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.

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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.

PBS documentary shows how Mayor Tom Bradley changed L.A.


Tom Bradley became Los Angeles’ first African-American mayor in 1973 by bringing together a multiracial coalition of Blacks, Jews, white liberals and Latinos in the years after the Watts Riots. He opened City Hall to people of all racial backgrounds, brought the Olympic Games to the city (again), and fought a racist and recalcitrant police department. 

And, as a new PBS documentary, “Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race,” explains, Bradley laid the groundwork for President Barack Obama to take the White House in 2008.   

The two filmmakers, Lyn Goldfarb and Alison Sotomayor, screened their work Aug. 10  at CSU Los Angeles. The film was followed by a panel discussion on Bradley and race relations that included Lorraine Bradley, the eldest of the late mayor’s three daughters; Rep. Judy Chu of the San Gabriel Valley; Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas; former L.A. County Supervisor and City Councilmember Zev Yaroslavsky; and Maria Elena Durazo, the general vice president for immigration, civil rights and diversity at Unite Here. Radio host Warren Olney of KCRW moderated. 

“The most vexing issue in American society is the issue of race. It is persistent, and it defines significantly Tom Bradley’s tenure,” Ridley-Thomas said. 

The son of a sharecropper and the grandson of a slave, Bradley was raised in a tradition of African-American excellence in Los Angeles. As a sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department — the highest rank an African-American could achieve at the time — Bradley resisted a violent police culture. 

As a city councilmember, he became a vocal critic of Police Chief William H. Parker and his alliance with Mayor Sam Yorty. 

After Yorty won re-election against Bradley in 1969 by appealing to racist tropes, Bradley spent four years building a coalition with Latino labor groups and Jews on the Westside and in the South San Fernando Valley, ultimately winning in a landslide in 1973. He served five terms and remains the longest-serving mayor in Los Angeles history. 

“The coalition never really frayed. He was extraordinarily respected in the Jewish community, and he earned that respect over a long period of time,” Yaroslavsky said during the panel discussion. “Ultimately, he had that respect in virtually every part of the city.”

Although Bradley, known for his quiet and resolute manner, ultimately left office after watching the city burst into flames during the 1992 Rodney King Riots — the result of continued police brutality and economic oppression in Los Angeles’ African-American communities — Bradley’s legacy is evident in multiracial coalitions across the city, state and country, according to the documentary.

In addition to highlighting how they, personally, had benefited from Bradley’s legacy, the panelists highlighted the similarities between unrest in African-American and minority communities in 1992 and in the past year.

“We are very fortunate in Los Angeles to have a whole generation of multiethnic leaders who believe in group coalition building, who believe that that is the best way to address our issues,” Durazo said. “We have got to keep that going, but we have to expect more, as well. We have to demand more and expect more. We can’t hold off another 1992 rebellion unless we really use that strength and that coalition to address the poverty and the other issues of racism in our community.”

Israeli Air Force, front and center on film


The vaunted Israeli Air Force is flying high with two documentaries screening on television and at film festivals, while a feature movie waits in the wings.

However, the focus is not on today’s highly professional air force, or on its astonishing exploits during the Six-Day War in 1967, but on its very beginning, in 1948, when the newborn Jewish state faced an onslaught by six well-armed Arab armies.

With less than a handful of trained pilots, no combat planes, and an arms embargo by the United States and the rest of the world, Israel’s survival depended to a large extent on a vast international smuggling operation of arms and aircraft and on the skills of foreign volunteers tested in the air battles of World War II.


As detailed in the one-hour documentary “A Wing and a Prayer,” it took an incredibly brazen and ingenious “conspiracy” to establish a transnational pipeline through which flowed everything from swastika-emblazoned rifles to B-17 Flying Fortresses to arm the nascent Jewish state.

The documentary will air on the PBS SoCal World channel on June 27.

At the head and center of the vast operation stood Al Schwimmer, a sometime Burbank resident, World War II combat pilot and Trans World Airlines flight engineer. Schwimmer bought a fleet of some 30 American bombers and cargo planes at war surplus prices and recruited U.S. combat vets to ferry them overseas under the guise of a fictitious Panamanian airline, while always staying one step ahead of the FBI and a hostile U.S. State Department.

A dollar-hungry Czech government supplemented Schwimmer’s air force by selling knockoffs of the German wartime Messerschmitt fighter planes, whose unexpected appearance brought to an abrupt halt an Egyptian army marching on Tel Aviv.

Appropriately, then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion described Schwimmer as the Diaspora’s single most important contribution to the survival of Israel.

Schwimmer, who for obvious reasons never used his given birth name of “Adolph,” was stripped of his citizenship by the American government for violating the U.S. Neutrality Act.

American volunteers Lou Lenart (left) and Gideon Lichtman (center), together with Israeli pilot Modi Alon, in front of an Avia S-199, flew the first combat mission in the Israel War of Independence, as shown in the documentaries “A Wing and a Prayer” and “Above and Beyond.” Photo courtesy of the International Film Circuit

In 1951, Schwimmer was running an aircraft maintenance company in Burbank, when Ben-Gurion asked him to come back to Israel to establish a company to build and service commercial and military planes. When Schwimmer retired in 1988, his company, Israel Aerospace Industries, was the largest in Israel and valued at $1 billion.

“A Wing and a Prayer” is the creation of Boaz Dvir, a Penn State senior lecturer and documentary filmmaker, who had the foresight to conduct lengthy interviews with Schwimmer one year before his death in 2011.

In addition, Dvir interviewed 29 other veterans involved in the airlift and subsequent combat, including some of the Los Angeles volunteers, such as Lou Lenart, Aaron (Red) Finkel, Rudy Augarten, Harold Livingston, Mitchell Flint, Willie Sosnow and Wayne Peake.

Dvir put in seven years researching and producing the film on a modest budget of $135,000, of which $70,000 came out of his own pocket.

“A Wing and a Prayer” will air on the PBS SoCal World channel on June 27 at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. DVDs, including an extended director’s cut, are available by calling (800) 222-9728.


