Shira Geffen shares how she met her husband, Etgar Keret, in the film Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story, which screens Nov. 14. (photo from facebook.com/etgarkeretfilm)
“I want to write stories so the readers will like mankind a little bit more,” says Israeli writer Etgar Keret in the documentary Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story. Similarly, as depicted in another film, the Israel Museum aims to uplift and educate visitors with its artistic, cultural and historical displays, and The Museum offers a glimpse into the breadth of its collections and the diversity (and quirkiness) of its employees. Both of these award-winning films screen during the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, which started this week.
Danish filmmakers Stephane Kaas (director) and Rutger Lemm (writer) do an excellent job of introducing viewers to what makes Keret tick. They do so using a creative mix of interviews with Keret and his family, friends and colleagues; reenactments of sorts of a few key points in Keret’s life; and a few of Keret’s stories, the portrayal of which is mainly done in animation. Not surprisingly for anyone who has read Keret’s short stories, there are several laugh-out-loud moments in Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story, but there are also sombre elements, as we learn about how Keret has been impacted by tragedy, including the suicide of one of his best friends.
One of the funniest scenes is when Keret shares his first story with his brother, Rodi (Nimrod). Rodi brings his dog along for the walk and, after he finishes reading Keret’s story and praises it, he asks whether the typed copy he’s holding is the only copy. When Keret says no, Rodi uses the paper to pick up his dog’s poo. Perhaps a lesson in humility, Keret explains that it was at this moment he realized that a story is not in the piece of paper on which it has been written or typed – once a story has been read, it is in the mind of the reader. Keret calls this ability of a writer to transfer their ideas to another person a “super power.”
While many of Keret’s stories have gloomy aspects to them, the stories as a whole generally leave readers feeling good. He describes his stories as “an advertisement for life,” saying that he writes to answer the question of why he wants to live.
“I think the need to tell stories is, basically, the need to put a structure to the reality around you. And I feel that the more chaotic and the less sense it makes, the stronger the need I have to tell a story about it,” he explains in the film.
Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story screens Nov. 14, 8:45 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas (19+), following the 22-minute short Large Soldier, directed by Noa Guskov. “It’s 1973 and all that Sherry, a 15-year-old Israeli girl, wants is a boyfriend,” reads the synopsis of the film, which is in Hebrew with English subtitles. “A letter exchange with an unknown soldier makes her believe that it’s going to be her first love. But what will happen when the imaginary soldier becomes real?”
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The opening of Ran Tal’s documentary The Museum grabs viewers’ attention: a black screen, the sound of footsteps, some shuffling about, then a woman asks a man, “What do we have?” “That’s a huge painting,” he begins. When the scene is revealed, we see the man and woman sitting on a bench, looking at the painting, but the woman seeing it only through his eyes, as she is blind. Later in the film, this woman is part of a group of blind people visiting the museum – she and others touch various sculptures, feeling how the works are made.
The Museum makes clear the enormous responsibility and privilege of caring for, handling and presenting art and artifacts. Over a period of one-and-a-half years, Tal interviewed several museum staff – including a security guard who is also a cantor; the institution’s kashrut inspector, who notes that “a museum doesn’t replace spirituality”; and the then-museum director, who sadly had to miss his mother’s funeral because it took place on the day the museum reopened after an extensive renovation. Tal also films visitor interactions over that time, and highlights a 50th anniversary event (in 2015) featuring Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and members of his government. Netanyahu remarks that the museum shows three things: “One is our bond to this land in a very dramatic display, and one of humanity’s most significant archeological finds, the Dead Sea Scrolls. Another is the great cultural treasure of the Jewish people in Israel and the world over, which symbolizes our contribution to humanity.”
Admittedly, The Museum only touches upon more serious concerns – there is a scene where a group of museum staff discusses a collection of traditional Palestinian clothing that is in storage, and the potential impacts of displaying (and not displaying) them – but it at least does bring up such issues, which will hopefully open the door for more in-depth discussion.
The Museum screens on Nov. 17, 6:45 p.m., at the Rothstein Theatre. For the full festival schedule and tickets, visit vjff.org.
Filmmaker Michelle Paymar. (photo from D-Facto Filmstudio)
In the 19th century, the hunt for ancient manuscripts was in vogue, and a tip from two Scottish Presbyterian identical twin sisters – Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson – led talmudic scholar Solomon Schechter of Cambridge University to one of the most incredible discoveries. In 1896, he headed to Egypt, to Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, where he climbed through an opening high in a wall of the synagogue and found himself standing on countless documents that have “revolutionized our understanding of Jewish history.”
