Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Review: ‘A Dying King’ Reveals the Medical Circumstances That Led to the Shah’s Death


The death of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1980 had profound consequences in shaping the Middle East today, yet there was some mystery surrounding the circumstances of his death. A new film is being released that explains how the declining health of the Shah led to his departure and death, and that it could have been avoided had the Shah received proper treatment.

The documentary “A Dying King,” which was written and directed by Bobak Kalhor, consists of interviews from the many doctors treating the Shah who explained that he had been living with cancer for six years prior to the Iranian revolution. The Shah suffered from a rare type of leukemia known as chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which was diagnosed by French doctors only after the Shah noticed a lump in his spleen while water skiing.

Due to the Shah’s paranoia of his people viewing him as weak, only a handful of people knew he was dealing with cancer; even his family didn’t know. But the Shah’s declining health from the cancer inhibited his ability to lead the country, and was a driving factor behind his decision to leave Iran when the revolution was brewing.

The Shah bounced around various countries, including Mexico, Morocco, the Bahamas the United States and Egypt. His health deteriorated to the point where his cancer had turned into a more severe form of lymphoma, and eventually his spleen had to be removed. But, according to the documentary, the surgeon who removed the Shah’s spleen accidentally snipped off part of his pancreas because the spleen was never drained, causing an infection. He eventually succumbed to his ailments in July 1980.

“A Dying King” suggests that the Shah could have prevailed from his illness had the doctors properly treated him and had his presence in different countries not become such a major issue. For instance, Iran demanded that the U.S., which was treating the Shah in New York at the time, extradite the Shah back to Iran in exchange for the hostages that had been taken in the American embassy. The Shah was sent to another country instead.

“A Dying King” adds an additional piece to the puzzle of how the Shah lost his throne in Iran, an event that reverberates to this day.

Screenshot from Twitter.

‘One of Us’ Reveals the Bitter Consequences of Leaving Chasidic Community


Fewer than two percent of Chasidic Jews ever leave the fold. The documentary “One of Us” reveals why, telling the stories of three people who have left — and paid a high price for their personal freedom.

Etty, a young mother of seven, walks out on her abusive husband and loses custody of her children. Luzer, an actor, struggles with depression and his decision to leave his family. And Ari battles addiction as he comes to terms with the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

“Coming from a community where the collective is all that matters, these people had a ‘me’ inside that needed to have a voice,” said Heidi Ewing, who co-directed the film with Rachel Grady.

The filmmakers met in 1999 while working on a TV documentary about the Church of Scientology. “We’ve been able to build a career digging deep into subjects that interest us,” said Ewing, adding that filmmaking is “an opportunity to go into unknown worlds, ask questions and put together a story.”

Among their successes was the Oscar-nominated 2006 documentary “Jesus Camp,” about a charismatic Christian summer camp.

For their sixth film together, the filmmakers sought to crack open a window on a world they knew little about, one hidden in plain sight in their Brooklyn neighborhood.

“We were no experts on the Chasidic community before we started doing this film,” Grady said. “As outsiders, we will never truly understand.”

Grady, a nonreligious Jew, and Ewing, a non-practicing Catholic, found their way into that world through Footsteps, a support organization that helps Chasidic Jews who want to leave.

There, they found Etty, the young mother, who agreed to participate, Grady said, “with a lot of caveats,” such as hiding her face until she was ready to reveal it. “This is not someone who seeks attention,” Grady said. “She would never have chosen the spotlight had she not been in these circumstances.”

The film chronicles Etty’s custody fight amid ostracism and a smear campaign by the Chasidic community. “We couldn’t even grasp how difficult it was for these people to exit and start over — especially in Etty’s case,” Ewing said.

“She’s considered a turncoat, a traitor, because of the suspicion is that she won’t raise her children Chasidic,” Ewing said. “The way they look at it, these are the community’s children, to make up for what was lost” in the Holocaust.

Grady finds it ironic that Jews, who have a long history of facing religious oppression, would persecute their own. The Holocaust, she said, “gives you some context for this extreme behavior — things start to make sense, like why they hate the police, why they hate dogs,” she said.

Another of the film’s story lines follows Ari Hershkowitz, a young adult who as a boy was raped and beaten by a counselor at a Chasidic summer camp. He has struggled with anger, resentment and substance abuse, and is now working to stay clean and make up for lost time. “I was robbed of my life,” he says in the film.

Luzer Twersky has his own painful story. After an abusive childhood, he married at 19, fathered two children, and then walked away from his life. “Depression is something I’ll probably deal with for the rest of my life,” said Twersky, now 32. “There are issues that I deal with that have a lot more to do with how I was raised than religion.”

Describing himself as “genetically and psychologically Jewish,” Twersky said that now, “I’m not religious at all — I’m not even culturally Jewish.” He is in contact with his parents and some of his 11 siblings, but not with his ex-wife or children.

Though Twersky misses the food, the music and the sense of community, “I don’t miss the rules or the dogma or any of that, not for a second,” he said.

He drives for Uber to pay the bills, but his acting career is picking up. He often plays Jewish characters, as he did in three episodes of “Transparent” in 2015. Twersky recently shot an episode of HBO’s “High Maintenance,” and is rehearsing for a stage production of “Awake and Sing,” among other projects.

Hershkowitz is currently studying for his GED. Etty is planning to appeal the court’s custody decision. “A woman in Etty’s situation won on appeal,” Grady said, “so there’s a precedent now, a glimmer of hope.

Grady and Ewing have stayed in touch with their subjects, as the film’s release approaches. “Our main concern is preparing them for what’s coming at them,” Ewing said — including both national exposure and the Chasidic community’s potentially negative reaction.

“One of Us” has played at a handful of film festivals, before mostly New York secular Jewish audiences, who Ewing said were “outraged and offended by some of the things they saw.”

The filmmakers are currently developing several projects, including one about “fundamentalists, not necessarily religious” ones, Grady said.

As for “One of Us,” the directors say the film is less about religion than the universal theme of individuality. “I feel that it’s better to shine a light on a community that has been unchecked for so long,” Ewing said, “and have a productive conversation among Jews about these issues.”

“One of Us” opens at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and starts streaming on Netflix on Oct. 20.

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Close Encounters of the Spielberg Kind


Although Steven Spielberg is one of the world’s most respected and successful directors, earning critical acclaim and billions at the box office, he hasn’t been the subject of a feature-length documentary — until now. In more than 30 hours of interviews conducted over a year, filmmaker Susan Lacy (PBS’ “American Masters”) got the Academy Award-winning moviemaker to talk at length about his influences, his films, their themes and how his life has informed them, resulting in an HBO documentary, “Spielberg,” which premieres Oct. 7.

“He is very shy about interviews, does very few. So this was quite an extraordinary experience to hear him really open up,” Lacy said at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour. She also got more than 80 of Spielberg’s colleagues, collaborators, friends and family members to comment as Spielberg dissects his work in the film.

Full of anecdotes and fun facts about iconic movies, the documentary also is intensely personal, with revelations about Spielberg’s childhood and family and how both affected his movies. His parents’ divorce and its impact on his family influenced “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” “Saving Private Ryan” was inspired by the stories he heard from his father, a pilot who served in World War II.

“His early movies drew on what he knew,” Lacy said of Spielberg, who grew up in the Phoenix suburbs watching television, reading comic books and chasing his sisters Anne and Nancy around with a Super 8 camera. He was also the target of bullying and anti-Semitism, which made him ashamed of being Jewish.

“He didn’t want to be connected to Judaism as a child because he didn’t want to be a pariah. Growing up in the suburbs of Phoenix in the only Jewish family on the street, it made him an outsider,” Lacy told the Journal.

Neighborhood kids would laugh when Spielberg’s grandfather called him by his Hebrew name, Shmuel. “I always wanted to fit in, and being Jewish, I couldn’t fit into anything,” he confides in the film. “I began to deny my Jewishness … I didn’t want to be Jewish.”

Lacy explained that when Spielberg met actress Kate Capshaw, who converted to Judaism before their wedding in 1991, “She said, ‘You must reconnect with your faith.’ Then he made ‘Schindler’s List,’ and it brought him back completely into the fold, and proud of being Jewish.”

Spielberg had read Thomas Keneally’s book about Oskar Schindler in 1982, but held onto it for a decade until it was the right time to make the film, which earned him two Oscars and led to the creation of the USC Shoah Foundation.

“It was, emotionally, the hardest movie I’ve ever made,” he told Lacy. “It made me so proud to be a Jew.”

Capshaw and Spielberg’s seven children are not in the documentary, but his sisters, his father and his late mother are “because they were there at the birth of his becoming a filmmaker and could talk about who he was at that time in his life,” Lacy said.

With 2 1/2 hours to work with, Lacy focused on Spielberg’s film directing, eschewing other projects and giving less play to his less successful movies, including “1941” and “The Color Purple.”

“He was not reticent to talk about failures,” Lacy said. “But if you want to tell a real story with a beginning, middle and end, and in any kind of depth, you simply cannot cover everything.”

It was more important, she said, to highlight the common themes in his oeuvre, including families’ separating and reuniting, the resilience of children, fighting for freedom and good people trying to do the right thing against all odds.

“Steven is actually an incredibly personal filmmaker,” Lacy said. “The box office has never been what’s driven him. What has interested him has changed and matured as he’s grown up. But that boy who loves movies, loves moviemakers — that kid is still in him.”

Just 21 when he made his first television movie, “Duel,” he stood up to the network, refusing to blow up the menacing truck at the end of the film. He insisted on shooting “Jaws” on the ocean, although it was a logistical nightmare to do so. “Having a vision and sticking to it, not letting anybody get in the way of it — that’s probably the best lesson you could learn from Steven Spielberg,” Lacy said. “ ‘Schindler’s List,’ a 3 1/2-hour, black-and-white movie about the Holocaust, could have been a huge flop. But it was something he needed to do, he knew how to do it, and he stuck with that.”

Lacy appreciated that Spielberg “in no way tried to steer this film and did not see it until it was finished.” So when he called to tell her he liked it, “I almost fell on the floor. What happens if Steven Spielberg doesn’t like your movie?” she said. “I’d set a very high bar, and I was nervous all the time that I would not achieve it. I hope I did.”

She came away from the project secure in the knowledge that Spielberg “is exactly who he seems to be. Sometimes you’re disappointed when you meet a hero and that did not happen with Steven,” she said. “He was everything I expected him to be and more. I’m not trying to be gushy here, but he’s a really, really good human being. He’s a mensch.”

Keith Eisner (far right) shares his father’s book with Hongkou residents in “Above the Drowning Sea.” Photo courtesy of Time & Rhythm Cinema

‘Drowning Sea’ focuses on Jews’ safe harbor in Shanghai


He’s best known for crafting courtroom dramas. But longtime “Law & Order” showrunner and head writer René Balcer’s latest project takes on a different kind of drama: the escape of European Jews to Shanghai on the eve of World War II.

Balcer tells the real-life stories of Jewish refugees and the Chinese residents of Shanghai who helped them in “Above the Drowning Sea,” a feature-length documentary that follows the refugees’ voyage from Nazi-controlled Europe to the east coast of China. The film, narrated by actress Julianna Margulies, will screen on Oct. 5 at USC’s Annenberg Auditorium, as a joint presentation by the USC Shoah Foundation, USC Pacific Asia Museum and the US-China Institute.

Getting out of Europe required a visa from a foreign country, and that’s where Ho Feng-Shan came in. The Chinese consul-general in Vienna defied the Gestapo and his own government to issue as many as 3,000 visas to the refugees.

Director René Balcer

Balcer, who wrote and directed the film with longtime collaborator Nicola Zavaglia, became interested in the subject while visiting the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, housed in a former synagogue. Balcer’s wife is Chinese, and her father grew up in Shanghai.

“The documentary, to me, was a way of looking at today’s refugee crisis through a historical lens and see what history could teach us,” Balcer said in an interview in his office at the couple’s Brentwood apartment.

Strewn about the office are piles of scripts and research material for television projects, including the upcoming “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders,” an eight-episode NBC series for which Balcer served as executive producer. It recounts the 1990s case of brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez, who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing their parents.

Such true-crime fare seems like a far cry from “Above the Drowning Sea,” but Balcer always has sought out captivating historic figures. He chronicles the intricate history of Japanese-Jewish relations as effortlessly as he recites the history of race relations in his home country of Canada. Besides winning an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, a Writers Guild of America Award and four Edgar Awards for his television work, Balcer has written and produced award-winning documentaries on art and China.

Balcer shot “Above the Drowning Sea” in six countries on four continents. Among the stories told in the film is that of William Eisner, who left Austria at age 6 and traveled with his family to Shanghai in 1939. He and his son Keith Eisner recount the harrowing journey and the help he got from the Chinese.

“I feel a sorrow for his lost childhood. It was all ripped away, everything was,” Keith Eisner says in the film. Balcer has a personal connection with the younger Eisner: He once hired him to help write an episode of “Law & Order.”

Jerry Moses, born in 1934, recounts a fearful childhood in Breslau, Germany. “I always thought I was going to die. I didn’t think about toys, only death,” he says. He left Shanghai in 1947 for Chile and later worked in Los Angeles in real estate and the clothing business.

Lotte Marcus remembers her family scrambling to find a consulate that would offer them visas. After hearing of her uncle’s death at Dachau, then a labor camp, their plight became extreme. In 1939, her parents sewed diamonds into their coat linings and fled Austria with Lotte, then 11 years old.

The world turned its back on Jewish refugees, and in the summer of 1938, delegates from 32 countries met at the French resort of Evian. The delegates expressed sympathy for the German-Jewish refugees, but most countries, including the United States and Great Britain, were unwilling to ease their immigration restrictions.

Ho’s decision to help Jews escape Vienna is especially remarkable considering the Chinese nationalist government’s close ties to Nazi Germany. Hitler even trained and supplied the Chinese soldiers in their fight against the Communists. But after witnessing Kristallnacht in November 1938, in which Jewish homes, shops and synagogues were destroyed, Ho decided to help the Jews get to Shanghai.

“Great humanitarian acts aren’t necessarily the product of governments. It’s usually the product of thousands of individuals performing small acts of charity and compassion. And that’s really what we found in this,” Balcer said.

When the Nazis took over the building that held the consulate, Ho opened his own office, even setting up shop at a nearby restaurant. He became known as the Chinese Oskar Schindler.

After weeks at sea, the refugees found Shanghai to be “a city in chaos,” Marcus recalled. “The streets were loaded with cars, rickshaws, pigs, farmers carrying chickens. It was a mass of people. … We saw dead babies just lying on the street.”

Years of foreign invasion, civil war, Western occupation, poverty and famine had made Shanghai an “open city” where no one checked the passports of new arrivals. In total, more than 20,000 European Jews found safe haven there before and during World War II.

Many settled in the city’s Hongkou District, where they opened watch repair shops, photography studios and other speciality stores. They did business with the Chinese and their children played together. After the Japanese invasion, the Jews were forced into an overcrowded ghetto of approximately 1 square mile.

In one moving scene in the film, two childhood friends, one Jewish and one Chinese, are reunited after decades apart. They pore over old photographs and eat challah, recalling their time spent together during the war.

Stories like theirs are in danger of being lost. It’s why Balcer wanted to make a film about Shanghai’s Jews now — and to highlight the connection to Europe’s current migrant crisis.

