The documentary How Saba Kept Singing had its world première last weekend as part of HotDocs. It can be accessed online until May 7.
The film starts with David Wisnia preparing for his return to Auschwitz-Birkenau after 70 years. Traveling with his grandson and musical partner, Avi, David reveals some new stories about his survival journey. Throughout his life, he had selectively shared details about his war experience, mentioning that his singing voice provided him with privileges that aided in his survival. However, he omitted a major detail – a love affair with a fellow prisoner is what actually helped save his life. Told through David’s perspective, the truth regarding his survival some 75-plus years ago is uncovered.
The film is written, directed and produced by Sara Taksler. It is executive produced by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, and produced by Retro Report, HiddenLight Productions, in association with Burnt Umber Productions.
A still of one of the humorous (and relatable) moments in Image of Victory, which is part of this year’s Vancouver Jewish Film Festival.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival opening night film is the epic Image of Victory, directed by Avi Nesher. It’s not with grandiosity that the movie leaves its mark, though there is some of that, but rather with the quiet moments of humanity it so movingly depicts.
Sombre piano music over which one can hear missiles flying, bombs exploding, wind blowing are heard as the initial credits are shown, modest white lettering on a black background, nothing showy. “There are moments when you try to make sense of your life,” begins the narrator, as black-and-white footage of a shot-out building appears, then a jeep, soldiers with rifles pointed, tanks. “You wonder if you made good use of the time God gave you on this earth. You seek someone to compare yourself to. Someone you think truly lived.”
For Egyptian journalist and filmmaker Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, that person is Mira Ben-Ari, though he doesn’t know her name or anything about her at the time. It is the image of her from decades ago that he cannot forget – battle-worn, staring down the Egyptian forces, she smiles, she takes out a gun and shoots. Cut to an older Hassanein, in his study, depressed and angry, watching the TV news about Israel and Egypt’s peace agreement, after decades of war. Was all the fighting and all the death it caused in vain? He blames himself for not having the courage to expose Egypt’s president as a traitor for making the peace deal. He idealizes Mira’s bravery and purpose, thinks back to when he was 24, and fearless – when he was assigned to document Egypt’s military operations against the soon-to-be-reestablished Jewish homeland.
Inspired by the Battle of Nitzanim in June 1948, in which the kibbutz was destroyed by Egypt, Image of Victory imagines what it might have been like on both sides of that conflict. Both Mira and Hassanein are based on real people, as are other characters in the film, and this movie is about a near-mythological event. The voiceover, the black-and-white footage, the fancy costumes of New Year’s Eve revellers in Cairo, idealistic kibbutzniks, zealous army commanders. Any one of these elements could have slipped into a larger-than-life portrayal, but director Avi Nesher shows restraint – and a valiant attempt at balance that has an air of realism, though the kibbutzniks are admittedly more developed entities.
The majority of the film takes place in chronological order, six months out from the battle. When we first see the kibbutzniks working the dusty land, they are doing so under occasional fire from the Egyptian farmers who were displaced after their landlord sold said land to the Jews. The rules of engagement are fascinating. After one altercation, the Egyptians yell to the kibbutzniks that they are all done on their side, and the Jews cease their fire so that both sides can safely collect their wounded and dead.
In the midst of the tension, life goes on in the kibbutz – there are broken hearts and newly starting relationships, there is joyous singing, dancing and piano playing, there is hard labour, there is frolicking on the beach. But underlying all the apparent normality is the hyper-reality of mortality, both because many of the residents and their recently arrived Haganah protectors are Holocaust survivors, as well as the threat of Egyptian attack. As one young soldier tells Mira, “You’d think it’s paradise if being here wasn’t risking death.”
After a brutal attack on a truck carrying supplies to the kibbutz, the Egyptian commander doesn’t want Hassanein to film the emptying of the truck of its supplies because it looks like they’re stealing. Perception is Hassanein’s constant battle – what he is being told to film and what he really wants to film. For example, during a lull in the fighting, he makes a film about two Arab villagers falling in love, which is trashed by the producer who hired him. People don’t want to watch that, yells the producer, they want war.
