Last Flight Home follows Air Florida founder Eli Timoner’s last weeks of life. (still from film)
The Vancouver International Film Festival opens Sept. 29, and this year’s festival will be impressive, if the releases reviewed by the Independent are any indication.
Last Flight Home, a very personal and moving documentary written and directed by Ondi Timoner, will have viewers in tears. It will also have viewers contemplating mortality, family and what makes life full and worth living.
The film follows the last weeks of Timoner’s father Eli’s life. No stranger to hardship – he had been paralyzed on his left side since a stroke almost 40 years earlier – a bedridden 92-year-old Eli tells his family he wants to die. Immediately. Living in California, he could make that choice, and does make that choice. Once he passes the state assessment, the required 50-day waiting period begins.
During this time, Eli says his goodbyes to his wife, kids, grandkids and other relatives, to friends and to former employees. He offers advice and, with the help of those whose lives have been made better by his existence, he comes to love himself, finally shedding, after decades, the shame he felt at not being what he considered a good provider for his family. Before his stroke, he had been a wealthy businessman – founder and head of Air Florida – but, afterward, he and his wife had to declare bankruptcy and money was tight from then on.
Thankfully, Eli had those 50 days. While it was sad that he didn’t know how successful he really was in life until he chose to die, at least he did die knowing that he had loved and that he was loved.
* * *
The Israeli film Karaoke, written and directed by Moshe Rosenthal, also deals with mortality and late-in-life realizations. Long-married couple Meir and Tova have long lost their passion for each other and, really, for living. It takes the arrival of a new neighbour, Itsik, to bring out both the best and worst in them and in their relationship.
Itsik is rich and confident, a player in every sense of the word. While his loud karaoke parties annoy most everyone in the building, the residents who gain the privilege of an invitation feel not only special, but a little superior, more worldly, as they open themselves up to the possibilities that Itsik embodies.
Billed as a comedy, Karaoke is more cringey than funny, and the musical score even makes it seem creepy at times, as does the pacing and lighting. That said, the acting is excellent and it does have some funny moments. As well, the messages are refreshing: love can be reignited and you can have adventures at any age.
* * *
To make the 15-minute short Killing Ourselves, Israeli filmmaker Maya Yadlin took her parents and sister to the desert. According to her bio, this is something Yadlin often does – make movies about and starring her family. The result in this case is a delightful, amusing peek into their relationships. Most viewers will appreciate the interactions, with her parents both begrudgingly and proudly helping “film student” Yadlin with her homework and her sister, an actress, coming along for the ride – and the work.
Image from 1341 Frames of Love and War, a photo by Micha Bar-Am.
Photographer Micha Bar-Am, now 92, is considered perhaps the foremost visual chronicler of Israeli history. In 1341 Frames of Love and War, filmmaker Ran Tal creates what amounts to a family reminiscence among Bar-Am, his wife Orna and sons Barak and Nimrod, complete with snippy retorts and full-throated arguments. All of this is set against thousands of Bar-Am’s photos, creating a barrage to the senses of blown-up buses, dancing hippies, funerals and the scope of Israeli life captured in still photos. The family, whose voices make up the narration of the documentary, are seen only in the pictures.
Although Bar-Am was present to immortalize in images the Eichmann trial and the liberation of the Western Wall, his work is mostly of ordinary Israeli people and events, including war, which has been all too “ordinary” for the country and its people. The photos predictably begin in black-and-white – the first colour photo in the film appears during the 1967 war, perhaps not merely a sign of changing technology but also of the before and after times of the occupation.
A photo from the time – an image Bar-Am captured of a soldier praying at the newly liberated Kotel – is a prism through which Micha and Orna chronicle their own changing views of their country. The soldier had fashioned an ammunition belt into a makeshift prayer shawl. Orna explains how they loved the photo at first, apparently as a symbol of resistance and survival. After a few years, they came to detest it as a representation of the connection between religion and power. Now, in their later years, they are agnostic about the thing.