Making the documentary, Balcer said, “was a way of looking at today’s refugee crisis through a historical lens and seeing what history could teach us. Because history doesn’t necessarily repeat, but it rhymes.”

“Above the Drowning Sea” will screen at 6 p.m. Oct. 5 at USC’s Annenberg Auditorium, and will be followed by a panel conversation. For more information, go to abovethedrowningsea.com.

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A scene from "Death in the Terminal." Photo courtesy of First Look Media/Topic

Violence, distrust erupt in Israeli film ‘Death in the Terminal’


On Oct. 18, 2015, a terrorist began shooting inside the bus terminal in the Israeli town of Beersheba. Muhand Al-Aqabi, a Bedouin from a nearby village, shot and killed Sgt. Omri Levi, a 19-year-old soldier, and at least nine others. After a prolonged shootout, Al-Aqabi was killed by security forces.

But the shootout wasn’t the only carnage at the bus terminal that day.

A security guard shot an Eritrean asylum seeker whom he assumed to be the terrorist. As the Eritrean lie bleeding to death, Israeli civilians kicked and cursed him, and spat on him. The killing of Habtom Zarhum, a 29-year-old unarmed refugee, grabbed headlines around the world and provoked soul-searching within Israeli society.

The incident is the subject of “Death in the Terminal,” a new documentary that premieres Sept. 6 on the entertainment and media website Topic.com. In the film, directors Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry dissect the attack and the extrajudicial killing of Zarhum using cellphone video, footage from a number of security cameras and eyewitness interviews.

The documentary raises difficult questions: How does one make sense of a quickly unfolding situation in which one’s life is at risk? When should one act, and when should one gather more information? How do deeply held societal fears and prejudices affect those judgment calls? And what would each of us do in such a circumstance?

The film’s executive producers are Megan Ellison and Mark Boal, both producers of “Zero Dark Thirty,” and Israeli director Alma Har’el. It has received strong critical praise and numerous festival awards.

The filmmakers were drawn to the idea of telling the story differently than other media reports. “Nobody really looked into it,” Shemesh said. “It was so traumatic and terrible. After two days, three days, everybody forgot.”

The film reconstructs a minute-by-minute account of the 18 minutes after the attack. The eyewitnesses recall hearing the first round of gunfire, seeing -— even participating in — the beating of Zarhum, hearing a second round of shooting, and then realizing that Zarhum was not a terrorist.

“When we began, nobody wanted to talk to us,” Shemesh said. Through research, they were able to locate eyewitnesses to the incident.

The attack came amid heightened tensions, with stabbings and shootings of Israelis and Palestinians filling the day’s news.

“It was a very tense period of time,” Shemesh said. “People were panicked. … I was scared about my children. You think twice to go on the bus or not.”

The film begins with footage of the terminal. Cheerful Mediterranean music plays over the speakers as shoppers and soldiers stroll around. The normalcy is shattered by gunshots and panic as people run and seek cover.

The first eyewitness interviewed in the film is Daniel Harush, a soldier who was meeting a friend at the terminal. He recounts how they stopped to use a restroom when they heard the gunshots and hid. Harush says he went out and saw the dead soldier, lying in a pool of blood. He returned to hide with his friend in the restroom stall, but when they then decided to come out again, the terrorist shot Harush in the arm.

Lihi Levi, a clothing store worker and nurse also interviewed that day, helped treat a wounded soldier and is relieved that no one besides the terrorist appears to have been killed — until she and a paramedic are asked to treat the fatally wounded Omri Levi and are unable to revive him.

Meanwhile, a prison officer named Ronen Cohen hears the shots from outside the terminal and runs in as everyone’s running out. He sees the Eritrean man on the ground and people kicking him and becomes worried the man might have a gun or explosive belt. Cohen and a friend pick up a row of chairs and place it on top of the suspected terrorist to pin him in place.

The filmmakers manage to unfold the story without revealing Zarhum’s innocence until about halfway through the 52-minute film. The title could refer simply to the death of the Israeli soldier. Like Cohen and others, viewers are left to assume that Zarhum is “the terrorist” — until doubt creeps in.

Cohen and three others are now on trial for Zarhum’s killing. Even though Cohen was advised not to talk to the filmmakers, the filmmakers say he wanted to clear his name after media reports condemned him.

“We also thought Ronen [Cohen] was a kind of an animal. This is the way he was presented in the two-minute headlines in the news,” Shemesh said. “From the first time we met Ronen, we felt so differently about him. …
We gave the people on trial a chance to explain themselves.”

A voice of reason, or at least skepticism, in the film comes from eyewitness Moshe Kochavi, a kibbutz volunteer. He recalls seeing the “terrorist” on the floor and people hitting him and shouting at the crowd, “You’re savages!”

“I had to save these people. What do I mean by saving? People are corrupting, in this very moment, their souls,” Kochavi explains in the film.

We then see surveillance footage of Kochavi being pushed away from the scene, as a soldier comes and forcefully kicks Zarhum in the head.

“Everyone wants to be like Moshe Kochavi,” Shemesh said. “You wish you could be like him but you don’t know what you would do. … Most people would run away and hide.”

Kochavi admits in the film that “something didn’t feel right,” although he’s not sure what it was. He recalls bending over the man and saying, “How can you be a terrorist? You don’t look like one!”

A falafel-stand worker, Hosni Kombaz, shares that concern. He noticed that the suspected terrorist looked like a Christian Eritrean — and was wearing slippers. “I’d never seen a terrorist in slippers,” he says in the film.

Kombaz says he wanted to shout at the crowd to stop, that the man they were kicking and spitting on wasn’t the terrorist. But he didn’t, because he was worried he’d be attacked as well. “If I was Jewish I would have shouted it … but I was afraid because I’m an Arab, so I didn’t shout it,” he says.

Part of the film’s power comes from a universality to the story. No country is immune from terrorist attacks or racial and ethnic tensions. A vigilante mob could form anywhere, not just in Israel.

“This film came out amid all these immigration problems in Europe, and there were terror attacks in the U.S. Everyone opened their ears and eyes to this film because of that,” Sudry said. “Everyone is afraid of ‘the other’ now.”

The film ends as it began, with security footage of the terminal. Only this time, it plays backward, with panic being restored to normalcy. This time, the calm seems frautght with danger and the possibility of violence — an apt metaphor for life in Israel today.

An illustration of author and artist Margret and Hans Rey. Courtesy of Mammoth Advertising

Film tells story of daring creators of ‘Curious George’


In June 1940, children’s book authors Hans and Margret Rey were alarmed by Nazi troops approaching Paris, blasting canon fire in the distance. Both German-born Jews, they knew they had to flee, but it was impossible to obtain a train ticket, and they did not own a car.

Instead, they bought a tandem bicycle, but Margret found the contraption tricky to ride. And so Hans obtained some spare parts and, in one night, patched together two separate bicycles.

At 5 a.m. the next day, they pedaled out of Paris, just 48 hours before the Nazis marched into the city. They carried little with them, save for unpublished manuscripts, including one that would eventually become their beloved 1941 book, “Curious George.” Along the way, they slept in stables and on the floors of restaurants. And when a checkpoint officer became suspicious of their German accents, their manuscript depicting a charming monkey convinced him to let them pass through.

The details of their escape and immigration to the United States in October 1940 is recounted in Ema Ryan Yamazaki’s new documentary, “Monkey Business: The Story of Curious George’s Creators,” now available online at platforms such as Amazon and iTunes.

In a telephone interview, Yamazaki, 28, pointed out that while the mischievous monkey has become an America icon, most people don’t realize that the character was created by Jewish refugees from the Nazis.

While the Reys weren’t fond of self-analysis, the documentary posits that they brought elements of their fraught past to George’s adventures. Margret once described the character as a monkey who finds himself in trouble — and gets out of it through his own ingenuity.

Filmmaker Ema Ryan Yamazaki. Courtesy of Mammoth Advertising

“She could have been describing the Reys themselves,” Yamazaki said.

The documentary also describes how Margret and Hans met in Germany when he was dating her older sister. Years later, Margret took action when she learned that her old friend Hans, a talented artist, had taken a bookkeeping job with his brother-in-law’s firm in Brazil.

A person interviewed in the film recalls how Margret declared at the time that Hans was a “damned fool” and that she was “going to Brazil to marry him.”

In 1935, she sent Hans a telegram, asking him to meet her ship at the docks in Rio de Janeiro. Upon her arrival, she promptly told him that he was leaving his job and that they would collaborate together on their own artistic projects. The couple soon married and, after moving to Paris, worked on a manuscript that ultimately would lead to “Curious George.” Margret wrote the text, and Hans, who went by the professional name of H.A. Rey, drew the illustrations.

Houghton Mifflin published the first “Curious George” book in 1941, about a year after the Reys arrived in New York City. They began living their American dream as the book and its six sequels went on to sell more than 75 million copies worldwide.

Yamazaki, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a British father, first read “Curious George” in Japanese as a girl in Japan. “I thought he was a Japanese monkey,” she said with a laugh. When Yamazaki moved to the United States to study filmmaking at New York University at 19, she happened to move into a Greenwich Village apartment a block away from where the Reys first settled in the United States.

But she knew nothing about their story until she chanced to meet Lay Lee Ong, a Malaysian-born immigrant who had become Margret’s dear friend after Hans died in 1977. By then Ong had become the literary executor of the couple’s estate. Margret died in 1996.

Just two years out of film school, Yamazaki was looking for a story for her first feature-length documentary. She was so fascinated by Ong’s tales that she immersed herself in research on the Reys.

Yamazaki was charmed by a 1966 radio interview featuring the couple, in which Hans declared, “We are in the monkey business, you might say.” The Reys’ immigrant saga also appealed to Yamazaki, who grew up mostly between Osaka and Manchester, England, before moving to New York to follow her own American dream.

For the documentary, which is narrated by actor Sam Waterston (“Law & Order”), Yamazaki tracked down and interviewed the Reys’ friends, cousins and neighbors in New York and in Waterville Valley, N.H., where the authors acquired a summer cottage in the 1950s. She also spoke with Louise Borden, author of “The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey” (2005).  And she pored over the Reys’ letters and journals at their archive at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Her documentary incorporates photographs and footage of the Reys as well as animation to describe their journey.

Margret and Hans Rey in 1968. Courtesy Mammoth Advertising

One surprising element revealed in the film is that Margret didn’t particularly like children. The couple never had children of their own, regarding “Curious George” as their child. In one television interview shown in the documentary, Margret tells a reporter that she never spoke to the neighborhood kids in Waterville Valley because they had nothing of value to say.

In the film, friends and neighbors describe Margret as blunt and sometimes rude.

Even back in 1940, when the Reys visited the consul who granted their visa to the United States, Margret refused to hold her tongue. She shouted that the man had taken too long to issue the documents — all the while ignoring Hans, who was stepping on her toes in a fruitless effort to silence her.

Waterston, in an email to the Journal, said he was drawn to the documentary, in part, because of how Yamazaki brought to life the authors’ “resilience, adventurousness and curiosity, in the face of WWII and their own peril … against the hard images of destruction as the Nazis invaded France.“

Yamazaki said the Reys’ immigrant story resonates today.

“There’s been so much discussion recently about refugees and immigrant bans,” she said. “But this beloved book was created by refugees who became immigrants turned Americans. I think their story is a good reminder about the people who want to come here and pursue their own American dreams.”

Documentary filmmaker takes a look at the Pulitzer Prize at 100


Does the Pulitzer Prize truly represent the best in writing, photography and music composition? Or is it an arbitrary reward based on politics and whoever happens to be on the jury that year?

The independently produced documentary film “The Pulitzer at 100” strikes a reverent tone in discussing the prize’s centenary. Director Kirk Simon says he has “great respect” for those who have won the Pulitzer. “It clearly is writing that excels, or photographs or music,” he said.

The film, which premieres on Aug. 11 at Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills, weaves together several narratives: a coterie of recipients reflecting on the prize and what it meant for their careers; selections from award-winning pieces of journalism or fiction, read by A-list actors; and details about the life of Joseph Pulitzer, the prize’s eponymous publishing magnate.

Born in Hungary in 1847 to a Jewish family, Pulitzer came to the United States in 1864 to join the Union Army in the final months of the Civil War. He then moved to St. Louis, where he worked first as a reporter. In 1878, after making some profitable business deals, he bought the bankrupt St. Louis Dispatch at public auction, and merged it with the St. Louis Evening Post, into the St. Louis Post and Dispatch (now the Post-Dispatch), still the city’s daily newspaper. He developed a style of journalism that mixed investigative reporting with sensational coverage of sex and crime that appealed to the growing ranks of mass transit commuters.

His move to New York City and purchase of the New York World newspaper led to a circulation war with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. While both men engaged in scandal-mongering “yellow journalism,” Pulitzer later decided to establish his namesake prize to elevate the public’s respect for the profession and recognize excellence in journalism.

Director Kirk Simon. Photo from Twitter

Pulitzer donated $2 million to establish Columbia University’s journalism school, which opened in 1912. The university at first refused the gift because at the time, journalism was considered an unsuitable field for educated students. Columbia has administered the prizes since they were first handed out in 1917.

The film focuses on the past half-century of award-winning coverage, including stories written about the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the West Africa Ebola crisis.

“It’s the top honor. But this is a show-me business. And if you think you can put your feet up and say, ‘OK, I’ve got this award, I’m fine now,’ you can’t,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman says in the film. “Every day you’ve got to go out, and you’ve got to beat the competition.”

Friedman, who won the prize in 1983, 1988 and 2002, won an international reporting prize for his coverage of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and its aftermath, including the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (a winner in 1990 and 2006), who reports regularly from war zones, is one of several speakers in the film who questions the prize’s merit.

New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof. Photo from Facebook

“The Pulitzer is the standard metric of success, and everybody knows it’s a little bit misleading, that in some ways it’s a prize for the event, not for the people who cover it,” Kristof said. He won the 1990 prize for international reporting for his coverage of 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre, in which Chinese soldiers fired on pro-democracy demonstrators, sharing the prize with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.

Kristof was then the Times’ Beijing bureau chief and said that people who had helped him cover the crackdown were put in jail or fled the country.

“It felt kind of unfair that they had taken all the risk, got none of the credit, and here I was, being heaped on with prizes,” he said. “And there is a certain irony in gaining from a surge in human misery.”

Similarly, editors and reporters of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans recount the challenges of covering Hurricane Katrina. While winning the Pulitzer was “great recognition for that commitment,” James O’Byrne said, the staff gladly would give back the award, Manuel Torres said, “if we can have our city without the destruction, without the death, without the suffering that we went through.”

Fiction writers strike dual tones of reverence and skepticism. Writer Michael Chabon says winning the prize in 2001 for his novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” was “truly one of the absolute greatest days in my entire life.” The story follows two teenage boys enthralled by comic books in 1940s New York, and Chabon says the award emboldened him to take more stylistic and narrative risks.

Writer Junot Diaz refers to his fellow jurors as “slightly evolved monkeys” who are simply doing their best. Novelist Michael Cunningham thinks different jurors would not have awarded his book “The Hours” the prize for fiction in 1999, joking that it’s “another reason the prize goes into the sock drawer.”

Writers are eager to criticize the Pulitzer for its sins of omissions (“A Farewell to Arms,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Invisible Man” and “The Great Gatsby” all failed to win). Critics also point out that jurors historically have lauded privileged white men, although great strides are being made toward inclusivity. Not explored in the film is the bias that jurors have typically shown toward liberal writers or writers who advocate against conservative causes.

