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.
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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.
Image from 1341 Frames of Love and War, a photo by Micha Bar-Am.
Photographer Micha Bar-Am, now 92, is considered perhaps the foremost visual chronicler of Israeli history. In 1341 Frames of Love and War, filmmaker Ran Tal creates what amounts to a family reminiscence among Bar-Am, his wife Orna and sons Barak and Nimrod, complete with snippy retorts and full-throated arguments. All of this is set against thousands of Bar-Am’s photos, creating a barrage to the senses of blown-up buses, dancing hippies, funerals and the scope of Israeli life captured in still photos. The family, whose voices make up the narration of the documentary, are seen only in the pictures.
Although Bar-Am was present to immortalize in images the Eichmann trial and the liberation of the Western Wall, his work is mostly of ordinary Israeli people and events, including war, which has been all too “ordinary” for the country and its people. The photos predictably begin in black-and-white – the first colour photo in the film appears during the 1967 war, perhaps not merely a sign of changing technology but also of the before and after times of the occupation.
A photo from the time – an image Bar-Am captured of a soldier praying at the newly liberated Kotel – is a prism through which Micha and Orna chronicle their own changing views of their country. The soldier had fashioned an ammunition belt into a makeshift prayer shawl. Orna explains how they loved the photo at first, apparently as a symbol of resistance and survival. After a few years, they came to detest it as a representation of the connection between religion and power. Now, in their later years, they are agnostic about the thing.
“That’s how it was then,” Orna says. “We don’t have to feel love or hate toward it. That’s how it was.”
Bar-Am acknowledges that he was a shy young man and the camera was an excuse to get closer to things, to understand people better. Through his eyes, and the immortality of his images, Israelis and others can perhaps view themselves and the world around them more closely.
The film is an intimate exploration into the work of a legendary craftsman and, through him, a snapshot into the past.
For the full film festival schedule, visit viff.org.
A still from the film The Forger, starring Louis Hofmann.
The 41st Vancouver International Film Festival takes place Sept. 29-Oct. 9, 2022. This year, the Jewish Independent is the media sponsor of The Forger (directed by Maggie Peren, Germany/Luxembourg), so we’re doing a draw for free tickets to one of the screenings!
Email [email protected] by Sept. 23, 2022, to be entered in a draw for the Thursday, Oct. 6, 1:15 p.m., screening at International Village 9.
Synopsis of the film: Based on a true story, Cioma Schönhaus, a young Jewish man living in 1942 Berlin, works at a munitions factory until he’s recruited by a former Nazi bureaucrat to forge passports for Jewish people to escape the country. Cioma waltzes through Berlin with reckless abandon, impersonating military personnel even as he risks discovery by the Gestapo. Adapting the story from Schönhaus’s memoir, director Maggie Peren gives her film the same immaculate attention to detail as Cioma does his forgeries, contrasting the dimly lit Berlin of Jewish people struggling with food rations with the decadence of the Nazis. The film balances the playful atmosphere of his ingenuity against the sombre backdrop of Nazi Germany and the looming danger he faces.
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.
A still from the feature film Charlotte, about artist Charlotte Salomon.
The creative drive that some people have astounds me. In about a year-and-a-half, as the Holocaust closed in on her – and her family’s history of depression became known to her – Charlotte Salomon painted hundreds of works, telling her life story in images and words, in what is considered by many, apparently, as the first graphic novel.
Somehow, despite the artist having inspired a live action film, a documentary feature, an opera, a novel, a ballet and several plays, I’d never heard of her, or of her masterpiece, Life? Or Theatre? That is, until I watched the animated feature film Charlotte, a Canada-France-Belgium collaboration that was just released. Featured at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, Charlotte has two screenings at the Vancouver International Film Festival: Oct. 3, 3 p.m., and Oct. 6, 9:15 p.m., at Vancouver Playhouse.
Based on the story and the cast, the Jewish Independent chose to be a media sponsor of the local screenings. And, on these points, the film scores high. Led by Oscar nominee Keira Knightley as the voice of Charlotte, the actors do a formidable job with dialogue that is, at times, stilted and animation that is pretty basic, with the exception of the scenes and transitional pieces that depict Salomon’s artwork. These parts of the film are sumptuous and give the most sense of Salomon as a person and artist.
