Meet the New NYWIFT Member: Toby Perl Freilich

By Catherine Woo

Welcome to NYWIFT, Toby Perl Freilich!

Toby is an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker and writer, focusing on cultural reporting. Her work explores all sorts of perspectives, from senators to artists, spanning across the world. She co-produced and co-directed Moynihan, a film about the late New York senator, policy expert, and public intellectual. She also directed, produced, and wrote Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment, about one of the world’s longest running and most successful experiments in radical, secular communal living.

Right now, she is producing and directing I Make Maintenance Art: The Work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles about the pioneering ecofeminist and the first Artist in Residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation.

Read about Toby’s inspiring past and future projects here!

NYWIFT Member Toby Perl Freilich


What brings you to NYWIFT?

I came to NYWIFT looking to marshal the experiences and forces of other women who are working in the increasingly challenging world of documentary film production and distribution. Right now, Im producing and directing a film about a pioneering social practice and environmental artist, Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Its my first film featuring the work of a leading female artist and feminist, and so it felt like the perfect moment to join the NYWIFT community.


Setting up to Interview George Will for the Moynihan Film


Moynihan, a documentary you co-produced and directed, details the life of intellectual and sociologist, policy specialist, ambassador, and senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. What drew you to tell his story?

Before becoming a filmmaker, I produced advertising for political candidates, so co-producing and co-directing Moynihan, an intellectual biography about the late NY Senator, felt like a natural fit. I was drawn to the complexity of Moynihans character and politics. He was not doctrinaire; in fact, though he was a life-long Democrat, he worked for two Democratic and two Republican administrations.

What he cared about was solving civic problems. And what he particularly cared about was solving the problem of poverty. Thats what drew him to government in the first place. When he was asked why he left academia (he had a PhD and was a Harvard professor) to serve in politics, he always said that it was the other way around: he was drawn from politics into academia. It was in the arena of politics that he hoped to have an impact on peoples lives. As a child of poverty, lifting other people out of poverty was his Holy Grail and the major fight of his public service career. Part of that fight, by the way, included ensuring that there was a strong public education system and funding for public libraries, in addition to a strong social safety net.


Waiting to interview then-VP Joe Biden for the Moynihan film


What were some of the most interesting things you learned? 

Moynihans most famous quote is, Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” But there was another quote that one of the aides mentioned thats in the very beginning of the film that really struck me, since we were finishing the film right after Trump was elected. The aide told us, Senator Moynihan always said If you have contempt for government, you will get contemptible government.’” That was not only prescient, but it was also almost prophetic.

Moynihans early years in the Senate overlapped with the Reagan years, when it was popular to say that government was the problem. But Moynihan never bought into that; he never lost his belief in the potential for government to better the lives of citizens. What he spent his life trying to understand is, how do you titrate that? Whats the right amount of government? And what kind of government? Because he didnt believe in just indiscriminately layering it on. He understood that it had to be fine-tuned—that there were some things the federal government did very well, for example, and some things it did not do well. There were some things the state was better equipped to handle, and some things that city and municipal governments should take care of. And that delicate balance was what he really wanted to master.

He felt that government was an instrument that can be used, and should be used, to help people. That was a huge, huge takeaway for me. And I hope itll be a big takeaway for the people who watch the film at a time of declining faith in our elected institutions.


Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment shows how a new generation grapples with the past and future of Israels communal living experiment. As the producer and writer of this documentary, what do you hope audiences take away from this story?

I would like my audiences to grasp the complexity of the role that the kibbutz played in Israeli society and to see the audacity of the experiment. Martin Buber said, The kibbutz is an experiment that has not yet failed,” and I think thats true. I think that any kibbutz is only as good as the people who live it, only as good as the society and the people who generate it.

The kibbutz movement – a radical socialist communitarian movement — was forced to make compromises with its larger capitalist environment in order to survive. It did this by gradually privatizing many communal elements of kibbutz life. But individual kibbutzim (pl. of kibbutz) made the kind of compromises that, for the most part, allowed them to preserve some of the key values of its founding generation. For example, they put strict limits on the kinds of income gaps that they would tolerate among their members, or they insured generous social safety nets by instituting higher taxation of individual members.

Some kibbutzim, by consensus, looked at their budgets and decided which communal institutions they would maintain — for example, maybe a communal dining hall – and which they might privatize, like the swimming pool. Often these decisions were based on what would maximize the social cohesion of the commune. I think thats a lesson for us in the US on how we might consider our priorities on a community, municipal, state and even federal level when confronted with budgetary constraints.


Were there moments filming or in the films reception that surprised you? 

