Mike Wallace is Here is one of the smartest and best documentaries of 2019. (photo from Cinando)
In the streaming universe, as with all entertainment, there’s the stuff that everyone watches and talks about. But that’s just the tip of a vast catalogue, a lot of it quite good, that doesn’t get the hype and the buzz. Here’s an eclectic list of accessible Jewish-themed movies that received some hosannas on their initial release. The more obscure (and great) Jewish films of recent years will be on a future list, since, alas, it appears we’ll have ample time to watch more after catching up with these.
The Zigzag Kid (j-flix): The Toronto Jewish Film Foundation has launched a free streaming platform, j-flix, with dozens of terrific recent fiction and documentary features and shorts. You could get lost there for weeks. I suggest you start with this irresistible, action-packed, family-friendly adventure about a precocious Dutch boy, adapted in 2011 by a Belgian director from Israeli author David Grossman’s novel.
The Women’s Balcony (Chai Flicks): Menemsha Films, the venerable U.S. distributor of Jewish-themed films from around the world, offers a free 30-day trial of their streaming platform. (A subscription will then run you $5.99 US a month.) Israeli director Emil Ben-Shimon and screenwriter Shlomit Nehama set their warm and wonderful romp in a small Orthodox congregation dislocated by structural damage to the shul.
Tel Aviv on Fire (Amazon Prime): Sameh Zoabi’s clever comedy about a Palestinian soap-opera writer trying to navigate the demands of both his bosses and an Israeli checkpoint commander will lift your spirits without insulting your IQ. Make a batch of hummus first.
1945 (Amazon Prime): This extraordinary black-and-white Hungarian film parlays the postwar arrival of two exhausted Jews at a small village into an exposé of guilt, betrayal, corruption and murder. One of the most acclaimed European films of 2017, 1945 is a gripping and haunting reckoning with dark history.
Mike Wallace is Here (Hulu): One of the smartest and best documentaries of 2019 examines, entirely through archival television footage, the ambitious journalist who made 60 Minutes essential viewing. Not a Jewish film, oddly enough, but a riveting one.
Disobedience (Amazon Prime): Sebastian Lelio’s taut, understated 2017 drama, adapted from Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s novel, is a remarkably nonjudgmental story that follows a volatile, adrift woman’s (Rachel Weisz) return to London after the death of her estranged father, an Orthodox rabbi. Community, identity, responsibility, sexuality – everything is on the table.
Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz (Netflix): The last surviving U.S. attorney from the Nuremberg trials has an impeccable memory, a spotless moral compass and enormous gravitas. If your fortitude is at a low ebb, Ben Ferencz will give you the strength to persevere.
A Serious Man (Netflix): The Coen Brothers’ most personal and most Jewish film, filmed in and around their childhood stomping grounds of Minneapolis-St. Paul, is a painfully hilarious moral fable guaranteed to provoke a cross-generational dinner table conversation. One politically incorrect question that this devious 2009 movie poses: Are Jews our own worst enemies?
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
The National Film Board of Canada (nfb.ca) offers a selection of some 4,000 short and feature-length films, whether you’re looking for animation, documentary or fiction. Explore the Cartoons for Kids section for the latest releases.
Enjoy searching the many choices available from the NFB, Jewish-related or not. Recently added titles include Where the Land Ends, a documentary feature by Loïc Darses, about the places that created Quebec, exploring the historical narrative, as a group of young people who were not old enough to vote in the 1995 referendum express their views; Ice Breakers, a documentary short by Sandi Rankaduwa on the Black athletes who helped pioneer modern hockey, through the story of Josh Crooks, an African-Canadian player; and The Great List of Everything, an animated webseries by comic book artists Cathon and Iris Boudreau, as well as Francis Papillon.
New films are being added to nfb.ca all the time, and they’re always free to view.
Courtney Hazlett in Malta, one of the many places she has visited to record her Netflix program Restaurants on the Edge. (photo from marblemedia and OutEast Entertainment)
For producer Courtney Hazlett, traveling around the world for her new Netflix series, Restaurants on the Edge, has been an unforgettable, rewarding experience.
The premise of the show is to take struggling restaurants that have incredible locations with breathtaking views but ordinary or subpar food, and turn them around. A team of experts – chef Dennis Prescott, designer Karin Bohn and restaurateur Nick Liberato – come in and transform the establishments into magical eateries. The show is co-produced by marblemedia and OutEast Entertainment, which is a company run by Hazlett and her husband, Steven Marrs.
“We go around the world with a team of experts and, in a positive way, find restaurants that aren’t living up to the beauty of their location and help change that,” said Hazlett, who is also the show’s creator. “We change the décor, menu and business model. We want to add menu items that speak to that destination.”
Hazlett, who lives in Los Angeles, came up with the idea for the program while eating outdoors at a restaurant in Venice, Calif.
