Films: Documentary captures young Orthodox boxer’s journey


Israeli Producer’s Election-Day Risk


It’s little more than a week to the airdate, March 28, and Ofra Bikel is still putting the final touches on her hourlong documentary, “Israel: The Unexpected Candidate.”

That’s not like Bikel, a meticulous professional, described by critic Howard Rosenberg in the Los Angeles Times as “one of television’s premier documentary filmmakers … whose camera wields the power to mobilize public opinion through exposure.”

“Usually, I take seven to eight months to make a documentary, but in this case I had only six weeks,” Bikel said in an hourlong phone call from Tel Aviv, her speech a medley of Israeli, French and American accents.

One reason for the rush is that PBS wanted to release “Israel: The Unexpected Candidate” on the day of the Israeli elections, March 28.

Another reason was that Bikel (no relation to actor-singer Theodore Bikel) thought this was going to be an easy job.

The film would focus on Ehud Olmert, a close associate and likely successor to the stricken Ariel Sharon as prime minister of Israel.

Bikel is a long-time personal friend of Olmert’s wife, Aliza, knows the family well and had been assured of full cooperation. In addition, Bikel was born in Tel Aviv as a sixth-generation sabra and knows the country like the back of her hand.

“I thought it would be easy,” she said. “But nothing is ever easy in Israel. You learn that over and over again.”

Bikel focused on Olmert both as an individual and as the personification of profound political and ideological shifts in Israel.

“Early in Olmert’s career, no one could have been more right-wing,” Bikel said. “Remember, he voted against the peace treaty with Sadat’s Egypt and against his own party chief, Menachem Begin.”

Today, as acting prime minister and head of the Kadima Party, Olmert is at the center, or left of center, in the political spectrum. He supported Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip and has announced that he will dismantle most West Bank settlements if elected.

Bikel is not certain what caused Olmert’s transformation, but even while on the far right wing he always surrounded himself with friends and family of different viewpoints.

“Most of his personal friends are politically center to left,” Bikel said. “His four children went to progressive schools and are left- wingers.”

Bikel has boundless admiration for Olmert’s wife.

“She is a painter, a sculptor, a playwright and a wonderful, open woman,” Bikel said.

Olmert, 60, and his wife have been married for 35 years and also have four grandchildren.

After years of friendship and many hours of interviewing, how does Bikel view Olmert?

“He is a lawyer with degrees in philosophy and psychology, very intelligent, a warm person, he thinks very fast, a loyal friend and an astute politician,” she summarized.

One criticism of Olmert is that he acts too fast and makes decisions too quickly. “He counts to two, rather than to 10,” Bikel said.

Will Olmert make a good prime minister, if he is elected?

“I think he is up to the job,” Bikel replied. “But being prime minister of Israel is a mad job for normal people.”

Bikel studied in the 1960s at the University of Paris and the High Institute of Political Science in the French capital and then moved to the United States.

“My big ambition was to be a researcher for TIME magazine,” she recalled. “Then I wanted to be a journalist and wear a trenchcoat.”

But the only work she could get was as a production assistant, “the lowest of the low,” at the ABC network, though she soon switched to public television as a producer.

In the late 1970s, she returned to Israel and produced more than 30 films on political, economic and cultural subjects.

Some 25 years ago, she switched jobs and countries again, settled in New York, and started making films for Frontline. As voluble as she is about her professional activities, she is guarded about her personal life and preferred not to discuss her motivations for coming back to the United States.

Bikel came to national attention in the 1990s with the trilogy, “Innocence Lost,” which meticulously detailed charges of sexual abuse at a day care center in a small North Carolina town, and the subsequent trial of seven defendants. As a result of her dogged detective work, the guilty verdict and prison sentence of the seven were reversed and they were set free.

The three films won Bikel a raft of awards, including an Emmy. She scored another Emmy for her “Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill: Public Hearing, Private Pain.” Her most recent production was “The O.J. Verdict,” which aired last October on the 10th anniversary of the O.J. Simpson trial.

Described by The Times as a “petite, blond-frosted, elegant, expensively turned out woman (we’ll call her ‘mature’),” Bikel does not consider herself a political activist or crusader.

“It’s just that injustice drives me nuts,” she said. “I get extremely angry when I see how people without voices are treated in our legal system.”

Despite her decades of experience and success, Bikel is still terrified before every new project.

“I love my job, but I suffer for it,” she said. “I take pressure very badly and I am sure that each new film is going to be my Waterloo.”

Frontline’s “Israel: The Unexpected Candidate” airs at 9 p.m., March 28, on KCET.

 

Cowboy Cupid Bares His Horse Sense


The “woman business” is a heck of a lot like the horse business, says rancher-turned-matchmaker Ivan Thompson. You’ve got to treat them right to ensure obedience.