After the Egyptian forces are repelled by the newly declared state of Israel, Hassanein is ordered to film an Egyptian victory, so that King Farouk can save face. The enormity of the Egyptian army descends on Nitzanim, which Israel’s leaders – for ideological reasons encapsulated by the character of (real-life) commander Abba Kovner – have abandoned.
While the kibbutz’s children (including Mira’s young son) and some of the adults were evacuated or assigned to other defence tasks, the rest of the residents and soldiers were left to fend for themselves, vastly outnumbered. The real-life outcome is known: more than 30 kibbutz members and soldiers were killed, more than 100 taken prisoner. What Nesher’s film offers is an idea of the ambitions, the loves, the fears, and more, of some of those who were at the ground level, caught in a situation not entirely of their making.
The acting is phenomenal – adeptly showing the interplay of diverse characters, with their own senses of humour, their own past traumas, their own desires, their own measures of victory. The characters are more than stereotypes and the stories more nuanced than the ones we most often hear. Nesher wants us to be skeptical of national mythologies and of the media that help propel these misleading views, yet respectful of one another’s narratives, as complicated as they may be and no matter how divergent they may be from our own. It’s perhaps an impossible ask, but some ideals are worth dying for – or are they?
Image of Victory director Avi Nesher and producer Ehud Bleiberg participate in a live Q&A on March 6, 11 a.m. The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival runs March 3-13. For tickets: vjff.org.
A still from the documentary Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival runs March 3-13, and features more than 30 films, all of which will be available online for the duration of the festival. As always, there are shorts and features, fictional narratives and documentaries – presenting a great diversity of perspectives. This month, the JI offers readers a peek into the lineup.
Fifty years of Fiddler
Like a lot of people, Norman Jewison thought Norman Jewison was Jewish. When he was growing up in Toronto’s east end, other students would call out, “Hey Jewy!” Decades later, when he was one of Hollywood’s acclaimed filmmakers, it would come as a shock to many that someone with the word Jew as the root of their surname was, in fact, not Jewish. It hit Jewison earlier, when he tagged along to synagogue with one of the only actual Jewish kids in his school.
“When the melamed at the temple told me to leave, I thought, ‘What’s going on?’” he said. “Where do I belong?”
The feature-length documentary Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen purports to tell the story of how the stage play based on Sholem Aleichem’s Anatevka tales turned into the cinematic blockbuster Fiddler on the Roof. It does that, but it is also very much a story of Jewison’s trajectory as an interpreter of historical and current events.
Jewison had already made a splash with his 1967 race-focused movie In the Heat of the Night when he conjured the idea of filming Fiddler. Friends and foes predicted failure. Too Jewish. Not a large enough potential audience. But Jewison forged ahead, certain that his version would universalize the story into “a film for everybody.” Arriving at a time of social upheaval in the United States and elsewhere, Fiddler’s underlying themes were relatable to many, Jewish or not.
Case in point: the film was huge in Japan. There may be next to no Jews in that country, but, in the early 1970s, when Fiddler was released, Japanese society, like many countries, was struggling to balance modernity and tradition.
The documentary Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen comes a half-century after Fiddler on the Roof’s screen debut. It interviews surviving contributors and actors, many of whom saw their early careers explode with the popularity of the movie. Rosalind Harris, now 75, played Tzeitel both on Broadway (after understudying for Bette Midler) and in the film. Her thrill at the film and her place in it is undiminished by time and she nearly steals the documentary.
The enthusiasm of Jewison himself seems equally undiminished. He tells of how he sought out Isaac Stern, perhaps the 20th century’s greatest violinist, to dub the music of the titular character. He dismissed Frank Sinatra’s entreaties to play Tevye and scored Topol, the Israeli actor (né Chaim Topol), who had played the lead in Israel and then in London, casting aside, in the process, Zero Mostel, Broadway’s longtime Tevye.
Diplomatic relations with the Soviet bloc at the time made it impossible to film in Ukraine, where Anatevka is set, so Jewison struck a deal with the “non-aligned” Yugoslavia and much of the filming took place in Lekenik (now in Croatia), in wooden buildings constructed based on historical architectural records. One commentator in the documentary notes the irony that the film about a disappeared community was filmed in what is now referred to as “the former Yugoslavia” – “another place that is no more.”