“We often go to places where the better the view, the worse the food,” she told the Independent. “That was the seed. I thought, we can go around the world, find restaurants that aren’t living up to the beauty of their location and help change that. My initial impression was, because of the spectacular view, restaurant owners felt they didn’t have to go all out with the food. But that wasn’t the case. It’s not that they aren’t trying, it’s just that a lot of restaurant owners are in over their head.”
In helping decide what changes needed to be made in each restaurant, Hazlett said they first went to social media to see what people were saying about the establishment. They looked at reviews on Tripadvisor and Yelp and read the comments patrons made.
“What I was most passionate about was the storytelling aspect,” she said. “We went out and met people who lived there. In some ways, the story of community shows up on the plate.”
Since it’s being aired on Netflix, it must be a global show, Hazlett explained. “We had to show as many corners of the earth as we could. It’s a lot of globetrotting.”
In Season One, released on Netflix in Canada last week, on March 14, the team traveled to Malta, Hong Kong, Tobermory (located in Ontario four hours north of Toronto), Costa Rica, Austria and St. Lucia.
Hazlett said Tobermory looked like the Caribbean, with gorgeous blue and green water, underground caves, cliffs and ancient forests. Tobermory is almost completely surrounded by water, with Lake Huron on one side and Georgian Bay on the other. The team chose to make over a seasonal restaurant called Coconut Joe’s.
“The owner was a sweet guy who was struggling with the business,” she said. “He loves to travel and wanted to make a restaurant inspired from his travels. That main inspiration was palm trees, and he wanted to have menu items reflecting any place you would find a palm tree. He had about 30 items on the menu – from Thai to Caribbean food, all over the place. The décor was tiki but not in a good way. The restaurant owner’s busy season is only eight weeks of the year because it’s so far north. Since we filmed the episode in the busy season, he had to shut it down one and a half of those weeks in June.”
The designer’s goal was to transform Coconut Joe’s from tacky tiki to chic tiki. The chef’s goal was to celebrate local food as well. At the end of the restoration, the owner was grateful and thrilled with the results.
Season Two, also released on March 14 in Canada, brought the team to seven more destinations, including wine country in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. There, they chose to transform the Outboard Waterfront Pub.
“The owners of the restaurant are such an integral part of the story we tell and, in this case, we were thrilled to include a father-daughter team, Campbell and Anne Stewart,” Hazlett said. “Campbell is hoping to retire sooner rather than later and leave the restaurant in Anne’s hands, and Anne, when we filmed, had an infant. So they’ve got a lot on their plate.”
Hazlett said she has always loved food and cooking. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, she earned a degree from Tulane University and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. She went on to work at People magazine and OK! magazine, then was a correspondent for MSNBC, covering pop culture for MSNBC, as well as Today, Morning Joe and more, before running entertainment teams for NBC News Digital.
“Around 2012, I started producing,” said Hazlett, who moved from New York City to Los Angeles. “Then I started to develop content and, in 2014, created the production company OutEast Entertainment. ABC just ordered a medical drama pilot from us called Triage; it’s directed by Jon Chu, who directed the upcoming film In the Heights.”
Although Hazlett is Jewish and raises her children Jewish, she was born Christian.
“What happened is my mom never knew her father and, later in life, found out he was Jewish, and it unlocked something in me,” she explained. “Growing up, I always gravitated towards Judaism. My husband of eight years [Marrs] was a lapsed Catholic and we both converted. For us, as we started to lean into the Jewish traditions, it became such a centring force for our family. Over time, we started to keep Shabbat and celebrate Jewish holidays. We wanted our kids to grow up Jewish – they go to religious school and we are super-active in our temple. Converting became an easy choice for both of us and it made a lot of sense.”
In keeping with her Jewishness, Hazlett would love to find a location and restaurant in Israel. “Next season, I would love to film in Israel and other Jewish places,” she said.
Hazlett admitted it was a lot to ask an owner to close down his or her restaurant while her crew did renovations, especially if the restaurateur had a cash flow problem. “But, on the flip side, being on Netflix is great advertising for them,” she said, adding that they don’t compensate the restaurants, but they do pay for the cost of the makeovers. “In fact, I received notes from the restaurant in Malta that he has had more than 2,000 people reach out to him because of the show. That’s a lot of new customers!”
Alice Burdick Schweiger is a New York City-based freelance writer who has written for many national magazines, including Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Woman’s Day and The Grand Magazine. She specializes in writing about Broadway, entertainment, travel and health, and covers Broadway for the Jewish News. She is co-author of the 2004 book Secrets of the Sexually Satisfied Woman, with Jennifer Berman and Laura Berman.
