A still from the documentary Crackin’ Out: The Ronnie Tessler Rodeo Collection, showing photographer Ronnie Tessler. The documentary was directed by Sarah Genge and produced by the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia.
The Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia is currently hosting Crackin’ Out, an online exhibit of photographs of rural Western Canadian rodeo from 1976 to 1980 by Ronnie Tessler, along with a short documentary by director Sarah Genge. In rodeo, the term “crackin’ out” means “the beginning of the new season, breaking out of the chute, or even breaking out new chaps.”
“These explosive words epitomize for me the spirit of rodeo and the cowboy way of life,” Tessler explained.
The idea to shoot the images began as a “fun photo expedition” to Williams Lake Rodeo in 1976 by four friends who were members of a photography group, the Vancouver Image Exhibition Workshop, which is known for bringing in acclaimed guest artists.
The group worked together for a year and, with the permission of the Canadian Cowboys Association, produced an exhibit at the Finals Rodeo in Edmonton in 1977. Tessler worked independently for the next two years, documenting life at rodeos throughout the west, from British Columbia to Manitoba and into the northwest corner of the United States. Aspiring for objectivity, she realized it was not attainable.
“I wanted to know more about the cowboys, what went on behind the chutes and on the road and what motivated them to take on the challenges they did unsupported by a team or steady income,” Tessler said.
The exhibit takes the viewer not only to the action, the cowboys riding – and falling – but also to the personal and the life surrounding the event: the preparations, the traditions, the camaraderie and the love. The photos evoke an emblematic sense of a particular era in Western Canadian life.
Grouped into three chapters – “Before the Rodeo,” “The Rodeo” and “After the Rodeo” – each photograph is accompanied by stories, observations and explanations from Tessler that encapsulate the feeling that existed the moment each image was taken.
These images are what photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is referred to in the exhibit, called “the decisive moment.” Or, as scholar John Suler, also quoted in the exhibit, described as “the moment when the visual and psychological elements of people in a real-life scene spontaneously and briefly come together in perfect resonance to express the essence of that situation.”
Rodeo was the first large, thematic body of work that Tessler did. Every project she undertook, she said, began when she “noticed themes coming out on my contact sheets and felt there was something I wanted to pursue. Each took about three years.”
Tessler’s Crackin’ Out was followed by her next major work, Israeli Suite, which was photographed over several visits to Israel. There was no similarity between these bodies of work and her last large project was different still – Jewish life in the West Kootenays.
As for the Jewish connections to the rodeo exhibit, Tessler observed, “I didn’t meet another Jew the entire time and did not encounter or make use of any specific Jewish values while doing the work. Many cowboys knew I was Jewish, and one asked what I was doing photographing a bull-riding school instead of watching Shoah on TV every night. I did enjoy the uniqueness of being an urban, Jewish woman with a family ‘goin’ down the road,’ putting myself on the line to record another way of life.”
Genge’s documentary Crackin’ Out: The Ronnie Tessler Rodeo Collection is part of the exhibit. It expands on the legacy of Tessler’s photography by exploring a multitude of perspectives on rodeo from such people as a stock contractor, a curator, a child of rodeo, a cowboy, an artist and a professor, as well as the archives intern who processed the collection.
“One photograph does not illustrate one idea. By speaking with eight different people, my aim was to bring their collection of voices together to elucidate an ever-shifting narrative of an image,” Genge said. “This film offers a brief glance at some of the distinct and disparate angles that create a multifaceted and, at times, conflicted understanding of Western Canadian rodeo.
“I endeavoured with this film to present aspects of rodeo frequently left untold, specifically its importance to Indigenous people, women and LGBTQ+ communities. It should be noted that, much like Tessler’s inherent presence in capturing these photographs, my subjectivity in curating them is unavoidable,” she added. “I am an unreliable witness who, six months ago, had never set foot at a rodeo, so my bias as an outsider is present throughout.”
The exhibit, which can be found at jewishmuseum.ca/exhibit/crackin-out, also features an hour-long video of its April 21 launch, which includes discussions with Tessler and Genge.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
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.
