Forty years ago, Ian Merkel was involved in clandestine film screenings. The films were nothing Canadians would consider illicit, but in apartheid South Africa, color barriers meant it was illegal to show films featuring blacks and whites together, and the films had to be smuggled into the country. Merkel watched these contraband films in friends’ garages. When the police raided the screenings, people sometimes landed in jail. Even with this possibility, for a young Merkel, film was worth the risk.
Years later, Merkel is still as passionate about the evocative nature of film as he ever was. He has been involved in many film related organizations in Vancouver, including as a board member and executive director of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. Today, Merkel in involved with the potential of working toward social change through film, and has become involved with Reel Causes and the Vancouver Foreign Film Society.
“Film, for me and a lot of people, is the most memorable art genre,” said Merkel about why he believes film can change the world.
According to their website, the mission of Reel Causes is “to educate, inspire and engage the community around social justice, environmental and health-related issues.”
Merkel described how the organization began in an interview with the Independent. “Mohamed Ehab, a pharmacist from Egypt, had just moved here and wanted to meet people. He loved movies, so he began having movie nights in his home, then began bringing films in [from out of town] for the public.”
In 2010, Reel Causes registered as a nonprofit society and has since partnered with many B.C.-based nonprofits to promote health, environmental stewardship and social justice.
“We bring films that are not political or religious and partner with what we call community causes, in order to educate people,” Merkel said. “The belief is that the media of film is one of the most powerful ways to get people involved in causes. People connect as a group while they watch a film and are able to engage with our community causes to effect positive change.”
Reel Causes has an arrangement with Vancity that enables the organization to screen films once a month at Vancity’s theatre at Simon Fraser University and once every six months at the Vancity Theatre downtown on Seymour Street. They aspire to raise awareness and funds for the causes with which they engage.
“Our most successful event was a partnership with the Lipstick Foundation, which provides esthetic services to patients in palliative care in a hospice on the North Shore,” Merkel said. “We showed a movie called Happy. The Lipstick Foundation brought a big sheet of paper and cupcakes. Whenever a person wrote on the sheet about what makes them happy, they got a cupcake. We had over 200 people there.”
Coming up next for Reel Causes is a film dealing with youth issues and a partnership with Artquake, an organization whose mission it is to empower young people and build confidence through art.
Reel Causes is at a turning point as an organization, Merkel said. Several younger people sit on their newly enlarged board of directors and Merkel said he anticipates passing the torch to a new generation soon, while still maintaining some involvement.
At the same time, he looks forward to turning his attention to his other passion: promoting foreign films.
The Vancouver Foreign Film Society was formed in May 2014 as a result of the dearth of independent movie theatres in Vancouver. While the Ridge Theatre has been demolished and Fifth Avenue and the Park are now owned by Cineplex, the demand for quality foreign and international films remains high. Eight films were screened by the society last year and 12 screenings are planned for this year at Pacific Cinémathèque.
“The criteria for our films is that they are produced outside of North America, but for some French films from Quebec we may bend the rules because they are never seen outside of Quebec,” said Merkel. “We’ve had films from France, Sweden, Norway, Britain, Australia and soon will show films from Japan, India, Spain, Turkey and Thailand.”
For Merkel, providing his insider knowledge of how to procure films and put on events is a labor of love. “The impact of a film will inspire for pure entertainment or for social justice,” he said. “Film shows us things that happen around the world and people remember powerful images from film. I see that film can stimulate the mind and somehow retain the content so those images are lodged in your mind.”
At the close of what Western countries call Valentine’s Day, a tenuous ceasefire went into effect in war-torn eastern Ukraine. Unfortunately, the days prior to the truce were not what you would call all “hearts and flowers.” Up to the last minute, both sides pushed to make territorial gains. We can be sure that no love has been lost.
Needless to say, tanks, rockets and guns do not tell the whole story of the armed conflict. Beyond the military operations are the civilians whose lives have been affected.
One critical result of the fighting is that the overall health situation in Ukraine has rapidly deteriorated. (Even in peacetime, however, the health situation was not on par with Western medicine.) Recently, the United Nations reported that drug supplies are running out and that the country has seen a rise in the number of tuberculosis diagnoses. As there are not enough shelters for displaced people whatever their health status, some of these individuals are being sent to hospitals. This in turn has created a lack of treatment space for acute medical cases. To date, these are the statistics on the war in Ukraine:
5,486 people killed and 12,972 wounded in eastern Ukraine
5.2 million estimated to be living in the areas of conflict
978,482 internally displaced people, including 119,832 children
600,000 have fled to neighboring countries, two-thirds of whom have gone to Russia
How can we in the West appreciate what is happening to the people living in the conflict zone? One unlikely way is to reconsider Geoffrey Smith’s powerful 2007 documentary The English Surgeon. The film deals with how medicine is practised in Ukraine and puts a personal face on what life (in more promising times, perhaps) is like for Ukrainians.
This film reveals how two dedicated neurosurgeons make do with scarce medical supplies with a goal to improve their patients’ quality of life. In the course of this sophisticated British-produced documentary, viewers become intimately acquainted with the hospital exploits of this medical odd couple: Dr. Henry Marsh, a British neurosurgeon, and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dr. Igor Petrovich Kurilets. Smith’s movie is enlightening and viewers can glean much about Marsh’s point of view. In his experience, performing the surgery itself is not the hard part, it’s knowing when to treat that’s complicated.