The politically incorrect but charismatic Thompson is the star of “Cowboy Del Amor,” the latest documentary by acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Michele Ohayon, which opens today at the Nuart Theatre. With cinematic tongue planted firmly in check, she profiles this self-professed “cowboy cupid” as he lassos Mexican brides for older gringos who find American women too demanding.

It all began when the rancher sought his third (and now ex) wife from Mexico because he “couldn’t get to Afghanistan,” he says in the film. But she got “too Americanized” after being allowed her own car and cellphone.

“Pretty soon, she was the boss of the house — of my business, and that only left me the pissants and the tumbleweeds,” he laments.

So the horseman dumped wife No. 3 and in 1989, placed a personal ad in a remote Mexican town where he hoped the women might be tamer. He received 80 responses and realized he could rustle himself up a new career.

Filmmaker Ohayon’s career previously highlighted serious (and politically correct) subjects, such as oppressed Palestinians and homeless women. She won a 1997 Oscar nomination for “Colors Straight Up,” her profile of urban youth in the aftermath of the L.A. riots.

So why did she choose to profile the less-than-enlightened Thompson?

“I’ve always regarded this film as an exercise in tolerance, my own and others’,” she said in her Hollywood Hills home, which is decorated with modern art and Moroccan Jewish crafts. Sure, she said she wanted to “smack” Thompson for his sexist remarks, but she also found him to be honest, endearing and dedicated to his work peddling marriage.

“I hoped to show that if you disagree with someone, you don’t have to hate them,” she said. “Human beings are complex, and what I love to do in all my films is to break stereotypes, to show all sides of a story.”

Ohayon, now in her early 40s, learned that lesson early. In 1965, 5-year-old Michele watched Arab extremists torch her father’s Casablanca bookstore, the front for his illegal operation smuggling Moroccan Jews to Israel. In the family flat across the street, her parents barricaded the door as the mob searched the shop’s basement and discovered forbidden documents.

When the thugs came for the Ohayons, their Arab concierge pretended they no longer lived in the building. As the family fled to Israel that night, Michele noted that not all Arabs hate Jews. She made that point on camera in 1984 with her controversial Israeli feature, “Pressure,” about a doomed Jewish-Palestinian romance.

While working on a documentary about Palestinian artist Kamal Boulata that same year, she “clicked” with her future husband, Dutch Catholic cinematographer Theo Van de Sande, as Israeli soldiers held them at gunpoint under a military watchtower in Ramallah. When the officers demanded that they hand over their footage, Ohayon and Van de Sande exchanged a meaningful glance. The cinematographer calmly gave the soldiers footage of children playing that he had previously shot, per Ohayon’s instructions, to deceive them about the true content of the film.

Although she barely knew Van de Sande, she promptly gave up her budding career to live with him in Amsterdam, where she could not work or speak the language.

“I was this really tough, straightforward Israeli, and the Dutch are all but that, so Theo would get really hurt, and I’d have to learn to tone it down,” she said. Her experience led her to strongly identify with the Mexican women in “Cowboy” who impulsively abandon their culture for love.

She and Van de Sande solved their early problems, in part, by moving to the neutral turf of Los Angeles in 1987. Ohayon immediately began searching for a film project and found it upon reading an article on a relatively unknown subgroup of the homeless population: formerly affluent women ravaged by illness or divorce. Her ensuing documentary, “It Was a Wonderful Life,” is both intimate and searing. The same personal approach will grace her upcoming documentary, “Steal a Pencil for Me,” an unusual Holocaust story.

“Many filmmakers tend to be observational and removed, but Michele draws you into the hearts and minds of her subjects,” said Betsy A. McLane, author of 2005’s “A New History of Documentary Film.” “It makes sense that several of her documentaries have been optioned as feature films. In a way, she’s like a novelist, because she takes the time to select and develop her characters.”

Ohayon recognized another great character in Thompson when she first heard him speak on National Public Radio several years ago.

“He embodied the classic comic theme of a matchmaker who can’t manage his own love life,” she said with a laugh.

Eager to tackle lighter fare after her previous documentaries, she contacted Thompson and arranged to meet him in Texas with her digital camera in tow (later Van de Sande came aboard as cinematographer). There, the cowboy introduced her to Rick, 48, a truck driver seeking true love in a demure package.

Ohayon followed the men as they walked across the border; endured a bumpy, 11-hour ride to Torreon; placed an ad in the local newspaper; and screened prospects who called their shabby motel room (anyone heavier than 120 pounds was out).

Although critics praised the film on the festival circuit, Thompson’s matchmaking techniques sparked some debate.

