Lance Henriksen, left, and Viggo Mortensen in Falling. (photo from indiewire.com)
In February 2016, the Jewish Independent published my column “Dementia, cinema’s darling,” in which I reviewed seven films about people struggling with dementia. Well, here we go again! This pandemic year has seen the release of four extraordinary films that feature people struggling with the symptoms of dementia, those with the illness and those who are close to them.
These films opened my eyes not only to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, but also how the affected persons perceive what is happening around them and how that altered reality affects loved ones and family members. After having watched these four unique films, I feel like I have taken a course in how dementia evolves, and how it feels to suffer through the gradual deterioration of the self. I have been shocked, educated and enriched by these moving works of art.
Falling (2021): Viggo Mortensen writes, directs and stars in this lacerating drama about a son dealing with his father’s mental decline. Lance Henriksen plays the father Willis, a foul-tempered, bigoted man, filled with intolerance and invective. His meanness is hard to watch. The flashbacks inform us of the subdued menace of Willis, they scrape your senses like sandpaper. John, the son (Mortensen), must call on all his reserves of patience, understanding and love to withstand the onslaught. (I watched it on TIFF Bell Lightbox, but do a Google search to see where it is streaming now.)
The Father (2021): French writer and first-time director Florian Zeller presents a frightening new angle with this movie, which aims to mirror the confusion and discomfort of encroaching dementia. Anthony Hopkins, 83 years old, takes us from the realm of sympathy to empathy. It is disturbing and brilliant. Hopkins, as the father, nails the way in which people learn to cover for their mental mistakes. The supporting cast is excellent, and Hopkins won the best-actor Oscar for his depiction of a mind in decline. (It is on TIFF, but do a Google search.)
Supernova (2020): Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth dazzle as a couple facing their fears. Tusker and Sam have been together for decades. The careers of both have been put on hold because Tusker has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. They set out on a road trip. Harry Macqueen, the director, has created a drama about love and mortality. The northern English scenery is stunning, as are the performances of these two people stoically accepting mortality. (It is on TIFF and is also accessible on Apple TV+ and perhaps elsewhere.)
Two of Us (2021): An older lesbian couple is met with unexpected devastation in the aching romantic drama by Filippo Meneghetti. Nina (German actress Barbara Sukowa) and Madeleine (Martine Chevallier) have waited decades to love one another freely. They are preparing to leave France for new beginnings in Rome. First, Madeleine must come out to her children before realizing her dream, but tragedy strikes before she can speak her truth. Sukowa is ferociously great as a woman whose devotion is as fierce as her determination to drag her lover into a more honest life. This is a film of profound intimacy between two people. In French with English subtitles. (It is available at TIFF Bell Lightbox.)
Dolores Luber, a retired psychotherapist and psychology teacher, is editor-in-chief of Jewish Seniors Alliance’s Senior Line magazine. She works out four times a week, studies Modern Hebrew twice a week, and is constantly reading books and watching movies. Her motto is “Never underestimate an old lady who can deadlift you.”
Kamil Whaley-Kalaora stars as the title character in Malka Martz-Oberlander’s David Michael Frankel Feinstein-Goldberg and the Unbarmitzvah. (screenshot)
It was a rainy day near the beginning of the pandemic. Sourdough was in the oven, Zoom was new and fun and spirits were higher. That’s when I found out I’d won the Earl Parker Award and I’d get to make my film for the Edmonton Jewish Film Festival. Little did I know I would have to go through months of hurdles, Plan B ideas and cast my entire family to get my film made.
A few months prior, my mom had passed me the Jewish Independent and showed me the notice for a film award at the Edmonton Jewish Film Festival. At the time, I was co-directing a musical, directing a film and finishing my applications for universities, so I didn’t think much of it. But, I am very glad I eventually picked up that notice and applied to the competition because it changed the course of my path.
Last year was tough in a thousand ways. The pandemic hit everyone differently and, no doubt, we will all have lifelong effects because of it. When I originally pitched my film, David Michael Frankel Feinstein-Goldberg and the Unbarmitzvah, in 2020, I had a vision that could only have been actualized pre-pandemic. I adapted it and changed things to meet the constraints of the circumstances and I truly did my best to pull it off in a safe way for the entire cast and crew. One of the changes I had to make was to cast solely from within my bubble and community, which was not what I had originally planned to do.
I normally cast my films through Vancouver Actor’s Guide, UBC ACTRA and Facebook film & TV pages, but, instead, I ended up casting my parents as two of the main characters. As much as they are incredibly charismatic and intelligent people, they’re both doctors, not actors the stature of a Leonardo DiCaprio. So, performing was a big challenge for them and, vice versa, for me directing them. That being said, it was a fantastic experience for me to learn how to produce a film under circumstances that many filmmakers haven’t had to face.
In the early stages, I had a few moments when I felt selfish and embarrassed to want to make films during a literal plague. How could I have the chutzpah to be making dumb little comedy films while millions of people have died and more are dying? Why should I worry if my lenses are going to work for a scene while people are saying goodbye to their loved ones on iPads?
But then it dawned on me just how much we rely on art and story for our own sanity. We tell our children stories from the moment they are born, and we offer and receive stories to our last day on earth. We humans are, at our core, storytelling creatures. In moments of darkness we turn, time and time again, to art to save us. We are drawn to an astonishing multitude of fictions – on pages, on stages and on screens; stories of murder, love, war, conspiracies; stories fictional and true.