The film begins near the end of Salomon’s life, as she is handing over her paintings to a man, who we find out later is a local doctor and friend, in what we later find out is the south of France. She asks him to guard the paintings for her, as they are her life, almost literally, given their content. The narrative then jumps to Berlin, to a young Charlotte trying to comfort a woman who is ill and sad. The woman turns out to be Charlotte’s mother, who dies, the young girl is told, of influenza.
Jumping ahead, still in Berlin, Charlotte’s father, Albert, has married Paula Lindberg, an opera singer, through whom, incidentally, a teenage Charlotte meets her first love, Alfred Wolfsohn, who is a singing teacher. He is also a veteran of the First World War.
Wolfsohn has a lot of personal issues, to say the least, and he ultimately betrays Charlotte, but he is also strongly supportive of her being an artist. While she gains entrance to Berlin’s art academy, despite being Jewish – it is 1933 and the Nazis are now in power – she is expelled pretty soon thereafter, though whether that’s because of her nonconformity to the artistic norms taught at the school, her Jewishness or both, is not clear.
What is certain is that, after Kristallnacht, the violence against Jews in Berlin has become unavoidable and Charlotte’s parents send her to the south of France to take refuge, and care for her maternal grandparents. Her grandmother is a troubled woman and her grandfather is, in a word, an asshole, but Charlotte finds beauty in her friendship with a wealthy American, Ottilie Moore, who owns a villa in Villefranche, and in her relationship with fellow refugee Alexander Nagler, whom she marries eventually.
When Moore returns to the United States, she offers to try and take Charlotte and Alexander with her, but they stay in France – Charlotte because of her sense of duty to her grandparents. It is in caring for them that she witnesses the tragedy of her grandmother’s suicide and finds out from her grandfather that mental illness runs in the family, having claimed the lives of Charlotte’s mother, aunt and several other relatives.
Spurred on by the potential that she, too, will fall ill, as well as by the Nazis’ proximity, Charlotte turns her focus to creating the almost 800 paintings that comprise Life? or Theatre? She manages to give them (and other works, it seems) to Dr. Georges Moridis, who she had consulted about her own health and who had tried to help her grandparents, before she and Alexander are seized by the Nazis. Both Charlotte and Alexander are killed at Auschwitz; Charlotte five months pregnant.
The film, which isn’t shy about showing some of the brutality of the Holocaust, does step back from showing the deaths in Auschwitz, leaving viewers instead with an image of the idyllic setting in which they lived in France, as we hear the noises of their arrest, then silence.
Before the credits, the filmmakers tell us what happened to Charlotte, Alexander and Ottolie, and show us clips of a real-life archival interview with Charlotte’s father and stepmother, who survived the Holocaust, as well as a sampling of Charlotte’s paintings.
As depressing as Charlotte’s story is, it is not a depressing movie. That she anticipated her demise and created an artistic legacy in the face of death is somehow uplifting. As producer Julia Rosenberg states in the film’s production notes, “… hope isn’t rainbows and unicorns. It’s finding the courage to see beauty despite suffering.
“Charlotte Salomon’s ability to do just that is exceptional and inspiring.”
Indeed, it is.
Charlotte is a worthy introduction to a person we all should know.
For the full Vancouver International Film Festival schedule and tickets, visit viff.org. To potentially get free tickets to the Oct. 6 screening of Charlotte, email [email protected]. Tickets will be available as supplies last (there are 10 to giveaway).
Michal Wiets uses her great-grandfather’s diaries as the basis for her film Blue Box. (image courtesy)
At press time, the Vancouver International Film Festival lineup had not yet been announced. But the Independent received the names of some of the movies to be presented, as well as a couple of screeners.
Starting with the more challenging VIFF choices, most Jewish community members will either take a pass – with a roll of the eyes as to what film festivals often consider appropriately provocative fare – or get up the fortitude to watch the disparaging portrayals of Israel, so as to be better prepared to confront the criticisms, and perhaps learn from them. I admit that I have taken both routes in life and it was with great skepticism and high anxiety that I watched Michal Weits’s Blue Box.