“The success of the arrangement seems to depend less on true love and more on the women being skinny, attractive and content to be regularly intimate with an older American male of questionable virtue,” efilmcritic.com said.

Ohayon, too, was initially skeptical of Thompson’s tactics and said she often lashed out at his sexist remarks. But then she noted how carefully he screened his male clients. And that he found women — many of them middle class — who wanted to marry Americans for their perceived loyalty, not to obtain green cards. She saw Rick and Francis fall in love and filmed two weddings on camera.

Eventually, Ohayon developed great affection for Thompson and even grew to appreciate his horse analogy: “When you understand how much he loves horses, you see that’s the biggest compliment in the world.”

The film opens Feb. 10 at the Nuart in Los Angeles. Ohayon and Van de Sande will conduct Q-and-As Feb. 10-12 after the 5:10 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. screenings.

 

Two Dark Tales Illuminated at Sundance


Martin Scorsese has famously influenced a whole generation of American filmmakers, from Abel Ferrara and Quentin Tarantino to Rob Weiss and Nick Gomez. But his influence is not limited to filmmakers in this country.

One who has channeled the Gotham-based auteur, albeit subconsciously, is Tony Krawitz, an Australian director, who specializes in short films. Krawitz’s most recent effort is “Jewboy,” a one-hour feature about Yuri, a Chasidic Jew, who comes back to Sydney, Australia, for his father’s funeral and has a crisis of more than just faith.

Although Krawitz says that he refrained from watching Scorsese’s films while making “Jewboy,” his lead character Yuri reminds one at times of Harvey Keitel’s Charlie in “Mean Streets,” as well as Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.”

Like Keitel’s Charlie, Yuri places his fingers over the flame of a burning candle. He wonders if God will really punish him, if the flame is truly eternal. He also wants to feel something, even if it’s pain. That is why he touches the fire, since his religion prohibits him from touching a woman, from even holding hands with any female other than a family member.

The provocative title of the film “reflects the mentality of the lead character, so marked is he by being an Orthodox Jew 24/7,” says Krawitz, speaking from Australia. “Jewboy” makes a powerful statement about the oppressiveness and sterility of this Orthodox environment. Smothered with extended family whose expectations are that he will follow his father by becoming a rabbi, Yuri sees a future of loveless marriage, platitudes uttered by friends, and constraint.

More than anything else, he wants to connect with other people, and not only figuratively. The tension in the film occurs whenever he wants to touch a woman. There is a moment early on when he and his Lubavitch girlfriend circle their fingers through powdery flour on a table, coming tantalizingly close to touching each other. They both shudder and smile secretly as they part from the exercise, an erotic fillip in their claustrophobic world.

Krawitz, 38, was born in South Africa but grew up in Bondi Beach, a neighborhood of Sydney with a large Chasidic presence. He remembers a high school classmate who told him that he would not be able to touch a woman until he got married. Although Krawitz considers himself a secular Jew, this early exposure to the Orthodox world led to a lifelong fascination with that community.

As a university student, Krawitz drove cabs and on occasion was called “Jewboy” by his fares. Yuri, too, becomes a cab driver, which leads him into Sydney’s demimonde of sleaze, a scaled-down version of the Times Square in “Taxi Driver.”

Ewen Leslie, who gives Yuri’s character a tremendous inner life, bears a physical resemblance to Travis Bickle. Both dark-haired ghosts of the city, Leslie, when he takes off his shirt, reveals a sinewy, bony physique that is very similar to De Niro’s in that film. And Yuri’s small, nondescript one-room apartment calls to mind Bickle’s lodgings.

Yuri’s awkwardness with women and his conflicted feelings about sex are yet another echo.

Tortured as he is by his religion’s restrictions, Yuri goes to extremes to honor them: carrying a drunk, cleavage-displaying rider out of a cab by wrapping her with his jacket; touching the window of a peep show gallery as the topless dancer performs for him; and finally reaches the precipice, holding back his arms as a sexy prostitute presses her breasts against his chest and then fellates him.

After this encounter, Yuri rushes through the neon underworld with what Krawitz terms a “strobe-light effect,” the increased speed and then slow-motion of the camera, evocative of the turmoil in the streets in “Chungking Express,” a film that Krawitz says did influence him. In this case, “messing with speed” mirrors the inner confusion Yuri is undergoing.

At the end of the film, he holds his grandmother’s hand as she, a concentration camp survivor, watches a tennis match and roots for Australia’s Mark Philippoussis.

“I have faith in him,” she says.

“Jewboy,” which was entered into Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, is Krawitz’s first film at Sundance. Although slightly less than an hour long, it will compete in the feature category.

