women filmmakers and writers.”
Before she became one of the most influential women in the film industry, Ephron worked briefly as a White House intern for President John F. Kennedy and as a reporter for the New York Post.
Although Jewish by birth, Ephron was not observant. “You can never have too much butter—that is my belief. If I have a religion, that’s it,” she quipped in an NPR interview about her 2009 movie “Julie & Julia.” Ephron’s son Jacob Bernstein, a reporter for the New York Times, will direct an HBO movie on her life called “Everything Is Copy.”
In 1976, Ephron married journalist Carl Bernstein, who along with Bob Woodward broke the story of the Watergate scandal. Three years later, after she had Jacob and was pregnant with her second son Max, she discovered her husband was having an affair with their mutual friend, married British politician Margaret Jay. Coping with this situation, Ephron wrote the novel Heartburn, which was made into the 1986 film by Mike Nichols starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.
Menon said “Heartburn” represents the idea of taking an experience that was difficult and turning it into a great film.
“It is a tremendous act of bravery to do that, to put your personal life into your storytelling,” Menon said. “Nora did it with more class than anyone has ever done.”
Menon, following in Ephron’s footsteps, used her own experiences, as the daughter of an immigrant from India, to help shape her storytelling. “Farah Goes Bang” was the culmination of Menon’s work to make a film about the issues that mattered most to her: race, politics, sex, and youth.
“In order to create an honest dialogue about those things, we needed to determine the course of our young protagonist’s life, and how, through her relationships and her actions, she is able to stumble towards those moments of self-discovery,” Menon said.
Menon—much like her film’s protagonist, Farah—said she has learned much along her road of self-discovery.
“I grew up in a household that was the constant host of actors, directors, artists, musicians, comedians, and dancers. Through this, I learned the most sacred lesson that I carry with me today: communities need their films, objects of their collective storytelling, to keep themselves together,” Menon said.
Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.