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)
Ofir Raul Graizer’s America features a love triangle of sorts, between Iris (Oshrat Ingadashet) and Eli (Michael Moshonov), above, who meet at her and Yotam’s flower shop, and Yotam (Ofri Biterman) and Eli, whose afternoon swim turns tragic. (screenshots courtesy Beta Cinema)
On Feb. 23 at Fifth Avenue Cinemas, the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival offers an award-winning teaser to next month’s festival. Ofir Raul Graizer’s America is an emotionally packed film that says as much with dialogue as it does visually.
We meet Ilai Cross in Chicago, where he is a beloved swimming teacher. With gentle sensitivity and patience, he helps kids overcome their fears and become comfortable in the water. He is great at his job, and seems happy, if solitary.
A phone call from a lawyer informing him that his father has died sends Ilai – whose real name, it turns out, is Eli Greenberg – back to Israel. He’s obviously uncomfortable being “home,” his policeman father’s retirement plaques and guns everywhere. There are reasons Eli left Israel for the (mythical) land of opportunity, America, which we eventually find out.
In contrast to his father’s stark, rundown, predominantly beige house and untended yard is the vibrant, life-filled flower shop of his childhood friend Yotam and fiancée Iris, and their brightly coloured living space, where they welcome Eli for dinner. Between some too-long hugs and what seem like yearning looks, one wonders just how close were friends Eli and Yotam, but the film gives nothing away.
When the two friends go swimming at an old haunt, an accident leaves Yotam in an extended coma. At first blaming Eli for the incident, Iris eventually bonds with him, in part because of their shared loss. When, 18 months later, Yotam wakes up, life changes again for Eli and for Iris, both of whom must make their own decisions as to what they consider the morally responsible way forward.
The acting is excellent. While Oshrat Ingadashet was awarded for her performance at the Jerusalem Film Festival last year, both Michael Moshonov, as Eli, and Ofri Biterman, as Yotam, deserve kudos, as well. All three actors play their roles with quiet force, emoting as much in a gesture as in words. The relatively sparse dialogue invites viewers to focus on what else is pictured in each scene, and Graizer lets shots of newspaper articles, an actor’s face or the landscape help tell the story. He respects viewers’ ability to handle ambiguity, answering enough questions to satisfy, but leaving much to discuss afterward. Cinematographer Omri Aloni’s work adds beauty and depth to the production.
America screens at the Rothstein Theatre on Feb. 23, at 7 p.m. To see the trailer and buy tickets to see the movie, visit vjff.org.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival opens March 9 and runs to March 16 at Fifth Avenue. There will be more in-person screenings March 17-19 at the Rothstein Theatre and select films will be available online March 19-26.
A still from Amanda Kinsey’s documentary Jews of the Wild West, a series of vignettes that shines a light on a noteworthy and usually overlooked history.
The Wild West, Jews in Germany and a surprisingly vivacious Israeli seniors home feature among the diverse films at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival this year.
Somehow, we tend not to associate Jews with the legends that have built up around the development of the American West, a serious oversight that is in the crosshairs of filmmaker Amanda Kinsey’s documentary Jews of the Wild West.
The mythology of the Wild West is perhaps as much an invention of Hollywood as of history, so it is notable that the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, which introduced the genre of the cinematic Western, featured Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson – né Max Aronson.
The myth of the West was no less inspiring to Jews than to other Americans and dreamers from around the world. Perhaps one of the most famous names in the lore was Wyatt Earp. The film introduces us to Josephine Marcus, who fled her family in San Francisco to become an actress and ended up being Earp’s wife. Earp himself is buried along with the Marcus family in a Jewish cemetery.
The gold rush drew Jewish peddlers and merchants to the West Coast in the late 19th century including, most famously, Levi Strauss, who left the Lower East Side and, via Panama, arrived in San Francisco. His brothers sent dry goods from New York and Levi sold them up and down the coast. When Jacob Davis, a tailor, was asked by a woman to construct pants that her husband wouldn’t burst out of, he imagined adding rivets. He took the idea to Strauss and the rest is American clothing history. As one historian notes, it was a Jew who invented “the most American of garments.”
The rapid industrialization in the mining sector is where the Guggenheim family got its start and so, while the name is now most associated with Fifth Avenue, the finest address in New York City, their start was in the gritty West of the 19th century.
We meet Ray Frank, the first woman said to have preached from a bimah. Called the “golden girl rabbi,” she was not ordained, but was apparently a phenomenon that drew crowds to her sermons.
Many people will know that Golda (Mabovitch/Meyerson) Meir spent formative years as an immigrant from Russia in Milwaukee and then Denver. This footnote to her history is often considered curious and interesting, but in this film it integrates the Jewish experience of the 20th century and its roots in the American West with the development of the Jewish state – the opening up of another frontier, one might say.
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, seeing the poverty in the Lower East Side, actively encouraged migration to the West. The film introduces families who have worked the land for generations, some of whom have maintained their Jewish identity and at least one of whom was raised Methodist. But, it suggests, the thriving Jewish community of Denver owes much to the failed farmers of the West who made their way to the nearest metropolis to salvage their livelihoods.
