Hart Snider has followed up his award-winning animated short The Basketball Game with Shop Class, one of four National Film Board of Canada shorts selected for the 2018 Spark Animation Festival, which runs Oct. 25-28.
“I wrote and developed Shop Class while editing the TV series Yukon Gold, Klondike Trappers and Ice Pilots – documentary/reality series driven by ‘manly men’ who would run into big problems in remote locations, but then they’d break out some tools, rock music would start playing, there’d be a montage, and the guys would ‘man up’ to fix the problem,” Snider told the Independent. “While they were very successful shows, it made me laugh to be a not very macho guy telling these stories. It reminded me about being 14 and wanting to take home ec, but instead being forced to take industrial arts class, where my teacher tried to scare us into becoming men. I was inspired to write the story, which, yes, felt very cathartic – especially when I shared it with friends who also had him for a teacher.”
Not only does young Hart have to endure the bullying of his shop teacher, but he and his friends are targets for their bullying classmates. In one scene, Hart and his buddies are hanging out at a convenience store, when the friend checking out the latest Supermensch comic receives a punch in the stomach.
“The comic is not just a reference to being Jewish,” said Snider, “but to my first film. Shop Class is actually a sequel of sorts, to my 2011 National Film Board of Canada animation The Basketball Game, another autobiographical story. It’s about being 9 years old and at Jewish summer camp for the first time, when ex-students of notorious Holocaust denier/high school teacher Jim Keegstra come to our camp in Pine Lake, Alta., for a ‘day of fun and fellowship.’ Early in the film, my character is reading a Supermensch comic (which is there mostly because of the unnamed villain in Supermensch, seen fighting on the cover, that ends up inspiring a nightmarish transformation later in the story).
“Shop Class has a documentary-type scene that takes place in a convenience store, so I added a teenager reading Supermensch, issue #18, the same comic, to show that both the stories actually exist in the same cinematic universe.”
Every single character in Shop Class is voiced by Corner Gas and Dan for Mayor star Fred Ewanuick.
“Fred went from listening to me imitating my old teacher’s way of talking,” said Snider, “to stepping into the recording booth and totally bringing that character to life – and he did it just by saying, ‘Sit down, Turkeys,’ over and over until he totally nailed it.”
As for the other characters in the film, Snider said, “I’m still friends to this day with people I met in kindergarten at Talmud Torah in Edmonton, and I included a couple of them in both of my films. The love interest is totally inspired by my wife, Galit Mastai.”
The couple lives in Vancouver and, according to his bio, Snider “can usually be found either in an edit suite or at the park with his wife Galit, daughter Leora and dog Wolfie.”
In addition to writing and directing Shop Class and The Basketball Game, Snider also wrote and directed the animation segments for I Am Sam Kinison, a feature-length documentary about the late comedian that aired on Spike television. “I’ve edited animated short films as well,” he said, “including Lisa Jackson’s The Visit and Elisa Chee’s Lucy. Most recently (outside of animation), I’ve written and edited the theatrical documentary features I Am Heath Ledger and Botero, which will be released next year.”
On the NFB media site for Shop Class – on which he reveals his plan to create a third short “in this trilogy of animated films about growing up in Edmonton in the 1980s” – Snider traces his love of animation “back to being a little kid on Saturday mornings, glued to the TV. I have loved animation ever since,” he says, “but it took attending a screening of adult animation shorts (which included the film Lupo the Butcher by Danny Antonucci) when I was in high school to make me realize I really wanted to write and direct animated films. After interning at Nelvana animation in university, I thought I was on my way, until a job in post-production on a doc series about Cirque du Soleil back in 2001 led me on a totally different path as a documentary editor and writer.”
So, while he still loves animation, he doesn’t do the art for his films. “I just love telling stories using the medium,” he told the Independent, “and I’ve gotten to work with some brilliant artists – Sean Covernton animated The Basketball Game and the team at Jesters Animation, led by animation supervisor Brad Gibson, brought Shop Class to life.”
Shop Class screens Oct. 26, 11 p.m., at Vancity Theatre (19+). The NFB’s Animal Behaviour, by Jewish community member David Fine and Alison Snowden (jewishindependent.ca/animated-therapy-session), screens Oct. 25, 7 p.m., at Scotiabank Theatre. For the full festival lineup and tickets, visit sparkfx.ca.
Gilda Radner scrapbooking in Love, Gilda, a Magnolia Pictures release. (photo from Magnolia Pictures)
The late, great sketch comedian Gilda Radner is a Jewish icon. Offstage and out of character, however, she wasn’t especially Jewish.
“I think you would have to ask Gilda if she considered herself a Jewish comedienne,” mused Laraine Newman, her friend and fellow Jewish cast mate for the first five seasons of Saturday Night Live.
“I’d love to hear the answer,” replied Lisa D’Apolito, director of the deeply affectionate and painfully revealing documentary, Love, Gilda.
“Honest to God, I don’t know,” Newman said. “I couldn’t characterize her one way or the other. I would think that would have to come from her.”
In Love, Gilda, D’Apolito does the next best thing: she wisely channels her subject’s voice through a trove of clips, personal audiotapes and diary entries (read by contemporary comics Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy and others).
Love, Gilda, which has screened at numerous Jewish film festivals to rousing applause, is part of this year’s Vancouver Jewish Film Festival lineup.
Radner grew up in a well-off Jewish family in Detroit. But her beloved father was diagnosed with a brain tumour when she was 12 and died two years later. Her mother delegated many of the child-raising duties, and the film hints that she was not the most supportive parent.
“Gilda was also raised by her nanny, who happened to be Christian,” D’Apolito related hours before Love, Gilda opened the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July. “So Gilda observed all kinds of different religions and what she identified with, I wasn’t really sure. I wanted to cover where I thought some of her insecurities came from. Losing her father was really important – and her mother putting her on diet pills.”
The nanny, Dibby, was the inspiration for one of Radner’s most popular SNL characters, Emily Litella. As for the diet pills, Gilda’s body image issues as an adolescent led to eating disorders that plagued her into adulthood.
“When I found the audiotapes, it was so different to hear her talking than to see her on an interview or hear people talking about her,” D’Apolito said. “It was just mesmerizing, because you get a real sense of Gilda. She’s sitting in a café talking to somebody, she’s ordering things, she’s telling stories and she’s extremely intelligent and extremely funny. That was really important to me, that an audience have the same experience I had.”