Co-creators Eugene Levy, left, and son Daniel Levy were among the Schitt’s Creek panelists at the 92nd Street Y in New York City on Jan. 17. (photos by Rod Morata/Michael Priest Photography)
Fans of Canada’s mega-hit TV show Schitt’s Creek were eagerly eyeing the stage at the 92nd Street Y in New York City on Jan. 17. They had just viewed the first two episodes of the sixth and final season on a big screen and the main cast was about to appear. When the curtain lifted, the audience loudly cheered, as Eugene Levy (Johnny), Daniel Levy (David), Catherine O’Hara (Moira) and Annie Murphy (Alexis) sat smiling.
The moderator, Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, didn’t waste any time asking why they decided to call it quits.
“We had discussed it and thought six seasons would give us enough time to tell our story,” said Daniel Levy, the show’s co-creator, co-executive producer, writer and Eugene Levy’s real-life son. “Working so closely with the show, it almost spoke to me. I felt we built enough to land the plane, so to speak. From day one, I have been aware of overstaying your welcome. I would rather leave people with a real joyful idea of what the show was and what it meant to them.”
The clever, funny, quirky Schitt’s Creek is a fish-out-of-water sitcom in which the ultrawealthy Rose family – Johnny and Moira and their two adult children, David and Alexis – goes into bankruptcy and loses everything. With no money and nowhere to live, they have little choice but to relocate to Schitt’s Creek, a Podunk town that Johnny once bought David as a joke. Their new home is the town’s no-frills one-storey motel, and the foursome, who had previously been preoccupied with their own extravagant lives, learn to become a real family. “When you get down to it, the stories are about who people are, not what they are,” said Eugene Levy.
Once settled into their new life, the Rose family has to contend with the town’s scruffy mayor, Roland Schitt (Chris Elliott), his wife, high school teacher Jocelyn (Jennifer Robertson), the sarcastic motel receptionist, Stevie Budd (Emily Hampshire), and café waitress Twyla (Eugene Levy’s real-life daughter, Sarah Levy).
Schitt’s Creek, filmed in Ontario, premièred in 2015 on CBC in Canada and Pop TV in America. It’s produced by Not a Real Company Productions Inc. In 2017, the show started airing on Netflix as well, and viewership soared. The series has won numerous awards, including Canadian Screen Awards, and an MTV Movie and TV Award for Daniel Levy.
Initially, Daniel Levy came to his dad with the show’s premise and a script. “In the beginning, it was a way to do something with your son,” recalled Eugene Levy. “We started it as a great project and wanted to make it as far as we could. We ended up getting it on the air in Canada on a real network – and I thought that was great. Cut to five years later and, thanks in a major way to Daniel, who has guided this to a brilliant conclusion, Schitt’s Creek has received so much acclamation and passion from fans.”
Each season, the writers have been able to advance storylines without crossing the line into absurdity, and the actors have been able to develop their characters’ unique personalities and eccentricities.
“I wanted to make sure the actors were challenged and excited about coming back [each season] to do their parts,” said Daniel Levy. “When you have a cast of this quality, an ensemble as extraordinary as we have, it would be a dishonour not to show up each season with great storylines, given the calibre of work that they do. The actors need to feel challenged and excited to come back to do their part – that’s what keeps them motivated. When things flatline, people check out.”
He continued, “When you create characters the audience loves, you can take them on a lot of terrific story rides. With the growth of the characters, we were able to add in a layer of sentimentality. Without sounding shmaltzy, there was such a collective sense of excitement with our cast and crew, that actors showed up to watch scenes that they weren’t even in.”
The show’s writing has revealed the characters’ different layers. Take Alexis, for example. While she is self-involved, mostly oblivious and enjoys referring to past relationships with Hollywood celebrities, she is still charming. “When we met Alexis on paper, she was not that likeable – she was quite shallow and selfish,” said Murphy about the character she plays. “But, when I got the breakdown for the audition, at the end it said, ‘a young Goldie Hawn,’ who is bubbly and effervescent, but grounded. I wanted to play her as a fully fleshed out human being. The writers did a good job letting her grow as a human. I have so much fun playing her.” (Alexis often exaggerates her hand gestures and is fond of saying, “Ew, David!” to her brother.)
Moira, the family matriarch, has become an iconic figure over the years. Before moving to Schitt’s Creek, she was a socialite, actress and inattentive mother – she didn’t even recall her daughter’s middle name! While she remains eccentric, self-absorbed and theatrical, she, too, is likeable. “Originally, I wanted to come up with a character I would have fun playing and people would love watching,” said O’Hara, who wears a variety of wigs in every episode. “I didn’t know anyone would care. But the writers kept giving me great opportunities.”
Moira accentuates inappropriate syllables when she speaks. How does she choose which syllables to accentuate? “In the moment, it just makes sense,” O’Hara said, laughing, and raising her voice at the word “sense.”