Early in the film, Marsh talks about the importance for him of helping other people; he questions what we are if we don’t try to help others. When the movie was filmed, Marsh had already been volunteering in Ukraine for 16 years. He tells us that when he first started his project, he found surgical conditions comparable to those that existed in the West 60 years prior. He was appalled at the misdiagnoses he encountered, and by the stories of patients that could have been helped had they received appropriate medical interventions earlier.
The film exudes irony and humor as viewers get to know Marsh. He explains that he always liked working with machines and using his hands. He also enjoys the sensory aspects of working with wood. At one point, he says that surgeons like blood, and he likens surgery to a kind of sport.
Kurilets displays no less of a quirky wit. For instance, he points out a painting hanging on his wall. In the picture are happy Cossacks sitting around a table. Kurilets thinks there are many similarities between Cossacks and surgeons. He comments that in the painting, the Cossacks could be gathered around an operating room table. He appreciates the Cossacks’ aggressiveness. Actually, his own pro-activeness has gotten him into trouble with the authorities; he later reveals that he was unemployed for two years following repeated run-ins with the Soviet system. Ironically, he currently rents rooms from a hospital run by the KGB, his former nemesis.
Kurilets is still a doer today, albeit perhaps slightly more pragmatic than he once was. He has plans to build a new hospital. He underscores his philosophy of life by explaining that the point is not to just make plans – something that happened a lot in the former Soviet Union – but to actually do, to get things done.
In fact, these two individuals are pragmatism personified. Marsh and Kurilets buy brain surgery tools in the local open-air market. Kurilets’ Bosch drill comes from this market. Marsh also regularly donates equipment to Kurilet’s practice. In an understated way, we learn some of the real costs of surgery in this area of the former Soviet Union versus the West: the 80 Sterling drill bits that Marsh’s hospital uses once will be used by Kurilets for 10 years.
Marsh also confronts deeper issues. He struggles with being able to leave patients with hope, even when there is nothing that surgically can be done.
One patient who can be treated is Marian, a young, rural man of limited financial resources. Marian has a brain tumor that could either leave him severely disabled or kill him. The doctors tell him that the only way they can help is by conducting brain surgery, but without anesthesia. Marian agrees.
The operating room in which this incredible procedure takes place is so small that, at one point, a member of the surgical team has to bend down, almost crawling to get to the other side of the room. Even in this incredibly tense scene, Marsh reveals his wry humor by saying that the healthy section of the brain should look “like a good cream cheese,” not rubber. He does not underestimate the tremendous vitality of the organ on which he operates, however. In surgery, he says, “We are the brain.”
Sharing some of the soul-searching he does in his practice, Marsh humbly admits that he has made some big mistakes. He narrates the painful story of one young Ukrainian patient that he brought to England for surgery. Marsh reveals that both of Tanya’s surgeries went terribly wrong. Even today, he can’t put Tanya’s story aside. He tells Kurilets that he thinks about Tanya a lot. Kurilets agrees that there were lessons to be learned from her case. But Marsh doesn’t just contemplate Tanya; he seeks physical contact with this lost patient. In a haunting moment of tremendous honesty and humanity, he pays a visit to her family members. He reveals to Tanya’s family how nervous he was before the visit.
The English Surgeon is a powerful movie, stunning, but frequently heart-wrenching. It displays not just the truth of the situation in Ukraine, but the truth about people.
Deborah Rubin Fieldsis an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
A number of organizations are trying to help civilians in Ukraine. Working at opposite ends of the life spectrum are two Jewish charities: the Survivor Mitzvah Project (survivormitzvah.org), which helps elderly Holocaust survivors residing in Ukraine, and Tikva Children’s Home (tikvaodessa.org), whose mission is to care for “the homeless, abandoned and abused Jewish children of Ukraine and neighboring regions of the former Soviet Union.”
While many are probably familiar with Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Everything Is Illuminated (which was also made into a film in 2005), the Good Reads website has assembled a list of other books dealing with Ukraine (goodreads.com/places/76-ukraine). The list contains fiction and non-fiction books for children and adults.
In Downton Abbey, Rose (Lily James) is smitten with Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber). (photo from pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece)
Jewish characters have finally joined the impeccably attired throng at Downton Abbey, and it’s not an altogether happy day.
While Lord and Lady Grantham welcome the arrivals with exquisite manners and the perfectly calibrated amount of modest warmth, series creator and writer Julian Fellowes is a good deal less hospitable. He has devised a nuclear family of cardboard cutouts that fit unflattering Jewish stereotypes and generate viewer antipathy.
Before we rush to judgment or leap to conclusions, however, we should allow for the possibility that the uncomplimentary presentation of the Aldridge family in Season 5 is merely a teaser for Season 6 (and beyond, given the series’ extraordinary popularity in the colonies). It’s not a stretch to imagine Fellowes using the Aldridges as a means of exposing and examining British antisemitism as Downtown Abbey rolls into the late 1920s and early 1930s.