“Above and Beyond: The Birth of the Israeli Air Force” picks up where “A Wing and a Prayer” leaves off. Archival footage and interviews re-create the time when the foreign pilots, navigators, bombardiers and radio operators linked up with the smuggled-in planes to form the nucleus of the Israeli air force.

Although the volunteer airmen came from a half-dozen countries, the film, directed by Roberta Grossman, is aimed chiefly at a North American audience and homes in on the stories of the American and Canadian volunteers.

Nancy Spielberg, the youngest sister of top Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg, is the producer and stands in awe of the now-grizzled flying volunteers of the 1940s.

 “These men are heroes and the stories of their exploits are incredible,” she said. “It is an honor to talk to them and to show what they did.” 

“Above and Beyond” is now available on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play. 


The third entry in the air force film derby comes from Mike Flint, who grew up on the stories told by his dad, Mitchell Flint, who battled Japanese planes in World War II and joined Israel’s pioneer 101 Squadron in 1948.

Mike Flint lists his background as a former executive at Paramount Pictures’ story department, his participation in the development of such films as “Top Gun” and Forrest Gump,” and founder of Producer and Management Entertainment Group.

His project, “Angels in the Sky,” started more than five years ago as a documentary, along the same lines as Grossman’s “Above and Beyond.”

Recently, however, Flint decided to switch genres and he is now aiming for a feature, focusing on the stories of four pilots hailing from California, Brooklyn, England and Canada.

Flint said he’s pegging the film’s budget at $60 million and that retired Los Angeles businessman and financial adviser Mark Lansky is the executive producer and chief backer. Lansky is working with veteran entertainment lawyer and film financing expert Hal “Corky” Kessler, who said in a phone interview that Lansky had committed himself to raising half of the film’s prospective budget. 

In an earlier interview, Lansky emphasized repeatedly that he is backing Flint’s project in the belief that “those who support Israel are blessed.”

Lanksy mentioned another film he’s producing, presenting a different side of his uncle, Meyer Lansky, generally remembered as the “brains” and “accountant” of the Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel gambling empires in the United States and Cuba during the 1930s and ’40s. This film, Mark Lansky said, will emphasize his uncle’s services to the U.S. government during World War II and in supplying Israel with weapons and money in 1948.


All together, some 4,000 foreign volunteers, collectively known as Machal, the Hebrew acronym for “volunteers from abroad,” served during Israel’s War of Independence, with the vast majority fighting in the ground forces (including this reporter), and others in the Navy, Medical Corps and other branches.

Without diminishing the contributions of these men and women, the war was won, first and foremost, by the Israelis themselves, who also bore the overwhelming brunt of casualties in dead and wounded.

70 years on, Hitchcock Holocaust doc finds an audience


“This was a woman,” the narrator explains, as the camera pans over a figure so emaciated and burnt that it’s barely recognizable as human.

It’s one of the more arresting scenes in “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey,” a highly unusual Holocaust documentary shot and scripted 70 years ago, and crafted with the help of the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. But it almost didn’t see the light of day.

The recently completed film is set to have its New York premiere on Tuesday night at Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

“German Concentration Camps” draws heavily on the footage taken at Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz and Dachau by combat and newsreel cameramen in the weeks after liberation. It shows those who had managed to survive gas chambers, typhus epidemics and starvation conditions taking the first steps toward rebuilding their lives. They are deloused. They get hot showers for the first time in years and hot meals. There are piles of clean clothes, and women rejoicing in trying on the donated dresses, pumps and wide-brimmed hats.

“Some of the most touching parts show the restoration of what I can only call humanity,” said Jane Wells, a documentarian and the daughter of the film’s producer, Sidney Bernstein.

An Englishman, Bernstein led the film division of the Allied forces’ propaganda effort and was tasked with chronicling the Nazi’s crimes for the German public. To this end, the film includes copious footage of former camp guards carrying the dead bodies of their victims to mass graves and tossing them, with callous disregard, into the giant pits.

Bernstein enlisted Hitchcock, a close friend, as the film’s treatment adviser. Hitchcock’s influence can be seen in the long, panning shots that leave no room for doubt that what the audience is seeing is no fabrication. Bernstein and his team worked on the film through the spring and summer of 1945.

But by later that year, many Germans had toured the concentration camps and seen newsreels of what had happened there. There was a sense that the film’s time had passed, and the British government shelved the project.

In recent years, however, Britain’s Imperial War Museum restored the footage and set out to finish the film using the original script and shot sheet. The words are lyrical (“They say a dead man’s boots bring bad luck; what of dead children’s toys?”) and they are judgmental. (“Germans knew about Dachau but did not care.”)

Hewing to the original vision meant making a film that contained some factual inaccuracies (the number of dead) and omissions (about whom the Nazis targeted).

“It didn’t emphasize how disproportionately the Jews had suffered,” Wells said of the film, which refers to victims by their nationality rather than their religion. “It showed it as more of a universal Holocaust than one that was predominantly Jewish.” (In a short film that follows the documentary and attempts to correct the record, scholars surmise that the filmmakers did not want to portray Jews as a people apart.)

An HBO documentary about the long-delayed Hitchcock project, “Night Will Fall,” aired in January. The title is a line from “German Concentration Camps”: “Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall. But by God’s grace, we who live will learn.”

The film only recently began to make the rounds. Bruce Ratner, a real estate developer and a minority owner of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team, was instrumental in bringing the film to the Museum of Jewish Heritage, where he serves as chairman of the board. A discussion with New York Times columnist Roger Cohen and Wells, whose company, 3 Generations, specializes in films about human rights abuses, will follow the screening.

 

On election night, remembering when Israelis loved Iran


While Israel’s election results were still rolling in, one predominantly Jewish audience in New York was watching Israelis talk about Iran.

But the Israelis in the documentary screened Tuesday night at the Center for Jewish History weren’t addressing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program or the role Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line approach to it (including his controversial speech before both houses of the U.S. Congress) might have had in his surprise election victory.

