Gilda Radner scrapbooking in Love, Gilda, a Magnolia Pictures release. (photo from Magnolia Pictures)
The late, great sketch comedian Gilda Radner is a Jewish icon. Offstage and out of character, however, she wasn’t especially Jewish.
“I think you would have to ask Gilda if she considered herself a Jewish comedienne,” mused Laraine Newman, her friend and fellow Jewish cast mate for the first five seasons of Saturday Night Live.
“I’d love to hear the answer,” replied Lisa D’Apolito, director of the deeply affectionate and painfully revealing documentary, Love, Gilda.
“Honest to God, I don’t know,” Newman said. “I couldn’t characterize her one way or the other. I would think that would have to come from her.”
In Love, Gilda, D’Apolito does the next best thing: she wisely channels her subject’s voice through a trove of clips, personal audiotapes and diary entries (read by contemporary comics Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy and others).
Love, Gilda, which has screened at numerous Jewish film festivals to rousing applause, is part of this year’s Vancouver Jewish Film Festival lineup.
Radner grew up in a well-off Jewish family in Detroit. But her beloved father was diagnosed with a brain tumour when she was 12 and died two years later. Her mother delegated many of the child-raising duties, and the film hints that she was not the most supportive parent.
“Gilda was also raised by her nanny, who happened to be Christian,” D’Apolito related hours before Love, Gilda opened the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July. “So Gilda observed all kinds of different religions and what she identified with, I wasn’t really sure. I wanted to cover where I thought some of her insecurities came from. Losing her father was really important – and her mother putting her on diet pills.”
The nanny, Dibby, was the inspiration for one of Radner’s most popular SNL characters, Emily Litella. As for the diet pills, Gilda’s body image issues as an adolescent led to eating disorders that plagued her into adulthood.
“When I found the audiotapes, it was so different to hear her talking than to see her on an interview or hear people talking about her,” D’Apolito said. “It was just mesmerizing, because you get a real sense of Gilda. She’s sitting in a café talking to somebody, she’s ordering things, she’s telling stories and she’s extremely intelligent and extremely funny. That was really important to me, that an audience have the same experience I had.”
D’Apolito was guided in her interview choices – musician Paul Shaffer, actor Martin Short and writer Alan Zweibel, among others – by whom Gilda spoke about on the tapes. Alas, Gene Wilder, the love of Radner’s life according to D’Apolito, and her husband from 1984 until she died in 1989, was too ill to participate. (He died in August 2016.)
“Gene was everything she was looking for, because he was a Jewish guy from the Midwest,” D’Apolito said of the Milwaukee native, born Jerome Silberman. “That’s what she always wanted, I’ve been told.”
Radner and Wilder met on the set of the 1980s film Hanky Panky, which originally was going to co-star Richard Pryor and was rewritten for a female lead. Wilder then directed Radner (and himself) in the equally disappointing comedies The Woman in Red and Haunted Honeymoon.
The brashness and vitality of Radner’s TV and stage work showed “that she never doubted that she was equal to any man,” D’Apolito said. “That’s what I take away from Gilda’s performances.”
Newman lamented that Radner’s movie career suffered because casting directors and producers lacked the imagination to cast her correctly.
“The specific nature of her talent was she did characters, and she would probably have been better served if she had taken part in writing the things that she did. But I don’t think it occurred to her,” Newman said. “If she and Alan Zweibel had collaborated on a feature, it might have been a whole different thing.”
D’Apolito’s connection to Radner goes back to the first videos she directed eight years ago for Gilda’s Club, a cancer support group founded by Wilder in New York after Radner died from ovarian cancer at age 42.
D’Apolito didn’t meet Wilder, however, until he invited the filmmaker to his house the year before he died. They spent a memorable day talking, and hanging out with his dogs.
“Somehow, at the end of the day, Gene and I just sat in the garden together,” D’Apolito recalled. “I could see why Gilda loved him.”
Love, Gilda (86 minutes, unrated) screens Nov. 8, 1 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas. For the full schedule of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, which runs Nov. 7-Dec. 2, visit vjff.org.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Five years before the end of his life, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, gave six hours of interviews to an American who had recently made aliyah and moved near to Ben-Gurion’s Negev kibbutz retirement home in Sde Boker. The 1968 video footage sat undisturbed in the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive in Jerusalem until it was rediscovered, but the audio was missing. Eventually, it too was found – in the Ben-Gurion archives at Sde Boker. Reunited, the six hours were whittled down by director Yariv Mozer to the one-hour film Ben-Gurion, Epilogue, which is part of this year’s Vancouver Jewish Film Festival.
Mere months after the death of his wife, Paula, Ben-Gurion reflected on his personal and public life. His Zionism was born in his Polish childhood, when the larger-than-life visionary Theodor Herzl traveled the Pale of Settlement. “When Herzl arrived in our little towns, they said, ‘Messiah’s come!’ And I believed it,” Ben-Gurion shared.