Weits is the great-granddaughter of Yosef Weits (aka Weitz), a Russian immigrant to Palestine in the early 1900s who was instrumental in foresting Israel, as well as purchasing land for the Jewish government from the Arabs who owned it at the time (who were mostly absentee landlords and not the people who lived on and worked the land). Depending on one’s point of view, Weits was either a legendary pioneer to be tributed, as “the father of Israel’s forests,” or a notorious pirate of sorts, stealing land from Arabs and expelling them from it, as “the architect of transfer.” His great-granddaughter seems to believe he’s the latter, while he himself was conflicted.
The basis of the documentary is Yosef Weits’s diaries, some 5,000 pages. In them, he expresses his belief in the need for the reestablishment of the Jewish homeland and his fears for Jews’ continued existence (even before the Holocaust). He also details aspects of his work, with whom he negotiated land sales and meetings with David Ben-Gurion and other Israeli leaders. Presciently, he admits to misgivings about the way in which the Arab populations were being treated, predicting that such treatment would end up causing Israel severe problems if not dealt with.
The diary entries are fascinating and reveal some of the complexities of that era and of Yosef Weits’s legacy. The archival footage and photographs are compelling and expertly edited to make clear director Weits’s viewpoint – there is no mention of events that don’t fit her narrative, such as the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands.
Weits interviewed several family members about what she discovered from the diaries and other research. Their reactions are varied, with the generations closer to that of her great-grandfather more defensive and those closer to hers, more questioning, even condemning.
It might be helpful to watch this film with a non-Jew, as I did. In doing so, I found there were a few parts – such as the Israeli government’s relationship with the Jewish National Fund and why Weits named her film after the JNF’s donation box – that could have been better explained to viewers without prior knowledge. As well, a non-Jew is perhaps better able to keep in mind that every country deals with similar issues relating to how they were established, who was displaced, etc., and that Blue Box could be seen not only as a personal tale of one family, but as the beginning of a conversation about nation-building in general rather than as a stifling condemnation of Israel.
The same may or may not be said about The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation, directed by Avi Mograbi. There was no screener available for this documentary, which is described as “a ‘how-to’ guide to civilian subjugation along ethnic and religious lines, through the example of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. This is jet black, ice-cold political satire. But the harrowing statements of 38 former Israeli military personnel must be taken at face value as eyewitness testimony of decades of state-licensed crimes against humanity.”
Thankfully, there are at least a couple of more innocuous films in this year’s VIFF. One is the short Quality Time, written and directed by Omer Ben-David. When mom goes on a brief vacation, father (Shalom Korem) and son (Noam Imber) are left on their own together, and the awkwardness of their relationship is highlighted. Imber plays a pot-dealing and -smoking teen who’s just received his draft notice, while Korem is his recently retired – from the defence ministry – father. Both actors are wonderful and the story is quirky and fun, even if it doesn’t hold up logically at the end. While Israel-specific – a gym bag being blown up by the bomb squad is a key element – it has universal meanings.
The JI always sponsors a film at VIFF and, this year, we’ve chosen the animated feature Charlotte, about Charlotte Salomon, a German-Jewish artist who created her masterpiece work – called Life? Or Theatre? (comprising nearly 800 paintings) – between 1940 and 1942. She died in Auschwitz in 1943, at 26 years old. We’ll review that film next issue.
Shai Avivi, left, and Noam Imber are excellent as father and son in Here We Are. (still courtesy VIFF)
Understated and poignant are just two of the words I’d use to describe the screeners I watched in anticipation of the Vancouver International Film Festival, which opened Sept. 24 and runs to Oct. 7.
As with most everything these days, much of VIFF has moved online; however, there are still in-person screenings and talks, with audience sizes limited. And, as with other film festivals, online viewing is geo-blocked to British Columbia, meaning that you can only watch the movies if you are physically inside the province. The new format should allow for more access to the festival offerings and, while there will be those who miss dressing up and going out to the movies, there will be many people excited to be able to attend VIFF in their pajamas at home, me being one of them.
Last week, I watched two full-length features and two shorts: the narrative Here We Are, directed by Nir Bergman (Israel/Italy); the documentary Paris Calligrammes, directed by (and about) Ulrike Ottinger (Germany/France); The Book of Ruth, directed by Becca Roth (United States); and White Eye, directed by Tomer Shushan (Israel).
