Tobey Maguire stars as Bobby Fischer in Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice. (photo by Takashi Seida)
If there is any lingering goodwill in the world toward the late Bobby Fischer – the once-in-a-century chess whiz who achieved fame as an unlikely “Cold Warrior” – Pawn Sacrifice pretty much snuffs it out.
Veteran director Edward Zwick’s fast-paced, bleakly entertaining film builds relentlessly from Fischer’s Brooklyn childhood to his internationally celebrated 1972 showdown with Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky in Iceland.
A jittery retelling of the rise and zenith of a man with undiagnosed mental illness that manifested itself in paranoid (and frequently antisemitic) delusions, Pawn Sacrifice presents Fischer as a deeply unlikable and unsympathetic protagonist. He is not, to use the vernacular, someone with whom you’d like to have a beer.
Some of that can be attributed to the unfortunate casting of the eternally boyish Tobey Maguire, who plays Fischer as a petulant child rather than a calculating genius.
Maguire’s tics and tantrums do serve the film, ultimately. In a singularly subversive strategy for a mainstream movie, Steven Knight’s shrewd screenplay forces viewers to confront the fact that the social misfit and erstwhile American underdog we are rooting for is, in reality, a lunatic and a mamzer.
Pawn Sacrifice, which opened recently in Vancouver, is worth seeing for that reason, as well as to revisit a period when the Soviet Union was the United States’ great rival and – before the Miracle on Ice, before Reagan moved into the White House – a skinny, 29-year-old New York Jew emerged as the locus of national pride.
Another incentive is the always-terrific Liev Schreiber, whose delicious performance as the taciturn Spassky conveys imperiousness or bemusement with a raised eyebrow or barely perceptible head tilt. The Jewish actor, who played a Jewish Belarusian resistance leader in Zwick’s Defiance, likewise delivers his few Russian lines with a wonderful clipped accent.
While Spassky is a shades-wearing nonconformist, to the degree he could be, disdaining white shirts and ties in favor of his signature black turtleneck and blazer, Fischer is a rebel without a cause beyond his own single-minded drive to win. Actually, “destroy” is a more accurate word.
In flashbacks to his adolescence, we see the seeds of paranoia planted by his Jewish mother (played by Robin Weigert), whose communist beliefs and friends attracted FBI surveillance. The young Fischer’s trust was further eroded by her refusal to tell him who his father was.
By his teens, Fischer wouldn’t listen or take advice from anyone. Paradoxically, just a few years later, he embraced audiotapes that pinned the ills of the world on the Zionist conspiracy (among other villains).
As its title promises, Pawn Sacrifice poses the question, “What does it avail a man to win the world and lose his mind?” To its credit, the film doesn’t try to explain Fischer’s illness, nor put too much diagnostic or symbolic weight on the episodes it depicts from his youth. Consequently, it isn’t a cautionary fable except in the sense that Fischer didn’t have the tools and help to stop himself from slipping down the rabbit hole.
Fischer’s erratic behavior during the 1972 World Chess Championship led the media to portray him merely as an enigmatic, mercurial iconoclast. In one of the movie’s occasional forays into black comedy, Nixon and Kissinger telephone their support. (Apparently, among paranoids, it takes one to know one.)
That series of matches between Fischer and Spassky provides the dramatic crux of the film, and it is undeniably riveting and unpredictable.
To counter the fundamental unhappiness at Fischer’s core, as well as the static nature of chess games, Pawn Sacrifice employs rapid-fire editing and a double-LP’s worth of 1960s rock hits. The strategy effectively mitigates the main character’s depressing aspects without obscuring his legacy: Fischer was neither a hero nor an anti-hero, but an irredeemable narcissist with a mean streak.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
In Love, Theft and Other Entanglements, Sami Metwasi plays Mousa, a likable but unlucky car thief. (photo from Vancouver International Film Festival)
Men in turmoil. If there were a common theme between the films the Jewish Independent reviewed in anticipation of this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, which opens Sept. 24, it would be that. It also seems to apply to the other few movies in the festival with Jewish- and/or Israel-related content.
Of the films reviewed, Love, Theft and Other Entanglements (Palestine Territories) was the most engaging, though it was slow in its pacing. This was likely done purposefully to reflect aspects of the main character and his milieu, but the movie – which is described by director Muayad Alayan as “a drama, a thriller and a fairytale” – would have been more intense if several lengthy shots had been trimmed even by a few seconds. We don’t have to see a car drive from Point A to Point B to know that it went from A to B, for example.
That being said, Love’s Mousa, is a likable “hero,” and this makes viewers want to stick with him to the end. The choice to film the movie in black and white was made, says Alayan on the film’s website, to minimize “the visual noise that detracts from the story” and reduce “the temptation to examine the setting of the film against the hyper-realistic images of Palestine common in TV reports and documentary films. I wanted the place to be a context that serves the story and not a point of interest in and of itself.” In this, he succeeds. While the film includes evident commentary about Israeli and Palestinian societies, as well as the conflict between them, it is Mousa – representing anyone who has made some bad choices in life – who is at the centre of the narrative; and the desert landscape accents his scarce hope.
