Camera in model, from 306 Hollywood. (photo from El Tigre Productions)
Annette Ontell, the New Jersey grandmother at the centre of the glorified home movie 306 Hollywood, lived an ordinary middle-class Jewish existence for six decades at that Newark address.
She didn’t come close to the achievements of RBG heroine Ruth Bader Ginsburg, nor the fame (and heartache) of Love, Gilda star Gilda Radner. Nor did Ontell have the tabloid TV highs and lows of the separated brothers in Three Identical Strangers, yet another documentary with Jewish protagonists that made waves at the box office last year.
Of course, one needn’t get her name in the paper or his face on a screen to live a productive, satisfying life. More to the point, plenty of wonderful and profound documentaries have been made about the small-scale triumphs and travails of everyday people. 306 Hollywood, which received a brief theatrical release in 2018 and airs on PBS’s POV series in the coming weeks, is not one of them.
Siblings Elan and Jonathan Bogarin affect an imaginative and stylized “dig” into their dear grandmother’s objects and possessions to the accompaniment of a kinda whimsical, kinda wistful indie-film score. Their strategy yields a parade of eye-catching images and bizarre set pieces that, individually and collectively, provide no insight into this, or any, American life.
The upshot is that 306 Hollywood combines the lacquered sheen and pastel palette of long-form television with the naiveté-masquerading-as-perceptiveness of a film-school project.
To be sure, the filmmakers’ goals, in addition to crafting a work of commercial art, are worthwhile: to uncover and grasp the meaning in a person’s life, and to honour and preserve the memory of a beloved relative whom they visited (with their mother) almost every Sunday for 30 years.
The Bogarins opt to catalogue and focus on the massive detritus – from radios and vacuum cleaners to rubber bands and fashion magazine clippings – that Ontell amassed over the 63 years she resided in the house, most of it spent with her husband. (Her brother lived with them, but he died in his late 40s.)
Ontell had a career as a dress designer and dressmaker, but the creative person she once was doesn’t emerge in the prosaic interviews that her grandchildren filmed with her over the last decade of her life. Instead, to conjure a person (and a personality) from her inanimate objects, the filmmakers enlist a “fashion conservator.” To invoke the metaphysical resonances of time and memory, they turn to physicist and author Alan Lightman.
Perhaps in a nod to Ontell’s artistic impulses, the Bogarins stage a fashion show with her original evening dresses in the yard at 306 Hollywood, and a ballet of young women modeling mid-20th-century lingerie. These sequences are visually impressive but self-indulgent. They aren’t as misguided, however, as the excruciatingly long home-movie scene of the filmmakers’ mother cajoling Ontell (her mother) into disrobing and donning one of her vintage dresses from the 1950s.
The pained presence of an older woman prodded into revisiting the past through her garments does have one benefit: it frees 306 Hollywood from the bonds of hagiography. But none of this gets us any closer to appreciating Ontell, or any emblematic Jewish mother, or to gleaning significance from the connection that human beings have to their possessions. The filmmakers’ choices are so showily ineffective, in fact, that we only rarely reflect on the emotions triggered by the absence and memories of our own forebears.
The most gifted documentary filmmaker I know at transforming the personal into the universal and the banal into the profound is Alan Berliner. The Jewish New Yorker’s masterful family portraits Intimate Stranger (1991) and Nobody’s Business (1996) can be streamed for free through Kanopy, accessible with many public library cards.
306 Hollywood airs March 30, 11 p.m., on KCTS 9 and on WTVS April 4 (check local listings for the time).
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.
In the very talented ensemble of The Road Forward by Marie Clements are Michelle St. John, left, and Jennifer Kreisberg. (photos from National Film Board of Canada)
This year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival features several films with Jewish community connections. They explore a wide range of topics: First Nations activism, Fort McMurray and the oil sands, real-life mermaids, bigotry against larger people, and being a freelance journalist in the Middle East. They will make you question your assumptions, ponder the various ways in which humans find connection, and introduce you to ideas, people and places you probably didn’t know existed.
