Richard Gere in “Norman.” Phoro courtesy of Sony Pictures

Israeli-film director takes a leap with Gere and ‘Norman’


If you recall Richard Gere as the WASP-y hunk in “Pretty Woman,” it takes a mighty leap of the imagination to visualize him as Norman Oppenheimer, a New York shlub and small-time fixer.

But that’s the role he plays — and plays  superbly — in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.”

Almost as unlikely is that the director and writer of “Norman” is Joseph Cedar, making his American movie debut. Though born in New York, his family made aliyah when he was 6 years old, and he has since made his mark as the director of some of the top Israeli movies of the past two decades. Two of his pictures have earned Academy Award nominations, “Beaufort” in 2007 and “Footnote” in 2011.

As Norman, Gere embodies that often annoying, sometimes pathetic and occasionally useful figure who will press his advice and services on you, whether you want them or not. He’ll tell you how to get the best deal at a store, find the best restaurant in town and knows — or pretends to know — the right person to fix your problems with city hall.

An inveterate name-dropper, Norman lives in the hope of attaching himself to an influential figure, whose real or imagined endorsement will earn him legitimacy and respect.

His lucky day arrives when he encounters an Israeli deputy minister of trade (Lior Ashkenazi) in New York, during a low point in his diplomatic career, and insists on buying him an exorbitantly expensive pair of shoes. Three years later, the shoe recipient has become the prime minister of his country and, at a reception, embraces Norman warmly. Suddenly, the fixer is perceived by New York’s Jewish elite as a man of real standing and influence, well worth cultivating.

But, as the full movie title indicates, Norman’s sudden rise is followed by an abrupt fall as he becomes the unwitting foil of a major political scandal.

This reporter first met Cedar, now 48, some 17 years ago in a very modest midtown hotel, when he came to Los Angeles to promote his first Israeli film, “A Time of Favor,” and was figuratively knocking on doors to establish some Hollywood connections. As an observant Modern Orthodox Jew, Cedar was an anomaly among the more hedonistic film colonies in Tel Aviv and Hollywood.

Later, when one of his films placed among the five Oscar finalists in the foreign-language film category, Cedar was asked to participate in the customary advance panel discussion among the five directors who had made the cut. Trouble was that the event was scheduled on a Saturday and Cedar wrestled with the problem of participating without violating Shabbat laws.

He didn’t mind walking a few miles from his hotel to the event venue — nearly unheard of in Los Angeles — but the question was whether he would be allowed to use a microphone during the panel discussion. Cedar phoned his rabbi in Israel and together they found a solution to the knotty problem.

The Journal reunited with the filmmaker again recently — this time he stayed at a fashionable Beverly Hills hotel and was in the company of Gere, still a strikingly handsome figure at 67. There, he considered how he managed the considerable leap from directing Hebrew-language Israeli films, with a necessarily limited international audience, to a major English-language American movie (though with some brief Hebrew conversations).

“In a sense, I was something like Norman and needed someone to open doors for me,” Cedar said.

Gere noted that when Jewish directors fled Nazi Germany and tried to gain a foothold in Hollywood, Charlie Chaplin gave them a leg up. In Cedar’s case, the door opener is Oren Moverman, an Israeli-American producer long established in New York, who also got Gere involved in the project.

The veteran actor of some 60 films, who was raised as a Methodist but now is a Buddhist, said of his role: “I never jumped as far away from who I actually am and from how I would react to the humiliations Norman endured. I have never remotely played a character like him.”

While the “fixer” persona, who attaches himself to someone in power, is certainly not a uniquely Jewish phenomenon, Jews as historically a small minority in host countries were more likely to cling to a more powerful protector, Cedar said, citing in particular the figure of the medieval court Jew.

Yet, there is a universal appeal — or revulsion — to the Norman character.

Gere recalled attending a film festival screening of “Norman” in Miami, at which the actor, asking for a show of hands, found that about 20 percent of the audience was Jewish and 80 percent Latino. Probing further, Gere concluded that “the Latinos got the essence of the Norman character just as clearly as did the Jewish audience.”

Cedar plans to helm at least one more American movie, he said, but Gere vowed that he had no interest in playing another Norman character. “Norman is so far out,” he said. “He is the most unique character I’ve ever met.”

“Norman” opens April 14 at the Arclight Hollywood and The Landmark and on April 21 at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and the Town Center in Encino. 

THE LAST WORD *Movie Review & Director Interview*


In THE LAST WORD, a retired businesswoman named Harriet (Academy Award winner Shirley MacLaine) confronts her mortality as she sculpts her own obituary.  Harriet targets Anne (Amanda Seyfried), a reporter, to distill her life into its final success story.  The pair take a metaphorical–and literal–journey with Brenda (newcomer Ann’Jewel Lee), a pre-teen who has as much to gain from the relationship as the other two.  The movie also stars Thomas Sadowski, Anne Heche, Philip Baker Hall and Tom Everett Scott.  Mark Pellington (ARLINGTON ROAD, THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, COLD CASE) directs.  

I spoke with director Mark Pellington about symbolism and themes in THE LAST WORD.  He sees the film as a study in mortality and what each of us leave behind at the end of our lives.  Pellington says:  “I want these characters to have suffered some degree of loss, yet I don’t want it to be through death.  I want them to be left alone in that they’re searching to become a little more whole, a little more complete.”

Harriet, Ann and Brenda come together as incomplete sides of the same coin.  Each is missing a specific person in their lives within the parent/child relationship, but lacks in other important ways, too.  For example, Harriet appreciates the qualities about Brenda with which she herself identifies.  However, these are the very characteristics she regrets in herself having let them rule her life.  Brenda’s ability to say anything and stick up for herself are laudable, though without a measure of regulation they will overtake her life the same way they have Harriet’s.

The women’s evolution is emphasized during a baptismal scene of cleansing as they go for a late-night swim.  Traditional film analysis looks at water from this perspective, and Pellington does as well.  “By the end, for her to take off her clothes, to let it go, to get messy is a change she was ready to go through because she had achieved these goals of seeing herself differently,” he explains.

The film shows that evolution is possible regardless of age or temperament and nothing is a replacement for personal connection.  Isolation comes in many forms.  The first shot of Harriet is standing in a dormer window looking out at the grounds of her home.  Ann sits in isolation, blaring loud music on her massive headphones, though she’s surrounded by coworkers.  Even Brenda’s first interaction sets her apart as she battles a recreation center supervisor.

The complicated relationship among the trio becomes an unexpected friendship in this coming-of-age story.  True to life, it is sometimes impossible to realize something is missing until you’re confronted by it.

For more about THE LAST WORD, including Shirley MacLaine’s thoughts on labeling women in Hollywood, take a look below:

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

“Junction 48” starring Samar Qupty and Tamer Nafar, who co-wrote the film. Photo courtesy of the Match Factory.

Bringing together Palestinians, Israelis both on screen and behind the scenes


In May, Israel’s Jews will celebrate the 69th anniversary of the state’s birth, while the country’s Arabs will mourn the event as a nakba, or catastrophe.

All attempts so far to forge a durable peace between the two Semitic peoples have come to naught. Even well-meaning optimists are throwing up their hands — but director Udi Aloni is not one of them.

“We can create a beautiful community, we can create a beautiful people,” Aloni insisted in a phone interview from Berlin, where he is shooting a film. “But first we have to acknowledge that we are two equal people.”

If there is such a thing as left-wing royalty, Udi Aloni is the crown prince. He is the son of Shulamit Aloni, a longtime Israeli minister of education and early champion of civil liberties, who consistently challenged her country’s religious establishment and the government’s occupation policies.

Unlike his mother, Udi Aloni’s stage is not the floor of the Knesset but the movie set, and he considers his latest film, “Junction 48,” as proof that Jews and Arabs in Israel can work together for their mutual good.

However, Aloni’s movie — about a Palestinian hip-hop artist and his singer girlfriend who try to use music to express both their political and humanistic beliefs — seems to make it clear that he sees the fault for the impasse as lying almost entirely with the Israelis. It shows, on balance, the Israelis as the oppressors and the Palestinians as the victims.

Aloni has no illusions that this view will be embraced by most Israelis in the near future. Asked how many Israelis shared his political and philosophical outlook, he answered, “About 1 percent.”

Palestinians who remained in their towns and villages after Israel’s military victory in the 1948 War of Independence frequently are labeled “48ers” and they consider their defeat as a junction between their old and current lives. Thus the title of the movie, which is set in the city called Lod by its Jewish inhabitants and Lyd by the Arab population. Lod/Lyd is the site of Ben Gurion Airport, about a 20-minute drive from Tel Aviv.

One of its best-known residents is Tamer Nafar, widely known as the fist Arab rap artist. He is both the co-writer and star of the film, which is based largely on his own experiences. As in his stage appearances, he uses his talents to convey both the deep resentments and the hopes of his people.