Every year, the Jewish Independent sponsors a selection at VIFF and, this time round, we’ve chosen a wonderfully written, acted and filmed movie. We generally have zero time and little information on which to base our choice, so I feel particularly grateful to have lucked out with this gem.
Here We Are is the story of a father who both will do almost anything for his autistic son, but who also uses his son as an excuse to not deal with the larger world. Aharon (played with incredible delicacy by Shai Avivi) has left his job to care for his son Uri (acted by Noam Imber, who gives an empathetic and strong performance). Aharon and his wife Tamara (played by Smadar Wolfman, who does a wonderful job, too) are no longer together, and Uri’s care has been left in his father’s capable and loving hands.
But Uri is an adult now and, to grow, we need space and the ability to direct our own lives. Tamara recognizes this and has worked hard to find Uri a good home, where he will be able to make friends and participate in activities with his peers. Aharon, however, is unable to let go and, though he also wants the best for Uri, he undermines Tamara’s actions – not only in words, but he takes Uri on the run.
The script by Dana Idisis leaves room for the pauses and emotions that make Here We Are an excellent film. Avivi’s face speaks more than a thousand words and you can see the inner conflict as his character struggles to accept that his son no longer needs him as much. The chemistry between Avivi and Imber makes the father-son relationship believable and compelling. And there are no “bad guys” here, even though mother and father differ in their opinions on parenting.
“I love the characters, the relationships, the way Aharon has reduced his needs to accommodate his son’s, and the transformation they experience throughout their journey,” reads the director’s statement. “I believe that, if I’m able to convey these characters as they are, from the written page to the screen, together with the bittersweet and humorous tone of the script, the audience will also fall in love with them.” Bergman accomplished his goal, and then some.
Paris Calligrammes is also very watchable and engaging. I’ll admit to never having heard of Ottinger before, so I was looking forward to learning more about her, her artwork, her photography and what eventually inspired her to filmmaking. However, while I thought the documentary was esthetically pleasing and gave a tangible sense of how exciting it would have been to live among the artistic elite in Paris during the 1960s, I couldn’t tell you much about Ottinger herself and what she contributed to the thoughts, images and culture of those turbulent times. But, I guess, perhaps it is assumed that one knows these things already.
Ottinger does offers some interesting and valuable commentary – read by British actress Jenny Agutter – but, for whatever reason, I didn’t think it was enough. The film is named after the bookstore Librairie Calligrammes, which specialized in antiquarian books and German literature, and was where Jewish and political émigrés hung out, along with others who we would now call cultural influencers. Ottinger drove to Paris in 1962 from Konstanz, Germany, to become, in her words, a great artist; to follow in the footsteps of her heroes and heroines. She not only follows those footsteps but walks alongside the likes of Tristan Tzara, Marcel Marceau, Raoul Hausman, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and countless others as well known.
Some of the most interesting parts of the film are about Algeria’s years-long war of independence from France (1954-1962) and the situation at the time with respect to the appalling treatment of Algerians living in Paris. Clips are shown of a peaceful demonstration held on Oct. 17, 1961, that was violently broken up by police. According to the film, 200 to 300 people were killed that night alone and, to this day, there has not been an investigation and no one has been held accountable for the deaths; even opposition newspapers didn’t report on it at the time and photos vanished from newsrooms. Ottinger notes that the order for the police to attack was given by then-chief Maurice Papon, who, under the Vichy government, had organized the rounding up of Jews to be murdered during the Holocaust.
This is a film that, I think, would be most appreciated on a big screen, but is still worth watching, for its content, yes, but mainly for its creative use of archival footage and interview clips, photographs and current-day images and filming. The documentary starts with a quote from Conseils au Bon Voyageur by Victor Segalen, advice that Ottinger has “gladly followed”: “Advice to the good traveler – A town at the end of the road and a road extending a town: do not choose one or the other, but one and the other, by turns.” If one needed inspiration to live by the conjunctions “and/both” rather than “either/or,” Paris Calligrammes might offer it.
While Paris Calligrammes is the product and vision of a longtime filmmaker, The Book of Ruth comes from the imagination of Chen Drachman, and is the first film Drachman has written and produced. She also co-stars in this exploration of how important it is to have symbols – in this instance, represented by an historical figure – around which to rally or by which to live one’s life.