D’Apolito was guided in her interview choices – musician Paul Shaffer, actor Martin Short and writer Alan Zweibel, among others – by whom Gilda spoke about on the tapes. Alas, Gene Wilder, the love of Radner’s life according to D’Apolito, and her husband from 1984 until she died in 1989, was too ill to participate. (He died in August 2016.)
“Gene was everything she was looking for, because he was a Jewish guy from the Midwest,” D’Apolito said of the Milwaukee native, born Jerome Silberman. “That’s what she always wanted, I’ve been told.”
Radner and Wilder met on the set of the 1980s film Hanky Panky, which originally was going to co-star Richard Pryor and was rewritten for a female lead. Wilder then directed Radner (and himself) in the equally disappointing comedies The Woman in Red and Haunted Honeymoon.
The brashness and vitality of Radner’s TV and stage work showed “that she never doubted that she was equal to any man,” D’Apolito said. “That’s what I take away from Gilda’s performances.”
Newman lamented that Radner’s movie career suffered because casting directors and producers lacked the imagination to cast her correctly.
“The specific nature of her talent was she did characters, and she would probably have been better served if she had taken part in writing the things that she did. But I don’t think it occurred to her,” Newman said. “If she and Alan Zweibel had collaborated on a feature, it might have been a whole different thing.”
D’Apolito’s connection to Radner goes back to the first videos she directed eight years ago for Gilda’s Club, a cancer support group founded by Wilder in New York after Radner died from ovarian cancer at age 42.
D’Apolito didn’t meet Wilder, however, until he invited the filmmaker to his house the year before he died. They spent a memorable day talking, and hanging out with his dogs.
“Somehow, at the end of the day, Gene and I just sat in the garden together,” D’Apolito recalled. “I could see why Gilda loved him.”
Love, Gilda (86 minutes, unrated) screens Nov. 8, 1 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas. For the full schedule of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, which runs Nov. 7-Dec. 2, visit vjff.org.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Mélanie Thierry delivers a strong performance as Marguerite Duras in Memoir of War. (photo from VIFF)
The Vancouver International Film Festival starts next week. Among the myriad offerings are many films that might be of particular interest to the Jewish community. Here, we review four: In My Room, Memoir of War, The Reports on Sarah and Saleem and Working Woman.
Not to be confused with In My Room (Germany), about a man who wakes up one day to find that everyone else in the world has apparently disappeared, which is also playing at VIFF, In My Room (Israel) introduces viewers to six teens who are, in my view – and likely that of anyone over 40 – way too eager to share on social media. In an effort to become marginally famous, perhaps, or, at best, to find or give support to others, they expose their insecurities, their challenges and changes, and more. Both compelling and hard to watch at times, one thing the documentary makes very clear – growing up these days isn’t easy.
In My Room is part of VIFF’s Impact stream, nine films that the festival considers “uncompromising” and “insightful discussions that spark action and change the way we see the world.” Among the awards being offered in this category is the VIFF Impact Award, a $5,000 prize presented by Leonard Schein to one of the stream’s documentaries. In My Room certainly shines an uncompromising light on the personal information that is being shared on the internet by kids, the publicizing of which may come back to haunt them.
While a large part of me cringes at the teens’ apparent lack of boundaries or concern for their safety, they are also incredibly brave (or maybe just incredibly ignorant of the possible consequences). I hope that only a small percentage of young people are going through what they are, which ranges from heartbreak over an ended relationship, to pregnancy to not being comfortable in the gender they were born, to an eating disorder.
In My Room is in English and Hebrew (with English subtitles). It is rated PG for coarse and sexual language, and screens Sept. 29 and Oct. 1.
* * *
Memoir of War (France/Belgium) sees its Canadian première at VIFF. A little on the slow side pacing-wise, it is a seemingly realistic portrayal of what it might have been like living in Paris during its occupation by the Nazis. It is based on Marguerite Duras’s wartime memoir La Douleur (Pain).
The film takes place in 1944. Duras’s husband, Robert, part of the resistance, has been captured by the Nazis and she is so desperate to find out what has happened to him, and to possibly free him, that she dangles the hope of a relationship as bait to get information from a man named Rabier, an open Gestapo collaborator. Rabier not only desires Duras, but, even more, entry into her literary world.
When the Allies’ impending victory becomes apparent, Rabier flees. As liberation takes hold and survivors begin to return, but not Richard, Duras becomes ill, feverish, and reality and dreams blur.
The acting is superb, in particular Mélanie Thierry as Duras, and director Emmanuel Finkiel and cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine deftly capture her moments of fear, exhaustion and confusion symbolically in a powerful use of imagery and visual effects, which dialogue alone could not have communicated.
Memoir of War is in French with English subtitles. It screens Oct. 6 and 8.
* * *
Though inspired by true events, The Reports on Sarah and Saleem is a little hard to believe. Not the reaction of a husband to his wife’s infidelity. Not the fact that an Israeli or a Palestinian would have an affair with the supposed enemy. But that a nice, educated and industrious woman would risk her marriage and business to be with such a grumpy, pushy and uninspiring man.
Sarah, an Israeli wife, mother and café owner, is having an affair with married, soon-to-be-a-father Saleem, a Palestinian deliveryman for a bakery, and then for his relative’s unsavoury friends. The appeal of great sex is understandable but the scenes in the back of the delivery van don’t succeed in making it seem life-riskingly great.
Despite the cognitive dissonance, the pace and tensions build up, and the second half of the film, which features less driving around and some gun-toting drama, is quite engaging. When things go south, will Sarah tell the truth, and risk losing everything she holds dear, or stay quiet, and let her lover go to prison for a crime he didn’t commit?
The Reports on Sarah and Saleem is in Arabic, Hebrew and English, with English subtitles. It screens Oct. 7 and 11.
* * *
I can’t even look at the stills of actor Menashe Noy, who plays Benny in Working Woman, without feeling disgusted, so well did he play the lecherous boss of Orna (Liron Ben Shlush), a smart, married, mother-of-three, who Benny hires as his assistant.
At first, Benny is the good guy, the man who sees great potential in the inexperienced Orna. Her former commander in the army, he hires her at his development firm, and Orna excels as a salesperson. This is part of what attracts Benny to her – her intelligence and natural ability. But he can’t control his desire and he tries to take what he wants. Orna must figure out how to extricate herself from the untenable situation without ruining her career opportunities.
For some reason, I was expecting a dramatic thriller, where Orna exacts some horrible but deserving punishment on her harasser, but Working Woman is less dramatic than that. Orna uses her brains to get what she needs to move on, both workwise and psychologically. While it would have been refreshing if the character of Orna’s husband had been written as one more sympathetic to her plight, the film is probably more realistic as it is.