A very similar theme pervades the recent movie “The Idol,” this year’s Palestinian entry in the Oscar race. In “Idol’s” case, the protagonist is a more conventional singer, from a hardscrabble Palestinian background, who becomes the voice of his people when he goes to Cairo and places first in the top-rated TV show “Arab Idol.”

If the outsider’s image of Jews and Arabs in Israel is that of two completely separate communities, both the reality and the scenario in “Junction 48” are quite different.

For instance, there is the mind-bending scene in a Tel Aviv nightclub, where Jewish rappers sing “Am Yisrael Chai” (The People of Israel Live) and their act is followed by Kareem (Nafar) and his group with “Burn It, George,” a chant to alert his buddies when Israeli police are about to raid their drug hoard. More political is the next number, “Hamas Is in the Air, Raise Your Voices, Wake Up the Neighbors,” when Kareem’s girlfriend, Manar (Samar Qupty), laments in a song, “I have no land, I have no country.”

In another example of cross-ethnic relations, Kareem and his Palestinian buddies make a night of it in a Jewish bordello.

Udi Aloni directed “Junction 48” which is based largely on his own experiences. Photos courtesy of the Match Factory.

Udi Aloni directed “Junction 48” which is based largely on his own experiences. Photos courtesy of the Match Factory.

The movie is filled with striking scenes, such as a bulldozer demolishing a Palestinian’s home in order to erect a future “Museum of Coexistence.”

Other elements are just plain weird. Take Kareem’s mother, who is first seen attending a meeting of the local Communist Party cell in a room decorated with images of Marx and Lenin. Later, the mother has become a faith healer, applying Quranic verses to “cure” a Jewish youngster.

“Junction 48” also has a strong feminist thread, mainly in Manar’s struggle to assert her independence as an artist and a woman. As director Aloni points out, “Palestinian women have to fight against both Israel and their Palestinian male oppression.”

Aloni cites the making of “Junction 48” as one concrete example of close collaboration between Israel’s Arabs and Jews. Another joint effort underlays the film’s financing, partially through the Israel Film Fund, administered by the government, and partially through the privately supported Palestinian Film Fund.

As to his own feelings about the situation between these two Semitic peoples in Israel, Aloni remarks, “The more I work with Palestinians, the more they raise my Jewish consciousness.

“Junction 48” opens March 3 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles.

‘Disturbing the Peace’ examines how enemies can forgive, move forward


If movies and documentaries mirror, or perhaps anticipate, a nation’s mood, Israel is due for a period of reflection and introspection, focusing on relations with its Palestinian and other minority citizens.

In recent months, Israeli films have scraped some of the gloss off the Six-Day War (“Censored Voices”) and the 1948 struggle for independence (“The Ruins of Lifta”), while “Colliding Dreams” dug into the history of Zionism while exploring relations between Jews and Arabs over the past century.

A parallel sub-genre has provided a penetrating look into the lifestyles of two other minority groups in Israel, both living in the Negev. “Baba Joon,” dealing with the hardscrabble Jewish farmers who left Iran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979, was Israel’s Oscar entry last year, followed this year by “Sand Storm,” entirely in Arabic and probing family life within the Bedouin community.

A new entry is “Disturbing the Peace,” which might as justifiably be called “Disturbing the Fighting.” The documentary follows a group called “Combatants for Peace,” consisting mainly of former Israeli soldiers and their former Palestinian enemies, now jointly searching for a path toward ending their long conflict.

Fairly typical of the group’s membership are co-founders Chen Alon and Suliman al-Khatib. The latter joined Fatah at 13 and one year later was arrested for attacking two Israelis and sentenced to 10 years in an Israeli prison.

Alon served four years in the Israeli army, followed by 10 years as an operations officer in the reserves. Subsequently, he signed a petition by Israeli soldiers and officers refusing to serve in the “occupied territories” of the West Bank. He now works as a theater director and lecturer at Tel Aviv University.

The founders and first adherents of the nascent peace group met in 2005, spent a year building mutual trust, using as one tool a technique pioneered by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which former enemies owned up to their transgressions.

“I helped destroy a Palestinian village,” acknowledges a former Israeli soldier in the film. “I killed two Israelis,” says his Palestinian counterpart.

In 2006, the small group felt strong enough to go public, according to Stephen Apkon, the film’s co-director with fellow American Andrew Young, who doubled as cinematographer.

Such mutual confidences also yielded clues to the individual process of transformation. One Palestinian, for instance, said that while imprisoned, he saw “Schindler’s List” and started feeling some compassion for the Jews and later tried to understand what motivated the Israelis.

Today, Apkon said in a phone interview, the peace group counts close to 300 active members, equally divided between Israelis and Palestinians and organized in eight regional chapters in such towns as Tel Aviv and Tulkarem, Jerusalem and Hebron.

Although the group’s demonstrations and memorial services for the victims on both sides draw several thousand people, according to Apkon, the group is not nearly as large and well-known as the Peace Now movement in Israel and its allies in the Diaspora.

However, Apkon argues, the Combatants group draws its credibility through the men and women who once put their lives on the line in fighting one another and have now joined forces, braving the frequent contempt and hostility of their compatriots on both sides. Considerable segments of the Israeli population and government view the group as far left and an apologist for enemies of the Jewish state.

Apkon, founder of the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y., invested four years — and considerable emotion — in directing and producing “Disturbing the Peace.”

The film’s title derives partially from a scene toward the end, in which chanting Israeli and Palestinian demonstrators, with colorful banners, puppets and a marching band, break through a symbolic wall separating them. Members of a platoon of Israeli soldiers, watching the goings-on warily, are invited to take off their uniforms and join the demonstration. Eventually, though, the soldiers arrest the two leaders, one from each ethnic group, charging them with “disturbing the peace.”

Apkon interprets this charge as, in fact, “disturbing the status quo,” and cites such other “disturbers” as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

Interspersing narrations, interviews and newsreel footage with occasional re-enactments, the film shows reconciliation between former enemies, but also conflict within the same family.

When Jamel Qassas, whose brother was killed by Israeli soldiers during the First Intifada, tells his wife, Fatima, that he wants to take their children to a peace demonstration, she objects heatedly. “The Israelis took our house,” she argues, “but let us use the bathroom.”

Ultimately, the key to reconciliation between enemies, not only in the Middle East but across the globe, is to realize the cliché of “standing in another man’s shoes,” Apkon believes.

He cites an old news story about the struggle between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, during which a school was bombed and destroyed. One of the few things left in the rubble was a poster that read, “If you were born where they were born, and you were taught what they were taught, you’d believe what they believe.”

“Disturbing the Peace” opens Nov. 18 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

‘Fritz Bauer’: Second look at an embattled hero


It is unusual that two important German films focused on the same protagonist have been released within months of each other, the more so since the central character is a Jewish homosexual who died 48 years ago.

That man, Fritz Bauer, was the post-World War II attorney general of Hesse, the German state that includes Frankfurt as its largest city. Bauer used his position as a springboard to force a reluctant German government and people to face the crimes of the war and the Holocaust.

In the first of the two films, “The Labyrinth of Lies,” Bauer struggles for a decade to push the German government to put on trial the men (and women) who kept the Auschwitz death camp running.

The period covered by the second movie, “The People vs. Fritz Bauer,” precedes the Auschwitz trials and deals with the more widely known pursuit and capture of Adolf Eichmann, the SS colonel who kept the trains running to the concentration camps, even against the orders of his boss, Heinrich Himmler. (The film’s German title translates more accurately as “The State, or Government, vs. Fritz Bauer,” and refers to the constant opposition to Bauer from former Nazis who retained high posts in postwar “democratic” West Germany.)

Bauer was born in Germany and was embarked on a promising career as a judge when Hitler came to power and kicked all Jews off the bench.

It didn’t help Bauer that he considered himself primarily an atheist and German socialist, so he emigrated first to Denmark and then, after the German invasion, escaped in the boatlift to Sweden.

Following the defeat of the Third Reich, Bauer returned to Germany and was named attorney general for Hesse. The Germans were in general quite unenthusiastic about the return of their one-time “fellow citizens of the Mosaic faith,” fearing that they would seek revenge for the suffering inflicted by their former countrymen and go as far as to demand return of their homes and businesses.

Bauer, powerfully portrayed by veteran German actor Burghart Klaussner, certainly identified more as a German than a Jew, was not out for revenge, but sought another goal: To identify the worst Nazi perpetrators and to try them before German courts — not so much as punishment but as a lesson to the new, and hopefully more democratic, second and third generations of postwar Germans.

After the German defeat, many top Nazis committed suicide or were put on trial at Nuremberg, while others, including Eichmann, escaped abroad, assuming new identities and living underground.