The documentary is really a series of vignettes and at times the shift from one story to another is confusing but, as a whole, Jews of the Wild West successfully shines a light on a noteworthy and usually overlooked history.
* * *
The festival features two German films that complement each other in interesting ways.
In Masel Tov Cocktail, a short (about 30 minutes) film, high schooler Dima (Alexander Wertmann) welcomes viewers into his life just as he is suspended for a week as a result of punching a classmate in the face during an altercation in the washroom. The “victim,” Tobi (Mateo Wansing Lorrio), had taunted the Jewish Dima, graphically play-acting a victim in a gas chamber, a performance enhanced by the austere, sterile setting of the restroom’s porcelain-tiled walls. So begins an interplay of victim and perpetrator that is just one of several provocative themes weaving through this powerful short.
Dima’s family, it turns out, heralds from the former Soviet Union, like 90% of Jews in today’s Germany. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, the German government actively encouraged migration of Jews to revitalize Jewish life in the country. This fact, like other statistics and tidbits, is flashed across the screen.
Juxtapositions pack a punch, including Dima’s switching between a baseball cap and a kippa, perhaps reflecting his complex identities, as well as the schism in the identities of post-Holocaust Jews more broadly in a society that struggles to assimilate the idea of contemporary, living Jews in the context of the blood-soaked soil of their state. A shift from colour to black-and-white also evokes the stark break between the present and the past.
But the present and the past are themselves in conflict as Dima recounts how other Germans react when they learn he is Jewish. Why does he only meet Germans whose grandparents weren’t Nazis, he wonders. Statistic: a survey indicates that 29% of Germans think their ancestors helped Jews during the Holocaust, while the screen text helpfully informs us the number was more like 0.1%.
Dima’s teacher, who can’t utter the word Jew and struggles to get the word Shoah out of her mouth, wants Dima to share his family’s Holocaust story with the class. The film’s implication is that Dima’s family was largely spared the trauma of the Holocaust, but he decides to play along because, “There’s no business like Shoah business.”
Dima’s grandfather is taken in by the AfD, the neo-fascist Alternative for Germany party, convinced that their pro-Israel and anti-Muslim rhetoric means that they are defenders of the Jewish people. In a moment that confounds the AfD campaigner (and causes the viewer to reflect), Dima drags his grandfather away from the campaigner while yelling: “Don’t let foreigners take away your antisemitism.”
The film is kooky, funny and light, while also serious, dark and thoughtful throughout.
That description applies to the similarly named feature film Love and Mazel Tov, which features Anne, a non-Jewish bookstore owner who has Munich’s largest selection of Jewish titles and who herself is more than a little obsessed with all things Jewish – including potential romantic partners.
“Some are into fat. Some are into thin. Anne is into Jews,” a friend explains. This turns out to be more than a romantic or erotic attraction, perhaps a disordered response to national and family histories.
Thinking she has found not only a Jewish boyfriend but a doctor at that, Anna (Verena Altenberger) courts Daniel (Maxim Mehmet), who in typical cinematic fashion lets her believe what she wants to believe until the inevitable mix-up explodes in a farcical emotional explosion – though not before an excruciating family dinner.
Parts of the film exist on a spectrum between cringey and hilarious. The film features (at least) two fake Jews who don this identity for extremely different reasons, inviting reflections on passing, appropriation and the fine line between veneration and fetishization.
Both of these films use humour to excavate deeply troubling concepts of identity and addressing horrors of the past. They approach these challenging themes in truly innovative and entertaining ways.
* * *
Understated comedy is key to the success of Greener Pastures, an Israeli film in which Dov, a retired postal worker, has lost his home after a “pension fiasco” involving the privatization of the postal service.
He is a curmudgeonly old square when it comes to marijuana, which the government has decided should be available to anyone 75 and over, but he sees a moneymaking opportunity. Dov (Shlomo Bar-Aba) enlists a network of seniors to order medicinal cannabis and mail it to him so he can distribute it to his “connection,” who shops it around to younger consumers. This “kosher kush,” guaranteed “Grade A government-approved stuff” sold in tahini bottles, brings Dov into conflict with a two-bit drug kingpin in a wheelchair and, of course, a snooping police officer.
There is romance and suspense in this madcap caper, but there is also the theme of elder empowerment, along with the laughs.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival runs online only March 3-13. For the full festival lineup and tickets, visit vjff.org.
A still of one of the humorous (and relatable) moments in Image of Victory, which is part of this year’s Vancouver Jewish Film Festival.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival opening night film is the epic Image of Victory, directed by Avi Nesher. It’s not with grandiosity that the movie leaves its mark, though there is some of that, but rather with the quiet moments of humanity it so movingly depicts.
Sombre piano music over which one can hear missiles flying, bombs exploding, wind blowing are heard as the initial credits are shown, modest white lettering on a black background, nothing showy. “There are moments when you try to make sense of your life,” begins the narrator, as black-and-white footage of a shot-out building appears, then a jeep, soldiers with rifles pointed, tanks. “You wonder if you made good use of the time God gave you on this earth. You seek someone to compare yourself to. Someone you think truly lived.”