We are obsessed with story, but our obsession runs deeper than we think. We can walk away from our books and our screens, but story is like gravity: an inescapable force field that influences everything, but is so omnipresent that we hardly notice it. We’re social creatures and, with the added challenge of isolation, art has become a tool for staying connected with one another.
I’m now finishing up my first year at film school, in Capilano University’s Motion Picture Arts Program, where I have been learning invaluable skills and refining my knowledge and abilities in writing, directing and producing. With the vaccination rollout well underway and more knowledge and experience of how to safely work together in-person, I am ready to see what’s next for film and storytelling. I hope you are, too.
My film David Michael Frankel Feinstein-Goldberg and the Unbarmitzvah screened at the Edmonton Jewish Film Festival on May 2 and I will be speaking on a panel of past Earl Parker Award winners on May 9, 11 a.m., on Zoom (meeting ID 846 7697 0846). To view the film, visit jewishedmonton.org/festival-news; after the festival, it will be publicly available on Vimeo.
Malka Martz-Oberlanderis a 19-year-old screenwriter, film and theatre director and actress, currently “squatting” at her parents’ house in Vancouver, the unceded territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam peoples. Her website is malkamo.wixsite.com/film. She thanks the Edmonton Jewish Film Festival and the Earl Parker Award for their kindness and generosity in making David Michael Frankel Feinstein-Goldberg and the Unbarmitzvah possible during such an unpredictable time for artists.
Seu Jorge, left, and Noah Schnapp in a still from Abe. (image from Reel 2 Real)
The upcoming Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth is not just for youth, though younger viewers are its target audience. There are entertaining and engaging films for all ages among the 18 features and 45 shorts that will be available for streaming online April 14-23.
The focus of this year’s festival is “films that explore the impact of social media, racism and discrimination, with a focus on Germany.” While many of the offerings will interest Jewish community members, at least four cover topics of specific relevance.
The American feature Abe was part of the recent Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. It is carried by the impressive acting of Noah Schnapp as 12-year-old Abe and that of Seu Jorge as Chico, the Brazilian-American chef that Abe idolizes. The food, glorious food, is an added bonus.
While the writing of Abe’s family dynamics is clunky and without nuance – his father’s side is Muslim, his mother’s Jewish, and never the twain shall meet on religion or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – Abe himself is charming. He puts his heart into trying to bring everyone together, in part, by creating a fancy dinner that comprises several of his grandmothers’ traditional recipes. The grumpy but caring Chico helps, having reluctantly taken Abe in, first as a dishwasher then as one of his prep cooks.
Food doesn’t turn out to be the way to his family members’ hearts but the disastrous fusion meal, which ends in a big fight and Abe running away, does push his family to at least reconsider their priorities.
In another charming film, the young also show the adults the possible way to some form of peace. In the Israeli animated short Cinema Rex, the Jewish boy Mouize and the Arab girl Ranin become friends over popcorn and a shared love of cinema.
Set in Jerusalem in 1938, a new movie theatre opens, “In the heart of the city, on the seam line between the Jewish side and the Arab side, and adjacent to the British police.” It is “co-owned by partners from both sides of [the] divided city” and Mouize’s dad is the projectionist. When Mouize catches a glimpse of someone peeking into the projection room, he follows the trail of popcorn to Ranin, who shares it with him in exchange for a seat beside him in the best seats in the house. The two imagine themselves as the heroes in Robin Hood, as actors in a Laurel and Hardy film, dancers in a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, and more.
Ranin’s mother is non-plused to find her daughter hanging out with Mouize, and Mouize’s dad tries to tell him, “Someday, you’ll understand why you and she can’t be friends.” But the kids have none of it.
Beautifully drawn and a story simply told – in Arabic, English and Hebrew with English subtitles – this short is highly recommended viewing.
A more serious and nerve-wracking short is the tension-filled American film Alina. For 25 minutes, breathing will be more difficult, as the fate of a three-month-old baby lies in the hands of Alina (played by Alia Shawkat). The non-Jewish woman is part of a group of women (and men, as her brother helps) who are smuggling Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust.
Inspired by factual events, but fictional, the film opens as Nazi soldiers kick their way into a building and make their way up each floor, searching every room for children, with orders to seize them. Alina must escape from an upper-level apartment with the baby through the bathroom window, using a makeshift rope of tied sheets. She must then meet her brother, make it through a checkpoint and even face Nazi soldiers in her own home, as a Nazi captain accompanies her there from the checkpoint, so convinced is he that she is hiding something from him.
Alina is a multiple-award-winning film for many reasons. And it precedes the fascinating feature-length documentary The Lesson, which sees its Canadian première at Reel 2 Real.
Through the lens of German filmmaker Elena Horn, who herself grew up in Fröndenberg and went to Fröndenberg Comprehensive School, The Lesson is a personal look at how students in Germany are taught about the Holocaust. Over a five-year period, Horn followed a handful of students through their classes on the topic, their projects and field trips. She juxtaposes this perspective with archival footage from the 1930s, showing children doing paramilitary exercises, learning about what makes a good German and other propaganda. She also includes current-day nationalism and how some of the students deal with the differences between what they’re being taught in school about the Holocaust and what their families have told them about that period in time.