Bauer was one of the first to go after Eichmann, but knowing that the post-war German intelligence service was riddled with former Nazis who would likely tip off the fugitive Eichmann, Bauer turned for help to Israel’s Mossad, even at the risk of being charged with treason.

The Mossad proved quite skeptical about Bauer’s information, until he got a break — he received a letter from a German living in Argentina whose daughter was going out with a boy he believed to be the son of Adolf Eichmann.

The rest is history, including the capture and trial of Eichmann in Israel – not in Germany, as Bauer had hoped — and it was not until 10 years after Bauer’s death, in 1968, that documents surfaced detailing his major contribution to Eichmann’s capture.

One of the film’s sub-themes is Bauer’s homosexuality as well as that of his most loyal assistant, Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld). The Hitler regime had put into effect draconian laws punishing homosexuality, which remained on the books of the post-war German government. 

The threat of prosecution and punishment opened Bauer to blackmail, but neither that risk nor repetitive death threats deterred him.

Lars Kraume, the film’s director, is, at 43, part of the third post-war generation, which, Bauer hoped, would face head-on the guilt of their elders and turn Germany into a truly democratic society.

One of the box office strengths of his film, Kraume said in a phone interview, is its use of a favorite Hollywood theme: the lone guy battling the forces of evil or indifference.

Kraume said he dislikes German films that, like the TV hit “Generation War,” show a few inhumane Nazis on top misleading the otherwise good and suffering citizenry. Equally, he will not make graphic Holocaust films, saying, “I don’t want German actors parading around in Nazi uniforms or wearing the garb of concentration camp prisoners.” His film takes place after Germany’s defeat, so while there were government officials who had been or were ideologically Nazis, nobody still wore Nazi uniforms — which were in any case illegal —and, of course, no survivors still wore concentration camp garb.

In his next project, Kraume will continue his exploration of post-war Germany, but this time in the eastern part of the divided country under Communist rule. The planned film, titled “The Silent Classroom” (no release date yet) is based on an actual incident in the 1950s, following the Hungarian revolt against Soviet rule, when a group of German students in a high school near Berlin decided to put into practice the vaunted “socialist solidarity” by holding a minute of silence to honor the victims of the uprising.

This gesture so upset the East German government that it sent the country’s Minister of Education to confront the class and demand the names of the ringleaders. In the face of the students’ silence, the minister disbanded the entire class shortly before graduation, which was followed by the defection of the students to West Germany.

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” opens Aug. 19 at Laemmle’s Royal Theater in West Los Angeles, Town Center in Encino and Playhouse in Pasadena, as well as the Edwards Westpark in Irvine.

Doing dad’s bidding in Argentina’s ‘Tenth Man’


Daniel Burman, the Jewish-Argentine writer and director of “The Tenth Man,” was once offered a film project by a Hollywood studio, but he declined.

“I don’t like late parties and I’m usually in bed by 9 p.m.,” he said, explaining his disinclination to spend much time in our party town during an interview, via a Spanish-English translator.

Burman (pronounced Boorman), 42, sounds kind of laid back, at least in contrast to the stereotype of the frenzied Hollywood (read: Jewish) director, and his new movie partakes somewhat of the same quality.

The movie’s Spanish title, “El Rey del Once” (The King of Once), refers to the Buenos Aires district of Once, the Argentine equivalent of New York’s old Lower East Side, where immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe lived among their own while their children became part of the new homeland.

All of the film’s main characters, and the actors who portray them, are Jewish, starting with Ariel (Alan Sabbagh), a somewhat pudgy, 40-year-old bachelor. He now works as an economist in New York but has returned to the old neighborhood during the week of Purim, mainly to connect with his father, who goes by the single name of Usher.

When Ariel was growing up, his father was always too busy as a Jewish community organizer and as the fallback 10th man for every funeral and other minyan to pay much attention to the boy.

“Why does death always require a quorum of 10 men?” the neglected Ariel wonders.

Usher, who is never seen but constantly gives directions and assignments to Ariel via cellphone, is now head of Once’s Jewish welfare agency. If the movie’s Usher and his staff seem real, it’s because they are the actual people who work at the agency.

Always short of funds, the agency’s operation relies on makeshift solutions, such as sending a hungry petitioner to a nearby bar mitzvah celebration to gorge himself.

Another assignment for Ariel, via Usher’s cellphone, is to clean up the apartment of a recently deceased woman with instructions to scour her medicine cabinet for drugs that might be useful to a future agency client — and don’t pay any attention to the expiration date.

Ariel is also dispatched to a hospital to persuade a patient, a giant of a man, to finally take a shower.

It turns out that there is method to Usher’s series of assignments: By sending his unmarried assistant Eva (Julieta Zylberberg) to the same place as Ariel, he hopes something will click between them. Eva is pretty, prim and devoutly Orthodox. She also goes to the mikvah, where Ariel spies on her, admires her backside and the relationship grows warmer.

Throughout the film, the action is accompanied by a rich menu of Jewish songs, dances and rituals to gladden the heart of even the most casual member of the tribe.

In the movie’s final scene, during a Purim celebration, Ariel cruises down the street in an old convertible — the King of Once, with a paper crown on his head.

While Hollywood and European films on the Jewish experience frequently touch on the problems of subtle or pronounced anti-Semitism, this is not the case for Argentine movies.

Although in the past, during the Peron dictatorship and Argentina’s “dirty war,” many Jews suffered and a considerable number immigrated to Israel, the situation has changed drastically, Burman said.

“Judaism and the Jewish identity are very natural to me and I haven’t experienced any anti-Semitism,” Burman, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, observed, although added, “Perhaps there has been some discrimination and I just didn’t realize it. I am happy to have been born in an age when I can live as a Jew without fears for my survival.”

“The Tenth Man” opens Aug. 5 at Laemmle’s Royal Theater in West Los Angeles and Town Center in Encino. 

‘Indignation’ brings Philip Roth’s novel about anti-Semitism to the big screen


James Schamus remembers the block he faced while writing the screenplay for Ang Lee’s 1994 film “Eat Drink Man Woman.” Creating the right voices for the film’s Taiwanese characters was not going well “and Ang Lee was getting very nervous.”

In a desperate effort to turn the script around, Schamus, who is Jewish, decided he would “just make them all Jewish in my mind,” changing the names to Jewish ones during the writing and then changing them back to Chinese names afterward. The technique succeeded; the result was a modern cinematic classic.

That capacity to bridge cultural differences while working within one’s own idiom is evident in “Indignation,” Schamus’ adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel. The film traces the effects of subtle institutional anti-Semitism on a “nice Jewish boy” and stellar student from New Jersey attending a conservative, Christian-influenced college in the Midwest in 1951. In his directorial debut, the veteran screenwriter (“The Ice Storm,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) and producer (“Brokeback Mountain”) manages to remain empathetic to all his characters, even the most seemingly anti-Semitic one.

“Indignation,” which was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January, arrives in theaters July 29. Schamus, along with star Logan Lerman, sat down with JTA in Boston on July 18.

Roth’s novel is set in the middle of the Korean War. Marcus Messner, 19, a bright Jewish kid from Newark, flees his neurotically controlling father, a kosher butcher, by transferring from a local college to the fictional Winesburg College in Ohio. (Through not explicitly autobiographical, “Indignation” draws from Roth’s parallel experience transferring as a sophomore to Bucknell College in Pennsylvania from the Newark campus of Rutgers University.) Though serious and studious, Marcus finds himself in a strange land. Obligated with other students to attend chapel regularly, he is newly constrained and cornered by completely different forces than those that forced him out of Newark.

At Winesburg, Marcus also encounters the beautiful but troubled non-Jewish beauty Olivia Hutton. Living somewhat dangerously for the first time, Marcus is lured by another Jewish student into dodging chapel attendance and by Olivia into dark sensual corners, leading him eventually to clash with Winesburg’s patrician dean, Hawes D. Caudwell. The dean’s insinuating and vexing cross-examination effectively draws out Marcus’ indignation and defines his fate. (The novel is explicit about the nature of that fate early on, but the film does not reveal it until the very end, so we’ll avoid the spoiler here.)

A central but daringly extended scene in the film depicts the charged encounter between Marcus (a penetrating and simmering performance by Lerman, the boyish heartthrob from the “Percy Jackson” adventure series and the 2012 film “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and the dean (played tautly and convincingly by Tracy Letts, also a Tony Award-winning playwright). Schamus’ script manages to expose the subtly prejudicial indictment by the very non-Jewish dean of the Jewish kid, demonstrating the dean’s sincere admiration as well as his scorn.

Director Schamus, who grew up in a strongly identified Jewish family in Southern California and now lives in New York, and 24-year-old star Lerman, who also is Jewish and was raised in Beverly Hills, remain empathetic to the dean character, while acknowledging the systemic if subtle form of anti-Semitism he embodies.