Left to right: Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres after the three received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1994. (photo by Saar Yaacov via VIFF)
It’s almost painful to be reminded of how close Israelis and Palestinians were to achieving peace 25 years ago with the Oslo Accords. Yet, Mor Loushy, co-director of The Oslo Diaries with partner Daniel Sivan, hopes that the documentary inspires audiences to believe that peace is possible. After all, the impossible almost happened in the 1990s, so why not in the future?
The Oslo Diaries screens as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival, which runs Sept. 27-Oct. 12. The film is based on the personal diaries of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in the initially secret peace talks that unofficially began in 1992 in Oslo, Norway, after the late-1991 Madrid Conference – at that time, it was illegal for the two sides to communicate. Those meetings, which eventually became public and official, led to the signing of the Oslo Accords in Washington, D.C., in 1993.
The narrative of The Oslo Diaries comprises archival footage, reenactments and interviews, including the last interview former prime minister and president of Israel, Shimon Peres – who was foreign minister during Oslo and a signatory of the accords – gave in his life. It takes viewers through an abridged version of the negotiations and offers insight into the leadership and compromise that was needed to reach an agreement.
That leadership and the prospects for peace took a literally fatal blow when Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on Nov. 4, 1995. Binyamin Netanyahu, who, the documentary shows, was fierce in his opposition to the peace accords – passionately addressing rallies at which supporters held signs calling for Rabin’s death – was elected prime minister in 1996. The documentary ends with the start of his victory speech: “Dear supporters, friends, the state of Israel is embarking on a new path today.”
The Oslo Diaries is the third film Loushy and Sivan have worked on together; Censored Voices and Israel Ltd. being the other two. The couple is based in Santa Monica, Calif., for a year, after which they and their two children, ages 3 and 6, will return to Tel Aviv. Loushy was born and raised in Tel Aviv and Sivan, born in Haifa, moved to Tel Aviv when he was 18. The Jewish Independent spoke to Loushy by phone recently, in advance of her arrival in Vancouver to participate in VIFF.
While The Oslo Diaries does an admirable job of attempting to present the material without commentary, the filmmakers’ political perspective does come through, in particular with Netanyahu being depicted as the bad guy, so to speak.
“First of all, we never hide our opinion,” said Loushy. “We’re from the left-wing, or part of it. We stand behind our views and, if someone from the right-wing would have made that specific film, it would have been a completely different one. But, what ‘film’ is about, I don’t think that there is an objective film. Every cut that I make in the film, it’s a decision. But, I think that it’s really more important for us to keep it balanced, and we fought a lot about it, we had a lot of discussions about it.”
Given the reactions she has received, Loushy said, “I think that this film is completely not right- and left-wing – this is a film about peace. And I do feel, from the screenings around the world, that it’s past this boundary of camps, on the one hand. On the other hand, in Israel, the situation is difficult: we are divided, there are camps … and our government is the most right-wing government that we ever knew. Every day, there is a new anti-democratic law that passes, and it’s frightening.”
About making the documentary, she said, “We’ve hit such a rock bottom that someone needs to stop for a moment, and it’s part of my duty as a civilian and as a filmmaker to say, OK, let’s talk…. We’ve forgotten about Oslo, and most of the people don’t even know the story behind the code name ‘Oslo.’ Let’s talk for a moment, let’s really see what happened there and what really was there – not from the news or from secondary sources, but from the first sources, the people that were there. Listen for a moment. What exactly happened there? What went wrong?”
She said people have forgotten about the negotiations and that reminding people about them will help. “It gives hope for the future,” she said. “We were that close, we can do it again, it’s not impossible. You just have to stop for a moment and think, what kind of future do we want to leave our children? Do we want the same, as in the present, a future of wars … so many people that are being killed every day, that’s what we want for ourselves? Or do we need a reminder for a second of the place we could have gone to, for the places we can get to? We just need a strong leader that’s going to take us there. And I think that this film does an incredible job of putting this discourse again on the table because, in the past three or four rounds of elections, the word ‘peace’ … [and the prospect of] ‘negotiation’ is no longer on the table, and this is such a crazy thing.”
When asked how much blame she attributes to Netanyahu for the breakdown of the peace process, Loushy said, “It’s a very complex answer because it’s not one answer. I think that he had a lot to do with the peace breakdown but he was not the only one. The people voted for him and, when people voted for him, they knew what they were voting for – it was obvious he was not going to continue with the peace process. So, I think it was the people and I think that, yes, he had an essential part, saying, ‘I believe in the holy grail,’ [in Greater Israel]. This is his belief, and I think he succeeded in that,” she said, citing figures indicating that the number of settlers has quadrupled since 1993.
Loushy said Netanyahu has claimed that “the West Bank is just a part of Israel, and [he] wants more and more settlements, [so] that also the left-wing people right now are saying, OK, how can we resolve it? That there is an unresolved situation because of the settlers.”
Both fanaticism and fear are contributing to the situation, she said, “although I do believe that most of the people want peace, believe in peace, [and] are just too scared to give it a chance.
“And that’s where this film comes in, saying, listen: first of all, the whole Palestinian leadership was interviewed for this film. I was a guest in Ramallah in all of the high places in the Palestinian leadership – there is a partner. He [Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who was also one of the signatories of the Oslo Accords, for the Palestinian Liberation Organization] wants to talk to us. He wants a solution. I believe it in all of my heart that the Abu Mazen government wants peace.
“So, there is the Palestinian leadership that was interviewed for this film, and I do believe there is a chance, but that people are just too scared and [the film’s purpose is to help people] to remember exactly what happened.”
While the filmmakers interviewed several Israelis who were involved, they could not get access to Netanyahu. “We wanted to [interview him],” said Loushy, “but Netanyahu doesn’t give any interviews to the press…. You see Yitzhak Rabin – in all of the archives, Yitzhak Rabin is giving interviews every other day… [Netanyahu] is connecting through Twitter, and that’s it. He doesn’t give interviews to the press.”
The Oslo Diaries premièred at the Jerusalem Film Festival and there have been screenings all over Israel, said Loushy, who noted the diversity of audiences, which have included secular and observant Jews. “This is amazing,” she said, to have people from both sides sitting together in the theatre. “People want the discourse, want to talk about it again. Of course, every screening, [when there’s] someone shouting at me, I know I did my job…. I made somebody think about something he hasn’t thought [about] before.”
The Jewish Independent is VIFF’s media partner for the Vancouver screenings of The Oslo Diaries, which take place Sept. 28 and 29, and Oct. 12. The documentary is a Canadian co-production, co-produced by Ina Fichman (Intuitive Pictures); Radio-Canada is also listed as one of the film’s sponsors. All of the post-production was done in Montreal, said Loushy, “and we loved it.”