Horn frames the content in the context of overarching questions such as, could the Holocaust have been initiated by other countries just as easily as in Germany, or is there something inherent about Germany that allowed it to start there? She wonders if history is repeating itself, and she continues to struggle with the question, “What would I have done?” She highlights some of the efforts of those who refused to be bystanders to genocide, and she hopes to inspire some viewers to be courageous if, God forbid, they ever face such a choice.
For the full festival schedule and tickets, as well as information on Reel 2 Real’s several youth programs and workshops, visit r2rfestival.org.
Illusionist Vitaly Beckman in the midst of fooling Penn & Teller on the March 19 broadcast of Penn & Teller: Fool Us. (screenshot)
Illusionist Vitaly Beckman has done it again – he stumped Penn & Teller a second time. The co-hosts of CW television network’s Penn & Teller: Fool Us could not figure out how Vitaly made a cup of coffee and a muffin appear from seemingly nowhere, brought into existence by his mere drawing of the items. They also could not figure out how he made the breakfast disappear, by simply tearing the illustration out of his sketchbook.
Vitaly’s winning performance, which aired March 19, can be seen via his Facebook page, facebook.com/beckman.vitaly, YouTube, or jewishindependent.ca. He first stumped the famous magicians in 2016 and his return to the reality show brought some tough (joking) remarks from Penn, who said he thought Vitaly was a nice guy the first time they met. Noting that he and Teller don’t like to be fooled once, let alone twice, Penn said, “You’re not a nice guy. You’re someone we have to take down!”
Despite the jovial animosity, Vitaly, who admitted to having been nervous in his first appearance on the show, told the Independent, “I was much more comfortable this time. However, the illusion I prepared, even though it looked simple in its execution, it was quite difficult to perform, requiring a lot of concentration, precision and coordination. I was rehearsing it for a few months before the show. So, when I was performing, I focused all of the nervous energy to work for me and help me execute well.”
Penn & Teller’s guesses at Vitaly’s secret – the use of mirrors and/or hidden assistants off-stage – proved incorrect, garnering Vitaly another Fool Us trophy.
Vitaly performed his act from his home in Metro Vancouver, while Penn & Teller were in Las Vegas, and a virtual audience appeared behind them.
“I’m used to feeding off a live audience’s energy and reactions, so not having any definitely makes it more challenging,” said Vitaly. “When I perform live, I like to interact with the audience, hear them laugh and be amazed; sometimes I bring a volunteer on stage. I purposely designed an act that wouldn’t rely on any of that, yet still translated through the TV screen. I think we all can connect to the idea of making a cup of coffee and a muffin or another favourite dish appear whenever we want one, and it’s certainly nice to have that ability during a pandemic!”
Vitaly is currently working on some TV projects and planning live tours. “I’m also working on brand new illusions, and can’t wait for you to see some of the new things,” he said.
Vitaly added, “I love to stay in touch with my fans, and hear their feedback about their favourite acts and what are they up to, so feel free to send me messages through my Facebook page.”
Illusionist Vitaly Beckman fooled the famous Las Vegas duo Penn & Teller on his first appearance on Penn & Teller: Fool Us, in Season 3. Now, four years later, he will attempt to do it again – this time, filmed remotely from Vancouver, and with only a virtual audience. The episode airs March 19, 6 p.m. PST, on CW Network, and the appearance will later be posted online.
The performance will be shot so as not to allow any camera trickery, and the secret of the act will be disclosed to a judge, who will be watching Vitaly’s act, as well as listening to every word Penn & Teller say to see if their guess is correct, or whether Vitaly will be receiving a second Fool Us trophy.
Vitaly, most recently, had his show produced off-Broadway by Daryl Roth, whose producing credits include Tony winners such as Kinky Boots and Indecent. Vitaly was booked for a 16-week run at New York City’s Westside Theatre, where Penn & Teller started their careers in the 1980s.
From making drawings and paintings spring to life to making audience’s faces disappear from their own driver’s licence photos, Vitaly’s illusions have never been replicated anywhere in the world. (See jewishindependent.ca/a-wonder-full-evening and other articles on the JI website for more on Vitaly.)
Alessandro Gassmann plays a Jewish surgeon whose idyllic kayaking trip – and life – is upended when he hears a car accident on the adjacent roadway. (photo from comingsoon.it)
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival is finally here! Available for streaming until March 14 is a host of movies – thrillers, documentaries, dramas and comedies. We watched all of the above this past week and here’s what we thought about the handful of movies we saw.
In the Italian-set film Thou Shalt Not Kill, a Jewish surgeon’s idyllic kayaking on an Italian river is abruptly and inextricably interrupted when he hears a vehicle accident on the adjacent roadway. Coming ashore and scurrying up the embankment, Simone (Alessandro Gassmann) discovers a gravely injured man behind the wheel of a vehicle that has been involved in a hit-and-run. When the doctor, who we are to discover is the son of a Holocaust survivor, sees the swastika tattooed on the man’s chest, he confronts a fate-determining choice.
Driven by guilt or some other impetus, Simone begins a quest that entangles him into the lives of the crash victim’s family. At the same time as he is dealing with the estate of his own problematic father, the surgeon is confronted with the impacts of a different sort of intergenerational trauma.
Simone devises to hire the dead man’s daughter, Marica (Sara Serraiocco), as a cleaner and their awkward relationship evolves. Simone is drawn into their not-insignificant family dramas and he takes some steps to make amends for his lack of action at the scene of their father’s death.
