‘Final Gifts” has been described as a little like the 1981 gem, “My Dinner With Andre” because there are only two characters onscreen, engaged in an intense conversation, but thus ends “Andre’s” similarity to “Final Gifts.”
Produced by Neil and Lee Selden of Highland Park, and written and directed by Neil Selden, “Final Gifts” brings two women together in a fictional meeting after death, both struggling with their sorrows and joys, and the loves and losses they had during two very different wars. Based on historical events and real people, the film introduces us to Juanita (played by Colombian-born actress Ana Mercedes Torres), a former peasant guerilla leader in the Salvadoran civil war of the 1980s, who fought against a fascist army, funded by the United States. Her counterpart in the afterlife is Adina, a former Jewish doctor (portrayed by veteran New York actress and director Mary Tahmin) who served in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis in WWII, and who tried to save the children of the ghetto. “Final Gifts” has the two women, dissimilar in age, background and personality, dancing around each other in dialogue, trying to understand their experiences in both wars.
Juanita is the more vibrant character, still fresh with the excitement of rebellion, moved especially by the heroes and leaders of the revolution. In contrast, Adina is more depressed and introspective, at first rejecting Juanita’s conversation and friendship, turning down a glass of wine. She carries a burden of guilt from her war experience that hasn’t subsided, even after death. Without revealing the source of her grief, the Seldens say only that “No one should be asked to do what she did.”
The couple, longtime peace activists, created “Final Gifts” to honor the legions of unsung women around the world who strive to keep their children and loved ones alive, who nurture life while resisting injustice. “We wanted to celebrate such women by honoring the stories of two of them,” Neil says. “We wanted to bring these women together across the years, from such diverse cultures. We had to tell these stories so that people can understand that we really are all one.” Lee adds, “The beautiful thing is that in communion with each other, people are able to begin healing. The most unlikely people can be healing to each other when they get to their heart and their truth.”
‘Final Gifts” will be screened on Sunday, June 14, on the campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick as part of the New Jersey International Film Festival Summer 2009 at Rutgers, which runs Friday, June 5, through Sunday, June 21. The Seldens’ first feature film shares the bill with the short film “Open Air” and the German short “Spielzeugland (Toyland),” which won an Academy Award this year for best short film. The Seldens will make an appearance at the screening. Shira-Lee Shalit, who directed “Open Air,” will also be at the evening of cinema.
On their website, the Seldens describe themselves as “a pair of lovers in their 70s.” The couple has been dedicated to the peace movement and the healing of troubled young people since the 1960s. Neil recalls attending a protest at the Greenwich Village Peace Center in 1962, inspired by the Berrigan Brothers, internationally known anti-war activists. Lee remembers, early in the movement, standing on the streets of Manhattan holding anti-war signs, being sworn at and spit on by passing cabbies.
The Seldens’ Wayhaven Productions creates films that resonate with their ideals. “The films we currently have in pre-production are devoted to truth, justice, and compassion, films that pose questions without easy answers, films that may help us discover the love and courage in ourselves and all human beings, films that may inspire us with the audacity of hope,” the Seldens write on their website. Inspired by Doctors Without Borders, the Seldens will donate ten percent of profits from “Final Gifts” to the international medical humanitarian aid organization.
Lee Selden became involved with helping the disadvantaged, especially those touched by war, when she worked in Austria in a camp for Hungarian refugees, mostly freedom fighters who were fleeing the country during the Soviet invasion of 1956. She had been at Swarthmore College, then took a year abroad at the London School for Economics, but left college behind after her experience in the refugee camp. She grew up in Lawrenceville, where her mother was a socially conscious homemaker, and her father, James Imbrie, was a politician working for civil rights. He was the Progressive Party candidate for governor of New Jersey in the late 1940s. “He was running to fight against the House Un-American Activities Committee and also against the ‘bosses’ in Jersey City,” Lee says. “He had been a millionaire but lost it all in the Wall Street crash of 1929. So then he became a liberal.”
Born and bred in the Bronx, Neil Selden describes his childhood in a working class Jewish neighborhood “filled with tough guys. My father and mother went from job to job,” he says, adding that the more colorful relatives were boxers or managed or trained boxers. Neil graduated from the Bronx High School for Science, then found his call for creative writing at college, at the Bronx campus of New York University (Class of 1953), then in graduate school at Wisconsin University. His academic career ended in 1954 when he was drafted into the Army, serving as a military policeman in Germany.
The Seldens were married in 1961 when Lee was 23 and Neil was 29. Unfortunately, they split up after six months. But like a happy ending to a romantic comedy, they reunited in 1964 and have remained married ever since. “I was so shy and Neil was so assertive,” Lee says. “We split up, and I went to California, where I became more sure of myself. Meanwhile, Neil had mellowed and he was working with my brother (McCrae Imbrie). That’s how we got back together, and I bless every day we’ve been together.”
The creative relationship with McCrae Imbrie resulted in the play “Someone’s Comin’ Hungry,” which first appeared off-Broadway in 1969, starring Blythe Danner and Cleavon Little. In February, 2000, it was revived at the New 42nd Street Theater in Manhattan. Neil’s other plays and a musical drama have appeared variously at the Berlin Festival, the Actor’s Studio, the Roundabout Theater, and the American Conservatory Theater, among other venues.
A psychotherapist as well as a playwright, in 1965, Neil, with assistance from Lee, created and became the director of Encounter Inc., the first successful East Coast day program for young drug abusers and their families. The grassroots program was located in Greenwich Village.
The couple later became trainers and teachers for the NYC Addiction Services Agency and also taught human relationship workshops and meditation, after spending many months studying existentialism in India.
Moving to Highland Park in 1989, the Seldens joined the civil-rights oriented Reformed Church of Highland Park, where they currently lead human relations workshops. Lee is a “deeply involved” elder at the church. She also works from time to time as a chaplain at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick. She has also served as editor, literary advisor, and contributor to her husband’s writings.
The Selden’s son, Michael, is an ordained Buddhist monk living in Bucks County, where he manages a large team of internet infrastructure experts. He shares a home on 11 acres in rural Kintnersville with his wife, Dearing, who teaches at a nearby Quaker school. They have two daughters, ages 16 and 8.
The Seldens have been working on “Final Gifts” for about four years and are gearing up for what Neil calls “guerilla marketing.” He says: “We’ve been enjoying every minute.”
“Final Gifts”, New Jersey International Film Festival, Milledoler Hall, Room 100, near the corner of College Avenue and Hamilton Street, Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Sunday, June 14, 7 p.m. $10. In a fictional meeting after death, two heroic women who fought against tyranny on two different continents are able for the first itme to speak of their joys and sorrows, loves and losses, helping each other heal, and are given the gift of hope. Appearance by the filmmakers. Also screening that evening: “Open Air” and “Spielzeugland (Toyland),” which won this year’s Academy Award for Best Short Film. Neil and Lee Selden on the Web: www.wayhavenproductions.com. 732-932-8482 or www.njfilmfest.com.