Also competing at Sundance, in the documentary category, is “KZ,” perhaps “the first postmodern Holocaust movie,” says its director Rex Bloomstein. “It explores the subject in a different way.”

Certainly, there is more than an element of postmodern irony about a bunch of present-day, lederhosen-clad Austrian youth, singing roistering tunes about the concentration camp in Mauthausen and hoisting mugs at the very place where SS officers once clinked glasses of Schnapps after massacring their victims.

But that’s just one example of irony. Bloomstein interviews present residents of Mauthausen, including a young, dark-skinned teenage girl, presumably of mixed ethnicity, who wears a T-shirt with the words “New York” running across it and says that living in Mauthausen “is a perfect dream.” In the background, her surly, silent boyfriend, arms folded, leans against a car, impatient for the interview to end.

Bloomstein also interviews older residents of the town who lived there during World War II, one of whom beams with pride over having been married to an SS officer.

“KZ,” an abbreviation for the Austrian name for concentration camp, “Konzentrationslager,” depicts not only the town’s residents, but also the tour guides and the tourists.

One tour guide, an intense young Austrian with a shaved head, speaks to the visitors in staccato tones. He has a defiance about him, so consumed is he with anger at his country and the town’s legacy. Another guide is an older middle-aged man, who admits that he has become an alcoholic after years of working at the camp.

For the first 15 minutes of the film, neither guide mentions the word Jews, because Mauthausen was not exclusively a Jewish concentration camp. It began as a labor camp and later admitted large numbers of Russians and Poles as well as Jews, who were not brought to the camp until 1944, according to the film.

Bloomstein, a 64-year-old resident of England, has made numerous television documentaries with Jewish themes, including the three-part series, “The Longest Hatred.” But “KZ” marks his first time at the helm of a documentary film.

He was making a TV documentary called “Liberation” when he noticed the beer drinking and singing taking place within yards of the former concentration camp. He was “haunted by the disjunction, the reality of people enjoying themselves, and then the reality over there” at the camp, and decided to make a film that would show “the interface of memory and history and the present.”

Using a hand-held camera, Bloomstein finds one man, standing next to a crematorium, who straightens out his trousers after his girlfriend tells him they’re rumpled; then, camera in hand, she takes a picture of him. Bloomstein finds another man visiting the camp, a swarthy fellow, who writes in a book of visitors’ comments that Israel should be ashamed at how it has treated the Palestinians and the Kurds. His daughter simply writes, “Peace.”

Unlike most Holocaust documentaries, this one, as its press materials proclaim, contains no archival footage, no survivor testimonials, no voice-over. Bloomstein points out that there is also “No music.”

He doesn’t want an artificial stimulus for people to feel sad. He wants the filmgoer to be one of the tourists and take in everything as if he were there — the gas chambers, the ovens, and the “Wailing Wall,” the wall in front of which Jews, left to die, stood naked for days in the snow and in the burning heat. For postmodern irony, this is about as gruesome as it gets.

For more information on the Sundance, visit

Spectator – Sweet Music Amid Turmoil


Those who have followed the documentaries produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center know what to expect: Films like “Genocide,” “Liberation” and “In Search of Peace” that hit you right between the eyes and in the solar plexus.

Thus, it is more the surprise that its Moriah Films division’s latest documentary, “Beautiful Music,” a 39-minute film narrated by Brooke Shields, proves to be sensitive and understated. “Beautiful Music,” directed and written by the Wiesenthal Center’s Richard Trank, was based on original material by Trank and Rabbi Marvin Hier.

It’s about a blind and autistic Arab girl who blossoms into a musical savant under the tutelage of a caring Jewish piano teacher.

Rasha Hamad, who is deaf and blind like her younger sister, is locked into a small room with her sibling by their parents and later abandoned. Traumatized and helpless, the girls are given a warm home in the Arab village of Beit Jala by a Dutch missionary couple, Edward and Helene Vollbehr.

The girls seem unable to respond to human contact, they beat themselves on the heads and they scream endlessly. But then the Vollbehrs notice that Rasha calms down when listening to classical music and shows an amazing aptitude for playing the piano.

The Vollbehrs turn to the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music, where Rasha is entrusted to Devorah Schramm — although the task is daunting even for this devoted teacher. While Rasha’s piano playing keeps improving, and she even starts to compose her own music, it takes two or three years of daily lessons before Rasha shows any signs of bonding with her teacher. Rasha also suffers when the larger world around her goes awry, when Scuds fall during the 1991 Gulf War or during the terror of the two intifadas.

With calmer days, Rasha picks up again, The last scene shows her performing a Chopin sonata, joined by Jewish classmates, to the applause of the Jewish audience, which had pitched in to pay for her lessons.