“That’s how it was then,” Orna says. “We don’t have to feel love or hate toward it. That’s how it was.”
Bar-Am acknowledges that he was a shy young man and the camera was an excuse to get closer to things, to understand people better. Through his eyes, and the immortality of his images, Israelis and others can perhaps view themselves and the world around them more closely.
The film is an intimate exploration into the work of a legendary craftsman and, through him, a snapshot into the past.
For the full film festival schedule, visit viff.org.
A still from the film The Forger, starring Louis Hofmann.
The 41st Vancouver International Film Festival takes place Sept. 29-Oct. 9, 2022. This year, the Jewish Independent is the media sponsor of The Forger (directed by Maggie Peren, Germany/Luxembourg), so we’re doing a draw for free tickets to one of the screenings!
Email [email protected] by Sept. 23, 2022, to be entered in a draw for the Thursday, Oct. 6, 1:15 p.m., screening at International Village 9.
Synopsis of the film: Based on a true story, Cioma Schönhaus, a young Jewish man living in 1942 Berlin, works at a munitions factory until he’s recruited by a former Nazi bureaucrat to forge passports for Jewish people to escape the country. Cioma waltzes through Berlin with reckless abandon, impersonating military personnel even as he risks discovery by the Gestapo. Adapting the story from Schönhaus’s memoir, director Maggie Peren gives her film the same immaculate attention to detail as Cioma does his forgeries, contrasting the dimly lit Berlin of Jewish people struggling with food rations with the decadence of the Nazis. The film balances the playful atmosphere of his ingenuity against the sombre backdrop of Nazi Germany and the looming danger he faces.
The documentary How Saba Kept Singing had its world première last weekend as part of HotDocs. It can be accessed online until May 7.
The film starts with David Wisnia preparing for his return to Auschwitz-Birkenau after 70 years. Traveling with his grandson and musical partner, Avi, David reveals some new stories about his survival journey. Throughout his life, he had selectively shared details about his war experience, mentioning that his singing voice provided him with privileges that aided in his survival. However, he omitted a major detail – a love affair with a fellow prisoner is what actually helped save his life. Told through David’s perspective, the truth regarding his survival some 75-plus years ago is uncovered.
The film is written, directed and produced by Sara Taksler. It is executive produced by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, and produced by Retro Report, HiddenLight Productions, in association with Burnt Umber Productions.
Left to right, Ori Laizerouvich, Israel Atias, Daniel Gad and Omer Perelman Striks co-star in The New Black. (photo from ChaiFlicks)
I have to improve either my Hebrew comprehension or my English speedreading skills before April 12. The second season of The New Black premières that day on ChaiFlicks and it’d be great if I could understand more of what was going on – even with my limited capacity, the first season was an absolute blast.
Also recently premièring on the streaming service ChaiFlicks, which carries all sorts of Israeli films and TV shows, was the second season of Checkout, an Israeli comedy in the tradition of American sitcoms Superstore, The Office and Parks and Recreation. It has some seriously funny moments, though a couple of the characters may grate on folks, as some of the characters on the aforementioned American shows did.
Superstore takes viewers into an Israel that most Jews will recognize, but that will be less familiar to those whose only experience of Israel is via the news. The show is set in a small supermarket, Issachar’s Bounty, in a small town, Yavne. The store’s patrons are regulars, and one in particular, fanny-packed customer Amnon, who has a complaint or gets into a confrontation every time he comes in to shop, is particularly annoying, as often is his main sparring partner, the brash cashier Kochava. But the other characters – notably Shira, the store manager who idolizes and sees herself as an up-and-coming Steve Jobs – offer enough less-in-your-face humour that the show is well worth watching if you like reality-show-type comedies. As in the other shows of this genre, there is a camera crew making a documentary about the store, so the characters not only interact with one another, but express their views in interview snippets with the film crew.