For the full VIFF schedule and tickets, visit viff.org.
David Fine and Alison Snowden wrote, directed and animated the National Film Board of Canada animated short Animal Therapy. (photo by John Bolton)
They’re baaaack! And with another funny – and thought-provoking – National Film Board of Canada animated short. Jewish community member David Fine and wife Alison Snowden, who co-created the NFB’s Oscar-winning Bob’s Birthday 25 years ago, have returned to the genre with Animal Behaviour.
Animal Behaviour, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this week, will be part of the Vancouver International Film Festival’s True North Shorts program, The Curtain Calls, on Oct. 1 and 8. There are further screenings scheduled for other festivals across Canada.
The 14-minute short, produced by Michael Fukushima, executive producer of the NFB’s animation studio, is written, directed and animated by Fine and Snowden, who are currently based in Vancouver. In addition to countless other projects, the pair also created, and contributed in many capacities to, the adult animated series Bob and Margaret, which was based on Bob’s Birthday.
“We had worked in series and missed making a personal film and doing the animation ourselves, directly,” Fine told the Independent about what motivated Snowden and him to make another animated short. “We really thought it would be nice to get back to the type of filmmaking we started our career with and our producer, Michael, had suggested that he would be keen to see any ideas from us and we happened to have one, so we thought, why not have a go. It’s very different to make a personal film like this than a series.”
The couple humorously tackled some of the issues of being middle age in Bob’s Birthday. In Animal Behaviour, they explore – also with much humour – some of the pros and cons of following our natural instincts versus doing what is socially acceptable. They do so using the vehicle of a weekly group therapy session led by Dr. Leonard Clement, a Labrador retriever.
Lorraine, the leech, has attachment issues and experiences panic attacks; Todd, the pig, has an eating disorder and suffers from insecurity; Cheryl, the mantis, hasn’t had a lasting relationship, and the fact that she has 1,000 kids is the lesser of her two main problems; Linda, the Tabby cat, has obsessive compulsive disorder and doesn’t ever feel clean enough, despite constantly licking herself; and Jeffrey, the blue jay, has some serious guilt issues as a result of something he did when he was a very young bird. The members of the group seem to know one another well and there is a rhythm to their session. Then walks in Victor, the ape, with his anger issues, who believes that everyone else is an idiot and that people in therapy are navel-gazers who just need to get on with their lives.
“The notion of going to therapy to change seems like a tall order, so we thought it would be fun to look at therapy and have a character who comes in and questions its validity,” explains Fine in an NFB interview online. “At the same time, we’re careful not to go for the low-hanging fruit or make fun of the process. We don’t want to answer the question (‘Is therapy valid?’), we want to pose the question and start the discussion.”
“It was quite a difficult script to write,” says Snowden in the NFB interview. “We thought it would be easy, because it’s in one room, there’s one conversation, but there are so many possibilities with all the animals, and if we did it wrong it would get boring.
“At first, there were a lot of characters, but you couldn’t get attached to any of them, so we honed it down. Really, it’s about the ape and Dr. Clement – that’s the showdown. Then they all came together. The others are in the room, they’re observers, and they’re there for comedy. But the key characters are those two and their drama.”
“From idea to final film was probably about five years,” Fine told the Independent, “but there was a development period, which was sporadic and took time to get to the green light. Once in production, it took about 2.5 years to make, in terms of pure working time.”
About working in animation, Fine said, “We like controlling every frame and effectively being both directors and actors, because we pose and make the characters act. We also love working with voice actors and then being able to edit the track in a way you can’t really do in live action. It’s really about all the nuance and control, which is so much fun.”
The creative process starts with the writing, he said, “with the idea and the script,” which they “work to refine…. After that, the voice record was key. We interviewed about 300 voices to cast this group. All the actors are Vancouver-based, which we are very proud of.”
Among the credits, thanks are given to the animation programs at Capilano and Emily Carr universities, and the film is dedicated “to the wonderful doctors, nurses and staff at Vancouver General Hospital.”
“During the production, near the end, Alison was struck with a very sudden, serious health crisis and was in intensive care and recovery for five months,” explained Fine. “VGH saved her life, so, when we were finally able to finish the film together, it was very important to us to make that dedication to show our appreciation.”
For tickets to The Curtain Calls and the full film festival schedule, visit viff.org.
Actor Ching Valdes-Aran in a scene from The Washing Society. (photo from The Washing Society)
Faced with the challenge of making a documentary for which the voices of undocumented immigrants were crucial, filmmakers Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker had to push the boundaries of convention. The result is The Washing Society, which will see its Canadian première at the Vancouver International Film Festival, as part of the festival’s Impact programming.
“For this year’s Impact stream, we decided to foreground films that represent prominent themes found in the festival at large – themes that are extremely topical at this historical moment,” said Alan Franey, director of international programming at VIFF, in a release. “Refreshing in their cinematic artistry, insights and lack of platitudes, these films have the power to inspire actual change.”
The Washing Society combines research, interviews, acting, dance, artistic images and other elements to introduce viewers in 45 minutes to some of the laundromats in New York City, which are disappearing, and the people who work in them. Olesker and Sachs, who both live in Brooklyn, will be in Vancouver for the festival and the Independent interviewed them by phone in anticipation of their visit.
The filmmakers are practically neighbours, and they met each other through their daughters, who are about the same age and have the same piano teacher. It was at a piano lesson where they first crossed paths. “Then we saw each other’s work, and really admired what each other were doing,” said Olesker.
The origins of the documentary are in a performance Olesker was commissioned to do in a laundromat, upon which she wanted to expand. Thinking that film would be a good element to add to it, she contacted Sachs.
“We had a series of conversations, which led me to unexpected places in how to think about laundry and women doing laundry, and so it became a deeper, more fruitful collaboration,” said Olesker.
Over a span of about two years, the pair researched the topic, then co-created the play Every Fold Matters with the actors performing it, as well as writing their own text. The site-specific performance and film project – which was performed in laundromats and various venues throughout New York from 2015 to 2017 – formed the basis for what has become The Washing Society.
“We’ve been working together now for probably over four years,” said Sachs, “because we spent almost a whole year traipsing all over New York City – mostly Brooklyn and Manhattan – trying to do the convention of documentary practices, ‘Let’s go into laundromats, let’s talk to workers.’ But the issues in New York are that so many of those workers are undocumented, so they’re very hesitant to have a conversation in front of a camera. So, we would have conversations and we would go back and write pieces and create characters based on all of those interviews we did, which we didn’t film. But then, over the course of time, as it shifted from being a live performance with media to a film, we got better at finding people who were willing to speak in front of the camera.”