As everyone knows, PBS’s hit Masterpiece series has long featured a character with Jewish ancestry. Lady Grantham, aka Lady Cora Crawley, is the American-born daughter of the late Isidore Levinson. Cora is Episcopalian, like her mother, but she doesn’t view Jews as “the other.”
I must reveal a spoiler, namely that Lord Grantham’s niece, Rose, doesn’t see Jews as different, either. That is, not when they’re as hunky as Atticus Aldridge, a square-jawed banker’s son who chivalrously shelters Rose with his umbrella in one of the least-inspired meet-cutes in the annals of television.
One could trace Rose’s open-mindedness to last season’s colorblind liaison with a black jazz singer, and her naive modernity to her fight with Lord Grantham over bringing a wireless into the sacred realm of Downton Abbey. But Atticus is so assimilated and so devoid of personality that he wouldn’t register as Jewish if he didn’t tell us. In other words, Rose is smitten with an Englishmen of her status and breeding, and whose Jewishness is incidental rather than fundamental. In fact, the moment when he confides that he’s descended from Jews who left Odessa after particularly brutal pogroms doesn’t belong to him but to his listeners – bitter, broke Russian expatriates of the pre-Revolution regime who insult Atticus over their shoulders as they walk away.
Now, Atticus is of the right class and has parents of means, and those are the credentials that matter in Downton’s rarefied world. However, his perpetually unsmiling father, Lord Sinderby, is less sanguine about his son’s involvement with a shiksa, and the utterance of the epithet stamps him as intolerant and clinches our dislike.
There are certainly valid arguments against intermarriage, and Fellowes could have written an impassioned monologue for Lord Sinderby that expressed the costs and worth of Jewish identity, and the weight and meaning of traditions and rituals. Instead, Lord Sinderby has a couple angry lines that leave the impression that he prizes money and influence above all else. While much is made of Lord Sinderby’s family values, namely his hatred of divorce, it’s presented as evidence of his inflexibility and anachronism rather than allegiance to vows and moral behavior. As for Lady Sinderby, she is totally gracious and agreeable, but in an unwaveringly superficial way.
To keep things in perspective, Downton Abbey is an upstairs/downstairs soap opera that is generally more concerned with the romantic complications of its female characters (Rose, in particular) than with the big picture of class-conscious Britain. I find the series most interesting, though, when it invokes and reflects the changes in British society after the First World War (and evokes contemporary parallels). Fellowes has introduced a story arc that’s tailor-made for illuminating antisemitism between the wars. On those grounds, I’m already anticipating Season 6.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Moses (Christian Bale) and Nun (Ben Kingsley) star in Exodus. (photo from exodusgodsandkings.com/#)
Moses, as best I recall from Hebrew school and The Ten Commandments, was a reluctant prophet with a speech impediment who was ultimately persuaded by the unspeakable, unceasing suffering of his people – and God’s fearsome support – to confront Pharaoh and lead the Hebrews out of slavery.
My, how (biblical) times have changed. The much-anticipated Hollywood epic Exodus: Gods and Kings reinvents the saga of a people’s miraculous liberation as one rugged individualist’s journey of self-discovery, identity and profound purpose.
The fundamental matter of spirituality, which might be defined in this context as the courage and power of faith, comes up in conversation a few times but not in ways that impact the movie-goer’s experience. Your post-film repartee is more likely to centre on the curious and disconcerting form in which God (or is it an angel acting as his emissary?) appears.
Exodus: Gods and Kings, which opened everywhere Dec. 12, is a sun-blistered chunk of glowering, male-centric mythmaking. Aside from its oddly anti-climactic ending – recognizing that it’s a tough call how many desert miles and years to continue the tale after the Red Sea – this is a well-paced, continuously engaging piece of mainstream entertainment with the requisite amount of impressive visual effects (in 3D). Just don’t go expecting to be awed, or to have a religious encounter.
Title cards inform us at the outset that the year is 1300 BCE and the Hebrews have been slaves in Egypt for four centuries. However, “God has not forgotten them.”
Omitting the standard baby, basket and bullrushes, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steven Zailian (Schindler’s List) introduce Moses (Christian Bale) as a general and Ramses II (Joel Edgerton) as his best friend since childhood and heir to Pharaoh’s throne.
Exodus immediately launches into a full-scale, screen-filling battle scene – a preemptive attack that might be construed as a comment on the Iraq War – in which the seed of Ramses II’s paranoia and jealousy of Moses is planted. This section is designed to excite male viewers but also to inoculate them against the ensuing hours of banter, revelation, wilderness wandering and domesticity before the warrior hero returns to Egypt to blow things up real good. (You think I’m kidding, but Exodus boasts fiery explosions like any other self-respecting, would-be action movie.)
Even if he was raised as a prince of Egypt, the portrayal of Moses as self-confident and militarily adept takes some getting used to. It does explain, however, his disbelief when the gutsy Jewish elder Nun (Ben Kingsley) informs him that he was a lowly Hebrew infant smuggled upriver toward the Pharaoh’s palace.
The biblical story is quite familiar to us, of course, even if creative licence is employed via verbal flashbacks and narrative compression. Consequently, Exodus is most intriguing from a Jewish perspective for the ways it alternately evokes and evades the dominant events in the modern Jewish world – the Holocaust and Israel (its founding, existence and current relationship vis-a-vis the Palestinians).
