Bron Studios has won multiple awards for its work. (bronstudios.com screenshot)
Aaron L. Gilbert had every reason to be smiling broadly at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The Burnaby-based producer had three film screenings: Welcome to Me (starring Kristen Wiig and Tim Robbins); Kill Me Three Times (starring Simon Pegg) and Miss Julie (starring Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell).
“This is one of the top three most prestigious film festivals in the world, rivaling Cannes in terms of its importance to our industry,” Gilbert said. “Having three there was pretty exciting. It’s tough to get in, it’s an honor to be there and it’s a wonderful launching ground to create awareness of your film.”
As a result of the TIFF screenings, all three of Gilbert’s films are closing deals with American distributors. Welcome to Me (which also screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival to rave reviews) will be released in March, and the other two are also likely to be on the big screen in the United States and Canada over the next year, he said.
The 42-year-old from London, Ont., was studying at McMaster University when he had an opportunity to work in the music industry in 1993. That changed his life track, and Gilbert found himself moving between Vancouver and Los Angeles doing music management, managing artists and handling the international licensing of music. He credits his passion for the arts to his parents, Gloria and Joseph Gilbert.
“We’ve always been a family where the arts was important,” he reflected. “My parents introduced me and my siblings to theatre and music and gave us an opportunity to see and do a lot of things. Today, my brother and sister are also active in theatre and arts, and our love for it comes from the introduction our parents gave us as kids.”
Today, Gilbert is managing director of Bron Studios in Burnaby, which he co-founded with his wife Brenda in 2010, and where he wears many different hats. “Financially, I’m involved in putting the different pieces together for our films and with production partners, but I’m also very involved in all creative elements, such as finding a script, working on it and developing it, and selecting editors, directors of photography, talent agents, managers, casting directors and marketing people,” he explained.
Bron Studios specializes in live action and animation, and the tremendous talent pool in Vancouver’s animation industry makes this an excellent place to be, he said. “There’s a very mature film and TV industry here, and tremendous incentives for tax and government support for the animation industry in Vancouver, but it’s also about quality of life. I love the proximity to L.A. that Vancouver gives me and I often fly into L.A. for the day. This is as close to L.A. as I want to be!”
In the last few years, Gilbert has worked with Olivia Wilde, Will Ferrell, Helen Hunt, Jennifer Hudson and Julianne Moore, among many other Hollywood actors. “I’ve met such incredible, talented people, and to watch them perform just blows my mind,” he admitted. “I’m often astonished by how down-to-earth the actors are and, in many cases, we become friends. Will Ferrell, for example, is an incredible guy in addition to being crazy talented.”
Gilbert is actively working on several projects, one of them based on an original play about the inner workings of a Jewish family. Being Jewish certainly influences his decisions and the kinds of material he’s attracted to, he said. “My parents have always been so active in the Jewish community and that’s part of who I am and how I live my life, overall. I’m not in synagogue every Saturday, but I’m Jewish and culturally aware, and I know my roots. I’m definitely attracted to real-life stories about how Jews live in our existing world.”
Gilbert is also particularly attracted to films containing serious thematic material. “A lot of films I’ve done cover difficult subject matters in ways that can be accepted by wider audiences,” he explained. Welcome to Me, for example, is about a woman who is bipolar, while Decoding Annie Parker (2013) deals with breast cancer and heredity. “We want to approach difficult subject matters in a way that can be entertaining, but never preachy, to our audiences.”
Recently, he partnered with Niv Fichman of Rhombus Media on the psychological drama Into the Forest, from Canadian writer/director Patricia Rozema. And, in October, he was in Shreveport, La., working on I Saw the Light, a Hank Williams biopic, in partnership with Brett Ratner.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net. This article was originally published on cjnews.com.
The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) has launched Short Film, Large Subject: The Holocaust Film Competition. This is the organization’s first film contest, and it is open to entrants from around the world.
Recognizing the potential of movies to reach large numbers of people and to spark powerful discussions among audiences, the Claims Conference is putting out a call for talented, rising filmmakers to submit screenplays or treatments for short films about the Holocaust.
Short Film, Large Subject: The Holocaust Film Competition invites directors either currently enrolled in a graduate film program at an accredited university or who have successfully completed such a program no earlier than Jan. 1, 2012, to submit a screenplay or documentary treatment for a short film about the Holocaust (the systematic persecution and murder of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945) and/or the experiences of Jewish Holocaust victims. While the film can tell a fictional story, information relating to the Holocaust must be historically accurate.
The entry deadline is March 15, 2015. After being judged by a panel of Holocaust scholars and film industry professionals, selected entrants will proceed to the finalist round. The winner will receive a prize of $40,000 toward the production of a 20-minute short film about the Holocaust and/or survivors.
In the tradition of films such as Sophie’s Choice, Shoah, Schindler’s List and The Pianist, the Claims Conference, by launching this competition, aims to encourage a new generation of directors to tackle the Holocaust as a subject matter in their work and to use their creativity and skills to portray new perspectives and observations about a dark era in human history.