Walking out on a job that his father arranged for him with some effort, Mousa steals a car – not his first. Unfortunately, this one has valuable cargo in the trunk and Mousa becomes a man of interest – and use – to both Israeli intelligence and Palestinian militia. Adding to his self-made burden is an affair with a married woman.
Mousa desperately wants to flee from it all. When he tells his father he is leaving, his father responds, “A man who doesn’t solve his problems in his own country, won’t be any different in another country. You’re just running away.” By the end of the film, Mousa is no longer running.
Hockney is a flattering documentary by Randall Wright (United Kingdom/United States) of British artist David Hockney. It portrays a creative, innovative man who lived his life publicly, not only explicitly wrestling with his homosexuality in his artwork, but filming many moments of his life, some of which are very intimate and, one would think, private.
By turns flippant (deciding to become a blond after seeing a Clairol commercial that claimed blonds have more fun), sad (mourning with every aspect of his being the end of his relationship with Peter Schlesinger) and serious (continually pushing artistic boundaries and learning new techniques), Hockney is a fascinating person.
Wright’s documentary features interviews with Hockney, 77, as well as Hockney’s family and friends, fellow artists, subjects of his paintings and others. For the film, Hockey – who still works in the studio every day – provided Wright with access to his photographs and “home” movies. Hockney was a documenter not just of what he saw around him in people and nature, but of himself. “I always wanted to see more,” he says about why he always wanted to sit on the top level of the bus on the way home from the pictures – he describes himself as almost being raised with Hollywood, though he was born and raised in Bradford, England. After several stints in Los Angeles, he moved there in 1978.
The documentary serves as an interesting and visually stimulating, if uncritical, introduction to Hockney and his work. The VIFF screenings mark its Canadian première.
Another national première is My Golden Days, directed by Arnaud Desplechin (France). Actor Quentin Dolmaire, who plays the young adult Paul Dédalus, is scheduled to attend the screening.
Called Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse in its original French, the film begins with the adult Paul in bed with a lover, saying goodbye, set to return to France to take a position with the foreign ministry. His first souvenir (memory) is of his childhood: to understate matters, he doesn’t get along with his mother, who is ill, and, after she dies, his father never recovers and fades into the background of his children’s lives.
Paul’s second memory – and the most interesting part of the entire film – is triggered when he is stopped at customs. Apparently, another Paul Dédalus exists in Australia, with Paul’s same birth date, etc. How can that be?
It goes back to the 1980s and a high school trip to Minsk. Not Jewish himself, Paul helps his friend Marc Zylberberg smuggle documents and money to refuseniks. He is asked, not pressured, to “lose” his passport when he meets with them, which he does.
The strength of character Paul displays at 16 in Russia escapes him upon his return. The third and final memory of his youth takes up more than half of the two-hour film. Despite including some violence, lots of emotional chaos and a few sex scenes, the romance between Paul and Esther is, not to mince words, boring. Though well-acted, the characters are not compelling or sympathetic, and it is hard to care what happens to them and their relationship.
The Jewish Independent is sponsoring the Canadian première of Tikkun, directed by Avishai Sivan (Israel). Among other awards, it won top honors at the Jerusalem Film Festival.
When Haim-Aaron, an ultra-Orthodox scholar, collapses and is resuscitated by his father after being declared dead by paramedics, he completely changes personality. While he struggles with that and his new lack of faith, his father is fearful that God is angry for having His will (that Haim-Aaron die) denied.
Among the other films of Jewish interest is Son of Saul, directed by László Nemes (Hungary), which takes place in Auschwitz, where Saul is forced to help the Nazis kill his fellow Jews. In doing so, he sees the corpse of a boy he believes to be his son. He decides to save the body, intent on giving the boy a proper burial.
And there is A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did, a documentary by David Evans (United Kingdom). Another Canadian première at VIFF, the film follows Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, both the sons of Nazis responsible for thousands of deaths, on a trip to Poland and Ukraine. The men have completely different opinions about their fathers’ actions during the war, and “human rights lawyer Philippe Sands investigates the complicated connection between the two men, and even delves into the story of his own grandfather who escaped the same town where their fathers carried out mass killings.”
VIFF runs from Sept. 24-Oct. 9. The full program can be found at viff.org.
Atomic Falafel poster. (photo from Atomic Falafel PR via israel21c.org)
While world headlines focused on the landmark Iranian nuclear deal, an enormous billboard outside a Tel Aviv building announcing the upcoming opening of an Iranian embassy in Israel in August had the local social media community wondering whether it was an art installation, an anonymous peace group’s campaign or someone’s idea of a joke.
The Hebrew billboard included pictures of the two countries’ flags, a local phone number and the text: “Opening here soon – embassy of Iran in Israel.” It was erected at Rabin Square, the favored site for political peace rallies.
The mystery was solved in the last days of August by the people behind the sign. It was a public-relations stunt to drum up publicity for the new Israeli comedy Atomic Falafel, a madcap film about a nuclear conflict between Israel and Iran.
“A satirical comedy mocking ultra-militarism” is how producer Avraham Pirchi explained the film, which was scheduled to open in Israel on Sept. 10.
