Aaron Friedland, creator and host of the podcast Impact in the 21st Century. (photo from Aaron Friedland)
If you’re looking for a new, uplifting podcast to cast away the oppressive weight of pandemic blues, consider Impact in the 21st Century, recently launched by Vancouverite Aaron Friedland. The Vancouver-based founder of the Simbi Foundation, which promotes literacy and education worldwide, felt it was time to give voice to the inspiring things that people are doing.
“There’s a lot of really bad news and horrible things going on and, as a species, we seem to be more interested in those stories,” Friedland told the Independent in a recent interview. “There are lots of podcasts available that celebrate big businesses and a very capitalist ideology. Our goal is to help showcase the amazing, impactful things that many brilliant people are doing and that often go unnoticed, and to mainstream what positive impact really means.”
To date, Friedland has interviewed Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and scientific educator; David Suzuki, an academic, broadcaster and environmentalist; Maryanne Wolf, a Jewish author and Harvard academic researching the brain; Ndileka Mandela, the granddaughter of Nelson Mandela; and Alex Honnold, a rock climber and subject of the movie Free Solo. “It’s so nice to be the one doing the interviewing, and the people I’m speaking with are such brilliant minds with brilliant insights to share,” Friedland said. “I feel deeply privileged to be getting that information firsthand.” The plan is to release a new podcast every two to three weeks.
The Royal Bank of Canada has sponsored Impact in the 21st Century, but Friedland said he’s always looking for more sponsors. “Our goal is to reach a point where we have enough podcast sponsors that, with each episode we release, we can build another Bright Box,” he said. The Bright Boxes, which cost $55,000 per box, are classrooms comprised of shipping containers, refurbished with solar technology and aimed at enhancing learning in overcrowded classrooms in places that have little or no access to electricity.
Friedland’s next podcast will be an interview with Canadian cultural anthropologist Wade Davis. His dream interviewees are Elon Musk and David Attenborough, but he’s biding his time until those happen. “It could be they’re not ready yet,” Friedland quipped. “We look for subjects who have a track record of creating longstanding positive impact, and whose vision and values really align with ours.”
Listeners can stream Impact in the 21st Century anywhere they access their podcasts, or online at simbifoundation.org.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
Shai Avivi, left, and Noam Imber are excellent as father and son in Here We Are. (still courtesy VIFF)
Understated and poignant are just two of the words I’d use to describe the screeners I watched in anticipation of the Vancouver International Film Festival, which opened Sept. 24 and runs to Oct. 7.
As with most everything these days, much of VIFF has moved online; however, there are still in-person screenings and talks, with audience sizes limited. And, as with other film festivals, online viewing is geo-blocked to British Columbia, meaning that you can only watch the movies if you are physically inside the province. The new format should allow for more access to the festival offerings and, while there will be those who miss dressing up and going out to the movies, there will be many people excited to be able to attend VIFF in their pajamas at home, me being one of them.
Last week, I watched two full-length features and two shorts: the narrative Here We Are, directed by Nir Bergman (Israel/Italy); the documentary Paris Calligrammes, directed by (and about) Ulrike Ottinger (Germany/France); The Book of Ruth, directed by Becca Roth (United States); and White Eye, directed by Tomer Shushan (Israel).
Every year, the Jewish Independent sponsors a selection at VIFF and, this time round, we’ve chosen a wonderfully written, acted and filmed movie. We generally have zero time and little information on which to base our choice, so I feel particularly grateful to have lucked out with this gem.
Here We Are is the story of a father who both will do almost anything for his autistic son, but who also uses his son as an excuse to not deal with the larger world. Aharon (played with incredible delicacy by Shai Avivi) has left his job to care for his son Uri (acted by Noam Imber, who gives an empathetic and strong performance). Aharon and his wife Tamara (played by Smadar Wolfman, who does a wonderful job, too) are no longer together, and Uri’s care has been left in his father’s capable and loving hands.
But Uri is an adult now and, to grow, we need space and the ability to direct our own lives. Tamara recognizes this and has worked hard to find Uri a good home, where he will be able to make friends and participate in activities with his peers. Aharon, however, is unable to let go and, though he also wants the best for Uri, he undermines Tamara’s actions – not only in words, but he takes Uri on the run.
The script by Dana Idisis leaves room for the pauses and emotions that make Here We Are an excellent film. Avivi’s face speaks more than a thousand words and you can see the inner conflict as his character struggles to accept that his son no longer needs him as much. The chemistry between Avivi and Imber makes the father-son relationship believable and compelling. And there are no “bad guys” here, even though mother and father differ in their opinions on parenting.
“I love the characters, the relationships, the way Aharon has reduced his needs to accommodate his son’s, and the transformation they experience throughout their journey,” reads the director’s statement. “I believe that, if I’m able to convey these characters as they are, from the written page to the screen, together with the bittersweet and humorous tone of the script, the audience will also fall in love with them.” Bergman accomplished his goal, and then some.