Picture of His Life follows Amos Nachoum to the Canadian Arctic, where he hopes to fulfil his dream of photographing polar bears underwater. (photo from Hey Jude Productions)
The ocean, in its vastness, suits Amos Nachoum perfectly. It’s big enough for him to hide. Not from the great white sharks, orcas, manta rays and other large sea creatures he has obsessively sought out and photographed for four decades. But from his traumatic memories of the Yom Kippur War, and from his father’s impossible expectations.
“Amos has made a decision to put the war behind him, to put violence behind him, and to use the camera to tell a different story, a beautiful story, about men and nature,” Israeli documentary filmmaker Yonatan Nir said in a phone interview while his family frolicked nearby in the kibbutz pool. “I think, in a way, he’s reframing his life with his camera.”
Nachoum’s complicated saga is rendered with gravity and grace in Nir and Dani Menkin’s Picture of His Life, which screens in the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival March 3, 8:45 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas.
Picture of His Life is structured around Nachoum’s summer 2015 expedition to the Canadian Arctic, more than 3,000 miles from his Pacific Grove, Calif., home, to try and fulfil his ultimate dream of photographing polar bears underwater. (Hence, the second meaning of the film’s title.)
The epic documentary’s executive producer is Nancy Spielberg, a nice bit of irony given that her brother made a flick called Jaws many years ago that spawned a widespread, irrational fear of sharks.
Nir and Menkin originally wanted to make a documentary about Nachoum diving in Tonga a decade ago, but that undertaking proved too expensive. Instead, they made Dolphin Boy, a redemptive portrait of a traumatized young Arab healed by swimming with dolphins in the Red Sea, which earned worldwide acclaim.
As it turned out, the extra years were essential, and not just to raise the funds for four Jews (Nachoum, the directors, and veteran underwater cinematographer Adam Ravetch) and six Inuit to trek to and film at remote Baker Lake. The filmmakers’ taciturn and enigmatic subject had to reach a point where he was willing to confide his deeply hidden feelings and memories.
“He really didn’t talk until we got to the Arctic,” Menkin recalled on the phone from his car in Los Angeles, “and that’s when he started to open up.” Nir added, “Amos needed time to open up and to be able, finally, to let us deep into his soul and to tell it for the first time.”
After the Arctic trip, Nachoum gave surprisingly candid interviews to the Israeli press about both his postwar trauma and his father, who had fought in the War of Independence. His way of dealing with his past continued – and continues – to expand.
There’s no question that the process of making Picture of His Life contributed to Nachoum’s evolution. Nir and Menkin visited his father in the hospital near the end of his life, capturing a raw, powerful moment. They subsequently showed the footage to Nachoum with the understanding that they would include it in the film only if he gave his consent.
Nachoum was touched by the scene and agreed to its inclusion. He even enacted an onscreen form of reciprocation to complete the circle.
“We were able to create this closure between the father and the son, but only through the film,” Nir said. “It never really happened face to face.”
The personal story in Picture of His Life is wrenching, but the environmental component is pretty potent, too. “I see myself as a soldier for Mother Nature,” Nachoum declares in the film, but his desperate, late-career pursuit of the polar bear goes even deeper.
“At the end of the day, Amos was looking for his family,” Menkin said. “His family is the universe. It’s Mother Nature. He found his family and lives with it in harmony, and that’s what he wants us to do.”
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
A still from The Rabbi Goes West: one of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Chaim Bruk’s goals is to see a mezuzah on the door of every Jewish home in Montana.
In their documentary The Rabbi Goes West, filmmakers Gerald Peary and Amy Geller have succeeded in a difficult task – providing a balanced, respectful and entertaining glimpse into what happens in a state with a small, minimally affiliated Jewish community when Chabad-Lubavitch arrives.
A branch of Chassidism, Chabad-Lubavitch was started some 250 years ago in White Russia, in what is now Belarus. After the Holocaust, the movement began its outreach in earnest, trying to reach non-religious and unaffiliated Jews almost literally everywhere in the world. There are now approximately 5,000 Chabad emissaries in more than 90 countries.