Ben-Gurion created a new life at least twice, first making aliyah and bringing to life the Jewish state, then, again, in retirement, when he retreated to the life of a simple kibbutznik in the Negev. His fascination with the desert was sparked in 1954, he said, when he was driving from Eilat back to central Israel and saw a cluster of rudimentary homes by the side of the road. He asked what they were doing there. “We were fighting in the War of Independence in this place,” the pioneers told him. “I decided to join them, to start building up, in the desert, where there is no soil, no water, no grass, no rain.”
The human side of the Ben-Gurion couple is on display through interspersed earlier footage of David and Paula together. In an interview with the BBC’s Malcolm Muggeridge, Paula says she was opposed to David’s retirement from politics. “Because he could not exist without politics,” she says.
“I can exist without politics,” he replies, without looking up.
“No you can’t,” she says. “It’s born in you.”
Likewise, when David gives a ponderous explanation of why he no longer defines himself as a Zionist, Paula deadpans, “I married a Zionist and you are not a Zionist?”
The interviewer draws Ben-Gurion into reflections on his tumultuous time in politics, including the riots that emerged in response to his decision to accept reparation payments, arms and military training from the West German government. But if the viewer is anticipating any earth-shattering revelations, Ben-Gurion is largely glib. Israel needed support and West Germany was offering.
As the Jewish people have a special role in the world, Ben-Gurion says, so does the Jewish state: to reflect the virtues set out by the Prophets. “To be just, truthful, helping all those who need help, and love other men like yourself,” the statesman says. “These are the virtues.”
“Do you think Israel is carrying out that mission?” asks the interviewer.
“Not yet,” Ben-Gurion replies instantly.
Ben-Gurion, Epilogue screens Nov. 6 and 11.
– Pat Johnson
In the American film Pinsky, the main character, Sophia Pinsky, has a good life: a job, a girlfriend, an apartment. But then her girlfriend leaves without saying goodbye and Sophia’s life unravels. She moves back home, to join her father, grandmother and brother, all still living together (what a miserable prospect), and the cheerless family dynamics are the focus of the movie.
The family are Russian Jews, and they are all unhappy for various reasons. Sophia works at a Russian grocery store. She feels alone, underappreciated and vulnerable. Nobody understands her. Her grandma tries to set her up with a nice Russian Jewish boy. “You’re too pretty to be a lesbian,” grandma declares, which drives Sophia bonkers.
She misses her girlfriend, she is searching for something big and beautiful, but, unfortunately, nothing even remotely resembling her dreams enters her drab life.
Depression seems to run in the family. Sophia’s brother is an alcoholic. Her father isn’t dealing well with aging. The grandmother, the only colourful character in the movie, is meddlesome and tactless, bossing around everyone in the family.
Everyone is lonely. Nobody understands one another. But, the truth is: none of them even tries to understand anyone else. Everyone concentrates on their own melancholy, hides inside their own bubbles of misery.
This movie reminded me of Chekhov’s plays: everyone is whining and nobody does anything positive. Unlike Chekhov though, this is a fragmented series of moments in the lives of different family members over a few days. The entire dysfunctional family comes under the director’s scrutiny, and all are found wanting.
Pinsky screens Nov. 9. The festival runs until Nov. 12. For the full schedule, visit vjff.org.
Like one of her favourite romantic comedies, Crossing Delancey, writer-director Rachel Israel’s narrative feature debut, Keep the Change, is a New York love story with a tangible Jewish undercurrent.
The romantic duo in the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival’s opening night selection readily self-identify as Jewish, but they share another quality that for most people primarily defines them: David (Brandon Polansky) and Sarah (Samantha Elisofon) are on the autism spectrum.
Refreshingly honest and sexually straightforward in its portrayal of the way people with autism interact with each other, with their families and with strangers, Keep the Change received two prizes when it premièred at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.
“A few of the characters are naturally unfiltered in the way they talk about sex, and I thought it was a beautiful and fun aspect of the characters,” Israel explained in a phone interview.
“A lot of depictions of people with autism shy away from sex, and I think it’s important to show that people on the spectrum have sex lives,” she said. “To shy away from it is in some way demeaning or infantilizing.”
Keep the Change receives its Canadian première when it opens the VJFF Nov. 2 at Fifth Avenue Cinemas, followed by a Nov. 12 screening at the Rothstein Theatre. It also screens Nov. 19 at the Roxy Theatre, as part of the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival.
Israel spent her childhood in the Princeton, N.J., area and her adolescence and teen years in Boca Raton, Fla., before pursuing her undergraduate degree at the Rhode Island School of Design. She moved to New York for her graduate studies in film at Columbia, where she refocused her first screenplay from a drama about David’s family to an endearing, awkward and rocky love story between he and Sarah.
Israel set about making a short film, and discovered a community of people with autism at the Manhattan Jewish Community Centre. She cast Brandon and Samantha and, some five years later, asked them to reprise their roles for a feature.
“Brandon’s search for love and companionship, and possibly sexual experience, is a defining part of his personality,” Israel said. “When I met him, I didn’t know he was on the spectrum … until he told me. When he told me he had autism, it was an awakening, because I thought of someone like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, someone who shies away from contact. And that was very much not the way Brandon was.”