Summing up her experience, Schramm observes, “If we look at the headlines, we see generalities. But when we look at one individual, we see more deeply.”

The film will screen at the Hollywood Film Festival on Sunday, Oct. 23 at 3:30 p.m. at the Arclight Theatres, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. For information visit www.hollywoodawards.com/screenings.

 

Sunrise, Sundance, Swiftly Fly the Films


 

“When you’re a falafel king/you’re a falafel king all the way/from your first alef-bet/till your last dying day…” OK, maybe that’s not exactly how the musical spoof, “West Bank Story,” begins, but the short film indeed opens with a cadre of snapping dancers taking on the guys on the other side of the tracks. Yet, in this 22-minute film, instead of Maria and Tony, we have David and Fatima, and the war is not between the Jets and the Sharks, but between the Jewish Kosher King and the Palestinian Humus Hut next door. You can probably guess the rest, but hopefully, since the short was directed and co-written by L.A. native Ari Sendel, you’ll get a chance to see it here soon.

“West Bank Story” was one of a handful of Jewish-themed films screened at the Sundance Film Festival, which ended Sunday night in Park City, Utah. With the deafening chatter around this small town about which studio picked up which film for how many millions of dollars, it’s hard to sniff out, not the hottest films — but the most Jewish. While hordes of ecstatically friendly moviegoers snaked around the corner hoping to get into a screening of “Hustle and Flow,” the feature about a pimp-cum-rap star from Memphis (which Paramount got in a $16 million deal), I’m desperately trying to sell my extra ticket to a midnight showing of “Odessa Odessa” (I’d take $5-$10), a documentary that follows elderly Ukrainians in Odessa, Brighton Beach and Ashdod. A six-minute short from Israel, “Meet Michael Oppenheim,” which, through photographs and sweet narration, attempts to trace filmmaker Roni Aboulafia’s family history in Israel, preceded the 96-minute doc.

All roads seem to lead to Israel in the Jewish films at Sundance, even those not directly about the Holy Land. Take “Protocols of Zion,” documentarian Marc Levin’s personal journey to uncover the resurgence of this anti-Semitic screed since Sept. 11. He starts off at the site of the World Trade Center, talking to people who blame the Jews for the tragedy, and then goes to Middle America and the home of the White Supremacists and other Holocaust deniers. Levin veers away from the “Protocols” to Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” and then to the streets of Patterson, N.J., to speak to the Palestinian street kids, he ends up — where else? — at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, finding the “Protocols” at the root of all these problems (not without the help the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper and the Anti-Defamation League’s Rabbi Abraham Foxman). “Protocols” has been picked up so far by HBO, with an airdate as yet undetermined (they’re hoping to sell it to the big screen first).

Perhaps it’s a paranoia arising from “Protocols” that I begin to see Jews everywhere at Sundance (well, we are running all of Hollywood, aren’t we? When Levin tries to get someone on the phone to discuss Jews in Hollywood, he gets passed around from Norman Lear to Larry David to Rob Reiner and back to Lear again). When I randomly attend “Palermo Hollywood,” a feature from Argentina, I am surprised to discover that one of the main characters turns out to be Jewish (nicknamed by his friends “the Jew”), and is running away from his wealthy political family that maintains its standard of living despite the financial crisis.

But the most prominent Jewish film here at Sundance is “Wall,” a French/Israeli documentary about the security “fence” being built in Israel.

“I was surprised to find that there are many Jews that are pro-peace in Israel,” one foreign journalist told me when she exited the film. Indeed, director Simone Bitton presents a moderate look on both sides of the concrete and barbed wire structure, as she interviews “regular” Palestinians and Israelis, i.e. not the fanatics, the leaders and the spokespeople, but those who live adjacent to the $1 billion project that is meant to bring security to Israel. Bitton is half-Arab and half-Jewish, which is probably why — with her fluent Hebrew and Arabic — she is able to have frank conversations with both sides. The picture won a Special Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary category, so I’m sure it will be available for viewing soon.

In searching out films with a Jewish or Middle East subject matter, I came across “Planet of the Arabs,” a six-minute compilation of clips portraying the Arabs in American film and television.

Dr. Emmett Brown: “Oh my God, they found me, I don’t know how, but they found me. Run for it, Marty.”

Marty McFly: “Who?”

Dr. Emmett Brown: “Who do you think? The Libyans!”

Filmmaker Jacqueline Salloum shows this clip from “Back to the Future” and more — from “Lawrence of Arabia,” to “The Muppet Show,” to (Gov.) Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “True Lies” — to tell audiences to “turn off your televisions,” to avoid these negative stereotypes.