While emissaries may receive some seed funding to start a new centre, they must raise their own funds to stay active. In 2006, Chabad Rabbi Chaim Bruk ventured from Brooklyn, N.Y. – Chabad headquarters is in Crown Heights – to Bozeman, Mont., to scout it out. Encouraged by the growing population and the amount of tourism, Bruk returned to Crown Heights to get the OK to set up a centre there. Given the green light, he and his wife Chavie did just that in 2007. The rabbi’s goal? To ensure that every one of Montana’s 2,000 Jewish families has a mezuzah on their door. One of the ways in which he makes headway on this task is by traveling all over the state, asking safe-looking strangers (who are the vast majority, he says) whether there are any Jews in the area and then, when he finds them, boldly introducing himself and his purpose.
As charming and open as Bruk seems, his presence, the ultra-Orthodox Judaism to which Chabad adheres and the movement’s expansionist mission – two more Chabad centres have opened since the Bruks arrived – are not universally welcomed by the Montana Jewish community. The Rabbi Goes West includes interviews with fellow rabbis Francine Roston (the first Conservative woman rabbi to lead a large congregation), who came to Montana from New Jersey in 2014; Allen Secher (co-founder of Chicago’s first Jewish Renewal congregation), who came to Montana after he retired in 2000 but retook the bimah when he found out he was the only rabbi in the state at the time; and Ed Stafman (a former trial lawyer), who came to the state from Florida. The film also includes commentary from local Jews from all four congregations.
While Bruk has limited involvement with the other congregations and rarely, if ever, joins their events – he contends that most of them violate some aspect of Judaism, such as the laws of kashrut, for example – the Jewish community does unite, along with other religious and secular groups and individuals in the state, when faced with neo-Nazi threats and cyberattacks.
The Rabbi Goes West is a documentary well worth seeing, both for its content and the way in which that content is presented. Sponsored by the Vancouver Jewish Film Centre, it screens at the Vancouver International Film Festival Oct. 7, 6:30 p.m., at Cinémathèque, and Oct. 8, 11:30 a.m., at International Village 10. For the full festival lineup, visit viff.org.
Éva Fahidi, in front, and Emese Cuhorka in a still from The Euphoria of Being, directed and written by Réka Szabó.
Éva Fahidi was 18 years old when she and her family were taken to Auschwitz. The men and women were separated. The women’s selection committee cut the line after Fahidi: “I went one way, and my whole family the other way. It was over. We are talking about a fraction of a moment, when one didn’t even have the faintest idea of what was really happening.” Forty-nine members of her family were murdered, including her mother, father and sister.
Fahidi tells this part of her story as dancer Emese Cuhorka, covered from head to toe in a black leotard, moves around her, expressing with her body some of what Fahidi is expressing verbally. This is but one of many moving scenes in The Euphoria of Being, written and directed by Réka Szabó. The Jewish Independent has chosen to sponsor the documentary’s screening at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, which runs Sept. 26-Oct. 11.
Szabó had heard Fahidi give a talk in Berlin, and she had read Fahidi’s memoir, The Soul of Things. She wrote to Fahidi about wanting to make a performance about her, with her it in. The almost-90-year-old Hungarian Holocaust survivor responded positively: “Every person should possess some form of healthy exhibitionism,” she says in the film. “I have more than is needed, so I don’t have any excuses.”
Cuhorka reminds Szabó of Fahidi. From this resemblance came the concept of a duet. At one of the first rehearsals, Fahidi shows Cuhorka what she’s able to do physically. “And, from the outside, it is like seeing an entire life at once,” says Szabó, as she watches them move together.
The documentary covers the three-month period prior to the October première of what would become Sea Lavender. The work is the collaborative creation of the three women and, while what we are shown of the final result is powerful, it is the process and the bonds formed by the women that have the most impact, and give the film its inspirational quality.
Fahidi is remarkable. She is smart, spirited, well-spoken and endearing. When she talks about her Holocaust experiences, it is as if she is reliving them; her eyes look unfocused, her body appears heavier, her anger remains. She says her family should have left Hungary in 1935. “But my poor father, he couldn’t see beyond his nose,” she says. So proud was he of what he had built, he couldn’t leave it behind and only go with the clothes on his back. “This is the eternal tragedy,” she says, “that you don’t see things for what they are when you see them. Absolute idiocy.”
The film then cuts to a photo of the family – her parents, sister and her – as Fahidi describes the way in which she imagines them being gassed. She talks about a documentary she saw on Zyklon B, how it was first tried on geese. Such factual expositions lay raw the depth of her grief.