For Lerman, Caudwell’s version of anti-Semitism doesn’t crudely exhibit “hostility or ill intentions,” but rather “a sincere prejudice.”

Schamus agrees.

“Caudwell doesn’t get up in the morning and say ‘how can I hurt the Jews?’” Schamus says. “He thinks he’s doing a good thing – ‘we’ll expose them to the Christian part of the Judeo-Christian tradition and it’ll be good for everybody. It’s a great country and we can accommodate these people as long as they toe the line.’”

Schamus says he was drawn to Roth’s novel by the appeal of the characters, including Caudwell. That is not to say that Schamus condones Caudwell’s subtle version of anti-Semitism, but places it in the context of a complex of qualities demanding more nuanced assessment. For Schamus, Caudwell responds warmly and enthusiastically to Marcus “knowing that this is the smartest kid who’s walked in there in a long time,” yet still can’t keep himself from pursuing an insinuating cross-examination of him.

In his explicitly autobiographical 1988 work “The Facts,” Roth recalled how his time at Bucknell constrained both his Jewish identity and artistic sensibility. In his student writing he set out to prove “that I was a nice boy, period,” he wrote. “The Jew was nowhere to be seen; there were no Jews in the stories, no Newark, and not a sign of comedy. … I wanted to demonstrate that I was ‘compassionate,’ a totally harmless person.”

In portraying Marcus, Lerman echoes the spirit of the young, decent, inhibited author ready to ripen into the funny, indecent, vivid one.

“To a certain extent, I know Marcus Messner very well,” Schamus observed. “There’s a little of him in me. There’s a little of him in any good Jewish boy who went on to try to do well in school.”

Schamus says that among those expressing the strongest appreciation of the film are young people of color who relate to its portrayal of the subtleties of prejudice. And, while many barriers have been removed, minority students at colleges and universities continue to identify its effects.

In somewhat idiosyncratic cinematic terms, the film distills Roth’s view of how justifiable fury sprouts, how that sense of indignation can simmer over time and how it can eventually boil over.

Charles Munitz publishes the blog Boston Arts Diary.

Seeking connection, family mystery ensues


Israeli director and writer Shemi Zarhin likes to explore family relationships and dynamics in his films, and in his latest work, “The Kind Words,” he immerses himself in the topic to a point that might challenge Sigmund Freud.

The focal point of the film’s web of relationships consists of three siblings, between 30 and 40 and residing in Jerusalem.

The oldest is Netanel, who has become ultra-Orthodox primarily to please his devout wife, while the younger brother, Shai, has come out as gay, to the dismay of Netanel.

In the middle, with the most problems and screen time, is Dorona, who has suffered the latest in a series of miscarriages as the film opens, and takes her frustration out on her handsome and devoted husband, Ricky.

The siblings’ father has deserted his wife and family after 30 years of marriage to wed a younger woman, and the abandoned mother’s long undiagnosed cancer leads to her death.

When the father’s new wife expresses her wish to have children, he visits a doctor, who finds his patient’s sperm count too low to impregnate any woman, present or past.

The diagnosis leaves the siblings with the unnerving question as to the identity of their biological father, or, as one of them puts it, “I’m an orphan; I don’t want to be a bastard, too.”

One clue to the puzzle is that their Algerian-born mother left for trips to Paris, supposedly to visit her sister, exactly nine months before the birth of each of the three siblings.

With their mother dead, Dorona persuades her two brothers to track down their mother’s liaison, heading first for Paris to interrogate their aunt, their mother’s sister.

From there, the trail leads to Marseilles and to the apartment of Maurice, also born in Algeria and apparently the dead mother’s longtime lover, with roots as an Arab Muslim.

As the siblings importune Maurice to answer their urgent questions, he declines any answers. In desperation, and in search of her new self-identity, Dorona sneaks back into Maurice’s apartment while he’s away, and finds a possible clue to the relationship between Maurice and her mother.

The cast of “The Kind Words” is impressive, starting with Rotem Zissman-Cohen as the conflicted Dorona, and joined in supporting roles by two of Israel’s finest veteran thespians, Levana Finkelstein as the mother and Sasson Gabai as her runaway husband.

Zarhin is held in considerable esteem in Israel and abroad as director of six feature films, numerous TV episodes and the author of one novel.

Two of his earlier films, “Aviva, My Love” and “Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomo,” also focused on family ties and were warmly praised by the Journal at the time of their release and after lengthy conversations with Zarhin.

This time, the interview was a bit more difficult, and not only because the Skype connection between interviewer and interviewee worked poorly.

It was obvious that Zarhin had invested a lot of thought and emotion in his “Kind Words” characters and was impatient with “simplistic” questions about the plot, or whether his own descent from long-ago immigrants from North Africa and Europe influenced the delineation of his main characters.

However, in his “Director’s Notes” for the film, he explained his approach, as a director and as a human being, to his film’s characters, and his words are worth quoting to understand his intentions.

“I love stories where life is lived ‘on the edge,’ ” he writes. “I love reality’s ability to surprise until life often seems like an unrealistic movie, and reality itself acts like a wonderland. I especially love the protagonists’ amazed, stunned expressions every time they are faced with a new, extreme turn of the plot.

“These expressions reveal the exaggerated, childish confidence they have in their day-to-day routines, as well as their distress in the face of any change or discovery. It makes me laugh, it makes me sad, and mainly it makes me love them very much.

“But it also makes me worries. What will happen when they find out that the truth they are looking for is a pile of lies and prejudices? What will be their fate when they discover there is no consolation in the facts of the past, which only imprison the present and enslave the future? And love, even though it exists and is deep, is not always enough? And whether eventually they will realize that their lives and their identities depend solely on their desire?

“A strange thing happened to me: the production of ‘The Kind Words’ is long over and I find that I am still worried about the characters who have become my immediate family. Maybe it expresses concern that I have for my kids, myself, and for the place where I live.”

“The Kind Words” opens July 1 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles and at the Town Center in Encino.

Drug abuse, shame and the Holocaust figure in film about family of notorious Dutch lawyers


In a country where 75 percent of Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, the Moszkowicz family of lawyers stood out as a unique Jewish success story.

Descended from Max Moszkowicz, a steel-willed Auschwitz survivor who became Holland’s first modern celebrity attorney, his four lawyer sons took the family business to new heights, turning their name into a household brand here with winning arguments in some of the country’s most famous trials.

Max Moszkowicz himself in 1987 obtained a mere four-year sentence for the kidnappers of the beverage mogul Freddy Heineken. His second son, Robert, in 1976 became Holland’s youngest person to pass the bar exam at 23 (he was a millionaire by 29). Another son, Bram, kept making international headlines – including through the 2010 acquittal of the anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders of hate speech charges.

 

The Moszkowiczes were widely recognized as legal geniuses in the media and at events held in their honor.

But over the past decade, they have fallen from grace. Three of Max Moszkowicz’s sons were disbarred for improprieties, starting in 2005 with Robert — a former heroin addict and flamboyant womanizer who was accused of cheating his clients — and ending in March with the oldest brother, David.

This month, the Moszkowiczes are again making headlines in Holland because of “We Moszkowicz,” the first revealing documentary film about the remarkable family. Made by the first-born son of Robert Moszkowicz, the television production retraces the Holocaust’s deep effects on three generations that for many represent Dutch Jewry’s struggle to return to normalcy after the trauma of the genocide.

Combining footage from Amsterdam, Jerusalem and Auschwitz, the critically acclaimed work by Max Moszkowicz — a 37-year-old filmmaker who is named for his 89-year-old grandfather — offers an unprecedented insight into the rise and fall of a now notorious family.

The filmmaker describes to his father his own panic as a child at seeing Robert – then still a celebrated and practicing lawyer — collapse into a drug-induced stupor at his mansion near Maastricht. Heroin was in plain sight at the father’s Amsterdam apartment, the filmmaker recalls. Robert told him as a child that the beige powder and tin foil were for making special flu medicine.

Standing opposite his father, Max Moszkowicz confronts him over his shame at elementary school following Robert’s publicized arrest. Over the space of six years, the filmmaker followed his father around, assembling the portrait of a vain, sometimes selfish and ultimately unrepentant man who never apologized for actions that apparently have scarred several of his nine children, whom he had with four women.

But “We Moszkowicz” is no damning indictment, filmmaker Max Moszkowicz told JTA in an interview last week about his film, which the Volkskrant daily described as “confrontational, moving and often painful.”

Rather it’s a story about three generations of a troubled but loving family, and an attempt to examine their dysfunctions in light of secondhand emotional damage in siblings attempting to live up to their fathers’ ideals and legacy. The film reveals that the patriarch, determined to rebuild the Jewish family destroyed by the Nazis, disowned Robert because he married a non-Jewish wife — the filmmaker’s mother.