The short takes place during the happiest, smallest (five people) and shortest seder that I’ve ever seen, and focuses on Ruth – played by veteran actress Tovah Feldshuh – and whether she is really the grandmother her granddaughter, played by Drachman, grew up knowing. While the scenario postulated is unbelievable, Feldshuh offers the gravitas and has the talent to make viewers look beyond that fact and consider the questions raised in the film about the stories we build around some people – their role in a war or a political movement or an artistic endeavour, whatever – and how that story or image can help make us, living in another time, feel less alone, more understood, etc.
Symbolism, of course, can be positive and negative. Racist views and bigotry also come from the stories we have learned and tell ourselves. And White Eye, both directed and written by Shushan, does a superb job of illustrating how prejudices and privilege we may not even know we have can lead to disastrous consequences.
The main character of Omer is played by Daniel Gad with convincing stubbornness and obliviousness at first, then quiet shock at what happens as a result of his desire simply to take back what is his. When he comes across his bicycle, which had been stolen, that’s all he wants to do: cut the lock off and take it back. Even after he meets the bike’s new owner, Yunes – actor Dawit Tekelaeb will win your heart with his touching portrayal of a hardworking father and husband who bought the bike so he could take his daughter to kindergarten – Omer wants his property back. Even when Yunes’s boss (Reut Akkerman) argues on her employee’s behalf, Omer refuses to budge even the smallest bit. Only after the police become involved and Yunes, an immigrant from Eritrea whose visa has expired, is taken away, does Omer realize the full implications of his actions. By then, of course, the damage has been done. And it’s much more devastating than having had one’s bicycle stolen.
For the full film festival lineup, schedule and tickets, visit viff.org.
A still from The Rabbi Goes West: one of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Chaim Bruk’s goals is to see a mezuzah on the door of every Jewish home in Montana.
In their documentary The Rabbi Goes West, filmmakers Gerald Peary and Amy Geller have succeeded in a difficult task – providing a balanced, respectful and entertaining glimpse into what happens in a state with a small, minimally affiliated Jewish community when Chabad-Lubavitch arrives.
A branch of Chassidism, Chabad-Lubavitch was started some 250 years ago in White Russia, in what is now Belarus. After the Holocaust, the movement began its outreach in earnest, trying to reach non-religious and unaffiliated Jews almost literally everywhere in the world. There are now approximately 5,000 Chabad emissaries in more than 90 countries.
While emissaries may receive some seed funding to start a new centre, they must raise their own funds to stay active. In 2006, Chabad Rabbi Chaim Bruk ventured from Brooklyn, N.Y. – Chabad headquarters is in Crown Heights – to Bozeman, Mont., to scout it out. Encouraged by the growing population and the amount of tourism, Bruk returned to Crown Heights to get the OK to set up a centre there. Given the green light, he and his wife Chavie did just that in 2007. The rabbi’s goal? To ensure that every one of Montana’s 2,000 Jewish families has a mezuzah on their door. One of the ways in which he makes headway on this task is by traveling all over the state, asking safe-looking strangers (who are the vast majority, he says) whether there are any Jews in the area and then, when he finds them, boldly introducing himself and his purpose.
As charming and open as Bruk seems, his presence, the ultra-Orthodox Judaism to which Chabad adheres and the movement’s expansionist mission – two more Chabad centres have opened since the Bruks arrived – are not universally welcomed by the Montana Jewish community. The Rabbi Goes West includes interviews with fellow rabbis Francine Roston (the first Conservative woman rabbi to lead a large congregation), who came to Montana from New Jersey in 2014; Allen Secher (co-founder of Chicago’s first Jewish Renewal congregation), who came to Montana after he retired in 2000 but retook the bimah when he found out he was the only rabbi in the state at the time; and Ed Stafman (a former trial lawyer), who came to the state from Florida. The film also includes commentary from local Jews from all four congregations.
While Bruk has limited involvement with the other congregations and rarely, if ever, joins their events – he contends that most of them violate some aspect of Judaism, such as the laws of kashrut, for example – the Jewish community does unite, along with other religious and secular groups and individuals in the state, when faced with neo-Nazi threats and cyberattacks.