His character’s Jewishness is front and centre, which may feed into some viewers’ judgment of his ostentatiously wealthy parents (played by Jewish actors Jessica Walter and Tibor Feldman). Sarah’s Jewish identity is much less pronounced but it could be a plus – in theory – in winning David’s parents’ acceptance.
“He is quietly desperate to have a girl, so it wouldn’t have stopped him at all [if Sarah wasn’t Jewish],” Israel said. “But it’s a big thing for many Jewish parents for your kids to stay in the tribe. He thinks that it will please his parents. But, more than that, for himself he wants some traditional things for his life. He wants a permanent loving relationship. I think he thinks that should be marriage. He very much wants the things that he’s seen his peers from childhood acquire, and he doesn’t understand why he shouldn’t have them.”
David and Sarah are fictional versions of the real people.
“We wrote it in collaboration with the cast, but they are playing fictional characters,” Israel emphasized. “They are not playing themselves. We’ve created characters that had some of their tendencies, while other things were different. They could definitely draw upon who they were to inform their characters.”
After Tribeca, Israel screened Keep the Change at the Los Angeles Film Festival and at Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, where it won two more prizes. Her grandfather, a financial supporter of the film, who escaped Czechoslovakia at 14 on one of the Kindertransports organized by Sir Nicholas Winton, attended the festival with Israel and the film.
For tickets and the full schedule for the VJFF (Nov. 2-12) and VIJFF (Nov. 18-21), visit vjff.org and vijff.ca, respectively.
– Michael Fox
About two dozen of the most popular Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers. An engaging documentary by Canadian producers, Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas, uses this fact as a jumping off point to explore the varied issues around Jewish relationships with Christmas, including Chinese food, the Chanukah-Christmas competition and some Jews’ conflicting desire to both fit in and remain distinctive from the majority culture.
The dreamlike documentary takes a retro, festive approach to the topic, beginning with a family of four arriving at a Chinese restaurant, circa the 1960s. Here, the wide-eyed children drink in the scene as waiters and fellow patrons break into song and chefs engage in kitchen percussions and choreography. Talking heads intersperse with these song-and-dance routines to explore, in an amusing way, the sometimes deep and multifaceted connections between Jews and the inescapable December holiday.
Jewish songsters are responsible for familiar tunes like “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” (Felix Bernard, born Felix William Bernhardt), “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” (Mel Tormé and Robert Wells, born Levinson) and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (George Wyle, born Bernard Weissman). The propensity for changing Jewish-sounding surnames is also addressed.
Mark Breslin, the founder of Yuk Yuk’s comedy club chain, puts a fine point on the Jewish role in Christmas music. “You could write a song three percent of the population would buy the record or you could write a song that 97% of the population will buy the record,” he says. “The businessman in me says go for the bigger market.”
Another comedian, Jackie Mason, dismisses the idea that there is anything odd about people writing songs about a holiday that is not their own. “Who cares if it’s your own holiday?” Mason says. “If I see a lot of cows on the street, am I going to write about a cow? Do I have to be a partner with cows, do I have to live with cows, to write a song about them? If everybody’s a Christian, that’s an easier sale, isn’t it?”
One commentator notes that almost all the Christmas carols written by Jews were what could be called “secular” songs. They are not about the birth of Jesus but about chestnuts, snow and winter coziness, reinforcing a new mythology that was emerging in the middle of the 20th century, which turned Christmas into a non-denominational winter celebration. In this, Jews and other non-Christians could more fully participate.
Ron Sidran, author of There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream, cites Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” sung by Bing Crosby in the 1942 film Holiday Inn, as a turning point. “That song is the song where Irving Berlin de-Christs Christmas,” he says. “He turns Christmas into a holiday about snow.”
Calgary-born Ophira Eisenberg, who hosts NPR’s Ask Me Another radio quiz show, recalls receiving Chanukah gifts so she wouldn’t feel left out when her friends were getting visits from Santa. When the young Ophira asked her mother who the gifts came from, she was told that Moses came down from the mountain each year bringing presents to good little Jewish boys and girls. “Presents of dreidels and socks,” she adds wryly.
And while one speaker claims that Jewish composers wrote Christmas songs not as Jews, but as Americans, music journalist Robert Harris says “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is explicitly Jewish.
Rudolph’s creator, Robert May, said that he based the story of the reindeer – with his prominent nose, who was excluded from games with his peers and called names – on his own childhood as a Jewish American in the first half of the 20th century.
“And you know what’s incredible about Rudolph?” Harris says. “Rudolph doesn’t get a nose job. The point of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer is not for Rudolph to blend in and become another reindeer. The point of Rudolph is for Rudolph to be appreciated for what he is.” Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas screens at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 5.
– Pat Johnson
In Maysaloun Hamoud’s Bar Bahar (In Between), three young Palestinian women share an apartment in Tel Aviv as they struggle with the issues of religion, sexuality and overall identity. They live “in between” cultures. They are not Israeli enough – they are Palestinian, and are reminded of that fact occasionally. They are not Palestinian enough either – they want to escape the traditional role of a Palestinian woman. Centuries-old traditions and modernity clash in this film, as each of the main characters undergoes her own challenges and heartaches.