I expected, when I started the project, that I would find all the old people of the founding generation heartbroken and disillusioned with the privatizing changes in the kibbutz movement, and a spoiled, materialistic younger generation plunging headlong into the future with no regard for the past or the founding principles. But often it was the founding generation that told me, Were not long for this life; this is the society we created because its the life we wanted, but our children and grandchildren need to figure out what kind of life they want and create that society.” (Hence, the title of the film, Inventing Our Life, by the way.)

And, surprisingly, it was the younger generation that was thinking hard about what to preserve of the old way of life, and what didnt work anymore. And these were painful choices for them. I feature one young man in my film who could have been a wealthy high-tech entrepreneur had he moved away from his kibbutz to the city but who told me, Its not enough that my kids can have nice new clothes to wear; I want all kids to have good clothes.” And he wanted his kids to grow up in a place where they would learn those values. So, the key to the kibbutzs survival is its adaptability even as it holds on to core ethical principles.


At the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum, with Mierle Ukeles and DP Vanessa Carr


You also wrote and co-produced Secret Lives: Hidden Children & Their Rescuers, which tells the story of the brave individuals who risked their lives to harbor Jewish children from the Nazis in World War Two. What was it like to get to know these people? How did you establish a connection with them so they could tell their vulnerable (but necessary) stories? 

There were three groups of people we searched for in the years of research that went into making the film: the Jewish parents who made the almost impossible but courageous decision to hand their children over to someone elses care during a time of danger by putting them into hiding; the incredibly heroic rescuers and their families who risked their lives to shelter these children; and the hidden children themselves.

We were interested in exploring the psychological fallout of young children being ripped from their parentscare, then maybe bonding with a new family of rescuers, then very often being removed from the rescue familys care after the war to either be returned to their birth families (which was rare since 90% of parents didnt survive) who they may not even have remembered, or even to be put in Jewish orphanages. So, a basic trust had been breached, multiple times, and it was extraordinarily difficult sometimes to talk to the hidden children – the hardest group of all, frankly. They had suffered a profound psychological trauma at a very tender age.

And Im the daughter of two Holocaust survivors! I grew up among all kinds of survivors of Nazi concentration camps including my own parents and I thought Id have no problem talking to hidden children. I was wrong and I had to recalibrate my approach to them. As for the rescuers. It was an absolute privilege to meet them. They represented a wide range of characters, from the extraordinarily self-reflective, upscale daughter of a judge to sometimes rather eccentric characters who were accustomed to pushing against the tide, to always being on the fringes of society and not caring what other people thought of them. But wherever they came from and whatever their motives were, they were an inspiration. And time and time again they forced us to consider the question, What would I have done?”


What are the most important qualities you think someone can have as a storyteller? 

You have to be genuinely interested in the stories you are hearing; you have to be a very good listener and empathic. At the same time, you must preserve a measure of objectivity that allows you to keep your eye on your larger story arc. And sometimes you have to be willing to bend that story arc if the material takes you in a different direction.


On set of the Mierle L. Ukeles shoot

Do you have any other projects in the works that we should keep an eye out for? What can you tell us about them? 

Right now, Im producing and directing a documentary whose working title is I Make Maintenance Art: The Work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Ukeles is a revolutionary force in contemporary art, who has been working since the 1960s at the intersection of feminism, labor, and environmentalism. In 1977 she became the NYC Sanitation Departments first Artist in Residence, which remains one of Americas most influential examples of socially cooperative art. Her first work for the Department, Touch Sanitation, during which she shook hands with and thanked each of 8,500 sanitation workers over the course of a year, was recently listed as #3 in the 100 greatest NYC Artworks ranked by ArtNews. And her visionary environmental project for the former landfill at what is now Freshkills Park, called LANDING, was recently featured in MoMA magazine.

Ukeles’ life as a maintenance artist began after she became a mother in 1968. She realized that she was working harder than she ever had in her life – at the dull, repetitive maintenance work of childcare and housework — and yet people watching her push a stroller kept asking her if she did anything. In a moment of cold fury” she wrote a Manifesto in 1969, which upended the inferior status of all maintenance work. Men dominated Development, it declared, or the pure individual creation,” while women were relegated to Maintenance, keeping the dust off the pure individual creation.” Western culture celebrated innovation, encouraging a consumer-driven worldview. That same culture disdained the dull, routine maintenance work which most people were forced to do. In merging maintenance and art, Ukeles would liberate this necessary but undervalued work by uniting it with a creative act. So, she began to hold public performance acts of cleaning, like sweeping sidewalks in front of a gallery in Soho or cleaning inside and outside a museum in Connecticut. Eventually, since she was a committed public artist, she expanded the sphere of her work by initiating creative collaborations with municipal maintenance workers, spotlighting their essential role in keeping cities running year-round.