The character of David has a few obsessive-compulsive tendencies, is occasionally hypochondriacal, is into pop culture, has a keen eye for fashion and is often sweetly sarcastic. He opened the store Rose Apothecary and started to date Patrick (played by Noah Reid), his business partner. As the series progressed, the two fell in love and, in the last season, they plan their wedding. When asked if the sexuality addressed in the series caused advertisers to push back, Daniel Levy said he wasn’t aware of any advertiser having done so. “The networks have given us a lot of freedom,” he said, “and, for that, I am so grateful.”
From the beginning, Schitt’s Creek was a low-budget show. “We were just a little Canadian television show,” Daniel Levy admitted, adding that they didn’t exactly have the budget of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. “But not having money helped. We had to maximize our budget and were forced to be creative and put the little money we had on the screen. As the expression goes, diamonds are formed under extreme pressure. Great work happens where you are pushed to the limits.”
The final episode will air April 7. “It’s a beautiful conclusion to the series,” said Eugene Levy.
Daniel Levy wrote the last episode of the show in half a day. “Because we had exceptional writers who helped me make this show what it was, the last episode essentially wrote itself,” he said. “We didn’t want to backload a ton of stories, which can happen in some series finales. I didn’t want to be burdened with expectations of making it any bigger than it is, because it’s a small show. I didn’t want it to feel any bigger than any other episode we had done. I wanted our last episode to be just a great episode of TV.”
Alice Burdick Schweigeris a New York City-based freelance writer who has written for many national magazines, including Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Woman’s Day and The Grand Magazine. She specializes in writing about Broadway, entertainment, travel and health, and covers Broadway for the Jewish News. She is co-author of the 2004 book Secrets of the Sexually Satisfied Woman, with Jennifer Berman and Laura Berman.
Moe Berg as a catcher during his time in Major League Baseball. (photo from Irwin Berg)
Near the end of John Ford’s essential 1962 western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaper editor coins the credo, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The fact, as we all know, is that Americans are all-star myth-makers and myth-lovers. Many American Jewish boys caught the bug via the improbable immigrant saga of Moe Berg, a paradoxically brilliant professional athlete who led a secret second life as a spy for the U.S. government. How much of Berg’s story is true, though, and how much was legend passed among kvelling kids in the schoolyard?
Aviva Kempner, who hit a home run with her 1998 documentary about another Jewish ballplayer, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, was the obvious, natural and best-equipped filmmaker to take on the mid-20th-century mysteries at the heart of Berg’s minor celebrity.
The Spy Behind Home Plate, which screens at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival March 8 at the Rothstein Theatre, is a testament to Kempner’s determination and persistence. Chock full of dozens of contemporary and archival interviews, and packed with rare photos and even rarer film footage, The Spy Behind Home Plate is a definitive record of Berg’s achievements.
Although it’s an effective way to impart information, the dogged, dog-eared marriage of talking heads, vintage visuals and period music can’t fully evoke the shadowy stealth and deadly risks of Berg’s wartime activities. Hamstrung by her budget, Kempner wasn’t able to stage reenactments or employ other strategies to illustrate the unfilmed and unrecorded liaisons and conversations that Berg had in Europe in 1944 and 1945. The Spy Behind Home Plate, therefore, is like the steady everyday player who notches the occasional three-hit game but never achieves the transcendent grace and power of a superstar.
Morris (Moe) Berg, international man of mystery, was born in New York in 1902. His father had fled a Ukrainian shtetl for the Lower East Side, where he started a laundry before buying a drugstore in Newark.
The family moved to New Jersey when Moe was a boy, and he grew into an excellent student and a terrific baseball player. After a year at New York University, he transferred to Princeton, where he was a star shortstop (back when the Ivy League was the top, if not the only, sports conference) and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
While his older brother Sam fulfilled Dad’s wishes and went to medical school, Moe signed a contract to play pro ball. He acceded to his father’s demands up to a point by attending Columbia Law School in the off-seasons, earning his degree and passing the New York bar in 1929.
It was a false bargain: Moe despised the idea of being a lawyer, while Bernard Berg never accepted a baseball career as a legitimate pursuit. In fact, the old man refused to go to the park and see his son play.
From an athletics standpoint, his dad wasn’t missing much. A knee injury early in Moe’s career, compounded by primitive diagnosis and treatment, severely slowed him. Over 15 years as a backup catcher, Berg notched exactly 441 hits in 663 games.
What set Moe apart was his charm, charisma and erudition. He studied Sanskrit at the Sorbonne one off-season, and read multiple newspapers every day. When he went to Japan on a barnstorming tour with Babe Ruth and other Major League stars, he learned Japanese.
Berg carried a camera everywhere on that trip, and made a point of checking out the roof of a tall Tokyo hotel in order to shoot a 360-degree panorama of the city. It’s not altogether clear if he was already working officially (albeit surreptitiously) for the U.S. government, but his film was of significant help when the United States went to war with Japan after Pearl Harbor.