The film also pays homage to the enormous work that goes into the creation of such exemplary writing, and it serves as a meditation on the transformative power of creativity.

Pulitzer-winning dramatists discuss the joys and challenges of their craft, including Paula Vogel, whose play “How I Learned to Drive” examines issues of pedophilia, incest and misogyny; Ayad Akhtar, whose play “Disgraced” looks at identity politics and Islamophobia; and Tony Kushner, whose landmark opus “Angels in America” about the AIDS crisis has been staged countless times.

Interspersed with the interviews are dramatic readings from Pulitzer-winning novels, poems and plays by such actors as John Lithgow, Natalie Portman, Helen Mirren and Liev Schreiber.

Simon has been nominated for an Academy Award four times, winning once. One nomination was given for producing “Isaac in America: A Journey With Isaac Bashevis Singer,” and he won in 2011 for the HBO short documentary “Strangers No More,” about a school in Tel Aviv that educates the children of immigrant workers.

The Pulitzer recipients Simon reached out to “were very receptive to my requests. I would say the only person who was not was Philip Roth,” who won the fiction prize for his 1997 novel “American Pastoral.” The famously elusive writer, Simon decided, turned down the request because “he wants his work to be judged by his work.”

While the bulk of the film is devoted to the written word, it also profiles award-winning photographers and composers, such as Nick Ut, whose photograph of a naked girl fleeing a napalm bombing helped cement Western public opinion against the Vietnam War; composer John Adams, whose haunting piece “On the Transmigration of Souls” remembers the victims of Sept. 11; and jazz composer Wynton Marsalis, whose jazz oratorio “Blood on the Fields” concerns a couple moving from slavery to freedom.

But most of the prizes are for journalism, and just as Joseph Pulitzer intended, his prize shines a spotlight on the hard work of investigative reporters.

“I don’t think that the American public, the general public, has a full sense of what’s involved in investigative reporting,” Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron says in the film. “Many times they think it’s just a matter of having a source. And it’s a lot more than that. It’s hugely challenging. It’s hugely difficult. It’s a lot of tedious work that takes place over a long period of time.”

Simon hopes his documentary also contributes to a greater respect for the work of quality journalism.

“We have to question and show how hard it is to present the truth, and these days in the world of [President Donald] Trump, you have a government standing between you and reporting the truth,” he said. “So it’s never been easy, it always changes, and that’s what journalists are up against.”

“The Pulitzer at 100” premieres Aug. 11 at Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, with director Kirk Simon in attendance. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com.

 

ROMEO IS BLEEDING *Red Carpet Interviews*


The documentary Romeo Is Bleeding found an unlikely star in Donté Clark.  Clark turned to spoken word poetry to transcend the wide-spread violence in his hometown of Richmond, California where knowing a victim of gun violence is a way of life, not the exception.

Director Jason Zeldes first learned of Clark from his cousin, teacher Molly Raynor, who updated him about her talented student.  Zeldes’ interest grew.  Upon hearing about Clark’s writing project, a play about life in Richmond based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, he asked if he could document the process.

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Russell Simmons signed on as executive producer after the film’s completion in another coup for the already-successful project.

Romeo Is Bleeding has already been recognized multiple film festival awards, with more surely on the way.

Take a look below for interviews with director Jason Zeldes, stars Donté Clark and Molly Raynor, co-editor Kevin Klauber and executive producer Russell Simmons:

 

—>Keep in touch with the author on Twitter and Instagram @realZoeHewitt.

Elsa Dorfman. Photo courtesy of NEON

A Polaroid master gets her due in Errol Morris’ documentary


Before digital photography made selfie images just a cellphone click away, Polaroid filled the desire for immediate gratification with its portable instant cameras.

But for Elsa Dorfman, Polaroid means the 20×24 camera, a 235-pound behemoth that produces instant images 20 inches by 24 inches. She has used it to photograph the famous (including Bob Dylan and her good friend, the late beat poet Allen Ginsberg) and the nonfamous in her Cambridge, Mass., studio.

Her work is now the subject of “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography,” by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, best known for “The Thin Blue Line” and the Oscar-winning “The Fog of
War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.”

“There’s something about the experience of having your picture taken by Elsa — being part of her world, going to her studio, having your photo taken and watching it develop,” Morris said.

He and his family have posed for Dorfman many times since they first met her 26 years ago — after Morris’ wife, Julia, commissioned a portrait of their 4-year-old son as a Father’s Day gift. They became friends, and Morris floated the idea of making a film about her. Dorfman didn’t take him seriously.

“I’d say, ‘Sure, whatever.’ I blew it off,” Dorf-man said. “Then one day, he said, ‘I have the crew for next week.’ ”

In early 2016, Morris interviewed her as she talked about her life and displayed her archive.

“Making the movie was like psychoanalysis,” Dorfman said. “It made me think about the different periods in my life.”

Now 80, the “not observant but very Jewish” Dorfman always was a people watcher, a self-described “starer” and, at times, an eavesdropper. As a teenage exchange student, she chronicled a 1954 trip to Germany with a Kodak Pony that friends gave her, but she didn’t start taking photos professionally until 10 years later, when she received a Hasselblad at the age of 27. In 1976, Polaroid produced just five 20×24 cameras, and after a few years of pleading, she got to use one for the first time in 1980. It was love at first snap.

“This camera was very magnetic,” she said, comparing the immediate attraction to falling in love with her husband, Harvey, a defense attorney, when they met in 1967. She also loved that it freed her from the time-consuming darkroom, because she was a busy mom to her toddler son, Isaac, now 40.

“She kept making these Polaroids, not getting a tremendous amount of attention as an artist, selling them at modest prices and collecting this amazing array of photographs,” Morris said.

The film’s title has both a literal and metaphorical meaning, he said. In her work, Dorfman would take two photographs and have the buyer choose one; she would keep the other, or B-side.

But like a 45-rpm record, Morris said, a B-side is “something discarded, rejected. Elsa was a B-side artist. She was never really given her due, never taken seriously, certainly not by Polaroid. The irony, of course, is the B-sides are some of her best photographs.”

Morris owns many photos that Dorfman has taken of his family, but not all are on display in his Cambridge office or his homes there and in Vermont because the prints are fragile. Too much light and too much or too little humidity can damage them. That’s why Dorfman stores her archive in the dark.

Today, she continues to occasionally shoot with the 20×24 camera — at $5,000 and up per session — but film for it is rare and of questionable quality as it degrades over time. She owns a digital camera, “but I never use it,” she said. “To me, a photograph is something you have in your hand, you put on your wall.”

As for the future of her archive, she said she doesn’t want her son and grandchildren to be burdened by having to care for it but probably will leave it to them. “And they can decide what to do with it,” she said.

Morris said that he saw Dorfman as “a kindred spirit” who shares an interest in people presenting themselves to and being recorded by a camera. He compared “The B-Side” to his documentary “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control,” which profiled people with unusual careers.

Ironically, although he’s known for his documentaries, he doesn’t particularly like the genre and said he got started making them by “happenstance.”

Raised by a Polish-Jewish single mother, a Juilliard-trained pianist, in Hewlett, N.Y., Morris wanted to be a writer but got interested in film at the University of Wisconsin. As a graduate student, he met filmmakers Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and worked with Herzog on his film “Stroszek” in 1976. He released his first documentary, “Gates of Heaven,” about the pet cemetery business, two years later.

To a resumé that now includes features, shorts, commercials and TV series, Morris will add “Wormwood,” a Netflix series starring Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker, and may go to Russia to make a film about Mikhail Gorbachev. “Nazis always interest me,” he said, mentioning a possible project about Hitler’s chief architect, Albert Speer.

Morris’ personal agenda includes a trip to Israel; he hasn’t been back since his son’s bar mitzvah. “I’m very proud to be a Jew,” he said.

The director hopes “The B-Side” will bring Dorfman the recognition she and her work deserve. “She’s a fabulous underdog who worked hard, is unpretentious and yet has created work that is deeply interesting and profound,” Morris said. “To know Elsa is to love Elsa.”

“The B-Side” is playing at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles and opens July 7 at the Laemmle Playhouse in Pasadena and Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino. 

Rudayna Aksh (left) and Dalya Zeno are featured in the documentary “Dalya’s Other Country.” Photo by Julia Meltzer

Syrian teen and mother start over in L.A. in ‘Dalya’s Other Country’


A documentary from a Jewish director about a Muslim teenager attending a Catholic high school may sound like a hypothetical ecumenical exercise. But Julia Meltzer’s “Dalya’s Other Country” is an engaging coming-of-age story about a young girl and her mother who flee war-torn Syria to start a new life in a strange, new place — Los Angeles.

As children of the Diaspora, Jews will relate to the film, which premiered on PBS stations on June 26 and is streaming on pov.org.

Dalya Zeno lived a comfortable, middle-class life in Aleppo, Syria, where she was born, until 2011, when civil war turned the city into a war zone and it became increasingly clear to her family that they would have to leave. Her parents separated and eventually divorced. Her father, Mohamad Hassan, an olive oil exporter, moved to Turkey. Dalya’s mother, Rudayna Aksh — whose sons, Mustafa and Hammoud, were born in Los Angeles in the 1980s when she and her husband lived here and she became a U.S. citizen — returned here with Dalya in 2012.

Meltzer, a Reform Jew, had lived and worked as a teacher in Syria on and off between 2000 and 2010 and made her first film there, “The Light in Her Eyes,” about a Quran school for women and girls. Following a screening of the film at the Levantine Cultural Center on Pico Boulevard (now the Markaz) in March 2012, she met Mustafa Zeno and they became friends. They discussed the Syrian civil war, its impact on his family and the family’s plans to get out.

“I felt that the war was going to go on for a long time, and I still do,” Meltzer said. “I thought one way I could be of service was to tell the story of someone coming from Aleppo.” With Mustafa as a producer, the Zeno family consented to be filmed. “They had seen my other film and knew I knew about their culture. I wasn’t a random Jewish person,” Meltzer said.

But for Dalya, having a camera crew in her life was intrusive, especially at first.

She had finished eighth grade at a Muslim school in L.A., but there wasn’t a Muslim high school nearby and her parents thought that there would be too much peer pressure at a public high school. She enrolled at Holy Family High School, a private, all-girls school in Glendale, where she was the only Muslim student.

“I struggled a lot,” said Dalya, now 18 and a student at Pasadena Community College. “I was awkward and scared. I already stood out, and having the cameras around made me stand out even more. It was really nerve-wracking. It took me till my junior year to get used to it.”

The turning point was an overnight trip for the junior and senior classes when she “opened up to my classmates and they opened up to me,” she said. “From that day on I felt so much better. Going to Holy Family was the best decision ever. Holy Family is my family.”

Shooting the film there, however, was “complicated,” Meltzer said, citing restrictions, disruption concerns and privacy issues that necessitated getting a signed release form from every girl that appeared on camera.

Originally, Meltzer intended to focus solely on Dalya and a friend, who is Korean-Palestinian and American-born, but she opted to also depict the struggle Rudayna faced as a woman starting over after a divorce. As she says in the film, “My marriage fell apart, and then my country, too.”

“Here’s a mother and daughter who are in some ways going through very similar transitions at totally different places in their lives,” Meltzer said. “I thought it was a good way to go.”

“When I first came here I was discouraged,” Rudayna told the Journal. “I didn’t stay in contact with my friends because I wasn’t happy with myself. I had no hope. But when I started going to [Glendale Community College] and worked on my studies, that helped me a lot. I started thinking about something else — the future. I had no time to think about bad things.”

Rudayna is transferring to UCLA this fall, and Meltzer plans to document her experience for a short film that Mustafa will co-produce.

Mustafa said he is proud of what his mother has overcome and achieved. “To me, it’s important to show that Muslims, specifically Muslim women, are neither perpetrators or victims,” he said. “They do have agency to control their lives.”

Mustafa, who teaches Arabic at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles (YULA), and his brother, Hammoud, who lives in New York, are seen in “Dalya’s Other Country.”

Mustafa, who worked with the Los Angeles Arab Film Festival for four years and directed it in 2014, is developing a documentary about refugees and fences and walls, both literal and figurative, as well as a short feature about a dystopian near-future in which Muslims are sent to internment camps, as Japanese-Americans were during World War II. Both he and Meltzer are involved with NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.

This summer, Dalya plans to visit her father in Turkey, where she would like to volunteer at a refugee camp. She also plans to transfer from Pasadena City College to Cal Poly Pomona and study to become an architect. She said she thinks about “one day going back to Syria and help contribute to rebuilding it.”

But it would only be for a visit. “I’ll always miss Syria,” she said. “I don’t think there will be peace anytime soon because there are so many groups fighting for control. But even if the war stopped, I wouldn’t go back because I’ve had so many opportunities to grow here and I love my life here.”

Rudayna said she wouldn’t move back to Syria, either. “I have a life here. I don’t want to go back to where the bad things and bad memories were,” she said.

She said she hopes her story will encourage women in situations like hers to get an education and become self-sufficient. She said she believes that the film will give people a better understanding of the situation in Syria and the plight of refugees. “We all have to think about others and how we can try to help,” she said.

As the film’s titular subject, Dalya admits that watching the film is “embarrassing
to me.”

“I don’t like to see myself as clueless and struggling and having people see how I was,” she said. “But I’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback, and I’m just hoping someone benefits from it, even if it’s the smallest thing that they take from the experience.”

At a time when Muslims face increased prejudice, “The most important thing is for Americans to stand by each other because that is the only thing that will keep us together and strong,” Dalya said.

In the film, she attends a protest against then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims traveling to the U.S.

“It’s something I felt very strongly about because I could have been in these people’s shoes if I didn’t have citizenship. All these Americans, Muslims and non-Muslims were standing up with each other, and I felt so much love,” she said. “It made me more hopeful.” 

From left: Antonio, Jarad and Juan in “They Call Us Monsters.” Photo courtesy of The 2050 Group

‘Monsters’ looks at young prisoners hoping to change the script of their lives


Filmmaker Ben Lear. Photo courtesy of The 2050 Group

Ben Lear was a bit nervous before he visited a juvenile hall while making what ultimately would become his new documentary, “They Call Us Monsters,” about teenagers awaiting trial as adults after being accused of heinous crimes.

He never before had met anyone accused of a violent felony, and had grown up in a world far removed from the gang-infested streets his subjects called home. The 28-year-old is the son of comedy legend Norman Lear (“All in the Family,” “Maude”); he attended the elite Crossroads School in Santa Monica; became a bar mitzvah at Leo Baeck Temple; and was raised in a Brentwood home where actor Walter Matthau was a frequent guest.

But the younger Lear also inherited his father’s penchant for work and activism that tackles major social issues, and so one day in 2013 he found himself sitting down with accused felons taking a screenwriting class at a facility called the “Compound” at Sylmar Juvenile Hall.

“I was expecting them to be just hard, kind of inhuman criminals,” Lear said during a recent interview in Hollywood. “I thought I would feel like they wanted to [physically attack] me. But it turned out that I didn’t feel that for a second. They didn’t want to fight me. They were happy [and] grateful that I was there.

“They wanted to talk, to communicate, to connect, to share, even as they faced spending their entire lives in prison. It was just profoundly human, more human than your everyday experience, because of the barriers between us in terms of where you come from and your circumstances.”