In the guise of humour, many a true observation is made in Superstore, which touches upon social inequality, terrorism, racism, homophobia and many other issues. Viewers can choose to just laugh at the goings-on depicted or they can take more away from the show. The same can be said of The New Black, which has some uncomfortable moments – for example, are we supposed to laugh when one of the yeshivah students is appalled when his matchmaker sets him up with a woman who uses a wheelchair? I don’t think so. I think we’re supposed to be appalled at his behaviour, behaviour that one can easily imagine of many self-absorbed 20-something guys who fancy themselves a prize despite all evidence to the contrary.
That the four yeshivah boys at the centre of The New Black seem like regular college-age men is why the show has broad appeal. That is does, while also being packed with somewhat-high-level (to non-Orthodox Jews) talmudic discussions, is a notable achievement. It is easy to see why the show was nominated for eight Israeli Television Academy Awards. It is smart, engaging, fast-paced and has a fantastic soundtrack. While non-Jews will have to watch it with a semi-knowledgeable Jewish friend and non-Hebrew-speaking Jews will occasionally have to press pause to take in the subtitles fully, The New Black has legs … and Borsalinos aplenty.
For access to these two comedies, and many other programs, visit chaiflicks.com.
A still from Ahed’s Knee, which screens at Vancity Theatre March 25, 26 and 28. The movie – which won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – is about a celebrated Israeli filmmaker named Y, who arrives in a remote desert village to present one of his films at a local library. Struggling to cope with the recent news of his mother’s terminal illness, he is pushed into a spiral of rage when the host of the screening, a government employee, asks him to sign a form placing restrictions on what he can say at the film’s Q&A. Told over the course of one day, the film depicts Y as he battles against the loss of freedom in his country and the fear of losing his mother.
A still from Amanda Kinsey’s documentary Jews of the Wild West, a series of vignettes that shines a light on a noteworthy and usually overlooked history.
The Wild West, Jews in Germany and a surprisingly vivacious Israeli seniors home feature among the diverse films at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival this year.
Somehow, we tend not to associate Jews with the legends that have built up around the development of the American West, a serious oversight that is in the crosshairs of filmmaker Amanda Kinsey’s documentary Jews of the Wild West.
The mythology of the Wild West is perhaps as much an invention of Hollywood as of history, so it is notable that the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, which introduced the genre of the cinematic Western, featured Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson – né Max Aronson.
The myth of the West was no less inspiring to Jews than to other Americans and dreamers from around the world. Perhaps one of the most famous names in the lore was Wyatt Earp. The film introduces us to Josephine Marcus, who fled her family in San Francisco to become an actress and ended up being Earp’s wife. Earp himself is buried along with the Marcus family in a Jewish cemetery.
The gold rush drew Jewish peddlers and merchants to the West Coast in the late 19th century including, most famously, Levi Strauss, who left the Lower East Side and, via Panama, arrived in San Francisco. His brothers sent dry goods from New York and Levi sold them up and down the coast. When Jacob Davis, a tailor, was asked by a woman to construct pants that her husband wouldn’t burst out of, he imagined adding rivets. He took the idea to Strauss and the rest is American clothing history. As one historian notes, it was a Jew who invented “the most American of garments.”
The rapid industrialization in the mining sector is where the Guggenheim family got its start and so, while the name is now most associated with Fifth Avenue, the finest address in New York City, their start was in the gritty West of the 19th century.
We meet Ray Frank, the first woman said to have preached from a bimah. Called the “golden girl rabbi,” she was not ordained, but was apparently a phenomenon that drew crowds to her sermons.
Many people will know that Golda (Mabovitch/Meyerson) Meir spent formative years as an immigrant from Russia in Milwaukee and then Denver. This footnote to her history is often considered curious and interesting, but in this film it integrates the Jewish experience of the 20th century and its roots in the American West with the development of the Jewish state – the opening up of another frontier, one might say.