Atomic Falafel is the latest from director Dror Shaul, winner of the 2007 Sundance World Cinema Jury Prize for his semi-autobiographical film Sweet Mud. It tells the story of two girls – one in Israel, one in Iran – who spill their countries’ most valuable secrets on Facebook to prevent a nuclear crisis. The movie pits a wifi-connected younger generation against old-school warmongers in an effort to stop a preemptive Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“Teenagers around the world today are much more similar than different to each other. They dress the same, listen to the same music and are not really interested in wars. I hope that the sane, logical side of Israel and the world will overcome the irresponsible one, and that my little boy born just two weeks after the end of shooting will be rewarded with a safe future,” said Shaul.
“When we started to make Atomic Falafel, we didn’t know we would be releasing the film when Iran’s nuclear power would be so relevant. But that’s what’s happened,” Pirchi told variety.com, adding that the film is “pro-peace and optimistic.”
The film is co-produced by New Zealand’s General Film Corp. and Germany’s Arden Film, Getaway Pictures and Jooyaa Film. It stars Israeli actors including Shai Avivi, Mali Levy, Yossi Marshak and Zohar Strauss, as well as Germany’s Alexander Fehling (Inglourious Basterds).
Tara Melter, a German actress of Iranian descent who plays a supporting role in Atomic Falafel, raps the soundtrack’s title track, “Hitchki.” The song, composed by Bahar Henschel, is addictive.
Production company United Channel Movies (UCM) announced on Facebook that Atomic Falafel has all the makings of a hit, citing that the movie’s trailer (in Hebrew only) racked up more than 100,000 views in its first two hours online. UCM says it is in talks with international agents to secure wide distribution of the movie following its Israel release.
Israel21Cis a nonprofit educational foundation with a mission to focus media and public attention on the 21st-century Israel that exists beyond the conflict. For more, or to donate, visit israel21c.org.
“Finding success on YouTube has been both the most exciting and confusing thing that has ever happened to me (other than my bat mitzvah),” she wrote recently on her blog.
Raskin, a Scarsdale, N.Y.-native, who now calls Los Angeles home, also performs improv and stand-up around Los Angeles, and produces a weekly webseries, Just Between Us, with her best friend and comedy partner, Gaby Dunn. With more than a hundred segments thus far, they tackle relationship issues in an irreverent and unconventional manner.
“Basically, it’s two girls on a couch giving love advice, but we’re terrible at giving advice,” explained Raskin. “That’s the shtick. It’s not at all about the questions or advice, but about our relationship. People say we’re the odd couple, a classic comedy approach.”
The Jewish Independent recently caught up with Raskin.
DG: What videos of yours are your favorites?
AR: A couple of contenders for different reasons. If Buying Condoms Was Like Buying Birth Control, I’m really proud of that one because I think it had a message and did really well. From a comedic level, that didn’t do well, but the writing was good. The other, Is This a Date?, is a sketch I liked. It’s a miscommunication between a man and a woman, and how their dialogue confused each other.
DG: You’ve done a few videos with Jewish content. Is our heritage and culture inherently funny?
AR: We all know how our families behave. Sometimes there’s a larger familiarity people will get even if they’re not a part of your family. I find things funny in my family and people I grew up with that I’m sure are funny to other people also.
DG: So, how do you make a Jewish video funny to people who don’t know about Jewish culture?
AR: The hope is that you’ll relate, even if you’re not Jewish or have a lot of Jewish friends that get it. At the end of the day, everyone is just human and we all do just funny things. My sister is married to an Italian and their family is very similar to ours. It’s all about the food; everyone is into each other’s lives, it’s all just loud and fun and caring. Even if they’re Roman Catholic, there’s a lot of similar culture there. And Italian has always been our favorite food.
DG: Are any of your comedic influences Jewish?
AR: My friends flatter me and say I’m like a female Woody Allen, but I know they’re just sucking up. But I definitely relate to some aspects of his point of view and I think that there are certain neuroses that I bring to some of my characters that are similar.
Other than that, one comedic influence is Julia Louis-Dreyfus (not Jewish). She has such presence – timeless and perfect and commanding. I love Veep.
DG: Is comedy natural to you?
AR: I think you either have it or you don’t. Have spark of it, or don’t. But you have to nurture and grow with that spark. It’s something you study and refine over years, with stand-up especially. Refining just my presence on stage took a long time, not just the actual jokes, but how I would deliver them was a whole journey. Just have to kind of need to love it.
All I ever want to do is to make a good joke. That’s what drives me day in and day out. Not just on the internet, but also to my best friends.
DG: What’s the environment like with other BuzzFeed actors?
AR: It’s definitely work; but it’s like working at a college campus – everyone is friends, we hang out, it’s great, awesome to be surrounded by young, talented people who want to do the same stuff you want to do. So, it’s definitely a fun office. I’ve been to my dad’s law office and it’s nothing like that.
DG: You’ve done some of the famous taste-test videos of ethnic foods. What would you eat again?
AR: Boiled peanuts. Everything in the Southern taste test was incredible. Okra was incredible. All I think about now is okra and boiled peanuts and how to get them.