Not just differences in terms of race and class, but also “the fact that they had been accused of these crimes and I hadn’t,” Lear explained. “So it makes you ask the question, Could I be capable of that? …  [And] the answer is yes … under the wrong circumstances.”

“They Call Us Monsters” primarily revolves around three teens facing trials as adults and long prison sentences for gang-related offenses. Antonio, 14, expresses no remorse for two attempted murders; Juan,16, could receive more than 90 years for a first-degree murder; and Jarad, also 16 and the clown of the group, faces some 200 years for four attempted murders in a shooting that left a woman paralyzed.

The documentary follows the boys as they attend a screenwriting class, taught by director-producer Gabriel Cowan, who helps them shape their own movie about a 12-year-old boy’s loss of innocence — all based on their own lives.  At that age, Jarad witnessed his father attempting suicide by repeatedly stabbing himself.

Paralleling their story is the journey of California bill SB 260, which allows some youths tried as adults the possibility of parole after serving a number of years. It became law in early 2014.

The question at the heart of the documentary is whether teenagers should be sentenced as adults — to lengthy prison sentences — or whether they deserve a second chance at freedom after they serve some time. Experts in the film say adolescents’ brains are not fully developed, so they are capable of change.

Lear said he didn’t want to make a white-savior film, with Cowan essentially “riding in on a stallion” to help the teens. Nor was he attempting to create an advocacy movie, though he understands how some viewers could perceive the documentary that way.

But he does believe that SB 260 “made enormous sense to me … because it incentivizes hope. … I would say these kids deserve the opportunity to earn their way out of prison through proving that they’ve changed their lives and that they can be productive, safe members of society.”

He added, “I don’t advocate letting people out of prison just because … obviously, you have to honor the victims as much as you can. … But at a certain point, you have to accept that a human being is capable of change. … You’ve got to work years and years on yourself, emotionally, academically, in terms of job training. … You have to show insight, responsibility and remorse on a really profound level.”

Lear grew up with a father committed to social change and who founded the progressive advocacy organization People For the American Way in the 1980s. The younger Lear said he was aware from a young age that his father was prominent in the television industry, though at the time he was growing up, Norman Lear’s most famous shows were off the air. “But I had an understanding of the cultural resonance,” the younger Lear said of his father’s sitcoms.

Yet as an aspiring filmmaker from age 11, he said he put pressure on himself to match his father’s success in show business “in a ridiculous, childish way. But you’ve got to escape that trap or you’re just going to be stuck feeling like s— about yourself forever.”

Lear switched his youthful ambitions from cinema to music because “on some level, it was something completely different, totally separate and unique,” he said. “And it was nice to have a phase of my life when I was doing something that was completely in my own realm.”

He studied guitar from age 11 — Lear created all the music for “They Call Us Monsters” — earned a degree in musical composition from New York University and penned a folk opera, “Lillian,” a fantasy that also tackled environmental issues.

But by the age of 24, Lear was ready to return to filmmaking. In 2013, he saw the potential for a fictional feature based on a New York Times article he had read involving prison life. “I never intended to make a documentary,” he said.

Instead, Lear set out to research his fictional idea with Cowan, an old family friend, who ultimately decided to teach a screenwriting class at the Compound. The collaborators then turned to Scott Budnick, a producer of “The Hangover” films who also was an ardent activist for juvenile justice. Budnick arranged for Lear and Cowan to visit a variety of youth facilities and to meet people who had been tried as adults when they were teenagers.

“I’d never met anyone from that world before,” Lear said. “And slowly over that period, the idea for a documentary started to form.”

Lear found it difficult to reconcile the ebullient boys he met at the Compound with their vicious criminal charges. “That was one of the challenges that [also] inspired me to make the film,” he said. “I wanted to present that challenge to the world.”

To create some balance in the film, Lear also interviewed the one victim he was able to locate and persuade to appear on camera, Yesenia, the young woman Jarad left paralyzed. She was eager to be in the movie, according to Lear.

“I told her … ‘You’re going to be the voice … of the survivors of violent crime,’ so there’s a lot of dignity in that. It was the same thing that got Juan, Jarad and Antonio to do the film. … I said, ‘You guys are going to be the voice of thousands of teenagers who are locked up and aren’t going to get heard from otherwise.’ ”

At one point during the Journal interview, Lear was surprised to see his friend Frank Carrillo sit down at a nearby table at NeueHouse Hollywood. Carrillo, who was tried as an adult at 16 and given a life sentence for murder, was exonerated of his crime after 20 years in prison and released about six years ago. He was one of Lear’s early consultants for “They Call Us Monsters.”

After giving Carrillo a hug, Lear said, “He is exactly what my movie is not about. His is a very different story … the wrongful conviction story. This is the rightful conviction story. Now let’s figure out what to do about it.”

“They Call Us Monsters” is streaming now at pbs.org. 

Bert Berns in the studio. Photo courtesy of Brett Berns

‘Bert Berns Story’ pays tribute to a music pioneer


The name Bert Berns might not ring a bell, but his songs certainly do. As a prolific songwriter and music producer, Berns is the man behind such pop and soul hits as “Twist and Shout,” “Hang On Sloopy,” “Under the Boardwalk” and “Piece of My Heart.”  The founder of Bang! Records, Berns was one of the most influential music figures of the 1960s. But he died in 1967 at age 38, never achieving widespread recognition or fame.

His son, Brett Berns, has made it his life’s mission to remedy that with his documentary, “Bang! The Bert Berns Story,” which opens May 5 at the Laemmle NoHo 7 in North Hollywood. It’s a loving biographical homage to the father he barely knew.

Brett Berns was only 2 years old when his father, who suffered from rheumatic fever since childhood, died of heart failure, leaving behind his widow, Ilene, and two other children, Cassie, 10 months, and Russell, 2 weeks at the time.

“He knew he was going to die young, and sure enough, he did,” Berns said. “I didn’t get to know him, and he’d been pretty much written out of the history books. I knew I had to tell his dramatic life story and get people to pay attention to the body of work he left behind.”

The documentary, Berns’ first film, “was a 10-year effort. The biggest challenge was just getting started,” he said. He gradually conducted interviews with his father’s friends, collaborators and well-known soul singers, enabling him to land major stars. “Cissy Houston and Solomon Burke were heroes to guys like Paul McCartney, Van Morrison and Keith Richards. It was an enormous coup to get them, but I think they agreed to [be interviewed] because they loved Bert and his music.

“We got everyone we wanted, except for Neil Diamond,” Berns said, noting that his mother, a music industry bigwig in her own right — she took over at Bang! Records after her husband’s death — resisted taking part until McCartney and Morrison were on board. “She made me fight for it. But she’s a big star in the film. She was one of the toughest and most inspiring people I knew.”

Ilene Berns died in February at age 73.

Berns turned to author Joel Selvin and his book “Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues” for “so much of my father’s music and story that I wasn’t aware of. He’s the world’s leading authority on my dad,” he said. The film not only covers Berns’ creative career, it reveals his mob connections and his ties to Judaism and Israel.

Berns was born in the Bronx, N.Y., to Russian-Jewish immigrants who changed their name from Beresovsky. “His Jewish identity was mainly cultural, ethnic, nationalist. He was one of those tough, fighting Jews that took the lesson of the Holocaust and personalized it. He loved Israel. He was such a passionate Zionist,” his son said, offering an example: Bert Berns once turned a record release party into a fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal. “He wanted to fight in the Six-Day War, but he had young children, he was running the label and his heart was failing,” his son said.

Twenty years later, Brett Berns graduated from the University of Virginia and fulfilled his father’s unrealized dream by making aliyah and joining the Israeli army. Brett’s connection to Judaism solidified during his college years, when he began to study Hebrew and visited Israel. The Yad Vashem memorial made an indelible impression on him. “It really shocked me, and I came back wanting to learn as much as I could about the Jewish people and Israel and be part of that experience,” he said.

Berns served in the infantry and was a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces, and planned to stay in Israel, but when the rights to his father’s music reverted to his heirs in 1990, he returned to the United States to help administer the publishing. “As I started to dig into my father’s music and legacy, I became, with my sister, a champion of my father’s legacy and efforts to tell his story,” he said.

As the documentary continues to be screened at film festivals and opens to the public, Berns is working on other ways to do that. “Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story Musical,” by Daniel Goldfarb, played a limited run off-Broadway in 2014 and is being readied for its Broadway debut, “hopefully in the fall,” Berns said. “It’s a jukebox musical, but my dad’s songs are so deeply autobiographical that they really serve the story.”

He added that there might be a scripted film or TV version of Bert’s story in the future.

Berns said he thinks his father would love the film, the play, “and all of our efforts to have him achieve the recognition that’s eluded him all these decades. We got him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, and with the 50th anniversary of his death this year, I hope people will take away the message of his life. He never gave up on his dreams, and he lived life like there was no tomorrow. I think there’s a lesson from that for everybody. He inspired me, and I hope he’ll inspire generations to come.”

A scene from the documentary “The Memory of Justice.” Photo courtesy of HBO

Film focuses on how war warps human behavior


“I go on the assumption that everyone is guilty.”

This sentiment of a guilt that is assumed automatically through membership in the human race is expressed by Jewish master violinist Yehudi Menuhin at the beginning of “The Memory of Justice,” and it’s an assessment that is largely borne out over the course of the 4 1/2-hour HBO documentary that airs April 24.

Although publicists for the film make a point that the screening date was set intentionally for Holocaust Remembrance Day, the production deals with three examples of man’s inhumanity during the 20th century.

The first and longest segment does focus on the Holocaust, but the second part covers France’s attempted suppression of the Algerian bid for independence, and the third on America’s role in the Vietnam War.

“The Memory of Justice” is a massive — and masterful — restoration of a film of the same title released in 1976 that was produced, written and directed by Marcel Ophuls. He and his father, Max Ophuls (nee Oppenheimer), were German-born Jews, who resumed their brilliant film careers after fleeing to France and then the United States.

The main part of the film’s Holocaust-themed segment deals with the postwar Nuremberg war crimes trials that began in 1945 and in which an international tribunal tried 22 top political and military leaders of the Nazi regime. (Hitler had cheated the gallows by shooting himself as Soviet forces closed in on his Berlin bunker.)

Interviews with 40 people, perpetrators and victims, form the backbone of this segment. The two main figures are Telford Taylor, chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, and Albert Speer, an architect who served as Hitler’s minister of armaments.

Taylor went on to cover the Vietnam War (1955-75) and his views on war crimes, as well as similarities between Nazi and American conduct during the war in Southeast Asia, were expressed clearly in the title of his 1970 book, “Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy.” A considerable part of the film is based on Taylor’s book.

After a 20-minute intermission, both in the press screening and the TV presentation, Ophul’s documentary moves on to the Algerian war (1954-62), in which France tried to squelch its colony’s independence movement, and in which both sides systematically tortured their enemies. In French history, the conflict is known as “the dirty war.”

The final segment focuses on the Vietnam War. The centerpiece is the 1968 My Lai Massacre, in which U.S. soldiers killed, mutilated and raped up to 500 unresisting men, women and children.

“The Memory of Justice” has been widely acclaimed as a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, which it is, but the mass of material can at times overload the attentive viewer, who also may have difficulties in quickly adjusting to the film’s shifts in tone from gruesome depictions of death camp atrocities to merry songs of the era.

Ophuls, now 89, did not take an active part in the film’s restoration. Instead, the living link between the 1976 original and the current version is Hamilton Fish, a personality worth his own biographical film.

He is the descendant of an old American family of Anglo-Saxon and Scottish extraction. Formally named Hamilton Fish V, during a phone interview he invited a reporter to address him as “Ham.”

The Fish dynasty produced a series of rock-ribbed Republican politicians, including a former governor of New York. Another member of the clan, Hamilton Fish III, was a congressman from New York’s Hudson Valley for 25 years and the nemesis of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“Ham,” 64, however, has flipped in the opposite direction, and as publisher of The Nation, is credited with preserving and upgrading America’s premier liberal magazine.

In 1975, he partnered with Ophuls to produce the original version of “Memory of Justice” and, in 2011, embarked on the “excruciatingly difficult” six-year project to restore and revive the documentary.

Some of the challenges called for scanning 50 reels of the 16 mm original negatives, frame by frame, eliminating dirt and scratches, restoring the soundtrack and adding new subtitles in English, French and German.

“What I take away from the film are the continuing questions of justice and accountability, of a system of international law to counter rogue behavior by government leaders,” Fish said.

However, looking at the present state of the world in general, and in Washington, D.C., in particular, Fish sounded a pessimistic note: “We see a renewed emphasis on military power at the expense of meeting human needs at home.”

“The Memory of Justice” will air at 5 p.m. April 24 on HBO2, HBO Now, HBO Go and HBO on Demand.

ALIVE AND KICKING *Director Interview and Movie Review*


ALIVE AND KICKING is a walk through the history of swing dancing up to present day.  It’s a documentary narrated by some of the original Lindy Hoppers as well as the current swing-dancing elite.

The swing dance world seems to be a separate entity from other genres of dance. For instance, unlike other forms in which winning competitions can translate into big bucks, competition payouts in swing are surprisingly low.  Instead, the titles lead to better teaching jobs–and that’s what pays.

Even more fascinating: competitive swing routines are improvised!  Dancers don’t know when they’ll get called to center stage during competition or even what music will be playing.  It’s unbelievable that these complicated dances are improvised and only further emphasizes just how talented these dancers are as well.

The facts keep coming all the way through ALIVE AND KICKING with impressive dance routines serving as the backdrop for a flurry of facts.

Susan Glatzer, a former Hollywood studio executive, first conceived of the documentary as a project for someone else.  She realized the film had become her project, though, as the amount of footage she shot started accumulating.  An avid swing dancer for 18 years, Glatzer documented a world with which she’s passionately in love.  In fact, while interviewing her alongside “Queen of Swing” and Lindy Hop creator Norma Miller, Glatzer became positively giddy when asked what it was like meeting Miller the first time.

For more about the history of swing directly from Susan Glatzer and Norma Miller, take a look below:

Stay in touch!  Find the author as @realZoeHewitt on Twitter and Instagram.

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

 

Comedian Robert Klein (right), with his son, Alexander (left), and director Marshall Fine. Photo courtesy of Starz

Documentary chronicles comedy of Robert Klein


In his 52 years in show business, Robert Klein has been in over 40 movies, hundreds of television shows and several Broadway musicals and plays, including “They’re Playing Our Song,” for which he earned a Tony nomination. His signature music-filled, improvisational standup routines spawned four comedy albums, nine HBO specials and earned him two Emmys for his music and lyrics. Altogether, they made him a comedy icon.

Now, still very much active at 75, Klein is the subject of the documentary “Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg,” premiering March 31 on Starz. He is scheduled to appear on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” that same night.

Directed by author and filmmaker Marshall Fine, the documentary showcases Klein’s life on and off the stage in new and archival footage, coupled with interviews with colleagues and admirers, including comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, David Steinberg and Billy Crystal.

“I was very impressed by what those guys said. It made me feel good,” Klein said in a telephone interview from Florida, where he had booked several engagements. “Some of them speak of me in the past tense, but I don’t find it offensive. You can see in the documentary that I’m still working.”

The documentary features many of Klein’s best-known bits, including “I Can’t Stop My Leg,” which he first performed — singing and playing the harmonica — at The Improv in New York in the 1960s.