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, seeing the poverty in the Lower East Side, actively encouraged migration to the West. The film introduces families who have worked the land for generations, some of whom have maintained their Jewish identity and at least one of whom was raised Methodist. But, it suggests, the thriving Jewish community of Denver owes much to the failed farmers of the West who made their way to the nearest metropolis to salvage their livelihoods.
The documentary is really a series of vignettes and at times the shift from one story to another is confusing but, as a whole, Jews of the Wild West successfully shines a light on a noteworthy and usually overlooked history.
* * *
The festival features two German films that complement each other in interesting ways.
In Masel Tov Cocktail, a short (about 30 minutes) film, high schooler Dima (Alexander Wertmann) welcomes viewers into his life just as he is suspended for a week as a result of punching a classmate in the face during an altercation in the washroom. The “victim,” Tobi (Mateo Wansing Lorrio), had taunted the Jewish Dima, graphically play-acting a victim in a gas chamber, a performance enhanced by the austere, sterile setting of the restroom’s porcelain-tiled walls. So begins an interplay of victim and perpetrator that is just one of several provocative themes weaving through this powerful short.
Dima’s family, it turns out, heralds from the former Soviet Union, like 90% of Jews in today’s Germany. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, the German government actively encouraged migration of Jews to revitalize Jewish life in the country. This fact, like other statistics and tidbits, is flashed across the screen.
Juxtapositions pack a punch, including Dima’s switching between a baseball cap and a kippa, perhaps reflecting his complex identities, as well as the schism in the identities of post-Holocaust Jews more broadly in a society that struggles to assimilate the idea of contemporary, living Jews in the context of the blood-soaked soil of their state. A shift from colour to black-and-white also evokes the stark break between the present and the past.
But the present and the past are themselves in conflict as Dima recounts how other Germans react when they learn he is Jewish. Why does he only meet Germans whose grandparents weren’t Nazis, he wonders. Statistic: a survey indicates that 29% of Germans think their ancestors helped Jews during the Holocaust, while the screen text helpfully informs us the number was more like 0.1%.
Dima’s teacher, who can’t utter the word Jew and struggles to get the word Shoah out of her mouth, wants Dima to share his family’s Holocaust story with the class. The film’s implication is that Dima’s family was largely spared the trauma of the Holocaust, but he decides to play along because, “There’s no business like Shoah business.”
Dima’s grandfather is taken in by the AfD, the neo-fascist Alternative for Germany party, convinced that their pro-Israel and anti-Muslim rhetoric means that they are defenders of the Jewish people. In a moment that confounds the AfD campaigner (and causes the viewer to reflect), Dima drags his grandfather away from the campaigner while yelling: “Don’t let foreigners take away your antisemitism.”
The film is kooky, funny and light, while also serious, dark and thoughtful throughout.
That description applies to the similarly named feature film Love and Mazel Tov, which features Anne, a non-Jewish bookstore owner who has Munich’s largest selection of Jewish titles and who herself is more than a little obsessed with all things Jewish – including potential romantic partners.
“Some are into fat. Some are into thin. Anne is into Jews,” a friend explains. This turns out to be more than a romantic or erotic attraction, perhaps a disordered response to national and family histories.
Thinking she has found not only a Jewish boyfriend but a doctor at that, Anna (Verena Altenberger) courts Daniel (Maxim Mehmet), who in typical cinematic fashion lets her believe what she wants to believe until the inevitable mix-up explodes in a farcical emotional explosion – though not before an excruciating family dinner.
Parts of the film exist on a spectrum between cringey and hilarious. The film features (at least) two fake Jews who don this identity for extremely different reasons, inviting reflections on passing, appropriation and the fine line between veneration and fetishization.
Both of these films use humour to excavate deeply troubling concepts of identity and addressing horrors of the past. They approach these challenging themes in truly innovative and entertaining ways.
* * *
Understated comedy is key to the success of Greener Pastures, an Israeli film in which Dov, a retired postal worker, has lost his home after a “pension fiasco” involving the privatization of the postal service.
