Kamil Whaley-Kalaora stars as the title character in Malka Martz-Oberlander’s David Michael Frankel Feinstein-Goldberg and the Unbarmitzvah. (screenshot)
It was a rainy day near the beginning of the pandemic. Sourdough was in the oven, Zoom was new and fun and spirits were higher. That’s when I found out I’d won the Earl Parker Award and I’d get to make my film for the Edmonton Jewish Film Festival. Little did I know I would have to go through months of hurdles, Plan B ideas and cast my entire family to get my film made.
A few months prior, my mom had passed me the Jewish Independent and showed me the notice for a film award at the Edmonton Jewish Film Festival. At the time, I was co-directing a musical, directing a film and finishing my applications for universities, so I didn’t think much of it. But, I am very glad I eventually picked up that notice and applied to the competition because it changed the course of my path.
Last year was tough in a thousand ways. The pandemic hit everyone differently and, no doubt, we will all have lifelong effects because of it. When I originally pitched my film, David Michael Frankel Feinstein-Goldberg and the Unbarmitzvah, in 2020, I had a vision that could only have been actualized pre-pandemic. I adapted it and changed things to meet the constraints of the circumstances and I truly did my best to pull it off in a safe way for the entire cast and crew. One of the changes I had to make was to cast solely from within my bubble and community, which was not what I had originally planned to do.
I normally cast my films through Vancouver Actor’s Guide, UBC ACTRA and Facebook film & TV pages, but, instead, I ended up casting my parents as two of the main characters. As much as they are incredibly charismatic and intelligent people, they’re both doctors, not actors the stature of a Leonardo DiCaprio. So, performing was a big challenge for them and, vice versa, for me directing them. That being said, it was a fantastic experience for me to learn how to produce a film under circumstances that many filmmakers haven’t had to face.
In the early stages, I had a few moments when I felt selfish and embarrassed to want to make films during a literal plague. How could I have the chutzpah to be making dumb little comedy films while millions of people have died and more are dying? Why should I worry if my lenses are going to work for a scene while people are saying goodbye to their loved ones on iPads?
But then it dawned on me just how much we rely on art and story for our own sanity. We tell our children stories from the moment they are born, and we offer and receive stories to our last day on earth. We humans are, at our core, storytelling creatures. In moments of darkness we turn, time and time again, to art to save us. We are drawn to an astonishing multitude of fictions – on pages, on stages and on screens; stories of murder, love, war, conspiracies; stories fictional and true.
We are obsessed with story, but our obsession runs deeper than we think. We can walk away from our books and our screens, but story is like gravity: an inescapable force field that influences everything, but is so omnipresent that we hardly notice it. We’re social creatures and, with the added challenge of isolation, art has become a tool for staying connected with one another.
I’m now finishing up my first year at film school, in Capilano University’s Motion Picture Arts Program, where I have been learning invaluable skills and refining my knowledge and abilities in writing, directing and producing. With the vaccination rollout well underway and more knowledge and experience of how to safely work together in-person, I am ready to see what’s next for film and storytelling. I hope you are, too.
My film David Michael Frankel Feinstein-Goldberg and the Unbarmitzvah screened at the Edmonton Jewish Film Festival on May 2 and I will be speaking on a panel of past Earl Parker Award winners on May 9, 11 a.m., on Zoom (meeting ID 846 7697 0846). To view the film, visit jewishedmonton.org/festival-news; after the festival, it will be publicly available on Vimeo.
Malka Martz-Oberlanderis a 19-year-old screenwriter, film and theatre director and actress, currently “squatting” at her parents’ house in Vancouver, the unceded territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam peoples. Her website is malkamo.wixsite.com/film. She thanks the Edmonton Jewish Film Festival and the Earl Parker Award for their kindness and generosity in making David Michael Frankel Feinstein-Goldberg and the Unbarmitzvah possible during such an unpredictable time for artists.
Seu Jorge, left, and Noah Schnapp in a still from Abe. (image from Reel 2 Real)
The upcoming Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth is not just for youth, though younger viewers are its target audience. There are entertaining and engaging films for all ages among the 18 features and 45 shorts that will be available for streaming online April 14-23.
The focus of this year’s festival is “films that explore the impact of social media, racism and discrimination, with a focus on Germany.” While many of the offerings will interest Jewish community members, at least four cover topics of specific relevance.