“We’ve done it in every one of the nine HBO specials. We’ve done it in Spanish, German, a hip-hop version. It’s a silly joke but it works,” Klein said, noting that he suggested clips for Fine to use in the film. “I wanted to make sure the material that he used was the best he could find.”

Some of the material showcases his favorite Jewish jokes.

“I’ve always been a high-profile Jew,” Klein said. “I’m not observant, and I have no guilt about not going to synagogue. But I had a bar mitzvah. We never had bread and butter with meat at home because my father was brought up in a kosher home. My mother’s parents came from Hungary and were very assimilated. I was born in 1942 so I not only heard about the Holocaust, I met many survivors while working in the Catskills as a lifeguard.”

Klein grew up in The Bronx with a “high intensity, very funny” father and comedy icons Jonathan Winters and Lenny Bruce as influences. He studied at Alfred University and Yale before getting an improv education at Second City in Chicago in the mid-1960s. In the documentary, he reminisces with long-time friend and fellow Second City alumnus Fred Willard, who encouraged him to do standup.

Klein’s fame skyrocketed after he began appearing regularly on “The Merv Griffin Show” and “The Tonight Show.” Among his 82 appearances on “The Tonight Show” were a dozen as guest host, subbing for Johnny Carson. “He was so important for my career,” Klein said of Carson.

Klein hosted “Saturday Night Live” twice, including the fifth show of its first season, and remembered “SNL” cast member Gilda Radner and actress Madeline Kahn fondly.

“Both died of ovarian cancer. I do a benefit every year because they still haven’t cured it,” he said. “I don’t really watch [“SNL”] now, but I love to see that they’re doing their satirical duty by driving Trump crazy.”

Klein, who resides outside of New York City in Westchester County, has an apartment in the city and has lived in Los Angeles at times over the years, working at comedy clubs and on television shows such as “Sisters.”

Most recently, he appeared as Debra Messing’s father on “The Mysteries of Laura,” which shot in New York, a convenience he’d prefer on future TV or movie projects. ”I hope that something else will come along. I like being home,” he said.

Klein has been commissioned to write and perform four short pieces for “National Geographic Explorer” segments. He said he has enjoyed the process, so he’s considering writing a sequel to his 2006 memoir, “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue,” a story that ends when he  reaches the age of 25. Additionally, although his first screenplay wasn’t produced, he has higher hopes for a script he’s collaborating on with Marshall Fine.

Though it’s still improvisational and observational, Klein’s standup act has evolved and now incorporates material about aging. “The only way to deal with the difficulties of old age is to laugh at them,” he said. But, noting that many of his buddies are dealing with health issues, he exercises with a trainer and regularly walks “30 to 40 blocks at a good clip. My doctor says I have a quiet heart.”

Klein revealed that he has been in love four times: with his college girlfriend; his ex-wife, mezzo-soprano Brenda Boozer; and two post-divorce girlfriends. He isn’t keen on remarrying.

“But it would be wonderful to have a partner, have someone to go places with,” he said. “Everyone’s always trying to fix me up, and I appreciate their kindness. But I’m so set in my ways. What woman wants to live with W.C. Fields pictures on the wall and my model airplanes?” One of the models, he added, was a gift from Jonathan Winters’ daughter.

Klein has one son, Alexander, 33, who decided two and a half years ago to try standup comedy. “I’m encouraging him all the way,” Klein said. “He’s performing two, three times a week. He’s good. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter who your father is.”

Asked what he’d still like to accomplish, he responded that he doesn’t have a bucket list. “I’ve had such an interesting life, and I’ve done so many interesting things. Whoever would’ve thought? Private jets, making money, having people recognize me and appreciate what I do. It may be somewhat pretentious to say, but I think making people laugh is a very high calling. And good times or bad times, you could always use a laugh.”

He’s gratified that “Starting with nothing — no money, no connections — I made a pretty big career. A lot of it was good fortune,” he said. “I’ve been doing this since I was 23 years old. I’ve been in [the Screen Actors Guild] for 52 years. People feel like they know me. It’s a good feeling and I enjoy it whenever I’m on stage. I have no complaints. It’s been a wonderful ride.”

Bruised but Unbroken: Remembering Khojaly


(The featured image is from my interview in the new documentary Running From the Darkness)

I can still feel their hands as they grab my arm and separate me from my brother. My body remembers the way the baton bludgeoned my skin, over and over. I still shiver thinking about the cold, how the wind and snow worked hand in hand with my captors to further torment me. It has been 25 years since I was subjected to these horrors during the Khojaly Massacre, and it is an event I can never forget.

On the night of February 25th, 1992 my hometown Khojaly, located in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, was invaded by Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. That night, our village was bombed and many buildings were destroyed by shelling and fire. When I tried to flee into the forest to escape the siege, I was captured and tortured by the Armenian soldiers. My only crime was that I was an Azerbaijani living in a land that Armenia wanted to claim at all expense. The treatment I was subjected to during those days in captivity was one I do not wish on anyone. I was fortunate enough to have survived; however, hundreds of others from Khojaly, including over 300 women, children, and the elderly were not so lucky. 613 innocent civilians lost their lives that night, in what Human Rights Watch would label as the “largest massacre to date in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”

For many years I tried to remove these events from my memory; I thought sharing my story would only reopen the emotional wounds that remained when the bruises of my torture faded. However, two years ago as I was perusing Facebook, I found an article about an Armenian who was receiving an award. When I realized I recognized him, it was as if I was back in that barn in 1992. The man receiving that award was the very same soldier who had ordered the countless beatings when I was their prisoner. After seeing this post, I decided it was time to speak out and tell my story. We often hear the phrase “never again” when discussing massacres such as Khojaly, and I believe that ideal can only be accomplished if survivors like me tell their stories.

While I have made a point in the past few years to tell my story, my voice is only one of many that needs to be heard to truly understand what occurred in my town. This is why I am excited and honored to be a part of a new documentary that was created by film-makers in Los Angeles to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the tragedy in Khojaly. Having debuted on February 21st at the world-famous Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles to a great acclaim, Running From the Darkness features survivors from the massacre providing a space for first-hand accounts of what happened that night. Additionally, experts who have written books on Nagorno-Karabakh offer insights on the conflict and why we need to hold the perpetrators responsible. While the documentary’s primary purpose is to shed a light on the horrible events of February 25th, 1992, it also portrays the strengths of modern-day Azerbaijan. My homeland, known as “the Land of Fire”, has emerged from the ashes of catastrophe as a nation that celebrates multiculturalism and promotes religious tolerance.

This documentary not only commemorates tragedy, it also serves as a reminder that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is far from over. The international community has taken note of the quagmire; organizations such as the UN Security Council, UN General Assembly, the Council of Europe, European Parliament, and NATO have all condemned the continued Armenian occupation of Karabakh. The Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), comprised of the United States, Russia, and France, has been tasked with negotiating a peaceful settlement to this conflict. With the mounting pressure from these organizations, I am hopeful that a resolution will emerge in the very near future so that I, and other survivors, can finally go home.

 

HBO mum on status of Ari Shavit book documentary


HBO is not discussing the status of a documentary project based on a book by Ari Shavit, the Israeli journalist who in the past two weeks has been accused twice of sexual harassment.

Asked by Variety whether the documentary project will go forward in the wake of the accusations, HBO declined to clarify. A representative for the cable network’s chairman, Richard Plepler, told Variety in an email that “there is nothing more to say at this time except that this project is in the post-production/editing stage.”

HBO announced in 2014 that it was developing “My Promised Land,” a 2013 best-seller, as a documentary.

The book, which carries a full title of “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” is part memoir and part a tracing of the history of Israel and the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Shavit acknowledged that he was the unnamed Israeli journalist accused of sexual assault by a Jewish-American journalist Danielle Berrin in a column published Oct. 19 in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. Berrin had not not named Shavit, but her descriptions of the “accomplished journalist from Israel” who allegedly assaulted her led some to speculate that she was referring to the Haaretz columnist.

Shavit on Sunday resigned from his positions at Haaretz and Channel 10 after a second unnamed woman formerly associated with J Street also leveled sexual harassment accusations against him.

In a statement released Sunday, Shavit wrote: “I am ashamed of the mistakes I made with regards to people in general and women in particular. I am embarrassed that I did not behave correctly to my wife and children. I am embarrassed about the consequences of what I did.

He said he would “devote more time to being with my wife and children, who are most valuable to me, and to make personal amends.”

Meanwhile, critics of J Street criticized the group for not alerting other groups to Shavit’s alleged behavior. In addition, a  group of academics and rabbis called the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership also issued a statement criticized J Street for keeping quiet about Shavit.

“We are deeply disappointed that J Street reportedly failed to alert any other Jewish groups about [Shavit’s] behavior,” the group wrote. “Keeping quiet is not the way to combat sexual harassment.”

Anne Frank: “No Asylum” before the attic


The story of how Anne Frank’s family hid in an attic before being discovered by the Nazis became well-known through the diary she wrote that was found by her father, Otto, after the war. But less is known about Otto’s prior attempts to find refuge for his family when the Nazis invaded Holland in 1940. The family had fled there from Germany several years earlier and felt safe until the invasion, after which Otto began writing letter after letter hoping some nation would offer asylum.

His failed attempts and their aftermath are chronicled in the new documentary, “No Asylum,” by filmmaker Paula Fouce, now playing at the Laemmle Music Hall. “Anne Frank is probably the most well-known icon of tolerance and respect in the world,” Fouce said. “And, although she died 70 years ago, the words in her message are still very well known. And recently the letters of her father, Otto, came to light, a whole cache of documents that [was] lost for 70 years. And these documents reveal how he struggled to save his family during the Holocaust, to get them visas to many countries, and the world turned its back on the Franks.”

As the film illustrates, country after country erected barriers to Jews and other persecuted groups seeking sanctuary from the Nazis. While conducting her research for the film, Fouce said she uncovered some explanations as to why the U.S. didn’t take in more refugees during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “We found out it was because the United States had just gotten out of the Depression, and people were worried about jobs.  It was also because of anti-Semitism, and it was because of the fear of people being German spies.” Even after the war, when the world learned about the atrocities of the death camps, barriers continued.

The filmmaker said her preparation was helped immeasurably when she learned from a friend about the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, which houses some 23 million items, including letters, films, recordings, memoirs and other materials. Amidst the collection is the Otto Frank file.

“I got to actually hold the letters of Otto Frank in my hand, and my heart was beating,” Fouce recalled. “It was so moving. You know, they're very fragile, and they're on thin paper. There are some telegrams. There are all sorts of different documents in there. Nathan Strauss, whose family had founded Macy's department store, and his wife, were also trying to help the Franks. 

“When the Nazis tried to destroy all the wisdom of the Jewish people by burning the books,” Fouce said, “they kept a sort of collection of one of the best of everything, and they stamped it. And the stamp said that this was intended for the Museum of the Extinct People. And that was going to be built in Prague. So, apparently the U.S. Army found this collection of materials and eventually sent it back to the United States.”

In her film, Fouce includes testimony from surviving members of the Frank family, as well as representatives of YIVO, among other figures, along with archival footage from before, during and after the war. The documentary starkly depicts the results of the world’s indifference to Nazi victims, largely through footage from the concentration camps.

Fouce said she has long been concerned about religious intolerance and persecution, going back to when she was living in India and the Himalayas and working in such countries as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir. “I was trapped in a religious riot, and I nearly got killed. It was in New Delhi in 1984, when Indira Ghandi was assassinated. And it was such a horrifying and frightening experience,” she said. 

“I'm very interested in all the world's religions,” Fouce added. “I was brought up Catholic, but I studied with teachers of many, many faiths and did films on different faiths, and wrote books. I actually wrote a book called, ‘Not in God's Name: Making Sense of Religious Conflict.’ I have an interview with Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama and many people in that book, and, in fact, I got introduced to the Jewish rabbis in India, and I went to the synagogues there.” 

Fouce said the kind of religious hatred Jews experienced during the Holocaust persists. She pointed out that Jews are still being attacked in various parts of the world, as are other groups. “It's something that we just really need to try to grow beyond. Obviously, a lot of us are very peaceful people.  But we have to somehow change the mind of those that would be drawn to radical fundamentalism, in whatever religion it may be.”

She added that given the issue of refugees today, her film is particularly timely. “This film just happens to come out when we are having a huge problem in the world with refugees. And we have to look to helping people, and we also have to be aware of safety. There has to be some way to deal with that. When we showed the film at the Museum of Tolerance, that's pretty much what people were saying. I don't think there's an easy answer to anything, but it does draw an interesting parallel.” 

“No Asylum,” Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, Aug. 19-25. Tickets:

Former aide to top Nazi opens up, says few would’ve taken stand


Joseph Goebbels’ former personal secretary reveals what it was like working for Adolf Hitler’s chief propagandist in a new film about her life.

The documentary, “A German Life,” premiered last month at the Munich Film Festival.

Brunhilde Pomsel, now 105, revisited the story — from working for leading Nazis to hiding out in Hitler’s infamous bunker — in an interview with the Guardian published Monday. She expressed little guilt about her role in the heart of “the Nazi propaganda machine,” according to the London newspaper, saying most people who say they would have stood up to the Nazis are mistaken.

“Those people nowadays who say they would have stood up against the Nazis – I believe they are sincere in meaning that, but believe me, most of them wouldn’t have,” she said. “The whole country was as if under a kind of a spell … I could open myself up to the accusations that I wasn’t interested in politics but the truth is, the idealism of youth might easily have led to you having your neck broken.”

Pomsel acknowledged that she was involved in “massaging downwards statistics about fallen soldiers, as well as exaggerating the number of rapes of German women by the Red Army,” but she described it as “just another job.” She fondly recalled Goebbels and his wife and children, and said she was terrified to see his transformation during his infamous “total war” speech in February 1943 in Berlin.

Despite being so close to one of Hitler’s closet confidants, Pomsel claimed to be unaware of the genocide she was helping to perpetrate.

“I know no one ever believes us nowadays – everyone thinks we knew everything,” she said. “We knew nothing, it was all kept well secret.”

As to why she was speaking out now, including for more than 30 hours with the filmmakers, after largely keeping quiet for the past 70 years, Pomsel said: “It is absolutely not about clearing my conscience.”

In the last days of World War II, in April 1945, Pomsel joined Goebbels in Hitler’s bunker, where she said they drank alcohol “to retain the numbness.” She recalled learning that Hitler had killed himself, followed a day later by Goebbels and his wife, who also poisoned their children to death.

Pomsel said she only learned about the Holocaust after returning home, referring to it as “the matter of the Jews.”

She later returned to work as a secretary at the state broadcaster, where she went on to become the director of programming, a high-paying job that required travel. She retired at 60, in 1971.

In 2005, when the Holocaust memorial opened in Berlin, Pomsel inquired for the first time about a Jewish friend, whom she said she knew life had become difficult for under Hitler.

“I went into the information center and told them I myself was missing someone, an Eva Lowenthal,” Pomsel recalled.

A man went through the records and soon tracked down her friend, who had been deported to Auschwitz in November 1943 and declared dead in 1945.

 

MIND/GAME: THE UNQUIET MIND OF CHAMIQUE HOLDSCLAW *Movie Review*


Two time Academy Award nominee Rick Goldsmith was looking for his next project when he came across Chamique Holdsclaw in the newspaper.  After some conversations and moments of self-reflection, WNBA legend and Olympic Gold Medalist Chamique Holdsclaw agreed to allow Goldsmith to turn her life-story into a documentary.