He is a curmudgeonly old square when it comes to marijuana, which the government has decided should be available to anyone 75 and over, but he sees a moneymaking opportunity. Dov (Shlomo Bar-Aba) enlists a network of seniors to order medicinal cannabis and mail it to him so he can distribute it to his “connection,” who shops it around to younger consumers. This “kosher kush,” guaranteed “Grade A government-approved stuff” sold in tahini bottles, brings Dov into conflict with a two-bit drug kingpin in a wheelchair and, of course, a snooping police officer.
There is romance and suspense in this madcap caper, but there is also the theme of elder empowerment, along with the laughs.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival runs online only March 3-13. For the full festival lineup and tickets, visit vjff.org.
Jason Sherman wanders through an Israeli pine forest in search of his tree. (photo by John Minh Tran)
My Tree, a film by Jason Sherman on his moral dilemma over having had a tree planted in his name in a Jewish National Fund forest, screens at the Salt Spring Film Festival March 6, 7 p.m.
Sherman grew up in a Jewish home in Toronto. “Like my brothers before me, I had a bar mitzvah…. On that day of my becoming a man – at the age of 13 – I was given a number of presents,” writes Sherman in his director’s statement. “There were books of Jewish learning and culture; there was money; and there was a tree. Or rather, there was a certificate telling me that a tree had been planted in my name in Israel.”
He forgot about the certificate until about 40 years later, on his first trip to Israel.
“As I wandered the tourist sites, traipsing around religious Jerusalem, secular Tel Aviv and mystical Masada … I felt the pull of kinship and familiarity,” he writes. “But I also felt a kind of disconnect, wondering if my feelings for the place were genuine or imposed. I got to wondering what my real connection was to the land. It was then that I remembered the tree.”
After much research and metaphorical digging, he determines that the likeliest location of his tree is a conservation area called Canada Park.
“Here, I learn a disturbing new fact about my tree: it’s part of a massive forest that’s covering up the remains of an Arab village that was destroyed in 1967, its thousands of inhabitants sent on the road, never permitted to return.
“I also learn that this covering up of depopulated Arab villages is part of a pattern that stretches back to 1948, during the war that established Israeli statehood. These revelations lead me to ask a number of painful questions with people back in Canada. Did my parents know about the village beneath the forest when they donated a tree for me there? What is my responsibility for that tree?”
Sherman, who is an award-winning playwright, says his aim is not journalistic. “This is not a muckraking, finger-pointing documentary about the dark history of Israel’s tree planting program but rather a personal story … that asks its audience to confront uncomfortable historical truths, and to decide for themselves how to respond to those truths.
A still of one of the humorous (and relatable) moments in Image of Victory, which is part of this year’s Vancouver Jewish Film Festival.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival opening night film is the epic Image of Victory, directed by Avi Nesher. It’s not with grandiosity that the movie leaves its mark, though there is some of that, but rather with the quiet moments of humanity it so movingly depicts.
Sombre piano music over which one can hear missiles flying, bombs exploding, wind blowing are heard as the initial credits are shown, modest white lettering on a black background, nothing showy. “There are moments when you try to make sense of your life,” begins the narrator, as black-and-white footage of a shot-out building appears, then a jeep, soldiers with rifles pointed, tanks. “You wonder if you made good use of the time God gave you on this earth. You seek someone to compare yourself to. Someone you think truly lived.”
For Egyptian journalist and filmmaker Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, that person is Mira Ben-Ari, though he doesn’t know her name or anything about her at the time. It is the image of her from decades ago that he cannot forget – battle-worn, staring down the Egyptian forces, she smiles, she takes out a gun and shoots. Cut to an older Hassanein, in his study, depressed and angry, watching the TV news about Israel and Egypt’s peace agreement, after decades of war. Was all the fighting and all the death it caused in vain? He blames himself for not having the courage to expose Egypt’s president as a traitor for making the peace deal. He idealizes Mira’s bravery and purpose, thinks back to when he was 24, and fearless – when he was assigned to document Egypt’s military operations against the soon-to-be-reestablished Jewish homeland.