The documentary From Cairo to the Cloud, produced, directed and filmed by Vancouver-based filmmaker Michelle Paymar, chronicles the history of the search for the Cairo geniza, or storeroom, which contained more than 900 years’ worth of material – more than half a million fragments. There were religious texts, personal letters, bills, bureaucratic
reports, a child’s practise of the alphabet, artwork, prescriptions, what someone had for lunch and even handwritten drafts penned by 12th-century rabbi and physician Moses Maimonides. The geniza contained a written record of almost every aspect of Jewish life, in multiple languages: Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Persian and Yiddish.
From Cairo to the Cloud sees its North American première at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 12, 3:30 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas. It had its world première at the Cambridge Film Festival earlier this week.
“Many years ago, I learned about the existence of an archive that was essentially a time capsule of Jewish life in medieval Egypt,” Paymar told the Independent. “Then, in 2011, two books about the Cairo geniza appeared – one by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole called Sacred Trash and one by Mark Glickman entitled Sacred Treasure.
“I was captivated by the immediacy of the voices from the geniza, the richness of Judeo-Arabic culture, and the sophistication of their milieu. When I learned that Cambridge was in the process of digitizing its final geniza documents for the Friedberg Genizah Project, I called Ben Outhwaite, the head of the geniza collection at the Cambridge University Library, to find out if any film crews would be documenting this momentous event. No one was planning to film the digitization of the last documents, so I grabbed my camera and my gear and went to Cambridge to film it myself.”
Using narrations of various texts (translated into English), archival images, animation, visual effects and lots and lots of interviews, From Cairo to the Cloud does indeed take viewers from Cairo to the Cloud, or the internet. Thanks to the Friedberg Genizah Project, all the geniza fragments are now accessible by researchers around the world. With the physical manuscript pieces stored in different institutions, it used to be that, to study one document, a researcher might have to go to several cities just to puzzle together part of a page. Not only is that travel no longer necessary but, because every scribe writes in a unique way, computer programs have been able to match texts using a technology like that which is used in facial recognition, making it possible to join hundreds of pieces of a document within a couple of months.
Wherever you have a Jewish community, you must have a geniza, explains Prof. Hassan Khalilieh (University of Haifa) in the film. Rabbi and author Mark Glickman then explains that a geniza is a place to store damaged Jewish religious texts and documents. Geniza is a Hebrew word for hide, adds Prof. Yaacov Choueka (Friedberg Genizah Project). In Jewish law, he explains, you are not allowed to destroy or deal disrespectfully with written material with God’s name on it.
So, continues Prof. Janet Soskice (University of Cambridge), that document has to be treated with the reverence you would accord to a human body. Once a home’s or synagogue’s geniza is full, the stored material gets taken to the cemetery and buried. But, what author Dara Horn notes is that the Jews of medieval Cairo had a different method – they not only saved documents with God’s name in it but any document written in Hebrew letters, and they didn’t empty their geniza for more than 900 years.
Quick snippets of information from academics, librarians, writers and other experts keep From Cairo to the Cloud moving at a good pace, while not losing its educational aspect.
“I started with a few names and those names begat more names,” said Paymar. “I soon discovered that these ‘geniziologists’ were wonderful storytellers and passionate about the geniza. I ended up interviewing about 40 people representing a wide range of interests and three generations of geniza scholarship. The oldest – Mordechai Friedman, Avraham Udovitch and Mark Cohen – studied with [ethnographer] S.D. Goitein himself. Then there are the students of Goitein’s students, like Marina Rustow, and her student, Arnold Franklin.
“I have about 60 hours of interview material. Once I started piecing together the story, it became more or less clear which selections to use from each of the interviews.”
And what a story it is, between how the geniza was found – meeting people like the sisters Smith Lewis and Dunlop Gibson, who were academics in all but name, knowing 14 languages between them and taking multi-continent excursions, often in search of ancient manuscripts – and the documents from the geniza itself. The material in the storeroom roughly covers the period 1000 to 1250 in Fustat, which started as a separate city than Cairo, and was a major hub for trade.
“Gaining permission to film in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo,” explains Paymar in her director’s notes, “required nearly seven years, three Egyptian governments, gaining the support of representatives from the Jewish community of Cairo, the assistance of the Canadian consulate in Cairo, approval by the Egyptian ministries of the interior and antiquities, the Egyptian state police, the Egyptian tourist police, the Egyptian Press Office and the Jewish community of Cairo. I was the first filmmaker in decades to be allowed to film inside the synagogue.”
Because of Paymar’s efforts, the rest of us can see inside the Cairo geniza’s treasures much more easily. We should take the opportunity to do so. It is a fascinating journey.
For the full Vancouver Jewish Film Festival lineup, visit vjff.org.
Still from If You’re Hungry, Sing. If You Ache, Laugh.