Leila is a lawyer. Educated, sophisticated and beautiful, she drinks and parties, smokes constantly and does drugs, but, in her heart, she wants to find love and purpose. While she doesn’t forgive betrayal, she is generous and kind to her friends – no matter how lousy she feels, how much she mourns her unfulfilled dreams, she is always ready to help her roommates.
Selma is a bartender and a lesbian, but her parents can’t even hear the word, much less accept their daughter’s sexual orientation. Their confrontation on screen is painful to watch. The parents are overwrought, unable to come to terms with their daughter’s choices. Selma herself is full of anguish, torn between her parents and her lover, even though she doesn’t say a word. Only her father talks, or rather screams, furiously. Her conflict and her parents’ desperation are powerful.
Nour is a university student, studying computer science. Religious and quiet, she wears a hijab and tries to reconcile herself with the traditional role of a Palestinian woman. Unlike her two roommates, she is not an overt rebel. She is betrothed, but her fiancé is scary and repulsive in his hypocrisy; he demands unquestioning compliance, and she tries, but she doesn’t love him.
The rape scene in the movie is not graphic, but its impact is immense. The incident and its aftermath puts all the relationships into perspective. It tests all three women’s courage and their humanity. It shows their capacity for compassion and their resilience.
The movie is simple on the surface, just a few days in the women’s lives, but a lot goes on behind the scenes, providing a multifaceted view of life in today’s Israel. All three roommates are living, breathing women, hoping for a better life, helping each other to achieve it. As much as the movie is their story, its themes are universal.
The film won several Israeli and international awards, and all of the awards are well-deserved.
Bar Bahar screens at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 5.
Noa Koler in The Wedding Plan, which screens Nov. 9 at Fifth Avenue Cinemas. (photo from Roadside Attractions)
The grin-inducing trailer for The Wedding Plan nonetheless suggests one question – did Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein sell out?
The Orthodox writer-director’s acclaimed debut, Fill the Void, was an uncompromising story of a young Orthodox woman grappling with her parents’ and community’s expectations regarding her prospective husband. In contrast, The Wedding Plan, while also being chuppah-bound, appears from the trailer to be a romantic comedy designed to entertain.
In fact, The Wedding Plan is a high-stakes emotional journey about an observant woman in her 30s who’s so unhappy that she resolves to wed on the last night of Chanukah – with no groom in sight – after her fiancé breaks up with her mere weeks before their appointed date. Michal’s family and friends counsel against such a bold, risky and potentially devastating strategy, but she remains undeterred.
The film contains plenty of witty one-liners but, as the Israeli trailer conveyed, it’s not a disposable sitcom. Burshtein has assuredly not sold out. She simply trusted her U.S. distributor’s marketing strategy, even if some ticket-buyers are misled.
“If you think you’re going to see a romantic comedy and you get something more, that’s good,” said Burshtein. “You get something stronger and that’s OK.”
The Wedding Plan screens on Nov. 9, 4 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas as part of this year’s Vancouver Jewish Film Festival.
Both of Burshtein’s films raise a curtain on the lives of Orthodox women, in part through honest conversations they have among themselves when men aren’t around. The characters reject the idea that Orthodox women are subservient to men and, unsurprisingly, so does their creator.
“For me,” said Burshtein, “being religious is liberating. It’s not killing or closing or not letting me express my thoughts.”
Burshtein goes even further, asserting that women are the creative force.
“The art world is women,” she said. “[Orthodox] men don’t make films, they don’t cook, they don’t paint.”
Burshtein originally pitched The Wedding Plan as a television series, but, after getting the green light and embarking on the script, she decided it would be a feature film. Although she doesn’t say it, a movie is seen by more people around the world than an Israeli TV show.
“I’m writing from my world to the outside world,” the filmmaker explained in a phone interview during a press day in Washington, D.C. “Not [just] to secular people but to non-Jews. It opens a window to my world to people who know nothing about my world.”
Burshtein was born in New York and became religious while she was in film school in Jerusalem in the 1980s. She admits she didn’t expect the attention her films have received abroad, but at the same time isn’t surprised they touch audiences far beyond Tel Aviv and New York.
“We live in an age when women find their partner pretty late,” she said. “And sometimes they don’t. It’s very hard to find someone that you really want to share your life with. [My films] connect to that. All over the world, it’s the same thing, the same heart.”
The Wedding Plan is unmistakably and unapologetically set in the Orthodox community but the crux of the film is Michal’s urgent personal quest. Although her ostensible goal is to get married, a raw and powerful opening scene makes it clear that what she really craves and seeks is the respect of a committed partner.
Michal’s striving is universal and at times absurd, which spawns the film’s humour. Because she has no time to waste, Michal (played by the fearless Noa Koler) confronts every prospective suitor with direct questions and shockingly honest confessions that derail and discomfit them.
Michal’s pain and desperation are palpable through the laughs, to the point where she makes a pilgrimage to Ukraine to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. That’s not an incidental detail, for Burshtein is a proponent of Rabbi Nachman’s philosophy.
