September 26, 2018

‘Homeland’ creator to direct film on Israel’s rescue of Ethiopian Jews

Since adapting his Israeli show “Prisoners of War” for U.S. audiences in the form of the Showtime hit “Homeland,” writer and director Gideon Raff has seen his Hollywood career take off.

After creating the series “Tyrant” for FX and “Dig” for USA, the Israeli Raff has now sold a pitch for a film on Israel’s early 1980s rescue of Ethiopian Jews to Fox Searchlight Pictures.

According to Variety, Raff will write, produce and direct “Operation Brothers,” which will be based on Israel’s efforts in the ’80s to airlift Ethiopian Jews who were trapped in refugee camps and discriminated against in Sudan. Raff’s film will follow the story from its beginnings in 1977, when then-prime minister Menachem Begin ordered the Mossad to devise a plan to save the Ethiopians. It is unclear yet whether the film will depict either of Israel’s two biggest rescue operations: Operation Moses (1984 -1985 ) or Operation Solomon (1991), which combined led to the rescue of over 20,000 Ethiopians.

A French film from 2005 named “Live and Become,” which centered on a young Ethiopian’s journey during Operation Moses, won a Cesar award (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for best screenplay and garnered several other awards in international festivals.

Alexandra Milchan, who was an executive producer on the 2013 hit “The Wolf of Wall Street,” is set to produce alongside Raff.

Raff has been arguably the most successful Israeli crossover filmmaker in recent years, bringing Israeli and Middle Eastern themes and political issues into the Hollywood mainstream. “Homeland” and its progenitor “Prisoners of War” both involved soldiers who return home after being held captive by Islamists. “Dig,” which got poor reviews and was cancelled after one season, followed an American FBI agent on an archaeological mission in Jerusalem. “Tyrant,” which has reached moderate success, follows the son of a fictional tyrannical Arab ruler in a fictional Middle Eastern country. The latter two shows had to be filmed outside of Israel during the summer of 2014 when the conflict between Israel and Hamas flared up.

But if Raff’s new project succeeds, it might be the most quintessential Israeli work he has created so far.

Actress Shiri Appleby chats about Jewish influences and life on the small screen

It may sound surprising coming from someone who’s been acting on TV since she was a child, but Shiri Appleby (“Roswell,” “Life Unexpected”) insists she doesn’t watch much television. Nevertheless, Appleby found the lead role in Lifetime’s new series “UnREAL” — a scathingly satirical behind-the-scenes look at the making of a reality dating show — too good to pass up.

The series, which premiered June 1 to critical acclaim, casts the actress as the beleaguered, conflicted assistant to the producer (Constance Zimmer) of a dating show called “Everlasting” (modeled after “The Bachelor”).  It’s a job that requires her to lie to and manipulate the contestants for dramatic effect, which wears on her conscience.

“She’s very good at it, but she’s constantly struggling with the fact that what she’s doing is killing her on the inside,” Appleby said. “She’s one of these people that hasn’t found her place in the world. She’s not close with her family. She doesn’t have any real relationships. She lives in the back of the grip truck. This world is her family. It’s incredibly dysfunctional, and it makes her hate herself so much. But she’s found her community in this world and does what she can to take care of herself. She really thinks she’s doing the right thing.”

Appleby said she was drawn to the concept, which felt “really fresh” to her, and the idea that the characters are all “at odds with themselves and trying to figure out what they believe in and what their morals are.” She also loves that she only needs to spend 20 minutes in the hair and makeup trailer to play the unglamorous Rachel Goldberg. 

Appleby said that Judaism isn’t a focus of the show, but that Rachel is “definitely a Jewish girl.” 

“You see the relationship with my mother [Olive, played by Mimi Kuzyk], and in the second episode, I say, ‘Sheket b’vakasha,’ ” (Hebrew for “Be quiet”).

Appleby grew up in a kosher home in Calabasas, where her Israeli-born mother, Dina, teaches Hebrew school and her semi-retired father, Jerry, is a former president of their synagogue’s men’s club at Temple Aliyah. “They’re both really involved,” she said. 

She attended Hebrew school, became a bat mitzvah, and celebrated the Jewish holidays with her parents and younger brother, Evan, observing both her father’s Ashkenazic traditions and her mother’s Sephardic ones. “My parents spoke to us in both Hebrew and English,” she said.

Appleby said her Jewish heritage “gave me a strong identity growing up. I always really knew who I was and where I came from. … I knew what my morals were, [what] my values were and what was expected of me.”

Although she doesn’t keep kosher now, Appleby does celebrate Jewish holidays with her husband, Jon Shook, a chef, and their 2-year-old daughter, Natalie. “He comes from a nice Jewish family as well. That was important to me. There are so many challenges, it’s a lot easier when you’re of the same faith,” she said. 

It’s also important to her to pass down Jewish traditions to Natalie. “We’re doing Shabbat more and more now. Now that I have a child, I feel that it’s important to light the candles, have a family dinner. And getting her together with her cousins for Chanukah, that family experience, was amazing,” Appleby said, noting that she does the cooking for the family and Shook mans the kitchen when they entertain.

“Passing on the wisdom and the experiences that my mother gave me and being able to replicate that in my own way, and also share that with my mother, is lovely. I appreciate the way I was raised much more now that I’m a parent.”

Appleby is enjoying her life as a working mother, but she hesitates to bring her daughter to the set, even though she herself grew up on them. “Having been a child actor, I don’t think [the] set is a place for children,” she said. 

She started out acting in commercials at the age of 4, segueing to guest spots in shows such as “thirtysomething” and “Doogie Howser, M.D.” before landing her breakout role as Liz Parker in the teen alien drama “Roswell” in 1999. 

“I never really chose what I was going to do as a profession, which was a struggle I faced in my life,” Appleby admitted, adding that she began to enjoy it as she took classes and worked more. “Obviously, I’ve chosen it at this point. I was really good at it, and I was able to purchase my own home, not be dependent on anybody else. Being an actor is great, but it’s a challenge, and like anything that has great reward, it takes a lot of work.”

Her more recent credits include guest spots on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Elementary” and recurring roles on “Chicago Fire” and “Girls,” which she said has reinvigorated her career. 

But Appleby said she’s proudest of her work on “Life Unexpected,” a 2010 series on The CW, and of her experiences working with John Wells on “ER” and the late Mike Nichols on “Charlie Wilson’s War.” In the future, she said, she would love to do a period piece and to be directed by Steven Spielberg, Cameron Crowe and Richard Linklater. “I really respond to great directors,” she said. “It’s like when you’re playing tennis with a great tennis player. It makes you better.”

As for “UnREAL,” she had been optimistic about it getting picked up for a second season before it even premiered. “Since I did ‘Girls,’ I’ve been trying to make a conscious effort to do things that are riskier, and this show is that,” Appleby said. “It’s an exciting time for me, and it’s great to be putting something out there that I’m proud of.”

The show was renewed for a 10-episode second season early last month. 

Dustin Hoffman says it’s a great era for television, the worst ever for film

While television has never been better, according to veteran actor and two-time Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman, film has never been worse.

The star of the iconic Mike Nichols 1960s film “The Graduate,” who felt he was miscast because the main character, Benjamin Braddock, seemed to him appropriate for a WASP rather than a Jewish actor, observes that Hollywood is too obsessed with their bottom lines and budgets. He noted that “The Graduate” was a labor of love which screenwriters spent three years developing and took 100 days of shooting in a rather simple set.

The typical time for shooting a movie nowadays is only 20 days, which may be partly attributable to advances in digital technology, but may also be because of dwindling budgets per film to ensure that a larger number of movies get churned out.