The American feature Abe was part of the recent Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. It is carried by the impressive acting of Noah Schnapp as 12-year-old Abe and that of Seu Jorge as Chico, the Brazilian-American chef that Abe idolizes. The food, glorious food, is an added bonus.
While the writing of Abe’s family dynamics is clunky and without nuance – his father’s side is Muslim, his mother’s Jewish, and never the twain shall meet on religion or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – Abe himself is charming. He puts his heart into trying to bring everyone together, in part, by creating a fancy dinner that comprises several of his grandmothers’ traditional recipes. The grumpy but caring Chico helps, having reluctantly taken Abe in, first as a dishwasher then as one of his prep cooks.
Food doesn’t turn out to be the way to his family members’ hearts but the disastrous fusion meal, which ends in a big fight and Abe running away, does push his family to at least reconsider their priorities.
In another charming film, the young also show the adults the possible way to some form of peace. In the Israeli animated short Cinema Rex, the Jewish boy Mouize and the Arab girl Ranin become friends over popcorn and a shared love of cinema.
Set in Jerusalem in 1938, a new movie theatre opens, “In the heart of the city, on the seam line between the Jewish side and the Arab side, and adjacent to the British police.” It is “co-owned by partners from both sides of [the] divided city” and Mouize’s dad is the projectionist. When Mouize catches a glimpse of someone peeking into the projection room, he follows the trail of popcorn to Ranin, who shares it with him in exchange for a seat beside him in the best seats in the house. The two imagine themselves as the heroes in Robin Hood, as actors in a Laurel and Hardy film, dancers in a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, and more.
Ranin’s mother is non-plused to find her daughter hanging out with Mouize, and Mouize’s dad tries to tell him, “Someday, you’ll understand why you and she can’t be friends.” But the kids have none of it.
Beautifully drawn and a story simply told – in Arabic, English and Hebrew with English subtitles – this short is highly recommended viewing.
A more serious and nerve-wracking short is the tension-filled American film Alina. For 25 minutes, breathing will be more difficult, as the fate of a three-month-old baby lies in the hands of Alina (played by Alia Shawkat). The non-Jewish woman is part of a group of women (and men, as her brother helps) who are smuggling Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust.
Inspired by factual events, but fictional, the film opens as Nazi soldiers kick their way into a building and make their way up each floor, searching every room for children, with orders to seize them. Alina must escape from an upper-level apartment with the baby through the bathroom window, using a makeshift rope of tied sheets. She must then meet her brother, make it through a checkpoint and even face Nazi soldiers in her own home, as a Nazi captain accompanies her there from the checkpoint, so convinced is he that she is hiding something from him.
Alina is a multiple-award-winning film for many reasons. And it precedes the fascinating feature-length documentary The Lesson, which sees its Canadian première at Reel 2 Real.
Through the lens of German filmmaker Elena Horn, who herself grew up in Fröndenberg and went to Fröndenberg Comprehensive School, The Lesson is a personal look at how students in Germany are taught about the Holocaust. Over a five-year period, Horn followed a handful of students through their classes on the topic, their projects and field trips. She juxtaposes this perspective with archival footage from the 1930s, showing children doing paramilitary exercises, learning about what makes a good German and other propaganda. She also includes current-day nationalism and how some of the students deal with the differences between what they’re being taught in school about the Holocaust and what their families have told them about that period in time.
Horn frames the content in the context of overarching questions such as, could the Holocaust have been initiated by other countries just as easily as in Germany, or is there something inherent about Germany that allowed it to start there? She wonders if history is repeating itself, and she continues to struggle with the question, “What would I have done?” She highlights some of the efforts of those who refused to be bystanders to genocide, and she hopes to inspire some viewers to be courageous if, God forbid, they ever face such a choice.
For the full festival schedule and tickets, as well as information on Reel 2 Real’s several youth programs and workshops, visit r2rfestival.org.
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.
Niv Nissim, left, and John Benjamin Hickey co-star in Sublet, one of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival’s many offerings this year. (photo from facebook.com/subletfilm)
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival will take place exclusively online March 4-14. And, while you might think that COVID’s continued presence would necessitate a trimmed-down festival lineup, there are as many high-quality and diverse films being offered this year as in previous years. We give JI readers a small teaser of what’s to come, with more reviews in our next issue.
