Alegría screens at the Rothstein Theatre March 19, and online March 19-26. (photo from vjff.org)
You can pick your friends, the old saying goes, but you can’t pick your family. For Alegría, a prerequisite of adulthood is distancing from relatives and interacting with them on her terms.
The vital 40-something protagonist of Alegría, screening in the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival (vjff.org), has deliberately carved out a self-centred existence in her quiet hometown of Melilla, a small Spanish city on the northern coast of Africa. Alegría (Cecilia Suárez) Facetimes with her kibbutznik daughter and directs the young Muslim woman who cooks and cleans for her, relishing her independence.
Warm colours and inviting interiors, however, signal from the outset that Alegría is going to be a story of connection rather than isolation, of love supplanting loneliness and redemption trumping regret. In her satisfying and touching feature debut, Spanish director and co-writer Violeta Salama’s generosity extends well beyond Alegría to the young women who enter her orbit.
But none of that is on the table when Alegría gets a call that her Orthodox brother, sister-in-law and niece are coming to Melilla for the latter’s wedding to a local guy. They plan to stay at Alegría’s place – the house where she and her brother grew up – invading her space and brushing the cobwebs from her dormant Sephardi Jewish identity.
Alegría has literally sealed off the past – mezuzot, photos, furniture and menorot behind a locked door. Secular to the point of caustic irreverence, Alegría views her assimilation as an emblem of freedom and enlightened coexistence. Bit by bit, though, she will realize that she has denied a core component of her character.
Alegría doesn’t define herself in terms of or in reaction to men, and hasn’t for a long time. Yet the tough love, bordering on lack of empathy, that this stalwart feminist evinces for Yael, the bride, and Dunia, her part-time housekeeper, is shocking.
Yael is used to obeying her father but is beginning to doubt the merits of transferring that acquiescence to her soon-to-be husband. Dunia’s brother, the head of that household, stands in the way of her dream of studying drawing in Paris.
Women escaping the constraints, and embracing the ties, of family has long been the stuff of melodrama. But the filmmaker adopts a lighter tone with humorous bits that undercut the seriousness with which the characters take their respective situations.
“I’d cut my foot off before stepping into a synagogue,” Alegría proclaims in a seemingly unambiguous rejection of ritual, tradition and faith. But when she visits the rabbi to reserve the mikvah for the bride and Yael’s mother, their banter suggests that he and Alegría had a youthful romance (while opening the window to a potential future relationship). The synagogue, therefore, doesn’t represent a religious institution or unhappy family memories to Alegría. It’s just a reminder of who she used to be – or, more accurately, who she is.
One of the pleasures of Alegría is that it unfolds in a calm, civilized setting that feels like an oasis. No sirens or boom boxes jangle our nerves, and the family feudings rarely require the raising of voices.
Salama told an interviewer when she was completing the film in 2021: “To create Alegría’s world, I wanted to steer away from the realism of life in a border town, a major port, instead setting her down in the world of my childhood. I want to share the city as I see it, the city I carry inside me, and so I recreated certain moments where the focus is entirely on these seemingly very different women who share the same problems and contradictions.”
To that end, the centrepiece of the film is an overnight outing to Dunia’s grandmother’s house, just over the border in Morocco, where the women cook, dance and toss an impromptu bachelorette party for Yael. They are free to live on their terms, fully self-sufficient, with no men in sight.
Alegría offers some passing yet pointed critiques of patriarchal autocracy, and the male characters are relegated to the edges of the frame. This is what used to be disparagingly called a “woman’s picture,” because it centres women’s demands – to be who they want to be – and desires – to avail themselves of every opportunity. The most gratifying aspect, however, is that the movie’s spirit of cooperation and, yes, coexistence ultimately touches every character.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
In March ’68, the shocking events of the Polish political and social crisis of that time are dramatized through the eyes of two families. Hania, a young woman who is Jewish, is in love with Janek, a boy whose father is a member of the nomenklatura, a senior official whose career is endangered by the political activism his son is dabbling in.
But careers are only one of the concerns for Jewish Poles, whose very identities as citizens of the country are in jeopardy, as the society spirals with a chilling and apparent suddenness into antisemitic frenzy. The blatant antisemitism is masqueraded as an “anti-Zionist” campaign and a defence against “non-Polish” elements.