Hoffman admits that in Los Angeles he felt encouraged to downplay his Jewishness, although he adds his non observant family did not emphasize being Jewish in the first place. He says the first time he became conscious that he was Jewish, about ten, he was tempted to go to a deli, buy bagels and decorate the Chanukkah bush with them.

“There was insidious anti-semitism in Los Angeles,” Hoffman told JC.com, and he looked forward to moving to New York at the age of 21. “New York was a town that had not had a face lift. It had not had a nose job.”

Hoffman’s first wife, Anne Byrne, was a ballerina of Irish Catholic extraction, and his second wife, Lisa Gottsegen, with whom he has been married for 23 years, has emphasized carrying on their Jewish tradition. Hoffman notes that the children have had bar and bat mitzvahs and they celebrate the holidays. He traces his love of herring and vodka to his Russian and Romanian heritage and adds, “I have a strong reaction to any antisemitism.”

He recalls being confronted in an upscale, pastry cafe outside of Hamburg, after visiting Bergen Belsen with a man screaming “Juden! Dostin Hovvman! Juden!” While the man was escorted out, Hoffman says he feels he should have gone up to the man and said, “Yeah? And? And? What of it?”

The dramatic ending of “Marathon Man” that had Dr. Szell, a Nazi dentist played by Laurence Olivier, falling to his death while trying to retrieve his diamonds, resulted from Dustin Hoffman’s refusal to shoot him point blank, as was written in the script.

He told JC.com, “I won’t play a Jew who cold-bloodedly kills another human being. I won’t become a Nazi to kill a Nazi.”

Hoffman hasn’t abandoned film as a pursuit, and recently starred in a film “The Choir,” about a director of a boarding school choir. He feels his having a leading role may be attributable to the fact he is already a big name, and laments that as actors get older, they are usually relegated to supporting roles. He said his role in “The Choir” should really be a supporting one, since it is “really the story of the boy.”

After 50 years in show business, Hoffman is still going strong. He directed “The Quartet” in 2012, about a group of retired musicians. He experienced disappointment when the HBO TV Series “Luck” was cancelled after its second season.

Dustin Hoffman says if he had not been an actor, he would have been happy being a jazz pianist, but he didn’t feel he was skilled enough to play professionally.

His Aunt Pearl told him that he should not try to be an actor because he was “too ugly,” and his mother suggested that he follow her lead and also get a nose job, reassuring him with “you’ll feel better.”

Mike Nichols asked Hoffman to give a screen test for the part of Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate,” after seeing Hoffman perform on Broadway, even though Hoffman confessed he imagined an actor like Robert Redford getting the role.

‘A Borrowed Identity’ an honest look at Arab-Jewish relations

It is one of the paradoxes of Arab-Jewish relations in Israel that some of the best movies on Palestinians as society’s outsiders are made by Jewish directors.

On the other hand, Palestinian directors frequently draw more balanced pictures of their Jewish “occupiers” than do some self-lacerating Israeli-Jewish filmmakers.

A case in point for the first phenomenon is “A Borrowed Identity,” which revolves around Eyad, a very bright Palestinian boy from a small West Bank town. He is offered a scholarship to study at the Israel Arts and Science Academy, a prestigious private boarding school in Jerusalem.

Eyad is reluctant to accept at first, but his father, who spent more than two years in Israeli prisons, is all for it. “You can be the first Palestinian to build an atom bomb,” he encourages his son. “You can be better than the Jews in every way.”

So Eyad goes, but the beginning is not easy. He eats and studies without companionship and some of his classmates openly make fun of his Arabic-inflected Hebrew accent.

A class discussion on who started the 1948 war proves awkward, and in another class debate, Eyad lashes out that even the most perceptive Israeli writers, such as Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, draw Arab characters as sexual fantasy figures or “signifiers of otherness.”

Finally, Eyad connects with two of his classmates. One is Yonatan, who is also an “other” because his muscular dystrophy forces him to navigate the school grounds in a wheelchair.

The other is the free-spirited Naomi, who introduces Eyad to Hebrew slang, and the two start dating surreptitiously.

When Naomi’s mother finds out, she is horrified. “Tell me you’re a lesbian,” she tells her daughter. “Tell me you have cancer, but don’t tell me you are dating an Arab boy.”

Eventually, Eyad leaves school, in part to allow Naomi to reconcile with her parents and also to pass a security check for a job in the army intelligence service.

He starts work in a Jerusalem restaurant and learns from a fellow dishwasher, an Arab, that only Jews can advance to the status of waiter. “The best thing you can do is to die and ask Allah to send you back as a Jew,” the dishwasher counsels Eyad.

Eyad’s complex character is impressively brought to life by Tawfeek Barhom, a 24-year-old Israeli-Arab actor. His love interest, Naomi, is played by Danielle Kitzis, who was born in the United States and later immigrated to Israel with her parents.

Director Eran Riklis, a mainstay of Israeli cinema for 30 years, has frequently focused his lens on Palestinian-Jewish Israeli relations, including such award-winning movies as “The Syrian Bride,” “Lemon Tree” and “Zaytoun.”

The original title of “A Borrowed Identity,” as well as the title of the book on which it is based, is “Dancing Arabs,” which might lead the unwary patron to anticipate an off-kilter musical comedy, akin to “The Producers.”

Riklis, in a Skype interview, gave a more sophisticated explanation for the title. “I see the story as a dance between identities, or, if you will, a dance of life, with two steps forward and one backward,” he said.

But, Riklis added, “The film is open to interpretation, as is life itself … this is a film about searching, and at the end everything is open, anything can still happen.”

Perhaps the most interesting character in the whole enterprise is the film’s writer, Sayed Kashua, who adapted the script from his own novel. His own life parallels that of Eyad’s, attending a private Jewish school in Jerusalem and later graduating from the Hebrew University.

He is known in Israel for his sharp observations in his weekly column in the Haaretz newspaper, and now in this country for writing the popular TV sitcom “Arab Labor.”

After making his name as a journalist and writer, Kashua startled his Israeli admirers last year by announcing that living in Israel had become “too much” for him and that he was accepting a job at the University of Illinois.

Riklis hopes that Kashua will eventually return but added a comment illustrating the complexity of Arab-Jewish relations. “Sayed is respected by the Jewish people,” he said, “but there are limits. We say to him, ‘We like you, but …’

“I am working with Arab people all the time, it’s easy to form relationships with them, but one missile strike can change everything,” Riklis said.

In a review of the movie, The Jerusalem Post noted, “Anyone who sees the film — Jew, Arab or someone from outside Israel completely — will be able to identify with the characters and to understand far more about the reality here than they could learn from any article or editorial.”

For the complete list of screenings, visit

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‘Chagall-Malevich’: A tale of love and art

A story of magical realism about a great love and two competing artists is told against the backdrop of World War I and the Russian Revolution in “Chagall-Malevich.” The film highlights the opposing artistic philosophies of the Jewish painter Marc Chagall (Leonid Bichevin), a surrealist painter known for his colorful, imaginative renderings of scenes from his hometown village, and Kazimir Malevich (Anatoliy Beliy), who championed the abstract, geometric style of painting he called “Suprematism.” More than 140 paintings by the artists are shown in the movie.

The project marks the return of noted Russian director Alexander Mitta after a 10-year absence from filmmaking. Loosely based on Chagall’s memoirs, as well as on those of his contemporaries, the movie begins in highly dramatic fashion as Chagall’s young, Chasidic mother is having a difficult time giving birth to him in the midst of a raging fire set by arsonists in the Russian village of Vitebsk. The whole village is ablaze as the young mother labors with the help of a midwife in a burning room, also occupied by a cow and a chicken, as the father, a pickle peddler, hovers in the background.