Simone faces a sort of mirror image of his original moral choice when Marica’s brother Marcello is seriously wounded and, again, a despicable tattoo confronts the attending doctor. Is it his relationship with Marica that drives Simone to behave differently in this instance? Or is it a reconsidering of his earlier actions (or inactions) with their father and a chance to in some way right a wrong that leads Simone to save Marcello’s life?
Writers Davide Lisino and Mauro Mancini (the latter of whom also directed) resist some of the stereotypes common in depictions of hate-filled characters and instead allow a portrayal of even those with the most detestable ideas as ultimately human. The acting is universally good to excellent and the conclusion avoids simplistic tying up of loose ends. The complexities of every human life – including those we tend to see as uniformly malevolent – are represented, as are deeply alarming images of neo-Nazism in contemporary Italy.
Kosher Beach takes viewers into a world about which most of us know little – the lives of a group of women who live in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. Specifically, the documentary focuses on Sheraton Beach in Tel Aviv, or the Separate Beach, so named because it used to front the now-demolished Sheraton Hotel and is open to women and men on different days, so that they are kept separate in their enjoyment of the recreation area.
This separation is what makes it possible for the Orthodox women to go there and they rent a bus to get there from Bnei Brak, about a half-hour drive away. Most of the women swim and relax almost fully garbed, but some younger women take the opportunity to shed their layers of clothing and, some would say, their modesty – but, still, only among women (and the few male lifeguards). We learn some of the reasons the women like going there. Among other things, the beach offers a respite from their families and their troubles, to which we also are made privy.
The safe haven is threatened, however, as there are rabbis in their community who believe that the road to the beach is full of temptation. And, even though the women bus there, the beach is adjacent to – and offers a view of – the Hilton section of the waterfront, the main beach for the gay community, which is problematic for the rabbis. It is interesting to hear the women’s differing opinions on the issue, and their reactions when this freedom of theirs – to go to the beach with one another – is put at risk.
A slice-of-life dramedy that addresses the many-faceted hurdles facing a couple struggling to conceive a child, The Art of Waiting brings laughs and cringes.
Liran (Roy Assaf) and Tali (Nelly Tagar) are a couple in their mid-30s who face the reality that medical intervention will be required if they want to become pregnant.
Liran’s parents live in Sderot, the Israeli border town abutting the Gaza Strip that is subject to routine missile attacks from Hamas. A Shabbat in Sderot sends the family to the safe room, but the real bombshells are saved for the dinner table. Liran and Tali tell the family they are trying for a child, not letting everyone in on the challenges that entails. Unexpectedly, Liran’s brother and his same-sex partner make a similar announcement. (“Who’s the father?” blurts out the grandmother.)
In addition to the vagaries of kooky family members, like the fanatically vegan mother-in-law on an all-peel diet, the couple face the chaos of seemingly endless medical appointments and procedures crammed in among the obligations of two busy career professionals. The audience – and the doctor – wonder whether the couple is ready for kids when they only begrudgingly show up for the appointments necessary to hasten parenthood.
Predictably, lovemaking veers into something analogous to animal husbandry, with emphasis on the destination rather than the journey. Sex isn’t the only rote behaviour in the process. The doctor has been through it all many times and has a trademarked patter that amusingly repeats throughout the film.
It is an enchanting and often hilarious look at the difficulties couples face in such a circumstance and illustrates the toll the stresses take on a marriage. Each character is well sketched out and adds a unique and quirky contribution to the whole. The final scene is charming, if predictable.
History through art
In The Samuel Project, Eli makes his grandfather, Samuel, the subject of his animated short – a project for school – when he finds out that Samuel is a Holocaust survivor. It is a tale of reconciliation, in part, as Samuel’s son Robert is both a neglectful son, as well as a neglectful father, and he must learn the value of family. (Eli’s mother left when he was very young and Samuel is a widow.) It is also a story about following your strengths and believing in yourself, as Eli’s desire to become an artist is met with derision by his father and grandfather.
The acting by the two leads – Ryan Ochoa as Eli and Hal Linden as Samuel – is a pleasure to watch and there are tender moments between the butcher, an Armenian named Vartan (Ken Davitian), and Samuel, who owns a dry-cleaner. The two men have a running chess game and Vartan brings Samuel some prize meat whenever he picks up his newly cleaned aprons.
While the movie starts strong, The Samuel Project ends with the feeling of an afterschool special. Samuel’s easy telling of his Holocaust experience lacks believability, as does the one-dimensional and undeveloped character of Robert (Michael B. Silver). The character of Eli’s schoolmate and project partner, Vartan’s son Kasim (Mateo Arias), is also lacking in development, but does provide some amusing moments. Eli’s artwork and final project are wonderful.
Love against the odds
The romantic comedy Kiss Me Kosher (aka Kiss Me Before It Blows Up) is the perfect example of why one should be skeptical of reviews. Read them, but then see what you want to see, regardless, because it would have been a shame to have missed out on this thoroughly enjoyable rom-com, which somehow had a rating of 4.9 out of 10 on imdb.com. At press time, it had risen to 5.1, but still not great, and there weren’t any easily findable articles on it in English. (It’s a German film that takes place in Israel, so there may be some reviews in German or Hebrew. For that matter, there may also be some in Arabic, as that language also makes an appearance.)