Sublet explores divides
In the film Sublet, a New York Times travel writer whose shtick is to get a feel for a city in just five days arrives in Tel Aviv. Michael (John Benjamin Hickey) has booked the apartment of film student Tomer (Niv Nissim) but, realizing the student has nowhere to go, the pair end up as temporary roommates.
The somewhat uptight middle-aged Ashkenazi American, standing out like a sore thumb in his semi-casual blazer, is contrasted with the hot-tempered, in-your-face young Sabra. The differences between the two men – and, by extension, between two generations of Jews, of gay (or, in Tomer’s case, possibly bisexual) men, of Israelis and Diaspora Jews – form the heart of the leisurely paced film. Just as Tomer ridicules Michael’s touristy ideas of Tel Aviv’s highlights, the cinematography captures the city at some of its grittiest best.
Is it a generational divide or a cultural one that has Tomer and Michael adopting wildly different sensibilities toward the tragedies of recent Jewish history and the experiences of gay men in the AIDS crisis, which Michael’s first book explored?
“It’s so depressing,” Tomer says of the AIDS pandemic. “Why does everything always have to go back to that?”
A more stark response – and one that is darkly humorous but startlingly confusing to Michael and perhaps many viewers – comes when one of Tomer’s friends is discussing fleeing Tel Aviv for a more successful artistic life in Berlin.
“It’s a bit odd that you’re moving to Germany, the place that symbolizes Jewish tragedy,” Michael observes. The Israeli pair pauses for a moment, then burst into hysterical laughter.
“Berlin’s, like, the coolest place,” Tomer assures Michael.
The theme of patrimony runs through the drama. Michael and his partner are struggling to find a surrogate for a baby they want to parent. Tomer, it turns out, is himself the product of a mother who chose the path of artificial insemination. Michael is wondering if he is getting too old to start afresh as a father. Tomer, in his clumsy way, may be struggling with the absence of his own paternal influences.
The bonds and divisions between generations, between conceptions of the past, between Israel and exile are explored but unresolved in this pleasant (if sometimes PG) film. The brief glimpse of Tomer’s hilariously awful horror film is just a bonus.
A shiva from hell
When her parents browbeat her into attending a shiva, Danielle does not expect to run into Maya. The two young women have an entwined past, so much so that other attendees can’t remember which one is which. The film Shiva Baby quickly turns into a subtly riotous adventure in the joys and drawbacks of tight-knit communities and the challenges of keeping secrets in a yenta-intensive environment.
Though their shared history is a source of immense awkwardness and brilliantly snarky sparring, for Danielle (Rachel Sennott), this shiva is a house of horrors. Having told so many lies to cover her failure to launch successfully into adulthood, every turn, every new face at the shiva, is an opportunity for sequential interrogations and fresh humiliation. It becomes an unintentional parlour game to piece together the variety of stories Danielle has told of changing majors, areas of specialization and plans for the future. Family, friends and acquaintances compare conflicting tales Danielle has woven over the years, creating an elaborate narrative of mostly imagined endeavours.
Her parents Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed) seem both oblivious dupes and co-conspirators in Danielle’s web of deceptions. The loving but exasperatingly overbearing parents add to their daughter’s discomfort time and again, leading to an understated climax that literally shoves Danielle’s bad choices in her own face.
This “comedy of discomfort” is a masterpiece of interfering adults and world-weary youth. The unifying bond between generations is a shared art for the backhanded compliment and straight-up insults. After Danielle spills coffee all over herself and a friend’s baby, her mother offers solace: “Well, thank God Sheila’s coffee is always lukewarm.”
Shiva Baby, a Canadian-American co-production, features a musical score that amusingly invokes the horror genre to emphasize the nightmare scenario in which Danielle finds herself, almost exclusively of her own design. Any awkwardness on the part of the viewer is alleviated by schadenfreude that whatever she has coming is probably well overdue.
A poster in Marseille, France, in July 2020, calling for Nasrin Sotoudeh’s release from prison.
The National Council of Jewish Women of Canada spotlighted the remarkable story of Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh during a showing of the eponymously titled film, Nasrin, on Jan. 10.