When Vancouver freelance director and writer Michèle Smolkin interviewed her uncle, Sam Rechtman, he was 103 years old. Born on July 7, 1914, he has experienced two world wars, pogroms, poverty, hard manual labour, military service, loss, love and so much more, and yet he still approaches life with energy and cheer. Si tu as faim, chante. Si tu as mal, ris (If You’re Hungry, Sing. If You Ache, Laugh) is the perfect name for the documentary Smolkin has made on him.
The adage is an old saying from Chelm, explains the film, which happens to be the village in which Rechtman was born. At the time of his birth, Chelm was part of the Russian Empire. He was the second of four siblings.
We are merely introduced to Rechtman in this documentary, which runs just under an hour. With delightful, simply drawn animated sequences, along with music, archival film footage, old family photos and, of course, the interview with her uncle, Smolkin has created an inspiring reminder of just how much our attitude affects our lives.
In a brief interview for the DOXA Documentary Film Festival this past May, Smolkin explains that the film is “more than just a portrait of a man’s life and time, it’s also the portrait of a century in Europe. My uncle went through so much ordeal and such a dramatic life and is still this happy, simple, fun person who enjoys life and is not bitter or complaining. We are so privileged, that we should sometimes think, oh yeah, we could also enjoy life. That’s a life lesson.”
If You’re Hungry, Sing. If You Ache, Laugh screens on Nov. 11, 1 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas, as part of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, vjff.org.
Tzahi Grad, left, and Ala Dakka are great together in The Cousin. (photo from Shaxaf Haber/Venice Film Festival)
The 30th annual Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, which runs Nov. 7-Dec. 2, has an impressive lineup. Not only is there a wide range of quality films from which to choose, but the reach of the festival has widened, with screenings this year also taking place in West Vancouver and Port Moody. Here are just some of the great films you’ll be able to see.
After Naftali, a successful Israeli actor-director, proudly shows his newly hired Palestinian worker, Fahed, the trailer for his latest creation – an internet series called One by One, which will bring Israelis and Palestinians together to talk and, eventually, Naftali believes, help bring about peace – Fahed’s response is, “Yes, it’s nice. It’s a little, um, a little naïve, isn’t it?” Begrudgingly, Naftali admits, “Totally, but not impossible.”
Maybe not impossible, but certainly beyond the scope of a web series, as Naftali soon finds out in The Cousin. When a ninth-grade girl is attacked in the neighbourhood, suspicion immediately falls on Fahed, who is arrested, then let out on bail – bail paid for by Naftali, who is pretty sure that Fahed is innocent. As the film progresses, Naftali’s beliefs are seriously challenged, both by his neighbours, who are champing at the bit to mete out their own justice on the not-proven-guilty Fahed, and by his wife, who wasn’t comfortable having a Palestinian worker in the first place. The pressure forces Naftali to confront his own latent racism, which arises rather quickly.
The acting in this film is excellent. Writer, director and star Tzahi Grad is convincing as the somewhat pompous but well-meaning Naftali and Ala Dakka is wonderful as Fahed, a compassionate, laidback, not-so-handy handyman who shows some promise as a rap musician. The supporting characters fulfil their roles believably. The oddball neighbours, who at first just seem to have been added for comic relief, become truly menacing, and Osnat Fishman as Naftali’s wife aptly portrays her transformation from merely nervous and annoyed to scared and angry.
The writing in the film is mainly good. The serious dialogue and action are compelling and there are humourous interjections that work to both lighten the material and shed light on it. However, there are other attempts at humour that are inconsistent with the overall mood and message. And the last three minutes of the film are completely bizarre, and really should have ended up on the cutting-room floor. But this should not stop you from seeing what otherwise is an entertaining, gripping and thought-provoking movie because, if nothing else, it’s such a bad ending that it’s almost good; at the least, it’s memorable, in a shake-your-head-in-wonder way.
The Cousin has three screenings: Nov. 10, 6:45 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas; Nov. 25, 2 p.m., at Kay Meek Studio Theatre (West Vancouver); and Nov. 26, 6:45 p.m., at Inlet Theatre (Port Moody).
A tragic thriller
Bram Fischer is one of the great Jewish heroes of the 20th century, yet he is not widely remembered outside his native South Africa. The crackling moral thriller An Act of Defiance, which recreates the attorney’s gutsy exploits during the Rivonia Trial in the early 1960s, brilliantly revives his legacy.
From the outset, the film defines Fischer (played with verve and intelligence by Peter Paul Muller) less by his considerable legal skills and reputation than by the company he keeps: he is a strategist and ally of Nelson Mandela and the other leaders (several of them Jewish) covertly plotting against the apartheid regime. In fact, Fischer is supposed to be at the meeting where the police bust in and arrest the activists.