Jewison speaks emotionally about watching the film’s Israeli debut beside Golda Meir and a meeting he had with David Ben-Gurion, who told Jewison that whoever is crazy enough to choose to be a Jew is Jew.
“If I’m crazy enough to want to be Jewish, then I’m Jewish,” Jewison interprets Ben-Gurion’s words.
But when he received an Academy Award, he cheekily acknowledged the truth. “Not bad for a goy,” he joked.
Not bad for a Canuck, one might add.
The documentary’s director, Daniel Raim, will participate in a live Q&A on March 7, 7 p.m.
Shorts of all sizes
Since this year’s Jewish Film Festival is online and on demand, you can choose to view the numerous short films as a binge or watch one or two between features as a sort of visual amuse bouche.
At about 30 minutes, Paradise is on the long end of the “shorts” spectrum. It features Ala Dakka, who will be recognizable to Fauda fans, as the doe-eyed Palestinian boxer, Bashar. In real life, Dakka is an Arab Israeli who, in media interviews, has been open about his struggle with his identity. In this film, he plays Ali, who has just arrived at Eilat airport from his home in Berlin, to attend his sister’s wedding. After a fight over the phone with his father (it was cheaper to fly to Eilat than to Tel Aviv, so now he is going to miss the pre-wedding dinner), he decides to skip the festivities altogether and hitchhike to the Sinai. (This after a five-hour interrogation by border security at the airport, which doesn’t help either Ali’s frame of mind or his ability to make the celebratory banquet.)
Picked up by a group of Israeli partiers, Ali opts to introduce himself as Eli, and so begins a subtle and, of course, inevitable succession of miscues and small betrayals. It is a tightly told story of self-identity and the perceptions of others. Dakka is a rising star in Israeli film and he brings memorable depth to his character in this short, charming drama. A subtext of the film is the happy-go-lucky Israelis’ perceptions of Egypt (or perhaps the broader “other”) and a degree of paranoia that one of the party crowd acknowledges doesn’t require pot-smoking to ignite.
A slightly shorter film, at about 20 minutes, is Pops, which pits grieving siblings against each other, as they try to do what they each think their recently deceased father would have wanted regarding his burial. The uptight son and the hippy-ish daughter come to an unorthodox compromise.
You’re Invited sees a rabbi’s daughter invite her friends to a funeral when she learns that the deceased has no kin. Charming in concept and cheesy in execution, with uneven acting and heavy-handed writing, the short film is sweet enough, although anyone who has been a pallbearer will recognize an empty box when they see one carried in a movie. Explicitly based on a true story, the 13-minute film is neither too long nor too short.
For a quick laugh, at seven minutes, The Shabbos Goy follows a religious woman as she deals with the unexpected activation of a personal electronic device – a very personal electronic device – during Shabbat lunch. She runs into the street to find a non-Jew who she can entice but, due to halachah, not overtly request to turn the humming device off before the men in the house discover the source of the noise. (The women of the house, notably, remain blasé.)
The Jew who defended Nazis
Ira Glasser was the director of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1978 to 2001, a period when the organization exploded in size and relevance – and also when it took on some of the most contentious topics the country has ever faced.
Perhaps not a household name, Glasser and his contributions to civil liberties in particular and to American society more broadly are examined in the documentary feature Mighty Ira.
It is easy to admire Glasser in theory and to support his principles in principle. It is harder to swallow when he champions what Oliver Wendell Holmes termed “freedom for ideas we loathe.” This challenging conflict is at the heart of Glasser’s life’s work and the heart of the film.
Glasser’s vigilance for justice was born at Ebbets Field, the now-disappeared home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, which Glasser calls his cathedral. The Dodgers were gods to the kids in Glasser’s Flatbush neighbourhood, no less so when Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball, in 1947. At age 9, Glasser discovered that Robinson was forced to stay in hotels and eat at restaurants apart from his teammates while on road trips to parts of the country. That injustice stirred in young Ira a lifelong mission.