The baby appears stillborn, but his mother cries out, “Revive him!”  After the midwife dips the infant in hot and cold water, he begins to wail. The character of Chagall, as narrator, says, “The world was so magically bright, horrifying and beautiful that I started to breathe. And ever since then, that intolerable beauty burned within me.”

Decades later, in 1914, Chagall is painting in Paris, “the art capital of the world.” In his narration, Chagall says he and his friends learned to be artists at the museums and from each other.

At one point, he returns to Vitebsk and seeks out Bella Rosenfeld (Kristina Schneidermann), his future wife and love of his life. Although her father is not happy with her choice, she and Chagall are passionately in love and eventually marry. They plan to go to Paris, but their travel plans are disrupted by the war, so they settle in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), and they have a little girl. Revolution comes to Russia, and Chagall says he can’t paint with the violence all around them. They return to Vitebsk, where they reunite with Naum (Semyon Shkalikov), an old friend who is now Red Commissar of the town and who has always been in love with Bella. Chagall has a commission as Commissar of the Arts, and he establishes an academy. After being invited to join the faculty, the abstract artist Malevich challenges Chagall for leadership of the school. Through it all, Bella stands steadfastly by her husband.

Schneidermann, who is Austrian and half-Jewish on her father’s side, said she looks a lot like Bella and identified very closely with the character for several reasons: “We had quite a lot in common. The first is our languages. Bella knew a lot of languages, just like me. I know five languages and speak fluently in all of the five.” Plus, she added, “We both love theater and art. The third fact is that we love literature and writing, and everything that connects to that.”

Schneidermann also met Bella’s granddaughter, Meret Meyer Graber, whose blessing was crucial to getting the film made.

“That was an amazing experience,” she recalled, “and the most amazing thing that happened to me was that she called me her actual grandmother Bella.

“When we were sitting at a table, I sang the lullaby that I sing in the movie, and she cried and said that was the exact lullaby that her grandmother Bella used to sing to her when she was small. Meret said it was as if our souls exchanged, as if at moments she felt younger, and I in that moment, myself, felt older, like her real grandmother. So that was a very touching and amazing experience.”

As for the film itself, Schneidermann feels that, though it’s called “Chagall-Malevich,” it is more a love story about Chagall and Bella and a story about Chagall the artist.

“It’s mostly about this wonderful painter who influenced me and many people on earth, all around the world,” Schneidermann said.  “He was always in this magic world, which I think the director wanted to dive into and make the audience dive into also. It’s such a magic world of kindness. 

“If he was alive,” Schneidermann added, “I think maybe he would want people to get to know that he wanted love and peace to exist in the world, rather than bloodshed and war.  That’s mostly what I think he wanted people to see in his work, and I think that’s mostly what our director wanted to show in our film.”

“Chagall-Malevich” opens June 19 at Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills and at Town Center 5 in Encino.

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.

 

Bar mitzvah film school

Over the years I’ve attended several bar mitzvahs — most of them at the movies.

Not being Jewish, I’ve only attended one actual bar mitzvah — which took place during the Nixon era — and the only memories I have of it are eating Baked Alaska and trying to swipe whiskey sours from the bar. As a result, I still look to the movies to educate me on this coming-of-age ceremony.

One of the earliest films on the subject is a drama aptly titled “Bar Mitzvah,” produced in 1935. Although it was an American production, the entire film is in Yiddish with English subtitles. “Bar Mitzvah” stars Yiddish theater pioneer Boris Thomashefsky in his only feature film appearance. Thomashefsky, a Ukrainian immigrant, is credited with bringing Yiddish theater to America at the end of the 19th century, and with his wife, Bessie, founded the National Theater in what would become New York’s Yiddish Theater District.

The film, based on Thomashefsky’s play of the same name, tells the story of a woman thought to be lost at sea for 10 years who returns home on the eve of her son’s bar mitzvah to find her husband remarried, resulting in “shock, tears and laughter,” according to the National Center for Jewish Film. Largely uncirculated for years, “Bar Mitzvah” has been restored and is available on DVD.

Decades followed during which bar mitzvahs in movies were rare, if not altogether absent. And when they appeared again, they were often portrayed with satire, humor and an abundance of angst.

In 2006, British filmmaker Paul Weiland reveals his anxiety in “Sixty Six,” a “true-ish story” about his bar mitzvah. Set in 1966 London, Weiland’s film tells the tale of 13-year-old Bernie Reubens, a sickly nerd who feels he’s invisible to the world around him. When his rabbi describes Bernie’s upcoming bar mitzvah as “an epic two-day festival at which you are the absolute center of attention,” the boy becomes obsessed with making it the “ ‘Gone With the Wind’ … of bar mitzvahs.”

But Bernie’s elaborate plans are soon thwarted, first by his financially strapped parents — who have planned a much cozier event — and then by his fear that England will make it to the World Cup final, which falls on the same day as his bar mitzvah party (imagine trying to compete with the Super Bowl here in America). When the English team does make it to the championship, guests begin making excuses as to why they can’t attend his celebration.

Weiland decided to turn his childhood trauma into a movie after telling the story at his 50th birthday party, where his film industry guests encouraged him to do so. Helena Bonham Carter was so impressed by the anecdote, she asked Weiland if she could play his mother in the film, which she did.

The 2006 comedy “Keeping Up with the Steins” offers another angst-ridden tale of bar mitzvah planning, but this time, the parents are the ones with the grandiose aspirations. The film opens at Zachary Stein’s lavishly produced “Titanic”-themed party on a cruise ship featuring celebrities, a yarmulke-wearing killer whale, and the bar mitzvah boy making a spectacular entrance on the bow of a Titanic replica, proclaiming “Today, I am king of the Torah!” Determined not to be outdone by his professional rival, Hollywood agent Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven) vows to throw his son Benjamin “the biggest bar mitzvah in the history of bar mitzvahs!” Adam decides on a baseball-themed event at Dodger Stadium, with Neil Diamond singing the national anthem and Wolfgang Puck catering the bash with chicken paillard baseball mitts and sausage foie gras shaped like Louisville Sluggers.

But Benjamin wants no part of his parents’ elaborate plan. He’s more concerned with trying to understand the meaning of his Torah portion and overcoming his “haftarah phobia.” And while his parents are busy treating his bar mitzvah as a fierce competition, Benjamin prefers a more meaningful theme to celebrate his rite of passage — family. The boy nixes the overblown plan in favor of a downsized backyard event, serving mom’s matzah ball soup, grandma’s brisket and Neil Diamond performing “Hava Nagila.”

Benjamin’s “haftarah phobia” seems fairly common among 13-year-olds preparing for their big event. Another example can be seen in the 2000 comedy-drama “Keeping the Faith,” where a New Age rabbi (Ben Stiller) is helping an anxious boy prepare for his bar mitzvah. “I suck,” the boy declares about his singing, but the rabbi encourages him to embrace his “suckiness,” successfully boosting the boy’s confidence if not his vocal ability.

Austrian filmmaker Ruth Beckermann’s 2006 documentary, “Zorro’s Bar Mitzvah,” gives us an intimate and humorous look at four 12-year-old boys and girls, each from different Jewish cultures, preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs. The film reveals the behind-the-scenes anxiety and drama of these preparations, as well as an ambivalent view of Jewish traditions and their varied interpretations.

One of the most memorable bar mitzvahs in recent movies comes courtesy of Joel and Ethan Coen in their 2009 film, “A Serious Man.” Although the action takes place in a 1967 Minnesota suburb, much like the one where the Coens grew up, the story is not necessarily autobiographical. In fact the brothers’ original idea, as revealed in the film’s DVD bonus documentary, “Becoming Serious,” was to make a short film about a bar mitzvah boy who visits an aged rabbi. The rabbi was based on one the Coens knew, whom they describe as an “aged kind of sage who said nothing, but had a lot of charisma.”