The rejection was so absolute that in 1993, the elder Max Moszkowicz and three of his sons appeared as a family on a television talk show without ever mentioning Robert.

“Four musketeers,” Bram Moszkowicz told the host in describing his family on the show. “One for all, all for one.”

David concurred, saying with a grin: “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

Filmmaker Max Moszkowicz said the images, which he saw at 14, “cut like a knife.”

“I wanted to understand what my father had done to be cut from the family as though he never existed,” he said.

Ostracized by his kin, Robert Moszkowicz, a handsome fast talker who enjoyed Italian designer suits and expensive cars — though he struggles with debts, he still owns a late model Jaguar — was driven over the edge following the death of his third child. Jair lived less than one year. Robert had him with his second wife, a heroin addict who kept injecting throughout her pregnancy.

Robert Moszkowicz in Amsterdam in 2015. Photo from Max Moszkowicz
 
Following his first arrest in the 1990s for drug dealing, Robert received a visit in jail from his father, who despite their harsh disagreements took on his son’s legal case because not doing so “would’ve meant losing my son forever,” as the patriarch said during a television interview.

During the charged jailhouse meeting, the father told his wayward son that the facility reminded him of the concentration camp.

“That’s what I want to experience,” Robert replied in what he explained in the film as “a typical desire to feel what my father felt” in the Holocaust.

It’s a key moment in the documentary for understanding the Moszkowiczes’ self-destructive streak, the best-selling Dutch Jewish author Leon de Winter told JTA.

“It’s no coincidence that three sons of this amazing family were disbarred,” de Winter said.

Bram Moszkowicz’s disbarment for mismanagement of funds was “disproportionate,” de Winter said, noting that it ultimately came from legal transgressions motivated by an insatiable drive to please the family patriarch, who lost his parents and two siblings as a teenager in the Holocaust.

Max Moszkowicz, right, with Bram Moszkowicz in Amsterdam in 1987. Photo from Wikimedia Commons
 
The patriarch Max “raised his boys to be invincible,” de Winter said. “And they, in their desperate love and dedication to him, felt the only way to get close and equal to him was to follow him into hell.”

And though they built an empire, the Moszkowiczes always remained outsiders in the Netherlands post-Holocaust, separated from the intellectual elites they frequented by their own traumas and weaknesses for flashy cars and expensive clothes.

“It’s as though they overcompensated in a delayed and tragic effect of the hell that Max Moszkowicz went through in Auschwitz,” de Winter said of the family.

For all its tragic retrospection, “We Moszkowicz” also offers a sense of hope and redemption.

The filmmaker and his father are close, their bond cemented on a two-week trip they made to Israel in 2014. In one of the film’s most moving scenes, Robert Moszkowicz, who is somewhat Jewishly observant and recites his prayers in Hebrew, is overcome with emotion at the Western Wall and is hugged by his son as he cries against the ancient stones.

Robert is also a devoted father to his youngest children with his fourth wife. Opening up in this unprecedented manner to his son’s camera, the filmmaker said, “is his way of making up for mistakes.”

It was with an eye to the future that the younger Max Moszkowicz began making the film in the first place, he said, not wanting to repeat his father’s mistakes with his own first son, Ilai, who was born last year.

“Six years ago, I came drunk to a house party with a bloody mouth that I got from falling down en route,” the filmmaker recalled. “I had an alcohol and drug problem. I saw my bloodied reflection in a mirror at the party and I could see my father’s self-destructive pattern.”

That evening, filmmaker Max Moszkowicz decided to take a hard look at his life that resulted in the film.

“I feel I treated my demons,” he said. “I can move on with my life.”

Reeling in the summer


This summer brings an eclectic group of films to local screens, many featuring specifically Jewish protagonists and covering such disparate subjects as a fundamentalist revolution, a revolutionary TV programmer, the hunt for Adolf Eichmann, religiosity and coming of age in the 1950s.

“Septembers of Shiraz” 

Australian director Wayne Blair explores the devastating effect of the Iranian revolution on a secular Jewish family during the early 1980s in “Septembers of Shiraz,” adapted from the award-winning book of the same title by Dalia Sofer. As the film depicts, after the Shah was overthrown in 1979, the rage and resentment of the Iranian underclass was directed against the wealthy, the Jews, the intellectuals and anyone who had been in any way connected to the Shah’s family. When the mob and the Ayatollah Khomeini took power, Islamic fundamentalism became the law of the land, and with it came repression, torture, executions and capricious arrests. Those who felt persecuted under the Shah had now taken power, and started to mimic and even surpass the tyranny of their predecessor.

Academy Award-winning actor Adrien Brody (“The Pianist”) stars as Isaac Amin, a prosperous gemologist and jewelry merchant who is arrested without warning on vague charges of spying for Israel. While in prison, he is physically and emotionally tortured, and it becomes obvious that his interrogator, who himself had been tortured when the Shah held power, is envious of Isaac’s privileged life and enraged that Isaac accepted the social and political structure of the previous regime.

Meanwhile, Isaac’s wife, Farnez (Salma Hayek), a strong, assertive woman, tries in vain to get him released as she watches her entire life disintegrate. Her house is stripped of valuables, employees of her husband start stealing the jewels from his business, and she is powerless to stop what is happening. Among the thieves is the son of her housekeeper, Habibeh (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a Muslim woman who is loyal to the family but starts to believe some of the charges made by the revolutionaries against the former elites.

After turning over his life’s savings, Isaac is released, but he and his family must flee the country, leaving behind everything they still possess, if they are to have any hope of survival.

Blair said one reason he was drawn to the story was that, at its core, it deals with the importance of family. “Family is close to my heart. [During] my own upbringing, I traveled a great deal with my immediate family, as my father was in the military. When he retired and we settled in our hometown, I was around my mother and father’s extended family even more. That meant the world to me.” 

And, producer Alan Siegel predicted, “Audiences will sit at the edge of their seats. It’s a thrilling roller-coaster ride that also has a deep meaning for today.” 

“Septembers of Shiraz” opens June 24.

“Tikkun”

“Tikkun” explores issues of determinism, Orthodoxy and sexual repression. According to Israeli filmmaker Avishai Sivan, who is quoted in the media notes, the word “tikkun” means “improvement” in everyday Hebrew, but on a deeper level, “tikkun” has a more metaphysical meaning. Sivan says belief in reincarnation can be found in Judaism, and the term “refers to a soul returning to the living world in order to rectify an unresolved issue from its past life.”

The film takes place in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, and it focuses on Haim-Aaron (Aharon Traitel), a brilliant yeshiva student who is so devout that he fasts to repent for dropping his prayer boxes. One night, the sexually repressed young man is tempted to masturbate in the bathtub when he collapses, hitting his head against the back of the tub. The paramedics can’t revive him and pronounce him dead, but his father (Khalifa Natour) frantically tries to resuscitate him, and, mysteriously, Haim-Aaron comes back to life. However, he is completely changed. Unable to sleep at night, he takes to wandering the streets and falling asleep during the day in yeshiva class. He begins to tentatively explore the secular world and even accompanies an acquaintance to a brothel, though he can’t bring himself to have sex with the prostitute whom he has just paid. He also announces that he will no longer eat meat, an insult to his father, who is a kosher butcher in a slaughterhouse.

Shot in black-and-white, the movie begins to verge on the surreal as the father comes to fear he has thwarted destiny by reviving his son. 

“Tikkun” is tentatively scheduled to open in Los Angeles June 17.

“Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You”

Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon in “Indignation”

Another Jewish boy from the East is the central character in “Indignation,” based on Philip Roth’s 2008 semi-autobiographical novel of the same title. The movie depicts college life in the 1950s and centers on Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), son of a kosher butcher shop owner in Newark, N.J. Marcus escapes the Korean War draft by means of a scholarship courtesy of his synagogue to Winesburg College, a small school in Ohio.

While Marcus is happy to be free from his smothering father, he is uninterested in college social life or in forming close friendships, preferring to focus on his studies. However, the independent-minded Marcus encounters some new, unexpected experiences, including anti-Semitism and an infuriating requirement to attend weekly chapel. He also experiences his first sexual encounter, along with his first love.

Writer, producer and film company executive James Schamus (he earned an Oscar nomination for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) makes his directorial debut with this film. Schamus is quoted in the production notes as saying, “It was a real limbo time after World War II. The sexual revolution was yet to come, anti-communism and the Blacklist were in the news, and teenage culture, as we know it, was just around the corner. Meanwhile there’s another massive war going overseas. Our characters are really struggling to find themselves in that landscape.”

