A filmmaker honored Bella Abzug. Her daughter says he took advantage.

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A filmmaker honored Bella Abzug. Her daughter says he took advantage.
Liz Abzug, a daughter of the feminist icon and politician Bella Abzug, in New York, Aug. 17, 2023. Abzug worked with a filmmaker to create a documentary about her mother, until they had a falling out. (Mary Inhea Kang/The New York Times)

by Liam Stack

NEW YORK, NY.- A documentary film that opened in New York last week was meant to be a loving paean to Bella Abzug, the feminist icon who represented the city in Congress during the 1970s, with interviews from a parade of prominent women, from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Barbra Streisand, who call her an inspiration to their own careers.

But in recent weeks, a bitter public dispute between Abzug’s daughter Liz Abzug and filmmaker Jeff L. Lieberman has complicated what was supposed to be a celebration of the congresswoman’s life and legacy.

Liz Abzug has accused Lieberman of cutting her out of the project after agreeing to make her an executive producer in exchange for access to private archival material and interviews with prominent friends and associates of her mother, who died in 1998.

The film’s producers say they did not cut Liz Abzug out of the project, but that she decided to end her involvement with it three years ago. Abzug rejects that account, and said she only asked to be removed from the project after she came to believe Lieberman had broken their contract and would no longer abide by it.

Bella Abzug was a larger-than-life feminist and influential lawmaker known for straight-talking advocacy for liberal causes and for her campaign slogan, versions of which remain popular sayings on political buttons and bumper stickers to this day: “This woman’s place is in the House — the House of Representatives.”

In an interview, Liz Abzug said the way Lieberman made the film about her mother “was against everything she stood for” during her life.

“This man took advantage of us, and my mother would have been outraged,” Abzug said. “He treated me — as Bella’s daughter, as an executive producer and as a woman — like crap. I think he is trying to promote himself and make a name for himself and be in control.”

Jamila Fairley, another producer on the film, disputed Abzug’s claims in a statement last week. She called Abzug’s accusations “deeply unfortunate and unnecessary” and said she hoped they would “not distract from the picture’s tribute to her mother.”

“We are grateful for Ms. Abzug’s early assistance on this project, but we do need to unequivocally correct the record that she has created,” Fairley said.

Fairley said that in 2020 Abzug “demanded that neither she nor the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute be credited” in the film, and said “she would not engage with us any further in connection with the film.”

“We have honored Ms. Abzug’s request,” Fairley said.

Abzug said she did not walk out.

“He’s the one who stopped communicating with me,” she said. “I did not quit the project.”

Abzug said she asked to have her name and interviews she and her sister, Eve Abzug, gave removed from the film because she believed Lieberman was not abiding by the contract.

Bella Abzug, who was the first Jewish woman elected to the House of Representatives, served from 1971-77 and represented parts of Manhattan and the Bronx.

During her tenure, she opposed the Vietnam War, introduced the first federal gay rights bill, and co-sponsored legislation that made it possible for women to get credit cards and other loans in their own names.

She unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 1976 and for mayor of New York City in 1977, and remained active in public life until her death.

The documentary about her life, “Bella!,” opened last week at Village East Cinema in New York and Thursday at Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles.

Ken Sunshine, a public relations executive who represents Streisand and also worked for Bella Abzug in the 1970s, said the conflict around the film had dismayed many who knew the Abzug family.

“Bella deserves to be memorialized in many ways, and it is too bad there is this dispute about this film,” Sunshine said. “It is all very sad.”

In an interview, Liz Abzug said Lieberman first approached her about the film in 2017.

In a contract between Abzug and Lieberman, which was viewed by The New York Times, the filmmaker agreed to credit her as an executive producer and creative consultant, to “meaningfully consult” with her over the final version of the film, and to share 5% of its net revenue with the nonprofit organization she founded in her mother’s name in 2005, the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute.

In exchange, Abzug gave the filmmaker access to her mother’s personal papers, as well as to family photos and videos, and agreed to “use good faith efforts to introduce Filmmaker to the friends, family, and colleagues of” her mother.

Abzug said she conducted a number of the interviews herself, including those with Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Lily Tomlin and Shirley MacLaine — “Shirley, who I know like an aunt,” she said — as well as talk show host Phil Donahue and former New York Mayor David Dinkins.

Abzug said her relationship with Lieberman began to break down after the celebrity interviews were finished and the archival material was handed over.

Lieberman did not respond to requests for comment over the course of several days, but spoke on the record after this article was initially published. He declined to explain the start of the conflict between himself and Abzug, but he rejected her claim that he had ever violated their contract.

A letter sent to Abzug’s lawyer by Lieberman’s lawyer in 2020, which was viewed by the Times, said that Lieberman “firmly rejects” the claim by Abzug that he was “in material breach” of their contract.

His lawyer said the basis of Abzug’s claim “seems to be that Ms. Abzug has the ‘title’ of ‘executive producer’ and that she has provided some ‘invaluable’ access to interview subjects.”

However, he said, Abzug appeared to have an “inflated view of her role on the project.” Lieberman’s lawyer said the 2017 contract between them “limits her rights and entitlements consistent with custom and practice in the motion picture industry.”

In the interview Wednesday, Lieberman said he did not want “to rehash the past.”

“All I can say is that we uphold our end of the contract,” he said. “Oftentimes, I think people who are not familiar with filmmaking and the filmmaking world and not familiar with executive producer credits that are often given to people who contribute funding or resources to a film. That’s all I can say about that.”

In October, the film won the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize, which provides unfinished documentaries with funding for final production and distribution costs.

Abzug said in the interview she had not seen a cut of the film in years.

She and her family were also not invited to the film’s New York premiere, she said.

“Why wasn’t my family invited to this premiere?” Abzug said. “Who does that?”

Lieberman said Abzug and her family were not invited because of “the tenor of her public statements at that time.”

Abzug first aired her concerns in July in a post on Facebook that has collected several hundred comments. Since then, she has posted at least twice more.

In one post, she shared a gallery of pictures of herself posing with interview subjects — including MacLaine and Clinton — as they held a poster for the film. She “interviewed each one of them on site jointly with the filmmaker,” she wrote, “in my capacity as Executive Producer of the film.”

In another post, she said she regretted allowing Lieberman, whom she described as a “basically unknown documentary filmmaker with limited experience,” to make a film about her mother.

She said she believed “he misrepresented himself to me as authentic” in his desire to honor her mother’s legacy, but “he has shown himself to be someone who I certainly DO NOT believe is a feminist!!!”

But in the interview, Abzug said she was “not out for any retribution” because she still felt a sense of ownership over the film.

She said that when people asked her whether they should see it, it was hard for her to figure out how to answer.

“I say, ‘Look, I haven’t seen the film, but I believe the film has really good stuff in it,’” she said. “I wanted this to happen in the first place and I worked on it, but on the other hand you cannot treat people the way he has treated us.”

On Wednesday, Abzug said a fragile detente between herself and Lieberman had been negotiated the night before by Renee Taylor, an actress and friend of her mother’s who was made famous by her role on “The Nanny.”

Lieberman declined to share details about the truce, saying only that he and Abzug were “supposed to have a conversation and I think we will listen to each other and try to find the best path forward” so that they could “peacefully collaborate.”

Abzug said their lawyers would meet in the coming days to negotiate a new agreement between them.

“It’s going to happen,” she said. “But on my terms.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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