November 5, 2010
Many choice films
The 22nd annual Vancouver Jewish Film Festival starts next week with a selection that shows why it’s the longest running Jewish film festival in Canada. While not every film is a winner, the vast majority are well worth seeing.
“It has been a wonderful journey these past eight months since joining the festival as executive director and artistic director,” Robert Albanese told the Independent. “I’ve seen well over 200 films to come up with a line-up of 24 outstanding stories, a mix of 10 documentaries, 14 narratives and three short films.”
Starting off the festival on Nov. 9 is Anita, an unexpectedly powerful film from Argentina about a young Jewish woman with Down syndrome. Anita lives with her mother, and her brother, Ariel, and his wife visit often. While Ariel can’t be relied upon to follow through on his promises to take his sister to, for example, the zoo, his love for her is clear – and it becomes even more apparent after the tragic bombing of the AMIA Jewish Community Centre on July 18, 1994, which killed 86 people.
On that day, their mother leaves Anita at home alone – in the family store on the ground level, which is no longer used as a commercial space – in order to get Anita’s subsidy cheque from the AMIA, promising to return in 15 minutes, when the big hand of the clock hits 12. The blast from the explosion rips through the store and Anita is mildly injured from the debris. In the confusion, she ends up on a bus that is taking people to the hospital. The film follows her attempt to return home, with no knowledge of her address, or even her mother’s name – she’s just Mummy to Anita, and she will be home when the big hand reaches 12. Interjected into her story, and the initially selfish and angry-with-life, yet ultimately kind people she encounters, is that of her brother’s frantic search for both her and their mother.
Another touching movie, though on the slow-paced side, is Mrs. Moscowitz and the Cats (B’derech El Ha’chatulim). Despite the title, there aren’t many cats in this film, though they do help cause Yolanda Moscowitz’s fall down the stairs, which has her wind up in the geriatric ward of a hospital. Ironically, in this place full of restrictions and death, Yolanda finds friendship, love and a reason to live.
A retired French teacher, before the accident, Yolanda lived alone, shopped alone, dined alone, watched TV alone, went to bed alone. In the hospital, while rehabilitating from a broken femur, she befriends her roommate, Alegra, and her companion, Malka, as well as a former soccer player and coach, Shaul Cohen, who at first seems carefree and encouraging, but who has his own demons with which to deal. Nonetheless, Yolanda falls for Shaul and their romance is at times tender, uncomfortable and funny.
Mrs. Moscowitz is one of the many Israeli films Albanese has brought to Vancouver. He said he thought it was “essential to bring the voices of filmmakers from the vibrant and exciting Israeli film industry to our Vancouver audience. We are showcasing 11 features from Israel, fabulous story-driven narratives and compelling documentaries.”
He added, “The majority of our films are multiple-award-winning films from around the world. A number of them have been honored at the most prestigious film festivals.”
As Seen Through These Eyes definitely falls into this category. Narrated by writer Maya Angelou, and beginning with her poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” this American documentary combines survivor testimony with images of some of the artwork they created both during and after the Holocaust.
Director Hilary Helstein focuses on Theresienstadt, the Vilna Ghetto and Auschwitz, interweaving archival film footage and photographs of the actual horrors with their representation in art. The impact is powerful, especially when the artists themselves share some of what they went through. Among those interviewed are Ela Weissberger (most famously, the Cat in Brundibar), Yehuda Bacon, Frederick Terna, Samuel Bak, Simon Wiesenthal, Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt and Judith Goldstein. They talk about their need to create, both to honor those who died, and to cope with their own memories.
The theme of freedom runs through the film. As Terna says, when one’s life is so restricted, sitting in front of a white rectangle (i.e. paper), there is the ability to control what goes on it; and what was true for artists, also applied to writers and others for whom “art became a tool of escape and comfort.”
Music is also a powerful tool and the Idan Raichel Project uses it to bring together a wide range of cultures. The Israeli-Ethiopian documentary Black Over White opens with bandleader, pianist and composer Idan Raichel responding to the question of whether what he does – take Yemeni and Ethiopian music (i.e. the music of other cultures) and turn it into pop music – is moral. These types of questions run through director Tomer Heyman’s film, as he follows Raichel and his group to Ethiopia in 2006 for a concert tour.
Raichel openly admits to being a control freak during performances, and to keeping an emotional distance: “The crew often laughs at me for being cold, matter-of-fact and calculated,” he says. “I think there’s no other way. If you relate to it, if you mix emotions in this performance business, it will never end. You will have ups and downs that you won’t be able to handle.” Later, when there is talk about staying in a rural village overnight and maybe going for a hike, Raichel turns down both options, saying at one point, “People always think I’m so laidback because of my dreads. That’s bullshit.”
Also speaking candidly are Ethiopian-born band members Cabra Calai and Avi Wogderas, whose experience of the trip couldn’t be more different. For Calai, who emigrated when she was one year old, the poverty, and life in Ethiopia in general, are things to which she cannot relate. She is overwhelmed by her feelings on more than one occasion, and in one scene she is comforted by Raichel, while in another, she and Raichel have a heated disagreement over the level of racism extant in Israeli society. Meanwhile, Wogderas is ecstatic to re-connect with his grandmother and other family, who he hasn’t seen for years, but who he remembers well.
Black Over White is a thought-provoking film about immigration and multiculturalism not just in Israel, but in all countries. It also features, of course, the wonderfully entertaining music of the Idan Raichel Project.
Among the other festival films previewed by the Independent are the German film Berlin ’36 (Stille Sieger), which is based on the life of German-Jewish high jumper Gretel Bergmann, who was used by the Nazis to convince the Americans that Jews would be allowed to participate in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The last thing the Nazis wanted though was for her to win a gold medal, so they contrived to replace her with another athlete, the very masculine Marie Ketteler (Dora Ratjen in real life). While the two are meant to be rivals, they actually form a friendship and the Nazis end up having to kick Bergmann off the team – after the Americans are on their way, of course – in order to ensure that she won’t win. The performances are superb and the story is intriguing, even though its veracity is questioned by some.
Finally, the Independent reviewed Who the Jew are You? when it was at DOXA last year (“Parenthood at centre,” jewishindependent.ca, May 22, 2009) and recommends this enjoyable and interesting documentary by Alan Goldman about his struggle with Judaism. A less enthusiastic review was given to Restless, a father-son tale by Israeli filmmaker Amos Kollek, which screened in Vancouver a couple of years ago (“Suffering his choices,” jewishindependent.ca, Nov. 28, 2008).
For festival information, visit vjff.org.