Instead, they were reminiscing about a short and little-known chapter in Iran-Israel relations: the decade before the 1979 revolution, when the two countries had unofficial diplomatic and military ties, enabling a vibrant Israeli expat community to live comfortably in Tehran and enjoy luxuries unheard of at the time in the Jewish state such as live-in maids, swimming pools and disposable diapers. (One woman notes that Pampers was hands down the most popular gift she brought back to friends in Israel.)

Released in 2013, Dan Shadur’s “Before the Revolution” has played in various film festivals — the Center for Jewish History screening was part of the 18th annual New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival. It has also been broadcast on public television in the United States and several other countries, including Iran, where it was the first Israeli film to air on TV since the revolution. (It’s also available for purchase here, and Shadur says it will soon be sold at the iTunes store as well.) However, this fascinating documentary has not had a wide theatrical release in the United States, and no such plans are on the immediate horizon.

That’s a shame because it is a gem of a movie. Those interviewed, frequently in voice-overs accompanying Israeli expats’ 8mm home movie footage from the 1960s and ’70s, speak with remarkable candor — and, at times, humor — about their increasingly awkward role as friends and beneficiaries of Shah Mohammad Reza Pervazi’s doomed dictatorship.

“We didn’t know,” “We were young” and “We didn’t want to know” are frequent refrains whenever the regime’s dark side, particularly its much-feared SAVAK secret police, is mentioned.

The film is full of intriguing, almost surreal anecdotes: two Israelis accidentally swept up in a student demonstration against the shah; kibbutzniks awkwardly offering to help their first-ever maid with housework; hordes of Iranians cheering on the Israeli soldiers while viewing an outdoor screening of a film about the Entebbe raid. The most shocking, however, is when an Israeli in the midst of the revolution relates how he saved himself from a hostile encounter with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard by claiming — successfully — to be the PLO’s commander in Tehran.

While some of the Israelis were top-level government and Mossad officials in close contact with the shah’s generals — and perhaps SAVAK — most were engineers and businesspeople involved in major building and infrastructure projects. Shadur’s own father oversaw construction there. The filmmaker, now 37, spent the first year of his life in Tehran, and his family’s snapshots and movies are included in the film.

Noting Israeli involvement in helping to modernize Iran’s agriculture, water management and the construction of dams, one interviewee said, “We built their country.” Another fondly recalled being rewarded with a “gold-plated Uzi” for persuading the Iranian government to buy 50,000 of the Israeli-made submachine guns.

Ironically, Iran’s nuclear project likely was launched with assistance from Israel, the film contends. In a Q&A session after the screening, Shadur said, “If the revolution had been postponed a few years, it’s amazing to think what [nuclear] capabilities they would have today from Israel.”

Shadur, who said he was disappointed by Netanyahu’s victory in Tuesday’s elections (final results were not yet in, but analysts were predicting the Likud leader would prevail), told the audience he sees a parallel between the Israelis of Iran, who were blind to the plight of impoverished Iranians just outside their north Tehran enclave, and life in today’s Israel, where most Jews are insulated from the poverty and other difficulties experienced by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

“I went to people’s houses to interview them because I wanted to show their surroundings,” he said. “Most are pretty well off and still in a nice environment. They’re talking about their last days in Tehran while in Tel Aviv and, regardless of your politics, there are still very rough things happening just a few miles away.”

Ari Shavit’s ‘My Promised Land’ to be made into HBO film


“My Promised Land,” a best-selling book about Israel by journalist Ari Shavit, is being made into a documentary for HBO.

Shavit and HBO Chairman Richard Plepler announced the project on Monday at a conference in Jerusalem by the Israeli media company Keshet. The project does not yet have an air date.

“The great hope is that the HBO documentary ‘My Promised Land’ will be able to open people’s minds and hearts to realize once again that, with all its flaws and problems, Israel is a man-made miracle and an astonishing human endeavor,” said Shavit, who writes for the Haaretz newspaper.

“My Promised Land” delves into Israel’s turbulent history through Shavit’s family story. His great-grandfather was one of the earliest Zionists to visit the region that would become the state of Israel.

Plepler said that when he first approached Shavit, “I told him that I’ve waited my whole adult life to find this book.”

The HBO chief said the book “captured both the objective truth and the emotional truth, the psychological truth of how I love Israel and ponder its challenges, and wrestle with its obvious mistakes and foibles. And I thought, my goodness, what a privilege, to capture the essential truths of this book and to make a film that could reach millions of people not only in Israel and the U.S., but all over the world.”

Dan Setton, a veteran Israeli filmmaker, will direct the film and Keshet’s Avi Nir will serve as executive producer, Variety reported.

PBS documentary traces 350 years of Jewish migration


“You survive, you honor us by living,” Martin Greenfield’s father told him. Greenfield, now a New York master tailor, recalled the words after his liberation from the Buchenwald concentration camp.

The quote could be taken as the theme of “The Jewish Journey: America,” a PBS documentary that tracks the migrations over 3 1/2 centuries of Jews fleeing the Latin American Inquisition, czarist Russia, Nazi Germany and Islamic nations.

Although many Jews came to America seeking refuge from persecution by authorities in those and other countries, millions more came for economic reasons — to build better lives for themselves and their children in the New World.

The one-hour program, which opens with a majestic rendition of “America the Beautiful,” is produced, directed and written by Andrew Goldberg, who has become the semi-official Jewish chronicler for PBS, with such previous productions as “The Yiddish World Remembered,” “Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence” and “Jerusalem: Center of the World.”

The first Jews to arrive in the future United States, in 1654, were 23 Sephardim fleeing the Portuguese-imposed Inquisition in Brazil. They settled in New Amsterdam, which would later become New York.

More would come to the U.S. after failed revolutions in Germany and other European countries in the 1840s, and then later by gold rush fortune seekers. Yet by the 1870s, Jews in the United States numbered no more than 200,000.

The number skyrocketed to more than 4.2 million by 1927, spurred by a massive influx of 1.5 million Jews from Eastern Europe, predominantly Russia, between 1880 and 1910.