They did this, in some cases, with the help of an actor or a translator, who then became more involved or involved in other ways. “One of the things both of us are really interested in,” said Sachs, “is breaking down the conventions of roles in the project.”
Both Sachs and Olesker have done cross-disciplinary work before.
“It’s been exciting for me to work in film and also to engage in questions like, What is a documentary? What does it mean to inquire into a subject or have a question and pursue it in different ways? As a creator of film or theatre, you’re always looking for a truth, not necessarily the truth.”
“I’m really interested in how documentary crosses over into fiction, and how fiction informs the documentary aspect,” said Olesker. In this project, she said, “It’s been exciting for me to work in film and also to engage in questions like, What is a documentary? What does it mean to inquire into a subject or have a question and pursue it in different ways? As a creator of film or theatre, you’re always looking for a truth, not necessarily the truth.”
The Washing Society contains a lot of theatre. “That’s an issue that raises questions with audiences in good ways and in challenging ways,” said Olesker, for whom this film is her first foray into documentary-making.
Sachs, however, has made this type of documentary before, mixing lived experience with fiction; for example, Your Day Is My Night, which she brought to the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2013. “Working in this way,” she said, “has started to make me to question all forms of documentary, or even narrative film, because you see a narrative film and it’s really a document of a bunch of people getting together and making a fictional story.”
One passion “that has been very nourishing for both of us in our work is our relationship to history, to the historical document,” said Sachs.
“With this film,” she explained, “when we came across the story of the Atlanta washerwomen, we found it absolutely riveting and astonishing that there was this moment in American history in which a group of 3,000 black women had enough power or wherewithal or vision … to organize and to change their working lives. Any art project that gives you an excuse to research, I think, is pretty exciting.”
The title for the documentary is inspired by what these washerwomen accomplished in 1881. As for more recent history, The Washing Society both exposes the harsh working conditions in laudromats and laments the loss of these neighbourhood establishments.
“I think it’s interesting to explore that contradiction,” said Olesker. “It is grueling, underpaid, under-recognized work. It’s also necessary work – not necessarily in the form that it’s taken, of dropping off your laundry and paying someone to wash and fold it, but someone is always going to have to do the wash, so that sense of broad history and the roles that women have had in doing that work is something that was behind the project, as well.”
“My nostalgia,” said Sachs, “is any space where there is an intersection.… It’s what makes cities great, the idea that there is a space in which there are intersections, and that people who have less and people who have more are in the same space and they’re spending time [together]. And that all has changed so much now. The thing is, though, that the basic infrastructure – of there being a large group of people who are hidden in some way, and they are doing service work for other people, who have much more access or means – isn’t going to change because, even if it [laundry service] becomes an app, like we show at the end of the film, there are still people doing the work, they’re just not as visible.”
One purpose of the film is to make that invisibility visible. But, said Olesker, “What’s interesting about the film to me is that we’re not so much leaving you with something that we think should happen. We’re opening it up as a question and saying, ‘Look inside this.’ We looked inside and now we’re taking you inside, what is this about?”
There is a challenge to making a documentary when the “people who we would want to have in the movie are undocumented, therefore, they don’t want to be documented by us – they want to be documented by the government….”
In the United States, added Sachs, the idea of the document “comes down to a sense of security.” There is a challenge to making a documentary when the “people who we would want to have in the movie are undocumented, therefore, they don’t want to be documented by us – they want to be documented by the government, and so there is this resistance to being in front of our camera until they can find something that legitimizes their status here in another way that will serve them.
“And it actually comes down to the whole project of making art,” said Sachs. “To whose advantage is it? For example, we’re getting to go to Vancouver and we were talking about, Could we manage to bring one of the people from the film? There is a lot of questioning about what access the artwork gives. We’ve tried to bring along the people in the film as much as possible, but we aren’t always able to.
“There’s even a point in the film where we have Chinese and Spanish … sometimes we translated that and sometimes we didn’t, because we wanted to give opportunity for people who are in the audience who had access to those languages to feel that they were in positions of strength over the rest of us. There’s something about subtitling that, if you subtitle everything, you bring it all into the English window, and people stop listening.
“A big part of the film,” she continued, “is to go outside of issues of work and of cleaning in an urban situation, which becomes involved in service … [and to delve into] all the layers of existence or the layers of identity that happen in cities these days, and who listens to whom. We hear Spanish all the time [in the United States], but are we really listening to it or is it something we can just pass by? Same with Chinese.”
Both Olesker and Sachs are Jewish.
“I’m from New York so, growing up, it’s been a part of my life,” said Olesker. “Not in a religious way, but certainly in the culture of my family and my world. And specifically around labour and labour history, union organizing – not that anyone was an organizer in my family, but there was always an awareness of that, so that is part of my identity in terms of the work I’m interested in making.”
Sachs is a member of Kolot Chayeinu. “The rabbi and founder of the congregation – her name is Ellen Lippmann – she’s always been a hero of mine,” said Sachs. “She’s just retired, about a month or so ago, after 25 years running Kolot Chayeinu. It’s a very, very progressive congregation and I worked with her just a couple of years ago on something that I found very moving.”
Lippmann would often ask Sachs to film various activities for the synagogue and, in 2016, when B&H photo and video store, which is run by ultra-Orthodox Jews, was challenged by labour activists for the company’s treatment of its warehouse workers, “a bunch of people from Kolot decided to organize with the workers in front of B&H,” said Sachs. “I was there to videotape it and so were some television stations. And I think that Ellen Lippmann really wanted to say, this is not, to our mind, following an ethical frame of reference that we want to claim as Jewish.”
Olesker pointed out that the B&H walkout was organized by the Laundry Workers Centre. “So, we actually made a little film, which is kind of a postscript to The Washing Society, where they organize this march through east Harlem to a laundromat … where two of the workers who were part of the Laundry Workers Centre went in and presented a list of demands to the owners … to talk about unfair labour practices and long hours and being underpaid and no breaks. We were part of that march and demonstration, which Lynne shot on film and we edited.”
The video epilogue, as well as teasers for The Washing Society, can be found on vimeo.com. For the film festival lineup, visit viff.org. The festival runs Sept. 27-Oct. 12.