Yet, when Szabó asks Fahidi to list some of the things that helped her survive, Fahidi remarks that you have to appreciate and value the fact that you’re alive. “The fact that you exist, in itself, is euphoric,” she says. Hence, the name of the documentary and of the choice of “the flying chair duet” as the final scene of the performance. In discussing the nature of tragedy, Fahidi concludes that it’s no use thinking about it because you always end up in the same sad place. “Meanwhile,” she says, “you live happily.”
Seeing Cuhorka and Fahidi work and perform together is delightful – the two really do bear similarities, and their mutual respect is evident. The closing text of the film notes, “At the age of 93, Éva is still performing regularly. So far, we have staged 77 performances of Sea Lavender in numerous cities, such as Berlin, Budapest and Vienna.” While it is too much to hope that the show will come to North America, it is satisfying to know of the project’s life-changing effect on Fahidi, who, apparently, “can’t imagine being alive and not performing the piece anymore.”
The Euphoria of Being screens Sept. 27, 12:30 p.m., at International Village 8, and Oct. 3, 7 p.m., and Oct. 4, 10 a.m., at Vancity Theatre. For tickets, visit viff.org.
Finding Fukue follows Jessica Stuart’s journey to Japan to find her childhood friend.
To what lengths would you go to find a childhood friend whose letters stopped coming decades ago? When online searches proved fruitless, Vancouver-born, Toronto-based musician Jessica Stuart headed back to Japan, and her journey is recorded in the CBC Short Docs film Finding Fukue, which was produced with Real Stories. Since posted to YouTube last November, the charming and moving documentary has been viewed more than 3.6 million times to date.
“When I was 9 years old, my parents got English teaching jobs and moved us all to Japan for a year,” shares Stuart as the film starts. Among the images we see are clips of home movies from that year, 1988. “I was a blond kid, and that made me of interest to all the Japanese people because they had never really seen a blond-hair person before,” she says. “They would point at me or my sister, touch my hair, talk at me; I didn’t understand anything yet. The day after we arrived, I went to school for the first time and then that was crazy. I didn’t feel that anyone was interested in getting to know me, except for one person, and her name was Fukue, and we became best of friends.”
The Stuarts – Wendy, Ron and daughters Fiona and Jessica – settled in Saku, then a small rural village with no foreigners. Now, however, Stuart has to start looking for her friend Fukue in a city of 100,000 people. She visits the elementary school they attended and gets a yearbook, where she gets Fukue’s father’s name and an address from the year 2000, but this leads her to a new development, where she and her translator (for the more complex encounters) meet some women who remember her family but can’t help with finding Fukue.
At Saku City Hall, a press contingent meets Stuart and she gets the word out on television and in print. Finally, a clerk at City Hall manages to find a phone number for Fukue’s sister, who connects the two friends. The reunions – first by phone and then in person – are quite emotional. The two fall into a familiar comfort and get reacquainted. They have kept in touch since.
Celebrity sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer started life as Karola Ruth Siegel in Weisenfeld, Germany. (photo from Mongrel Media)
Before she rocketed to 1980s TV fame as sex advisor Dr. Ruth, she was simply Ruth Westheimer. And long before she was Ruth Westheimer, she was Karola Ruth Siegel of Weisenfeld, Germany.
It is those formative early years that provide the most resonant and affecting passages in Ryan White’s solid documentary Ask Dr. Ruth, which is scheduled to open in Vancouver May 10. I’ll go even further: They provide the film with its raison d’etre.
Sure, lots of people were helped in ways big and small by Dr. Ruth’s high-profile acceptance of (almost) every form of sexual behaviour and by her uninhibited, direct language about intimate acts and love relationships. But what lifts Ask Dr. Ruth above a “where are they now” profile of an old-media, pop-culture celebrity is Karola Ruth Siegel’s experiences before, during and immediately after the Second World War.
Most audiences, especially non-Jewish viewers, will come to Ask Dr. Ruth for the sex. The mitzvah of the film, as it were, is that they will get the Holocaust.
To be clear, Dr. Ruth doesn’t see herself as a Holocaust survivor. She is “an orphan of the Holocaust,” which is the most poignant and wrenching phrase you’ll encounter all week.