The Rabbi Goes West is a documentary well worth seeing, both for its content and the way in which that content is presented. Sponsored by the Vancouver Jewish Film Centre, it screens at the Vancouver International Film Festival Oct. 7, 6:30 p.m., at Cinémathèque, and Oct. 8, 11:30 a.m., at International Village 10. For the full festival lineup, visit viff.org.
Éva Fahidi, in front, and Emese Cuhorka in a still from The Euphoria of Being, directed and written by Réka Szabó.
Éva Fahidi was 18 years old when she and her family were taken to Auschwitz. The men and women were separated. The women’s selection committee cut the line after Fahidi: “I went one way, and my whole family the other way. It was over. We are talking about a fraction of a moment, when one didn’t even have the faintest idea of what was really happening.” Forty-nine members of her family were murdered, including her mother, father and sister.
Fahidi tells this part of her story as dancer Emese Cuhorka, covered from head to toe in a black leotard, moves around her, expressing with her body some of what Fahidi is expressing verbally. This is but one of many moving scenes in The Euphoria of Being, written and directed by Réka Szabó. The Jewish Independent has chosen to sponsor the documentary’s screening at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, which runs Sept. 26-Oct. 11.
Szabó had heard Fahidi give a talk in Berlin, and she had read Fahidi’s memoir, The Soul of Things. She wrote to Fahidi about wanting to make a performance about her, with her it in. The almost-90-year-old Hungarian Holocaust survivor responded positively: “Every person should possess some form of healthy exhibitionism,” she says in the film. “I have more than is needed, so I don’t have any excuses.”
Cuhorka reminds Szabó of Fahidi. From this resemblance came the concept of a duet. At one of the first rehearsals, Fahidi shows Cuhorka what she’s able to do physically. “And, from the outside, it is like seeing an entire life at once,” says Szabó, as she watches them move together.
The documentary covers the three-month period prior to the October première of what would become Sea Lavender. The work is the collaborative creation of the three women and, while what we are shown of the final result is powerful, it is the process and the bonds formed by the women that have the most impact, and give the film its inspirational quality.
Fahidi is remarkable. She is smart, spirited, well-spoken and endearing. When she talks about her Holocaust experiences, it is as if she is reliving them; her eyes look unfocused, her body appears heavier, her anger remains. She says her family should have left Hungary in 1935. “But my poor father, he couldn’t see beyond his nose,” she says. So proud was he of what he had built, he couldn’t leave it behind and only go with the clothes on his back. “This is the eternal tragedy,” she says, “that you don’t see things for what they are when you see them. Absolute idiocy.”
The film then cuts to a photo of the family – her parents, sister and her – as Fahidi describes the way in which she imagines them being gassed. She talks about a documentary she saw on Zyklon B, how it was first tried on geese. Such factual expositions lay raw the depth of her grief.
Yet, when Szabó asks Fahidi to list some of the things that helped her survive, Fahidi remarks that you have to appreciate and value the fact that you’re alive. “The fact that you exist, in itself, is euphoric,” she says. Hence, the name of the documentary and of the choice of “the flying chair duet” as the final scene of the performance. In discussing the nature of tragedy, Fahidi concludes that it’s no use thinking about it because you always end up in the same sad place. “Meanwhile,” she says, “you live happily.”
Seeing Cuhorka and Fahidi work and perform together is delightful – the two really do bear similarities, and their mutual respect is evident. The closing text of the film notes, “At the age of 93, Éva is still performing regularly. So far, we have staged 77 performances of Sea Lavender in numerous cities, such as Berlin, Budapest and Vienna.” While it is too much to hope that the show will come to North America, it is satisfying to know of the project’s life-changing effect on Fahidi, who, apparently, “can’t imagine being alive and not performing the piece anymore.”
The Euphoria of Being screens Sept. 27, 12:30 p.m., at International Village 8, and Oct. 3, 7 p.m., and Oct. 4, 10 a.m., at Vancity Theatre. For tickets, visit viff.org.
Stills from the NFB’s Highway to Heaven: A Mosaic in One Mile. Richmond Jewish Day School is one of the institutions featured in the short film, which screens at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.