Eva Hesse is the subject of an Aug. 31 episode of PBS’s American Masters series. (photo by Herman Landshoff)
Eva Hesse’s childhood was a rollercoaster of displacement, reunion, destabilization and trauma. In the journals she kept as a teenager and adult, the German-born, New York-based artist recognized the source of her chronic insecurity. Yet, paradoxically, and remarkably, her work evinces no anguish or suffering, and no need to expose or extinguish demons from the past. From her early, brightly coloured drawings and paintings, through the textured, abstract sculptures and installations that made her reputation, her art comprises a series of experiments in forward-looking forms of expression.
Eva Hesse screens Aug. 31 (check local listings) in PBS’s American Masters series. A palpable labour of love, Marcie Begleiter’s densely detailed 2016 documentary is a soup-to-nuts portrait that encompasses the artist’s personal life and times – New York in the 1960s – along with her professional development and impact.
Begleiter’s diligence notwithstanding, Eva Hesse never delivers the aha moment, where the person and her work snap together, and we understand exactly how Hesse’s defining childhood experiences informed her work. I’ll venture, though, that Holocaust survivors, and children of survivors, will identify with Hesse’s internalized struggles, and read between the lines of her journals and the recollections of her older sister, Helen.
In 1962, the art-school grad fell in love with and married a hard-partying Irish-American sculptor named Tom Doyle. Because her father insisted that she marry a Jew, Doyle willingly converted to Judaism.
Doyle, who was the more advanced and accomplished artist at the time, was offered a residency in Germany a couple years later, and the couple ended up living there for more than a year. Their relationship fractured abroad, in part because of his drinking and flirting, but Hesse made a major leap in her art practice from painting to sculpture.
Eva Hesse, which generally unfolds chronologically, uses this period to flash back to Hesse’s chaotic childhood. Born in Hamburg in 1936, she and Helen were sent on a Kindertransport to the Netherlands in 1938. When their parents left Germany several months later, the family reunited and fled Europe for England and, in short order, New York. They were the only members of the family to escape the Holocaust.
When Hesse’s mother, who suffered from depression and mental illness, learned in 1946 that her parents had died in the camps, she jumped from a roof to her death. (Hesse’s father had separated and remarried by this time.)
While the documentary is continually interested in its subject’s mental state, neither the filmmaker nor Hesse’s devoted artist friends are especially keen to psychoanalyze her. Perhaps she was scarred by the abandonment of her parents as a toddler, though one could also understand her self-doubt, given the establishment of male gallery owners, museum curators and critics.
Which brings us to another fundamental paradox of Hesse, namely that the insecurities she voiced in her journals, and in letters to artist, mentor and close friend Sol LeWitt, were matched by an unwavering drive to be an artist, an adherence to her muse (wherever it took her) and the awareness that she was pretty darn good at her work.
In fact, Hesse was an extrovert and a lot of fun, by most accounts. From the outset, Eva Hesse is plainly not a study of a tortured artist. Nor was she unrecognized and unappreciated in her own lifetime, for she had a major solo show and made the cover of Artforum before she died of a brain tumour in 1970. She was 34 years old.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Lili Tepperman is one of five kids featured in Beauty. (photo from NFB)
It’s fine to be who you are,” says Bex Mosch, who turned 9 years old last year, when Beauty was released. Since the age of 3, Bex – formerly Rebecca – says he has known that he is a boy. He and the other “gender-creative” kids interviewed in Christina Willings’ 23-minute documentary have been forced by circumstances to become more mature than most kids their age. And they have more nuanced views on what it means to be human than many adults.
Beauty has its local première during the Vancouver Queer Film Festival’s first short film program, called The Coast is Genderqueer, which takes place Aug. 17. In addition to Bex, Fox Kou Asano, Milo Santini-Kammer, Montreal Jewish community member Lili Tepperman and Tru Wilson are interviewed. Interwoven with the interviews, footage of the kids being kids and meeting their families briefly, parts of Beauty are animated. These illustrations depict some of the kids’ favourite interests and tie together some of their common experiences. None of the parents is interviewed.
“In a way, the concept of this film came to me in the early ’80s,” says Willings in an interview on the NFB media site. “I was thinking a lot about the deconstruction of gender at that time, as were many others. We examined it from every angle, but what’s new now is that it’s children who are leading the conversation, who are saying, ‘Hey! Something’s wrong here!’ Some compassionate, and I would say enlightened, parents are hearing them. The new conversation isn’t ideologically driven, it’s experiential, and there’s a profound purity about that. It’s a breakthrough that I have felt very moved and honoured to witness and, by 2012, I realized this shift was going to be the subject of my next film.”
All of the five interviewees have had to face serious challenges, from being laughed at to being bullied. And, of course, they have had to talk with their parents about how they see themselves, versus how their parents initially viewed them.
“Sometimes, it’s easy to think it would be less stressful just to fit in,” says Lili in the film, “but then I’m not really being myself, and I find that’s an important part of living life because, if everybody’s trying to be like everybody else … it doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Another NFB film being screened in Vancouver next month is Wall, which is based on British playwright David Hare’s 2009 monologue on the security fence/wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Wall is not the first extended exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for Sir David, who was knighted in 1998. Written in 1997, his Via Dolorosa monologue premièred in London in 1998.
The film Wall has been a long time in coming. According to the NFB media site, in 2010, NFB executive producer and producer David Christensen “had a three-hour drive ahead of him when he chanced upon a podcast of Wall.”
“‘Listening to David Hare’s take on this wall Israel had put up gripped me visually,’ recalls Christensen.
“Riveted by Hare’s reframing of the issue and struck by how he could visualize the piece as an animated film, Christensen immediately called his producing partner Bonnie Thompson, who had the same reaction he did upon listening to Hare’s piece.
“‘For many of us, the issues around the Middle East, Israel and Palestine are complex and polarizing,’ says Thompson. ‘We thought making an animated film was a way to better understand this wall.’”
Canadian filmmaker Cam Christiansen is the animator who brought the concept to life visually, using 3-D motion-capture footage and other “cutting-edge animation tools.”
Wall has been the official selection of six film festivals to date, so it has captured critics’ imaginations. However, most Jewish community members will find it hard to watch, as Hare pays lip-service to the complexity of the situation but never veers very far away from blaming Israel for pretty much everything. When he says, “words become flags. They announce which side you’re on,” anyone with a basic knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only has to look at the title of this work to know on which sides he falls. But then he goes on for 80 minutes about it.