But devotion to racial equality can seem to come head-to-head with First Amendment rights to free expression, as when neo-Nazis sought to march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill., in 1977. The provocative plan to wear fascist regalia and parade through a town whose population was half Jewish – and which included one of the world’s largest communities of Holocaust survivors – was thwarted by town officials, who used a backdoor ordinance to prevent the event. (There was a 500-member B’nai B’rith chapter in town at the time, all of whose members were survivors.)
Glasser’s ACLU took up the case, and the backlash against the unpopular cause was enormous. It tested the mettle of the ACLU leadership – to say nothing of their fundraising department – and their commitment to free speech. But the leadership, which included a great many Jews, were almost unanimously steadfast.
The documentary shows how the ACLU’s relevance grew in the time of Glasser’s leadership, not solely because of his actions but also because the country was struggling with a range of social and moral conflicts. While the rights group had been at the forefront of issues like the Scopes “Monkey Trial” (addressing the place of religion in public education), the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War and Brown v. Board of Education (banning school segregation), the ACLU’s docket really filled up in the time Glasser was at the helm in large part because the country was confronting and struggling with so many divisive issues.
Mighty Ira is the story of a remarkable man, but it is also a history of American free speech in the second half of the 20th century.
Director Nico Perrino will be a guest at the March 9, 1 p.m., screening of the documentary.
More information about the festival will soon be available at vjff.org.
Left to right, the Hot Mammas are Mary Ella Young, Julie Brown, Georgina Arntzen. (photo by Dee Lippingwell)
The Hot Mammas are busy this holiday season – and year round. With three albums to their credit, they perform at venues ranging from jazz clubs to shopping malls. Readers can next see them at Robson Square Skating Rink on Dec. 15, and then at Water Street Café Dec. 18.
One of the holiday songs the group performs is “Mamma Julie’s Hanukkah Song,” so dubbed by Georgina Arntzen and Mary Ella Young because the third member of the Hot Mammas, Julie Brown, wrote it, and “too many songs are called ‘The Hanukkah Song’ or ‘Festival of Lights.’” (A video of it can be found via facebook.com/thehotmammas.)
Brown’s Jewish heritage is Ashkenazi. “My maternal grandfather, who I’m named after (Julius Cohen), was a rabbi,” she told the Independent. “My father always followed our traditions. My mother was a phenomenal cook and it’s because of her I’m able to make latkes, matzo balls, knishes, chicken soup, etc. When she didn’t want me to understand something she and her sisters were talking about over the phone, she’d suddenly switch from English to Yiddish. That’s where and how I picked up some fun expressions, which I use to this day.”
Born and raised in Montreal, Brown said she has been performing music since she could walk.
“My older, late, great brother Martin Overland was the founding member of the Canadian folk group the Raftsmen,” she said. “Your readers may recall the song ‘Something to Sing About,’ which was one of their hits. Martin had perfect pitch and the voice of an angel. He was also a terrific guitarist and accordionist. Eleven years my senior, we would sing together in harmony when I was a very young child. I still recall performing ‘Buttons and Bows’ in front of a roomful of relatives and friends.
“When the opportunity arose as a 10-year-old to actually sing on camera, I jumped at the chance. The Montreal kids show was called Small Fry Frolics and there I was with my cousin Shirley singing the Everly Brothers’ ‘Bye Bye Love’! At 15, I joined a rock band, while singing lead as Carmen in high school.
“The singing/performing didn’t stop at teacher’s college either,” she added. “McGill’s Macdonald College offered a two-year teaching diploma program at the time and, much to my delight, also had yearly talent shows.”
During her teaching days, Brown brought her ukulele to class. “The kids were as crazy about the Beatles as I was and we sang our buttinsky’s off to start the day,” she said.