In fact, in early 1942, Berg recorded a radio segment in Japanese that was broadcast in Japan and drew on the goodwill he’d accumulated over two prewar visits.
Berg had been sent on research missions to South America, but that was too far from the real action. It appears he found a home in 1943 in the newly created Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the intelligence branch that evolved into the Central Intelligence Agency after the war.
His primary and crucial assignment was to ascertain how close the Germans were to having a nuclear weapon, and to sway Italian scientists from the Axis to the Allies. To successfully carry off his cover story, Berg was briefed on the science and strategy of the Manhattan Project.
One biographer recounts, “The OSS had given the Manhattan Project its own spy, in effect, its own field agent to pursue questions of interest wherever he could in Europe. And that was Moe Berg.”
Kempner accords a great deal of screen time to this episode in Berg’s clandestine career as a professional spook. It’s a great story, in which the solidly built former catcher is assigned to attend a conference in Switzerland and determine – from the keynote speech by a visiting German scientist, Werner Heisenberg – if the Nazis are within reach of perfecting the bomb.
Berg carries a pistol to the symposium, with orders to use it on Heisenberg if he deems it necessary. It would be churlish of me to recount the outcome of Berg’s suicide mission except to say that the catcher-turned-spy who spoke seven languages lived unhappily ever after the war.
Kempner leaves us wanting to know more about Berg’s later years. By the weirdest of coincidences, Sam Berg headed a group of doctors sent to Nagasaki to study the effects of radiation poisoning. Incredibly, Moe and Sam never knew about each other’s exploits. This lone fact reveals that there’s still more to know about Moe Berg’s story.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival runs until March 8. For tickets and the movie schedule, visit vjff.org.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
“How does a housewife decide between generals?” asks Golda Meir (played by Tovah Feldshuh) in Golda’s Balcony. In this instance, she must decide between the counsel of David (Dado) Elazar, her chief of staff, left, and Moshe Dayan, her minister of defence. (production still)
Tovah Feldshuh is incredible to watch in Golda’s Balcony, The Film. Not just in her passionate and sympathetic portrayal of Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister from 1969 to 1974, but in her depiction of all 45 characters in William Gibson’s one-woman play. She’s Meir, David Ben-Gurion, David (Dado) Elazar, her husband Morris, Holocaust survivors and Israeli soldiers, among many others. She moves as easily between the personalities as a child raised in a multilingual household moves between languages. And with powerful effect.
Golda’s Balcony, The Film has two screenings at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival – March 1, 1 p.m., and March 2, 3:30 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas. See it. You will have a more nuanced understanding of Meir, as well as of Israel, its origins and the struggles it has faced and will face. Gibson’s text is superb; it is engaging and insightful, with enough humour along the way that you’ll be able to breathe on occasion, as Meir deals with the existential crisis of the Yom Kippur War. Fluidly switching from wartime to other parts of her life, the play depicts, if nothing else, the stressful, heart-wrenching, thankless job that is being prime minister of a country that is constantly under threat.
The film is a recording of the play’s soldout Off-Broadway première on May 4, 2003, at the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, presented by Issembert Productions. After a four-month soldout run at MET, the show moved to Broadway, and the Helen Hayes Theatre, where it ran for 15 months, making it, apparently, the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history. It has won countless awards.
The set is relatively simple. A table with a couple of chairs on a tile floor. On the table, a dial telephone, a pitcher and water glass, an ashtray, cigarettes. Light shines on the table from the right, as if from a window. The backdrop is a wall of reddish stone or metal slabs of varying sizes that protrude outward. Images are projected onto the wall or chairs when relevant, giving the audience a visual of the person Meir is talking about, or that Feldshuh is portraying – though it is hard to see these images in the film version. To the side and a step down is a small piece of stage covered in dirt, with a few rocks, which acts as refugee camps in Cyprus, the kibbutz on which Meir lived for a time, Russia when Meir visits on a diplomatic tour, etc. The focal point for the entire production is Feldshuh.
The play begins in darkness, a man chants a prayer, the words “Golda’s Balcony” appear briefly on the wall. Thunder claps, lightning flashes, gunshots ring out, then darkness again, but the sound continues: guns firing, bombs exploding, planes overhead. A housecoat-garbed Golda, sitting at the head of the table, strikes a match and lights a cigarette; the lights rise a bit and calmer music prevails.
“I’m at the end of my story,” says Golda. “I’m old. I’m tired. I’m sick. Dying, the doctors tell me. The picture you have of me as Mamaleh Golde, who makes chicken soup for her soldiers, it’s a nice picture. And I do make chicken soup. But let’s empty it all out for keeps right now because, at the bottom of the pot, is blood. At the bottom of the pot is the question that won’t die. I can do without that music!” she yells. It stops. The lights come on more fully, as Golda then starts to relate the story of her first voyage to Palestine, with her husband, in 1921 – 52 years later, she would become prime minister.
