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.
Julie Cohen’s The Sturgeon Queens is informative and delightful.
From the fraught origins of the state of Israel to what a possible peaceful future for Israel might look like, this year’s Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, which runs Nov. 6-13 at Fifth Avenue Cinemas, should inspire even the most cynical. Documentary or narrative feature, there seems to be an underlying theme of hope. And who couldn’t use more of that. Here are reviews of a handful of films that the Jewish Independent was able to preview.
Dove’s Cry (Israel) follows Hadeel, a 27-year-old Arab Israeli teacher, over the course of a school year as she teaches Arabic and Arab culture to a group of students at a Jewish Israeli primary school near Tel Aviv.
The film begins with a school-wide celebration of Rosh Hashanah. Hadeel is cheerful, energetic and inspired. Her personality is electric and she connects easily with her students. The children vie for her to call on them in class, they are excited to be learning. Her Jewish co-workers seem to respect and admire her.
About a third of the way through the documentary though, a tearful Hadeel tries to process the racist outburst of one of her students, who calls her a “stinking Arab” after a disciplinary incident. Speaking to her family, Hadeel admits that this is the first time she’s experienced such overt racism in five years of teaching. Her shock and disappointment are palpable.
More significant, perhaps, are the casual, daily prejudices that Hadeel experiences, most often from her co-workers, the school’s administration and parents. And, however open the children, they know very little about Arabic, Islam, Christianity or Arab culture, and freely express their apprehension about Arabs, Arab neighborhoods and their fears around terrorism. Hadeel is patient, authoritative, good-humored and kind throughout. During a drill, a teacher asks Hadeel if she has a bomb shelter in her community; Hadeel reminds her that, of course, she does, that she is an Israeli, and faces the same physical threats.
There are stark reminders everywhere that Hadeel is creating a bubble of tolerance in her classroom and, perhaps, at the school, but not beyond that. “In the classroom, I teach one thing and, at home, they teach the opposite,” Hadeel laments. One of the central relationships in the film is with the principal, who reminds Hadeel of the limits of her program and often sides with the parents.
By the time Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut arrive, Hadeel expresses how torn she is about her position in the school and, by extension, in Israeli society. “Suddenly, I feel like I don’t belong to the place where I was born,” she explains.
Ganit Ilouz’s documentary is a sobering look at the strictures and complexities faced by Israel’s minority citizens. It is a potent reminder at how much better Israelis would be served if all citizens were conversant in Hebrew and Arabic and knew some basic facts about each other’s culture and customs. It’s something Jewish Diaspora communities should consider, as well. Hadeel’s name means “dove’s cry,” a fitting name for a woman tireless and steadfast in her pursuit of a better Israel.
At the centre of Hanna’s Journey (Germany/Israel) is Hanna, a smart, driven woman. We first meet her in a waiting room with several other candidates for a job. As one exits her interview, obviously disappointed, Hanna follows her into the bathroom to find out what type of employee the company is seeking. When she finds out that grades alone won’t be enough, that the company wants someone who’s also dug wells in Africa or is an “eco-freak,” she lets down her hair, removes her lipstick and earrings, and undoes the top button of her blouse. When one of the interviewers notes, “this resumé doesn’t wow me with its diversity,” Hanna lies to them, saying that she only just received her acceptance to go work in Israel with people who have mental disabilities. If she provides them with proof, she has a great chance at getting the job.
Problem: Hanna’s mother, who runs a social-service nonprofit that sends young Germans to Israel, won’t fake the letter. Solution: Hanna actually goes to Israel, both to work at a village for those with mental disabilities, and also to spend time with a Holocaust survivor.
“In Hanna’s Journey, I’m attending the question [of the] impact the Holocaust has for Israelis and Germans of the third generation, how the shared past is affecting our lives up to today and inseparably connects us,” writes Julia von Heinz in her director’s statement. “The mixture of fascination and disgust which forms the German-Israeli relations, the neurotic, gets symbolized by my film’s complicated love story.”
In the film, Hanna leaves behind her businessman boyfriend Alex. Their relationship seems solid. Certainly no one in the nonprofit’s house where Hanna is billeted will threaten it, as Carsten is gay and Maja is not only unfriendly, but a full-on antisemite. However, Itay, the social worker at the village is another story. The antithesis of Alex, he is not so fond of Germans, at least at first.
During her time in Israel, Hanna discovers much about herself and her family, in particular, her mother, with whom she doesn’t get along. It turns out that the survivor who Hanna visits knew her mother.
Billed as a romantic comedy, Hanna’s Journey is more contemplative than funny and even the romance part is questionable. It’s really a drama, touching on many important topics and allowing various complexities to remain unresolved. The acting is strong, the script is compelling, and it’s a movie that should be taken seriously.