DG: Have you tried okra in beef stew?
AR: I don’t eat beef, so maybe I’d pick it out. I’ve been a vegetarian for ethics reasons since I was 8, but now I eat birds and fish.
DG: BuzzFeed fans found out through the Jewish videos that there are other young Jewish actors at BuzzFeed. Do you guys hang out or talk Jewish stuff?
AR: Nah, maybe like “Oh, what are you doing for Passover? Hmm, nothing.” A lot of people were shocked that more than one Jew works at BuzzFeed.
Most of my friends, oddly enough, are Jewish and there’s shared culture there. I thought, with the video of Jews explaining Christmas, some online comments were antisemitic, and then the one with Christians explaining Chanuka nobody cared about.
DG: Did it upset you?
AR: I grew up surrounded by Jews, so I forget that there’s a lot of antisemitism in the world.
DG: What’s funny about being Jewish?
AR: Um, my mother. I just think the traditional Jewish mom is so funny to me. It’s already been passed on; if someone doesn’t call me back, I think they’re dead. I really have to work on my anxiety about thinking everyone’s dead.
DG: OK, pop quiz. Just like in the videos: A Jew explains Easter. Go!
AR: Oh, crap. That’s the one where Jesus is born, no, dies? He dies, right? Something about bunnies and chocolate? Lent, where you swear off doing something? The stores are closed?
Dave Gordon is a Toronto-based freelance writer and managing editor of landmarkreport.com.
Image from the movie Amy. Amy Winehouse died four years ago this month. (photo from epk.tv)
Amy Winehouse, the brash little Jewish girl with the great big voice, died four years ago this month. There are any number of ways to mark that unhappy anniversary and draw inspiration from the British singer-songwriter’s artistic legacy. Subjecting yourself to Amy, Asif Kapadia’s unattractive and superficial documentary, is not the recommended option.
Amy opened on July 10. Strewn with grainy video footage shot by Winehouse, her family and friends over several years, the film is conceived as an intimate, behind-the-scenes portrait of a very public, very talented figure. Given that Winehouse mined her troubled relationships for her pain- and yearning-filled lyrics, it makes sense to conflate her creative and personal lives. But, rather than highlighting Winehouse’s artistic courage and her commitment to confronting and conveying hard truths, Amy presents its subject as weak, insecure, volatile and vulnerable. In lieu of insight, Kapadia offers amateur psychologizing.
The list of culprits goes way back. When Amy was a toddler, her mother wasn’t strong enough to stand up to her or rein her in. (Had her mother set firm boundaries all along, who’s to say the free-thinking Amy wouldn’t have rebelled and run away as a teenager?)
Her father cheated on her mother for years before they divorced when Amy was an adolescent. We are left to conclude that this is the source of Amy’s neediness, promiscuity, vulnerability and poor judgment regarding men. (Mitch Winehouse resurfaces once her career takes off, which allows Kapadia to imply that he was more concerned with Amy’s income streams than with her health.)
Oddly, no other facts about Winehouse’s upbringing are deemed to be relevant, including what kind of work her parents did or how they instilled her Jewish identity.
We infer that the North London family was lower middle-class, without connections or access to opportunities for their children. From the playful, self-deprecating way Winehouse refers to herself in messages left on answering machines, it appears that she associated being Jewish with being a curiosity and an outsider.
Although lyrics were important to her, there was no literary component to Winehouse’s Jewish identity. Her musical idols weren’t Jewish wordsmiths such as Bob Dylan, Laura Nyro or Paul Simon but vocalist/interpreters Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Tony Bennett. (Bennett’s collaboration in the studio with an awestruck Winehouse on “Body and Soul” for his Duets II album – reportedly her last recording – is one of the more wrenching sequences in Amy.)
The film also casts some responsibility for the 27-year-old’s premature demise on her bad-boy lover and eventual husband Blake Fielder-Civil. She followed his lead into hard drugs out of some twisted combination of love, obsession and need.
Finally, Kapadia tosses the pressures of fame and the pursuit of the paparazzi into the mix. If Amy is starting to sound like the familiar, formulaic shape of an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, your hearing is excellent.
The documentary’s big revelation – which is withheld until late in the film, giving it a sensationalist vibe – is that Winehouse was bulimic. Had Amy presented her illness as a defining (albeit secret) characteristic from childhood instead of withholding it for dramatic purposes, the documentary’s social utility would be infinitely greater.
Regrettably fulfilling the clichés of too many portraits of artists, Amy can’t resist being drawn – like the proverbial moth to a flame – to the sordidness, unhappiness and public embarrassment that denoted Winehouse’s low points.
Thankfully, what will remain long after the details of her life have faded into trivia on a Wikipedia page is that extraordinary voice. The best way to mark Amy Winehouse’s life is to listen to her music.
Amy is screening at Fifth Avenue Cinemas and Cineplex Odeon International Village. It is rated R for language and drug material. It runs 128 minutes.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Emanuel Ringelblum (left), Rachel Auerbach (third from the left) and other Jewish intellectuals in Poland, 1938. (photo from whowillwriteourhistory.com)
Many Vancouverites will remember the 2008 traveling exhibit hosted by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre called Scream the Truth at the World: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Hidden Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto. It provided an overview of Warsaw historian Ringelblum and a secret group, Oyneg Shabbes (Joy of Sabbath), who during the Holocaust worked to document and preserve material relating to their experiences. The artifacts they buried in milk cans and metal boxes – some 30,000 items – were found in the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1946.