Poland was in a financial panic, with wage reductions and assorted economic turmoil. Events spiraled after the expulsion from the university of political dissidents and the closure of a theatre presentation deemed anti-government. No prerequisites are required. The film, from director Krzysztof Lang, tells the viewer all they need to know about the history – and the petty and not-so-petty indignities of living under a repressive regime.
Through the braying voices of the country’s communist leaders and parallel street-level Jew-baiting, the status of Jewish Poles deteriorates rapidly and Hania’s family is faced with a choice for their future.
This Romeo and Juliet story is endearingly told against the heartbreaking backdrop of generational divisions that were tearing at families all over the world in 1968, a microcosm of the larger tumult. In Poland, these divisions were exacerbated by a social contagion that forced an exodus of much of the tiny remnant of post-Shoah Polish Jews, a disappearance that is emotionally depicted in black-and-white at the end of the film.
* * *
Lost Transport opens like a war-era cinematic news short, an elementary map of Europe being encroached by Allied forces from the West and Red Army movements from the east.
As the Soviets advanced, the Nazis selected from among the prisoners at Bergen-Belsen a few thousand of what they called Austauschjuden, “exchange Jews,” who they imagined to be of particular value to the Allies and who, as a result, the Nazis intended to barter for German prisoners of war or money. Almost 7,000 inmates, in three train transports, were being moved from the advancing front. A train bound for Theresienstadt (now in Czechia) encountered a blown-up bridge and was stranded near the German town of Tröbitz. Within days, the incarcerated passengers were liberated by the Red Army (and, later, by Americans).
Lost Transport demonstrates the chaos and confusion of liberation for the Jewish passengers and defeat for the German residents.
It seems a tactless quibble with these sorts of dramatizations to note that healthy actors are obligated to believably depict the victims of atrocities, but in this instance the task seems particularly stark, with almost all of the liberated people well-clothed, clean, remarkably well-groomed and bright-eyed.
The story is viewed primarily through the eyes of Isaac and Simone, a Dutch couple liberated from the train; Vera, a Russian sniper; and Winnie, a young German woman who sees her mother shot by the Red Army and her home taken over by the other main figures in the film. The characterizations are often cardboard – the individuals are rough stand-ins for their respective peoples – and the script ham-fisted. The three women eventually see one another’s humanity (even if the viewer struggles to do so) and the resolution is almost painfully perfect.
March ’68 and Lost Transport screen as part of this year’s Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. For tickets and the full festival lineup, visit vjff.org.
A 1923 studio portrait of the In zikh (Introspectivist) poetry group. Celia Dropkin is surrounded by (clockwise from bottom left): Jacob Stodolsky, Aaron Glanz-Leyeles, B. Alquit, Mikhl Likht, N.B. Minkoff and Jacob Glatstein. (photo from Yiddishkayt)
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival is welcoming audiences back to the theatre this year. Screenings take place at Fifth Avenue Cinemas March 9-16 and the Rothstein Theatre March 17-19, with some films streaming online March 19-26. Here is but a sampling of the many festival offerings. For the full lineup and tickets, visit vjff.org.
Poetry that burns
As much as the world has progressed in the last century, Celia Dropkin’s unabashedly sexual, emotionally raw, intense, even violent, poems would cause a stir today. Most of her poems are short but powerful, saying things that still would not be said in polite company. A new film, a work-in-progress, offers insight into Dropkin’s life and the circumstances that fueled her creativity, love, anger, imagination.
Burning Off The Page: The Life and Art of Celia Dropkin, an Erotic Yiddish Poet will make its public debut at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. Scheduled to be at the screening are local film director and co-producer Eli Gorn and author Faith Jones, who is featured in the film, which includes comments from several writers/scholars and musicians, as well as from some of Dropkin’s relatives. Bracha (Bee) Feldman is the writer and co-producer of the documentary.
Dropkin was born in Belarus in 1887. Her father died when she was little, leaving her mom, a young woman, with two small kids to raise, “mostly resolved to become No One’s wife.… So my mother’s concealed, hot ache / rushed, as from an underground spring / freely in me. And now her holy / latent lust, spurts frankly from me,” writes Dropkin in her poem “My Mother.”