While at university, Brown performed in stage plays and film. She recalled working on a movie directed by John Huston, which featured Sophia Loren – “and I was fortunate enough to garner a wee speaking role when Ms. Loren walked over to a table of background performers of which I was one, and asked me a question. I wasn’t supposed to answer her as a silent on-camera person but spontaneously blurted out a comment because I didn’t want to be rude. (Out of my peripheral vision, I noticed John Huston smacking his forehead.) And that was how I got my first ACTRA permit! Even after moving out to Vancouver and doing radio full time, I still continued to audition for film, TV and did a lot of voice work. In fact, I was the Telus voice for nearly 15 years – ‘We’re sorry, the number you have dialed is not in order. Please hang up and try your call again. Thank you, from Telus.’ That was me and one of 40 or so prompts I did for them.”
Brown left Montreal after the Front de libération du Québec “raised its ugly head in Quebec” and the Parti Québécois was in power.
“My child came home in tears from school with a notice that all English-speaking children had to be educated in French the following year,” she explained. “French didn’t come easy to my son but it was more than that. We lived in Canada, or so I thought. Stop signs had Nazi slogans scrawled across them. Shop windows in the English and Jewish communities were smashed and vandalized. An elderly Jewish woman who couldn’t speak French and wanted to order flowers for a friend was disgustingly treated over the phone because she was trying to place her order in English. The clerk hung up on her.
“As a teaching friend once said to me, if you say, ‘ich bin a Yid,’ you get it from both sides. I still don’t think the rest of Canada realized just how dangerous and revolting that regime was. Well, I did…. We came out to Vancouver for a visit and, with tears in his eyes, my son asked if we could move. And we did just that in 1978.”
Within a week, Brown got a job as a news broadcaster at CFMI, the sister station to CKNW.
“Not long after that, the program director allowed me to develop an interview show as well. I had been doing interviews at the Montreal radio station, along with news, so this was a huge relief to me. I love people and am a naturally curious person, so interviewing was, and still is, a good fit. My radio career blossomed here in Vancouver. Eventually, I co-wrote, co-produced and co-hosted Vancouver at Noon on KISS-FM for 11 years.”
In her more than two decades as a broadcaster, Brown interviewed hundreds of people, including Bob Hope, Paul Newman, Shirley MacLaine, Johnny Depp, Leonard Cohen, Eartha Kitt, Sarah McLachlan, Neil Diamond, Buffy Sainte-Marie, François Truffaut, Jackie Collins, Jim Byrnes, Rick Hansen and Dee Lippingwell.
For Brown, singing in choirs has always fed her soul, and it was in one of those choirs she met Arntzen and in another that they met Young. The Hot Mammas have been together now for 11 years.
“They are both family to me – my sisters,” said Brown. “All three of us love performing because we give to our audiences and they give back. Something magical and marvelous happens, no matter where we are or how many or how few people are in that audience. Synergy. Energy. Love. Music heals. It is the ‘universal language.’
“We sing songs we love. That’s how we choose our repertoire. Jazz, pop, rock ’n’ roll, folk, show tunes, you name it. We don’t just cover groups. We also write originals. In fact, one of our tunes is called ‘The Hot Mammas’ Song,’ and it’s quite amusing – all about being mothers who love their kids but have ‘traded in their aprons for a microphone.’”
Maxine Lee Ewaschuk, in a still from the documentary Periphery, which premièred last month at the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre in North York, and is available to view online.
On Oct. 28, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre in North York hosted a hybrid launch for Periphery, a newly produced documentary film and photo exhibit that explores the lives of multiracial and multiethnic Jews within the Greater Toronto Area.
The 27-minute film features interviews with several individuals who might be considered as existing on the fringes of a homogenous, stereotypical notion of the Jewish world – a world that, in reality, is multifaceted and ever-evolving.
“What Periphery does for us is bring together a diverse view of our community,” said Andrew Levy, one of the event’s organizers.
From the outset, the film asks, “What makes a Jew? What do you have to know to be a Jew?” Implicit in those questions is another question, how can the Jewish community extend its tent to include those who might feel left out of the broader mishpachah, family? Notably, those whose parents are not both Jewish.
“There becomes a question of, can I say I am Jewish? When can I say I am Jewish? Is it ever OK for me to say I am Jewish before I complete my conversion, even if I am functioning very Jewishly in my day-to-day life. Sometimes, I say I am a Jew-in-progress,” shared dancer Maxine Lee Ewaschuk.