Kiss Me Kosher encompasses two love stories and a host of complex politics that are lightly touched upon; raising ideas rather than dwelling on them, leaving viewers to decide for themselves, or to question their reactions to various scenes later. The main romance is between Maria (Luise Wolfram), a German non-Jew, and Shira (Moran Rosenblatt), an Israeli granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. For Shira and her family, there is some discomfort that Maria doesn’t know what her grandparents did during the war. But, for Shira, it is not a deal breaker, and she accepts Maria’s marriage proposal, despite it being only three months into their relationship. For Shira’s survivor grandmother, Berta (Rivka Michaeli), however, it is simply not acceptable for Shira to marry a German and Berta’s harsh and alienating reaction is as understandable as it is hard to watch.
But Berta herself is also in a difficult and publicly unacceptable situation – she’s in love with a Palestinian man, a fellow widower. But Berta knows how most people would react to the relationship. And one of those people is Shira’s dad, an American who made their home in one of the settlements not only because it was more affordable, but because of his politics.
It’s hard enough for all concerned, as Shira and Maria work through misunderstandings, jealousies and Shira’s family dynamics, including her sister, who’s keen to plan Shira’s big wedding that Shira doesn’t want, and brother, who’s filming everything for a school project. So things come to a boil when Maria’s parents fly in from Germany to meet Shira and her family. Revelations, new understandings and some silliness follow. It’s a well-acted, fun movie that makes you think. It deserves a relatively high rating, 7.5 or even an 8 out of 10, which hopefully it’ll receive as more people see it.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival is set to go online March 4, and all the many offerings will be available until March 14. There are plenty of gems for viewers of varying tastes and ages, including a few Israeli films that seem to be nostalgic paeans to American comedies or kids’ movies of the 1960s and 1970s. But we start with romance.
The film Love in Suspenders opens with a wild car ride through Tel Aviv, as we are introduced to main character Tammy (Nitza Shaul) who drives like … well, an Israeli. When she backs into pedestrian Benno (Yehuda Barkan), this adorable slice-of-life gets rolling.
Her son Michael, a lawyer, warns that one more infraction will lead to the loss of her driver’s licence. Making nice with her victim (while continuing to argue it was his own carelessness that led to the mishap), Tammy begins what evolves into an innocent and unintentional courtship with Benno.
The luxurious seniors facility where Tammy lives is a hotbed of sexual tension – with lectures on the wonders of Viagra, a supporting character in the film that really should have received its own credit.
Tammy venerates her late husband Yoni in ways that probably exceed what would be considered normal grieving. Hanging on to her glorious past – Tammy and Yoni were a musical duo that toured Israel and abroad – versus facing an exciting but unnerving new romance is the conflict that drives her character.
Benno’s character is driven by all sorts of unnerving situations. Benno’s got his own problems with the next generation, but both he and Tammy handle their affairs like adults, despite being treated like children by their kids.
Michael’s horror at both his mother’s rekindled sex life and the uncertain provenance of the unkempt and possibly homeless Benno threatens to undermine the trajectory of their affection.
Kids aren’t the only interfering forces. The extravagant dining hall and luxurious hallways of the seniors home are brimming with prying eyes and wagging tongues. The roosters in the facility are put out that Tammy has scored a love interest from the outside, despite all their strutting and preening. The women in the building always seem to be nearby when Tammy’s male caller is coming or going from her apartment.
The title Love in Suspenders is a play on the phrase “Tuesdays in suspenders,” a program in which Israeli seniors get weekly discounts at venues like the cinema. The movie is an absolutely charming vignette of finding love at a later age and dealing with the impacts of a fresh future on a cherished past. It is a respectful treatment of older characters and their romantic explorations, which are topics too often treated shabbily by Hollywood and other depictions.
Not one of us will be able to avoid death. Yet, despite its inevitability, few of us prepare for dying and most of us put the thought of it to the back of our minds, even as we mourn those who have died.
The hour-long documentary Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing is almost a must-see for anyone struggling with the reality of mortality. It is a caring portrait of Rachel Cowan’s 18-month journey from a cancer diagnosis (a brain tumour) to her passing. Along the way, we learn about how remarkable this human’s life was and how her impacts continue. However, while Cowan was successful by almost any measure, it is not only her accomplishments that are noteworthy, but her struggles and her finding of strength in love and gratitude at her most vulnerable, when she had every right to be bitter and selfish.
Cowan was a civil and women’s rights activist of some acclaim. She was married to Paul Cowan, a journalist for the The Village Voice, and theirs was a partnership that extended into work at times; she took incredible photographs for his stories, capturing on film the best and worst of humanity in a tumultuous era. The couple lived and fought for their beliefs and really did make the world a better place.
Paul died from leukemia in 1988, at 48 years old. Rachel had converted to Judaism earlier in their relationship, after his parents died in a horrific apartment fire. The tragedy spurred Paul to explore his Jewish roots and her to search for God and meaning, which led her to Judaism. She was studying to become a rabbi during the period that Paul was ill and she was ordained soon after his death. At that point, still deep in grief, she thought, “Now, what?” How possibly could she counsel others when she herself was so ungrounded. She decided, “Choose life.”
She not only chose life for herself, but for others. While working at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, she established the Jewish Healing Centre, after seeing how little Jewish community support Paul had had in palliative care. She also established other initiatives and wrote a book on wise aging. As the documentary begins, we see Rachel leading a meditation group, continuing her life’s work. The film’s title comes from a comment Rachel makes about nine months after her diagnosis: “I’m living my life. Dying doesn’t feel like what I’m doing.”