Even if you’ve read Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built by Mark Russ Federman (click here for the review in the JI), Julie Cohen’s The Sturgeon Queens (United States) is informative and delightful. For whatever reason, the story of Russ & Daughters never fails to captivate.
Joel Russ came to New York from Germany in 1907. He joined his older sister and started working right away to contribute to the family income. He married Bella in 1908 and, in 1913, the first of their three daughters – Hattie, Anne and Ida – was born. In 1914, he opened his first store, on Orchard Street. In 1920, he moved it to Houston Street and there it has remained, joined in 2014 by a new family restaurant, Russ & Daughters Café, located on, appropriately enough, Orchard Street.
Cohen’s documentary came out during the store’s centennial year and it features interviews with the two surviving “sturgeon queens,” Hattie Russ Gold, then 100, and her sister Anne Russ Federman, then 92. Mark Russ Federman, who ran the store from the 1970s until 2008, and his daughter Niki Russ Federman and nephew Josh Russ Tupper, who now run the store, are interviewed, and longtime employee Herman Vargas is also featured.
Other interviewees include Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Morley Safer and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as well as chef Mario Batali, as an example of how the customer base has expanded beyond the Jewish community, and writer Calvin Trillin, who’s written stories inspired by Russ & Daughters and wrote the foreword to the book Russ & Daughters. Narration is provided by a table-full of longtime (from one since 1929 to one since 1976) customers, with other historical and family and business information provided by the family interviewees. The use of animation, music, archival photos and film clips all add to the quality of the documentary and the credits are especially cute: they indicate when the film’s major makers’ families each came to America from a wide range of places around the world.
The Jewish Cardinal (France) by Ilan Duran Cohen is based on the true story of Jean-Marie Lustiger, born Aaron Lustiger, a Polish Jew who converted to Catholicism at age 14, during the Holocaust. When we meet him in 1979, he is a vicar in Paris who is being promoted to bishop of the city of Orléans – the location of his conversion and where he was hidden during the war.
A temperamental and intense man, Lustiger causes a stir when he tells a reporter that he remains a Jew, he is Jewish and Christian, “like Jesus,” he says defiantly. He is “convinced that God has willed” his nomination. “I am a provocation that compels reflection on Christ,” he says, without a hint of irony.
The more we learn about Lustiger, played by a magnificent Laurent Lucas, the better we understand his fervor to reconcile his identities and make peace with his few remaining family members, including his father.
Lustiger has advocates in the Church, but also detractors. Though Pope John Paul II is a robust supporter and promotes Lustiger to archbishop of Paris and then, finally, to cardinal and trusted papal advisor, there remains a tension between the two men. (There are several wonderful scenes of Lustiger’s audiences with the Pope, who is deftly – at times, sinisterly – played by Aurélien Recoing.) Lustiger’s relations with the Jewish community are strained and we see Lustiger harassed by antisemites who accuse him of defiling the Church.
After a group of Polish Carmelite nuns establishes a convent at Auschwitz (not incidentally the site of Lustiger’s mother’s murder), he is asked by the Jewish community and the Pope to negotiate a solution. Many viewers above age 35 will remember the convent and the turmoil it caused for nearly a decade until it was removed in 1993. The film captures the politics and nuances of the incident with terrific results.
Throughout, we sense Lustiger’s confusion over how to balance on the edge of Jewish-Catholic relations, once he loses some of his hubris, that is. On a visit to Auschwitz, he can neither say the Lord’s Prayer nor Kaddish for his mother; when his father passes away, he’s distraught, unable to fulfil his promise to say Kaddish.
Lustiger died in 2007 of lung and bone cancer. Kaddish was recited at his funeral outside the entrance to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
For the dreamers of the world, there is Under the Same Sun (United States/Israel/Palestine), written by Yossi Aviram and directed by Sameh Zoabi. The film starts in a mockumentary style, with all hell breaking loose. The media has discovered that Israeli Shaul Cohen and Palestinian Nizar Ahmad are cooperating in a joint business venture to bring solar energy to West Bank villages, and all the talking heads have their opinions about it.
The film then jumps back a year to a meeting in Marseilles, where Shaul approaches Nizar about the project. From this point to near the end, it’s a regular movie, progressing linearly through time, from the project’s genesis, the difficult search for investors, the effects of the venture on their respective families. Skepticism, anger and obstacles must be overcome. We learn more about each man as each confronts their own prejudices and fears. And all looks lost until Nizar comes up with the idea of using a Facebook campaign to create a groundswell of public opinion that will force political leaders to make peace – and, hence, let their energy project proceed. If only social media were so powerful.
Under the Same Sun is crazily optimistic. With solid acting all round, good pacing (helped by Hilal Zaher’s score) and well-written dialogue, it is a thoroughly enjoyable way to conclude a film festival.