“We can handle despair, and we can handle hope,” she said. “The film is that movement between the two. You should be a fighter in the movement, and not get lost in the movement.”
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival runs Nov. 2-9 at Fifth Avenue Cinemas and Nov. 10-12 at the Rothstein Theatre. For tickets and the full schedule, as well as the trailer for The Wedding Plan, visit vjff.org.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
The Farewell Party screens Nov. 10 in the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. (photo from VJFF)
One could compile a very long list of movies whose enjoyment is enhanced by watching them with someone you love. The Farewell Party is the rare film that should be seen with someone you trust with your life.
Israeli filmmakers Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon set their funny, sensitive and ultimately moving tale among a small coterie of longtime friends heroically maintaining their independence and dignity in a Jerusalem retirement home. The suffering of a terminally ill member of their circle forces them to consider the merit, and confront the risks, of friend-assisted suicide.
There’s some pithy dialogue about the difference between helping a buddy and committing murder, but The Farewell Party isn’t interested in advancing a position on euthanasia or even grappling with the ethics or morality of one’s right to die. The film’s concern is for the spouse tasked with the agonizing responsibility of carrying out the decision of a suffering husband or wife.
Lest this sound like a must-avoid movie of the week, Granit and Maymon filter the proceedings through the deliciously absurdist mix of baleful fatalism and real-world pragmatism that is Jewish humor.
Through its first half, The Farewell Party smoothly glides from deadpan comedy to black comedy to bittersweet comedy. The chuckles taper off en route to a perfectly conceived anti-climax, a poignant coda to the lifelong love affair to whose last chapters we’ve been privy.
The Farewell Party screens Nov. 10, 6:45 p.m., in the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival (vjff.org). Wonderfully played by a cadre of veteran comic actors, it’s the film for anyone who’s ever grumbled that nobody makes movies for older audiences anymore.
After a marvelously droll opening scene in which Yehezkel (Ze-ev Revah) plays God to persuade a beloved friend to choose life and continue her treatment, the retired inventor is reluctantly corralled into helping ease the anguish of an expiring pal.
“They’re keeping him alive as though dying was a crime,” says the man’s wife, Yana (Aliza Rozen).
One of the movie’s refreshingly tart assumptions is that the elderly can’t afford the luxury of self-deception. Well, with one huge exception, that is: Yehezkel refuses to acknowledge that his wife’s steadily worsening memory lapses will necessitate moving her to an assisted-living facility in the not-distant future.
Notwithstanding the recurring presence of Yehezkel and Levana’s adult daughter and grandchild, this is a film about a stratum of society – older people – that is essentially invisible to everyone but its distinguished (and roguish) members. Out of necessity, they are compelled to create their own community.
There are moments in The Farewell Party, consequently, that edge toward a comedy about codgers executing a heist, or a drama examining the portentous final stages of long-term relationship. But Granit and Maymon maintain such a solid grasp on their film’s tone and esthetic that it never tips too far in either direction. The austere palette of cool blues and greys, combined with the near-absence of music, eliminates any whiff of sentimentality or, for that matter, situation comedy. What comes through in every frame of The Farewell Party is compassion for the human condition. If you think about it, movies can’t offer anything more compelling – or rewarding – than that.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
A scene from Semicolon: The Adventures of Ostomy Girl. (photo from Vancouver Jewish Film Festival)
The photo of Dana Marshall-Bernstein being hugged by her mother, Cari Marshall, captures the love at the heart of Semicolon: The Adventures of Ostomy Girl.
When the documentary was filmed, Dana was 25. She had been dealing with severe Crohn’s disease since she was 4 years old. With less than four inches of intestine left after numerous surgeries, she receives all her nutrition intravenously. At age 16, she had her first ostomy – surgery to make an opening in the body so that body waste can be discharged. Poop jokes flourish in the family, one of the many ways in which they cope, and the brief Ostomy Girl cartoon that is included in the film shows the sheer strength of will this young woman possesses.
Over the months of filming, Dana – who lives with her parents in Las Vegas – is in and out of Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where she is treated by some seemingly amazing doctors, skill- and personality-wise, such as Dr. Feza Remzi. Her health gets worse and she finally makes the decision she understandably has resisted for so long – to be put on the transplant list for a small intestine.
At times, Dana seems younger than her years, so vulnerable; at other moments, her literal life-and-death concerns add years. Somehow, with the help of her parents – especially her mother, but also her father, Ed – Dana has led a relatively full life, as normally as possible. Somehow, she still has her sense of humor. Somehow, she has the courage and the energy to try and help others, through awareness and fundraising events for Cleveland Clinic and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.
Semicolon screens at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival (vjff.org) on Nov. 10, 3:30 p.m.
Henrik Gawkowski, as seen in Shoah, directed by Claude Lanzmann. (photo from Les Films Aleph/Why Not Productions)
The French intellectual who created what many view as the definitive documentary of the Holocaust is himself the subject of a documentary, called Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah.
Commentators in the film are unanimous that Shoah, Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour study of the Holocaust, is a masterpiece. They also agree that Lanzmann is himself a piece of work.