With a harrowing opening scene, A Starry Sky Above the Roman Ghetto begins an historical back and forth between the terrible past and the present. The intertwined timeframes and eventual plot twists remind the viewer that the past is not really past.
Roman high schooler Sofia (Bianca Panconi) finds a Second World War-era letter and photograph hidden in the lining of a flea market suitcase. Her curiosity piqued, she begins a quest to uncover the story behind the mystery, which forms the narrative of the film.
Bringing the artifacts to her schoolmates, who enthusiastically join in the sleuthing, Sofia and pals then recruit students from the neighbouring Jewish high school to join in the mystery-solving.
There is charm in the cross-cultural friendships and some minimal tension when the teens meet obstruction from their parents and teachers. But the film is generally simplistic, too often cutesy and frequently hammy.
Before they have even tracked down the basics of the historical mystery, the students decide to turn their quest into a play. The movie itself has the feel of a high school production, and the fresh-faced, upbeat teen spirit seems incongruous with the Holocaust narrative at the heart of both the theatre production and the film. Impediments are too easily overcome. Archival research eurekas far too effortlessly and speedily fall into place. (The way the characters manhandle historical documents would make an archivist recoil.) An ostensible Montague/Capulet hurdle to a pair of star-crossed lovers is resolved in the most facile manner imaginable. The ending is unbelievably tidy – unbelievable being the operative term.
Continuity and fidelity to peoplehood and identity are core themes, but even these are handled poorly. For example, a Jewish boy gives Sofia a convincing explanation for why he must date and marry only a Jewish girl, but the next day he apologizes, apparently deciding that maybe continuity isn’t as sacred as a little amorousness after all.
The resolution to the larger mystery falls very close to home for Sofia, whose own life is altered by her discovery. This outcome provides some justification for the girl’s otherwise inexplicably dogged devotion to unraveling the mystery. But the whole thing has more of a Scooby-Doo vibe than the solemn drama the film probably set out to create.
There is some eye candy in the form of Roman architecture, including parts of the city’s Jewish quarter, but it is perhaps a thwarted COVID-era wanderlust to blame for finding fault that the film is not more of a visual celebration of the eternal city.
There is some decent acting and there are enjoyable components to A Starry Sky Above the Roman Ghetto, but it is hard to sustain the premise of an historical mystery when every twist and turn is foreseeable long before the ostensibly bright students clue in.
Fans of Airplane, Naked Gun and Austin Powers will settle right in with the ridiculous Israeli comedy Mossad. Upending the perception of the Israeli intelligence agency as one of the world’s greatest, the film centres on what must be Mossad’s most moronic agent.
The action begins with the kidnapping of the world’s foremost tech magnate, Jack Saterberg, while he visits Israel. (One doesn’t have to stretch the imagination much to conjure a mashup of Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg). It falls to Mossad operative Guy Moran (Tsahi Halevi) to team up with CIA agent Linda Harris (Efrat Dor) to confront the bad guys.
When Mossad hit Israeli theatres in 2019, it saw a box office-smashing open. It is an all-ages bit of entertainment, with slapstick buffoonery and sight gags – and not really a lot more. There is certainly plenty of violence, but it is exclusively of the cartoonish variety.
In addition to sight gags, smartass dialogue drives what there is of a direction to the story. “I’m a Mossad agent. Here’s my card,” Moran says. “It’s blank,” replies the recipient. “I’m a secret agent,” he says. Nyuk nyuk nyuk.
The kidnappers threaten to stop all cellphone service worldwide. When they offer a two-minute taste of the threat, global mayhem and violence ensue, underscoring the urgency of preventing the calamity. Suffice to say the only real tension in the 90 or so minutes comes from bracing for the next corny gag.
All the predictable scenarios are packed in – like a countdown clock to doomsday and other tenets of the genre – but in the most outlandish forms. Romance also figures, with Israeli-Israeli, Israeli-American and human-machine flirting adding spice and disorientation befitting a script that seems to view no joke as too absurd if there’s a chance of a laugh.
For a harmless multigenerational movie night, Mossad will deliver a few side-splitters and a lot of snickers.
Sky Raiders is pure family fun. In Hebrew with English subtitles, the audience needs to be old enough to read, but not even that well, as the action is pretty easy to follow. For the parents who may have watched The Love Bug when they were a kid, there will be a comforting sense of familiarity with Sky Raiders, though the historic plane that gets rebuilt in this movie isn’t anthropomorphized and the love story in this case is between the teens.
Yotam (Amir Tessler) is the new kid at school and has trouble fitting in. When he spots Noa (Hila Natanzon) playing soccer with a group of boys, and holding her own, he is smitten. He joins the game but soon requires medical attention for an asthma attack, having left his inhaler at home, despite his over-protective mother’s multiple reminders for him to take it with him; his father, a pilot, died a few years earlier in a plane crash. Noa has her own parental problems – her father, also a pilot, has dismissed her as, basically, “just a girl” – and her older brother bullies her.
The two teens share both the love of all things planes and flying, as well as parents who actively try to dissuade them from these loves. They find their father figure in the grumpy old man dubbed “Mad Morris” by the local kids, who, surprise, is a really nice guy, just sad and lonely.