”We believe that this competition will engage up-and-coming filmmakers in the difficult but important topic of the Holocaust. Films about the Holocaust have great potential to educate and raise awareness at a time when fewer and fewer eyewitnesses are with us. By taking on this subject, filmmakers will not only expand their own horizons, but help preserve a piece of history that must never be forgotten,” said Julius Berman, Claims Conference president.
Separate from the competition, the Claims Conference distributes grants for selected projects and programs of Holocaust education, documentation and research. Among recent grantee films is the theatrical release of No Place on Earth. This work raises public awareness about the Holocaust and preserves the evidence of it; the funding of these projects will be even more critical when the eyewitnesses are gone. For more information, see claimscon.org/red.
In her film The German Doctor, Lucia Puenzo tries to capture Josef Mengele’s “very sociopathic, complex personality.” (photo from Vancouver Jewish Film Festival)
As a high school student in the 1990s, Lucia Puenzo was fascinated and mystified by an open secret: hundreds of Nazi war criminals found refuge in her native Argentina.
“I was intrigued that so many families knew what was going on because they had a German man on their block or somewhere in their neighborhood,” recalled the acclaimed novelist and filmmaker. “Maybe they didn’t know so much in the ’60s and ’70s but, by the ’80s or ’90s, everybody knew. How could they not open their mouths and say what happened? It had a lot of echoes of our military coup d’etat, where so many Argentine families didn’t speak out.”
In her 2011 novel Wakolda, Puenzo explored the devious machinations of a German doctor in the Patagonian town of Bariloche circa 1960 who befriends a young girl. The erstwhile physician injects her with growth hormones before turning his attention to her pregnant mother, distracting the suspicious father with a plan to mass-market his handmade dolls.
Puenzo adapted the novel for the screen, shifting the point of view from the doctor to the child. The German Doctor, which swept Argentina’s major film awards and was the country’s official submission for last year’s Oscar for best foreign language film, is a creepy, precisely crafted thriller made more unsettling by its restraint. It screens Nov. 12 in the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival.
At 37, Puenzo has already published five widely translated novels and directed three singular films, including XXY, her prize-winning tale of an intersex teenager. Smart and fearless, she is attracted to subjects that others find off-limits or taboo – like the Nazi presence in Argentina.
“For me, the big mystery has always been why this subject, that could be a hundred films and a hundred novels, has never been taken to film before,” she explained in a long-distance phone interview. “We have maybe a few excellent documentaries on the subject but not one fiction film, and maybe we have five or six novels, and that’s all speaking about the subject.”
The German Doctor did solid box office in Argentina, which Puenzo sees as confirmation of pent-up interest. The film has been released in dozens of countries, including several European nations.
The film succinctly illustrates how a cautious physician who adults would view with suspicion, let’s call him Josef Mengele, could win a child’s trust.
“In the camps, there were so many horrible testimonies of how kids would call him Uncle Mengele. He would have sweets to give to the children and then he would take them to his experiments,” Puenzo said.
The German Doctor captures that deviousness and single-mindedness, while persuasively depicting the polite veneer Mengele devised to mask his lunacy and deceive people.
“After the war, after the concentration camps, he disguised himself as this very civilized, seductive, enchanting man that lived for decades in three countries of Latin America without anybody suspecting who he was,” Puenzo said. “I think that’s how you have to portray this very sociopathic, complex personality who disguised himself. He was not the stereotype of the bad guy whom you could see coming.”
Puenzo comes across as earnest and serious but, befitting someone with a master’s degree in literature and critical theory, she recognizes the relationship between pop culture and popular perceptions of history.
“I remember films like The Boys of Brazil,” she said. “I loved it in a way, it’s such a strange film, but at the same time it’s a stereotype of Mengele. I think to honor these most horrific monsters, you really have to show them in all their complexity. They were much more dangerous than we think.”
The German Doctor is in Spanish and German with English subtitles; it is rated PG-13 for thematic material and brief nudity. For the full schedule of this year’s VJFF, which started Nov. 6, visit vjff.org.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Julie Cohen’s The Sturgeon Queens is informative and delightful.
From the fraught origins of the state of Israel to what a possible peaceful future for Israel might look like, this year’s Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, which runs Nov. 6-13 at Fifth Avenue Cinemas, should inspire even the most cynical. Documentary or narrative feature, there seems to be an underlying theme of hope. And who couldn’t use more of that. Here are reviews of a handful of films that the Jewish Independent was able to preview.
Dove’s Cry (Israel) follows Hadeel, a 27-year-old Arab Israeli teacher, over the course of a school year as she teaches Arabic and Arab culture to a group of students at a Jewish Israeli primary school near Tel Aviv.