Now, Katahdin Productions is raising funds to make a feature documentary about Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabbes archive. The film, Who Will Write Our History, is based on the book of the same name by historian Samuel Kassow.
Writers, artists, scholars, journalists, poets and diarists, more than 60 diverse people, handpicked by Ringelblum, collected and recorded as much as possible about every aspect of life in the ghetto – poems, paintings, photographs, underground newspapers, essays on hunger, smuggling, the Jewish police, clandestine schools and literary evenings and more. Their common goal was to ensure that the truth would survive even if they did not, as was the case with Ringelblum.
Only three members of Oyneg Shabbes survived the war. Among them was Rachel Auerbach, a prolific writer who would spend the rest of her life memorializing Ringelblum and Oyneg Shabbes. It is Auerbach’s writing and point of view that will provide the narration and narrative structure of the film. She will be voiced in the film by Academy Award-nominated actress Joan Allan.
In 1946, before Auerbach left Poland for Israel, she and the other two Oyneg Shabbes survivors led rescuers to the location of the first cache of the ghetto archive. The rescuers unearthed 10 metal boxes that had been buried on the eve of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. A second cache of two milk cans was discovered when Polish construction workers were building new apartment buildings on the site of the former ghetto. The third cache was never found and is believed to be buried under what is now the Chinese embassy in Warsaw.
Directed and produced by Roberta Grossman with Nancy Spielberg as executive producer, Who Will Write Our History (whowillwriteourhistory.com) will make the story accessible to millions of people around the world. Katahdin Productions’ documentaries include Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, which won the audience award at 13 film festivals, was broadcast on PBS, nominated for a Primetime Emmy and shortlisted for an Academy Award; Hava Nagila (The Movie), which was the opening or closing night film at more than half of the 80 film festivals where it screened, and was released theatrically; and Above and Beyond, about Jewish-American pilots who volunteered to fly for Israel in its War of Independence, which earned 20 audience awards and critical acclaim. (For an article on the latter, visit jewishindependent.ca/spielberg-opens-film-festival.)
The goal of the Indiegogo fundraising campaign is to raise $100,000 to fund 10 days of shooting in Warsaw in fall 2015. On average, each day of shooting costs $10,000. Some days are much less expensive; for example, shooting exteriors of streets in Warsaw involves only a small crew. Other days are quite involved. For example, shooting recreations of key events in the story with props, costumes, actors, lighting, sets, stages, etc., requires a crew of 20+ people and costs as much as $20,000 per day. If the $100,000 goal is not reached, it will mean fewer filming days in the fall; if it is exceeded, there will be more, as needed to complete production.
A screenshot from Gad Aisen’s documentary, which has its Canadian première at the Rothstein Theatre June 28.
After the Holocaust and the Second World War, the British government that controlled Mandate Palestine severely limited Jewish immigration, continuing the restrictive policies from before the war. But the Jewish underground in pre-state Israel was operating a steady movement of illegal transports bringing Jews – mostly Holocaust survivors – from Europe to the Yishuv.
In November 1946, the ship code named Rafiach set off from Yugoslavia with 785 passengers. Twelve days into the voyage, a storm forced the ship to seek refuge in a bay on the tiny Greek island of Syrna but it ran aground and, within an hour, sank. The vast majority of passengers survived, crawling from the water onto the island, which is little more than a craggy rock, or jumping from the ship before it was fully immersed. It is not known exactly how many passengers drowned.
Among those who survived and eventually made it to Palestine were Lili and Solomon Polonsky z”l. Their daughter, Tzipi Mann, lives in Vancouver. She knew that her parents and some of their friends had been on the ship, but she had never delved into details. By the time her curiosity was piqued, her parents had passed away. But her quest to uncover the story of the Rafiach and its passengers has led to a documentary film that will screen here in its Canadian première on June 28.
Code Name: Rafiach is directed by Israeli filmmaker and television personality Gad Aisen, but he credits Mann as being the driving force behind the project.
Aisen is the creator of a TV show on Israel’s Channel 10 called Making Waves, about nautical topics. He served seven years in the Israeli navy before obtaining an MFA in cinema from Tel Aviv University. He had never heard of the Rafiach before he was approached by a student of Mevo’ot Yam Nautical School, who thought it would make a good topic for Aisen’s TV show.
Code Name: Rafiach is a story about Holocaust survivors finding a place in the world and also about the Jewish underground risking their lives to smuggle Jews into Mandate Palestine. There are many narratives of this sort, Aisen acknowledged, but the Rafiach’s tragedy and the rescue make this one especially poignant.
Because it is not possible to produce a story of nearly 800 people, the filmmaker decided to focus on a few individuals. One is Shlomo Reichman. Known to the circle of people around the film as “Shlomo the baby,” Reichman, now a grandfather, was thrown to safety from the ship.