Narrated by actress Olivia Colman, the film takes us into Sotoudeh’s life in Tehran, where she has been a stalwart in defending a wide array of people: political activists, women who refused to wear a hijab, members of the religiously oppressed Baha’i faith, and prisoners sentenced to the death penalty for crimes allegedly committed while they were minors. Her work has come with a tremendous amount of personal sacrifice, including prolonged periods in jail.
Among the notable cases brought up in the film is that of Narges Hosseini, who, in 2018, stood on an electricity box on Tehran’s Revolution Street and removed her headscarf to protest Iran’s mandatory hijab law. She was immediately arrested, and Sotoudeh soon took up her cause. At her trial, the prosecutor claimed she was trying to “encourage corruption through the removal of the hijab in public.”
Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi is another of Sotoudeh’s clients. In 2010, Panahi was given a 20-year ban on making films, but he has nonetheless continued to create widely praised cinematic works, such as Taxi, in which he played a Tehran taxi driver – Sotoudeh was one of his passengers. The movie won the top prize at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival in 2015. Together with Sotoudeh, Panahi was co-winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2012.
And there is the unassuming hero we encounter in Sotoudeh’s husband, Reza Khandan. His unflagging loyalty to his wife and family is underscored throughout the film. He, too, has been imprisoned several times, most recently from September to December 2018, after he wrote about human rights violations in Iran on Facebook. He was accused of operating against Iran’s national security by backing the “anti-hijab” movement. Khandan currently faces a six-year prison sentence.
The film relies on secret footage, made possible by intrepid camerapeople within Iran who took on incredible risk to record Sotoudeh in both her professional and private lives. In the midst of filming, in June 2018, Sotoudeh was arrested for representing several women protesting Iran’s mandatory hijab law. Due to health concerns, she was briefly released from prison late last year, but has since been incarcerated again.
During Sotoudeh’s furlough, she was scheduled to undergo tests to monitor her heart. At one time, she was moved to intensive care in a Tehran hospital after a 46-day hunger strike, protesting the conditions political prisoners in Iran have to endure. She also has pressed for their release during the time of the pandemic.
Shortly before her own release from the Qarchak women’s prison, Sotoudeh contracted COVID-19 but has since recovered.
Following the film’s presentation, a panel discussion took place with the film’s director, Jeff Kaufman; its producer, Marcia Ross; activist Shaparak Shajarizadeh; and former Canadian minister of justice Irwin Cotler. The discussion was led by NCJWC president Debbie Wasserman.
“One of the intents of the film is to say it is not just about Sotoudeh and Iran, it is about applying her standards to our countries and ourselves. Let’s take her example and make it global,” said Kaufman.
The filmmakers said they wanted to tell Sotoudeh’s story because she personifies a commitment to democracy and justice, and represents the power of women to shape society. Further, Sotoudeh holds a deep conviction that people of all faiths and backgrounds deserve equal opportunity and protection.
Both Kaufman and Ross spoke of the extraordinary caution taken to preserve the anonymity and security of those shooting the footage in Iran.
Asked about her reaction upon seeing the screening, Shajarizadeh said, “I cried the whole time. We could see ourselves in every minute of the movement.” Shajarizadeh, who now resides in Canada, was a women’s rights activist and political prisoner in Iran – she fought against the country’s mandatory hijab law for women.
“Nasrin is not only the embodiment of human rights in Iran, but a looking-glass into the persecution of all those who are imprisoned in Iran,” Cotler said.
Cotler advocated for “showing the film as much as we can, and [to] have the sort of conversations we are having now, and mobilize the different constituencies that she has been helping.”
Ross said the film will be out later in the year on Amazon and iTunes.
Established in 1897, NCJWC is a voluntary organization dedicated to furthering human welfare in the Jewish and general communities locally, nationally and internationally. To learn more, visit ncjwc.org.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Mike Wallace is Here is one of the smartest and best documentaries of 2019. (photo from Cinando)
In the streaming universe, as with all entertainment, there’s the stuff that everyone watches and talks about. But that’s just the tip of a vast catalogue, a lot of it quite good, that doesn’t get the hype and the buzz. Here’s an eclectic list of accessible Jewish-themed movies that received some hosannas on their initial release. The more obscure (and great) Jewish films of recent years will be on a future list, since, alas, it appears we’ll have ample time to watch more after catching up with these.