A former friend calls him a megalomaniac. Another commentator says he is “a very challenging individual.” Through interviews with Lanzmann, the viewer gets a sense of what they are talking about.
Over a 12-year odyssey of interviewing and filmmaking, what Lanzmann set out to create was a film, in his words, “not about the Shoah, but a film that would be the Shoah.”
His first challenge was how he would approach a topic so enormous and distressing.
“What is my theme?” he asks during interviews for the documentary. “The heart of the Shoah, what is it?”
On this he concludes: “Shoah is not a film about survival. And, as it is not a movie about survivors … the survivors are not in Shoah, Shoah is a film about death.”
He recounts an incident that left him hospitalized for a month after a former SS officer’s wife discovered a hidden camera in his bag and Lanzmann and his female assistant were chased, beaten and bloodied by thugs associated with the war criminal. In another instance, Lanzmann relates how he almost drowned while swimming off the coast of Israel. He recalls that he had no gratitude to the individual who saved him and speculates that perhaps he had intended suicide because he knew he could not finish the film in the two years he had been given, with the instruction to keep it under two hours.
As Lanzmann goes on at length about his artistic struggles and the terrible toll the project took on his spirit, a viewer’s empathy may fade. Considering the subject matter of Shoah, lamentations on the difficulties of making a film – however monumental – come across as startlingly self-absorbed. Given the advance billing of Lanzmann’s character with which the documentary begins, the film comes full circle, providing a character sketch of a difficult individual who has done a remarkable thing.
Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah double bills with What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival (vjff.org) on Nov. 11, 3:30 p.m.
In The Singing Abortionist, Dr. Henry Morgentaler comes across as an enigmatic figure. (photo from Vancouver Jewish Film Festival)
This year’s Vancouver Jewish Film Festival will entertain, inform and challenge viewers, from its opening event – YidLife Crisis, a film all in Yiddish (with English subtitles), and its Yiddish-speaking stars/writers Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion as guests – to its final screening, the French film Once in a Lifetime, based on the true story of an inner-city high school in Paris. This week, the Jewish Independent gives you a glimpse into the festival, which runs Nov. 5-12 at Fifth Avenue Cinemas.
A difficult national hero
There are few surnames in Canada that can evoke such visceral and opposite reactions as Morgentaler. Henry Morgentaler is the name most associated with abortion – with providing abortion services to women, with fighting abortion laws, and for eventually leading a case to the Supreme Court of Canada that resulted in the permanent overturning of Canada’s abortion statute.
To allies, he is a hero. To enemies, he is “Hitler,” as countless people scream at him in footage in the documentary The Singing Abortionist. (He was known to hum or sing a few lines while performing abortions, including one he performed on CTV’s W5 program, which ran the procedure in its five-minute entirety.) Yet even to allies – including his children – he is, as one biographer described him, a “difficult hero.”
In interviews before his death in 2013, Morgentaler acknowledged that everything he did in life was with the aim of earning the love of women. This guided him in becoming the foremost advocate in the country for women’s reproductive choice, but it also led to his reputation as a “womanizer.”
Morgentaler was a relatively unknown doctor when he felt morally bound to begin offering abortions, a crime that carried a potential life sentence for the doctor and two years in prison for the patient. Across 20 years of legal battles, including a stint in prison, Morgentaler led the legal and PR battle for choice, which culminated in his case before the Supreme Court of Canada that, in 1985, struck down Canada’s abortion law.
In this one-hour film, Morgentaler comes across as an enigmatic figure. He admits to megalomania, albeit with a guffaw. His children speak about their own conflicted relationships with him. His lawyer says Morgentaler was an easy target for anti-abortion forces to caricature as a “strange-looking, hook-nosed Jew.” Morgentaler is both introspective about his motivations but clearly suppresses, according to those around him, his experiences as a Holocaust survivor.
But Morgentaler’s career – particularly his lifelong devotion to the fight for abortion rights – is a direct result of his suffering under Nazism. He was a forced laborer in the Lodz Ghetto before it was liquidated and its residents sent to Auschwitz. The film follows Morgentaler on his only return to the place where he lost his mother, and where he and his brother survived. The experience, he tells the filmmaker, taught him that, “Just the fact that something is law does not necessarily mean it is good or justified or it’s rational.”
Before the Holocaust, Poland had about 200 wooden synagogues, a richness of liturgical architecture that one expert said “rivals the greatest wooden architecture anytime in history, anywhere in the world.” All were lost.
That American expert, Rick Brown, began a project to painstakingly reconstruct from photographic and other records a prime example of that lost history. Working, first, with his students at the Massachusetts College of Art, the project eventually expanded to include more than 300 people, mostly students, from 46 universities and 11 countries.
The undertaking was monumental. Using only the tools that were available at the time, and working on site over successive summers in Poland and Ukraine, the team recreated the intricately constructed and painted roof and ceiling of Gwozdziec Synagogue. (Gwozdziec is actually in Ukraine, but was part of the greater Polish territory during the heyday of synagogue architecture and its synagogue is both one of the most dramatic and one with the most information available to aid the team in recreating it.)