The film begins with a school-wide celebration of Rosh Hashanah. Hadeel is cheerful, energetic and inspired. Her personality is electric and she connects easily with her students. The children vie for her to call on them in class, they are excited to be learning. Her Jewish co-workers seem to respect and admire her.
About a third of the way through the documentary though, a tearful Hadeel tries to process the racist outburst of one of her students, who calls her a “stinking Arab” after a disciplinary incident. Speaking to her family, Hadeel admits that this is the first time she’s experienced such overt racism in five years of teaching. Her shock and disappointment are palpable.
More significant, perhaps, are the casual, daily prejudices that Hadeel experiences, most often from her co-workers, the school’s administration and parents. And, however open the children, they know very little about Arabic, Islam, Christianity or Arab culture, and freely express their apprehension about Arabs, Arab neighborhoods and their fears around terrorism. Hadeel is patient, authoritative, good-humored and kind throughout. During a drill, a teacher asks Hadeel if she has a bomb shelter in her community; Hadeel reminds her that, of course, she does, that she is an Israeli, and faces the same physical threats.
There are stark reminders everywhere that Hadeel is creating a bubble of tolerance in her classroom and, perhaps, at the school, but not beyond that. “In the classroom, I teach one thing and, at home, they teach the opposite,” Hadeel laments. One of the central relationships in the film is with the principal, who reminds Hadeel of the limits of her program and often sides with the parents.
By the time Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut arrive, Hadeel expresses how torn she is about her position in the school and, by extension, in Israeli society. “Suddenly, I feel like I don’t belong to the place where I was born,” she explains.
Ganit Ilouz’s documentary is a sobering look at the strictures and complexities faced by Israel’s minority citizens. It is a potent reminder at how much better Israelis would be served if all citizens were conversant in Hebrew and Arabic and knew some basic facts about each other’s culture and customs. It’s something Jewish Diaspora communities should consider, as well. Hadeel’s name means “dove’s cry,” a fitting name for a woman tireless and steadfast in her pursuit of a better Israel.
At the centre of Hanna’s Journey (Germany/Israel) is Hanna, a smart, driven woman. We first meet her in a waiting room with several other candidates for a job. As one exits her interview, obviously disappointed, Hanna follows her into the bathroom to find out what type of employee the company is seeking. When she finds out that grades alone won’t be enough, that the company wants someone who’s also dug wells in Africa or is an “eco-freak,” she lets down her hair, removes her lipstick and earrings, and undoes the top button of her blouse. When one of the interviewers notes, “this resumé doesn’t wow me with its diversity,” Hanna lies to them, saying that she only just received her acceptance to go work in Israel with people who have mental disabilities. If she provides them with proof, she has a great chance at getting the job.
Problem: Hanna’s mother, who runs a social-service nonprofit that sends young Germans to Israel, won’t fake the letter. Solution: Hanna actually goes to Israel, both to work at a village for those with mental disabilities, and also to spend time with a Holocaust survivor.
“In Hanna’s Journey, I’m attending the question [of the] impact the Holocaust has for Israelis and Germans of the third generation, how the shared past is affecting our lives up to today and inseparably connects us,” writes Julia von Heinz in her director’s statement. “The mixture of fascination and disgust which forms the German-Israeli relations, the neurotic, gets symbolized by my film’s complicated love story.”
In the film, Hanna leaves behind her businessman boyfriend Alex. Their relationship seems solid. Certainly no one in the nonprofit’s house where Hanna is billeted will threaten it, as Carsten is gay and Maja is not only unfriendly, but a full-on antisemite. However, Itay, the social worker at the village is another story. The antithesis of Alex, he is not so fond of Germans, at least at first.
During her time in Israel, Hanna discovers much about herself and her family, in particular, her mother, with whom she doesn’t get along. It turns out that the survivor who Hanna visits knew her mother.
Billed as a romantic comedy, Hanna’s Journey is more contemplative than funny and even the romance part is questionable. It’s really a drama, touching on many important topics and allowing various complexities to remain unresolved. The acting is strong, the script is compelling, and it’s a movie that should be taken seriously.
Even if you’ve read Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built by Mark Russ Federman (click here for the review in the JI), Julie Cohen’s The Sturgeon Queens (United States) is informative and delightful. For whatever reason, the story of Russ & Daughters never fails to captivate.
Joel Russ came to New York from Germany in 1907. He joined his older sister and started working right away to contribute to the family income. He married Bella in 1908 and, in 1913, the first of their three daughters – Hattie, Anne and Ida – was born. In 1914, he opened his first store, on Orchard Street. In 1920, he moved it to Houston Street and there it has remained, joined in 2014 by a new family restaurant, Russ & Daughters Café, located on, appropriately enough, Orchard Street.
Cohen’s documentary came out during the store’s centennial year and it features interviews with the two surviving “sturgeon queens,” Hattie Russ Gold, then 100, and her sister Anne Russ Federman, then 92. Mark Russ Federman, who ran the store from the 1970s until 2008, and his daughter Niki Russ Federman and nephew Josh Russ Tupper, who now run the store, are interviewed, and longtime employee Herman Vargas is also featured.