“Maybe I don’t know everything about what it is to be Jewish, but I am fiercely, proudly Jewish. It’s my experience and my experience is valid,” said actor Nobu Adilman, whose heritage is Jewish and Japanese.
“I knew my Indian grandparents super well, but I never knew where my Jewish grandparents came from,” said author Devyani Saltzman, who recounted a trip to Russia with her father to look into the roots of the paternal side of her family.
Saltzman also remembered an observation she had as a child of looking at other classmates who came from solely Hindu or Jewish families and thinking, non-judgmentally, “that must be really nice to know one’s place and space so clearly.”
In the cases of both Adilman and Saltzman, their parents married out of a love that transcended religious, cultural and geographic barriers.
“My father put a lot of his energy into my mother’s culture. He didn’t talk a lot about his upbringing. He was proudly Jewish, but he didn’t want to impose it on us,” Adilman said.
Adilman, too, related a kinship he has with other Jewish people who have gone through the same sorts of questioning that he has.
Ariella Daniels, Daniel Sourani and Sarah Aklilu each spoke of connections to places far removed from the GTA.
Daniels, who descends from Bene Israel Jews of India, explained that, for her, being a Jew represents several layers of identity – cultural, religious and national – and that the perspective she has of the world comes through being Jewish.
Sourani, who identifies as a gay, Iraqi Jew, focused on the importance of family – and the gatherings around Shabbat, holidays and lifecycle events – to his Jewish experience.
Aklilu, meanwhile, sees herself as Jewish, Ethiopian and Canadian. She told of the many times her Jewish identity has been called into question and, as a result, she has questioned who she is. Ultimately, she asserted, “I know I am Jewish and I feel that I don’t need to explain to people that I am.”
Tema Smith, a Jewish community professional and daughter of a Black father and Jewish mother, outlined the odd experiences she has had because people often assume she has two European Jewish parents.
“People say things that they would never say if a Black person were in the room. I feel completely unseen in those moments,” Smith said. “I feel trapped in these weird moments of having to swallow what just happened.”
For Asha, a Black and Jewish woman, her connection to Judaism is one that she described as developing and expanding. “I think, if you look Black, like I do, then you go through life as a Black person,” she said. “I don’t know if you have to choose internally, but it is chosen for you in the wider world. So, people don’t look at me and think I am Jewish. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. If it did, it would be weird.”
While the experiences in Jewish spaces of those interviewed were frequently frustrating and alienating, it was also pointed out in the documentary that there are positive aspects to having a multiracial background. There is richness and happiness in belonging to different cultures and this, in itself, can be invigorating.
The screening was followed by a conversation with director Sara Yacobi-Harris, cinematographer Marcus Armstrong and film participants. Periphery was produced by No Silence on Race, an organization that seeks to establish racial equity and inclusivity within Jewish spaces in Canada, in partnership with the Ontario Jewish Archives. To view the film, visit virtualjcc.com/watch/periphery.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
The Nov. 1 online event Finding Grounds for Goodness includes the première presentation of Finding Grounds for Goodness in the Downtown Eastside, which was created during last year’s Heart of the City Festival. (photo from Jumblies Theatre)
This year’s Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, which runs Oct. 27-Nov. 7, includes the screening of short videos from Jumblies Theatre and partners on the theme of “social goodness.”
Jumblies’ multi-year Grounds for Goodness project is an artful exploration of why and how people sometimes act in good ways towards each other. As it has adapted to community-engaged art-making during pandemic times, this project has generated a varied and whimsical collection of short videos with communities and artists from around Canada.
At the Nov. 1, 4 p.m., online event Finding Grounds for Goodness, hosted from Toronto by Jumblies staff, a sampling of these short films will be shared, including the première presentation of Finding Grounds for Goodness in the Downtown Eastside, which was created during last year’s Heart of the City Festival with DTES creative community members and Vancouver and Toronto artists.