The 20th-century genocide of Jews is alluded to in myriad ways, from the burning of the corpses of slaves to the Egyptians lined up to insult the Hebrews as they leave. (The Exodus is presented as complying with Ramses II’s order to get out, so it is a deportation.)
An earlier sequence, in which Ramses’ soldiers knock down doors and brutalize Hebrew families in an effort to find (and kill) Moses, inevitably, recalls the Nazis.
When The Ten Commandments opened in 1956, the Holocaust was so recent, and raw, that it didn’t need to be referenced. The horrific genocide did inform the movie, however, in that the general public needed no help rooting unequivocally for the Hebrews’ freedom.
Another key factor was the new state of Israel’s status as a universal symbol of hope and rebirth. That image no longer holds sway, and the filmmakers acknowledge the contemporary perception that the oppressed have become oppressors.
While Moses and Joshua strategize how to cross the Red Sea, and Ramses’ chariots thunder in pursuit, they take a moment to ponder the Hebrews’ eventual return to Canaan. Now numbering 400,000, Moses points out, “We would be seen as invaders.”
This is an unexpected acknowledgement of power, one that Arab audiences (in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Egypt, where Exodus: Gods and Kings opens Dec. 25 or shortly thereafter) will welcome. Evangelical Christians in the United States, another large target market, will have the opposite response, presumably.
Jews, of course, will interpret and respond to the film from yet another perspective. The Torah does lend itself to various readings, after all. So does this robust movie, even if it is unlikely to inspire study groups.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Would you like to go to the movies? Yes? That is exactly what about 80 people did on Nov. 25 at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture, thanks to the wonderful combined effort of Jewish Seniors Alliance and Vancouver Jewish Film Centre, which co-host a movie screening scheduled on the afternoon of the last Tuesday of every month.
Upon arriving, we were treated to a light buffet of bagels, sweets, fruit and beverages, then we headed to the large auditorium, where VJFC director Robert Albanese welcomed the audience and introduced the day’s film, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker.
After Gyda Chud, on behalf of JSA, made some announcements, including that the previously scheduled JSA Empowerment series talk Oy Vey, My Back! will be presented in March, Albanese spoke of the variety of films that the film centre will be presenting over the next few months. Then, Sophie Tucker “entered” our world.
Tucker was born Sonya Kalish to Ukrainian Jewish parents in 1886 as they fled from czarist Russia. She only became Sophie Tucker after she adopted her former husband’s name, Tuck, and added the “er.” That name became a password that could be used to gain entry to celebrities and even presidents.
In the film, authors and biographers Lloyd and Susan Ecker relate much of Tucker’s story.
When very young, she worked in her parents’ kosher restaurant, a job she did not enjoy. One day, her father asked her to distribute pamphlets at theatres as the actors left, since most of them were Jewish. He thought it would increase the number of diners.
While doing this task, Tucker heard the music from inside a theatre, she snuck in and what she saw changed her life forever, as well as the lives of her future audiences. She ran away to New York, leaving her family, but knowing where she belonged.
She tried vaudeville but, not being a classic beauty, she had difficulty being accepted “as is,” so she sang in “black face.” Eventually, her powerful voice began to be heard. When she forgot her makeup one day and sang as herself, the show was a success – she never performed in black face again.
Irving Berlin wrote music for her and she “stopped the show” when she sang. Tucker worked without a contract; her word or a handshake was sufficient.
Tucker was respected and she respected others, asking for their names, numbers and addresses upon meeting them and entering those contacts in a book, which eventually housed 10,000 names. She would write to these people if she were coming to their towns, asking them to come see her perform. She was the original Facebook – only it was the Tuckerbook.
Ted Shapiro, her accompanist for 46 years, had the unique talent of being able to interpret the mood that Tucker wished to portray.
In later years, mobsters took over the ownership of many nightclubs and Tucker befriended Al Capone. He enjoyed having her sing, as she brought people into his Chez Paris. He called her a “human cash register.”
In the years to come, Tucker decided to share what she knew and opened a school teaching young women how to be “Red Hot Mamas.”
She knew how to market herself: in the 1930s, she was the spokeswoman for soup; in the 1940s, she advertised blouses for the fuller mamas, saying she enjoyed being overweight – “Too much of a good thing is wonderful!” She prided herself on having creative and huge hairdos, calling herself the “Modern Marie Antoinette,” and always carried a large filmy handkerchief as she performed.
In 1929, the biggest entertainer was Al Jolson and he sang in the first talkie. That same year, Warner Bros. had Tucker debut in the movie Honky Tonk, where she sang “Some of These Days,” a song with which she is still identified. Judy Garland learned how to “sell a song” from Tucker.
During the war, Tucker was one of the performers to whom soldiers wrote and received answers. She was a pinup girl along with Betty Grable.
There was a young Jewish soldier who was obsessed with music and hauled around his records, vowing that he would play Tucker’s rendition of “My Yiddishe Mameh” in Berlin when he beat Hitler. Unfortunately, he died before he could accomplish this goal but his fellow soldiers fulfilled his vow, much to the anger of some German soldiers, as that song had been banned in Germany. The victors played it for eight hours through the streets of Berlin.