Free and available to represent the accused against charges of sabotage, Fischer is more than their defender and advocate: he’s an active member of the resistance whose actions – epitomized by a tense, protracted sequence in which he smuggles key documents out of a government building, inadvertently placing his family in danger – express his commitment and courage even more than his legal challenges and parries.
Fischer’s extracurricular activities have the effect of pushing An Act of Defiance out of the realm of courtroom drama and into a full-bore thriller. That said, the film never loses sight of the plight of the Rivonia defendants, who face death sentences if convicted.
Dutch director Jean van de Velde fills the cast with South African actors such as Antoinette Louw, who imbues Molly Fischer with backbone, wit and warmth to match her husband. Along with its other attributes, An Act of Defiance is a moving love story.
An Act of Defiance screens Nov. 11, 3:30 p.m., at Fifth Avenue.
Faith and family
Redemption, which is called Geula in Hebrew, after the main character’s daughter, is a powerful film, the emotional impact of which builds up imperceptibly, such that you may only find yourself teary-eyed awhile after it has ended, when all the feelings it evokes finally reach the surface.
Co-directors and co-writers Joseph Madmony and Boaz Yehonatan Yacov grab viewers’ attention right away, with a lyrically and musically edgy song accompanying us as we follow Menachem through the streets to the drugstore, where he gets his photo taken – even though his attempts at smiling fail – then pausing to have a smoke before returning to his apartment to relieve the babysitter. Within the first five minutes, we know he is an awkward, sad, kind and generous Orthodox Jew, as well as an attentive, caring and loving father.
Other aspects of his life come into focus as he reconnects with his former friends and band mates, including his reason for reuniting them. Menachem’s 6-year-old daughter, Geula, needs expensive cancer treatments if there’s a chance for her to survive the cancer that killed her mother. Menachem, who works at a supermarket, needs the money that the band could make from playing at weddings.
The renewal of the friendships involves the reopening of some old wounds, and the men’s paths to healing are stories well told, though the film is mainly about Menachem, who, we find out, broke with the group when he became religious 15 years earlier. Moshe Folkenflik plays the widower with nuance, humility and depth, and Emily Granin as his daughter, Geula, captures the strong will, intelligence, bravery and fear of this young girl, playing with subtlety what could have been a maudlin role.
Redemption will be screened twice: Nov. 12, 8:45 p.m., at Fifth Avenue and Nov. 29, 8:45 p.m., at Inlet Theatre. [It will also screen as part of the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival on nov. 4, 1:30 p.m., at the Vic Theatre. For tickets and information to the Victoria festival, visit vijff.ca.]
Smiles and belly laughs
Sam Hoffman’s resoundingly funny debut feature, Humor Me, imagines a well-appointed New Jersey retirement community as the setting for mid-life rejuvenation and resurrection. Neatly avoiding or flipping every cliché about seniors (cute, crotchety or flirtatious), the adult son-aging father dynamic and the theatre, Humor Me is a warm-hearted, flawlessly executed fable.
When his wife takes their young son and leaves him for a billionaire, talented-but-blocked playwright Nate Kroll (New Zealand actor Jemaine Clement) has to move out of their Manhattan brownstone and into the guest bedroom at his dad’s town house at Cranberry Bog. Bob (a note-perfect turn by Elliot Gould) is an inveterate joke teller, but his repertoire doesn’t work on a 40-year-old failed artist.
“Life’s going to happen, son, whether you smile or not,” he declares, a philosophy that the audience can embrace more easily than Nate can. If it contains a bit of Jewish fatalism, well, that’s Gould’s voice. So Bob’s jokes, which are consistently risqué and constructed with an ironic twist, have a faint air of the Borscht Belt about them. (It’s not a coincidence that Hoffman produced and directed the web series Old Jews Telling Jokes.)
There’s not a single stupid character in Humor Me, including Nate’s bland, successful brother (Erich Bergen), and this generosity of spirit means we’re always laughing with Nate’s foils, not at them. It helps immeasurably that Hoffman (best known for producing the TV show Madame Secretary) assembled a veteran cast – Annie Potts as Bob’s girlfriend, Le Clanché du Rand as a flirtatious senior and Bebe Neuwirth as a theatre heavyweight – that nails every last punch line and reaction shot.
Humor Me plays out the way we hope and expect it will, which is to say it delivers on its implicit promises. En route, it provides lots of smiles and several belly laughs. Even Nate, who’s well aware that he’s earned every joke that he’s the butt of, gets his share of one-liners. There’s plenty to go around, you see.
Humor Me is at Fifth Avenue on Nov. 14, 1 p.m.
For the full Vancouver Jewish Film Festival schedule and tickets, visit vjff.org.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
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.