Jewish community member Ruth Howard is the founder and artistic director of Jumblies Theatre, which makes art in everyday and extraordinary places with, for and about the people and stories found there. The Jumblies project was originally inspired by the history about the rescue of Albanian Jews during the Second World War by Albanian Muslim people.
Composer Martin van de Ven, an expert in klezmer and Jewish music, who has been involved in many Jumblies projects, told the Independent, in an interview last year about the DTES’s Grounds for Goodness, about besa, “an Albanian Islamic concept about hospitality and the need to help and protect guests and those in need within and beyond your community.
“In Albania,” he explained, “during the Second World War (and Italian and then Nazi occupation), this meant that almost all Jewish people living and finding refuge in Albania were sheltered and hidden, and Albania ended up with a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than at the beginning.” (See jewishindependent.ca/highlighting-goodness.)
The festival at large
The 18th Annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival is presented by Vancouver Moving Theatre in association with Carnegie Community Centre, the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians and a host of community partners. It will feature more than 100 events throughout the DTES and online.
This year’s festival theme, “Stories We Need to Hear,” resonates today as people grapple with the dramatic impact of the pandemic, ongoing displacement, the fentanyl crisis, and the reality of bigotry and systemic racism.
In the words of late DTES poet Sandy Cameron, “When we tell our stories we draw our own maps, and question the maps of the powerful. Each of us has something to tell, something to teach.”
The 12-day festival includes music, stories, poetry, theatre, ceremony, films, readings, forums, workshops, discussions, art talks, history talks and visual art exhibitions. The Art in the Streets program features surprise pop-up music and spoken word activities on sidewalks and small plazas throughout the historic district.
A few highlights of this year’s festival are We Live Here, a large-scale outdoor project projecting hyper-speed videos of Downtown Eastside artists’ artwork, produced by Radix Theatre; Honouring Our Grandmothers’ Healing Journey Launch, three days of ceremony, teachings and storytelling honouring grandmothers who traveled to the DTES (with Further We Rise Collective and Wild Salmon Caravan); and Indigenous Journeys: Solos by Three Woman, which profiles local artists Priscillia Mays Tait (Gitxsan/Wet’suwet’en), Kat Zu’comulwat Norris (Lyackson First Nation) and Gunargie O’Sullivan aka ga’axstasalas (Kwakuilth Nation).
Elder and activist Grace Eiko Thomson reads from and talks about her book Chiru Sakura (Falling Cherry Blossoms), which chronicles her and her mother’s journey through racism, and Eiko Thomson’s advocacy for the rights of Canadians of Japanese ancestry. In My Art Is Activism: Part III, DTES resident Sid Chow Tan shares videos from his archival collection that highlight Chinese Canadian social movements and direct action in Chinatown, particularly redress for Chinese head tax and exclusion. And the ensemble Illicit Projects presents Incarcerated: Truth in Shadows, three shadow plays dedicated to people who have faced unjust treatment in Canada’s incarceration system.
Other events honour various DTES performing artists and shared cultures. The festival involves professional, community, emerging and student artists, and lovers of the arts.
In Bayla’s Issues, the title character is plagued by the travails of aging and anxiety, and a desire for acknowledgement in the art world.
Bayla’s Issues, a 2020 animated short based on the comic strip Bayla’s Comics by Vancouver artist Hinda Avery, has been making the Jewish film festival circuit, with a recent stop in Washington, D.C. The 15-minute film, which follows the story of its title character and her quest to be recognized as an artist, was directed and edited by Victoria’s Michael Kissinger, and is voiced by Ellen Kennedy and animated by Marty Emanuel.
Divided into eight chapters, Bayla’s Issues delves into the inner thoughts – a turbulent sea of doubts, fears and anxieties – of its heroine and her conversations with an expensive and expletive-laden therapist, who is neither encouraging nor helpful.
The character of Bayla came into being after Avery retired from her career in academia. At the time, she wanted to do two things: return to painting after a long break and establish a means of connecting with family who died in the Holocaust.
“Clearly, the only way for me to make this connection would be through an imaginary process, and painting seemed a tangible tool,” Avery told the Independent. “I decided to paint myself with my late mother and, with the help of only two motley photographs, my murdered aunt and grandmother. This would suffice as a way of spending time with them.”