When Yotam and Noa discover a Messerschmitt that had been left to rot in a plane cemetery, the two – with Morris’s help – set to restore it. And, not only to restore it so that it can sit in a museum, but so that it can actually be flown in the upcoming annual Yom Ha’atzmaut airshow.
With some cheesy CGI, young love conquering all, bullies put in their place, the ostracized taking front-stage, and happy parent-child reconciliations, Sky Raiders is Disney-esque and charming. Cue the music to swell, as the credits begin.
Niv Nissim, left, and John Benjamin Hickey co-star in Sublet, one of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival’s many offerings this year. (photo from facebook.com/subletfilm)
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival will take place exclusively online March 4-14. And, while you might think that COVID’s continued presence would necessitate a trimmed-down festival lineup, there are as many high-quality and diverse films being offered this year as in previous years. We give JI readers a small teaser of what’s to come, with more reviews in our next issue.
Sublet explores divides
In the film Sublet, a New York Times travel writer whose shtick is to get a feel for a city in just five days arrives in Tel Aviv. Michael (John Benjamin Hickey) has booked the apartment of film student Tomer (Niv Nissim) but, realizing the student has nowhere to go, the pair end up as temporary roommates.
The somewhat uptight middle-aged Ashkenazi American, standing out like a sore thumb in his semi-casual blazer, is contrasted with the hot-tempered, in-your-face young Sabra. The differences between the two men – and, by extension, between two generations of Jews, of gay (or, in Tomer’s case, possibly bisexual) men, of Israelis and Diaspora Jews – form the heart of the leisurely paced film. Just as Tomer ridicules Michael’s touristy ideas of Tel Aviv’s highlights, the cinematography captures the city at some of its grittiest best.
Is it a generational divide or a cultural one that has Tomer and Michael adopting wildly different sensibilities toward the tragedies of recent Jewish history and the experiences of gay men in the AIDS crisis, which Michael’s first book explored?
“It’s so depressing,” Tomer says of the AIDS pandemic. “Why does everything always have to go back to that?”
A more stark response – and one that is darkly humorous but startlingly confusing to Michael and perhaps many viewers – comes when one of Tomer’s friends is discussing fleeing Tel Aviv for a more successful artistic life in Berlin.
“It’s a bit odd that you’re moving to Germany, the place that symbolizes Jewish tragedy,” Michael observes. The Israeli pair pauses for a moment, then burst into hysterical laughter.
“Berlin’s, like, the coolest place,” Tomer assures Michael.
The theme of patrimony runs through the drama. Michael and his partner are struggling to find a surrogate for a baby they want to parent. Tomer, it turns out, is himself the product of a mother who chose the path of artificial insemination. Michael is wondering if he is getting too old to start afresh as a father. Tomer, in his clumsy way, may be struggling with the absence of his own paternal influences.
The bonds and divisions between generations, between conceptions of the past, between Israel and exile are explored but unresolved in this pleasant (if sometimes PG) film. The brief glimpse of Tomer’s hilariously awful horror film is just a bonus.
A shiva from hell
When her parents browbeat her into attending a shiva, Danielle does not expect to run into Maya. The two young women have an entwined past, so much so that other attendees can’t remember which one is which. The film Shiva Baby quickly turns into a subtly riotous adventure in the joys and drawbacks of tight-knit communities and the challenges of keeping secrets in a yenta-intensive environment.
Though their shared history is a source of immense awkwardness and brilliantly snarky sparring, for Danielle (Rachel Sennott), this shiva is a house of horrors. Having told so many lies to cover her failure to launch successfully into adulthood, every turn, every new face at the shiva, is an opportunity for sequential interrogations and fresh humiliation. It becomes an unintentional parlour game to piece together the variety of stories Danielle has told of changing majors, areas of specialization and plans for the future. Family, friends and acquaintances compare conflicting tales Danielle has woven over the years, creating an elaborate narrative of mostly imagined endeavours.
Her parents Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed) seem both oblivious dupes and co-conspirators in Danielle’s web of deceptions. The loving but exasperatingly overbearing parents add to their daughter’s discomfort time and again, leading to an understated climax that literally shoves Danielle’s bad choices in her own face.
This “comedy of discomfort” is a masterpiece of interfering adults and world-weary youth. The unifying bond between generations is a shared art for the backhanded compliment and straight-up insults. After Danielle spills coffee all over herself and a friend’s baby, her mother offers solace: “Well, thank God Sheila’s coffee is always lukewarm.”
Shiva Baby, a Canadian-American co-production, features a musical score that amusingly invokes the horror genre to emphasize the nightmare scenario in which Danielle finds herself, almost exclusively of her own design. Any awkwardness on the part of the viewer is alleviated by schadenfreude that whatever she has coming is probably well overdue.
A scene from the documentary Martha, in which director Daniel Schubert is given a more appropriate shirt by his grandmother, Martha Katz. (Courtesy NFB)
Two very different scenes in the National Film Board of Canada’s short documentary film Martha – which will be released on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27 – combine to highlight the joy and pain that is life. Directed and co-written by Daniel Schubert, a grandson of the film’s subject, Martha Katz, there is a funny and relatable interaction where his grandmother questions his choice of shirt for the filming and provides him with a more appropriate one. This lighthearted exchange contrasts with the heart-wrenching tour that Katz takes with her grandson through the Holocaust Museum LA.