“This man’s story was particularly touching because he was a newborn,” Mann said in a telephone interview. “He was three weeks old and he was tossed onto the rocks, but he wasn’t sure who tossed him. Was it his father, or was it someone else? For Shlomo, this has been sort of the core of his existence – who tossed me onto the rocks?”
The fact that the passengers were Holocaust survivors magnifies the impact of the incident, Mann said.
“If you can imagine Holocaust survivors having to deal with this,” she said. “There were so many personal, emotional issues attached to everything.”
In interviews, Mann and Aisen learned that adults who first made it to shore from the listing ship lay on the rocks to create a softer landing for those coming after.
For Mann, the Rafiach became a sort of obsession.
“In 2010, just one morning I thought, I need to find out more about this,” she said. “My intention was originally to try to write a book and I thought the only way I can do this is by being in Israel.”
She made arrangements to head for Jerusalem and enlisted the help of her cousin, Sara Karpanos, who lives there. They put an ad in an Israeli newspaper and the response was so overwhelming the pair had to rent a hotel space for a reunion of 200 Rafiach survivors and, in some cases, their children and grandchildren.
Unbeknownst to the two women, Aisen was already on the story. After being turned on to the history of the ship, Aisen had connected with an instructor at Israel’s naval high school who had led his students on a dive and recovered a couple of artifacts from the hulk of the Rafiach.
From what had seemed like lost history, Mann saw the story of the Rafiach begin to reveal itself. “A complete mystery was unraveling in front of me,” she said.
For Aisen, the story of the Rafiach “captured my heart, and I feel particularly connected to this story from many aspects, as a sailor, an Israeli and Jewish.”
To tell the history of the Rafiach in a documentary, he decided to use animation, which allowed him to be more creative than merely showing interviews with survivors.
“It enabled me to present the film in the present tense and not as a memory from the past,” he said. “It took me about six years to create the film, five journeys abroad, months in the archives, 300 hours of footage and a year’s work of three animators. But one of the more challenging things was to get to the wreck of the Rafiach and to dive and film inside.”
In a way, Aisen said, making the film let him vicariously live the life of an underground commander of an immigrant ship.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Centre presents Code Name: Rafiach on June 28, 7 p.m., at the Rothstein Theatre. Tickets are $10 and available at vjff.org.
Left to right, Susan Skemp, Ken Charko and James E. Taylor are making a movie about Dunbar Theatre’s history. (photo by 5U54N & J4M35 Productions)
To celebrate Dunbar Theatre’s 80th anniversary, the theatre is making a short film about its history to enter into film festivals around the world and for film and music awards in Canada. One of the goals is to raise awareness of the theatre, one of the few independent theatres still around.
“Our short film will showcase all eight decades the theatre has been playing movies for the Dunbar community. With the use of old movie clips, newsreels, actors, models, music and their resident ghost, Delores, we intend on making a very entertaining film,” said Susan Skemp (producer, writer and songwriter) in an email to the Independent.
The production team includes Skemp, Ken Charko (executive producer and owner of the Dunbar Theatre) and James E. Taylor (director, writer, editor). One of the many participants in putting together the film is Jewish community member Adam Abrams, who will voice one of the newsreels.
“I came up with the idea to make the film last December when Ken Charko and I were discussing what to do to celebrate the theatre’s 80th,” Skemp explained. She said she suggested making a movie about a movie theatre and Charko liked the idea; then Taylor joined the production team as director.
“We have assembled a wonderful group of people and I have likened us to Orson Welles and his Mercury Players group,” said Skemp.
“My idea for the script really came from the theatre and the people from the community who have passed through its doors and the films that have played on the screen. Even though the film is a history of the theatre, our goal is to make it as entertaining as possible,” she stressed. “The fact that the theatre has a ghost helps.”
The crowdfunding goal to bring the film to fruition is $20,000. Contributions to the fundraiser at fundrazr.com/campaigns/fxGG2 come with different perks for each donation level: from a DVD and an invitation to a red-carpet screening ($25), to those items plus two tickets to any film at the Dunbar ($100), to a film credit as an associate producer ($500), to listing as a producer ($2,500).
Eran Riklis, director of Dancing Arabs. (photo from Mongrel Media)
Dancing Arabs, which was part of the most recent Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, has its general release on May 15. A multilayered coming-of-age story, the screenplay is by Sayed Kashua, who wrote the novels on which it is based, and it is directed by Eran Riklis.
While called Dancing Arabs, the film is a combination of Dancing Arabs and Second Person Singular, two novels with very different tones.
“I read a first draft that Sayed wrote before I joined the project and it was much more Dancing Arabs and it was much more kind of a comedy,” Riklis told the Independent in a phone interview. But that changed. The first part of the movie, “which was almost pure Italian comedy,” became a way to draw in the audience, “maybe taking away any preconceptions or resistance that an audience might have when it comes to see a film, where it has all the opinions in the world about the Arabs, and this and that.”
Riklis wanted the audience “to fall in love with the character and then, when the film changes its tone and it gradually becomes more and more dramatic … you can’t walk away because you love this character and you want to root for him, you want to join him on his journey.”