Instead, the Coens developed their idea into a feature, with the bar mitzvah supplying the film’s climax. In order to keep things as authentic as possible, the Coens cast a real cantor as well as actual members of the Minnesota congregation they used in the film.

The highlight of the film is when Danny, the bar mitzvah boy, disoriented from having just smoked marijuana in the temple bathroom, gingerly makes his way to the podium. Once he reaches his destination, the zonked-out boy is stunned by the gazing congregation and by the long pages of Hebrew text sprawled out in front of him. Danny finally manages to pull himself together and complete his task. Afterward, he has an audience with the synagogue’s wise old rabbi who offers Danny words of wisdom, quoting from the Jefferson Airplane song “Somebody to Love.”

The Coens were concerned about how synagogue members would react to the unorthodox scene as well as their satire of Minnesota Jews in general. But they needn’t have worried because, as they explain in the DVD doc, “Everybody connected to the synagogue knew about the getting high scene, and they all had a sense of humor about it.”

So, what have I learned about bar mitzvahs from these movies? They can be diversely extravagant, intimate, competitive, stressful, comical, solemn or psychedelic. But invariably, the parties are a raucous festivity where each newly crowned Jewish young adult can proudly proclaim, “Today, I am king of the Torah!”

Natalie Portman to star as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in new movie

Natalie Portman will star as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a new film.

“On the Basis of Sex” will follow Ginsburg’s obstacles-filled career on the road to becoming the second female justice and the first Jewish female justice on the high court, Deadline Hollywood reported. President Bill Clinton appointed Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993.

The producers are hoping to start filming by the end of the year.

Portman, who is Jewish and a native of Israel, is making her directorial debut with “A Tale Of Love And Darkness,” which premieres next week at Cannes. The film is based on the memoir by Israeli author Amos Oz and is largely in Hebrew.

He witnessed — and filmed — the horror of the Holocaust

In early April 1945, Arthur Mainzer, barely 22, was a United States Army Air Forces cameraman assigned to documenting the war in Europe; he’d been serving for three years, and, so far, World War II had not been a horrific experience for him. In fact, it had been exciting. He’d had adventures, suffered no injuries and fallen in love. Already, the Allies were sensing victory, the Nazi military was clearly in its death rattle, and Mainzer was looking for the war to be over so he could marry Germaine, the French woman he’d fallen for, and bring her back with him to the States.

Mainzer, who is Catholic, was born in Canada, and when he was very young, his family moved to Chicago, where he grew up in a neighborhood with people of various races and religions, including Jews. As a youth, he kept up with the war news, and in 1942, soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces. 

He’d been a film hobbyist in high school, so the Army sent him to technical school in Denver, where he learned the ins and outs of film cameras. He was then assigned to a unit in Culver City, working on military training films with an actor named Ronald Reagan.

By November 1943, Mainzer was assigned to be a combat cameraman in Europe. There, in a film unit headed by Capt. Ellis Carter, he accompanied many bombing missions; archival footage of his unit’s work shows bombs, sometimes as tracer-like streaks of light, hitting — or missing — their target.

In June 1944, soon after D-Day, Mainzer’s unit filmed bombing runs in Normandy and beyond. In the spring of 1945, three weeks before victory was declared in Europe, Mainzer was called upon to handle a special mission: He and his superior officer, Carter, were told to drive deep into Germany to a town called Weimar, where, they were told, a nearby labor camp had just been liberated. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had ordered the soldiers in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army — who had entered that camp the day before — not to touch anything until the area was thoroughly filmed, and that was the job assigned to Mainzer and Carter. 


“It took a long while for me to get over this. It’s something you never want to see. … You never want to see again.” — Holocaust cameraman Arthur Mainzer

So the two, traveling by jeep, made the six-hour trip across Germany. As they drove, they talked about technical matters: They discussed how to handle their recently acquired 16-millimeter color Kodachrome camera, and they talked about their lack of a tripod, which would force them to do hand-held shots using heavy rolls of 100-foot film, whose weight would make it difficult for them to brace themselves.

On April 15, 1945, the two cameramen arrived at Buchenwald. Nothing could have prepared them for what they saw — and smelled and felt — when they stepped into the camp. Just inside, they were greeted by a large sign that read: “JEDEM DAS SEINE,” a German expression that literally means, “To each his own,” but really means: “Everyone gets what he deserves.”

In the film “Shooting War,” Mainzer is quoted on camera: “As a soldier in the American army, I had no knowledge of these [concentration] camps. I had not heard anything about it. It was horrible. There were bodies stacked up like cordwood.”

 

Mainzer, now 92, lives in Agoura Hills, north of Los Angeles, and his heart-wrenching concentration camp footage captured that April day and afterward went on to be used as damning evidence during the Nuremberg Trials. It has been archived by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Veterans History Project and has appeared in at least two documentaries: the recently aired “Night Will Fall” and “Shooting War” from 2000, both of which include on-camera interviews with Mainzer. A 20-minute YouTube clip of camp horrors that he filmed has been viewed more than 25,000 times.

Today, Mainzer is gentle, good-humored and still — as the Irish say — a fine figure of a man. He was friendly and forthcoming during a visit by a Journal reporter, but he suffers from the early effects of Alzheimer’s disease, which makes it hard for him to give coherent answers to questions. Fortunately, he also gave interviews years ago, some of which are in the public record, and those accounts, along with the interview done this past week by the Journal, provide a personal dimension to the shattering images he captured on film.

“There was an awful stench,” he told the Journal of that first shocking visit to Buchenwald. “I shot almost all the footage because Carter just couldn’t do it — it was too much for him. He was sick; he couldn’t stand the sight of it, so he loaded the camera, and I shot. I didn’t feel so good either, especially in the close-ups.”

 Scenes captured by young combat cameraman Mainzer immediately following the Allies’ liberation of Buchenwald

Mainzer’s footage shows huge numbers of dead bodies, skin-and-bone, piled haphazardly on a flatbed truck or lying on the ground. For each shot, he focused the camera on a single scene, as steady as he could for a long time, as much as 25 to 30 seconds for a single image. As the camera focuses on, or pans slowly across, bodies of people who have starved to death, 30 seconds can seem an eternity.

Then, often, the camera zooms in for a close-up. Even now, some 70 years since it was made, to watch the film is still unbearable.

Just as Mainzer was shooting, Eisenhower ordered the Third Army liberators to go into nearby Weimar and gather all the adult residents. In an interview carried out by the USC-Shoah Foundation, Leo Hymes, an American soldier from Idaho who helped liberate the camp, describes how he and his fellow GIs brought the local Germans into Buchenwald to witness what was there. “We marched everyone in that town through the camp, and we made sure they dug the graves,” Hymes said.

Mainzer filmed that event, too, in color. “German civilians from Weimar were paraded through a tour of the camp to show them the atrocities, to show them what the Germans had done,” Mainzer said in his interview in “Shooting War.” “Many of these locals wouldn’t even look at the … bodies. Some were crying or had their mouth and nose covered with a handkerchief. … In the film, you can see that they did this [only] because they were required to; they weren’t too interested in looking at the atrocity.”

“In my mind’s eye there’s an image burned,” Hymes said in the Shoah Foundation footage, “of this big, strapping woman in an SS uniform, with her sensible shoes, carrying this broken, naked skeleton of a body over her shoulders, with her mouth covered with her handkerchief as she takes this body to be dumped into the mass grave on top of thousands of other bodies.”

Benjamin Ferencz is a Jewish, Hungarian-born American lawyer sent by Patton to investigate Buchenwald after its liberation. He, too, was there when Mainzer was filming the camp. In Ferencz’s interview for “When Night Falls,” he says: “It was like peering into hell.” As an eyewitness to the horror, Ferencz would later serve as one of the prosecutors at Nuremberg.

