ALUMNI SNAPSHOT | If you want to find Maya Ben Yair ’17, the nearest film festival is the place to start. Ben Yair, who earned her B.A. in film production and a second major in screenwriting, has taken her moving, cross-cultural short film, “Maydeleh and the Prisoner,” to the San Luis Obispo Jewish Film Festival, and plans screenings in San Diego in February, and in Carmel and New York City in March.
Her experience promoting the film is much like the life experiences that brought her to this point. Ben Yair grew up in Tel Aviv and spent two years of mandatory service in the Israeli military’s film unit. She then worked for an Israeli high-tech company and did some traveling before she decided to commit to her education and desire to be a filmmaker.
She chose LMU for the proximity to the film industry and the quality of the program. She was an Arrupe Scholarship awardee, and was also accepted in the Student Workers Program. Ben Yair’s assignment in LMU’s recycling center helped inform her filmmaking aspirations. She found stories to tell everywhere on campus.
“When you want to be a filmmaker, you have to be the type of person who doesn’t see work as work,” Ben Yair said. “Life doesn’t have the dichotomy of ‘this is what I do for a living, and this is what I do to live.’ If you want to be an artist, that dichotomy doesn’t exist. When you put an artist in a recycling yard, there’s a lot of brainwork that needs to be done to make whatever you do work with who you are as a person in a way that doesn’t create contradictions.”
She said her prime motivation is making stories come to life and life become stories. That sensibility is reflected in “Maydeleh.” The two characters in the film have complicated histories – the elderly man is a Holocaust survivor; the caretaker is a mother from Japan whose son is back home – and the weight of their histories and their cultural differences are present as they build trust between them. “The characters in the movie complete each other,” Ben Yair said. (The promotional trailer for her film can be viewed here.)
That cross-cultural involvement was very much on her mind as an international student at LMU, and is reflected in the script she wrote. Ben Yair worked for EIS and Jewish Student Life at LMU, and those experiences created a shift in her understanding of multiculturalism. “Finding similarities between cultures, like Judaism and Buddhism, is fascinating,” she said. “I loved learning about cultures that are similar but couldn’t have interacted in the ancient times of their inception, and I believe that indicates something inherent in us as human beings.”
Today, she works at Netflix in post production and is thinking about her next project, but takes some time to reflect on her time at LMU, and it fills Ben Yair with gratitude and deep affection.
“I am amazed at the professors I worked with, looking back,” she said. “I wouldn’t say I took their efforts for granted; I was very, very appreciative the whole time. I think about Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer, who inspired in me the values promoted in the film; I think about Professor Holli Levitsky, who chose me for the scholarship that provided the money to make the film. Thinking about it now, those people are incredibly busy. How did they have time to help someone and provide them with so much? Not just the technical help, but they inspired me so much in conversation, providing so much insight and just being a role model.”
Ben Yair is also grateful to Csilla Samay, assistant dean of students for international students and initiatives, for her assistance in finding the Student Worker Program, and her help with the application. Samay and many other professors helped Ben Yair find her way at LMU and as a filmmaker, she said, and “took me under their wings.”