Inspired by the Battle of Nitzanim in June 1948, in which the kibbutz was destroyed by Egypt, Image of Victory imagines what it might have been like on both sides of that conflict. Both Mira and Hassanein are based on real people, as are other characters in the film, and this movie is about a near-mythological event. The voiceover, the black-and-white footage, the fancy costumes of New Year’s Eve revellers in Cairo, idealistic kibbutzniks, zealous army commanders. Any one of these elements could have slipped into a larger-than-life portrayal, but director Avi Nesher shows restraint – and a valiant attempt at balance that has an air of realism, though the kibbutzniks are admittedly more developed entities.
The majority of the film takes place in chronological order, six months out from the battle. When we first see the kibbutzniks working the dusty land, they are doing so under occasional fire from the Egyptian farmers who were displaced after their landlord sold said land to the Jews. The rules of engagement are fascinating. After one altercation, the Egyptians yell to the kibbutzniks that they are all done on their side, and the Jews cease their fire so that both sides can safely collect their wounded and dead.
In the midst of the tension, life goes on in the kibbutz – there are broken hearts and newly starting relationships, there is joyous singing, dancing and piano playing, there is hard labour, there is frolicking on the beach. But underlying all the apparent normality is the hyper-reality of mortality, both because many of the residents and their recently arrived Haganah protectors are Holocaust survivors, as well as the threat of Egyptian attack. As one young soldier tells Mira, “You’d think it’s paradise if being here wasn’t risking death.”
After a brutal attack on a truck carrying supplies to the kibbutz, the Egyptian commander doesn’t want Hassanein to film the emptying of the truck of its supplies because it looks like they’re stealing. Perception is Hassanein’s constant battle – what he is being told to film and what he really wants to film. For example, during a lull in the fighting, he makes a film about two Arab villagers falling in love, which is trashed by the producer who hired him. People don’t want to watch that, yells the producer, they want war.
After the Egyptian forces are repelled by the newly declared state of Israel, Hassanein is ordered to film an Egyptian victory, so that King Farouk can save face. The enormity of the Egyptian army descends on Nitzanim, which Israel’s leaders – for ideological reasons encapsulated by the character of (real-life) commander Abba Kovner – have abandoned.
While the kibbutz’s children (including Mira’s young son) and some of the adults were evacuated or assigned to other defence tasks, the rest of the residents and soldiers were left to fend for themselves, vastly outnumbered. The real-life outcome is known: more than 30 kibbutz members and soldiers were killed, more than 100 taken prisoner. What Nesher’s film offers is an idea of the ambitions, the loves, the fears, and more, of some of those who were at the ground level, caught in a situation not entirely of their making.
The acting is phenomenal – adeptly showing the interplay of diverse characters, with their own senses of humour, their own past traumas, their own desires, their own measures of victory. The characters are more than stereotypes and the stories more nuanced than the ones we most often hear. Nesher wants us to be skeptical of national mythologies and of the media that help propel these misleading views, yet respectful of one another’s narratives, as complicated as they may be and no matter how divergent they may be from our own. It’s perhaps an impossible ask, but some ideals are worth dying for – or are they?
Image of Victory director Avi Nesher and producer Ehud Bleiberg participate in a live Q&A on March 6, 11 a.m. The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival runs March 3-13. For tickets: vjff.org.
A still from the documentary Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival runs March 3-13, and features more than 30 films, all of which will be available online for the duration of the festival. As always, there are shorts and features, fictional narratives and documentaries – presenting a great diversity of perspectives. This month, the JI offers readers a peek into the lineup.