“I remember, starting with a phone call, that woke me up at four o’clock in the morning. Saturday, Yom Kippur, 1973,” she says, as she closes her eyes, looking exhausted, her right arm holding up her head, the left one sliding off the table. The phone rings. Startled, she answers it, hearing the news that Egypt and Syria have attacked Israel. As she takes off the housecoat, Golda is in her familiar muted woolen skirt suit; energy, anger and fear all come to the surface as she relates her generals’ differing views as to what Israel needs to do. Dado: attack! Moshe Dayan: don’t be seen as the aggressor! “How does a housewife decide between generals?” she asks.
Of course, she does decide. But the agonizing and tension-filled process leads her – and Israel – down some very dark paths and the play masterfully depicts her sadness, anxiety and frustration; the sacrifices to her family, her health, as well as to others. Throughout the many narratives, it is the story of the Dimona nuclear facility to which she will get, the story that haunts her, that took her to hell; the story she needs to gather the strength to tell.
Thunder, lightning and gunfire divide the scenes in the whirlwind of action that Golda describes, her domestic life almost as tumultuous as her political life. We see her humanity, but also her toughness. Luckily, she never had to answer the question that “won’t die”: if Israeli forces hadn’t been able to cross the Suez Canal and if the United States had not come through with the needed military aid, would she have ordered the dropping of the nuclear bombs with which she had armed Israel’s planes?
Golda’s Balcony is a must-see in a festival with many excellent films. For the full schedule, visit vjff.org.
Picture of His Life follows Amos Nachoum to the Canadian Arctic, where he hopes to fulfil his dream of photographing polar bears underwater. (photo from Hey Jude Productions)
The ocean, in its vastness, suits Amos Nachoum perfectly. It’s big enough for him to hide. Not from the great white sharks, orcas, manta rays and other large sea creatures he has obsessively sought out and photographed for four decades. But from his traumatic memories of the Yom Kippur War, and from his father’s impossible expectations.
“Amos has made a decision to put the war behind him, to put violence behind him, and to use the camera to tell a different story, a beautiful story, about men and nature,” Israeli documentary filmmaker Yonatan Nir said in a phone interview while his family frolicked nearby in the kibbutz pool. “I think, in a way, he’s reframing his life with his camera.”
Nachoum’s complicated saga is rendered with gravity and grace in Nir and Dani Menkin’s Picture of His Life, which screens in the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival March 3, 8:45 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas.
Picture of His Life is structured around Nachoum’s summer 2015 expedition to the Canadian Arctic, more than 3,000 miles from his Pacific Grove, Calif., home, to try and fulfil his ultimate dream of photographing polar bears underwater. (Hence, the second meaning of the film’s title.)
The epic documentary’s executive producer is Nancy Spielberg, a nice bit of irony given that her brother made a flick called Jaws many years ago that spawned a widespread, irrational fear of sharks.
Nir and Menkin originally wanted to make a documentary about Nachoum diving in Tonga a decade ago, but that undertaking proved too expensive. Instead, they made Dolphin Boy, a redemptive portrait of a traumatized young Arab healed by swimming with dolphins in the Red Sea, which earned worldwide acclaim.
As it turned out, the extra years were essential, and not just to raise the funds for four Jews (Nachoum, the directors, and veteran underwater cinematographer Adam Ravetch) and six Inuit to trek to and film at remote Baker Lake. The filmmakers’ taciturn and enigmatic subject had to reach a point where he was willing to confide his deeply hidden feelings and memories.
“He really didn’t talk until we got to the Arctic,” Menkin recalled on the phone from his car in Los Angeles, “and that’s when he started to open up.” Nir added, “Amos needed time to open up and to be able, finally, to let us deep into his soul and to tell it for the first time.”
After the Arctic trip, Nachoum gave surprisingly candid interviews to the Israeli press about both his postwar trauma and his father, who had fought in the War of Independence. His way of dealing with his past continued – and continues – to expand.
There’s no question that the process of making Picture of His Life contributed to Nachoum’s evolution. Nir and Menkin visited his father in the hospital near the end of his life, capturing a raw, powerful moment. They subsequently showed the footage to Nachoum with the understanding that they would include it in the film only if he gave his consent.
Nachoum was touched by the scene and agreed to its inclusion. He even enacted an onscreen form of reciprocation to complete the circle.
“We were able to create this closure between the father and the son, but only through the film,” Nir said. “It never really happened face to face.”
The personal story in Picture of His Life is wrenching, but the environmental component is pretty potent, too. “I see myself as a soldier for Mother Nature,” Nachoum declares in the film, but his desperate, late-career pursuit of the polar bear goes even deeper.