Perhaps the fictional and real characters in the “Planet of the Arabs,” “The Wall” and “Protocols of Zion” will one day be like Ahmed and Mahmoud, and David and Fatima from “West Bank Story,” who, after their stores burn down, realize how much they have in common, and make falafel sandwiches together.

 

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Tonight, West Coast Jewish Theatre launches Clifford Odets’ “Rocket to the Moon” at the Pacific Resident Theatre. Set in the 1930s, the love triangle centers on an unhappily married dentist, the secretary he falls in love with and the older man who has everything but youth on his side. A special fund-raising performance hosted by Monty Hall and honoring Arthur Hiller, Rocky Kalish and Leslie Martinson will be held June 6.

8 p.m. (Thurs.-Sat.), 3 p.m. (Sun.) $20-$23.50. 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. (310) 822-8392. June 6 Fund raiser, 2:30 p.m. $100. (310) 828-1296.

Sunday

Amid the weekend’s barbecues, take time out this evening
to remember. KCET airs the “National Memorial Day Concert,” hosted by actor and
veteran Ossie Davis. Musical performances will feature bluegrass singer Alison
Krauss, Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas and country star Brad Paisley.
Violinist Joshua Bell and Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell will perform
with the National Symphony Orchestra. A documentary about the building of the
new World War II Memorial follows the broadcast. 8 p.m. KCET. “>www.milkenarchive.org

.

Tuesday

Architecturally inspired music is the thematic centerpiece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s and the Getty’s collaborative project, “Building Music.” A two-day symposium on the subject is flanked by individual lectures, as well as a concert series of music informed by the architecture of the Getty and Walt Disney Concert Hall, and older works motivated by architecture of the past. Today, the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group presents Green Umbrella Concert, featuring four pieces, including Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel.”

8 p.m. $15-$40. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2000.

Wednesday

The Los Angeles Conservancy revives Old Hollywood again this year with their “Last Remaining Seats” film series. First in their lineup is the classic cross-dressing comedy, “Some Like It Hot,” screening at the historic Los Angeles Theatre this evening. Barring scheduling conflicts, Tony Curtis will reminisce about the movie and his career with Turner Classic Movies host Ben Makiewicz.

8 p.m. $16-$18. 615 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. (213) 430-4219.

Thursday

Literary flavor of the moment, “The Sleeping Father” by Matthew Sharpe, (please, Dan Brown is so five-minutes-ago) gets the full book tour treatment, stopping in our fair city this evening. The novel people are “very excited” about centers on an American Jewish family in crises: the titular paterfamilias has fallen into a coma after unknowingly mixing two kinds of antidepressants. He awakens to find his daughter considering conversion to Catholicism and suicide alternately, and his son lost in his own way. Book Soup hosts a signing with the author.

7 p.m. 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110.

Friday

P.C. (and worthy) event of the week: “Perspectives 2004”
at the ArcLight runs today through June 6. Subtitled, “When You Look at Me, What
Do You See?” the series presents films that depict the lives of the
developmentally disabled. Among the movies being screened will be Ira Wohl’s
“Best Man: ‘Best Boy’ and All of Us Twenty Years Later,” which revisits Philly,
Wohl’s cousin and the subject of his Oscar-winning documentary “Best Boy.”
$10-$15. 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 464-4226. Or, for something on
the spiritual side, attend a new monthly Friday night service led by Rabbi Naomi
Levy. Nashuva, which means “we will return,” combines new Shabbat melodies, a
live band, meditation and joyful singing. 6:45 p.m. Westwood Hills
Congregational Church, 1989 Westwood Blvd.

Viva la Cinema!


In Veracruz, Mexico, there lived a group of people who for generations had avoided eating pork and lit candles on Friday night without knowing why. In the early 1980s, some members of the group discovered their Jewish roots and converted to Judaism, and now, 20 years later, are still struggling for acceptance from the Jewish community in Mexico.

Their story is being told in "Eight Candles," a 2002 Mexican documentary, one of nine Jewish films being shown in Mexico’s first Jewish film festival.

"This opportunity is amazing, because for this first time the documentary is going to confront its intended audience," said "Eight Candles" director Sandro Halphen, who lives in Mexico City. "I hadn’t found venues to reach out to them."

The Jan 25.-Feb 3 sold-out festival aimed to teach local Jews about their heritage and non-Jews about a community that is sometimes misunderstood.

"We are looking at this festival not as a Jewish event," said Aron Margolis, director of the nonprofit Mexico International Jewish Film Festival. "This is an excellent opportunity for Mexican society to get to know the Jewish community. The Jews in Mexico are known as a community that is very closed and doesn’t let people in to get to know us. But the more they know us, the more they understand us."