Tucker remained on top for 58 years, into the television era. Along the way, she befriended many, including Josephine Baker, who, because she was black, was having a hard time being allowed to perform – until Tucker invited her to sing with her.
Tucker’s talent and her voice were both immeasurable, but her true outstanding ability was in marketing herself when there wasn’t the media infrastructure there is now. She was indeed the last of the Red Hot Mamas, a glowing ember, memorable, still admired, still inspiring!
Expressing what we all felt, Chud thanked Albanese for enriching our lives with this movie, then we all went home with the echo of a song in our hearts, “Some of These Days.”
Binny Goldmanis a member of the Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver board.
A corrective of sorts to the Old Testament’s predominantly patriarchal view of seismic events and everyday tribal life, Lifetime’s emotion-tapping adaptation of The Red Tent fulfils one’s modest expectations for a primetime soap opera in period garb.
Anita Diamant’s best-selling saga of female self-actualization and familial tribulation, centred on Jacob’s daughter Dinah, is rendered here as an aspirational fable informed more by Harlequin Romance than hardscrabble reality. Viewed as harmless entertainment and a desert respite from winter, The Red Tent provides acceptable escapism, but if you’re hoping for an earthy, accurate sense of how people actually lived in those days, or a spiritual experience (on television?!), those prayers won’t be answered.
The Red Tent aired earlier this month on Lifetime. If you can get your hands on it, either as a DVD or in rebroadcast, the two-part miniseries comprises three hours of couch time (minus commercials).
The titular scarlet structure serves as a community centre and haven for Jacob’s four wives and their daughters. In this comfy, cozy enclave, the young Dinah acquires extraordinary self-confidence – presumably from seeing firsthand the essential role of women in the family. Their most cherished skill is midwifery, partially for its autonomy (the men assuredly want no part of assisting births) and because it’s closely linked to females’ unique function. As one woman puts it, “We are the lucky ones, for we alone are the ones who can give life.”
The experience of childbirth in biblical times was presumably more primitive than New Age-y, so you’ll be rolling your eyes at the miniseries’ insistence on hinting at suffering without bringing us down by actually showing it. (My biggest peeve about the show’s glamor quotient is that everyone has perfect teeth and nobody ages, despite the skin-wrecking trifecta of sun, wind and sand.)
The film’s greatest challenge, however, is plausibly reconciling a 21st-century feminist point of view (embodied by Dinah) with the societal limitations placed on women in those days. It’s jarringly anachronistic, for example, when Dinah shocks her closest sibling, Joseph, by announcing she’ll choose her own husband at such time as she determines. But it does provide the foundation for her character’s aggressive interfaith love affair with the king’s son, Shechem. This passage of the Bible has been interpreted in several ways, but The Red Tent presents their sexual relationship as mutually consensual and an expression of love.
That doesn’t soothe Jacob’s pride in the least when he’s informed that Dinah and Shechem have married, and things go south in a hurry. Whatever sins the menfolk proceed to commit, the second half of The Red Tent – spotlighting Dinah’s life in exile – takes pains to show that women are as capable of men at inflicting cruelty.
Part 2 of the miniseries embraces such reliably eye-watering themes as separation from, rejection by and reconciliation with one’s children. They may comprise the meat and potatoes of the plot, but the heart of Dinah’s journey involves accepting the family and tradition she was born into and the talent for midwifery that she inherited.
The Red Tent implicitly honors the continuum of women that preceded and followed Dinah, extending to the present day. At the very least, this female-oriented interpretation offers an exceedingly interesting counterpoint to Ridley Scott’s testosterone-fueled Exodus: Gods and Kings, which opens this weekend, and picks up – chronologically speaking – shortly after The Red Tent ends.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Left to right, Boni Putera, Titi Juwariyah and Bambang “Ho” Mulyono are the charismatic musicians at the heart of Daniel Ziv’s (inset) documentary Jalanan. (photo from jalananmovie.com)
Daniel Ziv’s first feature-length documentary, the multiple-award-winning Jalanan (Streetside), tells the uplifting, engaging story of three musicians who are part of a bustling street scene in Jakarta: Boni Putera, Bambang “Ho” Mulyono and Titi Juwariyah. Instead of playing on street corners, these captivating and charismatic buskers board city buses, transforming ordinary commutes into musical, spiritual and political journeys through Indonesia’s capital, a mega city of 10 million.
Ziv, who was raised in Vancouver, spoke with the Independent by email after the Vancouver International Film Festival, where Jalanan had its North American première. An author and political commentator, Ziv has lived in Indonesia since 1999.
JI: How did you get started with filmmaking and how did you come to this project in particular?
DZ:Jalanan is my first film, and I never intended to be a filmmaker. Rather, the amazing story of these Jakarta street buskers, and how I felt that story, could illuminate so much about Indonesia as a society, and even globalization, sort of appeared in front of me and kept lingering there until I felt it needed to be told. Since the tale naturally contained so much music and energy and movement across this gritty urban space, I felt that film would be the right medium. So, I spent awhile getting to know the tools, and then learned through trial and error. Although filmmaking skills would have come in handy, I still believe that having a good story and good access are what really make a strong documentary. No degree of technical wizardry can replace those things.
JI: How were Boni, Ho and Titi chosen as the protagonists? Were there security concerns?