Other interviewees include Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Morley Safer and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as well as chef Mario Batali, as an example of how the customer base has expanded beyond the Jewish community, and writer Calvin Trillin, who’s written stories inspired by Russ & Daughters and wrote the foreword to the book Russ & Daughters. Narration is provided by a table-full of longtime (from one since 1929 to one since 1976) customers, with other historical and family and business information provided by the family interviewees. The use of animation, music, archival photos and film clips all add to the quality of the documentary and the credits are especially cute: they indicate when the film’s major makers’ families each came to America from a wide range of places around the world.
The Jewish Cardinal (France) by Ilan Duran Cohen is based on the true story of Jean-Marie Lustiger, born Aaron Lustiger, a Polish Jew who converted to Catholicism at age 14, during the Holocaust. When we meet him in 1979, he is a vicar in Paris who is being promoted to bishop of the city of Orléans – the location of his conversion and where he was hidden during the war.
A temperamental and intense man, Lustiger causes a stir when he tells a reporter that he remains a Jew, he is Jewish and Christian, “like Jesus,” he says defiantly. He is “convinced that God has willed” his nomination. “I am a provocation that compels reflection on Christ,” he says, without a hint of irony.
The more we learn about Lustiger, played by a magnificent Laurent Lucas, the better we understand his fervor to reconcile his identities and make peace with his few remaining family members, including his father.
Lustiger has advocates in the Church, but also detractors. Though Pope John Paul II is a robust supporter and promotes Lustiger to archbishop of Paris and then, finally, to cardinal and trusted papal advisor, there remains a tension between the two men. (There are several wonderful scenes of Lustiger’s audiences with the Pope, who is deftly – at times, sinisterly – played by Aurélien Recoing.) Lustiger’s relations with the Jewish community are strained and we see Lustiger harassed by antisemites who accuse him of defiling the Church.
After a group of Polish Carmelite nuns establishes a convent at Auschwitz (not incidentally the site of Lustiger’s mother’s murder), he is asked by the Jewish community and the Pope to negotiate a solution. Many viewers above age 35 will remember the convent and the turmoil it caused for nearly a decade until it was removed in 1993. The film captures the politics and nuances of the incident with terrific results.
Throughout, we sense Lustiger’s confusion over how to balance on the edge of Jewish-Catholic relations, once he loses some of his hubris, that is. On a visit to Auschwitz, he can neither say the Lord’s Prayer nor Kaddish for his mother; when his father passes away, he’s distraught, unable to fulfil his promise to say Kaddish.
Lustiger died in 2007 of lung and bone cancer. Kaddish was recited at his funeral outside the entrance to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
For the dreamers of the world, there is Under the Same Sun (United States/Israel/Palestine), written by Yossi Aviram and directed by Sameh Zoabi. The film starts in a mockumentary style, with all hell breaking loose. The media has discovered that Israeli Shaul Cohen and Palestinian Nizar Ahmad are cooperating in a joint business venture to bring solar energy to West Bank villages, and all the talking heads have their opinions about it.
The film then jumps back a year to a meeting in Marseilles, where Shaul approaches Nizar about the project. From this point to near the end, it’s a regular movie, progressing linearly through time, from the project’s genesis, the difficult search for investors, the effects of the venture on their respective families. Skepticism, anger and obstacles must be overcome. We learn more about each man as each confronts their own prejudices and fears. And all looks lost until Nizar comes up with the idea of using a Facebook campaign to create a groundswell of public opinion that will force political leaders to make peace – and, hence, let their energy project proceed. If only social media were so powerful.
Under the Same Sun is crazily optimistic. With solid acting all round, good pacing (helped by Hilal Zaher’s score) and well-written dialogue, it is a thoroughly enjoyable way to conclude a film festival.
For showtimes and the full festival schedule, visit vjff.org.
Roberta Grossman (director), left, and Nancy Spielberg (producer) on the Duxford set of Above and Beyond. (photo from playmountproductions.com)
On Nov. 6, the 26th annual Vancouver Jewish Film Festival begins with the Canadian première of Above and Beyond, about a mainly American group of pilots, veterans of the Second World War, who fought for Israel in 1948. As part of Machal (foreign volunteers), “this ragtag band of brothers not only turned the tide of the war, preventing the possible annihilation of Israel at the very moment of its birth, they also laid the groundwork for the Israeli Air Force.”
Directed by Roberta Grossman, the 96-minute documentary was produced by Nancy Spielberg, who will be in Vancouver for the screening. Spielberg took the time to speak with the Independent via email in anticipation of her visit.
JI: What was it about the Machalniks’ experiences, in particular those of the air force pilots, that you found so compelling that you not only wanted to make a documentary but are following up Above and Beyond with a feature film version?