“At the end of the day, Amos was looking for his family,” Menkin said. “His family is the universe. It’s Mother Nature. He found his family and lives with it in harmony, and that’s what he wants us to do.”
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Yaniv Biton as Assi, left, and Kais Nashif as Salam in Tel Aviv on Fire, which screens Feb. 28 as part of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. (photo from Cohen Media Group)
Palestinian writer-director Sameh Zoabi achieves something altogether remarkable with his second feature film, particularly at this moment in time: he finds humour in the tattered relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.
“The whole idea of Tel Aviv on Fire is that we have more in common than we want to admit,” Zoabi said in an interview before his movie screened in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival last year. It screens on Feb. 28, 1 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas, as part of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, which runs Feb. 7-March 8.
“We have to break these stereotypes and talk about what’s in common between us and not what divides us,” he said. “Let’s remind people how humanity can prevail in times where the politics of post-Oslo is, ‘Let’s dehumanize the other to be able to survive.’ I want to do the opposite.”
A sharp, insightful and winning comedy that juxtaposes the delicious absurdity of melodrama with the real-life absurdity of the occupation, Tel Aviv on Fire centres on an underachiever, Salam, who works as a gofer on his uncle’s hit Palestinian soap opera. Through a barely plausible combination of chance, chutzpah and desperation, the shlemiel is elevated to writer. Then he runs afoul of the Israeli commander of the checkpoint he crosses every day, whose wife is a loyal fan of the show.
Salam has to use every iota of guile and cleverness to navigate the opposing agendas that he’s caught between – and to win back the heart of a woman he had dumped. (Even while he’s landing political japes, Zoabi cheerfully seizes every opportunity to lampoon the conventions of both soap operas and movies.)
One of nine children, Zoabi grew up in a village outside of Nazareth, where people went to his grandfather’s barbershop for his humorous stories as much as for a haircut.
“In general, my village is very funny,” Zoabi related. “That’s maybe why comedy has become very easy for me, because I grew up in a place where they don’t take anything seriously.”
Zoabi studied at Tel Aviv University and then at Columbia University in New York, where he discovered the need for Palestinian stories. Returning to Israel, he made a short film, Be Quiet, in 2005 and his feature debut, Man Without a Cell Phone, in 2010. Zoabi’s experience of receiving government funding was the genesis of Tel Aviv on Fire (2018).
“You take money from the Israelis, so suddenly you are watched immediately,” he explained. “Israelis are making sure you are not becoming too Palestinian for them. And the Palestinians are watching, ‘He took money, maybe he’s a sellout, he’s doing a comedy.’”
After presenting Tel Aviv on Fire at several international festivals, Zoabi debuted the film in Haifa and in Nazareth. It was equally well received by both audiences, which didn’t surprise him. But he did have an epiphany.
“All the screenings led to this moment,” Zoabi declared. “Finally I understood – people are fed up. People are fed up of the reality that exists, which is managing the occupation.
“[The film] reminds people of the possibility that used to exist, the feeling that we can be normal people and just get along. I think that’s a fantasy that existed among the Israelis, that we can eat hummus together in Damascus one day. But they aren’t able to see the occupation as a major reason for that not to happen.”
It’s a measure of Zoabi’s skill that the current-events commentary in Tel Aviv on Fire goes down easily for viewers across the political spectrum. The means to that success, in large measure, is Salam’s evolution of necessity from hapless underdog to diplomatic savant.
“I’m attracted to people who don’t wake up knowing what they really want,” Zoabi said. “I think they’re more inspirational for me than black-and-white [characters]. Actually, people who know exactly what they want terrify me. You can’t be so certain all the time.”
For his part, Zoabi grew up in a milieu of group interaction and lots of soap operas, because those were the only two channels the family had. He wasn’t exposed to art, theatre and film until his late teens.
“I always say I’m not an artist, really,” he confessed. “I’m probably a barber of a new era in my family.”
Tel Aviv on Fire is in Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles.
For the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival schedule, visit vjff.com.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Riva Krymalowski as Anna, in the film, which opens the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival Feb. 27. (photo from betacinema.com)
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival opens the night of Feb. 27 with the film When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which offers a peek at a pivotal event in writer and illustrator Judith Kerr’s life.
Kerr passed away just under a year ago, at her home in London, England, at the age of 95. She had dozens of children’s books to her credit, including The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Mog the Forgetful Cat; Mog became a series, ultimately totaling 17 picture books.
Born in Berlin, Kerr and her family – parents and older brother – fled Germany in 1933, in the days leading up to the election that brought Hitler into power. Her father, Alfred Kerr (né Kempner), a journalist and writer, was a vocal critic of the Nazis even at that time and was warned that the police were about to arrest him. The story of the family’s journey to Switzerland, then France and, ultimately, England, is told in the children’s book When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which was published in 1971.