With the novel Dancing Arabs being autobiographical, Riklis said he had to remind Kashua that the film was a different entity. It was about Eyad, “and even though there are reflections of reality, the grandmother and the father, whatever it is, it still is a new life, which is true of almost any film that deals with a real story at least partly.”
The challenge was “to do something which is at once meaningful and yet communicative, and striving to reach a wider audience. For me,” said Riklis, “all my films, or most of my films, deal with, let’s say, not easy issues, but I always try to … remember that this has to be a good story.”
Reaction to his films has varied. “If you look at The Syrian Bride, for instance, it had a very warm reception everywhere, both in Israel and worldwide. Lemon Tree was very tough in Israel because it was a little bit too close to home, and then really about sensitive issues, and yet it was probably my biggest success worldwide.” The response everywhere to Dancing Arabs has been “very emotional,” he said, which makes him happy because it means people “understand that this film comes from a place of respect and love and honoring the subject, as complicated as it is, but nobody’s trying to manipulate you here. There is a manipulation in the sense of filmmaking because that’s what filmmaking is about, but I think, emotionally speaking and intellectually speaking, this is a democratic film: it’s like, here are the facts, here’s the situation, here’s a story, here’s the person … and you judge for yourself.”
“… here we’re talking … about a minority that is 20 percent of the country. That’s 1.6 million people…. This is a major thing and, not only that, they’re not in Afghanistan, they’re living right in the middle of the country, next to us, amongst us, with us, and yet they’re invisible.”
When asked what sets Dancing Arabs apart from his other films about the region, Riklis said, they “have dealt with either the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the regional conflicts or the Druze conflict, whatever, but here we’re talking … about a minority that is 20 percent of the country. That’s 1.6 million people. It’s not like you have some people living on the hillside with two camels. This is a major thing and, not only that, they’re not in Afghanistan, they’re living right in the middle of the country, next to us, amongst us, with us, and yet they’re invisible.”
The novels’ treatment of an internal conflict within Israel “was something that I felt was close to home,” said Riklis. “It’s important enough, and it’s getting more important by the minute. I can see what has happened between the time I shot the film and now. The internal tensions and the growing gap within Israeli society, both within the Jewish one and between the Jews and Arabs inside the country, I felt it’s time to shed a light.”
Riklis and Kashua worked on the script for about a year, on and off, not only because of the material but because they were both busy. Kashua was not involved in the filming process.
“In a strange way, even though it was not an easy film to make on many levels, when I look at it now, I feel it was one of my easiest films,” said Riklis. “That’s because, emotionally, I was so much into it. People ask me, how can you create an Arab family? Well, first of all, I had Sayed writing, so it comes from a very authentic place, but also, once you step in, you say, well, this grandmother is my grandmother, this father could be my father. It’s very easy for me … well, not easy, but, I go back to using respect and knowledge and making sure you get your facts right, at least emotionally, then it’s not so difficult for me because when I watch people, when I look at people, I don’t see color and race, not even age, I don’t really care.”
As with many books, much of the action in Kashua’s novels takes place in the protagonist’s mind. “I think the answer is simplicity,” said Riklis about transforming that style of writing to the screen. “It’s almost like just tell the story, just go with your characters, put them in interesting situations, make sure that every situation is a step forward.
“At the end of the day, I think a director, and almost everybody, is a slave to the story in terms of making sure the story keeps being interesting, keeps being reflective, keeps moving forward.”
“One thing I’ve discovered – but it’s me and another million directors, I think, or at least the good directors have realized – that every inch on the screen is significant. You can sometimes convey 10 pages of text by the color of a shirt. There are so many elements that you put together and I’m really careful with that in terms of what a person is wearing … what’s his environment and what other people are doing and what he’s looking at. And then you have the camera, the kind of lens that you choose and the lighting. There are so many elements that support you but also mean that you have to take responsibility and make sure that they really serve the story. At the end of the day, I think a director, and almost everybody, is a slave to the story in terms of making sure the story keeps being interesting, keeps being reflective, keeps moving forward.”
Music plays a big role in both books, and also in the film.
“It’s funny,” said Riklis, “because there were a lot of things in the script where it was like, ‘Naomi [Eyad’s Jewish girlfriend] and Eyad go to a concert in a club in Jerusalem,’ and we didn’t dig into it…. Then I found myself Googling myself to death to find what was popular in the late ’80s in Israel.” He came upon a song from a controversial rock opera, with explicit lyrics about rape and the Palestinians, and it became “a totally different scene. Suddenly, it’s emotional, and suddenly Naomi’s not feeling comfortable and Eyad is not feeling comfortable, and it has its own message and it’s brutal, and yet it’s not.
“Same thing went with, for instance, Joy Division, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart,’ which came from me.” Riklis had seen Control, a film about the British band. He said, “Ian Curtis, the lead singer, was epileptic and used to collapse on stage and at some point couldn’t take it anymore and committed suicide at a very young age – I felt, wow, this is the song for Yonatan, this is exactly a reflection of Yonatan’s life.” A peer who Eyad helps with his schoolwork and eventually befriends, Yonatan has muscular dystrophy.