NS: First of all, we focused on pilots because, frankly, pilots are a lot sexier than infantry! There’s a romantic, tough, swagger, daring, live-on-the-edge, sweep-you-off-your-feet personality that felt bigger than life. I was so curious why these WWII pilots survived their tour of duty for the good ol’ US of A and then turned around and risked their lives for another country, and I was surprised that most of them were not at all Zionistic.
What drives a person to risk everything to save another person in need? Would I do that? Would you? Do we still do that as Americans? Is it part of that generation? Is it part of the American psyche? I was intrigued by their motivation and then I was swept off my feet by their charm and their chutzpah! The “adventures” that took place along the way and during their time in Israel make for great storytelling.
JI: What will a feature film be able to communicate that the documentary could not, or did not?
NS: I do hope that a feature film (dramatization) will communicate the same messages that we hope the doc does – how far does one go to help a brother in need? With a dramatization, we have more freedom to embellish the pilots’ stories and capers that we may have had to reduce in the doc or discard altogether. There are so many details and wild antics that could not be included in the doc but we’d love to explore in the dramatization.
JI: Near the end of Above and Beyond, you ask Coleman Goldstein whether he thought Israel would survive in tough times. What prompted the question and what was your reaction to his response, that, yes, it would survive, as “Israel’s an article of faith”? What is your answer to the question, and is it different now than it would have been when you asked it, given the most recent Israel-Hamas conflict (and the antisemitism it exposed) and as the U.S.-led fight against IS continues?
NS: We asked every pilot we interviewed whether he thought Israel had a fighting chance, or whether he thought he might not make it out alive. George Lichter said, “I thought we would lose….” We were surprised at Coleman’s answer because he was a very pragmatic, matter-of-fact gentleman, and he responded from his heart, as many of the pilots we interviewed did. Maybe they’ve become “softies” in their golden years, but there was a lot of emotion in our interviews.
My personal answer is that I am a spiritual person, and I agree with Coleman and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who, in 1956, said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.” I need to hold on to that thought and belief in spite of the latest Israel-Hamas war and the antisemitism that has, once again, reared its ugly head.
JI: How does Israel and Judaism or Jewish culture fit into your life, and what would you tell North American Jewish youth today who, if polling is any indication, aren’t as connected to the Jewish state or Jewish practice as previous generations?
NS: I grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., where our family was the only Jewish family in the neighborhood (who didn’t always take too kindly to us). We were three-times-a-year Jews – Pesach, Yom Kippur and Chanukah. Outside of that, we were gastronomical Jews with a love for Yiddish and Russian melodies.
When I was in fifth grade, I started to go to a Jewish day school, which prompted me to come home and tell my mom that we needed to start keeping kosher so that I could have school friends over for play dates. Slowly, we evolved into kosher and Sabbath observance. When I was 19, I decided to leave UCLA and spend time on a kibbutz in Israel with my sister. That was it! I fell head over heels. I found a home that I didn’t know I was even missing. From that time on, I’ve been involved in Israel, Judaism and Jewish culture. My children went to Jewish schools and Jewish camps. In fact, my 26-year-old, Jessy Katz, has been living in Israel for two years. When I say to her, “I miss you, come home!” She says, “I am home.”
One of my main motivations in making this film is to reach out to the North American Jewish youth who feel very disconnected in the hopes that this film will be a much-needed shot in the arm of Jewish pride. I’m hoping that they will find a connection and take a fresh look at Israel and how it plays an integral part in being a Jew.
Above and Beyond screens at Fifth Avenue Cinemas on Nov. 6, 7 p.m. For more information about the film, visit playmountproductions.com. For the full schedule and tickets for this year’s Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, which runs Nov. 6-13, visit vjff.org.
Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith in Israel Horovitz’s My Old Lady. (photo from Cohen Media Group)
Arobust 75, the award-winning playwright, theatre director and screenwriter Israel Horovitz isn’t in the market for a new career. Too bad, for his moving debut as a filmmaker, My Old Lady, is a rewarding, beautifully acted story of adults overcoming loneliness and bitterness.
“[The late, great Jewish director] Sidney Lumet once said to me about directing, ‘Get the best actors you can on the face of the earth and then get out of their way,’” Horovitz said. “And that was, in a sense, a directing style for me.”
Adapted by Horovitz from his stage play, My Old Lady begins with a rather unlikable New York Jew named Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) primed to claim the Paris apartment left him by his perpetually despised and recently deceased father. Mathias thinks his luck has finally turned, and that he’s landed on Easy Street after a lifelong stretch of failed marriages and unpublished novels.
Alas, the apartment is a viager, which means the elderly Englishwoman (Maggie Smith) residing there with her unmarried daughter (the always-great Kristin Scott Thomas) retains tenancy until her death. Mathias’ actual inheritance, in the meantime, is the monthly payment contractually owed to the old lady. You don’t need to imagine his frustration and anger, for Mathias makes no effort to hide it.