For Egyptian journalist and filmmaker Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, that person is Mira Ben-Ari, though he doesn’t know her name or anything about her at the time. It is the image of her from decades ago that he cannot forget – battle-worn, staring down the Egyptian forces, she smiles, she takes out a gun and shoots. Cut to an older Hassanein, in his study, depressed and angry, watching the TV news about Israel and Egypt’s peace agreement, after decades of war. Was all the fighting and all the death it caused in vain? He blames himself for not having the courage to expose Egypt’s president as a traitor for making the peace deal. He idealizes Mira’s bravery and purpose, thinks back to when he was 24, and fearless – when he was assigned to document Egypt’s military operations against the soon-to-be-reestablished Jewish homeland.
Inspired by the Battle of Nitzanim in June 1948, in which the kibbutz was destroyed by Egypt, Image of Victory imagines what it might have been like on both sides of that conflict. Both Mira and Hassanein are based on real people, as are other characters in the film, and this movie is about a near-mythological event. The voiceover, the black-and-white footage, the fancy costumes of New Year’s Eve revellers in Cairo, idealistic kibbutzniks, zealous army commanders. Any one of these elements could have slipped into a larger-than-life portrayal, but director Avi Nesher shows restraint – and a valiant attempt at balance that has an air of realism, though the kibbutzniks are admittedly more developed entities.
The majority of the film takes place in chronological order, six months out from the battle. When we first see the kibbutzniks working the dusty land, they are doing so under occasional fire from the Egyptian farmers who were displaced after their landlord sold said land to the Jews. The rules of engagement are fascinating. After one altercation, the Egyptians yell to the kibbutzniks that they are all done on their side, and the Jews cease their fire so that both sides can safely collect their wounded and dead.
In the midst of the tension, life goes on in the kibbutz – there are broken hearts and newly starting relationships, there is joyous singing, dancing and piano playing, there is hard labour, there is frolicking on the beach. But underlying all the apparent normality is the hyper-reality of mortality, both because many of the residents and their recently arrived Haganah protectors are Holocaust survivors, as well as the threat of Egyptian attack. As one young soldier tells Mira, “You’d think it’s paradise if being here wasn’t risking death.”
After a brutal attack on a truck carrying supplies to the kibbutz, the Egyptian commander doesn’t want Hassanein to film the emptying of the truck of its supplies because it looks like they’re stealing. Perception is Hassanein’s constant battle – what he is being told to film and what he really wants to film. For example, during a lull in the fighting, he makes a film about two Arab villagers falling in love, which is trashed by the producer who hired him. People don’t want to watch that, yells the producer, they want war.
After the Egyptian forces are repelled by the newly declared state of Israel, Hassanein is ordered to film an Egyptian victory, so that King Farouk can save face. The enormity of the Egyptian army descends on Nitzanim, which Israel’s leaders – for ideological reasons encapsulated by the character of (real-life) commander Abba Kovner – have abandoned.
While the kibbutz’s children (including Mira’s young son) and some of the adults were evacuated or assigned to other defence tasks, the rest of the residents and soldiers were left to fend for themselves, vastly outnumbered. The real-life outcome is known: more than 30 kibbutz members and soldiers were killed, more than 100 taken prisoner. What Nesher’s film offers is an idea of the ambitions, the loves, the fears, and more, of some of those who were at the ground level, caught in a situation not entirely of their making.
The acting is phenomenal – adeptly showing the interplay of diverse characters, with their own senses of humour, their own past traumas, their own desires, their own measures of victory. The characters are more than stereotypes and the stories more nuanced than the ones we most often hear. Nesher wants us to be skeptical of national mythologies and of the media that help propel these misleading views, yet respectful of one another’s narratives, as complicated as they may be and no matter how divergent they may be from our own. It’s perhaps an impossible ask, but some ideals are worth dying for – or are they?
Image of Victory director Avi Nesher and producer Ehud Bleiberg participate in a live Q&A on March 6, 11 a.m. The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival runs March 3-13. For tickets: vjff.org.
A still from the documentary Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival runs March 3-13, and features more than 30 films, all of which will be available online for the duration of the festival. As always, there are shorts and features, fictional narratives and documentaries – presenting a great diversity of perspectives. This month, the JI offers readers a peek into the lineup.
Fifty years of Fiddler
Like a lot of people, Norman Jewison thought Norman Jewison was Jewish. When he was growing up in Toronto’s east end, other students would call out, “Hey Jewy!” Decades later, when he was one of Hollywood’s acclaimed filmmakers, it would come as a shock to many that someone with the word Jew as the root of their surname was, in fact, not Jewish. It hit Jewison earlier, when he tagged along to synagogue with one of the only actual Jewish kids in his school.
“When the melamed at the temple told me to leave, I thought, ‘What’s going on?’” he said. “Where do I belong?”
The feature-length documentary Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen purports to tell the story of how the stage play based on Sholem Aleichem’s Anatevka tales turned into the cinematic blockbuster Fiddler on the Roof. It does that, but it is also very much a story of Jewison’s trajectory as an interpreter of historical and current events.
Jewison had already made a splash with his 1967 race-focused movie In the Heat of the Night when he conjured the idea of filming Fiddler. Friends and foes predicted failure. Too Jewish. Not a large enough potential audience. But Jewison forged ahead, certain that his version would universalize the story into “a film for everybody.” Arriving at a time of social upheaval in the United States and elsewhere, Fiddler’s underlying themes were relatable to many, Jewish or not.