Like one of her favourite romantic comedies, Crossing Delancey, writer-director Rachel Israel’s narrative feature debut, Keep the Change, is a New York love story with a tangible Jewish undercurrent.
The romantic duo in the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival’s opening night selection readily self-identify as Jewish, but they share another quality that for most people primarily defines them: David (Brandon Polansky) and Sarah (Samantha Elisofon) are on the autism spectrum.
Refreshingly honest and sexually straightforward in its portrayal of the way people with autism interact with each other, with their families and with strangers, Keep the Change received two prizes when it premièred at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.
“A few of the characters are naturally unfiltered in the way they talk about sex, and I thought it was a beautiful and fun aspect of the characters,” Israel explained in a phone interview.
“A lot of depictions of people with autism shy away from sex, and I think it’s important to show that people on the spectrum have sex lives,” she said. “To shy away from it is in some way demeaning or infantilizing.”
Keep the Change receives its Canadian première when it opens the VJFF Nov. 2 at Fifth Avenue Cinemas, followed by a Nov. 12 screening at the Rothstein Theatre. It also screens Nov. 19 at the Roxy Theatre, as part of the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival.
Israel spent her childhood in the Princeton, N.J., area and her adolescence and teen years in Boca Raton, Fla., before pursuing her undergraduate degree at the Rhode Island School of Design. She moved to New York for her graduate studies in film at Columbia, where she refocused her first screenplay from a drama about David’s family to an endearing, awkward and rocky love story between he and Sarah.
Israel set about making a short film, and discovered a community of people with autism at the Manhattan Jewish Community Centre. She cast Brandon and Samantha and, some five years later, asked them to reprise their roles for a feature.
“Brandon’s search for love and companionship, and possibly sexual experience, is a defining part of his personality,” Israel said. “When I met him, I didn’t know he was on the spectrum … until he told me. When he told me he had autism, it was an awakening, because I thought of someone like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, someone who shies away from contact. And that was very much not the way Brandon was.”
His character’s Jewishness is front and centre, which may feed into some viewers’ judgment of his ostentatiously wealthy parents (played by Jewish actors Jessica Walter and Tibor Feldman). Sarah’s Jewish identity is much less pronounced but it could be a plus – in theory – in winning David’s parents’ acceptance.
“He is quietly desperate to have a girl, so it wouldn’t have stopped him at all [if Sarah wasn’t Jewish],” Israel said. “But it’s a big thing for many Jewish parents for your kids to stay in the tribe. He thinks that it will please his parents. But, more than that, for himself he wants some traditional things for his life. He wants a permanent loving relationship. I think he thinks that should be marriage. He very much wants the things that he’s seen his peers from childhood acquire, and he doesn’t understand why he shouldn’t have them.”
David and Sarah are fictional versions of the real people.
“We wrote it in collaboration with the cast, but they are playing fictional characters,” Israel emphasized. “They are not playing themselves. We’ve created characters that had some of their tendencies, while other things were different. They could definitely draw upon who they were to inform their characters.”
After Tribeca, Israel screened Keep the Change at the Los Angeles Film Festival and at Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, where it won two more prizes. Her grandfather, a financial supporter of the film, who escaped Czechoslovakia at 14 on one of the Kindertransports organized by Sir Nicholas Winton, attended the festival with Israel and the film.
For tickets and the full schedule for the VJFF (Nov. 2-12) and VIJFF (Nov. 18-21), visit vjff.org and vijff.ca, respectively.
– Michael Fox
About two dozen of the most popular Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers. An engaging documentary by Canadian producers, Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas, uses this fact as a jumping off point to explore the varied issues around Jewish relationships with Christmas, including Chinese food, the Chanukah-Christmas competition and some Jews’ conflicting desire to both fit in and remain distinctive from the majority culture.
The dreamlike documentary takes a retro, festive approach to the topic, beginning with a family of four arriving at a Chinese restaurant, circa the 1960s. Here, the wide-eyed children drink in the scene as waiters and fellow patrons break into song and chefs engage in kitchen percussions and choreography. Talking heads intersperse with these song-and-dance routines to explore, in an amusing way, the sometimes deep and multifaceted connections between Jews and the inescapable December holiday.
Jewish songsters are responsible for familiar tunes like “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” (Felix Bernard, born Felix William Bernhardt), “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” (Mel Tormé and Robert Wells, born Levinson) and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (George Wyle, born Bernard Weissman). The propensity for changing Jewish-sounding surnames is also addressed.
Mark Breslin, the founder of Yuk Yuk’s comedy club chain, puts a fine point on the Jewish role in Christmas music. “You could write a song three percent of the population would buy the record or you could write a song that 97% of the population will buy the record,” he says. “The businessman in me says go for the bigger market.”