My Old Lady, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last month and is in wide release this month, spills many poignant secrets that expose the characters’ long-concealed connection, and the scars from the past that they still bear. It makes for powerful drama, even though Horovitz excised a chunk of the original play dealing with the treatment of Jews during the Nazi occupation.
“I found that I had to boil the whole thing down into a kind of ‘guy walks into a bar’ story,” Horovitz said, “then write a film as though I had never written [the] stage play. In the first draft of the film, which was enormously too long, all of the talk about the Nazi occupation of Paris was in. As I boiled it down to what I thought the real theme of the film was, the real spine, it wasn’t that. It was about Mathias, his relationship with his father, and his ultimate forgiveness of his father. [Mathias] doesn’t renounce being Jewish, he doesn’t hide being Jewish. It’s just not what the movie’s about.”
Horovitz is the author of more than 70 produced plays, including such Jewish-themed works as Park Your Car in Harvard Yard and Lebensraum. He also penned the screenplay for Sunshine, István Szabó’s epic 1999 film about a Hungarian Jewish family spanning the 20th century.
“Being Jewish is part of my life, but it’s not my only subject,” Horovitz said.
The writer has garnered several shelves’ worth of awards, including two Obies, France’s Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and a lifetime achievement award from B’nai B’rith. The writer is as famous and respected in France as he is in the United States, which allows him a unique perspective on the increase in French antisemitism.
“I have some Jewish friends [in Paris], some of them in high places, who are grievously alarmed, and some Jewish friends who are kind of in denial,” Horovitz said. “And then I have me, in my own skin, and when I’m in Paris I’m, quite frankly, a very highly regarded playwright, so I may not get the same kind of experience or the same kind of antisemitism [as] some French Jew going to synagogue in a [small] town. You couldn’t have a more Jewish name than mine unless your name was Israel Jew, so there’s no question in anybody’s mind when they meet me that I’m Jewish. Do I personally experience a lot of antisemitism? Almost none; almost none that I see.”
However, Horovitz can’t say the same about growing up in Wakefield, Mass., a town about 12 miles north of Boston, in the 1940s and ’50s.
“Did I as a kid experience antisemitism? On a daily basis. The overriding sentiment in my town was, ‘Why did we go to war and lose all of these American boys? We just should have given Hitler his Jews.’ Now that wasn’t everybody, but it was some people, and they were quite vocal about it. I can’t, in my wildest imagination, think that all of France or all of Paris is antisemitic, but the people who go out in the street with their fists in the air and do Hitler salutes are certainly visible.”
For his next film project, Horovitz is working on a screenplay based on Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, his play about an old Jewish man (and retired high school teacher) and his younger housekeeper (and former student).
“I have had offers to direct other films,” Horovitz confided. “That doesn’t interest me. Really, I’m not trying to build a hot career. But I think I’ve got a couple more movies in me and I’d like to make a record of what I consider to be my best work onstage.”
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Available Oct. 14, SISU is re-releasing the 12 episodes of the 2010-11 season of Shalom Sesame in a new six-DVD thin-pack gift box. Included in the re-release is a bonus DVD featuring two episodes from the classic Shalom Sesame series, “Jerusalem” and “People of Israel” (originally released in the early 1990s). In addition, the DVD set includes a free 30-day trial download of the first episode.
Join lovable, furry Grover and celebrity host Anneliese van der Pol (That’s So Raven, Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast) as they travel to Israel in this 12-part award-winning series co-produced by Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street, and Israel’s Channel HOP! Designed to help bring the vitality of Jewish culture and tradition, as well as the diversity of Israeli life, to American children and their families, each 30-minute, live-action and animated DVD focuses on storylines drawn from Jewish cultural traditions, highlighting lessons on Hebrew letters and words, unique sites in Israel and Jewish values.
In addition to van der Pol, the series features guest appearances by top name talent, including Jake Gyllenhaal, Debra Messing, Matisyahu, Eva Longoria, Christina Applegate, Greg Kinnear, Debi Mazar and others. The programs’ chronological order mirrors the Jewish calendar, beginning with an introduction to Israel and Hebrew, and ending with a program on mitzvot and a concluding trip to Israel.
Each title in the set contains two episodes and includes extra video segments. Shalom Sesame has been awarded a CINE Golden Eagle Award (2011), a Hugo Television Award Certificate of Merit (2011) and a Dr. Toy Best Pick Award (2010). Learn more about Shalom Sesame at shalomsesame.org, view previews and clips on youtube.com/shalomsesame and visit facebook.com/ShalomSesame. To order DVDs, visit sisuent.com.
Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher raises some interesting ideas, but is lacklustre overall. (photo from VIFF)
The rollercoaster ride of emotions continued this week, as the Jewish Independent reviewed another set of films that will be featured at the Vancouver International Film Festival, which runs Sept. 25-Oct. 10.