Paris Calligrammes is also very watchable and engaging. I’ll admit to never having heard of Ottinger before, so I was looking forward to learning more about her, her artwork, her photography and what eventually inspired her to filmmaking. However, while I thought the documentary was esthetically pleasing and gave a tangible sense of how exciting it would have been to live among the artistic elite in Paris during the 1960s, I couldn’t tell you much about Ottinger herself and what she contributed to the thoughts, images and culture of those turbulent times. But, I guess, perhaps it is assumed that one knows these things already.
Ottinger does offers some interesting and valuable commentary – read by British actress Jenny Agutter – but, for whatever reason, I didn’t think it was enough. The film is named after the bookstore Librairie Calligrammes, which specialized in antiquarian books and German literature, and was where Jewish and political émigrés hung out, along with others who we would now call cultural influencers. Ottinger drove to Paris in 1962 from Konstanz, Germany, to become, in her words, a great artist; to follow in the footsteps of her heroes and heroines. She not only follows those footsteps but walks alongside the likes of Tristan Tzara, Marcel Marceau, Raoul Hausman, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and countless others as well known.
Some of the most interesting parts of the film are about Algeria’s years-long war of independence from France (1954-1962) and the situation at the time with respect to the appalling treatment of Algerians living in Paris. Clips are shown of a peaceful demonstration held on Oct. 17, 1961, that was violently broken up by police. According to the film, 200 to 300 people were killed that night alone and, to this day, there has not been an investigation and no one has been held accountable for the deaths; even opposition newspapers didn’t report on it at the time and photos vanished from newsrooms. Ottinger notes that the order for the police to attack was given by then-chief Maurice Papon, who, under the Vichy government, had organized the rounding up of Jews to be murdered during the Holocaust.
This is a film that, I think, would be most appreciated on a big screen, but is still worth watching, for its content, yes, but mainly for its creative use of archival footage and interview clips, photographs and current-day images and filming. The documentary starts with a quote from Conseils au Bon Voyageur by Victor Segalen, advice that Ottinger has “gladly followed”: “Advice to the good traveler – A town at the end of the road and a road extending a town: do not choose one or the other, but one and the other, by turns.” If one needed inspiration to live by the conjunctions “and/both” rather than “either/or,” Paris Calligrammes might offer it.
While Paris Calligrammes is the product and vision of a longtime filmmaker, The Book of Ruth comes from the imagination of Chen Drachman, and is the first film Drachman has written and produced. She also co-stars in this exploration of how important it is to have symbols – in this instance, represented by an historical figure – around which to rally or by which to live one’s life.
The short takes place during the happiest, smallest (five people) and shortest seder that I’ve ever seen, and focuses on Ruth – played by veteran actress Tovah Feldshuh – and whether she is really the grandmother her granddaughter, played by Drachman, grew up knowing. While the scenario postulated is unbelievable, Feldshuh offers the gravitas and has the talent to make viewers look beyond that fact and consider the questions raised in the film about the stories we build around some people – their role in a war or a political movement or an artistic endeavour, whatever – and how that story or image can help make us, living in another time, feel less alone, more understood, etc.
Symbolism, of course, can be positive and negative. Racist views and bigotry also come from the stories we have learned and tell ourselves. And White Eye, both directed and written by Shushan, does a superb job of illustrating how prejudices and privilege we may not even know we have can lead to disastrous consequences.
The main character of Omer is played by Daniel Gad with convincing stubbornness and obliviousness at first, then quiet shock at what happens as a result of his desire simply to take back what is his. When he comes across his bicycle, which had been stolen, that’s all he wants to do: cut the lock off and take it back. Even after he meets the bike’s new owner, Yunes – actor Dawit Tekelaeb will win your heart with his touching portrayal of a hardworking father and husband who bought the bike so he could take his daughter to kindergarten – Omer wants his property back. Even when Yunes’s boss (Reut Akkerman) argues on her employee’s behalf, Omer refuses to budge even the smallest bit. Only after the police become involved and Yunes, an immigrant from Eritrea whose visa has expired, is taken away, does Omer realize the full implications of his actions. By then, of course, the damage has been done. And it’s much more devastating than having had one’s bicycle stolen.
For the full film festival lineup, schedule and tickets, visit viff.org.
Poet Ieden Wall is the host of the new late night talk show Canadian Jewish TV. (photo from OMNI 1)
Canada’s newest late night talk show, Canadian Jewish TV (CJTV), kicks off Oct. 1 on OMNI 1. Hosted by poet Ieden Wall, the show will feature interviews and performances from some of Canada’s most notable Jewish figures.
Canadian producer Robert Lantos said late night fans across Ontario, in British Columbia and in the Atlantic provinces can expect a unique viewing experience. “Late Night shows are usually hosted by actors and comedians but very rarely do we see a poet get the job,” he said.
Wall is also a journalist, host and media producer, based in Toronto. He burst onto the scene in the 1990s with his reality/comedy series called The Dream Chaser. Since then, he has kept busy producing documentaries, medical marketing videos and commercials for his own production company. His first collection of spoken-word films aired in Australia and the United Kingdom.