Case in point: the film was huge in Japan. There may be next to no Jews in that country, but, in the early 1970s, when Fiddler was released, Japanese society, like many countries, was struggling to balance modernity and tradition.
The documentary Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen comes a half-century after Fiddler on the Roof’s screen debut. It interviews surviving contributors and actors, many of whom saw their early careers explode with the popularity of the movie. Rosalind Harris, now 75, played Tzeitel both on Broadway (after understudying for Bette Midler) and in the film. Her thrill at the film and her place in it is undiminished by time and she nearly steals the documentary.
The enthusiasm of Jewison himself seems equally undiminished. He tells of how he sought out Isaac Stern, perhaps the 20th century’s greatest violinist, to dub the music of the titular character. He dismissed Frank Sinatra’s entreaties to play Tevye and scored Topol, the Israeli actor (né Chaim Topol), who had played the lead in Israel and then in London, casting aside, in the process, Zero Mostel, Broadway’s longtime Tevye.
Diplomatic relations with the Soviet bloc at the time made it impossible to film in Ukraine, where Anatevka is set, so Jewison struck a deal with the “non-aligned” Yugoslavia and much of the filming took place in Lekenik (now in Croatia), in wooden buildings constructed based on historical architectural records. One commentator in the documentary notes the irony that the film about a disappeared community was filmed in what is now referred to as “the former Yugoslavia” – “another place that is no more.”
Jewison speaks emotionally about watching the film’s Israeli debut beside Golda Meir and a meeting he had with David Ben-Gurion, who told Jewison that whoever is crazy enough to choose to be a Jew is Jew.
“If I’m crazy enough to want to be Jewish, then I’m Jewish,” Jewison interprets Ben-Gurion’s words.
But when he received an Academy Award, he cheekily acknowledged the truth. “Not bad for a goy,” he joked.
Not bad for a Canuck, one might add.
The documentary’s director, Daniel Raim, will participate in a live Q&A on March 7, 7 p.m.
Shorts of all sizes
Since this year’s Jewish Film Festival is online and on demand, you can choose to view the numerous short films as a binge or watch one or two between features as a sort of visual amuse bouche.
At about 30 minutes, Paradise is on the long end of the “shorts” spectrum. It features Ala Dakka, who will be recognizable to Fauda fans, as the doe-eyed Palestinian boxer, Bashar. In real life, Dakka is an Arab Israeli who, in media interviews, has been open about his struggle with his identity. In this film, he plays Ali, who has just arrived at Eilat airport from his home in Berlin, to attend his sister’s wedding. After a fight over the phone with his father (it was cheaper to fly to Eilat than to Tel Aviv, so now he is going to miss the pre-wedding dinner), he decides to skip the festivities altogether and hitchhike to the Sinai. (This after a five-hour interrogation by border security at the airport, which doesn’t help either Ali’s frame of mind or his ability to make the celebratory banquet.)
Picked up by a group of Israeli partiers, Ali opts to introduce himself as Eli, and so begins a subtle and, of course, inevitable succession of miscues and small betrayals. It is a tightly told story of self-identity and the perceptions of others. Dakka is a rising star in Israeli film and he brings memorable depth to his character in this short, charming drama. A subtext of the film is the happy-go-lucky Israelis’ perceptions of Egypt (or perhaps the broader “other”) and a degree of paranoia that one of the party crowd acknowledges doesn’t require pot-smoking to ignite.
A slightly shorter film, at about 20 minutes, is Pops, which pits grieving siblings against each other, as they try to do what they each think their recently deceased father would have wanted regarding his burial. The uptight son and the hippy-ish daughter come to an unorthodox compromise.
You’re Invited sees a rabbi’s daughter invite her friends to a funeral when she learns that the deceased has no kin. Charming in concept and cheesy in execution, with uneven acting and heavy-handed writing, the short film is sweet enough, although anyone who has been a pallbearer will recognize an empty box when they see one carried in a movie. Explicitly based on a true story, the 13-minute film is neither too long nor too short.
For a quick laugh, at seven minutes, The Shabbos Goy follows a religious woman as she deals with the unexpected activation of a personal electronic device – a very personal electronic device – during Shabbat lunch. She runs into the street to find a non-Jew who she can entice but, due to halachah, not overtly request to turn the humming device off before the men in the house discover the source of the noise. (The women of the house, notably, remain blasé.)
The Jew who defended Nazis
Ira Glasser was the director of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1978 to 2001, a period when the organization exploded in size and relevance – and also when it took on some of the most contentious topics the country has ever faced.
Perhaps not a household name, Glasser and his contributions to civil liberties in particular and to American society more broadly are examined in the documentary feature Mighty Ira.
It is easy to admire Glasser in theory and to support his principles in principle. It is harder to swallow when he champions what Oliver Wendell Holmes termed “freedom for ideas we loathe.” This challenging conflict is at the heart of Glasser’s life’s work and the heart of the film.
Glasser’s vigilance for justice was born at Ebbets Field, the now-disappeared home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, which Glasser calls his cathedral. The Dodgers were gods to the kids in Glasser’s Flatbush neighbourhood, no less so when Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball, in 1947. At age 9, Glasser discovered that Robinson was forced to stay in hotels and eat at restaurants apart from his teammates while on road trips to parts of the country. That injustice stirred in young Ira a lifelong mission.