Last week, the JI was inspired by the documentary Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here (which the paper has sponsored), we enjoyed meeting the plucky street musicians on which Jalanan focused, and we were once again horrified by the banality of evil in learning more about Heinrich Himmler in the ironically-named The Decent One. This week, we went from mild boredom with Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher (Israel/France) to engaged interest with Nancy Kates’ documentary Regarding Susan Sontag (United States) to heart-racing dread with Alexandre Arcady’s 24 Days (France).
The Kindergarten Teacher raises some potentially thought-provoking questions about the origins of creativity, ie. what allows some people to craft magnificent works (in this case, poems) and others to never achieve anything above mediocrity. It does so through the relationship of kindergarten teacher and aspiring poet Nira and one of her students, five-year-old Yoav, who we’re supposed to believe is a poetic genius.
Understanding that this is a work of fiction, the bounds of believability are strained nonetheless on more than one occasion: for example, Yoav’s father fires Yoav’s nanny without pausing upon hearing Nira’s unsubstantiated accusations; and Yoav’s poems, while good for a child are hardly earth-shattering. What’s more frustrating is what passes for internal conflict – Nira staring, staring, staring – or genius at work – Yoav pacing, pacing, pacing. Ultimately, there’s nothing grossly wrong with the storytelling or filmmaking here, the movie just needed a better editing job and more focus. At an hour-and-a-half, The Kindergarten Teacher might have been stimulating; at almost two hours, it’s sleep-inducing.
Kates does a far better job at rousing curiosity, raising questions about the nature of art, culture, sexuality, happiness and other such topics. For those who already know a lot about Susan Sontag, Kates’ documentary likely won’t be that illuminating about her as a person or writer/critic/filmmaker, as the biographical and professional moments highlighted seem pretty basic. But, for those who know little of Sontag, this is a great introduction, which captures not only Sontag’s strengths but also her vulnerabilities. For both types of viewers, the excitement of intellectual, philosophical and personal discovery (and re-discovery) that Sontag felt and expressed is catching.
We know how 24 Days will end. It’s based on the true, tragic, terrifying story of the kidnapping and subsequent murder of Ilan Halimi. Yet, Arcady manages to make us hope – throughout the entire film – that, somehow, Halimi will survive.
Overwhelming at times, between his family’s grief, the police’s desperation and his captors’ anger, 24 Days apparently sticks quite closely to the events as they happened in Paris in early 2006, as recorded by Halimi’s mother, Ruth, in the book 24 jours, la vérité sur la mort d’Ilan Halimi, which she co-wrote with Emilie Frèche.
Targeted for kidnapping because he was Jewish – the logic being all Jews have money and, therefore, could afford to pay a large ransom – Halimi was tortured, starved and, literally, left for dead when the negotiations for the ransom failed. His family was traumatized by ever-changing demands, graphic photos of their beaten son, expletive-filled threatening phone calls (more than 600 in 20 days) and false hope. The police are portrayed as genuinely trying to find and free Halimi, but as sadly ineffective – and completely insensitive to the antisemitic motivations of the criminals.
Other films with Jewish content or creative talent include Zero Motivation (Israel), a black comedy by Israeli writer/director Talya Lavie about everyday life for a unit of young, female Israeli soldiers; and Welcome to Me (United States), a “dramedy” directed by Shira Piven, about a lottery winner (played by Kristen Wiig) who has borderline personality disorder and makes some questionable decisions about what to do with her windfall. For the full festival lineup, visit viff.org.
Ilya Kabakov is the subject of Amei Wallach’s lya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here.(photo from VIFF)
This year’s Vancouver International Film Festival (Sept. 25-Oct. 10) will take viewers on a rollercoaster ride, if the films reviewed by the Independent this week are any indication. We went from soaring heights of imagination and freedom with Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here to the music-filled yet poverty-ridden streets of Jakarta in Jalanan to the horrifyingly shallow depths where evil is normal in The Decent One.
“What interests me is where is the border between reality and the dream,” says artist Ilya Kabakov in Enter Here. With this film that the Jewish Independent has sponsored at VIFF, Amei Wallach follows Ilya and his wife and partner Emilia Kabakov in the months leading to a massive retrospective in Moscow in 2008. She captures the couple’s personalities: Ilya, with his mind anywhere but on earth, still traumatized by his life – and that of his mother, who led a very difficult existence – in the Soviet Union, which he escaped in 1987, and Emilia, the organizer, fearless. The exhibit marked his first return to Russia, and there is trepidation about how it will be received, and how he will handle his memories.
Kabakov’s paintings and installations are unbelievable. They inspire contemplation and awe at their scope and creativity. Most of the ones highlighted in the documentary critique what Russia would have been – and seemingly has become again – to live in: the surveillance, distrust, harshness, bureaucracy. His works are influenced by various events and people, including his mother who, at his behest, wrote a diary when she was in her 80s.