The resulting project is MIND/GAME: THE UNQUIET MIND OF CHAMIQUE HOLDSCLAW which addresses Holdsclaw’s difficult childhood as well as her struggles with bipolar disorder.

The documentary manages to transcend the typical sports crowd by making Holdsclaw’s life a tale of overcoming adversity.

Chamique Holdsclaw took time out of her busy schedule to chat with me about what it was like watching such an intimate portrait of herself, her more memorable fan encounter and much more.

Take a look below for the full interview and when you’re through, leave me a message in the comments below to tell me if you plan on seeing the documentary!

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

Exposing the anguish of making ‘Shoah’


Halfway through the 12 years Claude Lanzmann worked on his epic documentary “Shoah,” he decided to take a brief break by taking a swim in the Mediterranean Sea.

As the Israeli coastline receded from view, his arms became very tired, and he realized he couldn’t make it back. Just as he reconciled himself to drowning, a stronger swimmer came to his aid and helped the filmmaker back to shore.

“I wasn’t happy I was saved,” Lanzmann recalled, because that meant he would have to continue the Herculean task he’d undertaken of shooting some 215 hours of film, then editing the footage to the 9 1/2 that make up the final version of “Shoah.”

This brush with death represents one of the filmmaker’s more dramatic recollections in the 40-minute film “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah,” which is up for an Academy Award in the documentary (short subject) category at the ceremony on Feb. 28.

Lanzmann set out on his long trek in 1973, when he was challenged by a high Israeli government official to make a documentary “not about the Shoah, but that is the Shoah.”

To come to grips with the enormity of this request, Lanzmann walked for an entire night through the streets of his native Paris, then decided to accept the challenge.

After seven years of interviewing and filming, Lanzmann devoted another five years to editing the enormous mass of footage, but even after he decided “Shoah” was ready for screening, he felt little sense of relief.

“Making the film was total war against everything and everybody,” Lanzmann recalls in “Spectres of the Shoah.”

“I was proud of what I had achieved, but it didn’t relieve me of my anguish. … I was left with a sense of bereavement, and it took me a long time to recover.”

Given his state of mind, Lanzmann had no desire to participate in a biographical documentary, especially because the most persistent requests came from a young journalist with no experience as a film producer or director.

That man was Toronto-based journalist Adam Benzine, now 33, a writer mainly about films and music. 

In 2010, Benzine saw “Shoah” for the first time and was blown away. As he began to look into Lanzmann’s background and the making of “Shoah,” he was amazed to discover that no one had tried to make a documentary film about the man and his historic achievement.

Over the next two years, Benzine petitioned Lanzmann intermittently, and unsuccessfully, for an interview, while continuing to research the filmmaker’s life and work.

Finally, in 2013, Lanzmann relented after Benzine produced a letter from the BBC, indicating the British broadcaster’s interest in rebroadcasting “Shoah,” together with the proposed documentary by Benzine.

In July 2013, the two men met for the first interview and, Benzine said in a phone interview, the first question Lanzmann asked him was, “Are you Jewish?”

No, Benzine responded, and explained that his British mother and Algerian father had met while students at England’s Essex University. The paternal lineage turned out to be a plus, because in the 1950s, Lanzmann had been an outspoken advocate of Algerian independence from France.

Lanzmann, now 90, fought, at 17, in the French resistance against the Nazis, as did his father.

“Spectres of the Shoah,” with Benzine as producer, director, writer and fundraiser, is studded with dramatic moments, but two stand out in particular.

In one segment — an outtake from “Shoah” — Lanzmann recalls hearing of a Jewish barber whose job in Treblinka was to cut the hair of women going into the gas chambers.

After some effort, Lanzmann tracked down the man, Abraham Bomba, and persuaded him to be interviewed at work in a New York barbershop. While snipping at a customer’s hair, Bomba first talks of his Treblinka assignment in a cold, neutral voice.

Finally, Lanzmann asks Bomba, “What were your feelings while you were doing this work?” Bomba bites his lips but refuses to answer, until Lanzmann finally tells him, “We have to do this.”

Another dramatic scene evolved through Lanzmann’s insistence on interviewing some of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. He knocks on the door of former SS officer Heinz Schubert and gains entrance by representing himself as a member of an organization making a film on the achievements of the Wehrmacht during World War II.

Schubert agrees, and while Lanzmann interviews him, an assistant films the scene surreptitiously through a hidden camera, shooting through a hole in her carrying bag and transmitting the footage to confederates in a truck parked outside.

However, Schubert’s wife becomes suspicious, and two husky Nazis enter the room. The upshot is a beating that hospitalized Lanzmann for one month.

Benzine was able to review more than 200 hours of film shot by Lanzmann that didn’t make it into the final cut of “Shoah,” which are now preserved at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Also intriguing are scenes featuring Lanzmann with two close French friends and supporters, existentialist philosophers and writers Simone de Beauvoir, who lived with Lanzmann for a considerable time, and her other longtime paramour, Jean-Paul Sartre.

Benzine hopes his documentary will lead not only to an Oscar, but also to a revival of Lanzmann’s original nine-plus hourslong “Shoah,” with the two films shown in tandem. Swedish television has already done so, and the BBC and Israel’s Channel 1 may do likewise.

For American viewers, HBO will air the 40-minute documentary May 2

New HBO doc explores Mike Nichols’ journey from Nazi Germany to Hollywood


In 1939, a 7-year-old Jewish boy named Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky left Nazi Germany and, accompanied only by his 4-year-old brother, arrived in New York with an English vocabulary consisting of two phrases: “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me.”

By the early 1960s, the refugee boy, renamed Mike Nichols, had taken Broadway by storm with his improvisational comedy skits with Elaine May, and he went on to become an iconic American theater and film director.

When Nichols died in 2014 at 83, Variety headlined the obituary, “Mike Nichols: Émigré to Eminence.”

Despite the urging of friends, Nichols never wrote an autobiography. However, two months before his death, he sat down with his old friend and colleague, theater producer/director Jack O’Brien, for two extended interviews, one before a live audience and the other private.

The result is a 75-minute film, “Becoming Mike Nichols,” which HBO will premiere on Feb. 22 at 9 p.m.

The film’s opening hits a high and nostalgic note with some Nichols and May skits, which were akin to unrehearsed high-wire acts, in which neither partner knew what the other was going to say.

One classic example has May as the ultra-Jewish mother phoning her son, the rocket scientist, to ask why he never calls.  

In another, Nichols suddenly asks about the title song for “The Brothers Karamazov” (Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s great philosophical and spiritual novel) and, without missing a beat, May comes up with both melody and lyrics.

The Nichols-May act broke up in the early 1960s because of what Nichols described as his “very controlling” attitude.

Soon after, Nichols took in a performance of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” starring Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy, and was overwhelmed. He decided that the theater was for him -— not as an actor, but as a director.

After Broadway successes with Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple,” it was time for him to switch genres again, becoming a movie director. Without any experience in the medium and only an informal three-day crash course as preparation, Nichols, as usual, started at the top.

His first two films became instant classics: The first, directing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), followed by “The Graduate” (1967).

In the HBO film, Nichols recalls his second movie by adding a few nuggets of information to the already much-studied masterwork. After interviewing hundreds of young actors without finding the right one for the title role, he says, he came across a young actor he had seen in an off-Broadway production playing a transvestite Russian fishwife. The actor’s name was Dustin Hoffman, and the rest is history.

“The Graduate” benefited immensely from its musical score by the folk-rock duo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, but Nichols pressed them for one more song. At first stuck, the duo remembered one of their uncompleted songs, titled “And Here’s to You, Mrs. Roosevelt.” They switched the name to “Mrs. Robinson” and a hit was born.

By the end of his life, Nichols had received one Oscar, four Emmys, nine Tonys and a Grammy.

In an interview with the Journal, O’Brien described Nichols as not only an immensely talented artist, but also a real mensch.

“Mike had the fuse of life burning within him,” O’Brien said, “but he was also a phenomenal friend. He had a genuine love of people, and in company somehow made you feel that you were the smartest person in the room … perhaps his greatest gift, as an artist and a person, was that he made you better by seeking out the best in you.”

“Becoming Mike Nichols” has been praised as “a master class” in the craft of the theater, but Nichols speaks more in terms of emotions and attitudes than how-to bits of advice.

On directing: “One minute, you don’t know, then suddenly, you get it. That’s the thrill, that’s why you are here.”

On plot lines: “There are three types of scenes … negotiations, seductions and fights.”

On making successful movies: “You get lucky in many strange ways.”

Aside from a few sentences about Nichols’ departure from Nazi Germany, there is no mention of his Jewishness.

“The topic never really came up,” O’Brien said. “Our discussions focused almost entirely on the theater and Nichols’ career.”

Except for an occasional dinner, in which Nichols’ wife, former TV news anchor and reporter Diane Sawyer, joined in, O’Brien said he knew little of his friend’s private life.

In any case, “Mike treated me as [if] I were Jewish, or simply thought of me as an Irish Jew,” O’Brien said.

For readers eager to learn more about the Jewish aspect of Nichols’ life, a good source is a chapter on him in Abigail Pogrebin’s book “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish,” which was excerpted in the Nov. 20, 2014 issue of Tablet’s online magazine.

Asked in the excerpt whether his Jewishness related to his sense of being an outsider, Nichols replied, “This is tricky, because I think there are two different things: One is Jewishness and one is refugee-ness.

“The second one being what you might call the ‘Sebold Syndrome’ … namely that your guilt about the Six Million finally comes up and gets you. … By definition, whether you are a refugee or not, you are a member of a group that has been hated by a large number of people through all history. It’s impossible not to be aware of that hatred.”

When O’Brien asks why so many comedians and comedy writers have been Jewish, Nichols responds, “Jewish introspection and Jewish humor are ways of surviving. Not only as a group, but as individuals. If you’re not handsome, and you’re not athletic, and you’re not rich, there’s still one last hope with girls, which is being funny. Girls like funny guys.” 

PBS revisits notorious Leopold and Loeb case in ‘The Perfect Crime’


It was a time of unease for middle-aged Middle Americans. They were worried about their sons and daughters — the weird music, the scanty clothing — and also about the way the super-rich were getting away with everything.

The headlines told of the strange case of teenagers, convicted killers, who got off easy through their lawyer’s novel defense that the boys were victims of affluent parents who hadn’t taught them right from wrong.

Sounds like today, but it was actually 1924, when two 19-year-olds, both from wealthy Jewish families in Chicago, committed a horrendous crime but cheated the hangman’s noose thanks to a novel defense by their famous lawyer.

The trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, which riveted the nation and the world, will be re-examined Feb. 9 when PBS airs “The Perfect Crime” as part of its “American Experience” series.

Both Leopold and Loeb, raised by governesses in the lap of luxury, came to visualize themselves as incarnations of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch — as supermen so brilliant and exceptional as to be bound by neither law nor morality.

The two became lovers, with the handsome and charismatic Loeb as the dominant partner. They initially tested their theory with petty crimes, but then, at 19, went for the big time.

They decided to commit the perfect crime, one they believed would never be traced to them, by picking up Bobby Franks — a second cousin of Loeb — in their car, first killing him with a chisel and pouring acid over his face and body to obscure distinguishing marks, then stuffing the corpse into a culvert.

The “perfect,” untraceable crime collapsed almost immediately. Franks’ body was discovered by a passerby, a pair of nearby glasses was traced to Leopold, and the murderers’ alibis quickly fell apart.

Both men confessed that they had committed the murder for the thrill of it, while Leopold compared his deed to an entomologist dissecting an insect for further study.

At the trial, the two defendants, elegantly dressed, were unrepentant, smiling and smirking. A death penalty seemed inevitable. At one point in the process, when the prosecution hinted that the defendants had sexually molested Franks before killing him, the judge, John Caverly, ordered all female reporters to leave the court room so as not to soil their delicate ears — even though the word “moron” or “sex moron” was frequently substituted for “homosexual” at the time.

Desperate, the parents of Leopold and Loeb hired Clarence Darrow, the country’s top criminal lawyer and an ardent opponent of the death penalty, to defend their sons and, specifically, to spare them from hanging.

With world attention focused on the case, Darrow pleaded his clients guilty to avoid a jury trial, thereby leaving the final verdict to the judge. He then proceeded to offer a groundbreaking psychological defense, arguing that his clients were not perpetrators but victims of stunted emotional growth, that Leopold had been sexually abused by his governess, and, for the first time, introducing Freudian concepts in an American trial.

Darrow called a string of psychiatrists (then called “alienists”) to the witness stand and 2,000 Chicagoans lined up hoping to hear Darrow’s final three-day summation.

Surprisingly, in an era of rampant anti-Semitism fueled by the KKK and Henry Ford, the defendants’ Jewishness, accompanied by their arrogance, was rarely mentioned in reports of the trial.

In a phone interview, Cathleen O’Connell, producer and director of the hourlong documentary, said that she and her staff spent much time checking coverage of the trial in the general and Jewish media and found hardly any allusions to the defendants’ ethnicity and religion.

However, she did come across one article in the Chicago Tribune quoting a Jewish “spokesman” as observing that Loeb and Leopold’s crime was due to their neglect of Judaism, O’Connell said.

One explanation may be that their victim, Franks, was Jewish himself, although his parents had converted to Christian Science.

What made O’Connell’s research most difficult, she said, was the absence of any newsreel coverage of the trial, and the judge, believing the testimony would be too salacious for the general public, aborted any radio broadcasts of the trial.

O’Connell contrasted this lack of firsthand material to the extensive coverage of the “Scopes Monkey Trial” one year later, in which Darrow defended a schoolteacher accused of violating Tennessee law by teaching evolution to his students. It was the first trial that allowed Americans to follow the proceedings by radio.

The documentary fills much of the gap through extensive use of still photos and by actors conveying the voices and personas of the main participants.

“The Perfect Crime” premieres at 9 p.m. Feb. 9 on KOCE, the PBS SoCal station. 

Producer of Netanyahu documentary: March speech revealed Bibi’s true self


The debate between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama over the Iran deal, the clash between the two when they came into office in 2009, and Netanyahu’s rise to power in the early ’90′s was the topic of “Netanyahu at War” – a two-hour documentary from veteran filmmaker Michael Kirk aired on PBS Tuesday night.

Ahead of the program airing on TV, Kirk revealed what he found most compelling about Benjamin Netanyahu the man – his past and upbringing – while working on the 2-hour documentary, based on interviews with 40 individuals over the past 9 months since Netanyahu’s controversial speech to a joint session of Congress.

In an interview on Huffington Post Live, Kirk said the reason he decided the make the film was because he had watched the speech and thought that he would find a way to tell the story of the peace process and the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama through the eyes of “these two characters – the Prime Minister of Israel, a forceful and very different guy than Barack Obama, who’s sort of a more optimistic person and a guy who believes everyone should sit around the table and talk.”

As he dove into Netanyahu’s past, Kirk says he came to realize that Netanyahu was an American, basically. “English is really his first language in lots of ways. People in Israel tell us that when he gets into an argument, he starts in Hebrew but when he wants to really make his points he, automatically, switches to English,” Kirk told host Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani.

