'My Architect' got a big boost in Baltimore

Area fund-raiser Darrell Friedman opened local doors, hearts for filmmaker

Cover Story

January 11, 2004|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff

The late architect Louis Kahn called Philadelphia home, but it is due to a group of Baltimore philanthropists -- and Kahn's son's unlikely friendship with a local fund-raiser -- that his story will be told on the big screen. Titled My Architect, the film, which will be presented tonight at the Walters Art Museum, depicts Kahn's life and tangled personal relationships through interviews and visits to his buildings.

In 2002, his son, Nathaniel Kahn, needed money to finish the film he had been shooting for five years. He went to the father of a friend of a friend who was known for having a Midas fund-raising touch: Darrell Friedman, then the president of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Friedman, whose job included raising money for agencies that serve Jews in need locally and around the world, wasn't interested at first. The materials about Kahn's quest for a cinematic exploration of his famous father's life lay for weeks on the fund-raiser's desk. When Friedman's son, Martin, asked him to help Kahn, Friedman replied: "Marty, it's nothing I do."

But the fund-raiser and the filmmaker finally met. Kahn told Friedman that he saw his father only sporadically, that he was 11 when the architect died, that he had hoped his father would come to live with him. That he searched for his name among the survivors in Louis Kahn's obituary and didn't find it.

Louis Kahn was a renowned architect with a secret: He had children by two women other than his wife. In 1997, Nathaniel, his son born out of wedlock, began visiting the buildings his father created, a journey that led him from La Jolla, Calif., to New York, from Philadelphia to Bangladesh.

Nathaniel showed footage to Friedman, saying he needed enough money to commission a score and make a print fit to show in mainstream theaters.

"I was extremely moved by our conversation," Friedman said. "I said to myself, if people don't support and encourage people like this, with a story that is extremely compelling, what is the state of the arts in this country?"

In the often hand-to-mouth world of documentary filmmaking, Friedman, now a fund-raising consultant in New York, had what Kahn most needed: contacts who would take a chance on an unknown.

In an increasingly competitive environment -- with more filmmakers vying for dollars and a tight economy making donors more selective than ever -- finding a mentor who can inspire confidence in a young director's project is everything, said Morrie Warshawski, a fund-raising consultant to filmmakers and other artists.

"I tell filmmakers, you're going to have to find someone who just loves you," said Warshawski, who is based in Ann Arbor, Mich. "It's very, very rare that a filmmaker like Nathaniel Kahn would be lucky enough to find someone like a Darrell Friedman."

Kahn knew it. "We were at a point where we really needed somebody to come on board and take this deeply to heart and make it happen," the 41-year-old filmmaker said. "He made it happen."

Friedman assembled an informal committee, including friends like Barbara Himmelrich, a former Associated board chairwoman and trustee of the Maryland Institute College of Art, and Kathy Levin Shapiro, a Baltimore-based producer of Broadway plays.

Both were quickly enthusiastic, and knew that Friedman could raise the money in Baltimore -- even though the film's story had no real connection to the town. "Darrell Friedman," said Himmelrich, "can get ice from a turnip."

Shapiro thought the story would sell itself.

"It was very powerful, even on a small television screen," she said. "I met Nathaniel, and he immediately struck me as someone rare, both in his intelligence and in the story that he's telling."

Friedman set up a meeting between Kahn and the trustees of the $2 billion Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, known more for underwriting grand buildings than supporting small documentaries.

But Bernard Siegel, president of the foundation, said the film fit into a directive from foundation benefactor Harry Weinberg -- a real estate baron who rose from poverty to become a billionaire -- who wanted the charity to fund communication projects that would promote free speech and tell hidden stories.

"We determined it was a shame that [Louis Kahn] wasn't known," Siegel said. "We felt, here was someone who never had two cents to rub together and yet produced these great, great buildings."

The Weinberg Foundation gave between $50,000 and $75,000 to the project, Siegel said. Then Friedman's group put together a local screening of the film for prospective donors interested in the arts. About 100 people came, and many gave about $500 to $700 each, Himmelrich said.

Neither Kahn nor Friedman will say how much they raised from Baltimore, or give the final budget for the film. But Kahn said enough was raised to make the difference between a quality print for theatrical release and a movie that few people would see.

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