There are about 50,000 Jews in Mexico, a predominately Catholic country. Most live in Mexico City. The sold-out festival in Mexico City is one of only a handful of Spanish-language Jewish film festivals in the world.

The Mexico festival features nine films, including "The Burial Society" (Canada) "Time of Favor" (Israel) and "Trembling Before G-d" (United States), a documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox and Chasidic Jews.

Margolis hopes the Spanish-translated films can be shown elsewhere Latin America.

Arab-Israeli Tension, Love Focus of Fest


The 19th annual Israel Film Festival will showcase 33 movie features, television films, documentaries and student shorts from the Jewish State from May 28 through June 8.

CNN talk show host Larry King, Hollywood producer Laura Ziskin (“Spider-Man”) and Israeli director Erez Laufer will be honored during the May 28 gala opening night at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills.

The featured film of the evening will be “All I’ve Got,” part of the festival’s “Reflections of Women” series.

A dozen Israeli producers, directors and actors will attend the festival and participate in panel discussions and symposia.

Originally scheduled for early April, the festival opening was postponed because of the war in Iraq. The film fest originated in Los Angeles but now also plays in New York, Chicago and Miami.

Meir Fenigstein, founder and executive director of the festival, estimates that some 500,000 Americans have gotten a close-up of Israeli life and culture through the festivals’ 500 theatrical and TV films over the past 19 years.

Of special interest, in light of the hostilities and brutalities engendered by the long-running intifada, are a number of films focusing on relations between Israel’s Jews and Arabs.

Where, in times of terrorism and warfare, Hollywood might produce a series of super-patriotic, John Wayne-like action movies, Israeli filmmakers have opted for sympathetic, even romantic, depictions of relations between two peoples, generally seen as antagonistic in news stories.

In “A Trumpet in the Wadi,” a Russian Jewish immigrant musician and an Arab woman slowly fall in love.

Genders and nationalities are reversed in “2 Minutes From Faradis,” when a rebellious Jewish teenage girl and an Arab boy start romancing each other.

“In the 9th Month,” by Arab director Ali Nassar, tells a darker story of Arab-Jewish suspicions through a folk tale dating back to the days of the Ottoman Empire.

“Dugit Over Troubled Water” is a documentary on a business partnership between Jewish and Arab fishermen in the Gaza Strip, ultimately split apart by the intifada.

The TV film “Two Minutes From Faradis” is of much fluffier stuff, but shows another little-seen aspect of Israel — the life of the upper class. At the center of the film is Yuli, a 17-year-old girl, who feels it’s her teenage duty to rebel against her parents. The trouble is that her psychologist mother, spouting the clichés of her profession, and her wild-haired, pot-smoking father are so laid back and permissive that nothing she does can shock them.

Then Yuli encounters Amir, the handsome son of the family’s Arab maid, and the girl figures that romancing him will finally shake up her parents. The ploy works, but is Amir actually a terrorist using Yuli to smuggle explosives past a checkpoint? Stay tuned.

“A Trumpet in the Wadi” is one of the most sensitive and accomplished films to come out of Israel in a long time. Updated from the novel by Sami Michael, familiar to every Israeli high school student, the film is directed with a sure touch by Russian-born Lina and Sava Chaplin.

The protagonists are Alex (Alexander Senderovich), a newly arrived Russian trumpet player, and Hooda (Khawiah Hag Debsy), a 30-year-old Arab woman, working in a Jewish-owned travel agency. Both live in the Wadi Nisnas section of Haifa, but despite their wildly disparate backgrounds — and the fact that Alex is short and homely and Hooda is stately and beautiful — the two share an offbeat sense of humor and gradually fall in love.

What is striking at a time when Israeli Arabs are usually pictured as hassled second-class citizens is that Hooda’s extended family lives a quite normal, middle-class life.

Hooda’s mother kvetches constantly about the pickiness of her two unmarried daughters, brings in unsuitable suitors and cooks up a storm — in other words, like the stereotypical Jewish mother.

Not all is sweet harmony — Hooda’s family explodes in anger against the Jews when a cousin is killed during a demonstration, and there’s a bitter scene between the lovers when Alex reports for reserve duty — but one leaves the theater with a slightly more hopeful outlook.

“Wadi” opened the recently concluded Chicago leg of the festival circuit. Despite earlier concerns that the Israeli-Arab romance theme might upset some American Jewish viewers, Fenigstein said that the film was received enthusiastically.

Fenigstein has no answer why, precisely at this time, Israeli filmmakers are creating works that center on the common humanity, rather than the antagonisms, of the two people.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s an augur of better times to come, he ventures hopefully.