In keeping with Wall’s background, CJTV will also feature a spoken-word short-film series based on new poems from Wall’s upcoming book, The Wisdom of the Wall 2. His first book of poetry, Wisdom of the Wall, has sold more than 30,000 copies.
With the loss of established national Jewish media like the Canadian Jewish News, CJTV is aiming to fill the void with a “traditional”-style Jewish show that avoids getting hung up on extreme sides of the political spectrum.
“When you are doing a show like this, you can’t please everybody, so my objective with CJTV is to do a show that my bubbe would be proud of,” said Wall. “My Bubby Bella escaped Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, but not without her share of violent antisemitism. She was not Orthodox in the pure sense, but she lit the Shabbos candles and taught us all to be proud of our Jewish heritage. This show is for her.”
A weekly half-hour show, CJTV will celebrate the contributions that Jews have made to art, history and culture in Canada’s largest city and in all cities across the country. The guest lineup for Season 1 is a “who’s who” of the Canadian media and entertainment industry, including Lantos, Paul Godfrey, Mark Breslin, Dan Shulman, Libby Znaimer and Heather Reisman, as well as an appearance by former prime minister Stephen Harper.
CJTV makes its season debut on Oct. 1 across Ontario. For more about the show, visit cjtv.ca. For more information about viewing times in British Columbia, visit omnitv.ca/bc/en next month.
Esther Turan has produced an eclectic range of work. (photo from Moviebar Productions)
There is a Hungarian expression that translates roughly as “you are as many people as the number of languages that you speak.” This aptly describes the versatility of Budapest-born director and producer Esther Turan.
Turan, who spoke to the Independent from her home in Los Angeles, has melded eclectic cinematic styles into a considerable body of work. And she has done so within both a society and an industry frequently faulted for their limited opportunities for women. Among her credentials are director of documentaries about Budapest’s underground music scene; co-producer of an adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday; producer of In the Same Garden, a Bosnian film about Turkish-Armenian relations; and creator of commercials for dozens of internationally recognized companies.
Ever since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Budapest’s rich architecture and comparatively low production costs have made the city an attractive film location. Turan was barely out of her teens when, as a student at Hungary’s University of Drama and Film, her proficiency in English won her assignments as a casting director for several films shot in Budapest in the early 2000s, including Den of Lions, with Bob Hoskins.
In 2004, she became a founding member of Moviebar Productions, a full-service production company with offices in Budapest and – as of 2017 – Los Angeles. “I teamed up with a woman named Viktoria Tepper and we started producing television commercials,” explained Turan. “Soon our clientele grew, and we took on more projects for international companies.”
To date, Moviebar has produced 30 films and TV productions, in addition to more than 500 television commercials for brands such as BMW, Vogue and Nike.
“I have around 20 projects, in differing stages of development, underway at both the Budapest and Los Angeles offices,” Turan said. “One of my goals as a filmmaker is to tell stories that could inspire other women. My first TV series idea is about an exceptional woman who created a revolution and was a rebel herself. It’s also important for me to collaborate with other female filmmakers from all over the world and to share our visions. I would love to be involved in more projects, both with European and American female filmmakers.”
Currently, Turan is working on a miniseries about fashion designer Klara Rotschild, the “Coco Chanel of the East,” and contemplating a documentary about her grandfather, famed mathematician Paul Turan. His friendship and collaboration with eccentric mathematical icon Paul Erdos, known as “the oddball’s oddball,” would figure prominently in the film. Erdos was renowned for traveling from math conference to math conference around the globe, with a suitcase containing all his worldly goods.
Turan, too, has traveled to pursue her passions and her heritage. She studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, for example, to perfect her Hebrew. “Because of the fondness I had for it from earlier trips, I found myself missing Israel,” she recalled.
One of her latest projects is the anticipated The Reckoning, a horror film about a witch hunt set in 1665 New England that stars Charlotte Kirk (Vice), Joe Anderson (The Crazies) and Steven Waddington (The Imitation Game). Coincidentally, the movie is set against the backdrop of the Great Plague, and portrays the witch hunts conducted in its wake. Protagonist Grace Haverstock (Kirk) grapples with the tragic death of her husband, Joseph (Anderson), in a society consumed by fear and death. Later, in retaliation for having rejected the advances of her landlord, Squire Pendleton (Waddington), Grace is falsely accused of being a witch, and is imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit.
In addition to The Reckoning, the third instalment of Turan’s documentary series Budapest Underground was just released. In it, in collaboration with co-director Anna Koltay, she explores Budapest’s musical subcultures in the late 1990s. This latest instalment focuses on electronic music. Accompanied by selected archival footage, it examines the genre’s emergence and growth, its key players, styles and sub-genres. The previous episodes delved into hardcore punk and hip-hop.
As Eastern Europe emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s from several decades of communist rule, Budapest’s nascent underground music scene flourished, a blend of Western influences combined with a distinctively Magyar flavour. “I was into all this new music happening in Budapest at the time, especially rock and hip-hop,” said Turan. “It was really a great time.”
A fourth instalment in the series will be about underground rock and is currently in production.
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.