Unconventional views of motherhood were among the many unique aspects of Dropkin’s writings – she had six children herself, one dying in infancy. She was also greatly influenced by a dead-end love affair with Hebrew writer Uri Nissan Gnessin, who she met in her late teens. In 1909, she ended up marrying Samuel (Shmaye) Dropkin, who, because of his political activities, had to flee Russia to the United States a year later; she and their first son joined him in New York in 1912.
In New York, Dropkin was part of the burgeoning Yiddish cultural scene in the 1920s and ’30s. Despite the acclaim she received for her avant-garde work, she never garnered the respect her male counterparts did, and was criticized for depicting women as sexual beings. She struggled with depression, and wrote about it and the dark sides of love. Dropkin died in 1956, having spent the last years of her life painting – a talent for which she also had.
Burning Off the Page is a captivating mix of Dropkin’s poetry, talking heads, music, illustrations, archival photos and videos. (CR)
Life in the “new world”
In iMordecai, Fela (Carol Kane) and Judd Hirsch (Mordecai) are an adorable old couple living the retiree life in south Florida. Their son, Marvin, may or may not be a complete schlemiel (as Mordecai puts it) but each member of the family is dealing with their own stuff.
In a charming opening, Mordecai’s birth in a Polish shtetl is recounted and his memories of the past – including the chasm created in his family by the invasion of Poland and the Holocaust – are cast in striking animation. The family’s real life is also a bit cartoonish – as are the characterizations. Kane, who in this film and elsewhere seems incapable of not being hilarious, is a sweet old bubbe always with a side-eye for any of the other women in town who might be trying to steal her man – after 50 years of apparent devotion. Mordecai is struggling to remember the past while adapting to new technologies – thus the ironic title – and in the process makes friends with a young woman, Nina (played by Azia Dinea Hale), whose own family has its very specific issues.
Although the subjects are sometimes bleak, the film is a breezy dramedy. When Marvin (Sean Astin) explains to his father that Fela is experiencing dementia, the response is subdued brilliance.
“It means that her mind isn’t working like it used to,” says Marvin.
“So, whose is?” the father replies.
There are themes of split personalities, of apples falling not far from trees, and of intriguing coincidences – including running into an old neighbour from Canarsie in the “new world” of Florida. This forces Mordecai to kill off the imaginary brother he invented (it makes sense in the film) for comedic gold.
iMordecai isn’t going to win best picture, but it is a fun and sometimes poignant confection that veers from cheezy to charming to slapstick. When it gets serious, it gets a bit shlocky but damned if the final scene doesn’t get you in the throat. (PJ)
Maintaining a legacy
The stress and anxiety are palpable as Greg Laemmle is forced to consider selling his business, which has been in the family more than 80 years and which is an L.A. institution. But director/producer Raphael Sbarge didn’t start out to make a documentary of this crucial moment in 2019 – and what came after. He was simply interested in the history of the Laemmle family, which goes back to Hollywood’s beginnings.
“Though we had no idea where this film was headed, Only In Theatres took on a life of its own through changing markets and slipping sales,” writes Sbarge on the film’s website. “Then, the pandemic hit and the Laemmle story became the microcosm of the macrocosm – theatres were forced to ask big questions about resilience and viability. The entire Laemmle Theatre chain closed for more than 16 months, and many never reopened. We were able to witness the Laemmles’ extraordinary challenges and triumphs during what was the most tumultuous and emotional 24-month period in the theatre’s history.”
Laemmle Theatres was established in 1938 by brothers Kurt and Max Laemmle, who were nephews of Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures. The next generations to run the theatres were Max’s son, Robert, and Robert’s son, Greg, who has three sons. The cinemas were apparently groundbreaking in Los Angeles for screening independent and foreign films, and Only In Theatres sets Laemmle’s in the context of the importance of film in general, and arthouse cinemas specifically. He interviews many filmmakers, who talk about the movies that inspired them and the value of seeing a movie in a theatre, of having that collective experience.