Variety’s chief international film critic, Peter Debruge, praised the movie, writing in his review at Sundance earlier this year, “ ‘Indignation’ unfolds at a certain distance, both in maturity and time: Schamus may not have lived the era, the way Roth did, but he channels the ’50s still-conservative mentality convincingly enough, hitting the novel’s tragic final note ever so delicately, devastating those drawn in by Marcus and his dreams.”

Roth, who attended the premiere of “Indignation” at Sundance, called it “the most faithful adaptation” of one of his works he’s seen.

“Indignation” opens July 29.

“The Tenth Man”

“The Tenth Man,” directed by Daniel Burman, tells the story of a man’s return to his observant Jewish roots. Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) has been living in New York and enjoying a successful career as an economist but has distanced himself from his background. He returns to the Jewish section of Buenos Aires, Argentina, known as El Once, where he was raised, in part to introduce his father, Usher (played by himself), and the rest of his family, to his fiancée, a dancer who is supposed to follow him to Buenos Aires after she completes an audition. 

During his visit, Ariel gets pulled into helping at his father’s market and performing certain duties for his father’s charitable Jewish foundation. While Ariel keeps trying to meet with him, Usher remains elusive and constantly involved in aid projects. The situation brings back Ariel’s feelings of being neglected as a child when his father attended to his charitable activities. 

While Ariel remembers wanting more of his father’s attention when he was a child, Ariel also finds himself brought back emotionally to the way of life of his formative years.

As Ariel draws closer to his heritage and to the community he left behind, he also draws closer to Eva (Julieta Zylberberg), an Orthodox, silent and beguiling woman who works for Usher’s foundation.

Burman explains in the media notes how he and Usher, a real person heading a real foundation, met for the first time. The two were on a pilgrimage to visit the graves of Sadikin, Jewish mystics of the 17th and 18th centuries who, according to legend, had a direct connection to God. Burman says there was something about Usher that he found fascinating.

“This feeling only grew when I learned more about his kingdom, his army of volunteers, that mysterious world of people giving without a special satisfaction beyond something provided by the fact of doing what needs to be done, as part of a particular logic of aid. In the foundation, the others who are being helped are not an undifferentiated mass that needs just anything. The help there is about the uniqueness of each individual. In order to give somebody exactly what he needs, there has to be an intention to understand why he needs this and nothing else. That world captivated me.” 

“The Tenth Man” opens in August, exact release date TBA.

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer“

Burghart Klauner in “The People vs. Fritz Bauer”

Argentina is also a major element in “The People vs. Fritz Bauer,” a docudrama about German-Jewish prosecutor Fritz Bauer (Burghart Klauner), who is credited with locating Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer in charge of arranging the deportation of vast numbers of Jews to death camps before he became a fugitive after the war.

The film opens in 1957, when Bauer has returned to Germany from Denmark and Sweden after World War II and makes it his mission to expose and prosecute former Nazi officials, many of whom are now prospering in business or holding positions in the German government. But members of the current government block Bauer’s efforts at every turn, either because they don’t want their past Nazi activities exposed or don’t want to relive Germany’s crimes.

One day, Bauer receives a letter from Argentina written by the father of a girl who is dating Eichmann’s son. The letter reveals that Eichmann is living incognito in Buenos Aires.

Bauer is passionately anxious to have Eichmann extradited and put on trial in Germany,  but his goals are again thwarted by German authorities who are former National Socialists. So Bauer is forced to enlist the aid of the Israeli Mossad, an act tantamount to treason and punishable by imprisonment.

After verifying Eichmann’s identity, the Mossad does capture him, but Bauer’s desire to have him tried in Germany is overridden by those at the highest levels of government in Israel, the United States and Germany, so Eichmann is prosecuted and hanged in Israel.

It was only after Bauer’s death in 1968 that his part in finding Eichmann was revealed.

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” opens Aug. 19.

Also of interest: 

“Agnus Dei” (The Innocents) is a French-Polish movie directed by Anne Fontaine (“How I Killed My Father”) that tells the almost-unknown story of Madeleine Pauliac, a French doctor who took care of concentration camp survivors in Warsaw right after World War II. When a nun shows up to her clinic and begs for her help at a convent, Pauliac discovers several pregnant nuns, one of whom is about to give birth. A nonbeliever herself, Pauliac finds the nuns becoming more and more dependent on her in the tragic aftermath of war. Opens July 1.

“The Kind Words” is an Israeli film about a woman and her two brothers who get a shock after their mother dies and they learn that she had been having a long-term affair with an Algerian. Fearing their real father may have been a Muslim, the three travel from Israel to Paris and Marseilles to seek out the truth.  Opens July 1. 

“Life, Animated” is a documentary about Owen Suskind, an autistic boy who never spoke until he learned to engage with the world by continually watching Disney films, such as “The Lion King.” The films inspired him to empathize and identify with characters outside of himself. Opens July 8.

“Café Society,” Woody Allen’s latest romantic comedy, is about a young man from the Bronx who tries to succeed in the glamorous world of Hollywood during the 1930s. Opens July 15. 

Elder statesman of Palestinian film directs true story of Gaza’s ‘Arab Idol’


Hany Abu-Assad was cheering in a crowded square in his hometown of Nazareth, Israel, when Mohammad Assaf — a youth from the southern Gaza Strip — earned overnight stardom by winning “Arab Idol,” the region-wide televised singing contest.

In fact, if you watch “The Idol,” Abu-Assad’s newest film, you can just barely see the director in a split second of news footage shown in the film’s final montage, amid the throngs that gathered across the Palestinian world to watch Assaf win.

When Abu-Assad learned this reporter hadn’t heard Assaf’s story before seeing the docudrama, he was perplexed that the singer’s sudden mega-celebrity hadn’t penetrated Western and Jewish circles.

The 23-year-old won the competition in 2013 and was appointed a United Nations youth ambassador on the spot.

“CNN, BBC, everywhere,” Abu-Assad, 54, said of the young man’s fame, speaking in animated English with an Arabic accent. “It was so huge — why Israelis, just so close, why don’t they want to see this story?”

During an interview in Los Angeles last week with the Jewish Journal, the de facto elder statesman of Palestinian film sat back on a couch, eight stories up inside an art-deco tower on Wilshire Boulevard. Abu-Assad likes L.A. — “there’s space, there’s ocean” — even though he considers it among the “ugliest cities in the world, as buildings, as architecture.”

Asked where he lives these days, he said, “Officially in Nazareth, but practically in my suitcase.”

The filmmaker is touring with his newest film. He started the year in Nazareth, before flying to the Netherlands, where earlier in life he lived for 25 years and worked as an airplane engineer, then to London, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York and back to L.A.

The film opens in six theaters across Southern California on May 27, including venues in Beverly Hills, Irvine and Palm Springs.

Drawing on the limited pool of Palestinian actors, “The Idol” portrays Assaf’s childhood as a would-be musician in the Khan Yunis refugee camp before flashing forward seven years to show his unlikely flight from Gaza to Cairo, where auditions for the television show were held.

It tells a heartbreakingly sad story of how cramped life in Southern Gaza intrudes on Assaf’s dreams, as well as those of his sister, Nour. Circumstances far outside Assaf’s control continually conspire against the singer.

The movie is also highly acclaimed, as is Abu-Assad’s previous work. Two previous films by Abu-Assad have been entered as Palestinian submissions for Academy Award consideration as best foreign-language film — once in 2005 on behalf of the Palestinian Territories and again in 2013 for Palestine — and both films received the nomination, though neither won the award. He is the only Palestinian filmmaker ever to claim that honor.

The filmmaker understands his celebrity, along with Assaf’s, is one answer to a concerted effort to discredit and erase the Palestinian identity.

“By just saying you are still Palestinian after 60 years of [Israel] trying very hard to vanish the word Palestinian, already you are political, even if you do just music,” he said.

Assaf can be explicitly political; The New York Times reported that his winning number, “Raise the Keffiyeh,” was a favorite of Fatah leader Yasser Arafat and thus something of a black eye for Hamas, the faction that rules Gaza.

Abu-Assad, though, described his upcoming film as “post Israel” — a designation he bases on his belief that the Jewish state is a failed experiment headed for the dustbin of history.

“The situation as it is now, I think it’s impossible to keep a Jewish state in that region,” he said. “You can [keep it] maybe another five years, 10 years, 50 years — it’s impossible to keep it for an unlimited time.”

He said he would be a proponent of a two-state solution, if he thought it was workable.

“Some people were born in the settlements,” he said. “You want to throw them out? Are you kidding me?”

Abu-Assad’s forecast for the land, if somewhat apocalyptic, is little more than his worst-case extrapolation of the situation there since 2005, the year the story of “The Idol” begins.

He had to work directly with the Israel Defense Forces to coordinate his two trips to Gaza for the film. The first time his production manager called the military to arrange entry into the militarized enclave, he said they told her, “What are you talking about, you want to shoot a movie in Gaza? Are you crazy?”