According to Kirk, Benzion Netanyahu, the father, brought up his children to believe that they were on a mission to save Israel from eradication. But with Yoni’s tragic death during the Entebbe rescue mission, “Bibi was apparently given the job” and placed with the burden of “shouldering what Yoni was going to do,” which was to run for the job of Prime Minister. That prompted Netanyahu to embark on a political career that will be based on fighting terrorism.

The effect the death of Yoni had on Netanyahu was “profound,” says Kirk, basing it on the many conversations he had working on the documentary. “I think in memory of his brother, his actions are even more forceful at times. He operates, really, in the world sphere as a man with a grudge; as a man who has something formidable to protect, and as a man who’s unafraid of stepping up and taking on whatever challenges there are.”

Kirk also makes a point that while a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is nowhere in sight, there is reason to believe that Netanyahu is the one capable of signing a peace deal. “The other part of Bibi Netanyahu is a really pragmatic politician. It’s a surprising part of him. But he’s gotten reelected over and over again by making some political concession,” he asserted. “His willingness to shake Yasser Arafat’s’ hand” despite the heat he got from the right, “tells you something about the potential willingness inside this man to cut a deal.”

In the film, Netanyahu’s former political adviser Eyal Arad, is quoted as saying that Netanyahu believes he is “a person called to save the Jewish people.” Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit adds, “He wants to be the new Churchill, to stop Iran in the way Churchill stopped the Nazis, and believes he will go down in history as the person who warned us all it would come true.”

The 2nd segment describes Netanyahu leading a coalition of the ultra-right and conservatives (Likud) and becoming the face of the opposition to the Oslo Accords. Netanyahu found himself at the center of the anger against Rabin, and as the intensity grew, the film compiles footage of the rally on Kikar Zion, where protesters raised poster of Rabin dressed in Nazi uniform, and Netanyahu addressing the crowd with a vow never to allow the division of Jerusalem. Netanyahu knew how to channel the outrage on his way to power, says Chemi Shalev. The Likud leader took it as a given and knew what was coming, Ross tells Frontline, as he recalls a private conversation he had with Netanyahu at the time. Indyk also recalls a conversation with Netanyahu after the murder of Rabin expressing regret that he didn’t get the chance to defeat Rabin at the polls.

After Rabin’s murder and Netanyahu eying the premiership, Ross admits Clinton “probably went overboard” in helping acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres win the election. As the election season kicked off, Netanyahu was trailing Peres by 31 points. People who spoke to him at the time said he thought his political career was over, Shalev says. But Netanyahu returned to center stage and starts to recover and climb up in the polls as bombs set off across Israel and Israelis lose faith in the peace process.

The next step was Netanyahu trying to block the implementation of the Oslo Accords and defy President Clinton’s demands to continue the process. The documentary describes Netanyahu’s first meeting with Clinton at the White House a month after he won the election as the start of a clash between two conflicting interests. But at the same time, Netanyahu gave into some demands by meeting with Arafat, shaking his hands and withdrawing from Hebron. Nonetheless, that was described as an attempt to slow-walk the process, which made him appear stubborn and impossible to deal with. Erekat recounts hearing President Clinton shouting and screaming “from the depths of his stomach” at Bibi at 4 o’clock in the morning during the Wye River Plantation peace talks. “It was 4:00am, I hear shouting, real shouting – screaming 4:00am in the morning. President Clinton shouting from the depths of his stomach, and head, and ears, and eyes, and nose, and mouth and legs at Bibi Netanyahu.”

Towards the end of the first hour, the program focuses on Netanyahu’s 2nd attempt to return to power at the same time Barack Obama emerged as the favorite to win the presidency. Marvin Kalb describes meeting Netanyahu – then Israel’s opposition leader – at a coffee shop inquiring about Obama’s background, Muslim roots and worrying about the kind of objectivity he would bring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peter Baker and David Axelrod describe Obama’s first moves on the Middle East peace process as an attempt to bring the two sides together, bridge the gaps and bring them to agree to a final settlement. But Obama’s admiration of progressive Jewish ideals and his relationship with Jews on the left was exactly what Netanyahu was against, Peter Beinart described the beginning of the clash between the two leaders. “What Obama is admiring in the Jewish tradition and in the Jews he knows is exactly what Netanyahu fears,” Beinart explains. “It is the sense that Jews have this instinct towards making the world better that may make them in Netanyahu’s eyes too idealistic to deal with the actual threats that they really face, especially in a place like the Middle East.”

The 2nd hour starts with the first meeting between Netanyahu and Obama with the President insisting on a settlement freeze – making the demand in public. At one point, the camera turns to show Rahm Emanuel smirking and whispering something into George Mitchell’s ear “This shocked Netanyahu, and it gave proof to the people that have been whispering to Netanyahu in the ear that this guy is up to no good,” says Shalev. “He recognized that Obama was hell-bent as setting up a Palestinian State.” The Israeli Prime Minister came back home angry and feeling he was under siege. “With people like Netanyahu, you don’t get a second chance,” says Ari Shavit.

The 2nd incident took place when Obama flew to the Middle East to deliver his Cairo speech but skipped Israel, a move which angered the Israeli government and sent a signal to Israelis that he didn’t like them. Ben Rhodes and Denis McDonough were the two who advised Obama to skip Israel, says Ross. Rhodes defended the decision in an interview to Frontline. “I’ve lived in this job for seven years and have learned repeatedly that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” said Rhodes. “Frankly, I see it as a lose-lose proposition. Whatever we were going to do was not going to be the right thing for this particular Israeli government.” Mitchell and Axelrod, however, admitted it was a mistake. The move insulted Israelis, Obama’s reputation took a hit and Netanyahu capitalized this incident to show Israelis he is the only one that could stand up to the U.S. President.

The next clash, which ultimately buried the peace process, came as Obama called for the creation of a Palestinian State on the 1967 lines. Netanyahu was convinced it was an ambush, says Ross. Dore Gold recalls Netanyahu calling him, sounding furious and ordering him to enter his office for emergency consultations while speaking with Hillary Clinton on the phone.

The last hour shifts to Netanyahu’s media blitz against the Iran deal and the WH fearing Israel would strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. Netanyahu then crossed the line by actively supporting Mitt Romney for president in the fall of 2012. Remnick says the champagne bottles in Netanyahu’s residence were on ice on election night as the assumption was Romney would win.

The final part of the program is a recap of the debate over the Iran nuclear deal, Netanyahu insisting Obama told him the military option is off the table, and his aggressive attempt to block the deal in Congress. Indyk calls Netanyahu irrational. “I think this is for him the fight of his life – he’s no longer rational about it,” Indyk stated. “A rational Prime Minister of Israel, understanding the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship, would not confront the president on the most important agreement that he has managed to negotiate in his presidency.”

‘Red Zone’ filmmaker on finding romance under rockets in Sderot


Filmmaker Laura Bialis had always felt a strong connection to Israel and had traveled there many times before, most recently for her 2007 documentary, “Refusnik,” about the persecution of Soviet Jews. But when she returned that same year to make another film, “Rock in the Red Zone,” her life changed in ways she never expected.

Bialis, a Los Angeles native, took note of news reports about the Negev city of Sderot, where residents, mainly descendents of Jewish refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, had been living under constant rocket fire from Hamas in nearby Gaza for the past seven years. Investigating further, she learned of Sderot’s thriving music scene, full of artists turning their experiences about living under siege in a virtually forgotten town into song. 

Entrance to an underground bomb shelter in Sderot. Photo courtesy of Foundation for Documentary Projects

“What was it like for musicians to make music in a war zone?” Bialis wondered. A month later, she was on a plane to Israel. “It was a passion project. I had no funding, but I had to go. It was like a fire under my tush,” she said.  

Bialis spent three weeks interviewing musicians but realized she needed to live there for a while to weave together the kind of story she wanted to tell. 

“Music,” she learned, “is part of their DNA. In that city, music has been a source of joy and pride for the last 30 years. How can you write love songs to a place that kicks you in the head all the time? I went in with fresh eyes and saw the beauty of the place. It’s a place with a lot of soul and has its own kind of magic that comes through, I think, in the movie.”

One of the featured artists is Avi Vaknin, who refused to participate in her film at first. “He was very skeptical. He felt the way Sderot had been portrayed in the Israeli media was very stereotypical and exploitative, showing traumatized, screaming people in a Qassam rocket attack. He didn’t want to have anything to do with that,” Bialis said. “We had to convince him.”

She enlisted Vaknin’s help in finding a place where she could live. “He was also looking for an apartment, and when we found this huge house, I thought, ‘If he was my roommate, I could film him all the time. This is great.’ We started off as friends and connected on a very deep level creatively. He was like my muse. And then it became romantic,” she said.

Vaknin proposed to Bialis in June 2008, inside one of the bomb shelters that are a necessity on every block in Sderot. “No Qassams were falling at the time,” Bialis said. They married that September, and their daughter, Lily, was born in May 2010 in Tel Aviv. The family moved there so Vaknin could pursue wider opportunities — he now runs a recording studio in Tel Aviv, although they visit his clan in Sderot often.

A self-described adventuresome person who doesn’t shy away from challenging environments, Bialis was not fearful living in Sderot at first. “It actually took living there for two years and knowing Avi and his family to understand the terror of it,” she said. 

“A Qassam has fallen on every inch of that place. There was footage that was too gruesome to put in the movie. If it were not for the bomb shelters and alarms, there would be mass casualties.” Once she had a child, she said, “I had the terrifying realization that this is what I’ve got to protect a kid from.” 

Bialis acknowledged that many others, with the means to do so, leave Sderot. 

“But it is complicated because families are large. It’s a very strong root system, and it’s hard for people to extricate themselves,” she said.

For those who stay, living under constant siege has varying effects. “In some ways, it makes people more resilient. Some totally fall apart from it. Some become stronger. It certainly puts your life in perspective,” she said. “It makes you realize what’s important and not important.”

Bialis, a second-generation Angeleno with family roots in Hungary, Germany, Russia and Poland, grew up in Bel Air near Stephen Wise Temple, where she celebrated her bat mitzvah. She lived in Pacific Palisades as a teen before her family moved to Santa Barbara when she was 16.

She has fond memories of Jewish holiday celebrations, Friday night Shabbat dinners and reading about Jewish history. “I feel that being Jewish is almost the defining identity for me. I was interested in making aliyah even before I met Avi,” she said. 

Bialis is Reform and Ashkenazi, and her husband is from a traditional Moroccan-Jewish family, but they find common ground, she said, aware that if it were not for the movie, they’d have never met. “We always felt that it was meant to be that we’re together, and we still do.”

Although she isn’t religious, her Jewish identity is strong. “For me, it’s all about Judaism as a civilization, about values, about family coming together, the rituals our people have done for thousands of years,” she said. “I feel very connected to the land of Israel and the Jewish people in a way that I really can’t describe or explain.”

“Rock in the Red Zone” is currently playing at Jewish film festivals around the country, including a screening Nov. 23 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. 

Bialis said her family will be spending the next 10 months in California while she travels to promote the film. Complicating her journey, however, is that Bialis is now five months pregnant. “It’s a boy,” she said. “I’m so excited. It’s a total blessing, because I’m 42.” 

But as much as she’d love to take time off, she has work to do. “I put eight years of my life into this,” she said of the film. “If I’m not out there making sure it gets into schools and universities and communities in the U.S. and around the world, nobody will.”

When the film screened in Sderot last winter, audiences expressed gratitude to Bialis. “It got a 10-minute standing ovation at the premiere there. Some people said, ‘I can’t believe I live here.’ To see all the events that had happened to the city at once, it was kind of shocking for them,” Bialis said. Others told her, “ ‘You captured the way we feel,’ which was a huge honor. I had gotten it right,” she said.

Elsewhere in Israel, the reaction was surprise, she said. “Wow! We had no idea what Sderot was like and what was going on there,” friends in Tel Aviv told her. 

Bialis hopes to continue to open eyes about Israel and Sderot. “A lot of people don’t know what it’s really like in Israel. There are a lot of stereotypes about it,” she said. “I wanted to introduce people to the life and the people there. There’s something amazing about that in the story, and that’s what I want people to leave with.”

“Rock in the Red Zone” will have a preview screening sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 23 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills. It opens at the Music Hall and the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino  on Dec. 2.

‘The Age of Aging’: New discoveries in longevity science


Only a fortunate few live to be 100 in good health, but researchers hope to increase that number, thanks to scientific advances in understanding why we age and how to slow the process.  

This developing knowledge is the subject of “The Age of Aging,” the fourth episode of the documentary series “Breakthrough,” airing Nov. 29 at 9 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel.

Directed and narrated by Ron Howard, who produced the series with Brian Grazer, the program features scientists at the forefront of longevity research such as S. Jay Olshansky, professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois in Chicago and researcher at its Center on Aging, and Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

“We’ve added 30 years to how long we live in the last century, and we’ve traded one set of diseases for another. Instead of dying early from infectious diseases, we live longer and get cancer, heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s,” Olshansky said. “The general public, physicians and public health leaders have been trained to think in a disease-specific model: Treat one disease at a time. But you get so much more bang for your buck when you slow aging instead of going after specific disease. You simultaneously influence heart disease, cancer, stroke and Alzheimer’s, diseases of frailty, disability and mortality, all at once.”

Toward that end, Israeli-born endocrinologist Barzilai is involved in several important research studies. The first is the Longevity Genes Project, a study of Ashkenazi Jewish centenarians that seeks to determine why some people age more slowly than others.

“We have the capacity to live between 100 and 120 [years]. What’s unique about Ashkenazi Jews from a genetic perspective is there’s less ‘noise.’ It’s a genetically homogenous population,” Barzilai said.

Of Russian-Jewish descent himself, Barzilai became interested in aging when he observed the signs of rapid decline in his grandfather. “I thought this process was really important to understand. Aging is a risk factor for so many diseases,” he said. 

Barzilai, who moved to the United States in 1990 to marry the American woman he met while on a fellowship at Yale three years earlier, is also doing research on the children of Ashkenazi Jewish centenarians. Any Ashkenazi Jew who has a parent who lived to be 100 or older can be part of the research via the Longevity Genes Project website (einstein.yu.edu/centers/aging/longevity-genes-project/).

Barzilai’s other major project is the Targeting Aging With Metformin trial. A widely available drug used to treat Type 2 diabetes, Metformin has slowed aging in mice, and researchers hope to study whether it can lower the risk of heart disease and cancer in people. 

Studies using the organ transplant rejection drug Rapamycin in mice also have been promising. According to Brian Kennedy, CEO and president of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, mice given Rapamycin lived 30 percent longer and remained healthy 30 percent longer. 

Olshansky said he is concentrating on research into “how we can predict health and quality of life more efficiently than we do now. Even minor success in slowing aging would have a profound influence on all aspects of health, including health-care costs.”

A Detroit native who is Jewish, Olshansky was originally studying adolescent fertility as a grad student when he was given a book about slowing the aging process. “I wrote a paper on the demographic consequences of slowing aging that turned into a master’s thesis, and I couldn’t let go,” he said. 

He’s excited about the progress being made across the board. 

“We’re in the trenches now working on some extraordinarily exciting research that we think will influence the quality of life of almost everyone currently alive,” Olshansky said. 

“Numerous scientists have already slowed aging in other species. Does it translate to humans? Will it extend the period of healthy life? There’s every reason to believe it will,” he said. “I think we will find the answer in our lifetime. But don’t expect us to live [a] radical life expectancy any time soon. Just because you can double the lifespan of a fruit fly doesn’t mean you can double the lifespan of a human.” 