There are a few instances when Hare seems about to offer the Israeli side, or at least condemn Hamas, but then he retreats. When he is told about a Hamas torture tactic, he is at first repulsed but then suggests it’s a metaphor for how Palestinians must feel at the hands of Israel. When he sees a poster of Saddam Hussein in a Ramallah café, he wonders about the appropriateness of such a man as a hero but then concludes it’s OK because Israel put up the wall, after all. And, then there’s his exchange with a Palestinian who says that Britain is to blame for all the problems: “Of course it’s your fault. The British were running Palestine in the 1940s. When they ran away and left everything to the Israelis, they didn’t care what happened to everyone else. There was a life here – a Christian life, a Muslim life, a Jewish life – and that life was destroyed.”
This ridiculous statement – and so many others – is not only left unchallenged by Hare or any of the filmmakers, but gets nods or words of understanding. With Israeli novelist David Grossman as the predominant voice defending or explaining Israel’s motivations and actions in Wall, most Jewish movie-goers will know before seeing it just how limited are the views expressed in this film, no matter what complexity it proclaims to convey.
Wall screens four times between Aug. 17 and 21 at Vancity Theatre. For tickets, visit viff.org.
An historical photo of Line 41 blending into a drawing of the buildings and street. (photo by Marek Iwicki, drawing Tanja Cummings)
The Line 41 streetcar ran through Lodz Ghetto (Litzmannstadt). Established by the Nazis in 1939, 180,000 Jews and 5,000 Sinti and Roma were imprisoned there, in plain site of the streetcar passengers. As these travelers went about their daily routines for the next several years, 46,000 people died from hunger, disease and violence in the ghetto and practically everyone else was deported to Auschwitz or Chelmno extermination camps. By August 1944, fewer than 900 prisoners remained; the Soviet army arrived in January 1945.
The documentary film Line 41 focuses on the story of two men: Natan Grossmann, who survived the ghetto, and Jens-Jurgen Ventzki, whose father was the Nazi mayor of the city. It will see its Canadian première on July 11, 7:45 p.m., at Vancity Theatre. The screening will be followed by a discussion between Berlin-based director Tanja Cummings and Prof. Richard Menkis, associate professor of modern Jewish history at the University of British Columbia.
“I was interested in participating,” Menkis told the Independent, “because I am a Holocaust educator, quite simply. As such, I think it is important to engage the different ways of approaching the Holocaust…. I teach the course on the Holocaust at UBC, have published on aspects of the Holocaust and have worked on museum exhibitions. I am also interested in film representations – especially in documentaries – so I am glad to be involved. The film raises several important issues, especially about ‘bystanders,’ and I look forward to having a conversation about the film and its themes.”
Released in 2016, Line 41 has screened in Germany, Poland, Austria, Romania, the United States and Australia. The film took about nine years to make, with the initial idea for it coming in 2007.
“Everything started by reading the 1937 novel by Israel Joshua Singer, Di brider Aschkenasi [The Brothers Ashkenazi],” Cummings told the Independent. “It was this great novel that raised my interest in Lodz in the very first place and it made me travel there in 2008 or so.”
Cummings was initially interested in Lodz before the Second World War. “The history of Lodz was very much influenced by German, Polish and Jewish populations since the early 19th century,” she explained. “In a positive way, one could say that these groups worked together to transform a small village into a major European centre of textile production within a few decades.”
Known variously as “the Manchester of Poland” and the “Eldorado of the East,” she said, “Immigrants from all over Europe came to this ‘Promised Land.’ This term was actually coined for this city by [Nobel Prize-winning author] Wladyslaw Reymont in a novel of that title…. Later on, the famous Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda made a feature film out of it, with, again, the same title (or, in Polish, Ziemia Obiecana).
“So, it was Germans, Jews, Poles and also Russians who dominated the development of Lodz. Knit together – through trade, business, politics and bureaucracy – every group played its specific role, and made up what was and still is called ‘the Lodz man,’ ‘Lodzermensch,’ a ‘man’ of special wit of life and street smarts, so this fascinated me.”
Over time, her focus shifted.
“I tried to meet witnesses of German, Polish and Jewish background who, through their family background, would be able to tell me about these prewar times,” she said, “but, ‘naturally,’ all their stories circled around the era in which this world of the Lodzermensch was destroyed – by the invasion of the German Wehrmacht, the Second World War and the times of the ghetto. This is what their stories focused on, as they themselves had experienced it as young adults, teenagers, children. Through meeting these witnesses and hearing their powerful, shattering stories, it became clear that one must record them and their stories so that they would reach a larger audience. And, early on, it was clear to me that we should try to find witnesses – last witnesses – of these various groups: roughly, the victims, the perpetrators, the bystanders.”
Cummings said, “When you walk through Lodz today or through the area of the former ghetto for that matter, which formed a large part of this city, you realize that many of the buildings, streets, backyards, hallways and flats do not seem to have changed since the time of the war…. In many streets, time seems to stand still. The buildings still stand in their roughness, but the people of the ghetto of 1940 until 1944 (or early 1945) are gone. Yet, people live there today and seem to be oblivious to what happened in their streets, flats, courtyards.
“This is especially painful if one can connect certain buildings with specific stories of people and families – through the narratives told to us; through historical literature and through diaries or other reports, for example, Berlin Jewish families whose deportation has been traced, the places where they ‘lived’ in the ghetto and what happened to them, which tragedies evolved, which terror was inflicted upon them there, or in the camps, such as Kulmhof [Chelmno] or Auschwitz.
“A key moment that shocked me deeply was when, in 2010 or 2011, a Lodz German in his early 80s – not the one whom we see in the film – walked us through streets of the former ghetto area and he showed to us the street where the streetcar line ran through, coming from the ‘free’ part of the city. This was the first time I had ever heard about this streetcar,” said Cummings. “And he told us he had been a passenger in this streetcar many times, and that the ghetto was plainly visible to him and anybody who took this streetcar – not once, many times. And, while he told us this, streetcars passed by. In Lodz, the past is very present,” as it is elsewhere, in places like Berlin, and all over Europe.
“Since that day with this elderly Lodz German (who, after the war, did not leave this city) I tried to find more witnesses from this period of the war who would tell their stories from their own perspectives: Jewish survivors of the ghetto, but also Germans and Poles who lived around the ghetto which was hermetically closed and isolated over the course of four years. Germans and Poles, what did they see, what did they know? What was told in families, at school? What was the atmosphere in the city back then?
“The ghetto was a different matter altogether, and the narratives very much circled around survival, hunger and nightmarish scenes, but also culture, resistance – so many efforts to stay human.
“As for the main protagonist, Natan Grossmann, who was a teenager during ghetto times, we also tried to find out – together with him – about the fate of his older brother. To Natan, since the day his brother vanished in March 1942 in the ghetto, he had no clue what had happened to him.”