The National Film Board short Highway to Heaven: A Mosaic in One Mile, written and directed by Sandra Ignagni, is visually striking. For the most part, it lets the images do the talking, communicating more about cultural diversity than words could.
Part of this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, Highway to Heaven introduces viewers to the multiple faith groups and institutions along a mile-long section of No. 5 Road in Richmond, which includes Richmond Jewish Day School. In the 17-minute documentary, this strip of road – which has been called “Highway to Heaven” – appears both full of colour and action, as well as remote and removed, not just geographically but with chain link fencing and other security measures.
“We share a world grappling with ethnic and racial tensions, religious xenophobia and violence,” writes Ignagni in her director’s notes. “Such realities are not limited to the world’s conflict zones – they are a part of everyday life, even in the most advanced democracies such as Canada. It was in this context that I was drawn to the peculiar landscape of No. 5 Road … where multiple cultural and religious groups share a short stretch of suburban road. I was curious about how groups pitted against each other in so many corners of the world appeared to be living relatively peacefully with one another, and in very close proximity, in an ordinary Canadian suburb.”
In showing the beauty of the area – both in landscape and in cultural acceptance – Ignagni also captures some of the tensions that exist. The camera jumps from a lush orchard to a mansion mid-construction to a for-sale sign in front of what seems to be part of a forest. In one scene, which looks like it was filmed at RJDS, police in full gear – bulletproof vest and holstered weapons – address RJDS and Az-Zahraa Islamic Academy students, introducing themselves so that the kids should feel comfortable going to the police if they have a problem. The police then referee the kids in a game of ball hockey – boys against the boys, girls against the girls – throwing in questions about boundaries and other issues for the kids to consider.
Referring to the police presence on the road, Ignagni writes that it could “be variously interpreted as bridge-building, protection or surveillance. I learned that, for more than one decade, the Richmond Jewish Day School did not have an exterior sign for fear of antisemitic attacks against its schoolchildren. And, in recent years, the secular residential community that surrounds No. 5 Road launched a major campaign opposing the proposed expansion of a Pure Land Buddhist temple, using the pejorative moniker ‘Buddha Disneyland’ to describe the proposed building in local media and public debates. The mere fact that zoning by-laws have ordered these communities – the majority of which play a critical role in new immigrant and refugee resettlement – to the fringe of suburban land is also ripe for reflection.”
The minimal use of narration or interviews in the film was a deliberate choice. To do otherwise, Ignagni notes, “would be an exercise in public relations, reducing complex issues to soundbites and polemics. Instead, I wanted to make a film that would at once capture the remarkable – because it is truly remarkable – diversity on No. 5 Road, as it actually exists, while gesturing to some of the unresolved issues that underlie Canadian multiculturalism. The film is, therefore, constructed as a ‘mosaic’ – defined by writer and activist Terry Williams as ‘a conversation between what is broken.’”
While she doesn’t rely on words to tell this story, sound plays an integral role in the film: calls to prayer, monks chanting, different languages being spoken (and not translated), kids playing, school bells ringing.
“My film invites audiences to sit with what is unknown, different, raw or only partially visible,” says Ignagni. “To me, a mosaic captures perfectly the subtle tensions one finds on No. 5 Road, where custom and ritual, language and cultural diversity are practised under surveillance cameras and behind locked doors and gates. In making this film, I am asking audiences to look with open eyes and hearts – with a spirit of curiosity – at themselves and their neighbours, and simply reflect on multiculturalism as an unfinished project in need of attention in Canada and around the world.”
In addition to RJDS and Az-Zahraa, the list of participating neighbours includes the Evangelical Formosan Church of Greater Vancouver, India Cultural Centre of Canada/Gurdwara Nanak Niwas, Kingswood Pub, Lingyen Mountain Temple, Mylora Executive Golf Course, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Richmond detachment), Thrangu Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, Trinity Pacific Church, and Vedic Centre.
At VIFF, Ignagni will participate in one of a series of panel discussions presented by Storyhive on Totally Indie Day, Sept. 28, at Vancity Theatre. She will be on the hour-long panel called Not Short on Talent: The Rise of the Short Form Documentary, which starts at 3:45 p.m. For the full film festival lineup, including, eventually, the not-yet-listed screening time of Highway to Heaven – which was an Official Selection at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival – visit viff.org.