One tip for history buffs: The documentary “Moledet” (Homeland) resurrects footage of Jewish and Arab life in Palestine, shot between 1927 and 1934 by the country’s first movie company, happily named Moledet. The film becomes a bit repetitive, but it’s a cheerful antidote to those who picture the early yishuv (the Jewish community of the time) consisting solely of sweating pioneers constantly tilling the soil or draining swamps.

From the documentary’s evidence, the Jewish population rarely missed a chance to stage a lively parade, Purim or otherwise. Interspersed are commercials of the era shown in movie theaters, and hard as it is to fathom, they were even more terrible then than now.

After the opening night, all screenings will be at theLaemmle Fairfax Theatres, 7907 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles (corner of BeverlyBoulevard and Fairfax Avenue), and at the Laemmle Town Center 5, 17200 VenturaBlvd., Encino. For information and ticket reservations for all events, call(877) 966-5566, or visit www.israelfilmfestival.com .

The Sound Of Oscar


And the award goes to –The Holocaust! No, the Academy Awardshave not been given out yet, but the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts andSciences nominated “The Pianist,” a searing film of one Jew’s survival duringthe doomed uprisings of the ghetto and city of Warsaw during the Nazioccupation, for seven Oscars, including best picture.

Roman Polanski, the movie’s director, and Adrien Brody inthe title role of Wladyslaw Szpilman, were nominated in the directing andleading actor categories respectively.

There had been considerable speculation whether Polanski,who escaped from the Krakow ghetto as a boy of 7, would be nominated. He isofficially a fugitive from the United States for having had unlawful sexualrelations with a minor and currently lives in Paris.

Polanski was previously nominated for his films “Tess”(1979), “Chinatown” (1974)  and “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)

“Frida” whose title character was half-Jewish, received sixnominations at the Feb. 11 ceremony in Hollywood.

The German entry, “Nowhere in Africa,” was nominated forbest foreign language film. It described the struggles of a German Jewishrefugee family in the 1930s to adapt to life in Kenya. Israel’s entry, “BrokenWings,” was not nominated.

Nominated in the documentary feature category was “Prisonerof Paradise.” Its central character is Kurt Gerron, a popular Jewishentertainer in pre-Hitler Berlin, who directed a Nazi propaganda film about the”model ghetto” of Theresienstadt and was killed in Auschwitz.

Miramax, headed by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, garnered themost nominations for any studio. (Their hit musical, “Chicago,” topped the listof all films with 13 nominations.)

The 75th Annual Academy Awards will air Sunday, March 23 at 5:30 p.m. on ABC

Lupu’s Lens


His leather jacket underscoring a full-growth white beard and tzitzit, 75-year-old Lupu Gutman is much like his films, where tradition is refracted through the modernity of the camera lens.

Gutman is now distributing copies of his haunting documentary, "Monuments of Soap," to all the branches of the Los Angeles Public Library. The film is a tour through the remnants of post-Holocaust European graveyards, examining the monuments that were erected to mark the burial of the soap that was made of Jewish flesh.

Gutman has been making films for almost 50 years, and today, he edits his documentaries in a corner of his one-room Pico-Robertson apartment. Though a veteran filmmaker, documentary cinema is a relatively new venture for him, having begun work in this genre only after he moved to America in 1986.

After surviving the Holocaust, Gutman became a star of the Romanian film industry, writing and directing features for the communist government. However, he grew "sick and tired of the stupid and false propaganda" that he was required to create, he told The Journal, and knew that if he remained in Romania, he would not survive. So he came to America, and took advantage of the freedom offered to make cinema véritas, and to use his films to educate and inspire others about Jewish history and traditions.

"My target [audience] is teenagers" Gutman says. "I can’t convince anti-Semites not to be anti-Semites — that is stupid. But the kids who go to libraries — they should know."

Gutman’s creative efforts are aimed at saving the memory of lost communities. He recently returned from Romania, where he began a project filming the last 74 synagogues remaining in the country. He is looking to raise funds that will enable him to travel to Romania to complete the project, so that the treasures of this once proud and vibrant community will not be lost in the decaying urban sprawl.

"In Romania, before the war, there were over 400 synagogues," he explains. "Now there are no more Jews in these places, and they are turning the synagogues into garages. I know how beautiful the synagogues are — and I thought that I needed to capture their image professionally, so that, in a manner of speaking, they can be saved."

Gutman, whose apartment holds his small collection of European relics, such as a yellow star, and a piece of Torah scroll parchment that he salvaged after it had been made into a lampshade, is primarily focused on the preservation of the past.

"I am not interested in business" he says. "What I have is enough for me."

For more information on Lupu Gutman and his films, call (310) 271-6887. To see "Monuments of Soap," contact the history department at your local branch of the Los Angeles Public Library.