The film also speaks to the Jewish penchant for founding communities, then splitting and re-forming into even more separate groups — some 17,500 Jewish organizations existed in the U.S. in 1927.

The mass immigration from the czarist Pale of Settlement gives the film an opening, drawing upon on various archives, to illustrate the lives of poor Jews — the wealthy ones mostly stayed put — both in the shtetl in the old country, and then in New York’s crowded Lower East Side.

Often overlooked in the triumphant rendition of the American dream is the emotional price depicted in the film that was paid by emigrants as they separated from the families and traditions that had bound them together for generations.

Although the new immigrants went through hard times in the New World, they usually wrote glowing letters of their success to the folks they’d left behind, which triggered even more immigration.

With the post-World War I recession and fear of the communist revolution in Russia came growing xenophobia, culminating in the Immigration Act of 1924, which narrowed the once wide-open entrance to the United States, especially to applicants from Eastern and Southern Europe.

A small but steady trickle of Jews arrived after World War II from displaced-persons camps. More came after establishment of the State of Israel, fleeing hostility to Jews in Islamic countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

Another wave arrived after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, followed by Soviet Jews in the 1990s.

Integration of these new immigrants was rarely easy. In an illuminating interview, New York Rabbi Marc Angel recalled the dual pressure from his grandfather to strive for success in the new country, but to also retain the Jewish traditions.

Yet, Angel concluded, the real miracle was that after so many generations in America, Jews have remained Jews.

Producer-director Goldberg, who founded and heads Two Cats Productions, ascribes much of his interest in Jewish-themed films to his own heritage but says there are other reasons, as well.

“For one, PBS likes our work, and also there is a community that is willing to fund such documentaries,” he said.

It should be noted that only about one-third of Goldberg’s productions focus on Jewish themes, and his interests extend to many other areas. Now in the pipeline are a documentary on animal cruelty and another on the interpretation of classical music.

“The Jewish Journey: America” airs March 5 at 8 p.m. on KVCR and March 18 at 7:30 p.m. on KOCE (PBS SoCal). The program will be repeated in subsequent weeks. 

‘Night Will Fall’ lifts a curtain on concentration camp atrocities


The first time I saw the horrific newsreels of the liberation of the concentration camps, showing mountains of skeletons piled up and skulls staring out of empty eye sockets, was in 1959.

By a fluke, I had a bit part playing a court translator at a war-crimes trial in the “Playhouse 90” TV production of “Judgment at Nuremberg.” The producers decided to give the cast a preview of the concentration camp footage presented as evidence at the trial.

When the short newsreel finished, there was a stunned silence. After what seemed like an eternity, Maximilian Schell, who portrayed the German defense attorney (as he did in the later feature film), stood up and said quietly, “I want everyone to know I am not German; I am Swiss.”

In the intervening decades, photos and newsreels showing the death camps, with their crematoriums and walking dead, have become almost commonplace, with repetition and the passage of time attesting to the human ability to go on with daily life after peering into the fires of hell.

But thoughts of those first revelations floated back to the surface last week when I watched a screening of director Andre Singer’s documentary “Night Will Fall,” the raw footage of which had been stored in the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London for more than 60 years. The new documentary, which

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis: The First 80 Years [DOCUMENTARY]


Rabbi Harold Schulweis, regarded as the most influential synagogue leader of his generation, died at his home after a long struggle with heart disease. He was 89.

Read his full obituary here.

‘Sleepless in America’ reveals eye-opening truth about lack of sleep


Can’t fall asleep? Not getting enough sleep? You’re not alone, and that sleep deprivation may be causing a lot more damage than you realize.

Waking up earlier, going to bed later and getting far less sleep than our bodies require not only makes us tired and unable to function, it makes us vulnerable to disease. Sleep deprivation is a serious public safety issue, too: Drowsy driving causes nearly 1,000 fatal car crashes each year. 

This epidemic of overtiredness only gets worse as we get older, according to Matthew Walker, director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at UC Berkeley, who appears in the new documentary “Sleepless in America.” The special premieres Nov. 30 on the National Geographic Channel.

“The prevalence of insomnia increases significantly with age. Estimates suggest that at least 40 percent of the adult population over the age of 60 suffers from insomnia,” Walker told the Journal. “The strength of the 24-hour biological rhythm within the brain that helps regulate our sleep/wake cycle degrades as we get older, leading to problems with sleep at night. And the brain regions that help generate sleep, especially deep sleep, are the same that deteriorate most dramatically as we get older.”

It doesn’t help that older adults tend to have more physical pain, which can cause them to wake up throughout the night. They also need to get up to go to the bathroom more frequently, after which they can have a harder time falling asleep, he added.

Walker pointed out that it is “a common misconception that older people need less sleep. Older adults need sleep just as much as adults at other stages in life but cannot initiate or maintain sleep as effectively.” 

Studies have established links between sleep deprivation and a host of serious conditions, including cancer, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety and depression. Another concern is sleep apnea, infrequent or cessation of breathing during sleep. 

“Apnea fragments sleep, further decreasing the amount of deep sleep obtained,” Walker said, adding that certain other conditions can contribute to insomnia. “Chronic pain can fragment all types of sleep throughout the night. Depression can lead to abnormal sleep, including too much REM [rapid eye movement] sleep and a reduction in deep [non-REM] sleep.” 

And there’s more bad news: As “Sleepless in America” explains, cancer researcher Dr. David Gozal of the University of Chicago established that poor sleep may double the speed of cancer growth. 

The warnings are clear, but this wakeup call comes with solutions. Mark Rosekind, a fatigue expert with the National Transportation Safety Board, who has been involved in investigating accidents caused by drowsy driving and who appears in the TV special, offered some simple, practical advice. 

“Give yourself enough time to sleep,” he told the Journal. ”Have a regular bedtime and, especially, [a regular] wake time. Control your environment: temperature, noise, light. Cooler is better than warmer — 67 to 68 degrees is the perfect sleeping temperature for most people. Anything from earplugs to noise machines can be helpful. Have enough light that you can get around if you have to get up during the night, but not so much that it tricks your internal clock.