There were other sound choices, as well. For example, where the script says Naomi and Eyad go to a movie, “I realized that following the scene where Eyad carries Yonatan to the bathroom, which is a very emotional scene, and he carries him almost like it’s a very Christian or Jewish image … my next cut I knew was Naomi and Eyad at the cinema and I didn’t want to see a clip from a movie, I wanted to listen to it. Then I said, OK, what’s appropriate here?… I thought about Wings of Desire, the Wim Wenders film, which in Hebrew is called Angels of Berlin. I said, what we need now, what Yonatan needs now, maybe Eyad as well, is an angel to protect him and to maybe keep him alive. And so I said, maybe it would be beautiful if they [are] listen[ing] to this monologue from the film, the beautiful voice of Bruno Ganz. Even though it’s in German, it’s just purely emotional.
“That’s the way I work,” said Riklis. Whether it’s the music, films “or even the news clips that you see in the movie, they always give you another layer. For example, Eyad comes to Edna’s and Yonatan’s house for the first time and he’s left alone in the living room. On television, there’s a report about a suicide terrorist who drove a bus into a ravine and dozens were killed.… The reality outside is on TV and yet he goes to the window and he watches and he hears the Arab prayers coming from the Old City. It’s almost like he’s looking at his own [life], like his older life is calling him back. And yet, he’s in this fancy apartment in west Jerusalem.”
Riklis admitted, “It’s interesting, I think, when people see the film for the second time – they discover so many things they haven’t seen the first time.”
Ruth Hoffman with baseball player Arthur Lusala, left, who today studies developmental economics at university, and coach George Mukhobe. (photo from Ruth Hoffman)
Vancouver baseball teens and their parents piled into the Rothstein Theatre on Sunday, April 19, for Opposite Field, a documentary by Jay Shapiro about a Ugandan Little League baseball team and its struggle to compete on the international stage.
The story caught Shapiro’s eye several years ago when he learned about an American businessman, Richard Stanley, who was sponsoring Uganda’s first baseball field and creating a Little League team. It was comprised of tenacious youngsters, many from poverty-stricken homes and unable to afford the most basic baseball gear. But the Ugandan team proved you don’t need fancy equipment to be a winner. What they lacked in material possessions they more than made up for in determination and skill, eventually traveling to Poland in 2011 to play in the regional championships. There, they earned the right to compete in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Penn., where they would have been the first African team in history to participate.
Bureaucratic red tape forced the cancelation of their trip, when visas to the United States were declined due to insufficient documentation. One player in Opposite Field explained that unlike most families in North America, who possess and protect important documents like their children’s birth certificates, in Uganda this is close to impossible. Birthing clinics fail to record information and families struggling to feed their children have other priorities than obtaining and keeping the documents.
Enter Ruth Hoffman, a Vancouver accountant who heard about the plight of the Uganda Little League team in August 2011, not long after their visas were declined. A specialist in microfinance who has worked in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Hoffman is a mother of three and well acquainted with baseball.
“My twin boys competed in Poland and their team made it to the World Series in 2006, something that became the highlight of their youth,” she recalled. Her sons’ trip had almost been canceled, too, as they were trying to fly to the United States at precisely the same time as the shoe bomber’s failed attack was discovered, stopping most international flights. Hoffman recalled hovering at the airport among the reporters, waiting desperately to get onto a flight. Determined as they come, she told her boys’ story to a reporter – that they were scheduled to play but couldn’t get a flight out to their destination. It quickly garnered media coverage with surprisingly positive results. “British Airways put the boys and their team on the first flight [possible],” she said.
With this experience in mind, if there was anyone could change the plight of the Uganda Little League team, it was Hoffman. First, she called the mayor of Langley, B.C., as the team had been scheduled to compete at the World Series against the Langley Little League team. She suggested they bring the Uganda team to British Columbia to play Langley. After further discussions with Uganda coach George Mukhobe, it was decided that the Langley team would visit Uganda, instead.
Shapiro and his cameras were there for the January 2012 trip, as were three members of Major League Baseball, Jimmy Rollins, Gregg Zaun and Derrek Lee, who felt compelled to join the unique journey. Hoffman partnered with a humanitarian organization, Right to Play, which encouraged her to leave a legacy for what became known as the Pearl of Africa series. Together they raised $155,000 for this trip, funds used towards education of the Uganda team players, equipment, improvement and construction of baseball fields and a player transportation fund.
It might have ended there but that was just the beginning for Hoffman. In Part 2 of the Pearl of Africa project, she raised another $40,000 for the Uganda team, funds that helped train Uganda softball and baseball coaches. Her goal for Part 3 is to raise another $20,000 for the Uganda Baseball and Softball Association.
Opposite Field tells some of this story, focusing mostly on the time leading up to the Langley team’s visit. Filmmaker Shapiro humanizes the team by focusing on individual members, their personal struggles and their motivations and goals. In the process, he takes viewers deep into Uganda, revealing a level of poverty unrivaled in North America. It’s a beautiful story with a happy, or happier, ending, one that’s still in the making.
View an excerpt online at opposite-field.com or look out for the entire documentary, whose Canadian rights have been purchased by CBC, on television.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.