In the main phases of filming, from 2011 to 2013, about 120 hours with witnesses was recorded, after which it was decided the documentary would focus on Grossmann and Ventzki.
“When we started, we had no clear vision of what [the witnesses] would tell us, or where we would go with them, where they would lead us – all these things developed in the process of filming – or what we, together with the protagonists, would find out, what we would learn from them,” said Cummings.
When Grossmann arrived in the British Mandate of Palestine in 1946, she explained, “he felt he was ‘reborn’ there and crossed out the past from his mind. He suppressed what had happened to him in Lodz Ghetto, in Auschwitz, other camps in Germany, the death march…. He crossed this out from his daily life and did not talk about it. He did not look for his brother Ber, whose fate was unknown to him, except one attempt, when he visited Auschwitz in the 1980s but could not find any records there on his brother.”
Only because Grossmann was persuaded “to travel with us to Lodz in 2011, visit archives and connect with historians there, did we, together, finally find out what happened to his older brother Ber.”
In the film, Grossmann searches “not only for his brother, but also for the graves of his parents, who were murdered in the ghetto, and for photographs of anybody from his once-large family, as he has none of his close family.”
Ventzki, the second main protagonist, is the son of Werner Ventzki, a Nazi official and German mayor of Lodz (then Litzmannstadt) during the German occupation. “So, the son goes on a journey as well,” said Cummings, “but from a completely different perspective – as son of a perpetrator fighting a silence, the silence in his family, and trying to find ways of dealing with the fact that his father was a Nazi perpetrator, and his mother, too.”
During filming, Ventzki and Grossmann were kept apart. “We traveled with them separately,” she said, “as we felt then it may be too intense and heavy for both of them. Only much later, [while the film was] in the editing room already, in 2013, we decided we should try to have them meet (and start filming again).”
The meeting took place at Ventzki’s home in Austria. “In the film, you can see their first-ever meeting, moments of this meeting, which, in the film, form the most powerful and, for some, unbearable moments in the film, towards its end. In fact, these moments were the starting point of a … deep friendship between these two men.”
The film isn’t intended to be “a ‘didactic play’ or tell audiences what to think,” said Cummings, “but rather to ask questions, as the film does…. I would be glad if this kind of curiosity and openness is transmitted to the audiences.”
While the film deals with historical issues, it does so, for the most part, through “the two main protagonists, who used to stand on different ‘sides of the fence’: victims and perpetrators. But the film is not about reconciliation, but rather about meeting and listening to each other. If audiences feel how important that is, or feel the power of what happens there or may happen there, that would be wonderful. And this reaches out beyond the ‘topic’ of the Shoah or Holocaust – there is something universal about it.”
For more information, visit linie41-film.net. For tickets to the screening and discussion, which is being presented by the Vancouver Foreign Film Society, go to viff.org. Vancity classifies the film as suitable for ages 19+.
Left to right: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola in Disobedience. (photo from Bleecker Street)
Sebastián Lelio’s beautifully wrought Disobedience is some kind of small miracle. A close-up portrait of three 30-something British Jews grappling with their respective sexual and religious truths, it is a timeless saga that feels utterly contemporary.
It’s a film that probably couldn’t have been made even 10 years ago, because it assumes and addresses a world – or at least a generation or two – that is perfectly comfortable with the fluidity of sexual identity. Disobedience comes from a place where homosexual and bisexual relationships aren’t abnormal or unhealthy, even if they are still taboo in some subcultures.
Adapted from Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel, Disobedience takes a familiar concept – the return of the prodigal child years after she left her Orthodox Jewish family and community – and spins it on a fresh and unexpected axis.
This type of drama has usually been framed as a dialectic between faith and secularism, and tradition and modernity. The emotional punch typically derives from sympathetic individuals bulldozed by a patriarchy portrayed as tyrannical and anachronistic.
The conflict in Disobedience isn’t between people on opposite sides of an irreconcilable philosophical divide – which would inevitably propel the viewer to identify with one protagonist and condemn the others – but within each person: who am I, and what hard choices do I need to make right now to live an authentic, satisfying life?
One refreshing consequence is there are no villains, whose roles are to constrain and injure the characters, in Disobedience. Furthermore, because the stakes are personal and individual, the film neatly sidesteps or backgrounds big-picture questions such as the modern world’s challenges and threats to the Orthodox community.
The movie opens with the elderly London rabbi of a small shul collapsing in mid-sermon. On the other side of the Atlantic, a dark-haired photographer (Rachel Weisz) shoots a man adorned with tattoos. The introduction of Ronit in conjunction with one of Judaism’s prohibitions instantly illustrates the distance she’s put between her upbringing and her current life. (In fact, if my hearing is accurate, in New York she dropped the “t” long ago and goes by Roni, an act of reinvention and assimilation.)
In a succession of quick shots, Ronit receives some bad news, has anonymous sex with a male stranger and, finally alone, tears her sweater in a Jewish gesture of mourning. The gifted Chilean filmmaker Lelio, who adapted the novel with British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, immediately delineates a wild child who isn’t happy in the present nor reconciled to her past.
Ronit’s return to London for her respected father’s funeral isn’t welcomed by relatives and other members of the congregation, and we get the vaguest hints about the circumstances that led to her self-imposed exile. (Hers was the first act of disobedience, but it won’t be the last.) She receives a slightly warmer reception from the obvious heir to the late rav’s pulpit, the perpetually restrained Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola) and his demure wife Esti (Rachel MacAdams).
We expect the film to portray Ronit as a troubled heroine for choosing a “liberated” life and as the awkward outsider enduring a loss without much support. Lelio’s prior films, A Fantastic Woman (last year’s Academy Award-winning portrait of a grieving transgender woman) and Gloria (centred on an older woman who wilfully pursues a romance with a problematic man), conveyed his respect for women defying the judgment and rules of others.
However, Ronit behaves so selfishly and inappropriately that we are insulted along with the Orthodox characters. Disobedience is a form of rebellion, but people aren’t automatically entitled to hurt others – or to jeopardize their jobs and relationships – in the course of expressing their nonconformity. And that is the crux of Ronit’s entanglement with Esti and, to a lesser degree, Dovid. The great pleasure and power of Disobedience is the skill and subtlety with which Lelio interweaves their desires and responsibilities.
By the end of this terrific film, the various markers and labels that describe – and constrain – the characters have been scrubbed away. They are simply human beings, trying to do the right thing.
Disobedience opened May 18 at Cineplex Odeon International Village. The film is rated R for some strong sexuality.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.