DZ: I knew that for the film to work, to really grab the attention and win the hearts of viewers, I needed strong lead characters – people with charm and charisma and agency, people with something to say about life. When I met Boni, Ho and Titi, I knew in each case that they would stand out as colorful individuals that viewers would be happy to spend two hours with in a theatre, or a few days with on the street, or even five years, as I did. They weren’t the archetypical victims that poor people are so often made out to be in social documentaries. They took control of their own fate, and they were fun to be with. And, of course, I looked for buskers with some musical talent and, more importantly, who composed their own songs and lyrics, which in turn reflected their condition. This added a whole other narrative device to the film that wouldn’t be there if it was just people talking into a camera.
In terms of safety, there actually weren’t really any issues. People assume since Jakarta is an enormous, chaotic, unruly, corrupt city, that it’s also somehow dangerous, but it’s not…. I spent five years shooting the film, totally exposed in some of the poorest parts of the city, carrying perhaps $10,000 worth of camera and sound equipment on me, yet I was never once harassed or mugged or even pickpocketed. I think if you’re at ease with your environment, the environment accepts you, but, of course, it helped that I’m fluent in Indonesian and that people knew I was with Boni, Ho and Titi. It provided me with a kind of street cred and belonging. I wasn’t some tourist leering in.
JI: What attracted you to Indonesia?
DZ: I didn’t plan any of this. I discovered Indonesia as a young backpacker in the early ’90s and was captivated by the country and its people, and then just kept going back. I did an MA in Southeast Asian studies and began a PhD in Indonesian politics, which is what moved me to Jakarta in 1999 for a year of field research. Then, I just got drawn into the dynamic changes that were happening to Indonesia at that time and into some irresistible job opportunities ranging from journalism and humanitarian aid work to book writing and filmmaking. And I got to work with the most amazing people, many of whom were the next generation of Indonesian artists and politicians and media personalities and social entrepreneurs. All of this has added up to a pretty fascinating career and life, but I also feel it’s been the result of deliberate choices: I didn’t opt for a safe, conventional path; I didn’t care about pedigree or official titles or big salaries. I only chose jobs that were truly meaningful.
JI: What were the challenges (rewards) of working on this project?
DZ: I guess the thing that is both the most challenging and rewarding is the intense experience of dreaming something up out of nothing, having the chutzpah and persistence to think you can create something that comes from inside you that wasn’t there before, and that it can actually find an audience and resonate with others…. [W]hen you make a film like this, that contains so much of your own experience and sensibility and sweat and tears, it’s really scary to wrap it up and then just watch the lights dim in a packed theatre and wonder if it will even work, if your vision and story will connect with people from a totally different culture and experience. And, when it does, it’s truly exhilarating.
JI: The response to the film has been positive. What’s that been like?
DZ: Of course, it’s immensely gratifying. My greatest fear after all the hard years of work was that it would just go nowhere … but the opposite has happened, and the film’s political and social impact in Indonesia in particular has been incredible. Jalanan captured the imagination of the public and the media, and contributed to concrete policy changes at the highest level of government, which is something none of us dreamed of.
Boni, Ho and Titi are now mini-celebrities in Indonesia, so, of course, it’s been amazing for three marginalized individuals to be publicly acknowledged in that way and to become role models within their community.
JI: Boni, Titi and Ho have multiple challenges, but they seem to be living satisfying lives. Are there lessons for those of us who, by many accounts, have more privilege or opportunity?
DZ: Certainly. But I’ve always been averse to simplistic, clichéd responses like “If poor people aren’t complaining, who are we to be discontent with our lives?” I mean, of course it’s important to recognize that we have privileged lives, but I think anyone’s pain or challenges are independently valid and very real. Having money and comfort doesn’t immunize us from pain, and being dirt poor doesn’t deny them immense joy. This is why it was so important for me to not let Jalanan become an exercise in finger waving or audience guilt. In fact, what I think many viewers respond to most is not how different they are than Boni, Ho and Titi, but how much of ourselves we see in them, and them in us. I think poverty needs to be de-fetishized and dealt with at face value, and poor people need to be seen as our friends and equals, rather than as objects to be analyzed or pitied. I know they prefer it that way.
JI: Are you still in touch with Boni, Ho and Titi?
DZ: We are close friends, and in almost daily contact. They are doing well, and enjoying a whole slew of new opportunities opening up to them as a result of the exposure from the film, but … they are still members of Jakarta’s marginalized poor, they are vulnerable and face multiple challenges. This is why I’ve started up a fundraising campaign that aims to buy each of them a small, humble house in a simple Jakarta neighborhood, something that will put a roof over their heads for life (details at jalananmovie.com/housingfund).
JI: I read an article in which you said that the buskers “were really just the lens through which we could manage a far bigger, more complex view of the country today.” Can you expand on that? Why do you think it took an expat to make an Indonesian film that had such global appeal?
DZ: That’s a great question. My interest from the start was in trying to understand, and hopefully shedding light on, Indonesia. I don’t think there’d have been anything inherently fascinating or important in a film that merely focuses on street busking, so my agenda was to probe deeper and treat my protagonists as a kind of microcosm for the country at this really fascinating juncture in time.
