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San Diego Jewish Film Festival preview ‘Born to Fly’

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Born To Fly, 2009, 67 min. Hebrew, French, & English with English subtitles throughout. Directed by Uri Borreda, Produced by Yaakov Shem Tov, Uri Borreda.

By Yiftach Levy

Yiftach Levy

SANTEE, California –In the mid-1960s, Danny Shapira, already Israel’s most accomplished military test pilot, had a special flightsuit custom-sewn for him so he could fly an experimental French Mirage fighter plane with a rocket engine attached to it. Putting on the suit was so involved and took so long that he forgot to change into flight boots and wore his street shoes into the cockpit instead. Once he was in the air, he flipped on the rocket engine as planned at 40,000 feet, and proceeded to ascend to 70,000 (literally into the stratosphere), where the plane began to shake and vibrate dangerously, threatening to break apart. Most of the plane’s controls didn’t work at this altitude; the only thing Shapira could do was flip the aircraft over and ease it back to earth upside down. He recounts this episode, and other hair-raising incidents among his thousands of hours of logged flight time, with the same level of anxiety that you and I might feel about losing a sock in the dryer.

If I had made up this story and tried to sell it, I would have been laughed out of every agent’s waiting room and studio pitch meeting in no time. But Danny Shapira, Israel’s most accomplished test pilot, isn’t a figment of some creative writer’s imagination; he’s a remarkable man whose story makes for a compelling, if somewhat flawed, documentary film.

Besides being one of the first pilots in Israel’s fledgling air force, Shapira was Israel’s first and most experienced test pilot. Thus, his life and career accompanied the Jewish state from its creation under fire to its emergence as a global powerhouse, innovator and leader in the aerospace industry. Born to Fly uses extensive archival footage as well as recent interviews with Shapira and some notable contemporaries to tell this amazing story. There is no shortage of thrills, close calls, leaps of faith, and countless other examples of what would be cliches if they were made up.

Among the favored storytellers in the film is Israel’s late President Ezer Weizman, another Israeli Air Force pioneer (formerly chief of that branch, and Minister of Defense under Menachem Begin, under whose leadership the peace treaty with Egypt was signed in 1979; Weizman passed away in 2005). Watching Weizman and the other men who worked with Shapira recount their exploits is a pleasure, as is the bountiful footage from Israel, France, Czechoslovakia, and some of the other “exotic” locations Shapira has flown through (and above).

The narration in the documentary adds very little, and in at least one case actually repeats information that was explicitly provided by an interviewee, but does provide a bit of context if the viewer experiences any trouble following the story. While this is not likely, given the subject matter and its straightforward presentation, the narration perhaps helps bring the viewer back to “listening” mode, since much of the dialogue is in French and Hebrew, requiring American viewers to attend carefully to the subtitles. These, in their own right, could stand a bit more careful editing, but the few typographical and grammatical errors do not take away from the overall experience. Ultimately, this is an uplifting and respectful portrait of a highly accomplished pilot whose life was dedicated to the defense and advancement of the Jewish state, and whose legacy is still felt within and outside its borders.

Born to Fly will be presented by the San Diego Jewish Film Festival at 3:30 p.m.,  Sunday, Feb. 20, at the Clairemont Redding 14 Theatre, 4665 Clairemont Drive.

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Levy is a freelance writer based in Santee, California

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