Only In Theatres begins with how Greg and his wife Tish met, and gets into the family’s history. Among the interviewees is Greg’s (at the time) 103-year-old great-aunt Alyse, who was married to Kurt and was there when the legacy began.
In July 2019, after a bad year, Greg Laemmle must decide whether to sell that legacy. It is a gut-wrenching choice on many levels and, after months of agonizing over it, considering various purchase offers, he decides he can’t let go. Less than three months later, COVID hits.
Only In Theatres is both a love letter to arthouse cinemas, and an insight into the burden of legacy and how all the accolades in the world don’t pay the bills. If you truly want a business you love to succeed, then show ’em the money. That’s the support that ultimately matters. (CR)
Tradition vs. modernity
Against the magnificent backdrop of the Italian countryside, a family of French Orthodox Jews arrives on an annual two-week sojourn to inspect citrons to be packaged and distributed as etrogs for Sukkot.
Where Life Begins picks up the story of two families – the Italian Catholic farmers and the French Jews – who go back a long way. This year, though, Esther (played by Lou de Laâge), the 26-year-old and still unmarried (!) daughter of the French Zelnik family, is engaged in a profound internal struggle with her faith. She is bridling against the constraints of her religious obligations. At the same time, Elio (Riccardo Scamarcio), one of the sons of the original farm family and now in charge of orchard operations, is questioning the obligations to the land that have befallen him.
The French/Italian, Catholic/Jewish dichotomies are gently juxtaposed but the more powerful contradictions and stressors have to do with separation from family – literal in Elio’s case, figurative but no less wrenching in Esther’s. More immediately, both are confronting their lives in terms of the footprints of the past and the futures they envision for themselves. Each aches for a different path but to embark on it would require a massive break with expectations and everything they have known.
This annual pilgrimage is a tradition made extra festive by the singing and dancing of Georgian migrant farm workers. The joyfulness of the foreigners from the east may not prove that happiness is something one has to travel to find, but it suggests that uprooting from familiar surroundings need not be all grief and loneliness either.
The narrative of Where Life Begins is not an original storyline. Tradition and modernity in conflict; family obligations versus self-actualization; the possibility of forbidden love: these are among the oldest themes in literature and film. Handling these topics with originality and artfulness is what makes or breaks a film like this. This movie does it with nuance and absent simplistic tropes. The southern Italian landscape makes the whole thing easy on the eyes. (PJ)
Last Flight Home follows Air Florida founder Eli Timoner’s last weeks of life. (still from film)
The Vancouver International Film Festival opens Sept. 29, and this year’s festival will be impressive, if the releases reviewed by the Independent are any indication.
Last Flight Home, a very personal and moving documentary written and directed by Ondi Timoner, will have viewers in tears. It will also have viewers contemplating mortality, family and what makes life full and worth living.
The film follows the last weeks of Timoner’s father Eli’s life. No stranger to hardship – he had been paralyzed on his left side since a stroke almost 40 years earlier – a bedridden 92-year-old Eli tells his family he wants to die. Immediately. Living in California, he could make that choice, and does make that choice. Once he passes the state assessment, the required 50-day waiting period begins.
During this time, Eli says his goodbyes to his wife, kids, grandkids and other relatives, to friends and to former employees. He offers advice and, with the help of those whose lives have been made better by his existence, he comes to love himself, finally shedding, after decades, the shame he felt at not being what he considered a good provider for his family. Before his stroke, he had been a wealthy businessman – founder and head of Air Florida – but, afterward, he and his wife had to declare bankruptcy and money was tight from then on.
Thankfully, Eli had those 50 days. While it was sad that he didn’t know how successful he really was in life until he chose to die, at least he did die knowing that he had loved and that he was loved.
* * *
The Israeli film Karaoke, written and directed by Moshe Rosenthal, also deals with mortality and late-in-life realizations. Long-married couple Meir and Tova have long lost their passion for each other and, really, for living. It takes the arrival of a new neighbour, Itsik, to bring out both the best and worst in them and in their relationship.
Itsik is rich and confident, a player in every sense of the word. While his loud karaoke parties annoy most everyone in the building, the residents who gain the privilege of an invitation feel not only special, but a little superior, more worldly, as they open themselves up to the possibilities that Itsik embodies.