I’m not convinced an Indonesian couldn’t have made this film and, strangely, quite a few reviewers in Jakarta remarked that Jalanan feels “like a totally Indonesian film” rather than a documentary shot by a foreigner…. But this is probably because I created the space for Boni, Ho and Titi to tell their own very Indonesian story in their own voices and perspectives, and left space for my very talented Indonesian editor, Ernest Hariyanto, to lend his local sensibility to the cut. My goal was to open a window on to Indonesia, not to interpret it in my own image.
JI: Were you raised in a Jewish environment and, if yes, did it affect your choice of profession or other aspects of your life/filmmaking?
DZ: It’s probably fair to say my choice of profession was despite my Vancouver Jewish environment, not because of it. I grew up surrounded by a community of lawyers and doctors and academics and business folks, and most of my childhood friends didn’t stray far from that. I was lucky to have parents who secretly admired the creative and adventurous tendencies my sisters and I harbored.
One of my sisters became a ceramic artist and urban heritage expert; my other sister is a professional chef and musician. Our parents never pushed us toward establishment careers. They taught us a love for travel and culture, and that it was more important to lead an interesting life than a safe one. They probably got more than they bargained for in my case, and lament the fact that I live halfway across the world, but I doubt they’d be any happier if I were a senior partner at a downtown law firm. And, I dare say, they seemed pretty proud when the lights came on at the end of our screening … at VIFF.
Basya Layeis a Vancouver freelance writer and former editor of the Jewish Independent.
Bron Studios has won multiple awards for its work. (bronstudios.com screenshot)
Aaron L. Gilbert had every reason to be smiling broadly at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The Burnaby-based producer had three film screenings: Welcome to Me (starring Kristen Wiig and Tim Robbins); Kill Me Three Times (starring Simon Pegg) and Miss Julie (starring Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell).
“This is one of the top three most prestigious film festivals in the world, rivaling Cannes in terms of its importance to our industry,” Gilbert said. “Having three there was pretty exciting. It’s tough to get in, it’s an honor to be there and it’s a wonderful launching ground to create awareness of your film.”
As a result of the TIFF screenings, all three of Gilbert’s films are closing deals with American distributors. Welcome to Me (which also screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival to rave reviews) will be released in March, and the other two are also likely to be on the big screen in the United States and Canada over the next year, he said.
The 42-year-old from London, Ont., was studying at McMaster University when he had an opportunity to work in the music industry in 1993. That changed his life track, and Gilbert found himself moving between Vancouver and Los Angeles doing music management, managing artists and handling the international licensing of music. He credits his passion for the arts to his parents, Gloria and Joseph Gilbert.
“We’ve always been a family where the arts was important,” he reflected. “My parents introduced me and my siblings to theatre and music and gave us an opportunity to see and do a lot of things. Today, my brother and sister are also active in theatre and arts, and our love for it comes from the introduction our parents gave us as kids.”
Today, Gilbert is managing director of Bron Studios in Burnaby, which he co-founded with his wife Brenda in 2010, and where he wears many different hats. “Financially, I’m involved in putting the different pieces together for our films and with production partners, but I’m also very involved in all creative elements, such as finding a script, working on it and developing it, and selecting editors, directors of photography, talent agents, managers, casting directors and marketing people,” he explained.
Bron Studios specializes in live action and animation, and the tremendous talent pool in Vancouver’s animation industry makes this an excellent place to be, he said. “There’s a very mature film and TV industry here, and tremendous incentives for tax and government support for the animation industry in Vancouver, but it’s also about quality of life. I love the proximity to L.A. that Vancouver gives me and I often fly into L.A. for the day. This is as close to L.A. as I want to be!”
In the last few years, Gilbert has worked with Olivia Wilde, Will Ferrell, Helen Hunt, Jennifer Hudson and Julianne Moore, among many other Hollywood actors. “I’ve met such incredible, talented people, and to watch them perform just blows my mind,” he admitted. “I’m often astonished by how down-to-earth the actors are and, in many cases, we become friends. Will Ferrell, for example, is an incredible guy in addition to being crazy talented.”
Gilbert is actively working on several projects, one of them based on an original play about the inner workings of a Jewish family. Being Jewish certainly influences his decisions and the kinds of material he’s attracted to, he said. “My parents have always been so active in the Jewish community and that’s part of who I am and how I live my life, overall. I’m not in synagogue every Saturday, but I’m Jewish and culturally aware, and I know my roots. I’m definitely attracted to real-life stories about how Jews live in our existing world.”
Gilbert is also particularly attracted to films containing serious thematic material. “A lot of films I’ve done cover difficult subject matters in ways that can be accepted by wider audiences,” he explained. Welcome to Me, for example, is about a woman who is bipolar, while Decoding Annie Parker (2013) deals with breast cancer and heredity. “We want to approach difficult subject matters in a way that can be entertaining, but never preachy, to our audiences.”
Recently, he partnered with Niv Fichman of Rhombus Media on the psychological drama Into the Forest, from Canadian writer/director Patricia Rozema. And, in October, he was in Shreveport, La., working on I Saw the Light, a Hank Williams biopic, in partnership with Brett Ratner.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net. This article was originally published on cjnews.com.
The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) has launched Short Film, Large Subject: The Holocaust Film Competition. This is the organization’s first film contest, and it is open to entrants from around the world.