But devotion to racial equality can seem to come head-to-head with First Amendment rights to free expression, as when neo-Nazis sought to march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill., in 1977. The provocative plan to wear fascist regalia and parade through a town whose population was half Jewish – and which included one of the world’s largest communities of Holocaust survivors – was thwarted by town officials, who used a backdoor ordinance to prevent the event. (There was a 500-member B’nai B’rith chapter in town at the time, all of whose members were survivors.)
Glasser’s ACLU took up the case, and the backlash against the unpopular cause was enormous. It tested the mettle of the ACLU leadership – to say nothing of their fundraising department – and their commitment to free speech. But the leadership, which included a great many Jews, were almost unanimously steadfast.
The documentary shows how the ACLU’s relevance grew in the time of Glasser’s leadership, not solely because of his actions but also because the country was struggling with a range of social and moral conflicts. While the rights group had been at the forefront of issues like the Scopes “Monkey Trial” (addressing the place of religion in public education), the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War and Brown v. Board of Education (banning school segregation), the ACLU’s docket really filled up in the time Glasser was at the helm in large part because the country was confronting and struggling with so many divisive issues.
Mighty Ira is the story of a remarkable man, but it is also a history of American free speech in the second half of the 20th century.
Director Nico Perrino will be a guest at the March 9, 1 p.m., screening of the documentary.
More information about the festival will soon be available at vjff.org.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival is set to go online March 4, and all the many offerings will be available until March 14. There are plenty of gems for viewers of varying tastes and ages, including a few Israeli films that seem to be nostalgic paeans to American comedies or kids’ movies of the 1960s and 1970s. But we start with romance.
The film Love in Suspenders opens with a wild car ride through Tel Aviv, as we are introduced to main character Tammy (Nitza Shaul) who drives like … well, an Israeli. When she backs into pedestrian Benno (Yehuda Barkan), this adorable slice-of-life gets rolling.
Her son Michael, a lawyer, warns that one more infraction will lead to the loss of her driver’s licence. Making nice with her victim (while continuing to argue it was his own carelessness that led to the mishap), Tammy begins what evolves into an innocent and unintentional courtship with Benno.
The luxurious seniors facility where Tammy lives is a hotbed of sexual tension – with lectures on the wonders of Viagra, a supporting character in the film that really should have received its own credit.
Tammy venerates her late husband Yoni in ways that probably exceed what would be considered normal grieving. Hanging on to her glorious past – Tammy and Yoni were a musical duo that toured Israel and abroad – versus facing an exciting but unnerving new romance is the conflict that drives her character.
Benno’s character is driven by all sorts of unnerving situations. Benno’s got his own problems with the next generation, but both he and Tammy handle their affairs like adults, despite being treated like children by their kids.
Michael’s horror at both his mother’s rekindled sex life and the uncertain provenance of the unkempt and possibly homeless Benno threatens to undermine the trajectory of their affection.
Kids aren’t the only interfering forces. The extravagant dining hall and luxurious hallways of the seniors home are brimming with prying eyes and wagging tongues. The roosters in the facility are put out that Tammy has scored a love interest from the outside, despite all their strutting and preening. The women in the building always seem to be nearby when Tammy’s male caller is coming or going from her apartment.
The title Love in Suspenders is a play on the phrase “Tuesdays in suspenders,” a program in which Israeli seniors get weekly discounts at venues like the cinema. The movie is an absolutely charming vignette of finding love at a later age and dealing with the impacts of a fresh future on a cherished past. It is a respectful treatment of older characters and their romantic explorations, which are topics too often treated shabbily by Hollywood and other depictions.
Not one of us will be able to avoid death. Yet, despite its inevitability, few of us prepare for dying and most of us put the thought of it to the back of our minds, even as we mourn those who have died.
The hour-long documentary Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing is almost a must-see for anyone struggling with the reality of mortality. It is a caring portrait of Rachel Cowan’s 18-month journey from a cancer diagnosis (a brain tumour) to her passing. Along the way, we learn about how remarkable this human’s life was and how her impacts continue. However, while Cowan was successful by almost any measure, it is not only her accomplishments that are noteworthy, but her struggles and her finding of strength in love and gratitude at her most vulnerable, when she had every right to be bitter and selfish.
Cowan was a civil and women’s rights activist of some acclaim. She was married to Paul Cowan, a journalist for the The Village Voice, and theirs was a partnership that extended into work at times; she took incredible photographs for his stories, capturing on film the best and worst of humanity in a tumultuous era. The couple lived and fought for their beliefs and really did make the world a better place.
Paul died from leukemia in 1988, at 48 years old. Rachel had converted to Judaism earlier in their relationship, after his parents died in a horrific apartment fire. The tragedy spurred Paul to explore his Jewish roots and her to search for God and meaning, which led her to Judaism. She was studying to become a rabbi during the period that Paul was ill and she was ordained soon after his death. At that point, still deep in grief, she thought, “Now, what?” How possibly could she counsel others when she herself was so ungrounded. She decided, “Choose life.”