In his New York studio, Kabakov reflects on three types of losers: mankind in principle, his feelings about himself despite his self-acknowledged success, and his reaction to Russia. He describes Russia as “permanent rainy,” and speaks of life there as “two-faced,” the public front and the personal. As a non-state-sponsored artist, he created much work, but only exhibited twice in his home country. For Kabakov, for whom the museum is akin to the church, “The last haven of our history and our spirit,” this alone would have been reason to flee. For the many around the world who have glimpsed his great mind through his work, we’re very lucky he did.
Director Daniel Ziv obviously fell in love with the street musicians he profiles in Jalanan. Their aspirations, energy, passion, kindness, and resilience – he communicates all of it, such that you almost don’t notice it’s a documentary about poverty, development, corruption, and the treatment of women, the place of art in society, and other such weighty subject matter.
Of the 12 million people living in Indonesia’s capital city, some 7,000 earn their living as buskers, according to the film, and Jalanan follows the lives of three of them – Boni, Ho and Tuti – over a five-year period. In the face of hardship, the troubadours remain optimistic and driven to create and share their music. Nothing gets them down: Boni and his family are evicted from their 10-year “home” under a bridge, Ho gets jailed for just being on the streets and Tuti is unable to live with any of her three children.
As writes Ziv in a director’s statement, “This isn’t the type of documentary that feeds off tragedy … this is not about thousands of lives being threatened … this isn’t even about the poorest of the poor. Rather, Jalanan traces the lives of a forgotten, marginalized community that slips through society’s cracks. The dilemmas and conflicts here represent a huge segment of urban population in the developing world…. This film is meant to give them a voice, to raise awareness for their conditions and struggle.”
And then, there is a person like Heinrich Himmler, who could write home to his family with love and affection while on a trip visiting concentration camps. Vanessa Lapa’s The Decent One is based on personal letters, documents and photographs that were found in the Himmlers’ home by U.S. soldiers in 1945, but which weren’t handed over to the military authorities. They became the property of Lapa’s father somehow, and she has used them to make this documentary.
The Decent One is very stylized. Voice actors read the letters, diary entries and documents from Himmler, his wife, daughter, mistress and others, archival footage has sound effects and/or music added, and benign-sounding excerpts from the writings are juxtaposed against brutal images. Viewers follow Himmler from a young age to his rise in the Nazi party and through much of the war. The cumulative effect is powerful. The most upsetting and scary conclusion is that understanding evil is nigh impossible.
Maury Wills, Milton Berle, Jimmy Piersall and Willie Mays in a salute to baseball on the television program The Hollywood Palace in 1967. (photo from ABC Television via Wikimedia Commons)
Today’s comedy superstars, especially those whose careers are driven by television, may very well owe their success to pioneering Jewish entertainer Milton Berle.
Born Mendel Berlinger in Manhattan in 1908, Berle became America’s first small-screen star. Aptly nicknamed “Mr. Television,” he influenced and helped promote the work of hundreds of younger comics.
“Milton Berle was deceptively successful and very Jewish,” said Lawrence Epstein, author of The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, published in 2002, the year Berle died. “His success came about because early television sets were mostly sold in wealthier urban areas, with Jews and gentile urbanites accustomed to and appreciative of Jewish humor. So, Berle’s quick talking, his high-speed jokes, his dressing in outlandish costumes and his sprinkling of Yiddishisms all played well. Ironically, it was Berle’s success with those urban audiences that propelled the sales of televisions around the nation.”
Epstein explained that once televisions reached the rural areas of America, viewers “took a look at [Berle] and said he spoke so fast they couldn’t understand him, and that he wasn’t funny, and [they asked], ‘What was that foreign language?’”
He said, “That is why Berle’s television career was meteoric. It burned brightly but briefly.”
Berle’s close friend Lou Zigman, a Los Angeles-based labor lawyer and Brooklyn native, disagrees with Epstein’s use of the word “meteoric,” arguing that Berle never burned out like a meteor does. Berle kept performing, assisting other comics, giving to charities and spreading Jewish culture until his death, and he was even performing card tricks as a hospital patient at age 90, according to Zigman.
“I asked Milton how come all the gentiles knew Yiddish humor,” Zigman said in an interview. “He answered that the great majority of comedians and writers in those early years were Jewish. That’s why it spread, and our culture spread, all over the country.”
At age 5, Berle won an amateur talent contest and appeared as a child actor in silent films. He became a vaudevillian at age 12 in a revival of the musical comedy Florodora in Atlantic City, N.J., and was hired by producer Jack White in 1933 to star in Poppin’ the Cork, a musical comedy concerning the repealing of Prohibition. From 1934-36, Berle was heard frequently on The Rudy Vallee Hour radio show and attracted publicity as a regular on The Gillette Original Community Sing, a Sunday night comedy-variety radio program broadcast on CBS. Then came the Milton Berle Show, a variety format he would revive for his television debut.