Another comedian, Jackie Mason, dismisses the idea that there is anything odd about people writing songs about a holiday that is not their own. “Who cares if it’s your own holiday?” Mason says. “If I see a lot of cows on the street, am I going to write about a cow? Do I have to be a partner with cows, do I have to live with cows, to write a song about them? If everybody’s a Christian, that’s an easier sale, isn’t it?”
One commentator notes that almost all the Christmas carols written by Jews were what could be called “secular” songs. They are not about the birth of Jesus but about chestnuts, snow and winter coziness, reinforcing a new mythology that was emerging in the middle of the 20th century, which turned Christmas into a non-denominational winter celebration. In this, Jews and other non-Christians could more fully participate.
Ron Sidran, author of There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream, cites Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” sung by Bing Crosby in the 1942 film Holiday Inn, as a turning point. “That song is the song where Irving Berlin de-Christs Christmas,” he says. “He turns Christmas into a holiday about snow.”
Calgary-born Ophira Eisenberg, who hosts NPR’s Ask Me Another radio quiz show, recalls receiving Chanukah gifts so she wouldn’t feel left out when her friends were getting visits from Santa. When the young Ophira asked her mother who the gifts came from, she was told that Moses came down from the mountain each year bringing presents to good little Jewish boys and girls. “Presents of dreidels and socks,” she adds wryly.
And while one speaker claims that Jewish composers wrote Christmas songs not as Jews, but as Americans, music journalist Robert Harris says “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is explicitly Jewish.
Rudolph’s creator, Robert May, said that he based the story of the reindeer – with his prominent nose, who was excluded from games with his peers and called names – on his own childhood as a Jewish American in the first half of the 20th century.
“And you know what’s incredible about Rudolph?” Harris says. “Rudolph doesn’t get a nose job. The point of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer is not for Rudolph to blend in and become another reindeer. The point of Rudolph is for Rudolph to be appreciated for what he is.” Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas screens at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 5.
– Pat Johnson
In Maysaloun Hamoud’s Bar Bahar (In Between), three young Palestinian women share an apartment in Tel Aviv as they struggle with the issues of religion, sexuality and overall identity. They live “in between” cultures. They are not Israeli enough – they are Palestinian, and are reminded of that fact occasionally. They are not Palestinian enough either – they want to escape the traditional role of a Palestinian woman. Centuries-old traditions and modernity clash in this film, as each of the main characters undergoes her own challenges and heartaches.
Leila is a lawyer. Educated, sophisticated and beautiful, she drinks and parties, smokes constantly and does drugs, but, in her heart, she wants to find love and purpose. While she doesn’t forgive betrayal, she is generous and kind to her friends – no matter how lousy she feels, how much she mourns her unfulfilled dreams, she is always ready to help her roommates.
Selma is a bartender and a lesbian, but her parents can’t even hear the word, much less accept their daughter’s sexual orientation. Their confrontation on screen is painful to watch. The parents are overwrought, unable to come to terms with their daughter’s choices. Selma herself is full of anguish, torn between her parents and her lover, even though she doesn’t say a word. Only her father talks, or rather screams, furiously. Her conflict and her parents’ desperation are powerful.
Nour is a university student, studying computer science. Religious and quiet, she wears a hijab and tries to reconcile herself with the traditional role of a Palestinian woman. Unlike her two roommates, she is not an overt rebel. She is betrothed, but her fiancé is scary and repulsive in his hypocrisy; he demands unquestioning compliance, and she tries, but she doesn’t love him.
The rape scene in the movie is not graphic, but its impact is immense. The incident and its aftermath puts all the relationships into perspective. It tests all three women’s courage and their humanity. It shows their capacity for compassion and their resilience.
The movie is simple on the surface, just a few days in the women’s lives, but a lot goes on behind the scenes, providing a multifaceted view of life in today’s Israel. All three roommates are living, breathing women, hoping for a better life, helping each other to achieve it. As much as the movie is their story, its themes are universal.
The film won several Israeli and international awards, and all of the awards are well-deserved.
Bar Bahar screens at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 5.
Noa Koler in The Wedding Plan, which screens Nov. 9 at Fifth Avenue Cinemas. (photo from Roadside Attractions)
The grin-inducing trailer for The Wedding Plan nonetheless suggests one question – did Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein sell out?
The Orthodox writer-director’s acclaimed debut, Fill the Void, was an uncompromising story of a young Orthodox woman grappling with her parents’ and community’s expectations regarding her prospective husband. In contrast, The Wedding Plan, while also being chuppah-bound, appears from the trailer to be a romantic comedy designed to entertain.