The production manager persisted. (“She’s a very tough woman,” the director said.) Eventually, she succeeded and he managed to gain entry — two days for research and another two for filming, restricted to a small crew. The balance of the movie was filmed in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank.

“I was amazed that people from Gaza did not lose their humanity,” he said of his research trip there in 2014. “Because you expect with this siege and destruction, you expect people will be angry, people will be like what you see in the media. They were so humble, human, sharing the little food they have with you, sharing their story, sharing their laughs, sharing their singing.”

For the most part, he said, the story hews to the facts of Assaf’s meteoric rise. Small details have been altered; his sister, Nour, plays guitar in the film rather than keyboard, as in real life, because “guitar is more, you know, it’s sexier,” Abu-Assad said.

When he showed the film to Assaf, the pop star called it 80 percent fact, 20 percent fiction, “but the 20 percent fiction makes [him] realize the importance of the 80 percent. He realized, ‘It’s not what I did, but this is what I felt,’ ” Abu-Assad said.

Though the protagonist is Gazan, Israel is not explicitly cast as the antagonist. When Assaf is nearly apprehended at the border, the troops trying to stand in his way are Hamas Black Shirts, not Israeli soldiers.

Abu-Assad’s other films have taken a more confrontational approach in their portrayal of the Jewish state.

In “Omar,” the 2013 Oscar nominee, the title character is coerced into cooperating with IDF military police. “Paradise Now,” the 2005 Oscar nominee and a Golden Globe winner, tracks two would-be suicide bombers planning an attack on Tel Aviv. Abu-Assad gets screenwriting credits for all three films; for “The Idol,” he said he did a “complete rewrite” of an earlier script.

“The movie is actually not about Israel at all,” he said. “It’s about people in difficult situations, yet they can create their own circumstances.”

This time, Abu-Assad set out to tell a story not directly about politics but rather the transcendence of art and the power of determination.

“What I saw from this phenomenon, Mohammad Assaf, is that you don’t need to wait for somebody to come and help you, you have to help yourself,” he said. “That was an amazing message that I just wanted to share with everybody.”

The director said he hopes members of the Israeli and Jewish communities will come see his film. Given his grim outlook on the future of the Jewish state, he believes they would benefit in particular from the movie’s hopeful message.

“Israelis need more hope than Palestinians,” he said. “Really, I truly think Israelis almost totally lost their hope. They are acting as if there is a lot of frustration.”

However, he has no aspersions about how his film will go over with some elements in the Jewish world.

“If you want my honest opinion, this movie is a nightmare for anybody who will think that they can erase the Palestinian as an identity,” he said.

Hope and romance bloom in the desert in ‘Wedding Doll’


The title “Wedding Doll” may lead the unwary film fan to anticipate a risqué musical comedy, but this Israeli movie is actually something much deeper.

Set in a small, rather forlorn town in Israel’s Negev desert, the film revolves around a young woman left with a fairly mild mental handicap by a childhood brain injury.

At 24, Hagit (Moran Rosenblatt) is lovely to look at, with a smile that lights up not just a room but the brooding desert outside. She works, apparently contentedly, in a small factory, doing the rather unglamorous but necessary job of cutting and packaging rolls of toilet paper.

After work, she takes the leftovers from her day’s labor and fashions little dolls, invariably outfitted in wedding gowns. It doesn’t take a psychologist to deduce that the dolls express Hagit’s own yearnings, specifically her fervent hope to someday marry the factory owner’s handsome son, Omri (Roy Assaf).

Reality is somewhat different. Hagit lives with her mother, Sarah, who is divorced and works as a chambermaid at a local hotel. Sarah’s main focus is to protect her daughter at all costs — from the neighborhood kids’ taunts of “weirdo” to any attempt of independence by Hagit.

But occasionally, Hagit escapes the surveillance to spend long, largely silent evenings with Omri at the top of a hill overlooking the Negev, which takes on a beauty of its own at night.

Omri is a decent sort and is genuinely fond of Hagit, but he is afraid to let anyone, not least his family, know of a possible liaison with her.

But nothing can squelch Hagit’s hopes, and she fashions a wedding dress of her own, whose striking feature is a hoop skirt decorated entirely with actual toilet rolls.

“Wedding Doll” is the first feature by the film’s director, producer and scriptwriter, Nitzan Gilady, 46, who previously made four documentaries that have won 13 international awards.

Gilady knows something about what it means to be an outsider. The son of immigrants from Yemen, he was born in Beersheba, in the northern Negev, and was taunted by classmates in first grade, more for pronouncing certain Hebrew words with his parental accent than for his dark skin.

He also came out early as gay, and has a younger brother who returned from war with post-traumatic stress disorder and was thereafter fiercely overprotected by their father.

In a phone call from Paris, Gilady described his early ambition to become an actor and to study at New York’s Circle in the Square Theatre.

“My ambition was to become a Robert De Niro or a classical Shakespearean actor, but because of my appearance I was always cast as a terrorist,” Gilady said. So he decided to become a director. Unable to afford a university education, he bought a video camera and started to “direct” an actress friend.

For the setting of “Wedding Doll,” Gilady returned to the isolated Negev town of Mitzpe Ramon, where he spent part of his army service.

In casting the key role of Hagit, Gilady interviewed more than 40 aspirants and was still searching when he recalled a young Israeli actress, Rosenblatt, whom he had seen in one of her earlier movies. Once picked for the role, Rosenblatt put in a rigorous four months with the director before shooting began.

“We worked on my voice, my walk and my smile,” she recalled in a phone interview. As Hagit, “The smile is more than my own; it comes from the inside and tries to say, ‘I’m a good person, I’m a nice person.’ ”

Rosenblatt’s smile — and performance — earned her a best actress Ophir, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscar. The film had nine nominations in all.

Not content just with acting, the 30-year-old descendant of immigrants from Iran, Poland and Belgium is looking for additional artistic outlets. Rosenblatt is studying screenwriting and directing at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem but hasn’t decided on her ultimate career. However, she said, “It will have to be one of the three fields.”

Gilady faced no indecision in casting the role of Sarah, Hagit’s mother, after Asi Levi, one of Israel’s foremost actresses, agreed to take the part.

“Wedding Doll” opens April 15 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Town Center in Encino. 

In “Remember” a common enemy unites two survivors in a deadly mission


Action heroes in Hollywood movies are generally handsome, virile studs, handy with a gun or a girl, preferably both.

However, in “Remember,” the two principals, Zev and Max, are both 90-year-old Holocaust survivors, passing their not-so-golden years in an assisted living facility.

Max (Martin Landau) is wheelchair-bound but with sharp mind, while Zev (Christopher Plummer), though ambulatory, slips in and out of dementia and borderline Alzheimer’s. The two are bound by a common tragedy. Both of their families were murdered in Auschwitz by the same SS guard.

Now, some 70 years later, Max has discovered that the murderous guard escaped to America after the war and assumed the name of Rudy Kurlander. To complicate matters, Max has been informed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center (nice plug) that there are four men by that name living in the United States and Canada.

During a long session at the retirement home, Max hands Zev an envelope full of addresses, instructions and $100 bills, and tasks him to find each of the Kurlanders, and, when he finds the ex-SS guard, to kill him.

Documentary film pioneer Albert Maysles; 88


Jewish documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, known for films such as “Grey Gardens” and “Gimme Shelter,” died Thursday night at his home in Manhattan. He was 88.

The cause of death is not yet known.

Maysles, once called the “best American cameraman” by Jean-Luc Godard, was one of the country’s most revered documentarians. Along with his brother David, who died in 1987, he in the late 1950s pioneered the use of lightweight, battery-powered cameras that allowed cameramen to move around more easily while filming.

Besides “Grey Gardens” (1976), a cult classic that explored the lives of relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and “Gimme Shelter” (1970), one of the earliest rock documentaries that followed the Rolling Stones on their 1969 tour, Maysles directed documentaries on The Beatles, Marlon Brando and Truman Capote.

Born in Boston in 1926 to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Maysles studied at Syracuse and Boston University. During his childhood in the 1930s, his mother had to battle to get a job as teacher in a local school because she was Jewish.

Three Israelis turn back clock in Berlin


Alice Agneskirchner is not Jewish. In fact, before deciding to make her latest documentary, “An Apartment in Berlin,” which follows the lives of three young Israelis living in Berlin as they explore the story of a family killed in the Holocaust, Agneskirchner didn’t really know any Jews. Yet, in the film she’s crafted a thought-provoking and often disturbing portrait of life in a land still haunted by genocide, seven decades after World War II ended.

In a recent phone conversation, Agneskirchner spoke of her film and the three Israelis — Eyal, Yael and Yoav — whom she recruited to be at its center. The idea came to Agneskirchner after she heard Israelis speaking Hebrew in a cafe in Berlin one day, which led her to wonder why Israelis would choose to move to a city like Berlin, which had brought the Jewish people so much suffering.