Born in 1928, Karola Ruth was the sole child of observant Jewish parents. She was too young to fully understand when the Nazis sent her father to a labour camp in the 1930s. And, as bright as she was, she couldn’t fully grasp the long-term implications when her parents put her on a train to Switzerland with a group of Jewish children.
Placed in an orphanage, Karola Ruth and the other Jewish kids were handed housekeeping duties and some responsibilities for caring for the Swiss kids. They received food and shelter, but zero love and little compassion. A natural ringleader – on the train, she’d organized a sing-along to distract the homesick youngsters – Karola Ruth figured out ways to educate and entertain herself.
She discovered boys, of course, and the film accompanies her abroad to a warm reunion with her first boyfriend, Walter Nothmann. It’s pretty chaste stuff, presented by Westheimer with nostalgia and charm, which conveys universal attitudes of adolescence.
At the same time, though, Karola Ruth was devouring and savouring every letter and poem she received from her mother and father – until weeks, and then months, passed without any communication. (She preserved and protected these treasures throughout her travels, and keeps them in plastic sleeves in a notebook.)
The animation style used by filmmaker White to illustrate Karola Ruth’s Swiss period is annoyingly juvenile, unless one presumes that children are one of the intended audiences of Ask Dr. Ruth. Admittedly, those experiences are as accessible and relevant to today’s children as Anne Frank’s, if not more so, but parents and guardians would need to know that the focus of a documentary about a sex therapist isn’t, uh, sex.
At some point after the war, Westheimer accepted that her parents had been killed by the Nazis, but she never sought out the details. All these years later, while visiting Israel during the filming of Ask Dr. Ruth, she goes to Yad Vashem and learns that her father died in 1942 in Auschwitz. The notation for her mother is “disappeared/murdered.”
Ask Dr. Ruth skilfully weaves three threads and three distinct time frames: its subject’s biography from the 1930s to the 1960s, her high-profile heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, and her peripatetic schedule of speaking engagements and family contacts, climaxing with her 90th birthday last June.
The trek to Israel, fascinatingly, includes a visit with a friend from Kibbutz Ramat David, where Ruth Siegel – persuaded that Karola was too German, she dropped it – landed in Palestine at age 17. This remarkable chapter of her life includes ceding her virginity, being trained as a Haganah sniper and, on her 20th birthday during the War of Independence, being injured so badly in a bombing that there was a question whether she’d be able to use her feet again.
The next 70 years of Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s life, spanning Paris, New York, three husbands, two children, a doctorate at age 42, a radio show, household name recognition and four grandchildren, are acutely interesting. But the imprint of coming of age during the war, without her parents but with determination, resourcefulness, intelligence and humour, defined Karola Ruth Siegel and infuses Ask Dr. Ruth with timeless importance.
“From my background, all of the things I’ve survived,” Westheimer declares, “I have an obligation to live large and make a dent in this world.”
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Ai Weiwei is among the artists featured in Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, a documentary by Larry Weinstein, which will screen twice during DOXA. (photo from DOXA)
This year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival lineup includes Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, which “explores a diverse range of mediums, from well-recognized symbols of fascist movements, to more subtle forms in political satire and online slander.” Ahead of the festival, veteran filmmaker Larry Weinstein spoke with the Jewish Independent. Propaganda screens twice during the festival, on May 9 and 10.
JI: Can you share a bit about your background a few key moments on your path to being a documentary filmmaker?
LW: I’ve been directing for 35 years and have made close to 40 films in that time. But I actually started in high school and especially became interested in documentary (and propaganda) when I made a film about a slaughterhouse soon after I had become a vegetarian. It was the usual stuff – slow-mo shots of slit jugular veins and unborn calves being ripped from their slaughtered mothers all set to the music of Debussy.
After the film screened in my school, a good percentage of the students became vegetarian and I realized that, with this power to persuade, I wanted to make more documentaries. But, my first professional film 10 years later was quite different and a bit more subtle – Making Overtures: The Story of a Community Orchestra was a film which seemed like a home movie but it did very well, including an Oscar nomination. It set me on the road to a long series of music films, especially those about composers like Ravel, Schoenberg, Falla, Rodrigo, Weill, Beethoven and Mozart. It’s hard to refer to key moments. Each of the films is special to me. I’ve been very lucky.
JI: The topics you’ve covered are wide-ranging, from music and the performing arts to global politics to Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas and the documentary on Maya Farrell. How do you choose your subject matter?