“Take the technology out of the bedroom. Not only can it be overstimulating, the light can literally change your sleep patterns as well. You can read, watch television or listen to music in bed. You just don’t want to do something that’s going to get you engaged and stimulated,” he said. So instead of watching something scary that will get your heart racing, stick to reading the tax code, he joked.

Rosekind recommends establishing regular habits and routines that train your body to prepare for sleep, and developing both physical and mental relaxation skills. “The No. 1 cause of insomnia is worrying about something. Yoga stretching, and relaxing and tensing muscles can help, and so can counting sheep, giving yourself something to focus on other than the worry in your head.”

It may help to make a written list of your worries and concerns and what you plan to do about them before you go to your bedroom, Rosekind said. “Then, when you’re in bed and something on the list comes up, you can say it’s on the list and get back to the relaxation skills.” 

His No. 1 piece of advice, however, can be the most difficult to follow, given the hectic lives so many of us lead: “Make sure to give yourself enough time for sleep, at least eight hours.”

If shut-eye still remains elusive, Walker suggests seeking out a sleep specialist “who can properly assess, diagnose and treat specific sleep disorders.” Snorers who keep their partners awake would also benefit from this help, he added. 

“Snoring is potentially indicative of sleep apnea, which is treatable, and the bed partner will also benefit markedly with treatments,” he said.

The message of “Sleepless in America” is clear, and it’s one that Walker echoes. 

“There doesn’t seem to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain, that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep — and detrimentally impaired when we don’t get enough. Sleep appears to be the third pillar of good health, together with diet and exercise,” he said. “The single most effective thing we can do each and every day to restore both brain and body health is sleep.”

Documentary gets inside head of Heinrich Himmler


In 1941, Heinrich Himmler took time out from organizing the Final Solution to write to his 12-year-old daughter, Gudrun: “In life, one must always be decent, courageous and kind-hearted.”

This fatherly advice illustrates one side of the SS Reichsfuehrer and the real architect of the Holocaust, who could write the most banal love letters to his wife and dream of running a horse farm after the — of course, victorious –- world war.

In a fascinating documentary titled, ironically, “The Decent One,” Israeli filmmaker Vanessa Lapa dissects the personality of the devoted family man as mass murderer.

However, in a phone call from Tel Aviv, Lapa warned against applying the clichéd “banality of evil” to the mild-looking, bespectacled Himmler.

Following seven years of work on her project, Lapa concludes, “Himmler was not mentally ill, but he had a deeply perverted and twisted personality.”

After swearing his devotion to Margarete, before and after their marriage, Himmler easily rationalized his decision to start an affair with his secretary, who bore him two children.

Previously, he had declared that every German family should have at least four children. But when Margarete passed childbearing age after conceiving only once (followed by the adoption of a second child), Himmler felt he had to turn to another partner to fulfill the four-child quota.

When American GIs occupied the Himmler home on May 6, 1945, they stumbled across a large cache of family letters, documents, photos and silent-film footage. Ignoring standing orders, the soldiers failed to turn over the treasure trove to army intelligence specialists, and it eventually found its way to a collector in Israel.

Several years ago, the cache came to the attention of Lapa, the Belgian-born granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. After making aliyah at 19, she established herself as a successful Israeli documentary filmmaker and then founded her own company, Realworks Ltd.

For “The Decent One,” Lapa decided early on to forgo two staples of documentary filmmaking — a narrator to supply background and connections, and talking head experts to explain what the viewer was seeing.

Instead, she stuck to the verbatim text of letters and interrogations read off-screen by German actors (with English subtitles).

In one such interrogation shortly after the war, Margarete Himmler was asked whether her husband ever spoke to her about concentration camps, to which she replied, “No.” Indeed, in the hundreds of letters, Lapa found only one such reference, in a quick note from husband to wife, “I am traveling to Auschwitz,” signed “Kisses, your Heini.”

The earliest document in the collection, dating back to 1900, is a letter from Himmler’s father, a devout Catholic, petitioning the royal prince of Bavaria to stand in as godfather to his newly born son, Heinrich.

A decade later, the 10-year-old Heinrich was deeply impressed by seeing the local staging of the “Passion Play,” which blamed Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

To his great regret, Heinrich never saw action in World War I, but, in 1919, when he joined a nationalistic college fraternity, he wrote, “If only there were another war, so I could put my life on the line.” He added that Germany needed more living space and that, in contrast to the present generation, “Our ancestors were pure.”

He also confessed that at a party he had danced with what seemed to be a very nice girl. Unfortunately, she turned out to be Jewish, although, in his own defense, Himmler noted, “I didn’t think she was.”

After reading Hitler’s book “Mein Kampf,” Himmler joined the budding Nazi Party in 1923. He became a fervent follower, to the point that Margarete, an ardent anti-Semite in her own right, asked her husband plaintively why he had to constantly run off to Hitler rallies, “when you know what he is going to say.”

Himmler joined the SS in 1925 after proving his pure Aryan ancestry dating back to 1750. Thanks to his devotion and considerable organizing skills, he advanced to head of the national SS within four years, and in his first speech exhorted his troops to always behave decently.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, the Fuhrer tasked the “Faithful Heinrich” with drawing up the blueprint for Dachau as the first concentration camp “for Communists and Social Democrats.” During World War II, Himmler took his family for a nostalgic visit to Dachau, which his young daughter, Gudrun, described as “so nice … we had a big dinner.”

For the girl’s 13th birthday, her doting father sent her an anti-Semitic cartoon. 

Three weeks before the German surrender, Himmler wrote, “I still firmly believe that the Almighty will protect us.” He was captured a month after the war’s end, and two days later committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule.

After seven “stomach-turning” years on the project, Lapa confessed, “I am happy that I’m done ‘living’ with Himmler and analyzing him.”

 “The Decent One” opens Oct. 10 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. 

The new documentary ‘Pump’ asks society to question its fuel choices


It’s already been 13 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and in that time we’ve come to understand the difficult geopolitical situation that our oil dependence has put us in.