Fifty years of Fiddler
Like a lot of people, Norman Jewison thought Norman Jewison was Jewish. When he was growing up in Toronto’s east end, other students would call out, “Hey Jewy!” Decades later, when he was one of Hollywood’s acclaimed filmmakers, it would come as a shock to many that someone with the word Jew as the root of their surname was, in fact, not Jewish. It hit Jewison earlier, when he tagged along to synagogue with one of the only actual Jewish kids in his school.
“When the melamed at the temple told me to leave, I thought, ‘What’s going on?’” he said. “Where do I belong?”
The feature-length documentary Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen purports to tell the story of how the stage play based on Sholem Aleichem’s Anatevka tales turned into the cinematic blockbuster Fiddler on the Roof. It does that, but it is also very much a story of Jewison’s trajectory as an interpreter of historical and current events.
Jewison had already made a splash with his 1967 race-focused movie In the Heat of the Night when he conjured the idea of filming Fiddler. Friends and foes predicted failure. Too Jewish. Not a large enough potential audience. But Jewison forged ahead, certain that his version would universalize the story into “a film for everybody.” Arriving at a time of social upheaval in the United States and elsewhere, Fiddler’s underlying themes were relatable to many, Jewish or not.
Case in point: the film was huge in Japan. There may be next to no Jews in that country, but, in the early 1970s, when Fiddler was released, Japanese society, like many countries, was struggling to balance modernity and tradition.
The documentary Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen comes a half-century after Fiddler on the Roof’s screen debut. It interviews surviving contributors and actors, many of whom saw their early careers explode with the popularity of the movie. Rosalind Harris, now 75, played Tzeitel both on Broadway (after understudying for Bette Midler) and in the film. Her thrill at the film and her place in it is undiminished by time and she nearly steals the documentary.
The enthusiasm of Jewison himself seems equally undiminished. He tells of how he sought out Isaac Stern, perhaps the 20th century’s greatest violinist, to dub the music of the titular character. He dismissed Frank Sinatra’s entreaties to play Tevye and scored Topol, the Israeli actor (né Chaim Topol), who had played the lead in Israel and then in London, casting aside, in the process, Zero Mostel, Broadway’s longtime Tevye.
Diplomatic relations with the Soviet bloc at the time made it impossible to film in Ukraine, where Anatevka is set, so Jewison struck a deal with the “non-aligned” Yugoslavia and much of the filming took place in Lekenik (now in Croatia), in wooden buildings constructed based on historical architectural records. One commentator in the documentary notes the irony that the film about a disappeared community was filmed in what is now referred to as “the former Yugoslavia” – “another place that is no more.”
Jewison speaks emotionally about watching the film’s Israeli debut beside Golda Meir and a meeting he had with David Ben-Gurion, who told Jewison that whoever is crazy enough to choose to be a Jew is Jew.
“If I’m crazy enough to want to be Jewish, then I’m Jewish,” Jewison interprets Ben-Gurion’s words.
But when he received an Academy Award, he cheekily acknowledged the truth. “Not bad for a goy,” he joked.
Not bad for a Canuck, one might add.
The documentary’s director, Daniel Raim, will participate in a live Q&A on March 7, 7 p.m.
Shorts of all sizes
Since this year’s Jewish Film Festival is online and on demand, you can choose to view the numerous short films as a binge or watch one or two between features as a sort of visual amuse bouche.
At about 30 minutes, Paradise is on the long end of the “shorts” spectrum. It features Ala Dakka, who will be recognizable to Fauda fans, as the doe-eyed Palestinian boxer, Bashar. In real life, Dakka is an Arab Israeli who, in media interviews, has been open about his struggle with his identity. In this film, he plays Ali, who has just arrived at Eilat airport from his home in Berlin, to attend his sister’s wedding. After a fight over the phone with his father (it was cheaper to fly to Eilat than to Tel Aviv, so now he is going to miss the pre-wedding dinner), he decides to skip the festivities altogether and hitchhike to the Sinai. (This after a five-hour interrogation by border security at the airport, which doesn’t help either Ali’s frame of mind or his ability to make the celebratory banquet.)