LW: Originally, all my films were music based but, more recently, I’ve made three sports-based films. The latest, The Impossible Swim, is on three generations of marathon swimmers and was co-directed with my filmmaker daughter, Ali – something very special for me.
Our Man in Tehran is a documentary about the 1979 hostage crisis that corrects the inaccuracies of Argo; Inside Hana’s Suitcase is [a] Holocaust film. But, to tell you the truth, many of the music films also deal with history, with science, with politics, with culture and they are quite varied in form as well as content. Many of the films have come out my own dreams and interests. Many have been suggested by broadcasters and other sources, but those must also become internalized and feel like they come from me before I can really proceed with them.
JI: Propaganda has existed since humans appeared on earth. The DOXA blurb asks, “How do we know what we know?” But is it possible to not sell a specific perspective, if not a lie. Someone’s truth is another’s lie? What’s your diagnosis of the problem and do you have a suggested remedy? Or is propaganda a problem that can never be solved?
LW: Propaganda has indeed existed from the beginning. It was born along with the birth of art, of language, of spiritual thought. Orwell said that all art is propaganda. That’s debatable but probably accurate.
Propaganda is mind-control. It’s not necessarily sinister but I subtitled the film The Art of Selling Lies because I was in a bad mood, often reading Trump’s tweets first thing in the morning, fed up with his lies. Nothing he says is the truth; seeing that he was directly inspired by rhetoric of Stalin and by the speeches of Hitler. But propaganda is everywhere – it surrounds us and seems to be flung at us exponentially with social media – whether politically, socially, economically, religiously, too. We are fed lies and untruths from the moment we are born. Coke tastes good. You want a Barbie doll. You want a Corvette. This political party will save you; that one will destroy you. Religion is your salvation. There is an omnipotent, omniscient God who loves you but you’re [screwed] if he’s angry. All that stuff. Lies. Propaganda.
The remedy? Think about what you are being force-fed. Be rational about it. Propaganda feeds on emotion, on your fears, on your anxiety, on your superstitions. Resist and don’t accept crap just because somebody says it’s true, when it’s obviously questionable.
Propaganda screens May 9, 8:30 p.m., at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, and May 10, noon, at Vancity Theatre. The May 10 screening is part of Rated Y for Youth and includes a post-film discussion. Tickets to DOXA can only be purchased online: doxafestival.ca. For more information about the festival, which runs until May 12, call 604-646-3200.
Auschwitz survivor Eva Kor forgives former SS officer Oskar Gröning. (photo from TLNT Productions)
The Accountant of Auschwitz is more than the latest documentary to successfully convey the horrors of antisemitic genocide to an audience 75 years removed from those events. It exemplifies the emergence of a coterie of young filmmakers eager to tell the stories of the Holocaust to their peers and to future generations.
For Toronto director Matthew Shoychet and producer Ricki Gurwitz, the trial of nonagenarian SS officer Oskar Gröning in his Lower Saxony hometown in 2015 provided the entry point to explore an ambitious array of historical, legal and moral concerns. The approach they chose for their debut feature documentary, however, was as important as the facts and the message.
“The way we put it together with the editors, we knew we didn’t want to play it chronologically,” the 32-year-old Shoychet explained. “The film opens with fast-paced, happy music with animation, then right into the trial, then back. You’re challenging the audience, but in a fresh, exciting way. You don’t see many Holocaust films that are told that way.”
The Accountant of Auschwitz screened at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival last fall and is part of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, which opens March 23.
Shoychet’s path to The Accountant of Auschwitz was unusual in that his family was not directly affected by the Holocaust. He was interested in films about the Holocaust, but he wasn’t instilled with the kind of painful personal history that was (and still is) the catalyst for many filmmakers.
In 2013, Shoychet went on the March of the Living to Poland and Israel, where he received his first close-up exposure to the Final Solution and Holocaust education. A friend he made on that trip went to work for the Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto, and that contact led to Shoychet directing the short film Anne Frank: 70 Years Later (2015), which screened at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the University of Warsaw.