She not only chose life for herself, but for others. While working at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, she established the Jewish Healing Centre, after seeing how little Jewish community support Paul had had in palliative care. She also established other initiatives and wrote a book on wise aging. As the documentary begins, we see Rachel leading a meditation group, continuing her life’s work. The film’s title comes from a comment Rachel makes about nine months after her diagnosis: “I’m living my life. Dying doesn’t feel like what I’m doing.”
With a harrowing opening scene, A Starry Sky Above the Roman Ghetto begins an historical back and forth between the terrible past and the present. The intertwined timeframes and eventual plot twists remind the viewer that the past is not really past.
Roman high schooler Sofia (Bianca Panconi) finds a Second World War-era letter and photograph hidden in the lining of a flea market suitcase. Her curiosity piqued, she begins a quest to uncover the story behind the mystery, which forms the narrative of the film.
Bringing the artifacts to her schoolmates, who enthusiastically join in the sleuthing, Sofia and pals then recruit students from the neighbouring Jewish high school to join in the mystery-solving.
There is charm in the cross-cultural friendships and some minimal tension when the teens meet obstruction from their parents and teachers. But the film is generally simplistic, too often cutesy and frequently hammy.
Before they have even tracked down the basics of the historical mystery, the students decide to turn their quest into a play. The movie itself has the feel of a high school production, and the fresh-faced, upbeat teen spirit seems incongruous with the Holocaust narrative at the heart of both the theatre production and the film. Impediments are too easily overcome. Archival research eurekas far too effortlessly and speedily fall into place. (The way the characters manhandle historical documents would make an archivist recoil.) An ostensible Montague/Capulet hurdle to a pair of star-crossed lovers is resolved in the most facile manner imaginable. The ending is unbelievably tidy – unbelievable being the operative term.
Continuity and fidelity to peoplehood and identity are core themes, but even these are handled poorly. For example, a Jewish boy gives Sofia a convincing explanation for why he must date and marry only a Jewish girl, but the next day he apologizes, apparently deciding that maybe continuity isn’t as sacred as a little amorousness after all.
The resolution to the larger mystery falls very close to home for Sofia, whose own life is altered by her discovery. This outcome provides some justification for the girl’s otherwise inexplicably dogged devotion to unraveling the mystery. But the whole thing has more of a Scooby-Doo vibe than the solemn drama the film probably set out to create.
There is some eye candy in the form of Roman architecture, including parts of the city’s Jewish quarter, but it is perhaps a thwarted COVID-era wanderlust to blame for finding fault that the film is not more of a visual celebration of the eternal city.
There is some decent acting and there are enjoyable components to A Starry Sky Above the Roman Ghetto, but it is hard to sustain the premise of an historical mystery when every twist and turn is foreseeable long before the ostensibly bright students clue in.
Fans of Airplane, Naked Gun and Austin Powers will settle right in with the ridiculous Israeli comedy Mossad. Upending the perception of the Israeli intelligence agency as one of the world’s greatest, the film centres on what must be Mossad’s most moronic agent.
The action begins with the kidnapping of the world’s foremost tech magnate, Jack Saterberg, while he visits Israel. (One doesn’t have to stretch the imagination much to conjure a mashup of Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg). It falls to Mossad operative Guy Moran (Tsahi Halevi) to team up with CIA agent Linda Harris (Efrat Dor) to confront the bad guys.
When Mossad hit Israeli theatres in 2019, it saw a box office-smashing open. It is an all-ages bit of entertainment, with slapstick buffoonery and sight gags – and not really a lot more. There is certainly plenty of violence, but it is exclusively of the cartoonish variety.
In addition to sight gags, smartass dialogue drives what there is of a direction to the story. “I’m a Mossad agent. Here’s my card,” Moran says. “It’s blank,” replies the recipient. “I’m a secret agent,” he says. Nyuk nyuk nyuk.
The kidnappers threaten to stop all cellphone service worldwide. When they offer a two-minute taste of the threat, global mayhem and violence ensue, underscoring the urgency of preventing the calamity. Suffice to say the only real tension in the 90 or so minutes comes from bracing for the next corny gag.
All the predictable scenarios are packed in – like a countdown clock to doomsday and other tenets of the genre – but in the most outlandish forms. Romance also figures, with Israeli-Israeli, Israeli-American and human-machine flirting adding spice and disorientation befitting a script that seems to view no joke as too absurd if there’s a chance of a laugh.
For a harmless multigenerational movie night, Mossad will deliver a few side-splitters and a lot of snickers.
Sky Raiders is pure family fun. In Hebrew with English subtitles, the audience needs to be old enough to read, but not even that well, as the action is pretty easy to follow. For the parents who may have watched The Love Bug when they were a kid, there will be a comforting sense of familiarity with Sky Raiders, though the historic plane that gets rebuilt in this movie isn’t anthropomorphized and the love story in this case is between the teens.
Yotam (Amir Tessler) is the new kid at school and has trouble fitting in. When he spots Noa (Hila Natanzon) playing soccer with a group of boys, and holding her own, he is smitten. He joins the game but soon requires medical attention for an asthma attack, having left his inhaler at home, despite his over-protective mother’s multiple reminders for him to take it with him; his father, a pilot, died a few years earlier in a plane crash. Noa has her own parental problems – her father, also a pilot, has dismissed her as, basically, “just a girl” – and her older brother bullies her.