There are images that, once seen, can never be unseen. Near the beginning of Mainzer’s YouTube footage, a dark-bearded man lies on the ground on his back, his head turned to one side. His eye sockets appear empty. His arms are placed over his chest in such a way that the fingers of his thin and delicate hands are laced, palms on his chest. A close-up of his forearm reveals a large “slave labor” tattoo: 126747. 

The camera pans across piles and piles of twisted, emaciated bodies. The effects of disease, torture and starvation are obvious.

In an interview for the Veterans History Project, Mainzer described the scene: There “were areas where bodies were stacked up; they didn’t have time to burn them or bury them because the Allies were approaching. The Germans were getting ready to cremate some, but they didn’t have the time; they could hear the warfront approaching, so the SS guys [who ran] the camps just took off.”

The footage also shows human beings barely hanging on to life, some dressed in the now-familiar uniforms with wide vertical stripes. One man holds his hands clasped in front of him, as if in prayer, but the gesture is clearly meant as a thank-you to the liberators. There’s also a young man, legs much too weak and withered to hold him up, leaning against a doorway. And there’s a 4-year-old child amid the silent color footage, trying to smile — but the only expression he can manage is tears.

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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.

Restoring dignity to eldercare

The footage was positively golden, and Dale Bell was savvy enough to recognize both its emotional — and purse-string — potential.  

Mildred Adams, a nearly catatonic woman, was brought to a Tupelo, Miss., Green House senior care facility. Within an hour of being checked in to her new home, she was sitting at the dining table, taking the fork from her son, feeding herself and singing. The warmer, homier environment made all the difference. In the nursing home where she had previously lived, Adams had not fed herself or engaged in any activities, and she had barely spoken for more than four months.  

Bell, the Santa Monica-based filmmaker who shot that footage in 2003 and who is a longtime advocate for improving eldercare, knew he had something special. He assembled the segment into a 25-minute clip and gave it to Dr. Bill Thomas, a New York geriatrician who was working to expand the progressive Green House model, which offers smaller, home-like environments as an alternative to nursing homes. Bell’s film was a key element in its success. 

“That moment, and everything around it, was so powerful that it helped Bill trigger a $10 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation,” Bell said.

The effects of that moment continue to reverberate, now on an even larger scale. Those 25 minutes are part of a new documentary, “Homes on the Range: The New Pioneers.” Bell, who directed the film and produced it through his Media Policy Center (MPC), is marketing the film to public television stations across the country. The goal is to have it air multiple times throughout the first quarter of 2015, including in May, which is Older Americans Month. 

The thematic terrain was not new for MPC. Bell and Harry Wiland, co-CEOs and co-founders of the nonprofit organization, previously made the 2002 PBS documentary “And Thou Shalt Honor,” about the challenges of caregiving. 

“Within the Jewish tradition, children care for their parents,” Wiland said. “We are looking at a future where this country is aging, and you can’t look away from that issue. How can we make caregiving more humane? That’s what Dale’s film is about.” 

“Homes on the Range” charts the efforts in Sheridan, Wyo., by the late Rev. Ray Clark, then-chairman of the Sheridan Senior Center; the center’s executive director, Carmen Rideout; and the community in general to become the first city in the United States to create a Green House from the ground up. From the facility’s conception to its 2013 opening, the endeavor took 12 years, and Bell followed the entire journey. (He noted that the 2014 Oscar best-picture nominee “Boyhood” was also “12 years in the making.”) 

“I made a promise at the time that I would follow their journey with my camera, wherever it led,” Bell said. “I think that the threat of my camera — or maybe it was the support of my camera — was one of those many motivators. They wanted to change. There was no question.”

Through the film, Thomas and other caregiving advocates contend that many skilled-nursing facilities across the United States are little more than places for seniors to be warehoused before they die. Nearly catatonic men and women share rooms with strangers, enjoy little privacy and receive insufficient attention, except when they are directed to the next activity: time to eat, time for your pills. 

The Green House model works differently, proponents say. Staff members are dressed informally. Residents are made to feel more like they are in their own home and can participate in tasks — such as cooking meals or gardening — as much or as little as they choose. 

“They can enjoy the sense and the hope and the dignity of being considered the human being that they once were,” Dr. Seymour Thickman, a physician featured in the film who regularly checks in on the residents of the Sheridan Green House, explained to the Journal. “They don’t feel warehoused, which is a common result of nursing home care.”

A resident of Sheridan for more than 60 years and one of the few Jews in this community of 17,000, Thickman has been talking with the local Department of Veterans Affairs to try to get that organization to consider Green House services for veteran care. Just as importantly, he said, communities across the nation should see “Homes on the Range” and realize that creating a similar model in their own community is possible. 

“There’s a whole new and appropriate philosophy for the end of life,” said Thickman, 91. “We have an acceptable and feasible way of providing this kind of care. It is possible, and it may not be wishing on a star.” 

Bell had a personal connection to the subject of aging and caregiving, as well as to the region. As a young man from the East Coast, he elected to spend a summer working on a ranch in Sheridan. During that summer, Bell was the driver in an automobile accident in which he and three passengers were injured. He said he still feels guilt over the accident. Many years later, Bell served as caregiver to his mother. Toward the end of her life, Bell’s mother offered a suggestion. 

“She held on to me, shook my arm, and she said, ‘You’re the filmmaker. One of these days, you’re going to do something with this caregiving thing like you are doing for me,’ ” Bell said. “Of course that was years earlier, and I had no idea what she meant.”

After devoting a dozen years and sinking his own money into what would become a hugely personal project, Bell takes pride in witnessing the course that “Homes on the Range” is taking. 

“I don’t think I have ever made a film as powerful as that first 25-minute Green House film,” Bell said. “In Sheridan, there are 70 people working on a hill, and 48 people being cared for in a way that cannot be imitated. … People see that film and they start writing checks.” 

Ariel Kleiman back at Sundance with feature debut, a dark drama

Sporting a droopy mustache and a sheepish smile, and dressed auteur-casual in a cloth jacket, rolled-up pants and work boots, filmmaker Ariel Kleiman’s appearance does not suggest the savage intensity of his films.

Kleiman, 29, who hails from Melbourne, Australia, made his feature film debut at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday with “Partisan,” a taut drama he directed and co-wrote about a miniature society that tries to barricade itself against the wider world.

The movie arrives highly anticipated after Kleiman won two awards at Sundance for a pair of short films, and a third for the script that eventually became “Partisan.” Already the feature has received two strong reviews from the respected trade publications Variety and Screen International, and was greeted with enthusiastic applause at the festival screening.

“Partisan” features the French star Vincent Cassel as Gregori, the charismatic leader of a clan of abused women and children, and newcomer Jeremy Chabriel as 11-year old Alexander, Gregori’s beloved adoptive son. Gregori has created a walled compound to protect the clan from the dangers outside while sending the children out to run assassination missions that are never explained. As Alexander comes to question Gregori’s unbending, authoritarian ways, their relationship starts to fray, turning into a high-stakes battle of wills.

It is an assured piece of work, willing to leave pieces of information ambiguous or unexplained, and allowing subtle moments to blossom in their own time. Kleiman himself is slightly less assured, asking a journalist to confirm whether or not a particular plot point is clear. (It is.)

“Partisan” was filmed in Australia and its exterior shots in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. In many ways it echoes Kleiman’s previous short film at Sundance, “Deeper Than Yesterday,” which was set aboard a Russian submarine. Both present claustrophobic, circumscribed worlds where the characters teeter between decency and savagery and the threat of violence always lurks.