The Zigzag Kid (j-flix): The Toronto Jewish Film Foundation has launched a free streaming platform, j-flix, with dozens of terrific recent fiction and documentary features and shorts. You could get lost there for weeks. I suggest you start with this irresistible, action-packed, family-friendly adventure about a precocious Dutch boy, adapted in 2011 by a Belgian director from Israeli author David Grossman’s novel.
The Women’s Balcony (Chai Flicks): Menemsha Films, the venerable U.S. distributor of Jewish-themed films from around the world, offers a free 30-day trial of their streaming platform. (A subscription will then run you $5.99 US a month.) Israeli director Emil Ben-Shimon and screenwriter Shlomit Nehama set their warm and wonderful romp in a small Orthodox congregation dislocated by structural damage to the shul.
Tel Aviv on Fire (Amazon Prime): Sameh Zoabi’s clever comedy about a Palestinian soap-opera writer trying to navigate the demands of both his bosses and an Israeli checkpoint commander will lift your spirits without insulting your IQ. Make a batch of hummus first.
1945 (Amazon Prime): This extraordinary black-and-white Hungarian film parlays the postwar arrival of two exhausted Jews at a small village into an exposé of guilt, betrayal, corruption and murder. One of the most acclaimed European films of 2017, 1945 is a gripping and haunting reckoning with dark history.
Mike Wallace is Here (Hulu): One of the smartest and best documentaries of 2019 examines, entirely through archival television footage, the ambitious journalist who made 60 Minutes essential viewing. Not a Jewish film, oddly enough, but a riveting one.
Disobedience (Amazon Prime): Sebastian Lelio’s taut, understated 2017 drama, adapted from Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s novel, is a remarkably nonjudgmental story that follows a volatile, adrift woman’s (Rachel Weisz) return to London after the death of her estranged father, an Orthodox rabbi. Community, identity, responsibility, sexuality – everything is on the table.
Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz (Netflix): The last surviving U.S. attorney from the Nuremberg trials has an impeccable memory, a spotless moral compass and enormous gravitas. If your fortitude is at a low ebb, Ben Ferencz will give you the strength to persevere.
A Serious Man (Netflix): The Coen Brothers’ most personal and most Jewish film, filmed in and around their childhood stomping grounds of Minneapolis-St. Paul, is a painfully hilarious moral fable guaranteed to provoke a cross-generational dinner table conversation. One politically incorrect question that this devious 2009 movie poses: Are Jews our own worst enemies?
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
The National Film Board of Canada (nfb.ca) offers a selection of some 4,000 short and feature-length films, whether you’re looking for animation, documentary or fiction. Explore the Cartoons for Kids section for the latest releases.
Enjoy searching the many choices available from the NFB, Jewish-related or not. Recently added titles include Where the Land Ends, a documentary feature by Loïc Darses, about the places that created Quebec, exploring the historical narrative, as a group of young people who were not old enough to vote in the 1995 referendum express their views; Ice Breakers, a documentary short by Sandi Rankaduwa on the Black athletes who helped pioneer modern hockey, through the story of Josh Crooks, an African-Canadian player; and The Great List of Everything, an animated webseries by comic book artists Cathon and Iris Boudreau, as well as Francis Papillon.
New films are being added to nfb.ca all the time, and they’re always free to view.
Yaniv Biton as Assi, left, and Kais Nashif as Salam in Tel Aviv on Fire, which screens Feb. 28 as part of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. (photo from Cohen Media Group)
Palestinian writer-director Sameh Zoabi achieves something altogether remarkable with his second feature film, particularly at this moment in time: he finds humour in the tattered relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.
“The whole idea of Tel Aviv on Fire is that we have more in common than we want to admit,” Zoabi said in an interview before his movie screened in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival last year. It screens on Feb. 28, 1 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas, as part of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, which runs Feb. 7-March 8.
“We have to break these stereotypes and talk about what’s in common between us and not what divides us,” he said. “Let’s remind people how humanity can prevail in times where the politics of post-Oslo is, ‘Let’s dehumanize the other to be able to survive.’ I want to do the opposite.”