Billed as a comedy, Karaoke is more cringey than funny, and the musical score even makes it seem creepy at times, as does the pacing and lighting. That said, the acting is excellent and it does have some funny moments. As well, the messages are refreshing: love can be reignited and you can have adventures at any age.
* * *
To make the 15-minute short Killing Ourselves, Israeli filmmaker Maya Yadlin took her parents and sister to the desert. According to her bio, this is something Yadlin often does – make movies about and starring her family. The result in this case is a delightful, amusing peek into their relationships. Most viewers will appreciate the interactions, with her parents both begrudgingly and proudly helping “film student” Yadlin with her homework and her sister, an actress, coming along for the ride – and the work.
A still from Ahed’s Knee, which screens at Vancity Theatre March 25, 26 and 28. The movie – which won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – is about a celebrated Israeli filmmaker named Y, who arrives in a remote desert village to present one of his films at a local library. Struggling to cope with the recent news of his mother’s terminal illness, he is pushed into a spiral of rage when the host of the screening, a government employee, asks him to sign a form placing restrictions on what he can say at the film’s Q&A. Told over the course of one day, the film depicts Y as he battles against the loss of freedom in his country and the fear of losing his mother.
Lance Henriksen, left, and Viggo Mortensen in Falling. (photo from indiewire.com)
In February 2016, the Jewish Independent published my column “Dementia, cinema’s darling,” in which I reviewed seven films about people struggling with dementia. Well, here we go again! This pandemic year has seen the release of four extraordinary films that feature people struggling with the symptoms of dementia, those with the illness and those who are close to them.
These films opened my eyes not only to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, but also how the affected persons perceive what is happening around them and how that altered reality affects loved ones and family members. After having watched these four unique films, I feel like I have taken a course in how dementia evolves, and how it feels to suffer through the gradual deterioration of the self. I have been shocked, educated and enriched by these moving works of art.
Falling (2021): Viggo Mortensen writes, directs and stars in this lacerating drama about a son dealing with his father’s mental decline. Lance Henriksen plays the father Willis, a foul-tempered, bigoted man, filled with intolerance and invective. His meanness is hard to watch. The flashbacks inform us of the subdued menace of Willis, they scrape your senses like sandpaper. John, the son (Mortensen), must call on all his reserves of patience, understanding and love to withstand the onslaught. (I watched it on TIFF Bell Lightbox, but do a Google search to see where it is streaming now.)
The Father (2021): French writer and first-time director Florian Zeller presents a frightening new angle with this movie, which aims to mirror the confusion and discomfort of encroaching dementia. Anthony Hopkins, 83 years old, takes us from the realm of sympathy to empathy. It is disturbing and brilliant. Hopkins, as the father, nails the way in which people learn to cover for their mental mistakes. The supporting cast is excellent, and Hopkins won the best-actor Oscar for his depiction of a mind in decline. (It is on TIFF, but do a Google search.)
Supernova (2020): Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth dazzle as a couple facing their fears. Tusker and Sam have been together for decades. The careers of both have been put on hold because Tusker has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. They set out on a road trip. Harry Macqueen, the director, has created a drama about love and mortality. The northern English scenery is stunning, as are the performances of these two people stoically accepting mortality. (It is on TIFF and is also accessible on Apple TV+ and perhaps elsewhere.)
Two of Us (2021): An older lesbian couple is met with unexpected devastation in the aching romantic drama by Filippo Meneghetti. Nina (German actress Barbara Sukowa) and Madeleine (Martine Chevallier) have waited decades to love one another freely. They are preparing to leave France for new beginnings in Rome. First, Madeleine must come out to her children before realizing her dream, but tragedy strikes before she can speak her truth. Sukowa is ferociously great as a woman whose devotion is as fierce as her determination to drag her lover into a more honest life. This is a film of profound intimacy between two people. In French with English subtitles. (It is available at TIFF Bell Lightbox.)
Dolores Luber, a retired psychotherapist and psychology teacher, is editor-in-chief of Jewish Seniors Alliance’s Senior Line magazine. She works out four times a week, studies Modern Hebrew twice a week, and is constantly reading books and watching movies. Her motto is “Never underestimate an old lady who can deadlift you.”