Brown and his group didn’t know what they would do with the to-scale project when it was completed, but fate intervened. The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews had been designed to accommodate exactly such a replica. After years of tree-felling, lathing, metalworking, complex joinery and scrupulous research on building techniques and paint colors, the roof and ceiling were raised into place at the Warsaw museum.
Raising the Roof, the film that tells the story of the project, is fascinating on multiple fronts. It involves many people with divergent motivations, including Jews, non-Jews, Americans, Poles, artists and even volunteers with no particular skill beyond enthusiasm. There are poignant reflections on the meaning of the original architecture, its loss and regeneration. Underpinning the entire project is the memory of the lost civilization of Polish Jewry, from which 70% of today’s Jews have ancestry, and whose architecture and culture can be reclaimed, but whose existence cannot.
Being high and low in Haifa
If you can hand yourself over to filmmaker Elad Keidan and immerse yourself in the sights of Yaron Scharf and especially the sounds created by Aviv Aldema, Afterthought is a worthwhile journey.
The Israeli film’s Hebrew title, Hayored Lema’ala, “down up,” basically sums up what happens on the outward level. Moshe, whose name and story we don’t find out till almost the very end, goes off in search of his wife’s lost earring, which leads to other discoveries about his wife and their relationship. As he starts his exploration up the stairs to the top of Mount Carmel in Haifa, Uri begins his descent to the port, where, we eventually find out, he is planning on catching a freighter abroad, both to finish writing a book and to avoid army reserve duty, as well as to run away from mistakes he has made. The two men pass the same sights, sounds and people at different points in the day, and they encounter each other, stopping for a brief chat – Moshe was Uri’s third-grade teacher, it turns out.
The English title for the film comes from a conversation Moshe overhears in a coffee shop. A man tells his friend about how he wishes that, after a talk with his mother, for example, he could call his mom and leave a message with everything that he actually wanted to say, or meant to say.
Afterthought is Keidan’s first feature, and it is a solid debut despite the slow pace. Viewers are ultimately rewarded by the internal ups and downs of the main characters, the men’s reflections on life, friends and family, and the people they meet along the way. Aldema’s radio snippets, machine and human noises, music selections and other sound effects are a character in and of themselves, and are worth the price of admission alone. These, together with Scharf’s cinematography – which is not flashy, but subtly effective – and the acting of Itay Tiran as Uri and Uri Klauzner as Moshe make for a movie that will not only have you thinking of it afterwards, but of your own life, the choices you have made, and the people you hold dear.
For the film schedule, tickets and information on all the festival’s offerings, visit vjff.org.
Would you like to go to the movies? Yes? That is exactly what about 80 people did on Nov. 25 at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture, thanks to the wonderful combined effort of Jewish Seniors Alliance and Vancouver Jewish Film Centre, which co-host a movie screening scheduled on the afternoon of the last Tuesday of every month.
Upon arriving, we were treated to a light buffet of bagels, sweets, fruit and beverages, then we headed to the large auditorium, where VJFC director Robert Albanese welcomed the audience and introduced the day’s film, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker.
After Gyda Chud, on behalf of JSA, made some announcements, including that the previously scheduled JSA Empowerment series talk Oy Vey, My Back! will be presented in March, Albanese spoke of the variety of films that the film centre will be presenting over the next few months. Then, Sophie Tucker “entered” our world.
Tucker was born Sonya Kalish to Ukrainian Jewish parents in 1886 as they fled from czarist Russia. She only became Sophie Tucker after she adopted her former husband’s name, Tuck, and added the “er.” That name became a password that could be used to gain entry to celebrities and even presidents.
In the film, authors and biographers Lloyd and Susan Ecker relate much of Tucker’s story.
When very young, she worked in her parents’ kosher restaurant, a job she did not enjoy. One day, her father asked her to distribute pamphlets at theatres as the actors left, since most of them were Jewish. He thought it would increase the number of diners.
While doing this task, Tucker heard the music from inside a theatre, she snuck in and what she saw changed her life forever, as well as the lives of her future audiences. She ran away to New York, leaving her family, but knowing where she belonged.
She tried vaudeville but, not being a classic beauty, she had difficulty being accepted “as is,” so she sang in “black face.” Eventually, her powerful voice began to be heard. When she forgot her makeup one day and sang as herself, the show was a success – she never performed in black face again.
Irving Berlin wrote music for her and she “stopped the show” when she sang. Tucker worked without a contract; her word or a handshake was sufficient.
Tucker was respected and she respected others, asking for their names, numbers and addresses upon meeting them and entering those contacts in a book, which eventually housed 10,000 names. She would write to these people if she were coming to their towns, asking them to come see her perform. She was the original Facebook – only it was the Tuckerbook.
Ted Shapiro, her accompanist for 46 years, had the unique talent of being able to interpret the mood that Tucker wished to portray.
In later years, mobsters took over the ownership of many nightclubs and Tucker befriended Al Capone. He enjoyed having her sing, as she brought people into his Chez Paris. He called her a “human cash register.”
In the years to come, Tucker decided to share what she knew and opened a school teaching young women how to be “Red Hot Mamas.”