In fact, The Wedding Plan is a high-stakes emotional journey about an observant woman in her 30s who’s so unhappy that she resolves to wed on the last night of Chanukah – with no groom in sight – after her fiancé breaks up with her mere weeks before their appointed date. Michal’s family and friends counsel against such a bold, risky and potentially devastating strategy, but she remains undeterred.
The film contains plenty of witty one-liners but, as the Israeli trailer conveyed, it’s not a disposable sitcom. Burshtein has assuredly not sold out. She simply trusted her U.S. distributor’s marketing strategy, even if some ticket-buyers are misled.
“If you think you’re going to see a romantic comedy and you get something more, that’s good,” said Burshtein. “You get something stronger and that’s OK.”
The Wedding Plan screens on Nov. 9, 4 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas as part of this year’s Vancouver Jewish Film Festival.
Both of Burshtein’s films raise a curtain on the lives of Orthodox women, in part through honest conversations they have among themselves when men aren’t around. The characters reject the idea that Orthodox women are subservient to men and, unsurprisingly, so does their creator.
“For me,” said Burshtein, “being religious is liberating. It’s not killing or closing or not letting me express my thoughts.”
Burshtein goes even further, asserting that women are the creative force.
“The art world is women,” she said. “[Orthodox] men don’t make films, they don’t cook, they don’t paint.”
Burshtein originally pitched The Wedding Plan as a television series, but, after getting the green light and embarking on the script, she decided it would be a feature film. Although she doesn’t say it, a movie is seen by more people around the world than an Israeli TV show.
“I’m writing from my world to the outside world,” the filmmaker explained in a phone interview during a press day in Washington, D.C. “Not [just] to secular people but to non-Jews. It opens a window to my world to people who know nothing about my world.”
Burshtein was born in New York and became religious while she was in film school in Jerusalem in the 1980s. She admits she didn’t expect the attention her films have received abroad, but at the same time isn’t surprised they touch audiences far beyond Tel Aviv and New York.
“We live in an age when women find their partner pretty late,” she said. “And sometimes they don’t. It’s very hard to find someone that you really want to share your life with. [My films] connect to that. All over the world, it’s the same thing, the same heart.”
The Wedding Plan is unmistakably and unapologetically set in the Orthodox community but the crux of the film is Michal’s urgent personal quest. Although her ostensible goal is to get married, a raw and powerful opening scene makes it clear that what she really craves and seeks is the respect of a committed partner.
Michal’s striving is universal and at times absurd, which spawns the film’s humour. Because she has no time to waste, Michal (played by the fearless Noa Koler) confronts every prospective suitor with direct questions and shockingly honest confessions that derail and discomfit them.
Michal’s pain and desperation are palpable through the laughs, to the point where she makes a pilgrimage to Ukraine to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. That’s not an incidental detail, for Burshtein is a proponent of Rabbi Nachman’s philosophy.
“We can handle despair, and we can handle hope,” she said. “The film is that movement between the two. You should be a fighter in the movement, and not get lost in the movement.”
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival runs Nov. 2-9 at Fifth Avenue Cinemas and Nov. 10-12 at the Rothstein Theatre. For tickets and the full schedule, as well as the trailer for The Wedding Plan, visit vjff.org.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
The Farewell Party screens Nov. 10 in the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. (photo from VJFF)
One could compile a very long list of movies whose enjoyment is enhanced by watching them with someone you love. The Farewell Party is the rare film that should be seen with someone you trust with your life.
Israeli filmmakers Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon set their funny, sensitive and ultimately moving tale among a small coterie of longtime friends heroically maintaining their independence and dignity in a Jerusalem retirement home. The suffering of a terminally ill member of their circle forces them to consider the merit, and confront the risks, of friend-assisted suicide.
There’s some pithy dialogue about the difference between helping a buddy and committing murder, but The Farewell Party isn’t interested in advancing a position on euthanasia or even grappling with the ethics or morality of one’s right to die. The film’s concern is for the spouse tasked with the agonizing responsibility of carrying out the decision of a suffering husband or wife.
Lest this sound like a must-avoid movie of the week, Granit and Maymon filter the proceedings through the deliciously absurdist mix of baleful fatalism and real-world pragmatism that is Jewish humor.
Through its first half, The Farewell Party smoothly glides from deadpan comedy to black comedy to bittersweet comedy. The chuckles taper off en route to a perfectly conceived anti-climax, a poignant coda to the lifelong love affair to whose last chapters we’ve been privy.
The Farewell Party screens Nov. 10, 6:45 p.m., in the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival (vjff.org). Wonderfully played by a cadre of veteran comic actors, it’s the film for anyone who’s ever grumbled that nobody makes movies for older audiences anymore.
After a marvelously droll opening scene in which Yehezkel (Ze-ev Revah) plays God to persuade a beloved friend to choose life and continue her treatment, the retired inventor is reluctantly corralled into helping ease the anguish of an expiring pal.