The two teens share both the love of all things planes and flying, as well as parents who actively try to dissuade them from these loves. They find their father figure in the grumpy old man dubbed “Mad Morris” by the local kids, who, surprise, is a really nice guy, just sad and lonely.
When Yotam and Noa discover a Messerschmitt that had been left to rot in a plane cemetery, the two – with Morris’s help – set to restore it. And, not only to restore it so that it can sit in a museum, but so that it can actually be flown in the upcoming annual Yom Ha’atzmaut airshow.
With some cheesy CGI, young love conquering all, bullies put in their place, the ostracized taking front-stage, and happy parent-child reconciliations, Sky Raiders is Disney-esque and charming. Cue the music to swell, as the credits begin.
Moe Berg as a catcher during his time in Major League Baseball. (photo from Irwin Berg)
Near the end of John Ford’s essential 1962 western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaper editor coins the credo, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The fact, as we all know, is that Americans are all-star myth-makers and myth-lovers. Many American Jewish boys caught the bug via the improbable immigrant saga of Moe Berg, a paradoxically brilliant professional athlete who led a secret second life as a spy for the U.S. government. How much of Berg’s story is true, though, and how much was legend passed among kvelling kids in the schoolyard?
Aviva Kempner, who hit a home run with her 1998 documentary about another Jewish ballplayer, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, was the obvious, natural and best-equipped filmmaker to take on the mid-20th-century mysteries at the heart of Berg’s minor celebrity.
The Spy Behind Home Plate, which screens at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival March 8 at the Rothstein Theatre, is a testament to Kempner’s determination and persistence. Chock full of dozens of contemporary and archival interviews, and packed with rare photos and even rarer film footage, The Spy Behind Home Plate is a definitive record of Berg’s achievements.
Although it’s an effective way to impart information, the dogged, dog-eared marriage of talking heads, vintage visuals and period music can’t fully evoke the shadowy stealth and deadly risks of Berg’s wartime activities. Hamstrung by her budget, Kempner wasn’t able to stage reenactments or employ other strategies to illustrate the unfilmed and unrecorded liaisons and conversations that Berg had in Europe in 1944 and 1945. The Spy Behind Home Plate, therefore, is like the steady everyday player who notches the occasional three-hit game but never achieves the transcendent grace and power of a superstar.
Morris (Moe) Berg, international man of mystery, was born in New York in 1902. His father had fled a Ukrainian shtetl for the Lower East Side, where he started a laundry before buying a drugstore in Newark.
The family moved to New Jersey when Moe was a boy, and he grew into an excellent student and a terrific baseball player. After a year at New York University, he transferred to Princeton, where he was a star shortstop (back when the Ivy League was the top, if not the only, sports conference) and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
While his older brother Sam fulfilled Dad’s wishes and went to medical school, Moe signed a contract to play pro ball. He acceded to his father’s demands up to a point by attending Columbia Law School in the off-seasons, earning his degree and passing the New York bar in 1929.
It was a false bargain: Moe despised the idea of being a lawyer, while Bernard Berg never accepted a baseball career as a legitimate pursuit. In fact, the old man refused to go to the park and see his son play.
From an athletics standpoint, his dad wasn’t missing much. A knee injury early in Moe’s career, compounded by primitive diagnosis and treatment, severely slowed him. Over 15 years as a backup catcher, Berg notched exactly 441 hits in 663 games.
What set Moe apart was his charm, charisma and erudition. He studied Sanskrit at the Sorbonne one off-season, and read multiple newspapers every day. When he went to Japan on a barnstorming tour with Babe Ruth and other Major League stars, he learned Japanese.
Berg carried a camera everywhere on that trip, and made a point of checking out the roof of a tall Tokyo hotel in order to shoot a 360-degree panorama of the city. It’s not altogether clear if he was already working officially (albeit surreptitiously) for the U.S. government, but his film was of significant help when the United States went to war with Japan after Pearl Harbor.
In fact, in early 1942, Berg recorded a radio segment in Japanese that was broadcast in Japan and drew on the goodwill he’d accumulated over two prewar visits.
Berg had been sent on research missions to South America, but that was too far from the real action. It appears he found a home in 1943 in the newly created Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the intelligence branch that evolved into the Central Intelligence Agency after the war.
His primary and crucial assignment was to ascertain how close the Germans were to having a nuclear weapon, and to sway Italian scientists from the Axis to the Allies. To successfully carry off his cover story, Berg was briefed on the science and strategy of the Manhattan Project.
One biographer recounts, “The OSS had given the Manhattan Project its own spy, in effect, its own field agent to pursue questions of interest wherever he could in Europe. And that was Moe Berg.”
Kempner accords a great deal of screen time to this episode in Berg’s clandestine career as a professional spook. It’s a great story, in which the solidly built former catcher is assigned to attend a conference in Switzerland and determine – from the keynote speech by a visiting German scientist, Werner Heisenberg – if the Nazis are within reach of perfecting the bomb.