Picked up by a group of Israeli partiers, Ali opts to introduce himself as Eli, and so begins a subtle and, of course, inevitable succession of miscues and small betrayals. It is a tightly told story of self-identity and the perceptions of others. Dakka is a rising star in Israeli film and he brings memorable depth to his character in this short, charming drama. A subtext of the film is the happy-go-lucky Israelis’ perceptions of Egypt (or perhaps the broader “other”) and a degree of paranoia that one of the party crowd acknowledges doesn’t require pot-smoking to ignite.
A slightly shorter film, at about 20 minutes, is Pops, which pits grieving siblings against each other, as they try to do what they each think their recently deceased father would have wanted regarding his burial. The uptight son and the hippy-ish daughter come to an unorthodox compromise.
You’re Invited sees a rabbi’s daughter invite her friends to a funeral when she learns that the deceased has no kin. Charming in concept and cheesy in execution, with uneven acting and heavy-handed writing, the short film is sweet enough, although anyone who has been a pallbearer will recognize an empty box when they see one carried in a movie. Explicitly based on a true story, the 13-minute film is neither too long nor too short.
For a quick laugh, at seven minutes, The Shabbos Goy follows a religious woman as she deals with the unexpected activation of a personal electronic device – a very personal electronic device – during Shabbat lunch. She runs into the street to find a non-Jew who she can entice but, due to halachah, not overtly request to turn the humming device off before the men in the house discover the source of the noise. (The women of the house, notably, remain blasé.)
The Jew who defended Nazis
Ira Glasser was the director of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1978 to 2001, a period when the organization exploded in size and relevance – and also when it took on some of the most contentious topics the country has ever faced.
Perhaps not a household name, Glasser and his contributions to civil liberties in particular and to American society more broadly are examined in the documentary feature Mighty Ira.
It is easy to admire Glasser in theory and to support his principles in principle. It is harder to swallow when he champions what Oliver Wendell Holmes termed “freedom for ideas we loathe.” This challenging conflict is at the heart of Glasser’s life’s work and the heart of the film.
Glasser’s vigilance for justice was born at Ebbets Field, the now-disappeared home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, which Glasser calls his cathedral. The Dodgers were gods to the kids in Glasser’s Flatbush neighbourhood, no less so when Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball, in 1947. At age 9, Glasser discovered that Robinson was forced to stay in hotels and eat at restaurants apart from his teammates while on road trips to parts of the country. That injustice stirred in young Ira a lifelong mission.
But devotion to racial equality can seem to come head-to-head with First Amendment rights to free expression, as when neo-Nazis sought to march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill., in 1977. The provocative plan to wear fascist regalia and parade through a town whose population was half Jewish – and which included one of the world’s largest communities of Holocaust survivors – was thwarted by town officials, who used a backdoor ordinance to prevent the event. (There was a 500-member B’nai B’rith chapter in town at the time, all of whose members were survivors.)
Glasser’s ACLU took up the case, and the backlash against the unpopular cause was enormous. It tested the mettle of the ACLU leadership – to say nothing of their fundraising department – and their commitment to free speech. But the leadership, which included a great many Jews, were almost unanimously steadfast.
The documentary shows how the ACLU’s relevance grew in the time of Glasser’s leadership, not solely because of his actions but also because the country was struggling with a range of social and moral conflicts. While the rights group had been at the forefront of issues like the Scopes “Monkey Trial” (addressing the place of religion in public education), the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War and Brown v. Board of Education (banning school segregation), the ACLU’s docket really filled up in the time Glasser was at the helm in large part because the country was confronting and struggling with so many divisive issues.
Mighty Ira is the story of a remarkable man, but it is also a history of American free speech in the second half of the 20th century.
Director Nico Perrino will be a guest at the March 9, 1 p.m., screening of the documentary.
More information about the festival will soon be available at vjff.org.