She knew how to market herself: in the 1930s, she was the spokeswoman for soup; in the 1940s, she advertised blouses for the fuller mamas, saying she enjoyed being overweight – “Too much of a good thing is wonderful!” She prided herself on having creative and huge hairdos, calling herself the “Modern Marie Antoinette,” and always carried a large filmy handkerchief as she performed.
In 1929, the biggest entertainer was Al Jolson and he sang in the first talkie. That same year, Warner Bros. had Tucker debut in the movie Honky Tonk, where she sang “Some of These Days,” a song with which she is still identified. Judy Garland learned how to “sell a song” from Tucker.
During the war, Tucker was one of the performers to whom soldiers wrote and received answers. She was a pinup girl along with Betty Grable.
There was a young Jewish soldier who was obsessed with music and hauled around his records, vowing that he would play Tucker’s rendition of “My Yiddishe Mameh” in Berlin when he beat Hitler. Unfortunately, he died before he could accomplish this goal but his fellow soldiers fulfilled his vow, much to the anger of some German soldiers, as that song had been banned in Germany. The victors played it for eight hours through the streets of Berlin.
Tucker remained on top for 58 years, into the television era. Along the way, she befriended many, including Josephine Baker, who, because she was black, was having a hard time being allowed to perform – until Tucker invited her to sing with her.
Tucker’s talent and her voice were both immeasurable, but her true outstanding ability was in marketing herself when there wasn’t the media infrastructure there is now. She was indeed the last of the Red Hot Mamas, a glowing ember, memorable, still admired, still inspiring!
Expressing what we all felt, Chud thanked Albanese for enriching our lives with this movie, then we all went home with the echo of a song in our hearts, “Some of These Days.”
Binny Goldmanis a member of the Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver board.
In her film The German Doctor, Lucia Puenzo tries to capture Josef Mengele’s “very sociopathic, complex personality.” (photo from Vancouver Jewish Film Festival)
As a high school student in the 1990s, Lucia Puenzo was fascinated and mystified by an open secret: hundreds of Nazi war criminals found refuge in her native Argentina.
“I was intrigued that so many families knew what was going on because they had a German man on their block or somewhere in their neighborhood,” recalled the acclaimed novelist and filmmaker. “Maybe they didn’t know so much in the ’60s and ’70s but, by the ’80s or ’90s, everybody knew. How could they not open their mouths and say what happened? It had a lot of echoes of our military coup d’etat, where so many Argentine families didn’t speak out.”
In her 2011 novel Wakolda, Puenzo explored the devious machinations of a German doctor in the Patagonian town of Bariloche circa 1960 who befriends a young girl. The erstwhile physician injects her with growth hormones before turning his attention to her pregnant mother, distracting the suspicious father with a plan to mass-market his handmade dolls.
Puenzo adapted the novel for the screen, shifting the point of view from the doctor to the child. The German Doctor, which swept Argentina’s major film awards and was the country’s official submission for last year’s Oscar for best foreign language film, is a creepy, precisely crafted thriller made more unsettling by its restraint. It screens Nov. 12 in the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival.
At 37, Puenzo has already published five widely translated novels and directed three singular films, including XXY, her prize-winning tale of an intersex teenager. Smart and fearless, she is attracted to subjects that others find off-limits or taboo – like the Nazi presence in Argentina.
“For me, the big mystery has always been why this subject, that could be a hundred films and a hundred novels, has never been taken to film before,” she explained in a long-distance phone interview. “We have maybe a few excellent documentaries on the subject but not one fiction film, and maybe we have five or six novels, and that’s all speaking about the subject.”
The German Doctor did solid box office in Argentina, which Puenzo sees as confirmation of pent-up interest. The film has been released in dozens of countries, including several European nations.
The film succinctly illustrates how a cautious physician who adults would view with suspicion, let’s call him Josef Mengele, could win a child’s trust.
“In the camps, there were so many horrible testimonies of how kids would call him Uncle Mengele. He would have sweets to give to the children and then he would take them to his experiments,” Puenzo said.
The German Doctor captures that deviousness and single-mindedness, while persuasively depicting the polite veneer Mengele devised to mask his lunacy and deceive people.
“After the war, after the concentration camps, he disguised himself as this very civilized, seductive, enchanting man that lived for decades in three countries of Latin America without anybody suspecting who he was,” Puenzo said. “I think that’s how you have to portray this very sociopathic, complex personality who disguised himself. He was not the stereotype of the bad guy whom you could see coming.”
Puenzo comes across as earnest and serious but, befitting someone with a master’s degree in literature and critical theory, she recognizes the relationship between pop culture and popular perceptions of history.
“I remember films like The Boys of Brazil,” she said. “I loved it in a way, it’s such a strange film, but at the same time it’s a stereotype of Mengele. I think to honor these most horrific monsters, you really have to show them in all their complexity. They were much more dangerous than we think.”
The German Doctor is in Spanish and German with English subtitles; it is rated PG-13 for thematic material and brief nudity. For the full schedule of this year’s VJFF, which started Nov. 6, visit vjff.org.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.