A sharp, insightful and winning comedy that juxtaposes the delicious absurdity of melodrama with the real-life absurdity of the occupation, Tel Aviv on Fire centres on an underachiever, Salam, who works as a gofer on his uncle’s hit Palestinian soap opera. Through a barely plausible combination of chance, chutzpah and desperation, the shlemiel is elevated to writer. Then he runs afoul of the Israeli commander of the checkpoint he crosses every day, whose wife is a loyal fan of the show.
Salam has to use every iota of guile and cleverness to navigate the opposing agendas that he’s caught between – and to win back the heart of a woman he had dumped. (Even while he’s landing political japes, Zoabi cheerfully seizes every opportunity to lampoon the conventions of both soap operas and movies.)
One of nine children, Zoabi grew up in a village outside of Nazareth, where people went to his grandfather’s barbershop for his humorous stories as much as for a haircut.
“In general, my village is very funny,” Zoabi related. “That’s maybe why comedy has become very easy for me, because I grew up in a place where they don’t take anything seriously.”
Zoabi studied at Tel Aviv University and then at Columbia University in New York, where he discovered the need for Palestinian stories. Returning to Israel, he made a short film, Be Quiet, in 2005 and his feature debut, Man Without a Cell Phone, in 2010. Zoabi’s experience of receiving government funding was the genesis of Tel Aviv on Fire (2018).
“You take money from the Israelis, so suddenly you are watched immediately,” he explained. “Israelis are making sure you are not becoming too Palestinian for them. And the Palestinians are watching, ‘He took money, maybe he’s a sellout, he’s doing a comedy.’”
After presenting Tel Aviv on Fire at several international festivals, Zoabi debuted the film in Haifa and in Nazareth. It was equally well received by both audiences, which didn’t surprise him. But he did have an epiphany.
“All the screenings led to this moment,” Zoabi declared. “Finally I understood – people are fed up. People are fed up of the reality that exists, which is managing the occupation.
“[The film] reminds people of the possibility that used to exist, the feeling that we can be normal people and just get along. I think that’s a fantasy that existed among the Israelis, that we can eat hummus together in Damascus one day. But they aren’t able to see the occupation as a major reason for that not to happen.”
It’s a measure of Zoabi’s skill that the current-events commentary in Tel Aviv on Fire goes down easily for viewers across the political spectrum. The means to that success, in large measure, is Salam’s evolution of necessity from hapless underdog to diplomatic savant.
“I’m attracted to people who don’t wake up knowing what they really want,” Zoabi said. “I think they’re more inspirational for me than black-and-white [characters]. Actually, people who know exactly what they want terrify me. You can’t be so certain all the time.”
For his part, Zoabi grew up in a milieu of group interaction and lots of soap operas, because those were the only two channels the family had. He wasn’t exposed to art, theatre and film until his late teens.
“I always say I’m not an artist, really,” he confessed. “I’m probably a barber of a new era in my family.”
Tel Aviv on Fire is in Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles.
For the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival schedule, visit vjff.com.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Riva Krymalowski as Anna, in the film, which opens the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival Feb. 27. (photo from betacinema.com)
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival opens the night of Feb. 27 with the film When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which offers a peek at a pivotal event in writer and illustrator Judith Kerr’s life.
Kerr passed away just under a year ago, at her home in London, England, at the age of 95. She had dozens of children’s books to her credit, including The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Mog the Forgetful Cat; Mog became a series, ultimately totaling 17 picture books.
Born in Berlin, Kerr and her family – parents and older brother – fled Germany in 1933, in the days leading up to the election that brought Hitler into power. Her father, Alfred Kerr (né Kempner), a journalist and writer, was a vocal critic of the Nazis even at that time and was warned that the police were about to arrest him. The story of the family’s journey to Switzerland, then France and, ultimately, England, is told in the children’s book When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which was published in 1971.
The film, obviously, is based on that book, and it captures the fear, excitement, frustration and other feelings experienced by the family as a whole, but mainly by 10-year-old Judith – named Anna in both the book and film. We see that Anna copes, in part, by drawing and colouring pictures of disasters, such as a shipwreck or an avalanche. She, her brother and parents are close, thankfully, as they are uprooted more than once and the family unit is the only constant in their lives.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is both charming – the family’s interactions – and disturbing, in that the family is fleeing a danger that killed millions. It also raises current-day issues of what it means to be a refugee. Anna and her brother Max are given one night to pack. They are allowed one toy and two books. Anna’s choice of her stuffed dog over her pink rabbit gives the story its name.
Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit and Roberta Grossman’s documentary Who Will Write Our History were two standouts in Jewish film last year.
Last year was a busy one, but not a great one, for Jewish-related movies. There was plenty to see, but only a couple films – Jojo Rabbit and Uncut Gems – broke through the clutter to make an impact.
While Jewish characters were front and centre in high-profile TV shows – The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Kominsky Method and Broad City – in movies, they were largely relegated to glorified cameos, such as Al Pacino as old-school agent Marvin Schwars in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Alan Alda as menschy divorce attorney Bert Spitz in Marriage Story.
Jewish artists and celebrities were, as always, exceedingly popular among documentary makers. Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, televised on PBS’s American Masters, and Ask Dr. Ruth led the parade, which included less-widely-seen portraits of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen (Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love) and actor Anton Yelchin (Love, Antosha).
Picking a Top 10 was a bit of a challenge for 2019. Here are the films that left a mark.
Jojo Rabbit: The most ambitious and audacious film of the year was made by a Maori Jew from New Zealand. Taika Waititi, the director of Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, radically adapted Christine Leunens’ novel into a sharp satire of Nazi racism and groupthink that garnered the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle Award for best screenplay.
Who Will Write Our History: My only criticism of Jojo Rabbit is that it didn’t convey the depth of the Holocaust’s horror. Roberta Grossman’s artful documentary about the men and women in the Warsaw Ghetto who secretly amassed an archive of documents and diaries that would survive (if they didn’t) fills in a missing historical chapter for people of all ages. (See jewishindependent.ca/a-different-kind-of-resistance.)
Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz: The last surviving U.S. attorney from the Nuremberg trials has an impeccable memory, a spotless moral compass and enormous gravitas. This terrific doc serves as an inspiring counterpoint to Matt Tyrnauer’s slick biography of another Jewish lawyer from New York, Where’s My Roy Cohn?, who lacked an iota of integrity.
Uncut Gems: What makes Howard run? Jewelry hustler and compulsive gambler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler, impressively manic) races around New York City to keep his increasingly angry debtors at bay. En route, Benny and Josh Safdie’s nerve-jangling drama rips the Band-Aid off black-Jewish relations.
Mike Wallace is Here: Avi Belkin examines another iconic New York Jewish character, the penetrating TV journalist who made 60 Minutes essential viewing, entirely through archival TV footage. It is one of the smartest and best documentaries of 2019.
Synonyms: Nadav Lapid’s abrasive, semi-autobiographical drama about a self-loathing young Israeli army veteran’s effort to shed his identity in Paris won the Golden Bear for best film at the Berlin International Film Festival. It is painful and revealing, with some flashes of humour.
Tel Aviv on Fire: Sameh Zoabi’s clever comedy about a Palestinian soap opera writer trying to navigate the demands of his bosses and an Israeli checkpoint commander was one of nine (!) films with Jewish themes among the official submissions for the best international film Oscar.
Transit: German director Christian Petzold transposed Jewish novelist Anna Seghers’ 1944 story of refugees trying to flee France to an enigmatic time and place that has echoes of both the past and the present.
To Dust: Shawn Snyder’s debut feature explores the grief process through a Chassidic cantor (Geza Rohrig of Son of Saul) who wrangles a community college science professor (Matthew Broderick) into his obsessive investigation into how his wife’s body will return to dust. Meanwhile, his sons worry that he’s possessed by a dybbuk.
Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles: A crowd-pleasing, by-the-numbers doc about the historical (shtetl life) and literary (Sholem Aleichem) roots, creative development and enduring cross-cultural popularity of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. Formulaic, but Jewish through and through.
Some of the best films of the year won’t open in North America until 2020. The Ophir Award-winner Incitement powerfully dramatizes the life of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, leading up to his irreparable act. Roman Polanski’s well-reviewed portrayal of the Dreyfus affair, An Officer and a Spy, has opened across Europe but awaits a North American distributor (a long shot given the likelihood of protests and boycotts).
Czech director Vaclav Marhoul’s harrowing adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s Second World War-set novel The Painted Bird is also on European screens, with a U.S. release likely now that it was shortlisted for best international film. In that eventuality, look for it during its brief run – and on next year’s Top 10 list.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.