Berg carries a pistol to the symposium, with orders to use it on Heisenberg if he deems it necessary. It would be churlish of me to recount the outcome of Berg’s suicide mission except to say that the catcher-turned-spy who spoke seven languages lived unhappily ever after the war.
Kempner leaves us wanting to know more about Berg’s later years. By the weirdest of coincidences, Sam Berg headed a group of doctors sent to Nagasaki to study the effects of radiation poisoning. Incredibly, Moe and Sam never knew about each other’s exploits. This lone fact reveals that there’s still more to know about Moe Berg’s story.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival runs until March 8. For tickets and the movie schedule, visit vjff.org.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
“How does a housewife decide between generals?” asks Golda Meir (played by Tovah Feldshuh) in Golda’s Balcony. In this instance, she must decide between the counsel of David (Dado) Elazar, her chief of staff, left, and Moshe Dayan, her minister of defence. (production still)
Tovah Feldshuh is incredible to watch in Golda’s Balcony, The Film. Not just in her passionate and sympathetic portrayal of Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister from 1969 to 1974, but in her depiction of all 45 characters in William Gibson’s one-woman play. She’s Meir, David Ben-Gurion, David (Dado) Elazar, her husband Morris, Holocaust survivors and Israeli soldiers, among many others. She moves as easily between the personalities as a child raised in a multilingual household moves between languages. And with powerful effect.
Golda’s Balcony, The Film has two screenings at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival – March 1, 1 p.m., and March 2, 3:30 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas. See it. You will have a more nuanced understanding of Meir, as well as of Israel, its origins and the struggles it has faced and will face. Gibson’s text is superb; it is engaging and insightful, with enough humour along the way that you’ll be able to breathe on occasion, as Meir deals with the existential crisis of the Yom Kippur War. Fluidly switching from wartime to other parts of her life, the play depicts, if nothing else, the stressful, heart-wrenching, thankless job that is being prime minister of a country that is constantly under threat.
The film is a recording of the play’s soldout Off-Broadway première on May 4, 2003, at the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, presented by Issembert Productions. After a four-month soldout run at MET, the show moved to Broadway, and the Helen Hayes Theatre, where it ran for 15 months, making it, apparently, the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history. It has won countless awards.
The set is relatively simple. A table with a couple of chairs on a tile floor. On the table, a dial telephone, a pitcher and water glass, an ashtray, cigarettes. Light shines on the table from the right, as if from a window. The backdrop is a wall of reddish stone or metal slabs of varying sizes that protrude outward. Images are projected onto the wall or chairs when relevant, giving the audience a visual of the person Meir is talking about, or that Feldshuh is portraying – though it is hard to see these images in the film version. To the side and a step down is a small piece of stage covered in dirt, with a few rocks, which acts as refugee camps in Cyprus, the kibbutz on which Meir lived for a time, Russia when Meir visits on a diplomatic tour, etc. The focal point for the entire production is Feldshuh.
The play begins in darkness, a man chants a prayer, the words “Golda’s Balcony” appear briefly on the wall. Thunder claps, lightning flashes, gunshots ring out, then darkness again, but the sound continues: guns firing, bombs exploding, planes overhead. A housecoat-garbed Golda, sitting at the head of the table, strikes a match and lights a cigarette; the lights rise a bit and calmer music prevails.
“I’m at the end of my story,” says Golda. “I’m old. I’m tired. I’m sick. Dying, the doctors tell me. The picture you have of me as Mamaleh Golde, who makes chicken soup for her soldiers, it’s a nice picture. And I do make chicken soup. But let’s empty it all out for keeps right now because, at the bottom of the pot, is blood. At the bottom of the pot is the question that won’t die. I can do without that music!” she yells. It stops. The lights come on more fully, as Golda then starts to relate the story of her first voyage to Palestine, with her husband, in 1921 – 52 years later, she would become prime minister.
“I remember, starting with a phone call, that woke me up at four o’clock in the morning. Saturday, Yom Kippur, 1973,” she says, as she closes her eyes, looking exhausted, her right arm holding up her head, the left one sliding off the table. The phone rings. Startled, she answers it, hearing the news that Egypt and Syria have attacked Israel. As she takes off the housecoat, Golda is in her familiar muted woolen skirt suit; energy, anger and fear all come to the surface as she relates her generals’ differing views as to what Israel needs to do. Dado: attack! Moshe Dayan: don’t be seen as the aggressor! “How does a housewife decide between generals?” she asks.
Of course, she does decide. But the agonizing and tension-filled process leads her – and Israel – down some very dark paths and the play masterfully depicts her sadness, anxiety and frustration; the sacrifices to her family, her health, as well as to others. Throughout the many narratives, it is the story of the Dimona nuclear facility to which she will get, the story that haunts her, that took her to hell; the story she needs to gather the strength to tell.
Thunder, lightning and gunfire divide the scenes in the whirlwind of action that Golda describes, her domestic life almost as tumultuous as her political life. We see her humanity, but also her toughness. Luckily, she never had to answer the question that “won’t die”: if Israeli forces hadn’t been able to cross the Suez Canal and if the United States had not come through with the needed military aid, would she have ordered the dropping of the nuclear bombs with which she had armed Israel’s planes?
Golda’s Balcony is a must-see in a festival with many excellent films. For the full schedule, visit vjff.org.