Shoychet joined that year’s March of the Living as a chaperone, where he met Bill Glied, a Serbian native who’d been deported from Hungary to Auschwitz in 1944. When Glied remarked that he was going to Germany to testify at Gröning’s trial, Shoychet and Gurwitz put a pitch together to the Government of Ontario, the Rogers Documentary Fund, CBC’s Documentary Channel and a couple of private investors.
“It came together fast,” said Shoychet, who arrived on the scene in Lüneburg, Germany, in the midst of the trial.
Gröning’s job, as The Accountant of Auschwitz makes clear, wasn’t loading Zyklon B into the gas chambers or machine-gunning Jews. Thanks to a change in German law, it is no longer necessary to prove that a Nazi pulled the trigger. His presence at the scene and involvement in crimes is sufficient to decide guilt.
“Oskar was on the ramp [when the trains arrived and where selections occurred], taking suitcases and calming chaos,” Shoychet said. “But it was all part of the mass murder operation.”
Among the issues that The Accountant of Auschwitz takes on is the purpose and value of trying a 94-year-old man for war crimes. The film makes a convincing argument on multiple grounds, beginning with the extent of the cover-up that took place in Germany after the war.
“Ninety-nine percent of the judges in West Germany from 1945 to 1967 were members of the Nazi party,” Shoychet noted. “Hardcore believers. Of the 800,000 SS officers, 100,000 were investigated between 1945 and today, just over 6,000 were brought to trial and 124 received life sentences.”
That paltry number minimizes the scale of the crimes and serves to bury the past. The film asserts that Gröning’s confirmation under oath of his work at Auschwitz was a public and irrefutable rebuttal to Holocaust deniers and other antisemites.
“Even if you say he’s too old – and even the survivors say they don’t care if he goes to prison – for history’s purposes, the fact that a Nazi perpetrator is sitting in a German courtroom with German judges, saying, ‘Yes, these things happened, I was there,’ that makes the trial worthwhile,” Shoychet said.
A loquacious interview subject, even on the phone from Israel, where he had presented The Accountant of Auschwitz at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival a few months ago and was presently working on a project of the One Family Fund (he’s a board member), Shoychet confided that the process of making his feature doc debut was one of learning as he went. For example, until he went to Germany, he had never heard of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian who had been convicted of crimes at Sobibor yet consistently denied any involvement. Demjanjuk’s tangled tale, which, among other things, raises the subject of putting an elderly man on trial, ended up being a 20-minute segment in the film.
The Accountant of Auschwitz is rife with revelations and messages, but one gets the sense in talking with Shoychet that his main goal was conveying his own experiences of discovery, discussion, inspiration and outrage – with respect to Nazis and survivors, as well as contemporary justice-seekers and neo-Nazis – to viewers his own age.
“There may not be an ISIS fighter who will be deterred by a 94-year-old Nazi being prosecuted,” Shoychet allowed. “It’s making the connection of the past to the present. Trying to take a younger person and put them in the shoes of the survivors.”
Shoychet’s affinity for provoking questions and debate among the audience bodes well for his next efforts behind the camera.
“I never actually thought I would make a documentary,” he said with a trace of bemusement. “My passion is scripted narratives.”
One of the apartment buildings at the
HKP complex. (photo from Richard Freund)
Nearly three-quarters of a century after the Shoah ended, we are still learning about aspects of what happened. For example, the documentary The Good Nazi tells the little-known story of a Nazi from Vilna who tried to rescue more than 1,200 Jews. It airs on VisionTV Jan. 21, and again April 29.
In 2005, Dr. Michael Good sought out Prof.
Richard Freund of the University of Hartford to tell him about Maj. Karl
Plagge, a Nazi who oversaw a military vehicle repair complex that was used as
cover for 1,257 Jews in Vilnius (Vilna). Good described how his father, mother
and grandfather were saved within this complex, and later wrote about it at
length in his 2006 book The Search for Major Plagge: The Nazi Who Saved Jews
(Fordham University Press).
While interesting to Freund, who works within a
department known for its Holocaust studies, nothing further came of that
meeting. That is, until 2015.
By then, Freund had directed six archeological
projects in Israel and three in Europe on behalf of the university, including
research at the extermination camp at Sobibor, Poland. In 2015, he was in
Lithuania doing research on a Holocaust-era escape tunnel, adjacent to the
Great Synagogue of Vilna. He and his team had brought with them specialized
equipment that enabled non-invasive examination of the ground and walls, and
they offered it to anyone wanting to do such research. The Vilna Gaon State
Jewish Museum came calling, and brought Freund to a site on the outskirts of
Vilna, where he was told about Plagge.