Recognizing the potential of movies to reach large numbers of people and to spark powerful discussions among audiences, the Claims Conference is putting out a call for talented, rising filmmakers to submit screenplays or treatments for short films about the Holocaust.
Short Film, Large Subject: The Holocaust Film Competition invites directors either currently enrolled in a graduate film program at an accredited university or who have successfully completed such a program no earlier than Jan. 1, 2012, to submit a screenplay or documentary treatment for a short film about the Holocaust (the systematic persecution and murder of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945) and/or the experiences of Jewish Holocaust victims. While the film can tell a fictional story, information relating to the Holocaust must be historically accurate.
The entry deadline is March 15, 2015. After being judged by a panel of Holocaust scholars and film industry professionals, selected entrants will proceed to the finalist round. The winner will receive a prize of $40,000 toward the production of a 20-minute short film about the Holocaust and/or survivors.
In the tradition of films such as Sophie’s Choice, Shoah, Schindler’s List and The Pianist, the Claims Conference, by launching this competition, aims to encourage a new generation of directors to tackle the Holocaust as a subject matter in their work and to use their creativity and skills to portray new perspectives and observations about a dark era in human history.
”We believe that this competition will engage up-and-coming filmmakers in the difficult but important topic of the Holocaust. Films about the Holocaust have great potential to educate and raise awareness at a time when fewer and fewer eyewitnesses are with us. By taking on this subject, filmmakers will not only expand their own horizons, but help preserve a piece of history that must never be forgotten,” said Julius Berman, Claims Conference president.
Separate from the competition, the Claims Conference distributes grants for selected projects and programs of Holocaust education, documentation and research. Among recent grantee films is the theatrical release of No Place on Earth. This work raises public awareness about the Holocaust and preserves the evidence of it; the funding of these projects will be even more critical when the eyewitnesses are gone. For more information, see claimscon.org/red.
In her film The German Doctor, Lucia Puenzo tries to capture Josef Mengele’s “very sociopathic, complex personality.” (photo from Vancouver Jewish Film Festival)
As a high school student in the 1990s, Lucia Puenzo was fascinated and mystified by an open secret: hundreds of Nazi war criminals found refuge in her native Argentina.
“I was intrigued that so many families knew what was going on because they had a German man on their block or somewhere in their neighborhood,” recalled the acclaimed novelist and filmmaker. “Maybe they didn’t know so much in the ’60s and ’70s but, by the ’80s or ’90s, everybody knew. How could they not open their mouths and say what happened? It had a lot of echoes of our military coup d’etat, where so many Argentine families didn’t speak out.”
In her 2011 novel Wakolda, Puenzo explored the devious machinations of a German doctor in the Patagonian town of Bariloche circa 1960 who befriends a young girl. The erstwhile physician injects her with growth hormones before turning his attention to her pregnant mother, distracting the suspicious father with a plan to mass-market his handmade dolls.
Puenzo adapted the novel for the screen, shifting the point of view from the doctor to the child. The German Doctor, which swept Argentina’s major film awards and was the country’s official submission for last year’s Oscar for best foreign language film, is a creepy, precisely crafted thriller made more unsettling by its restraint. It screens Nov. 12 in the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival.
At 37, Puenzo has already published five widely translated novels and directed three singular films, including XXY, her prize-winning tale of an intersex teenager. Smart and fearless, she is attracted to subjects that others find off-limits or taboo – like the Nazi presence in Argentina.
“For me, the big mystery has always been why this subject, that could be a hundred films and a hundred novels, has never been taken to film before,” she explained in a long-distance phone interview. “We have maybe a few excellent documentaries on the subject but not one fiction film, and maybe we have five or six novels, and that’s all speaking about the subject.”
The German Doctor did solid box office in Argentina, which Puenzo sees as confirmation of pent-up interest. The film has been released in dozens of countries, including several European nations.
The film succinctly illustrates how a cautious physician who adults would view with suspicion, let’s call him Josef Mengele, could win a child’s trust.
“In the camps, there were so many horrible testimonies of how kids would call him Uncle Mengele. He would have sweets to give to the children and then he would take them to his experiments,” Puenzo said.
The German Doctor captures that deviousness and single-mindedness, while persuasively depicting the polite veneer Mengele devised to mask his lunacy and deceive people.
“After the war, after the concentration camps, he disguised himself as this very civilized, seductive, enchanting man that lived for decades in three countries of Latin America without anybody suspecting who he was,” Puenzo said. “I think that’s how you have to portray this very sociopathic, complex personality who disguised himself. He was not the stereotype of the bad guy whom you could see coming.”
Puenzo comes across as earnest and serious but, befitting someone with a master’s degree in literature and critical theory, she recognizes the relationship between pop culture and popular perceptions of history.
“I remember films like The Boys of Brazil,” she said. “I loved it in a way, it’s such a strange film, but at the same time it’s a stereotype of Mengele. I think to honor these most horrific monsters, you really have to show them in all their complexity. They were much more dangerous than we think.”
The German Doctor is in Spanish and German with English subtitles; it is rated PG-13 for thematic material and brief nudity. For the full schedule of this year’s VJFF, which started Nov. 6, visit vjff.org.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.