Eight years ago, former TV-reporter-turned-filmmaker Dana Nachman received a holiday gift from her mother that ultimately inspired her new holiday documentary.
“Dear Santa,” available on streaming services, offers a peek into the operations of the U.S. Postal Service’s Operation Santa program – an effort that has Santa answering the many letters sent to him by kids all over the country.
Mom’s picture-book gift about the program, commemorating its 100th anniversary, was a must-read for Nachman and her children every holiday season. The program’s spirit of making dreams come true for children – many of them underprivileged – struck a chord with the Los Altos-based filmmaker, known for her heartwarming, life-affirming documentaries such as “Pick of the Litter” and “Batkid Begins.”
So, last holiday season, Nachman and her crew worked with the postal service to highlight stories of select letter writers about how their dreams were realized through generous “adopters.”
“I thought it was such an amazing thing that the postal service had this program that I had no idea about, to help Santa with his letters,” Nachman told the Town Crier recently. “Every year, I wanted to do it (make the film).”
She reached out to the postal service in December 2018. Program representatives were receptive and cooperative, but the logistics were a challenge.
“It was hard,” she said. “The main problem was the rush that you had to do it in, because you had to wait for the letters to come in – the backbone of the film was the letters. We had to sift through the letters – the USPS can’t give us identifying information of the letter writers; they’re all redacted.”
The filmmakers chose letters they liked and the postal service sent express-mail letters to the parents requesting permission to use them in the film.
“So, we had to just really wait by the phone for people to contact us,” Nachman said.
When Nachman received a “yes,” she and her crew would fly to a particular location and shoot scenes.
What they captured more than met expectations.
“Everything we were getting was such money,” Nachman said.
Particularly touching – and illuminating – were letters from children who were disadvantaged or had suffered tragedy. She recalled letters from those who had lost their homes in the California wildfires.
“It’s like a message in a bottle – they’re telling you who they are, where they come from, why they need these things, why they put their hopes and dreams in a letter to Santa,” Nachman said. “They want their life back. That’s so hard to read and to think about – these people are forever changed.”
But Nachman said she was uplifted by the thought “that somebody cared and heard their story.”
‘Gratitude all around’
The stories of the adopters – those fulfilling the children’s wishes – were touching as well.
Nachman recalled one middle-aged man who wrote to Santa as a kid and received a clock radio.
“He remembered how that made him feel and it propelled him into a life of service,” she said. “Now he fulfills letters for hundreds of kids every year.”
Her biggest takeaway from making “Dear Santa” is “gratitude all around.”
Nachman worked to finish the film this year, amid the pandemic.
“I got to work on this beautiful story – it almost transported me out of the current situation,” she said. “I was able to hire a whole group of people when most of the film industry was shut down. I took great pride to be able to do that. And now to have the film come out and it’s the biggest year Operation Santa has ever had, partially due to how much need there is out there now, (but) also because of the film and the press around the film – to think that tens of thousands more kids will have their dreams come true because of this film – I just feel so grateful to have had an impact in a little way.”
Nachman pointed to a pattern in three of her films, “Dear Santa,” “Pick of the Litter” and “Batkid Begins.” “Litter” featured puppies training to be guide dogs for the blind. “Batkid” chronicled the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the fulfillment of a young leukemia patient’s fantasy to be Batman and save Gotham City.
“They’re about people doing good for the world,” she said. “They’re an entree into bigger issues through this fluffy and fun lens.”