Of that moment, Freund told the Independent,
“I’m sitting there and I say, ‘Karl Plagge? I know that name!’”
Freund connected with survivor Sidney Handler,
who was 10 years old when he hid from the Nazis in the work camp. After the
Nazis left in July 1944, Handler was forced to move dead bodies, and could
point out decades later where 400 Jews were buried.
“We could have gone through the entire 20 acres
and not located exactly where that was,” said Freund.
Using scanners, thermal cameras, radar and
other methods, Freund’s team discovered and recorded the various hiding places,
also called malinas. Under Plagge’s plan, Jews had built malinas in building
crevices, behind the walls, to keep out of sight when Nazis came to “liquidate”
The garage (repair shop) was dubbed HKP. It was
on Subocz Street and is likely the only Holocaust-related labour camp left
completely intact. Until recently, people had been living in the two six-floor
buildings, which comprised 216 apartments.
Freund reached out to filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, telling him how important it was to document the site, the story, and reveal it to the world. Things were made all the more pressing when Freund and Jacobovici discovered that developers were going to demolish the site. Fortunately, before this happened, Jacobovici took a film and photographic crew to HKP, in January 2018.
The Turning of Plagge
In 1941, Karl Plagge was placed in command of
the HKP 562, a unit responsible for repairs of military vehicles damaged on the
eastern front. Plagge experienced something of a pang of conscience – he hadn’t
signed on to genocide. He made the decision to leverage his position and use
Jews as “slave labour” for HKP, pleading the case to his superiors that, if
Jews didn’t work there, there would be no one to fix the vehicles.
Virtually none of the 1,200 Jews was knowledgeable
in fixing cars; they were accountants, lawyers, hairdressers, academics, cooks
and others. They all learned various HKP tasks on the job, and Plagge somehow
convinced the Nazi SS that every single one of them was necessary for HKP.
Even though the entire charade was met with a
barely tolerated wink and nod by Nazi brass, Plagge had a deep (and correct)
hunch that their patience would eventually wear thin.
Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS,
announced, in the summer of 1943, that he wanted every Jew in Eastern Europe
eliminated, irrespective of whether they were contributing to the war effort in
a work camp. So, with Plagge’s approval, his workers carved out malinas in the
walls of the buildings and in attic rafters.
As the Soviet Red Army approached the outer
edge of Vilnius in June 1944, it was a sign that the Allies were nearing
victory. In this context, on July 1, 1944, Plagge made an impromptu
announcement in front of an SS commander and the Jewish workers, who gathered
to listen. He explained that his unit was being transferred westbound and,
though he requested his labourers be allowed to join, his superiors wouldn’t
permit it. All of this was code for the Jewish prisoners to take cover. Roughly
half of the workers – some 500 of them – hid away in malinas or ran from the
camp, while others decided to stay.
When Nazi troops took over the camp two days
later, 500 Jewish workers appeared for roll call, and were killed. It took the
Nazis three more days to comb the camp and the surrounding area for any
survivors, eventually finding roughly 200 Jews, all of whom were shot.
When the Soviets finally took over Vilnius
later that week, approximately 250 of HKP’s Jews in hiding emerged.
When the war was over, Plagge returned home to
Darmstadt, Germany, where, for the next two years he lived quietly, until he
was brought to court as a former Nazi. Somehow, word traveled to a displaced
persons camp in Stuttgart, a three-hour drive away, where many survivors of HKP
had ended up. In Plagge’s defence, the survivors sent a representative to
testify to the court in the hopes the charges would be overturned.
The testimony resulted in a favourable judgment, and Plagge received the status of an exonerated person. In 2005, after evidence and survivor testimony, Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre posthumously bestowed the title Righteous Among the Nations on Plagge.
The Good Nazi was produced in Canada for VisionTV by Toronto-based Associated Producers. Jacobovici was writer and executive producer, Moses Znaimer executive producer, Bienstock producer and co-director, Yaron Niski co-director and Felix Golubev line producer/executive producer.
Dave Gordonis a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in
more than 100 publications around the world.