For showtimes and the full festival schedule, visit vjff.org.
Roberta Grossman (director), left, and Nancy Spielberg (producer) on the Duxford set of Above and Beyond. (photo from playmountproductions.com)
On Nov. 6, the 26th annual Vancouver Jewish Film Festival begins with the Canadian première of Above and Beyond, about a mainly American group of pilots, veterans of the Second World War, who fought for Israel in 1948. As part of Machal (foreign volunteers), “this ragtag band of brothers not only turned the tide of the war, preventing the possible annihilation of Israel at the very moment of its birth, they also laid the groundwork for the Israeli Air Force.”
Directed by Roberta Grossman, the 96-minute documentary was produced by Nancy Spielberg, who will be in Vancouver for the screening. Spielberg took the time to speak with the Independent via email in anticipation of her visit.
JI: What was it about the Machalniks’ experiences, in particular those of the air force pilots, that you found so compelling that you not only wanted to make a documentary but are following up Above and Beyond with a feature film version?
NS: First of all, we focused on pilots because, frankly, pilots are a lot sexier than infantry! There’s a romantic, tough, swagger, daring, live-on-the-edge, sweep-you-off-your-feet personality that felt bigger than life. I was so curious why these WWII pilots survived their tour of duty for the good ol’ US of A and then turned around and risked their lives for another country, and I was surprised that most of them were not at all Zionistic.
What drives a person to risk everything to save another person in need? Would I do that? Would you? Do we still do that as Americans? Is it part of that generation? Is it part of the American psyche? I was intrigued by their motivation and then I was swept off my feet by their charm and their chutzpah! The “adventures” that took place along the way and during their time in Israel make for great storytelling.
JI: What will a feature film be able to communicate that the documentary could not, or did not?
NS: I do hope that a feature film (dramatization) will communicate the same messages that we hope the doc does – how far does one go to help a brother in need? With a dramatization, we have more freedom to embellish the pilots’ stories and capers that we may have had to reduce in the doc or discard altogether. There are so many details and wild antics that could not be included in the doc but we’d love to explore in the dramatization.
JI: Near the end of Above and Beyond, you ask Coleman Goldstein whether he thought Israel would survive in tough times. What prompted the question and what was your reaction to his response, that, yes, it would survive, as “Israel’s an article of faith”? What is your answer to the question, and is it different now than it would have been when you asked it, given the most recent Israel-Hamas conflict (and the antisemitism it exposed) and as the U.S.-led fight against IS continues?
NS: We asked every pilot we interviewed whether he thought Israel had a fighting chance, or whether he thought he might not make it out alive. George Lichter said, “I thought we would lose….” We were surprised at Coleman’s answer because he was a very pragmatic, matter-of-fact gentleman, and he responded from his heart, as many of the pilots we interviewed did. Maybe they’ve become “softies” in their golden years, but there was a lot of emotion in our interviews.
My personal answer is that I am a spiritual person, and I agree with Coleman and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who, in 1956, said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.” I need to hold on to that thought and belief in spite of the latest Israel-Hamas war and the antisemitism that has, once again, reared its ugly head.
JI: How does Israel and Judaism or Jewish culture fit into your life, and what would you tell North American Jewish youth today who, if polling is any indication, aren’t as connected to the Jewish state or Jewish practice as previous generations?
NS: I grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., where our family was the only Jewish family in the neighborhood (who didn’t always take too kindly to us). We were three-times-a-year Jews – Pesach, Yom Kippur and Chanukah. Outside of that, we were gastronomical Jews with a love for Yiddish and Russian melodies.
When I was in fifth grade, I started to go to a Jewish day school, which prompted me to come home and tell my mom that we needed to start keeping kosher so that I could have school friends over for play dates. Slowly, we evolved into kosher and Sabbath observance. When I was 19, I decided to leave UCLA and spend time on a kibbutz in Israel with my sister. That was it! I fell head over heels. I found a home that I didn’t know I was even missing. From that time on, I’ve been involved in Israel, Judaism and Jewish culture. My children went to Jewish schools and Jewish camps. In fact, my 26-year-old, Jessy Katz, has been living in Israel for two years. When I say to her, “I miss you, come home!” She says, “I am home.”
One of my main motivations in making this film is to reach out to the North American Jewish youth who feel very disconnected in the hopes that this film will be a much-needed shot in the arm of Jewish pride. I’m hoping that they will find a connection and take a fresh look at Israel and how it plays an integral part in being a Jew.
Above and Beyond screens at Fifth Avenue Cinemas on Nov. 6, 7 p.m. For more information about the film, visit playmountproductions.com. For the full schedule and tickets for this year’s Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, which runs Nov. 6-13, visit vjff.org.