Since 1977, when she began her artist-in-residency at NYCs Department of Sanitation, she has been collaborating with a range of city maintenance workers in the US, Europe, and Asia. And, as the COVID pandemic raged, she was commissioned to create a tribute to essential workers that looped on digital displays throughout NYCs transit system.

My film sets Ukeles’ story within the political, social, environmental, and artistic revolutions of the 60s and 70s. And it engages metaphysical questions about freedom in tension with necessity, workers time, the artists role in society, consumerism, and environmentalism. Ukeles’ work advocates for conservation, ritual, cooperation, and time over modern valorizations of innovation, individualism, and speed. It warns of impending climate disaster if western societies continue to single-mindedly promote consumption and rapid disposal at the expense of preservation.


You can keep up with Toby Perl Freilich’s work on her website, www.frameworkfilms.org

The Moynihan film will be broadcast on PBSAmerican Masters series sometime in 2024; no exact broadcast date has been set yet.


Catherine Woo

Catherine Woo Catherine Woo is an intern at NYWIFT and an aspiring screenwriter. She will graduate from NYU Tisch with a BFA in Dramatic Writing in 2024. She has interned at Rattlestick Theater and Protozoa Pictures. She has done production photography for PrideFest 2023 at The Tank and Broke People Spring 2023 Play Festival at NYU.

View all posts by Catherine Woo

Comments are closed

Related Posts

Meet the New NYWIFT Member: Ruthie Marantz

Welcome to NYWIFT, Ruthie Marantz! Born and raised in NYC, Ruthie has been making films on public access TV since she was 13 years old. Since then, her works has been shown at BAMcinemaFest, SeriesFest and Seattle International Film Festival. She has her M.F.A. from NYU’s Graduate Film Program, where she was recipient of the Leo Rosner, Maurice Kanbar, and the Academy of Arts and Sciences Scholarships. Ruthie has directed and produced commercial work for clients including Netflix, LG, Samsung, Vice and Hearst. Her autobiographical pilot Rainbow Ruthie, which received funding from director Spike Lee, was accepted to the IFP Episodic Lab and premiered at SXSW, becoming Oscar eligible in 2019. More recently, she co-wrote the pilot to Southfield Supernovas, which won the 2020 SXSW Seriesfest Pitch-A-Thon. Read more about Ruthie’s amazing stories from set and upcoming adventures here!


Meet the New NYWIFT Member: China L. Colston

Welcome to NYWIFT, China L. Colston! China is a SAG-AFTRA actress and award-winning filmmaker. As an actress, she has embodied emotional women, from the guilt-ridden mother in Strings Attached to the dealer in Sweet Thang. China’s unwavering dedication as the star, writer, director, and producer of Dark Seed led the film to acclaim from the Validate Yourself Film Festival, African American Arts Alliance of Chicago, and the Dramatist’s Guild Success In The Arts Award aka SITA. She is the recipient of a 2021 NYFA grant for her script To Cook or Not to Cook, which follows a chef in Harlem repairing his relationship with his family through food. She is the recipient of a 2021 NYFA grant for her script To Cook or Not to Cook, which follows a chef in Harlem repairing his relationship with his family through food. China brings us through her incredible journey as a creator here!


Meet the New NYWIFT Member: Melisa Ramos

Welcome to NYWIFT, Melisa Ramos! Melisa is a filmmaker and professor from Puerto Rico, bringing 14 years of post-production and motion graphics experience to New York. Her first production, Puerto Rican Voices, a docu-series about the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Following Puerto Rican Voices, Melisa continued to share Puerto Rican and Latin American stories. In 2020, she directed and produced From Performers to Spectators, a doc-series showcasing New York City performers during lockdown. She is currently in production on Hoop Warrior, her first feature film. Read all about Melisa’s journey as an editor and artist here!


Meet the New NYWIFT Member: Victoria Duncan

Welcome to NYWIFT, Victoria Duncan! At age 12, Victoria began making films, struck by her power to engage an audience using her imagination. This led her down an exciting path to SNL, The Blacklist, The Sinner, Vice, and branded content for huge companies like Wells Fargo and Amazon, just to name a few. Her LGBT+ ballet film I Am Enough was adapted for the stage and performed at New York City’s iconic Lincoln Center. She is currently working on the screenplay for a feature film. Victoria walks us through her incredible journey, from her childhood favorite movies to presenting a piece to the United Nations.