Opening the festival, which runs May 4-14, is The Road Forward. In the very talented ensemble of this musical documentary by Marie Clements are Michelle St. John and Jennifer Kreisberg. As many of us do, St. John and Kreisberg have multiple cultural heritages that form their identity; in their instances, First Nations and Jewish are among them. In addition to performing, Kreisberg also composed and/or arranged many of the songs; the main composer is Wayne Lavallee.
The Road Forward began as a 10-minute performance piece commissioned for the Aboriginal Pavilion at the 2010 Olympics, and premièred as a full-length theatre show at the 2015 PuSh Festival. The documentary has mostly traditional components – interviews, archival footage, news clips – but these are broken up by a number of songs, which add energy and emotion to the film.
The documentary uses as its starting point the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, which were established in the 1930s, when First Nations people were not permitted to meet and organize. The groups’ “official organ,” the Native Voice, was the first indigenous-run newspaper in Canada.
“The idea was to honour B.C.’s history, so I started researching and reading online and came across the archives of the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, the oldest Native organization in the country. Their parent organization, the Native Fishing Association, is located in West Vancouver, close to me,” explains Clements in the press material.
The Road Forward touches on many issues along its journey to current-day First Nation activists, who carry on in their ancestors’ paths. Though their goals are varied – some fight for particular legal or policy changes, others for restitution and reconciliation, yet others for their own voice and place in the world – they are all seeking justice, equality, understanding.
The songs highlight the immense struggles. As but two examples, “1965” is about the decades upon decades that First Nations have been denied the basic rights that most other Canadians have long enjoyed, and “My Girl” is a heartbreaking tribute to the aboriginal women who have been murdered along British Columbia’s Highway 16, the “Highway of Tears.” The Indian Constitution Express, a movement organized by George Manuel in 1980-81 to protest the lack of aboriginal rights in then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s plans to patriate the Canadian Constitution, receives somewhat more attention than other activist achievements, and the song “If You Really Believe,” based on a speech by Manuel, is quite powerful.
The May 4 gala screening of The Road Forward is the official launch of Aabiziingwashi (#WideAwake), National Film Board of Canada’s Indigenous Cinema on Tour. For the length of 2017, NFB is offering films from its 250-plus collection to all Canadians via [email protected]. The film also runs on May 10 and Clements will participate in a Q&A following both screenings.
* * *
Limit is the Sky follows a handful of 20-somethings who have moved to Fort McMurray to follow their dreams. A few years before the price of oil plummeted in 2015 and the 2016 wildfire decimated the northern Alberta city, the average family income in “Fort Mac,” was $190,000 a year, according to the film. Working on the oil sands was where the real money lay, but others were drawn to the college or to places that serve the oil workers (and others), such as hairdressing salons and restaurants.
Most striking about the population we meet in Limit is the Sky is their diversity: they not only come from other Canadian provinces and the United States but from much further afield. The seven young dreamers featured include Max, from Lebanon; Mucharata, from the Philippines, who had to leave her 2-year-old son behind initially (for fours years); and KingDeng, a former child soldier from South Sudan, who had to help support his wife and children (in Edmonton) while at school in Fort McMurray.
“I was looking for young people who’d just recently arrived in Fort Mac, full of hopes, dreams and naïveté,” says filmmaker Julia Ivanova in the press material. “I wanted to walk the viewer through their ups and downs in a place where the men seem tough and the women even tougher. I wasn’t looking for tough characters, though: sensitivity and beauty – both inner and physical beauty – were important to me.”
Ivanova, who has Jewish roots, migrated to Canada from Russia many years ago.
“Being an immigrant myself,” she notes, “I could feel what was at stake for these young people and the challenges they face on a very intimate level.”
The main filming ran from fall 2012 to spring 2015. She felt welcomed by the people in the city, though not by the industry. “That was a brick wall I hit over and over again,” she says. “There was no filming of anyone allowed, anywhere, period.”
By the end of the film, most of the millennials featured had left the city, along with many others. “The town felt almost deserted, compared to how I had seen it in 2012 and 2013,” says Ivanova. “So many people were leaving. There was so much anxiety. I went to all the places I loved – and they’d all changed.”
Ivanova’s film shows the hope, the drive, the challenges, the loneliness of her interviewees. The dynamics are much more complex than one might assume of a city that relied on the oil sands for its prosperity. The environment is of crucial importance, obviously, but people matter, too, and this documentary shines a necessary light on that fact.