Kleiman’s own childhood growing up in Melbourne was, by his own account, far milder, a fairly ordinary suburban life in a middle-class Jewish family. Both Kleiman and Sarah Cyngler, the film’s co-writer and Kleiman’s longtime collaborator and girlfriend, are descendants of Eastern European Jewish refugees. Cyngler’s grandparents survived the Holocaust in what is now Poland, while Kleiman’s parents and grandparents emigrated from Odessa in the 1970s.

Kleiman and Cyngler say it’s possible that their forebears’ travails and subsequent wariness of the wider society had a subconscious influence on their vision of a paranoid man at odds with a hostile world. But they point to other influences as well.

The germ of the story comes from an article they read about child assassins in Colombia. As the idea gestated further, they thought about the fable of the Pied Piper, who leads children away from the world and into his secret cave.

At the same time, they say narrowing the film to such a constrained setting — much like the submarine in “Deeper Than Yesterday” — has practical advantages as well, distilling the story down to its most dramatic elements.

Both “Partisan” and “Deeper Than Yesterday” are, at their root, explorations of man’s basic nature once the ordinary constraints of society have fallen away.

“I guess I’m really interested in animalistic behavior and moments when you catch totally sane people acting animalistically,” Kleiman told JTA. “For me, it’s so sad, it’s so funny, it can be tragic. It’s really fertile ground.”

Cyngler adds, “Maybe we’re just trying to know what the natural instinct of the human being is when they enter an extreme situation, wanting to know whether they’re naturally good or bad.”

The answers they provide are anything but pat. One of the film’s most striking and unexpected aspects is the genuine warmth that Gregori exudes for his family. Far from a cartoonish villain, Gregori clearly adores his charges, Alexander most of all. He tries to lead his band with patience and care, even as he trains them to be killers. Only when his authority is challenged do Gregori’s darkest impulses come to the fore.

“He genuinely loves these kids, and he wants the best for them,” Kleiman explained. “Unfortunately he’s incredibly damaged and seeing things through his warped vision. But his motivations are pure and parental, for the most part.”

Kleiman and Cyngler are uncertain what comes next. “Partisan” has not yet sold to an American distributor, and they have been so intensely focused on finishing the film that they haven’t yet begun to think about the next project. Kleiman says he’s “open to anything.”

“I’m not actually connected to why I’m making a film when I’m making it,” Kleiman told JTA. “It’s very instinctual. As we’re making it, some things feel truthful, some don’t, and we’re just following the most truthful path we can. And then maybe in five years, I’ll realize why I did that.”

Sondheim’s Freudian ‘Woods’

The movie version of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway classic Into the Woods, which opened in theaters yesterday, is much more than several interwoven, fractured fairy tales. It’s a thicket of symbols and themes that draw directly on the ideas and Weltanschauung of Sigmund Freud.

The central symbol of the movie is, of course, the Woods. They represent Freud’s Id, the primal instinct filled with sexual and violent urges. In civilization, the Id is at odds with the conscience – what Freud called the Superego. But in a primeval setting, the Superego doesn’t exist, or as Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine, whose grandfather was Jewish) sings, “Right and wrong don’t matter in the Woods.”

The story opens, of course, “Once upon a time,” in a small village at the edge of the Woods, thus teetering on the boundary line between civilization and chaos. The main characters enter the forest in search of their wishes: Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wants to attend the ball at the King’s festival; Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford – get used to hearing her name) wants to bring food to her Granny; Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) reluctantly prepares to part with his bovine friend to help feed his family; and the Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) seek ingredients for a potion that will convince the Witch (Meryl Streep, dazzling as always) to lift a curse that has kept them childless.

These wishes are each character’s “woulds” (Woods) – their visions of fulfilling their lives.

Freud actually had a lot to say about wishes. His The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) proposed that when the Id’s desires are repressed by the Superego and the Ego (the self, essentially), people can go through the involuntary thought process of “wish fulfillment,” expressed through anything from daydreams to fantasies to psychotic hallucinations – in other words, fairy tales.

The most primal moments in the movie’s Woods are disturbing, to say the least. Johnny Depp’s Wolf represents pedophiliac desire. His only number is “Hello, Little Girl,” in which he sings of the “scrumptious carnality” of the child and her grandmother. He’s clearly not hoping to just eat them. I mean, he literally offers Little Red Riding Hood candy!

After their encounter, the young girl describes her confused feelings (“excited and scared”) in her song “I Know Things Now.” Her almost Biblical ambivalence about her new carnal Knowledge comes right out of Genesis: “Isn’t it nice to know a lot? And a little bit… not.”

The Woods are also the site of a brief adulterous encounter between the Baker’s Wife and Cinderella’s Prince. As the prince departs with the royal equivalent of smoking a cigarette, the paramour he leaves behind regrets allowing the Woods to distract her from life’s responsibilities:

Back to life, back to sense, back to child, back to husband;

You can’t live in the Woods;

There are vows, there are ties, there are needs, there are standards;

There are shouldn’ts and shoulds.

No Freudian analysis of a work of art would be complete without reference to phallic symbols. Into the Woodshas two: Jack’s beanstalk (he describes a sexual awakening being brought close to a female Giant’s breast); and the tower inhabited by Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) as her own Prince (Billy Magnussen) woos her.

Perhaps for the first time in American history, our greatest living composer and our greatest living lyricist are the same person. Director Rob Marshall displays admirable talent in bringing coherence and beauty to a Sondheim show that exists on manifold levels, rich with symbolism and thematic complexity.

I know I’d be happy ever after if Into the Woods inspires many more movie musicals with fidelity to their source material that nonetheless explore the meanings of the stage versions even more intensely.

But is that likely to happen?

I wish.


David Benkof constructs the Jerusalem Post Crossword Puzzle, which appears weekly in the Jewish Journal. He is a frequent contributor to the Daily Caller, where a version of this essay first appeared. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Spotlight on Jewish characters in fall films

Few films with an expressly Jewish theme or Jewish characters are to be found this fall, but there will be some choice subjects onscreen.

“Sleeping with the Fishes” follows the exploits of Alexis Fish (Gina Rodriguez), daughter of a Latina mother and a Jewish father. Alexis is at a crossroads in her life. Disillusioned and virtually penniless after her unfaithful husband dies, she is working on a phone sex line and as a walking advertisement for an eatery. The death of an aunt brings her back to her Brooklyn childhood home and her controlling, critical Latina mother (Tony-winning Priscilla Lopez); her mild-mannered, understanding Jewish father, a dentist (Tabor Feldman); and her outlandishly offbeat sister (Ana Ortiz). At first, Alexis is desperate to hide the fact that her life is in disarray.

Writer-director Nicole Gomez Fisher said she wrote the film at a time in her life when she felt as lost as her heroine and acknowledged that the story is semi-autobiographical. Her father, a retired dentist, is a Polish Jew from Brooklyn, and her mother, who worked as his hygienist, is a Puerto Rican Catholic who converted to Judaism. Fisher said she and her sister were brought up Jewish. 

“We went to temple, we did our High Holidays, we went to Hebrew school. I mean, we did everything that the other Jewish kids did. We’re Reform, so it wasn’t as strict. We’re not kosher; we didn’t keep a kosher home. That would have been almost next to impossible with my mother’s cooking skills, and the other thing is that my dad was a little more lenient as far as not pushing us to have a bat mitzvah, because we really didn’t have such a tight circle of friends from the temple.”   

In fact, Fisher said, she felt somewhat rejected by both cultures. “There was less acceptance of mixed couples back in the day,” she said, “and because of that, and because of the conversion of Catholicism to Judaism, a lot of the kids at temple didn’t really see my sister and myself as Jewish people. They didn’t feel that we came from the background that they came from.”  