The film, obviously, is based on that book, and it captures the fear, excitement, frustration and other feelings experienced by the family as a whole, but mainly by 10-year-old Judith – named Anna in both the book and film. We see that Anna copes, in part, by drawing and colouring pictures of disasters, such as a shipwreck or an avalanche. She, her brother and parents are close, thankfully, as they are uprooted more than once and the family unit is the only constant in their lives.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is both charming – the family’s interactions – and disturbing, in that the family is fleeing a danger that killed millions. It also raises current-day issues of what it means to be a refugee. Anna and her brother Max are given one night to pack. They are allowed one toy and two books. Anna’s choice of her stuffed dog over her pink rabbit gives the story its name.
Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit and Roberta Grossman’s documentary Who Will Write Our History were two standouts in Jewish film last year.
Last year was a busy one, but not a great one, for Jewish-related movies. There was plenty to see, but only a couple films – Jojo Rabbit and Uncut Gems – broke through the clutter to make an impact.
While Jewish characters were front and centre in high-profile TV shows – The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Kominsky Method and Broad City – in movies, they were largely relegated to glorified cameos, such as Al Pacino as old-school agent Marvin Schwars in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Alan Alda as menschy divorce attorney Bert Spitz in Marriage Story.
Jewish artists and celebrities were, as always, exceedingly popular among documentary makers. Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, televised on PBS’s American Masters, and Ask Dr. Ruth led the parade, which included less-widely-seen portraits of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen (Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love) and actor Anton Yelchin (Love, Antosha).
Picking a Top 10 was a bit of a challenge for 2019. Here are the films that left a mark.
Jojo Rabbit: The most ambitious and audacious film of the year was made by a Maori Jew from New Zealand. Taika Waititi, the director of Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, radically adapted Christine Leunens’ novel into a sharp satire of Nazi racism and groupthink that garnered the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle Award for best screenplay.
Who Will Write Our History: My only criticism of Jojo Rabbit is that it didn’t convey the depth of the Holocaust’s horror. Roberta Grossman’s artful documentary about the men and women in the Warsaw Ghetto who secretly amassed an archive of documents and diaries that would survive (if they didn’t) fills in a missing historical chapter for people of all ages. (See jewishindependent.ca/a-different-kind-of-resistance.)
Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz: The last surviving U.S. attorney from the Nuremberg trials has an impeccable memory, a spotless moral compass and enormous gravitas. This terrific doc serves as an inspiring counterpoint to Matt Tyrnauer’s slick biography of another Jewish lawyer from New York, Where’s My Roy Cohn?, who lacked an iota of integrity.
Uncut Gems: What makes Howard run? Jewelry hustler and compulsive gambler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler, impressively manic) races around New York City to keep his increasingly angry debtors at bay. En route, Benny and Josh Safdie’s nerve-jangling drama rips the Band-Aid off black-Jewish relations.
Mike Wallace is Here: Avi Belkin examines another iconic New York Jewish character, the penetrating TV journalist who made 60 Minutes essential viewing, entirely through archival TV footage. It is one of the smartest and best documentaries of 2019.
Synonyms: Nadav Lapid’s abrasive, semi-autobiographical drama about a self-loathing young Israeli army veteran’s effort to shed his identity in Paris won the Golden Bear for best film at the Berlin International Film Festival. It is painful and revealing, with some flashes of humour.
Tel Aviv on Fire: Sameh Zoabi’s clever comedy about a Palestinian soap opera writer trying to navigate the demands of his bosses and an Israeli checkpoint commander was one of nine (!) films with Jewish themes among the official submissions for the best international film Oscar.
Transit: German director Christian Petzold transposed Jewish novelist Anna Seghers’ 1944 story of refugees trying to flee France to an enigmatic time and place that has echoes of both the past and the present.
To Dust: Shawn Snyder’s debut feature explores the grief process through a Chassidic cantor (Geza Rohrig of Son of Saul) who wrangles a community college science professor (Matthew Broderick) into his obsessive investigation into how his wife’s body will return to dust. Meanwhile, his sons worry that he’s possessed by a dybbuk.
Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles: A crowd-pleasing, by-the-numbers doc about the historical (shtetl life) and literary (Sholem Aleichem) roots, creative development and enduring cross-cultural popularity of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. Formulaic, but Jewish through and through.
Some of the best films of the year won’t open in North America until 2020. The Ophir Award-winner Incitement powerfully dramatizes the life of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, leading up to his irreparable act. Roman Polanski’s well-reviewed portrayal of the Dreyfus affair, An Officer and a Spy, has opened across Europe but awaits a North American distributor (a long shot given the likelihood of protests and boycotts).
Czech director Vaclav Marhoul’s harrowing adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s Second World War-set novel The Painted Bird is also on European screens, with a U.S. release likely now that it was shortlisted for best international film. In that eventuality, look for it during its brief run – and on next year’s Top 10 list.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.