In the meantime, there are things people can do to improve their health and possibly live longer, the researchers said.

“Watch your diet, treat high cholesterol, exercise every day, have a drink of wine,” Barzilai said, advice that Olshansky echoed.

“Exercise and eat right. Take control of what you can. There’s no guarantee it will make you live long or ward off disease,” Olshansky said. “But you’ll be healthier along the way.” 

To be young, Palestinian and gay in Israel


The issue of gay rights has become front and center in Israeli politics. The country’s Supreme Court will consider legalizing same-sex marriage in the wake of a petition filed earlier this month by an LGBTQ rights group, despite the fact that marriage in Israel is regulated by the rabbinical courts and that Jewish law forbids homosexuality. On the same day, a Charedi Orthodox leader called the murder of a young couple by Palestinians a punishment from heaven for the gay pride parade in Jerusalem.

Tel Aviv has become a destination for gay travelers from around the world, but its LGBT-friendly reputation has been tested by recent violent attacks against gays and lesbians. For a small community of gay Palestinians living in Tel Aviv, that sense of danger feels especially acute.

The new documentary “Oriented,” which screens at the Arab Film Festival in Los Angeles on Nov. 14, tells the story of three gay Palestinian-Israeli friends as they navigate the personal and political fault lines of daily life in a conflict zone. First-time British filmmaker Jake Witzenfeld follows the men over 15 months — through the conflict in Gaza in 2014 — as they date, go to nightclubs, make dinner together, visit the villages where they grew up and seek normality while struggling to define themselves against a backdrop of violence.

Khader Abu-Seif, 25, is from Jaffa and came out to his parents when he was 15. He writes an online column on gay Arab life and is considered a leader in the gay community. His long-term Armenian-Jewish boyfriend, David, jokingly accuses Abu-Seif of using his minority status to get out of doing the dishes. 

Naeem Jiryes is 24 and describes himself as “Palestinian, atheist, vegetarian, feminist.” He grew up in Kafr Yasif, a village in northern Israel, and moved to Tel Aviv to study nursing. But his family doesn’t know that he’s gay and they pressure him to return to the village. Jiryes insists that he is happy and free in liberal Tel Aviv but feels suffocated in conservative Kafr Yasif. 

“If he’s 100 percent happy there, why can’t he be 90 percent happy here?” his father asks. Jiryes’ sister responds: “Why can’t you sacrifice that 10 percent so that he can be happy?”

Fadi Daeem, 26, is the most politically outspoken of the trio. Originally from I’billin, another Arab town in northern Israel, he reflects the complexity of being a gay Palestinian living outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

“I have an Israeli passport but I don’t define myself as Israeli. I would like to define myself as a Palestinian, but I don’t think I have the right. I don’t physically feel the occupation, because I don’t live in Ramallah or Gaza,” Daeem says in the film.

Witzenfeld discovered the three young men in January 2013 after seeing a music video they made in tribute to the song “La Mouch” by Yasmine Hamdan, a Lebanese singer. The video features an Arab woman smoking a cigarette behind her black veil and men wearing dresses — a visual interpretation of their agony of staying hidden because of negative public opinion.

“Growing up in a British, Jewish, traditional world and then challenging that, and studying Middle Eastern studies at university and being surrounded by narratives about the Israeli-Palestine conflict, I’d never come across something as live as this, that spoke of Palestine through the lens of LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex],” Witzenfeld said in a phone interview. “These three guys share a very strong and unique friendship because of the identity conflicts they all share.”

As Witzenfeld sees it, the subjects of his film live with at least four major conflicts every day. There’s the issue of LGBT equality in Israel; the issue of being an Arab in a Jewish state (Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population); “white Palestinian guilt” from sitting in the comfort of Tel Aviv while a war is happening; and the problem of not fitting into the international narrative of what it means to be Palestinian. 

Abu-Seif recounts the time a BBC journalist called him for his story as a suffering gay Palestinian. When Abu-Seif interjected, explaining that his parents love and accept him, Abu-Seif recalls the journalist saying, “Oh. Perhaps you can find us another Palestinian who did suffer?”

There’s also the challenge of not feeling completely accepted by Tel Aviv’s gay community. In one scene, Daeem agonizes over his crush on Benyamin, a Jew who had served in the Israeli army. 

“I”m falling for a Zionist,” he tells a friend. “I’m in love with the enemy.” She replies, “Fadi, life is not just an ideology.” At the end of the film, Daeem falls for another Israeli man, Nadav. The two currently live together.

Near the end of the film, Abu-Seif and David spend a month vacationing in Berlin to escape the pressure of feeling out of place in their home countries. They have since broken up, though the two have maintained their friendship and have moved to Jaffa, the mixed Arab-Jewish city that borders Tel Aviv.

“I still have hope to change my reality and my community,” Abu-Seif said in a phone interview. “It’s not about changing the Jewish community or the Israeli community. It’s about educating Palestinians about sexuality.”

In today’s climate of fear and hostility, Abu-Seif said Israel has become an even more uncomfortable place to live. When he recently ordered a pizza for delivery, the person who answered the phone told him they don’t deliver to Jaffa, because it’s dangerous.

“And I went crazy, of course, and said, ‘What do you mean? If you don’t want to do delivery, don’t do delivery all over the country, because right now, all over the country it’s dangerous,’ ” he said. “I’m not afraid, because I got used to it.”

The young men in “Oriented” have to live with the uncertainty of the future in a place that doesn’t accept them. There are no easy solutions offered, only the necessity of continuing to demand their rights and make their presence known.

“My grandmother still has the key to her house. To an extent, I envy her because she lived in the Palestine of the past. She knows what she longs for, she knows what she wants, unlike myself. I don’t know,” Daeem says in the film. “If there will ever be a Palestinian state, or a state for everyone, I don’t know if I feel like I’ll belong.”

For information about the screening of “Oriented”

New film looks at Hitler’s suicide


The outsized figure of Adolf Hitler retains a strange fascination as the incarnation of absolute evil, responsible for the deaths of between 40 million and 50 million soldiers and civilians during World War II and the Holocaust.

Even after Joseph Stalin’s top experts, who examined Hitler’s charred remains and teeth, reported that the Führer was definitely dead, the Soviet dictator was convinced that Hitler had somehow escaped and was somewhere in hiding.

Michael Musmanno, an American judge at the Nuremberg trial of top Nazi war criminals, continued to hear similar rumors, and in 1948 embarked on a two-year mission to settle, once and for all, whether Hitler had taken his own life in his Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945.

Musmanno interrogated about 100 people and filmed interviews with 22 men and women who had shared the 18 rooms of the Führer Bunker with Hitler during the last four months of the promised 1,000-Year Reich.

After Musmanno finished the project, he tried to interest Hollywood in the footage, but found no takers.

The films then disappeared and were presumed lost, until they were rediscovered two years ago in a Pittsburgh archive.

Now transformed into a documentary, “The Day Hitler Died” will premiere on the Smithsonian Channel on Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., and on Nov. 22 at 10 p.m.

Among the bunker inhabitants were a dozen generals, who met with Hitler for two conferences each day, press attaché Heinz Lorenz, aide-de-camp Baron von Lovinghoven, private secretary Gertrude (Traudi) Junge, Hitler Youth leader Artur Axmann, cooks, waitresses, a chauffeur, and Eva Braun, Hitler’s long-time mistress.

Also on hand were propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda, arguably the most fanatical of Hitler’s fanatical followers. The two poisoned their six young children, to spare them from living in a non-Nazi world, before taking their own lives.

The liveliest film witness is Traudi Junge, who opened Hitler’s mail and scorned “women who had nothing better to do than write letters to the Führer.”

Up until a week before the end, Hitler still deluded himself that Germany could stave off defeat. He saw a ray of hope in the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12 and plotted last-minute breakouts by depleted German forces against the Soviet encirclement of Berlin.

Such was his hold to the very end that even while his generals realized that Hitler was no longer able to act rationally, they dared not contradict him to his face.

Finally, when Benito Mussolini, his old fascist mentor, was executed by Italian partisans on April 27 and strung by his heels from a metal girder, Hitler swore that he would kill himself before enduring a similar humiliating end.

But he had one piece of unfinished business, which was to marry the faithful Eva Braun. On April 29, in what must be one of the most macabre weddings on record, Braun put on her makeup and painted her nails for the nuptials.

Then she and the bridegroom swore that they were of pure Aryan descent and had never contracted a venereal disease. After the ceremony, the bunker inmates congratulated and toasted the new husband and wife, who then excused themselves to plan for their suicide the following day.

There was one final task for Junge, which was to take Hitler’s dictation of his last will and testament. At 56 and after 12 years in power, leaving a trail of mass graves and rubble-strewn cities, the dictator’s foremost obsession had not changed.

He had always been a man of peace, Hitler asserted in the opening paragraph of his testament. So who were the people who bore the ultimate responsibility for the devastation? The answer was “International Jewry and its helpers.”

Hitler came full circle in the final paragraph, in which he charged his successors and the German people “with strict observance of the racial laws, and with merciless resistance against the poisoners of all people, international Jewry.”

The next day, April 30, 1945, the newlyweds lunched at 1 p.m. and one hour later, the new Mrs. Hitler changed into a dress favored by her husband. At 2:45 p.m., Magda Goebbels tried to dissuade the Fuhrer from carrying out his suicide plan.

At 3:30 p.m., Axmann, the Hitler Youth leader, entered the Führer’s room and found that both he and Eva were dead after swallowing cyanide potassium capsules. Before biting down on his capsule, Hitler had discharged a bullet from his pistol, which ruptured the veins on both sides of his head.

Axmann reported that Adolf and Eva Hitler were dead, and at 4 in the afternoon their bodies were carried outside the bunker, doused with gasoline, set on fire, and the charred remains buried in a shell crater.

In 1956, some 11 years after putting a bullet through his head, a German court finally declared that Hitler was officially and legally dead.

Diverse documentaries rule the Israel Film Festival


Films can show a country’s humor, history, obsessions and pride, and although big-star features get most of the attention, it is the sharply focused documentary that frequently cuts to the heart of the matter.

This rule applies to the ongoing Israel Film Festival, which is presenting Los Angeles and world premieres of six feature-length and three short documentaries.

Four of the feature docs were available for the Journal to view in advance, and they deal with a diversity of topics: the impact of the Six-Day War on those who fought it; an eccentric British clan that viewed itself as God’s gift to Zionism; the enterprise of the wave of German immigrants to Palestine in the 1930s; and a musical idol looking back on his rise and fall.

“Censored Voices”:  At the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, while Jews everywhere were celebrating the miraculous triumph of Israel’s armed forces, writer Amos Oz met with small groups of soldiers to talk about their war experiences. The men were kibbutzniks, who traditionally formed the elite of the Israel Defense Forces.

” target=”_blank”> Israel Film Festival website.

Examining a shared history through a festival lens


Last fall, I was invited to show my documentary “Raquel: A Marked Woman” in Eastern Europe, including Poland, Romania and Ukraine. I wondered whether the gap left by the annihilation of local Jewish communities, followed by decades of silence and secrecy behind the Iron Curtain, is the same in each country.

My documentary tells the story of a young Jewish-Polish mother, Raquel Liberman, who left Warsaw in 1922 with her two young children to follow her husband to Argentina. What happened next is an ordeal many young women suffer today. An international crime organization, made up of Jewish-Polish immigrants, entrapped and enslaved her into the sex trade. These men recruited young Jewish women from the shtetls (small Jewish villages) in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. The organization, headquartered in Argentina, ensnared Raquel in its web and destined her to a life of suffering.

In my film, the “bad” guys are Jews. I ask audiences to move past the familiar demonization or idealization of Jews and see them as human beings with all their human foibles. This exercise is challenging for a conventional Jewish-American audience. Because these East European countries are only now beginning to reconcile their shared pre-World War II history with Jews, I was curious about their reaction. 

It was a great opportunity to present subject matter that local audiences could relate to — given its historic and present-day relevance to the Eastern Europe sex trade. I realized that bringing Raquel back to her home country of Poland would also be a chance to engage with local audiences and understand the cultural and environmental landscape from which my heroine came — a culture that had been fertile ground for the Holocaust. 

Before embarking on my mini-tour, I thought I would experience the consequences of the Russian propaganda machine — a generation too old or too complacent with its secrets. But the opposite seemed to be true. Most young people feel a kinship to Jews and Jewish culture. Yes, it’s now “hip” to be a Jew. This led me to ask: Is the recent resurgence of interest in Jewish culture and traditions in Eastern Europe based on curiosity or atonement? 

“Raquel” was scheduled for two film festivals and two community screenings, all run by non-Jews. These audiences are trying to come to grips with their history and the reformulation of their identity. In Warsaw, a city that was leveled during the war and eerily rebuilt by the Communists, the audiences’ surprising focus was not on the “bad” Polish Jews, but on Raquel’s courageous journey from enslavement to heroine.

Krakow’s Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, an old town dating back to the 12th century, is seeing a Jewish revival of sorts. Many young Polish people are finding out that their grandparents converted to Catholicism and never spoke about their origins — either for fear of persecution or guilt by association.

This unique population was represented in the questions it raised: “Did the Catholic neighbor, who became the foster parent to Raquel’s two young boys, ever tell them that they were Jewish?” “Why did Raquel leave her children with a non-Jew?”

In Bucharest, Romania, the event planners were eager to educate Romanian non-Jews about Jewish life, culture and Israel. Why? The new generation of Romanians is completely unaware of its relationship to its Jewish past, and Israelis run many of the country’s mid-level businesses. The focus of the audience was twofold. First, was I afraid for my life in exposing this Jewish mafia? Did I have the mafia’s list of members and was I going to publish it? Second, the audience deeply identified with Raquel’s story and shared how its country is living through what was depicted in the film: girls being trafficked in and out of Romania for sex.

The final screening took place in Lviv, Ukraine. All but one of the synagogues is still standing, and years of Soviet rule obliterated the population’s enmeshed history with the Jews. In Ukraine, the truth is hard to find and its re-creation is a feeding machine of propaganda and fears. The questions that surfaced were about what happens when there’s a gap in knowledge, as in Raquel’s story. For 70 years, her children and grandchildren remained completely in the dark. How does the gap in knowledge get filled when much of the information has been buried or is dismissed? Was it possible for Raquel’s descendants to make sense of her story even if the information was buried? 

At the end of my trip, both as Raquel’s storyteller and as a second-generation Holocaust survivor, I asked myself questions similar to what my audiences asked. How do you build a story when there’s a gap in history? How do you create an identity when much of your history is buried in secrecy or dismissal? In my films, I have explored the notion of active recalling, engaging and, ultimately, taking responsibility for our past. What happens when those who held the memories die off, as in the case of Raquel? Who is responsible for the telling of their story? 

The new generation in these countries surprised me. What at first seemed such a peculiar reality — Eastern Europeans hungry to find their connection to Jewish history — has now made me realize that we might be struggling with a similar goal. 

The journey through these lands has opened my heart to a past we share. We are forever tied to a communal history. It is no longer about victims and perpetrators. It is about our humanity. It is about a world that requires us to see beyond our fears, to question our lessons, and to open our hearts — as I know Raquel’s story has opened audiences’ hearts to the reality that too many young women are still being trafficked today. 

Gabriela Bohm is a filmmaker in Los Angeles.

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