“They’re keeping him alive as though dying was a crime,” says the man’s wife, Yana (Aliza Rozen).
One of the movie’s refreshingly tart assumptions is that the elderly can’t afford the luxury of self-deception. Well, with one huge exception, that is: Yehezkel refuses to acknowledge that his wife’s steadily worsening memory lapses will necessitate moving her to an assisted-living facility in the not-distant future.
Notwithstanding the recurring presence of Yehezkel and Levana’s adult daughter and grandchild, this is a film about a stratum of society – older people – that is essentially invisible to everyone but its distinguished (and roguish) members. Out of necessity, they are compelled to create their own community.
There are moments in The Farewell Party, consequently, that edge toward a comedy about codgers executing a heist, or a drama examining the portentous final stages of long-term relationship. But Granit and Maymon maintain such a solid grasp on their film’s tone and esthetic that it never tips too far in either direction. The austere palette of cool blues and greys, combined with the near-absence of music, eliminates any whiff of sentimentality or, for that matter, situation comedy. What comes through in every frame of The Farewell Party is compassion for the human condition. If you think about it, movies can’t offer anything more compelling – or rewarding – than that.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
A scene from Semicolon: The Adventures of Ostomy Girl. (photo from Vancouver Jewish Film Festival)
The photo of Dana Marshall-Bernstein being hugged by her mother, Cari Marshall, captures the love at the heart of Semicolon: The Adventures of Ostomy Girl.
When the documentary was filmed, Dana was 25. She had been dealing with severe Crohn’s disease since she was 4 years old. With less than four inches of intestine left after numerous surgeries, she receives all her nutrition intravenously. At age 16, she had her first ostomy – surgery to make an opening in the body so that body waste can be discharged. Poop jokes flourish in the family, one of the many ways in which they cope, and the brief Ostomy Girl cartoon that is included in the film shows the sheer strength of will this young woman possesses.
Over the months of filming, Dana – who lives with her parents in Las Vegas – is in and out of Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where she is treated by some seemingly amazing doctors, skill- and personality-wise, such as Dr. Feza Remzi. Her health gets worse and she finally makes the decision she understandably has resisted for so long – to be put on the transplant list for a small intestine.
At times, Dana seems younger than her years, so vulnerable; at other moments, her literal life-and-death concerns add years. Somehow, with the help of her parents – especially her mother, but also her father, Ed – Dana has led a relatively full life, as normally as possible. Somehow, she still has her sense of humor. Somehow, she has the courage and the energy to try and help others, through awareness and fundraising events for Cleveland Clinic and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.
Semicolon screens at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival (vjff.org) on Nov. 10, 3:30 p.m.
Henrik Gawkowski, as seen in Shoah, directed by Claude Lanzmann. (photo from Les Films Aleph/Why Not Productions)
The French intellectual who created what many view as the definitive documentary of the Holocaust is himself the subject of a documentary, called Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah.
Commentators in the film are unanimous that Shoah, Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour study of the Holocaust, is a masterpiece. They also agree that Lanzmann is himself a piece of work.
A former friend calls him a megalomaniac. Another commentator says he is “a very challenging individual.” Through interviews with Lanzmann, the viewer gets a sense of what they are talking about.
Over a 12-year odyssey of interviewing and filmmaking, what Lanzmann set out to create was a film, in his words, “not about the Shoah, but a film that would be the Shoah.”
His first challenge was how he would approach a topic so enormous and distressing.
“What is my theme?” he asks during interviews for the documentary. “The heart of the Shoah, what is it?”
On this he concludes: “Shoah is not a film about survival. And, as it is not a movie about survivors … the survivors are not in Shoah, Shoah is a film about death.”
He recounts an incident that left him hospitalized for a month after a former SS officer’s wife discovered a hidden camera in his bag and Lanzmann and his female assistant were chased, beaten and bloodied by thugs associated with the war criminal. In another instance, Lanzmann relates how he almost drowned while swimming off the coast of Israel. He recalls that he had no gratitude to the individual who saved him and speculates that perhaps he had intended suicide because he knew he could not finish the film in the two years he had been given, with the instruction to keep it under two hours.
As Lanzmann goes on at length about his artistic struggles and the terrible toll the project took on his spirit, a viewer’s empathy may fade. Considering the subject matter of Shoah, lamentations on the difficulties of making a film – however monumental – come across as startlingly self-absorbed. Given the advance billing of Lanzmann’s character with which the documentary begins, the film comes full circle, providing a character sketch of a difficult individual who has done a remarkable thing.
Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah double bills with What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival (vjff.org) on Nov. 11, 3:30 p.m.