In order to keep our cars running, the United States needs to keep the leaders of oil-rich Middle Eastern countries happy. What happens if they’re not happy? Well, the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 and the shock waves it sent through the global economy taught us that oil can be a powerful weapon. And the film points out that the cost of military installations to protect our oil supply far surpasses the cost of oil itself — not to mention the lives of troops sent to fight overseas.

The new documentary “Pump,” which is now in limited release in Los Angeles and New York, raises an important question: In an age where we have seemingly infinite options of what phone to buy, what clothes to wear and what food to eat, why are we forced to put only gasoline in our cars?

“This movie is about solutions,” said Josh Tickell, the director of “Pump.” “The biggest solution that we have in America is competition. Competition drives innovation, innovation drives development, development drives cheaper prices and better products. And we haven’t had much innovation in terms of the thing that we put in our vehicles.”

“Pump” was funded by Fuel Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit co-founded by Israeli software entrepreneurs Yossie Hollander and Eyal Aronoff. Aronoff lost his father in the 1967 Six-Day War, and on 9/11, Aronoff’s step-brother and his new wife were killed in the World Trade Center attack. Aronoff said that freeing America from its dependence on imported oil will lead to greater security from the threat of radical Islam.

“ISIL sells 50,000 to 60,000 oil barrels a day. If there’s no demand for oil, they have no money,” he said of the militant terrorist group operating in Iraq and Syria. 

“Someone is paying for all these rockets from Gaza into Israel. We remove this oil money, we remove the ability to pay for the rockets.”

Aronoff concedes that a strong political movement is needed to change the status quo. 

“When oil prices go up, the economy goes into recession, and we change the political leadership. So leaders do everything possible to keep oil prices down. That means catering to the demands of regimes that we would otherwise never agree to,” he said.

The film points to several key moments in history that ensured our nation’s continued dependence on gasoline. Oil companies banded together to buy up and dismantle the electric streetcar system in the country. John D. Rockefeller, the billionaire founder of Standard Oil, used his power to influence Congress to pass Prohibition laws, in order to keep Henry Ford from fueling his cars with corn alcohol, or ethanol. And the construction of the interstate highway system encouraged suburban sprawl.

The U.S. represents 4.5 percent of the world’s population but uses 20 percent of the world’s oil. While the film shows that hydraulic fracturing and other oil extraction methods have ramped up in the U.S., the country can’t produce enough oil to meet its growing demand.

If the situation is dire now, it will only get worse, as the demand for cars increases in the developing world. In China, a car is the ultimate status symbol, and residents there will pay tens of thousands of dollars just to acquire a coveted license plate. Fewer than 1 million cars were sold in China in 2000; by 2013, the film states, the number had jumped to 15.5 million.

“Pump” finds hope in some of today’s entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, the CEO of electric car maker Tesla Motors, and in Brazil, which relies primarily on locally produced ethanol derived from sugarcane. The movie points out that most cars are “flex fuel” vehicles and have the ability to operate on other fuel types, either through a software upgrade or by installing an inexpensive kit in the engine. 

Actor Jason Bateman narrates “Pump” and, at 87 minutes, the film uses flashy visual effects and extensive archival footage to present a compelling argument for more choices at the pump. But ultimately, it’s the question of whether drivers take things into their own hands that will decide whether “Pump” has its intended effect.

“Pump,” being screened at the Laemmle Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles through Sept. 25, opens at Pasadena Playhouse 7 on Sept. 26. 

New documentary ‘Altina’ gives success a different definition


Ambitious girls looking for role models among successful and accomplished women of the past might turn to scientist Marie Curie, aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart or social-justice champion Eleanor Roosevelt.

And then there was Altina “Tina” Schinasi.

Tina grew up in the opulent splendor of a New York mansion, became a painter and innovative sculptor, then film producer, inventor, business executive, backer of Martin Luther King Jr. and helper of Jewish refugees.

With all that, she was a thoroughly liberated and independent woman whose fourth husband testified to her undiminished sexual appetite when she was in her 60s and 70s.

Sounds like a great character for a biopic, and because she was also blessed with children and grandchildren who became filmmakers, the documentary feature “Altina” is now ready for public screening.

Altina Schinasi Sanders Barrett Carey Miranda (1907-1999) was raised in a white marble mansion with 12 bedrooms and 11 bathrooms, now an official New York City landmark that is still standing at Riverside Drive and West 107th Street in Manhattan.

The master of the mansion, Morris Schinasi, arrived in New York from Turkey as a penniless Jewish immigrant, going on to invent a cigarette-rolling machine at a time when people still rolled their own. He branched out into making and selling his own brands of cigarettes, packed with strong imported Turkish tobacco.

Schinasi managed to build this business empire without learning how to read or write, but he spoke eight languages fluently.

Tina attended a predominantly Episcopalian boarding school, where she got her first youthful taste of anti-Semitism.

Despite her family wealth, she went to work during the Depression designing window displays for Fifth Avenue stores, collaborating with surrealist painter Salvador Dali on some assignments, and also studying under German exile artist George Grosz.

Annoyed by the unflattering spectacles worn by women, Tina created Harlequin — or cat’s-eye — frames, which swept the country in the 1930s. Subsequently, she established her own company to distribute her invention.

Striking out as an artist, she experimented with bold paintings, showing the influence of Picasso and Chagall. Then, turning to sculpture, she created “humanistic” benches and chairs, which she dubbed “chairacters,” depicting lovers in passionate embrace or coolly turning their backs on each other.

In the 1940s, she moved to Los Angeles and directed her talents toward making a documentary film. Titled “Interregnum” (“Germany Between the Wars”), the 1960 film tracked the artistic and political career of her ex-teacher Grosz, whose biting anti-Nazi caricatures led to his forced exile when Hitler came to power.

This first-time effort won her an Oscar nomination and the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

During the civil rights confrontations of the 1950s and ’60s, she befriended Martin Luther King Jr. and obtained his consent to make a film about his life and struggles. The project was too controversial at the time, and Tina was unable to get studio funding and backing, said Peter Sanders, her grandson and director of “Altina.”