Agneskirchner set out to find Israeli subjects for her film and turned to the Web. “There’s a huge Internet platform [on a] Web page called ‘Israelis in Berlin,’ ” she said. “I think they’ve run it for about five years at least, maybe even longer. … They’re all in Hebrew; I can’t read them.” Undeterred, Agneskirchner got in touch with the site’s administrators to share with them her idea of doing a documentary about Israelis in Berlin. The administrators agreed to help.

“The first time, about 250 people were contacting me,” Agneskirchner said of an ad she ran; she estimates she met with more than 50 Israelis while selecting the subjects for her film.

“You want to have somebody who’s really real — who’s not afraid of being himself, even if you will film him. You don’t want anybody who tries to please you,” Agneskirchner said of her selection criteria. “I wanted to have a big variety.”

“Yoav, it was clear from the moment I met him … he was so different,” Agneskirchner said of the film’s most compelling subject, an Aryan-obsessed Israeli who works as a tour guide for Jews visiting Berlin. “I think pretty much in the first time we met … he told me the story that he would like to have an Aryan girlfriend every night.”

Eyal, the film’s other male subject, was chosen because he was new to Berlin and Agneskirchner wanted to follow someone who was still adjusting to life there. Yael, the third Israeli, who was raised ultra-Orthodox but left her community after divorcing her husband, had not been Agneskirchner’s initial choice for the female subject. But getting the project going took an extended period of time, and the original woman, named Ayelet, moved back to Israel; Agneskirchner recruited Yael through a second round of interviews.

Agneskirchner’s idea was to have the Israeli subjects of the film live together in an apartment for a couple of months — but not just any apartment, one that had been home to a Jewish family killed in the Holocaust. “The research took a long time … not to find the Israelis, that was fairly easy, but to find the apartment,” Agneskirchner said. She eventually chose one, and with it, the history of the Adler family, who worked in the egg trade. Her main challenge, then, became convincing the apartment’s current residents to move out for two months so she could film there. At first the family resisted, but Agneskirchner eventually won them over. 

The film’s three Israeli subjects were initially unaware of Agneskirchner’s central conceit. “They knew it was going to be an apartment, they knew I wanted to do a refurnishing, but everything else they didn’t know,” she said. Only after moving in did they learn that the apartment they were sharing once belonged to a Jewish family who’d been exterminated in the Holocaust.

The film follows the Israelis as they help furnish the Adlers’ apartment with objects similar to what was known, via inventories, to have belonged to the family. The trio learns about the Adlers’ life story and explores the history of Berlin, all while navigating their personal and professional lives in the city.  

The original Berlin apartment of the Adler family, refurnished according to the 1943 Nazi wealth assessment protocol, made prior to the Jewish family’s deportation and deaths.  

One thing that surprised Agneskirchner was how different the political views of her subjects were from one another. In one scene, the three debate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It was more or less the first day of shooting. … It was like dogs sniffing at each other. Do we like each other?” 

One of the film’s most powerful scenes involves Yoav, the Aryan-loving Israeli, walking the streets of Berlin wearing an SS uniform from a costume shop. Agneskirchner knew that Yoav wanted to wear the uniform, but she had no idea he’d actually want to go outside in it. “My plan was not going onto the streets. That was his wish, his very high wish. 

“I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen, and if it was really totally legal or not,” Agneskirchner said, given that Germany’s laws against anything Nazi-related are very strict.

In the film, the reactions of people on the street are fascinating, but it’s Yoav’s own words while wearing the uniform that are the most haunting. “And, well, not ‘the Jews,’ but some of them,” he says, “if given the choice to be victim or perpetrator, it seems to me, would know what to choose — perpetrator of course.”

Scenes like that with Yoav made it hard for some of the Adlers’ surviving relatives to watch the film, Agneskirchner said. The Adlers’ niece, who lives in Israel and whom Agneskirchner filmed both in her home and when she came to Berlin to be in the film, “was not too friendly with the three of them,” Agneskirchner said.

Agneskirchner is now an artist-in-residence at the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles, the former home of Lion Feuchtwanger, a German-Jewish intellectual and author who fled the Nazis and settled in Southern California along with his wife, Marta. The Villa is now owned by the German government and is used as a place for German artists to work on projects. Although those projects don’t have to be specifically Jewish, Agneskirchner’s current one is, as well. She’s working on a documentary about the famous 1978 miniseries “Holocaust,” which starred Meryl Streep, James Woods and Michael Moriarty, among others.

“It really changed Germany,” Agneskirchner said of the series. “It was the first so-called TV event. More than half of the German population saw it at that time,” she said. “The word ‘Holocaust’ was not common in German, we wouldn’t use it … we didn’t use it before that.”

It’s certainly surprising to Agneskirchner, who was born in 1960s Munich, that after a long career of doing nothing Jewish, she’s worked on two Jewish projects in a row. “I was editing the film [“An Apartment in Berlin”] with a Jewish editor,” Agneskirchner said, “and she grew up in Munich, like I did. We were of similar age. … We talked about us growing up … there were about 300 Jews living in Munich at that time; she knew all of them, I knew none of them.” 

Although many Jews today, particularly the older generations, still are uncomfortable traveling to Germany, Agneskirchner said she believes the growing presence of Israelis living in Berlin isn’t going away any time soon. “Nobody knows exactly how many are there,” she said. “Some people say there are 50,000 now, and it’s almost an aliyah to Berlin.”

“An Apartment in Berlin” will be screened at the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., on Tuesday, March 10, at 7 p.m. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Agneskirchner, moderated by the Jewish Journal’s Executive Editor Susan Freudenheim. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.eventbrite.com/e/alice-agneskirchners-an-apartment-in-berlin-registration-15794441600

In Sundance drama, Silverman puts her darkness on display


The Sarah Silverman that the world knows and loves is a loudmouthed, foulmouthed, ribald comedian who tramples on the boundaries of social decency with sharp purpose and uproarious glee.

The Sarah Silverman who stars in the domestic drama “I Smile Back,” which premiered at Sundance, is stripped of both bravado and joy. In the movie, which marks Silverman’s first starring dramatic role, she plays Laney, a deeply depressed housewife who veers into self-destructive behavior. She snorts coke in the bathroom, cheats with a friend’s husband while the kids are at school, sneaks vodka on the sly and even masturbates with a teddy bear on the floor next to her sleeping daughter. The portrait of Laney that emerges is intense, raw and disturbing. It is also unmistakably, recognizably Silverman.

At least partial credit for that insight goes to Amy Koppelman, who adapted the screenplay from her own novel of the same name, along with co-screenwriter Paige Dylan. Koppelman didn’t know much of Silverman’s comedy when she heard Silverman on Howard Stern’s radio show talking about childhood depression. Instinctually, Koppelman felt that Silverman would be a perfect match for the novel.

“I felt she would understand what I was trying to say in the book,” said Koppelman at a post-screening Q&A.

Sure enough, Silverman met with Koppelman and agreed to sign up for the movie.

Silverman has spoken openly about her own struggles with depression, including saying that she never wanted to have children for fear that she would pass her depression on to them.

That alternate scenario is, in many ways, what “I Smile Back” depicts. Silverman’s character, Laney, simultaneously loves her children and feels deeply unworthy to be their mother, a vicious paradox that deepens as she lapses and relapses into addiction.

Though the movie can feel like an unrelenting, and at times predictable, slog, Silverman’s performance is unflinching. Through a series of brutal scenes, often in long close-ups, Silverman portrays her character’s struggles with depression with an intimacy and subtlety that are both powerful and unsettling.

It would be inaccurate to say that Silverman disappears into her character, because  so many aspects of Laney are recognizably Silverman — the sensuality, the sing-song Jewish cadences, the theatricality, the unmistakable intelligence. At the same time, Laney’s pain and bleakness resonate so uncomfortably in part because they are so clearly Silverman’s own, unguarded by the brassiness, earthiness and, yes, the humor of her public persona.

Of course, of course, all the caveats apply: Silverman is not Laney, and Laney is not Silverman, and one shouldn’t confuse the acting with the actor. By her own account, Silverman has been quite successful in her own struggles with depression, and she is not an addict. The fact that Silverman, like many comedians, like many artists, like many people, has battled depression is not news. The relationship between comedy and suffering is complicated, and has been debated and dissected to death.

But the vulnerability and melancholy that Silverman displays in “I Smile Back” are so clearly authentic that one can’t help reevaluating Silverman’s comedy, too. In retrospect, that pain has always been there, hiding in plain sight.

The fact that she can either sublimate that pain into comedy or bare it in her acting doesn’t make either one inauthentic. It simply affirms the scope of Silverman’s talent as an artist.