Limit is the Sky screens May 5.
* * *
Falling into the who-ever-would-have-thought category, Ali Weinstein’s Mermaids introduces viewers to real-life mermaids, of a sort.
Rachel’s underwater job at the Dive Bar in Sacramento, Calif., helps her deal with a family tragedy. Vicki and a group of former Weeki Wachee Resort (in Florida) swimmers recall their mermaid days, including a show for Elvis and a 50th anniversary performance. Being a mermaid helps Cookie, who was abused as a child and has mental health issues, manage life, and she and her soulmate, Eric, who makes her mermaid tails, are married in a mermaid wedding, after being together for some 30 years. Last but not least, Julz, a transgender woman who was bullied as a child and disowned by her father, discovers acceptance and love in a Huntington Beach, Calif., mermaid group.
Weinstein intersperses these stories with brief summaries of long-told mermaid tales, “from the 3,000-year-old Assyrian figure of Atargatis to the Mami Wata water spirits of West Africa.”
It really is a fascinating documentary, showing just how resilient and resourceful the human spirit is.
Mermaids plays twice during DOXA, on May 6 and 13, and Weinstein will be in attendance at both screenings.
* * *
Think of the cartoon villains and the hapless sidekicks. How are they often portrayed? As fat, dumb and/or oversexed? If those weren’t your first thoughts, think again. The documentary Fattitude convincingly shows how widespread bigotry against larger people is – so much so that it can be overlooked, until pointed out. Then, you wonder how you ever missed it.
From the old woman in the candy house that eats Hansel and Gretel, to Star Wars’ Jabba the Hut, to the evil squid in The Little Mermaid, these are just a few of the villains. Then there is the heavyset and dumb Hardy, sidekick to thin, smart Laurel; the stereotypical chubby best friend in so many movies; and the archetypal black nanny, forever cast in the caring, subservient role. Miss Piggy is a more complex character, both strong and confident in herself, but also sex-crazy over Kermit. And, in the entire Star Trek franchise – where have the larger people gone?
From the age of 3, the film notes, we are already programmed with negative stereotypes. When all put together, it’s quite depressing. However, Fattitude is a rather upbeat documentary, as its interviewees are spirited, determined and intelligent enough to effect some change, mainly via social media.
Filmmakers Lindsey Averill and Viridiana Lieberman speak to almost 50 people and, to a person, they provide an interesting perspective, connecting the body images depicted in films, television shows, cartoons, magazines and advertisements with their effects on viewers and on our perceptions of ourselves and others. The film discusses the links between race, socioeconomic status and weight, as well as the reasons why Michelle Obama’s campaign to end childhood obesity was misguided.
Fattitude screens May 9.
* * *
Being a journalist in a war zone seems dangerous and frightening, and it is. But it is also tedious and lonely. At least this is what it seems from watching Santiago Bertolino’s Freelancer on the Front Lines.
Bertolino follows Toronto-born, Beirut-based freelance journalist Jesse Rosenfeld as Rosenfeld hustles to get story ideas and budgets approved, waits in sparse hotel rooms for fixers to connect him with interviewees, and ventures into Egypt during its post-Arab Spring elections, the West Bank during an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey and to Iraq, where they witness the fight against ISIS from the front lines.
Some of the more disturbing images are of the bodies of Palestinians gunned down in a home by undetermined executioners and the corpses of dead ISIS fighters dumped in the back of a truck, as well as tied to its back bumper. In another memorable part, Rosenfeld yells questions to a caged Mohamed Fahmy, when Fahmy and two fellow Al Jazeera journalists were on trial in Cairo. (Fahmy, who holds both Canadian and Egytian citizenship, spent almost two years in jail of a three-year sentence.)
Rosenfeld has strong views and isn’t afraid to share them, though he struggles to make eye contact with the camera when he makes his pronouncements. Some of the best exchanges in the film are between him and Canadian-Israeli journalist Lia Tarachansky, who hold different opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Freelancer on the Front Lines screens May 13 at Vancity and will include a post-film discussion.
For tickets and the full DOXA Documentary Film Festival schedule, visit doxafestival.ca.