Kalafer, who is chairman of the 17-franchise Flemington Car & Truck Country that includes a VW dealership in Flemington, N.J., says decisive measures are needed to address the harm inflicted on customers and dealers.
"I started with two gas pumps and a one-car showroom. I've been with all of these manufacturers all of these years," Kalafer said in an interview in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas while the National Automobile Dealers Association convention was in town. "The reality is that unless these issues are dealt with straightforwardly, honestly and with equity, Volkswagen in hindsight will have destroyed their company."
He says Backfire will examine the issue through the stories of customers, dealers and regulators. Researchers at West Virginia University, who initially discovered the excess emissions coming from VW vehicles in 2014, will be interviewed, as will former VW executives, Kalafer says.
He's dismayed about how VW's leadership has handled the emissions crisis and is concerned about the brand long term, but he says he's approaching Backfire from the perspective of a filmmaker, not a dealer
"I will not have a point of view," he said. "The participants will."
He won't appear on camera. Although he's been affected by the crisis, Kalafer says a documentary's impact can be lessened when the filmmaker is part of the story.
He says his films typically explore social issues that Hollywood studios shun for their limited commercial value. Besides the nun who fought anti-Semitism, he has produced documentaries on such topics as political corruption in New Jersey and an inspirational music teacher.
VW's diesel crisis is still unfolding, and Backfire is far from finished. The project could appear as an episodic series, such as the hit "Making a Murderer" on Netflix, or as a feature-length film, says Jonathan Kalafer, Steve's son, who also is involved in making the film.
The affable dealer/filmmaker with a penchant for fine wristwatches insists he's not anti-VW. But he also doesn't mince words about the behavior of VW leaders.
"When I came to Volkswagen [to discuss the film], they said, "Why are you doing this?'" Kalafer said. "I said, "To tell the truth.'"
He says VW has been "silent" on how it plans to compensate diesel customers and dealers.
Kalafer also worries for dealers who made substantial investments in VW franchises, under factory direction, counting on higher U.S. sales volumes that never materialized.
"The worst part in all of this," he says, are the single-point Volkswagen dealers who have invested their life savings and their family's reputations in VW franchises and stuck around through the automaker's long history of ups and downs in the United States.
To the automaker, those dealers are "no more important than a Hershey wrapper after the piece of candy has been consumed," Kalafer said. "They've been thrown in the gutter, meaningless. That hurts me."