She added, “And because my mom made a choice, don’t ask why, to not teach us Spanish, when we were around our Latino family, we really had, sort of, barriers and walls up, because they didn’t accept us either, in a way, because we didn’t speak the language — we didn’t know the culture. We grew up with a completely different upbringing from the rest of my family. So, my sister and I always felt really confused and sort of left behind and had to make our way with a smorgasbord of different kinds of friends. It was hard.”

Nevertheless, Fisher finds much in common in the Latino and Jewish traditions.  “The similarities, to me, are going back to the family ties. Both my parents, there’s such a bond within their families. It’s the culture; it’s the food; it’s the insanely over-opinionated parents. It’s just the closeness, almost to the point of suffocating, and, at the same time, there’s just so much love and unity, at least from my experience. On the flip side, the differences, although they weren’t brought up often, when it did come up, it was striking.”  

Fisher said she wants her audiences to feel as though they’ve heard a different voice. “And then, of course, I want audiences to walk out and just feel like, at the end of the day, we’re all the same. We all universally have the same problems, the same insecurities, the same issues with our parents, and, really, it’s up to us to make that choice to turn our lives around.”  

“Sleeping with the Fishes” will be released on DVD Oct. 7


A cat-and-mouse negotiation in a Paris hotel between Wehrmacht commander Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) and Swedish Consul General Raoul Nordling (Andre Dussollier) over the fate of the French capital as Germany faces defeat is the focal point of the film “Diplomacy.” The movie is adapted from a hit play staged in 2011, and though the particular meeting depicted in the story is fictional, it is based on historical fact. As the Allied forces were about to liberate Paris, Hitler actually ordered that, if defeat was inevitable, the city was to be completely destroyed, and the Germans had explosives planted at key sites for that purpose.

Niels Arestrup as Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz in “Diplomacy.” Photo: Jérôme Prébois

Filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff is quoted in the production notes as saying the general and the diplomat really did meet several times to discuss an exchange of German prisoners for French resistance fighters and, at one meeting, “There was also talk of the beauty of Paris and the danger of its impending destruction.”

The two men wrote biographies in the 1950s, yet, the director pointed out, “As they include personal testimonies where each man seeks to make his role look good, or in the case of the general, to clear his own name, one has to take them with a grain of salt.”

For the film, Schlöndorff has created the device of a hidden tunnel, supposedly built by Napoleon III so he and his mistress could rendezvous in secret, by means of which he has Nordling appear suddenly in the general’s office.

As the diplomatic game proceeds, Nordling tries to appeal to what he hopes are aspects of the general’s better nature. But then it is revealed that the families of Nazi officers are virtual hostages in Germany to ensure that Hitler’s orders are obeyed to the letter.

At one point, Choltitz asks if he should sacrifice his child, whom he loves, to save French children.  The story then has Nordling use trickery to persuade the German to surrender and to spare Paris, which is, historically, exactly what the Nazi commander did. 

“The consul wanted to put an end to the war,” Schlöndorff said. “According to him, anything goes to achieve his aim and, by the way, the diplomats’ methods are hardly less noxious than those of the military authorities, although admittedly they are not as lethal. Therefore my purpose was to pay tribute to the courage, dedication and craft of this successful diplomat, the real hero of the film. He is the embodiment of human values which go beyond state laws.”

“Diplomacy” opens Nov. 7.


Another World War II movie, “The Imitation Game,” is the tale of British cryptologist, college professor and mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), who deciphered a seemingly unbreakable German code, aiding his country and the Allied cause immeasurably.

The film is leavened with flashbacks to 1927, when the shy, awkward Turing is an unhappy teenage student at a boys’ boarding school. His life is made miserable by bullying classmates, but is eventually brightened by an appealing, charismatic older boy and their mutual attraction. The older boy introduces Turing to cryptography, a process of writing in code, allowing them to communicate in private and keep their forbidden love a secret, until the boy dies of bovine tuberculosis.

Flash forward to 1939. Turing, still socially inept and isolated, is recruited by the Secret Government Code and Cypher School to join a team housed at Bletchley Park, and is charged with breaking Germany’s Enigma code. After writing to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Turing is appointed to head the team, which comes to include a young woman with whom he forges a close friendship.  Working alone, Turing builds a complex, huge contraption, a kind of primitive computer, but the Germans change the code every day, and so neither he nor the other team members have any success.

Suddenly, an accidental comment by a young woman working as a low-level decoder gives Turing the key to cracking the Enigma, thereby exposing the Nazi war strategies.

It is now 1952, and the police have come to Turing’s house after receiving reports of a possible robbery.  Further investigation reveals the fact that he is gay, a crime at the time in England, and Turing chooses a form of chemical castration over a prison term. Two years later, his faculties impaired by the treatment, he commits suicide.

Teddy Schwarzman, one of the film’s producers, said Turing’s life and accomplishments were the primary factors that motivated him to take on this project. “Turing not only cracked the seemingly impossible German Enigma code, saving millions of lives, but he also created the foundation for the modern computer. I found it fascinating that this man had such an enormous impact on our society, and yet, so few of us knew of him.”

The producer added, “Despite the prominence of computers in our daily lives, how many of us focus on the roots of computer science? Sure, many of us remember the beginning of the personal computer — the Commodore, the Apple II — but not many of us look past those, [and] if they did, they would find Alan Turing.

 Schwarzman said that there was no way to avoid the tragedy in this film.

“Turing’s prosecution, and that of so many other gay men, was terribly unjust, and all the more sad in Turing’s case for his death at age 41. That said, Turing left behind an incredible, powerful and positive legacy, and we are all indebted.

“Hopefully,” he added, “this film reinforces what we all accept today: that it’s OK to be different, to not conform, and to hopefully have enough strength and self-belief to tackle the impossible. You never know, you may just succeed.”

“The Imitation Game” opens Nov. 21.


There is little advance information about our final World War II movie, “Fury,” which stars Jon Bernthal and Shia LaBeouf alongside Brad Pitt as Wardaddy, a battle-seasoned serviceman who leads one final push against the Nazis. The time is April 1945, and the war in Europe is nearing its end. With only a Sherman tank and a crew of five men, including an inexperienced soldier, Wardaddy takes his troops on a mission behind enemy lines that is fraught with danger.  

“Fury” opens Oct. 17.


The case of a journalist who wound up being persecuted for writing an exposé of sordid activities by our government is recreated in “Kill the Messenger,” based on the true story of San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner). In the 1990s, acting on a tip from the girlfriend of a convicted drug dealer, Webb keeps digging in an investigation that takes him as far away as a prison in Nicaragua. He is bent on uncovering a plot by the CIA during the previous decade, which allowed the importation of drugs for sale in this country in order to raise funds to support the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. The contras were an alliance of factions aiming to overturn Nicaragua’s elected, left-leaning, Sandinista government. Webb writes a series of articles in 1996, titled “Dark Alliance,” detailing the CIA operation, which came about after Congress cut off funding for the rebels.

Jeremy Renner stars as dedicated reporter Gary Webb in “Kill the Messenger.” Photo by Chuck Zlotnick / Focus Features

At first, the reporter is lauded for his exposé, but, after intense character assassination by the CIA, aspersions cast on his journalistic integrity by competitors and denials by some of his sources, the accuracy of his report is called into question. Webb ultimately becomes a pariah and never works for a newspaper again. In 2004, he is found dead. 

“Kill the Messenger” opens Oct. 10.


Other films of interest:

“The Good Lie”: The civil war in Sudan, which dates back to 1983, resulted in thousands of orphaned youngsters who came to be known as the Lost Boys. Children from various villages join together to reach a refugee camp after their homes are destroyed and their parents killed. Thirteen years later, 3,600 of these orphans, a group that now includes girls, are resettled in America and must learn to adjust to a totally unfamiliar culture in the modern world. Opens Nov. 7.