Born in Berehove, Czechoslovakia, Katz is 14 years old when she’s taken to the ghetto, then to Auschwitz. Both of her parents and two of her brothers were murdered in the Holocaust; she, along with two other brothers and two sisters, survived the concentration camps. She speaks, with emotions near the surface, about some of her experiences. The documentary is a mix of seemingly spontaneous moments, while other parts are scripted reenactments or prepared questions being asked and answered.
“My original idea for the documentary,” Schubert told the Independent, “was to track Martha and her two sisters’ incredible journey together through the ghettos and, eventually, Auschwitz. After Auschwitz, they were even forced to work at a German bomb factory together in Allendorf, manufacturing the bombs. The fact that Martha and her two sisters managed to stay together and survive through all of the horrors of the concentration camps, to me, was a miracle. I thought that would make an amazing documentary.
“But, as we developed it at the NFB, we realized that a more traditional cinéma vérité documentary could be a viable way to tell her story, too. I did not know many of the facts beforehand, so many of the things she told me in the film came as a surprise. My grandmother and I have a warm and loving relationship and I thought, why not show that on screen as I find out all of these amazing things?
“The other thing about my grandmother,” added Schubert, “is she’s hilarious. She’s the classic Jewish grandmother and I wanted that to come across. I wanted this to also be a real picture of a grandmother and her grandson and how we naturally interact.
“We also decided that in between these cinéma vérité moments would be cinematic vignettes narrated by my grandmother herself. There were many more amazing things she went through, but, due to time constraints, I picked those stories.”
One of the stories is how, after the war, in Vienna, his grandmother met and married Bill Katz, who had been in a labour camp. The couple went to Winnipeg, with $200 they had saved up. They had two children – Jack and Sharon – and struggled financially. It was his grandmother who suggested they go into business for themselves. She went to night school, then saw an ad for a grocery store for sale – she bought it, learning on the job. There are some wonderful photos and video in this part of the film.
It was her goal in life for her two children to have whatever they wanted and she talks about her happiness at having had them. “We had to have a life again,” she says, stressing that this doesn’t mean she doesn’t think about the Holocaust all the time, because she does – “I hope it should never happen again. That’s all.”
“Bringing her to the museum was a bit of a tough decision, but she encouraged us to go,” said Schubert. “The intention was to see whether there was anything new that she and I could both learn about the atrocities committed. And, as it turned out in the film, there was; specifically, about the excruciating length of time the gas chamber took, in some cases, to exterminate those poor victims trapped inside, including my great-grandmother and her young son. Suffice to say, it took way longer than expected, and neither of us knew how long they may have had to suffer inside.”
It was for health reasons that Katz, who is now 90 years old, moved to Los Angeles.
“My grandmother suffered from chronic bronchitis since the war and, because of Winnipeg’s frigid winters, the doctors advised her to move somewhere warmer, or else her life could be at risk,” explained Schubert. “My grandfather’s brother lived in Los Angeles, so they helped them get settled there. They came to Winnipeg from Europe in 1948 and moved to Los Angeles in 1964.”
The 22-minute documentary is dedicated to the memory of Katz’s older sister, Rose Benovich. The statement at the film’s end notes: “Her courage in Auschwitz is the reason I am alive today.”
Catalina Beraducci plays Noemí Goldberg in the Topic film Noemí Gold. (photo from Topic)
For his first feature film, writer and director Dan Rubenstein has done well. Noemí Gold, which is currently streaming exclusively on Topic, is a quietly engaging story that touches upon serious issues, though never delves into them. While the story is somewhat scattered and doesn’t always make sense, the acting is strong and the glimpse into Argentine culture interesting.
The title role is played by Catalina Beraducci, who is perfect for the part. Noemí Goldberg, 27, has accidentally become pregnant from a tryst with an egotistical artist of questionable talent and character. She is an unassuming person, recently graduating with her master’s in architecture, though she doesn’t appear to have a job. When she seeks a doctor who can perform an abortion – which was an illegal procedure in Argentina until just last month – she has some trouble raising the money she’ll need to go to Uruguay to get one.
Noemí has a couple close friends – eccentric roommate Rosa and party-girl Sol – both of whom help in small but important ways. Also in Noemí’s court is her grandmother, though we find out later in the movie that their relationship has had its complications. Lastly, while all this is going on, Noemí’s cousin, David, comes to visit from Los Angeles, where his family moved when he was 7, for tragic reasons we eventually find out.
David and Noemí were once close, but, for most of the movie, their interactions are strained. David works for an energy drink company and his job is, literally, to post photos on Instagram of himself enjoying the drink in various places and while doing various activities. (He is the only one in the film who has a job, it seems.) Social media plays a prominent role in the narrative as a whole – and, hopefully, younger viewers will take it not only as a representation of themselves in film but as a critique of how much time they dedicate to promoting the fun they are ostensibly having versus actually having fun.
Women’s rights, religion (via a discussion with and seduction attempt of two young Mormon missionaries), what constitutes art (one amusing scene features an objectively poor dancer filming her own performance using a camera on a selfie stick, while being cheered and applauded by an adoring audience), the importance of forgiveness, the challenges of being a good friend, the imperfection but necessity of family, and many other topics run through Noemí Gold. There are no pronouncements and the laidback pace could fool one into thinking there is not much of substance in the film, but they’d be wrong.