During the communist-hunting era of the 1940s and ’50s, Sanders noted, Tina sheltered in her Beverly Hills home movie director John Berry, who was trying to avoid a congressional subpoena.

Parallel with all these varied activities, she married a procession of husbands. In chronological order, they were architect Morris Sanders; Eric Barrett, a Viennese doctor; Charles Carey, who co-produced “Interregnum” with her; and, finally, Celestino “Tino” Miranda, a creative refugee from Castro’s Cuba who joined Tina in her painting and sculpture studio.

Miranda makes for one of the more arresting figures in the “Altina” documentary. He married the considerably older Tina in 1981, when she was already in her 70s, but, speaking in Spanish, he tells the film audience, “She was hot; she liked sex. She didn’t just lie there; she had the stamina of a 25-year-old.”

To borrow from satirist and songwriter Tom Lehrer’s paean to the much and famously married Alma Mahler, “A woman like this makes one realize how little one has accomplished in one’s own life.”

In making his documentary, director Peter Sanders was greatly aided by the discovery of footage shot by Morris Sanders, Tina’s first husband, during their honeymoon. Even more valuable was a two-hour interview filmed by Tina’s son, Terry Sanders, when she was 84.

During the last decade of her life, Tina and husband Celestino lived in Santa Fe, N.M., and Peter Sanders joined them for half a year at their combination homestead and artists’ studio.

He remembered his grandmother as cool and private, not the hugging type, but an almost surreal person as an artist.

“I tried to decode what her paintings and sculptures meant,” he said. “And everywhere there were animals, inside and outside, peacocks, sheep, Chinese roosters and Bernese Mountain Dogs.

Tina was not a conventionally beautiful woman, yet she attracted men throughout her long life. The reason, Peter Sanders believes, was partially her wealth and social standing, but even more her sense of fun, artistic sensibility and sexuality.

Asked about the Jewish aspect of his family tree, Sanders observed, “My grandmother Tina was proud of her Jewishness, deeply affected by the rise of the Nazis, and personally furnished 13 affidavits to enable Jewish refugees to enter the United States. But we were never practicing Jews in the religious sense.”

An upbeat aspect of the film is the musical score, including ragtime and jazz, reflecting different decades of Tina’s life.

Following five years of work, “Altina” came in at a budget of about $250,000, mainly underwritten by Tina’s granddaughter Victoria Sanders, who first conceptualized the film, and by executive producer Diane Dickensheid.

The documentary opens Sept. 19 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

A modern journey into the ancient world of Kabbalah


There are less time-consuming, less all-encompassing ways of dealing with a midlife crisis than the path chosen by Steven Bram. 

But having chosen to give his life over to a spiritual journey centered on the study of kabbalah, Bram — a New York-based writer and producer of sports documentaries and the COO of Bombo Sports & Entertainment — not only fully embraced his path, he also made a movie about it. 

“When you have touched something really profound, you want to share it,” Bram said. “When you’re juiced, you want everyone to be juiced.”

Co-written and co-directed by Bram, “Kabbalah Me” follows the documentarian’s five-year journey to connect more deeply with his Jewish heritage through regular study, prayer, a trip to Israel and — most significantly — through the study of kabbalah. The film will be distributed by First Run Features and will open for a limited engagement at the Laemmle Music Hall and Town Center Theatres on Sept. 5, and Bram will appear at a handful of screenings to conduct post-show Q-and-A’s.

Although his goal may be to send the message through his film about the power and accessibility of kabbalah study, Bram’s dedication to his path figures to continue long after “Kabbalah Me” has run its course in theaters.

“It’s still a big part of every day of my life,” he said. “I still work with the same four rabbis once a week each, and two of them are in Israel, so we Skype. I want to learn how to pray and how to daven, and I don’t know Hebrew. The hardest thing is learning Hebrew and how to pray.”

These may not sound like the aspirations of a typical middle-class Manhattanite who has made a living producing documentaries about the Boston Red Sox, Shaquille O’Neal and other sports luminaries. But as his film makes clear, Bram felt a void in his life well before his interest in exploring his Jewish roots intensified. He describes himself as having been a “secular modern Jewish person with not much connection to my heritage.” 

“We had Rosh Hashanah dinner, fasted on Yom Kippur and [had] a seder at Passover. That was about it,” said Bram, who became a bar mitzvah but confessed, “I had no idea what I was reading.”

Between the approach of his 50th birthday and the death of his brother-in-law in the north tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, Bram began simultaneously “kind of freaking out” and “asking myself deep questions” along the lines of, “Where am I going?” “What have I accomplished?” and “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?”

The questions led Bram to a discussion with a close friend at a New York Rangers hockey game at Madison Square Garden. Bram’s friend asked him if he had ever closely studied the Torah under the guidance of a rabbi. Bram answered no. His friend then asked if he would he like to; Bram immediately said yes, and he quickly began studying with a rabbi through the Aish Center in Manhattan. 

Then someone switched on a light 

“Each week, I read the weekly parasha, and eventually I heard the word ‘kabbalah,’ ” Bram said. “Something about that word struck deeply inside me. It blew me away. I told the rabbi I wanted to learn kabbalah, and he said, ‘No, it doesn’t work that way. It takes time.’ I said, ‘I want to learn kabbalah now.’ ”

The film is diplomatic and deliberately vague in its characterization of exactly what kabbalah is and for whom it is intended. Is it the deeper spiritual interpretations of the Torah and Talmud, reachable only by Jews who have studied for dozens of years? Is it a path to inner fulfillment, a social fad embraced by celebrities such as Madonna, Mick Jagger and Gwyneth Paltrow? Or is kabbalah — as the Kabbalah Centre New York characterizes it — “an ancient wisdom that provides practical tools for creating joy and lasting fulfillment … an incredible system of technology that will completely change the way you look at your world”?

Whatever its purpose, kabbalah has a universal appeal, according to Bram. “Probably 80 percent of the people who go through the doors of the Kabbalah Centre are not Jewish,” he said. “There’s a real thirst. I’m told Muslims in Iran go online and look for courses in kabbalah.” 