Avery’s mother had left Poland before the start of the Second World War, but was severely traumatized by the murder of her family by the Nazis.
“The atrocity affected both her mental and physical health; her trauma was passed down to me, hence my close connection to the Holocaust,” Avery said.
Over time, in a process that began in 2005 and lasted 13 years, Avery was able to separate herself from, as she puts it, “an overt depiction of the Holocaust experience – an event too catastrophic for me to depict using conventional representation – and instead depicted it as a phantasmagoric event. I added more women and called us all ‘The Rosen Sisters.’” Rosen was her mother’s family name.
The paintings feature strong, confident women resisters in situations that are both humorous and dark. Avery found it therapeutic and liberating “to fight the Nazis in this vicarious method.” Still, she said, “beneath the surface of all the paintings, the calamity and horror of the Holocaust is ever present.”
When the paintings, in her view, had run their course, she was “desolate” and expressed this by drawing a comic about a befuddled, unfulfilled older Jewish woman who is plagued by the travails of aging and anxiety, and a desire for acknowledgement in the art world.
“In many of the comics, Bayla expresses her angst about being Jewish. Her Jewishness has never been a joy for her. In one of the comics, she says it feels like a huge lead-heavy Star of David, attached to a thick chain-link, hanging from her neck – it weighs her down, she can’t pull it off,” said Avery.
Kissinger’s collaboration with Avery can be traced to 2015, when he served as the editor of the now-defunct Vancouver Courier. “She left a message on my work phone about an upcoming art exhibit of her paintings and I, of course, never returned her call…. But she left another message, and another message,” Kissinger recounted.
“We didn’t do a lot of art exhibit coverage,” he explained. “But, for some reason, I decided to Google her name and up came these paintings of elderly women in bikinis holding automatic weapons and swearing and taking down Hitler and having a great time while they were at it. From that point on, I was in.”
Kissinger went on to write a story and created a five-minute video to accompany it on the newspaper’s website.
A year later, Avery reached out again – this time to share that she had obtained a Canada Council grant and to ask Kissinger if he would be interested in making a documentary about her, her paintings, and her journey in dealing with the Holocaust and depression.
A 27-minute documentary, Hinda and Her Sisterrrz, ensued. That 2018 film screened at a number of Jewish film festivals, including those of San Francisco, Toronto, Boston, Vancouver and Victoria.
“The documentary ends with Hinda talking about retiring the characters in her paintings and moving on to working on a comic strip about an ‘old, neurotic Jewish woman’ who wants to be an old, famous painter, but is hampered by her own demons,” said Kissinger.
“Because I know Hinda’s work and backstory and she trusts me with it and was happy with the documentary, she asked me if I could help her animate her comic strip,” he added.
“Bayla lends herself to being animated. I love seeing her come alive!” Avery said.
The original strip, Bayla’s Comics, appeared in Jewish Currents. More episodes about Bayla’s tribulations – under the title Bayla’s Got Problems – are currently underway.
Left to right: Lydia Okello, Shana Myara and Joanne Tsung. (photo from VQFF)
The 2021 Vancouver Queer Film Festival, which runs until Aug. 22, includes the screening of local feature documentary Well Rounded, directed by Jewish community member Shana Myara.
Well Rounded brings fat queers to the front, with interviews from artists to health professionals. Directed by Myara, it features stories from Mi’kmaw comedian and broadcaster Candy Palmater, multidisciplinary performer Ivory and local queers including style icon Lydia Okello and comedian Joanne Tsung. The documentary balances the personal impacts of fatphobia with scientific facts from Dr. Janet Tomiyama, a psychologist working specifically with the causes and impacts of weight stigma, along with socio-political context provided by historian Dr. Jenny Ellison.
Myara is an award-winning writer. She is a curator, recovered festival director, and community arts programmer who has cultivated arts and dialogue for social change for more than 20 years. Well Rounded is her first feature length film. As part of the film festival, it is available for a limited release from Aug. 19 to 21, and includes a post-screening Q&A with the director and cast members.
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.
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.”