Kamil Whaley-Kalaora stars as the title character in Malka Martz-Oberlander’s David Michael Frankel Feinstein-Goldberg and the Unbarmitzvah. (screenshot)
It was a rainy day near the beginning of the pandemic. Sourdough was in the oven, Zoom was new and fun and spirits were higher. That’s when I found out I’d won the Earl Parker Award and I’d get to make my film for the Edmonton Jewish Film Festival. Little did I know I would have to go through months of hurdles, Plan B ideas and cast my entire family to get my film made.
A few months prior, my mom had passed me the Jewish Independent and showed me the notice for a film award at the Edmonton Jewish Film Festival. At the time, I was co-directing a musical, directing a film and finishing my applications for universities, so I didn’t think much of it. But, I am very glad I eventually picked up that notice and applied to the competition because it changed the course of my path.
Last year was tough in a thousand ways. The pandemic hit everyone differently and, no doubt, we will all have lifelong effects because of it. When I originally pitched my film, David Michael Frankel Feinstein-Goldberg and the Unbarmitzvah, in 2020, I had a vision that could only have been actualized pre-pandemic. I adapted it and changed things to meet the constraints of the circumstances and I truly did my best to pull it off in a safe way for the entire cast and crew. One of the changes I had to make was to cast solely from within my bubble and community, which was not what I had originally planned to do.
I normally cast my films through Vancouver Actor’s Guide, UBC ACTRA and Facebook film & TV pages, but, instead, I ended up casting my parents as two of the main characters. As much as they are incredibly charismatic and intelligent people, they’re both doctors, not actors the stature of a Leonardo DiCaprio. So, performing was a big challenge for them and, vice versa, for me directing them. That being said, it was a fantastic experience for me to learn how to produce a film under circumstances that many filmmakers haven’t had to face.
In the early stages, I had a few moments when I felt selfish and embarrassed to want to make films during a literal plague. How could I have the chutzpah to be making dumb little comedy films while millions of people have died and more are dying? Why should I worry if my lenses are going to work for a scene while people are saying goodbye to their loved ones on iPads?
But then it dawned on me just how much we rely on art and story for our own sanity. We tell our children stories from the moment they are born, and we offer and receive stories to our last day on earth. We humans are, at our core, storytelling creatures. In moments of darkness we turn, time and time again, to art to save us. We are drawn to an astonishing multitude of fictions – on pages, on stages and on screens; stories of murder, love, war, conspiracies; stories fictional and true.
We are obsessed with story, but our obsession runs deeper than we think. We can walk away from our books and our screens, but story is like gravity: an inescapable force field that influences everything, but is so omnipresent that we hardly notice it. We’re social creatures and, with the added challenge of isolation, art has become a tool for staying connected with one another.
I’m now finishing up my first year at film school, in Capilano University’s Motion Picture Arts Program, where I have been learning invaluable skills and refining my knowledge and abilities in writing, directing and producing. With the vaccination rollout well underway and more knowledge and experience of how to safely work together in-person, I am ready to see what’s next for film and storytelling. I hope you are, too.
My film David Michael Frankel Feinstein-Goldberg and the Unbarmitzvah screened at the Edmonton Jewish Film Festival on May 2 and I will be speaking on a panel of past Earl Parker Award winners on May 9, 11 a.m., on Zoom (meeting ID 846 7697 0846). To view the film, visit jewishedmonton.org/festival-news; after the festival, it will be publicly available on Vimeo.
Malka Martz-Oberlanderis a 19-year-old screenwriter, film and theatre director and actress, currently “squatting” at her parents’ house in Vancouver, the unceded territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam peoples. Her website is malkamo.wixsite.com/film. She thanks the Edmonton Jewish Film Festival and the Earl Parker Award for their kindness and generosity in making David Michael Frankel Feinstein-Goldberg and the Unbarmitzvah possible during such an unpredictable time for artists.
Seu Jorge, left, and Noah Schnapp in a still from Abe. (image from Reel 2 Real)
The upcoming Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth is not just for youth, though younger viewers are its target audience. There are entertaining and engaging films for all ages among the 18 features and 45 shorts that will be available for streaming online April 14-23.