Bram’s interest in kabbalah dovetailed with his desire to explore his family’s Orthodox roots, although, as he points out, his path leading first to kabbalah and from there into his religious heritage — instead of the other way around — is somewhat unusual. The film follows Bram and his family to a Sukkot celebration with some of his Orthodox cousins in Brooklyn. As his journey deepens, Bram meets more relatives, samples more elements of the culture, and speaks to kabbalah instructors all over New York City and in Israel. 

He is, in many ways, a student on a quest for knowledge, an onscreen persona that co-director Judah Lazarus characterizes as both genuine and charismatic. In other words, that American we observe cutting loose with 250,000 religious Jews in an Israeli mosh pit at the beginning of “Kabbalah Me” is not putting on an act.  

“He is very honest and open in front of the camera, and he has an easy rapport with people,” Lazarus said. “Unlike me, Steven grew up in the Reform tradition, not Orthodox, and what he did was very valuable for me. He really had a love and an appreciation of observance of religious Judaism. He saw the beauty of those traditions in a natural and organic way, and I think he envied them.”

The deeper he delves into religious practices and kabbalah, the more Bram seems to leave his family behind. His wife, Miriam, and his two daughters are shown in the film asking questions and expressing some doubt over changes in Bram. Miriam Bram, who was also raised Jewish, admits she doesn’t connect to the spiritual and religious aspect of the faith with the same intensity as her husband, and says in the film, “I’d prefer he not be too extreme, since that would be in contrast with what I want.”

Miriam Bram had not seen the completed film prior to one of the screenings after the theatrical release of “Kabbalah Me.” But she said she is proud of her husband’s accomplishment.

“We have come to a better understanding, and we’re more united,” she said. “He has been clear he’s going to do his thing, but not in ways that would affect or uproot our family life as it is. I’ve been more open to learning from a spiritual standpoint.”

For his part, since going on his quest and making the film, Bram reports being more patient and being a better listener.

“I’m not saying I’m all the way there, but I’ve made strides,” he said. “I think I care about people more than I used to. I’m trying to see my life in the context of all of human creation. When you do that, how can you be upset over someone saying something bad about you?”

From Hamas to Shin Bet agent: Mosab Hassan Yousef


Few human relationships are as complex and intriguing as one between an intelligence agent and a potential informer, with the Middle East as an ideal proving ground for this thesis, at least cinematically.

Last year, Israel’s “Bethlehem” and the Palestinian “Omar” vied for an Oscar nomination, with both films centering on a Shin Bet agent and his Palestinian source. In addition, the earlier Israeli documentary, “The Gatekeepers,” had six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, talking about mistakes they and their government had made in dealing with the Palestinians.

The latest entry is the documentary “The Green Prince,” which describes the strangest handler/informant pairing yet, exceeding just about anything a screenwriter could think up.

The title character is Mosab Hassan Yousef, the eldest son of one of the founders of Hamas, who grew up fighting under its green banner for the destruction of Israel.

This son of terrorist royalty, raised in the belief that “collaborating with Israel is more shameful than raping your mother,” went on to become the prize informer for his father’s enemies.

His Shin Bet handler was Gonen Ben Yitzhak, whose unorthodox methods eventually led to his discharge from the agency.

Implanting Yousef into the heart of the enemy’s operations was a tremendous coup for Shin Bet, and he was handled with kid gloves.

“It was as if the son of the Israeli prime minister were spying for Hamas,” Ben Yitzhak noted in an interview with the Journal, joined by director-writer Nadav Schirman. Yousef was also slated to participate in the interview, but dropped out due to illness, according to the film’s spokeswoman.

The film, a German-Israeli-British co-production, is based on Yousef’s autobiography, “Son of Hamas.” Schirman had long envisioned a documentary on this theme and had a ready-made cast in the two principals.

Yousef was first arrested in the mid-1990s for buying illegal weapons, and Ben Yitzhak was assigned to be his chief interrogator. Both the prisoner and the Shin Bet agent realized that the security agency had a prize catch on its hands, yet an initial attempt to turn the son against the father was rejected out of hand.

The gradual change in Yousef’s attitude apparently was based on two factors. One was his growing disillusionment with Hamas — its indiscriminate use of suicide bombers and the harsh treatment it meted out to its own people. He came to believe that he could help save both Palestinian and Israeli lives by working against Hamas.

The other, more intriguing, influence was the sense of mutual trust that slowly developed between the handler and the source.

Contrary to frequent assumptions, enemies rarely turn into reliable informers as a result of torture, threats to their families or bribes.

Ben Yitzhak follows a basic working rule that “if you blackmail your source, he will betray you.” Even when following that rule, only about one in 100 attempts to enlist the services of an enemy informer succeed, according to the former agent.

The key to success, said Ben Yitzhak, who holds a degree in psychology, is not only to fully understand the other’s perspective, but also “to be like an olive tree, nurturing and giving food [to the informer].”

If Yousef took the bigger risks in the relationship, Ben Yitzhak also had something to lose. To prove his trust in Yousef, the agent violated a basic Shin Bet rule never to meet with an informant without a weapon or a backup bodyguard.

Shin Bet fired Ben Yitzhak after 10 years of service, which, he said, “was painful and shameful.” However, he subsequently became a lawyer and celebrity, and remains a regular on Israeli talk shows.

Yousef worked with Shin Bet from 1997 to 2007, then decided on a radical life change. He moved to San Diego, where he found himself without friends or work. “Nobody believed my story, so I decided to go public and write it up myself,” he said. 

Schirman said he hopes his film will convey the idea that “individuals who have the guts to go against their own systems and speak up can succeed where politicians fail, in establishing a relationship of trust.”

While Yousef’s book was widely praised as a page-turner, as a film, “The Green Prince” is a rather static production. Except for some brief archival and repeated drone surveillance footage, the film mainly depends on the talking heads of the two principals, speaking directly to the camera and, in the case of Yousef, showing little emotion.