The focus of this year’s festival is “films that explore the impact of social media, racism and discrimination, with a focus on Germany.” While many of the offerings will interest Jewish community members, at least four cover topics of specific relevance.
The American feature Abe was part of the recent Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. It is carried by the impressive acting of Noah Schnapp as 12-year-old Abe and that of Seu Jorge as Chico, the Brazilian-American chef that Abe idolizes. The food, glorious food, is an added bonus.
While the writing of Abe’s family dynamics is clunky and without nuance – his father’s side is Muslim, his mother’s Jewish, and never the twain shall meet on religion or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – Abe himself is charming. He puts his heart into trying to bring everyone together, in part, by creating a fancy dinner that comprises several of his grandmothers’ traditional recipes. The grumpy but caring Chico helps, having reluctantly taken Abe in, first as a dishwasher then as one of his prep cooks.
Food doesn’t turn out to be the way to his family members’ hearts but the disastrous fusion meal, which ends in a big fight and Abe running away, does push his family to at least reconsider their priorities.
In another charming film, the young also show the adults the possible way to some form of peace. In the Israeli animated short Cinema Rex, the Jewish boy Mouize and the Arab girl Ranin become friends over popcorn and a shared love of cinema.
Set in Jerusalem in 1938, a new movie theatre opens, “In the heart of the city, on the seam line between the Jewish side and the Arab side, and adjacent to the British police.” It is “co-owned by partners from both sides of [the] divided city” and Mouize’s dad is the projectionist. When Mouize catches a glimpse of someone peeking into the projection room, he follows the trail of popcorn to Ranin, who shares it with him in exchange for a seat beside him in the best seats in the house. The two imagine themselves as the heroes in Robin Hood, as actors in a Laurel and Hardy film, dancers in a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, and more.
Ranin’s mother is non-plused to find her daughter hanging out with Mouize, and Mouize’s dad tries to tell him, “Someday, you’ll understand why you and she can’t be friends.” But the kids have none of it.
Beautifully drawn and a story simply told – in Arabic, English and Hebrew with English subtitles – this short is highly recommended viewing.
A more serious and nerve-wracking short is the tension-filled American film Alina. For 25 minutes, breathing will be more difficult, as the fate of a three-month-old baby lies in the hands of Alina (played by Alia Shawkat). The non-Jewish woman is part of a group of women (and men, as her brother helps) who are smuggling Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust.
Inspired by factual events, but fictional, the film opens as Nazi soldiers kick their way into a building and make their way up each floor, searching every room for children, with orders to seize them. Alina must escape from an upper-level apartment with the baby through the bathroom window, using a makeshift rope of tied sheets. She must then meet her brother, make it through a checkpoint and even face Nazi soldiers in her own home, as a Nazi captain accompanies her there from the checkpoint, so convinced is he that she is hiding something from him.
Alina is a multiple-award-winning film for many reasons. And it precedes the fascinating feature-length documentary The Lesson, which sees its Canadian première at Reel 2 Real.
Through the lens of German filmmaker Elena Horn, who herself grew up in Fröndenberg and went to Fröndenberg Comprehensive School, The Lesson is a personal look at how students in Germany are taught about the Holocaust. Over a five-year period, Horn followed a handful of students through their classes on the topic, their projects and field trips. She juxtaposes this perspective with archival footage from the 1930s, showing children doing paramilitary exercises, learning about what makes a good German and other propaganda. She also includes current-day nationalism and how some of the students deal with the differences between what they’re being taught in school about the Holocaust and what their families have told them about that period in time.
Horn frames the content in the context of overarching questions such as, could the Holocaust have been initiated by other countries just as easily as in Germany, or is there something inherent about Germany that allowed it to start there? She wonders if history is repeating itself, and she continues to struggle with the question, “What would I have done?” She highlights some of the efforts of those who refused to be bystanders to genocide, and she hopes to inspire some viewers to be courageous if, God forbid, they ever face such a choice.
For the full festival schedule and tickets, as well as information on Reel 2 Real’s several youth programs and workshops, visit r2rfestival.org.
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.