“Foxcatcher”: Wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic Gold medal winner, is invited by multimillionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) to live and train at his estate for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. But du Pont is a psychopath who corrupts Schultz and ultimately murders Schultz’s brother. Based on real events. Opens Nov. 14.

“Rosewater”: Satirist and talk show host Jon Stewart makes his debut as a screenwriter-director with the film based on a memoir by BBC journalist Maziar Bahari. Bahari, born in Teheran, was living in London in 2009 when he went back to Iran to interview Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the main challenger facing the country’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After a protest erupted against Ahmadinejad’s victory announcement, the journalist sent film of the uprising to the BBC. He was then arrested, tortured and questioned for 118 days by a man calling himself, “Rosewater.” Later that year, Bahari’s wife headed a worldwide movement to free her husband, and the story was kept before the public through such venues as “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” where the journalist appeared as a guest after being freed from prison on $300,000 bail. Opens Nov. 7. 

WATCH: The first trailer for the movie Jon Stewart made last summer

A journalist is detained in Iran for more than 100 days and brutally interrogated in prison.

Israeli director Ari Folman’s new film ‘The Congress’ is visually stunning

Israeli director Ari Folman’s “The Congress” is “a visual masterpiece that will be studied and revered for generations,” one critic writes.

Another critic took a quite different view of the film, declaring, “Ambition outstrips achievement … [it is] a visionary piece of speculative fiction that drops the ball after a fine set-up.”

Folman himself has described the film as “a trip.” 

“We want to take you on this rollercoaster with Robin Wright. We’re going to break your mind. You’re going to enjoy it.”

Folman rose to international attention with his 2008 animated film, “Waltz With Bashir,” in which he chronicles his experiences as an Israeli soldier during the First Lebanon War, during the early 1980s.

The freshness and creativity of “Waltz” heralded the arrival of a major new talent, and this new film certainly validates that judgment.

“Congress” does not deal with the denizens of Capitol Hill, fortunately. While an examination of that august body might lend itself to some rollicking satire, this movie probes more deeply, more imaginatively and more fantastically.

Wright stars as herself, getting her start as an A-rated celebrity after playing Buttercup in “The Princess Bride.” But since her early triumph, she has gone downhill, slamming doors on promising projects with her often erratic and spiteful behavior.

She lives with her two children in a converted warehouse on the edge of an airfield. The youngest is the wildly imaginative Aaron, whose rare disease dooms him to an ultimate fate of total blindness and deafness.

Robin’s longtime agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), tells her that the only way she can prolong her career and pay her son’s medical bills is to sell “this thing called Robin Wright” to Miramount Studios (Miramax and Paramount, right?). Her entire person will be inserted into a light-festooned geodesic dome and scanned into a computer.

Then, as a never-aging commodity, she will appear in innumerable future films, but first she must sign a contract that she will never act again and never refuse a project conceived by the Miramount boss. Robin’s only holdout stipulation is that no film with her can depict Nazis or the Holocaust.

In the second half of “Congress,” Robin has aged 20 years and is sent to attend The Futurological Congress (the title of the book by late Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem on which this film is based). At this point, “Congress” switches from live actors to animated digital images.

Folman wasn’t kidding about blowing the viewer’s mind. For one, the film envisions technology advanced to the point where Robin can be turned into a chemical compound, which, when mixed with a liquid, can be purchased and imbibed by any customer who wants the thrill of living the emotional life of a genuine celebrity.

This miracle chemical has been developed by the Miramount Nagasaki Laboratories, and, merely by sniffing it, any John Doe can turn himself, in his own mind, into Clint Eastwood or anyone else he wants to be.

Along the way, cartoon characters stage a bloody revolution, demanding to be real humans again. We encounter Jesus, Michael Jackson as a waiter, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Picasso.

One of the risks in the film is that it will trigger sensory and mental overload, and “Congress” really needs to be seen at least two or three times to catch all its undertones and allusions.

The Journal had hoped Folman himself would explain some of the nuances in a scheduled face-to-face interview in Los Angeles, but he canceled this trip and any other contact after the Gaza fighting began.

For her part, Wright turns in a stellar performance, both live and animated, and supporting actors Keitel, Danny Huston as the studio boss, and Paul Giamatti as a psychiatrist add impressive turns.

“The Congress” opens Aug. 29 at the Sundance Sunset Theatre in West Hollywood.

Clandestine love affair fuels “My Old Lady” directed by Israel Horovitz

The painful rippling effects of a clandestine love affair are explored in the movie “My Old Lady,” which marks the film directorial debut of noted playwright Israel Horovitz, who also wrote the screenplay. The film is based on Horovitz’s play of the same name, which has enjoyed productions on Broadway and worldwide.

In a recent interview, Horovitz recalled watching a performance of “My Old Lady” in Russia and thinking that, onstage, the work is merely three characters in a room, so the audience doesn’t see anything of Paris, where the action is set. He decided that Paris should be more evident as a character in the story, and it was then that he began to imagine the movie.

“At the same time, I knew I was heading toward my 75th birthday, and I thought, ‘I really want to do something that scares the living hell out of me,’ ” Horovitz remembered. “I don’t want to just keep doing the same thing over and over — not that doing a new play isn’t exciting. Of course, it is, but it’s not terrifying. And so I thought about writing the movie and directing the movie.” The playwright worked on the film with his daughter, the accomplished movie producer Rachael Horovitz (“Moneyball” and “About Schmidt”). 

“I boiled my play down to its essence,” he said, “and that was an American guy who’s down on his luck, who’s alcoholic, estranged from his [now deceased] rich father, inherits an apartment in Paris, and he goes there to liquidate it, to pay off his friends and maybe commit suicide, who knows. He’s really in trouble.”

When the man, Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline), arrives in Paris, he learns he has inherited a viager, a property sold according to a common French real-estate arrangement through which the buyer of a house or apartment pays the seller, but the seller is allowed to continue to occupy the property, as a rental, until his or her death. Mathias discovers that his newly inherited apartment remains the residence of its previous owner, 92-year-old Mathilde (Maggie Smith), and her daughter, Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas). Having nowhere else to go, Mathias arranges to live with the mother and daughter.

“While he’s trying to sell his contract, he discovers that this old lady and his father were lovers over 50 years, and she’s the reason his mother committed suicide,” Horovitz explained. 

It soon becomes clear that both Mathias and Chloé were emotionally damaged by the liaison between his father and her mother. At one point, Mathias says, “Anytime anyone follows their heart, someone else gets their heart broken,” a theme Horovitz acknowledged is very much at the heart of his story.

As he discussed his film’s core issue, Horovitz was reminded of an experience he’d had years ago, in Florida, while sitting on a plane stuck on a runway. He found himself making conversation with the little old Jewish lady sitting next to him.

He asked if she lived nearby, and, when she said she did, he remarked that it must be hot in Florida in the summer. She answered that when her husband was alive, they used to go to Sweden in the summertime. Horovitz asked why they went to Sweden.

“She said, ‘Well, when my husband was alive, he won a big prize in Sweden.’ It was Isaac  [Bashevis] Singer’s widow. So, you never know who you’re sitting beside,” Horovitz observed.  “I kept in touch with her — her name was Alma.”  

He also learned about the backstory of the Singers’ marriage. “They met each other — they were married to other people, and they had kids. And they had this torrid love affair, and they wanted to get married. And they decided they would leave their spouses, but they’d also leave their children, that this love was taking them to a brand-new place. And so off they went, and they had their marriage.”  

According to Horovitz, the liaison between Isaac and Alma was irreparably damaging to the children involved. “Their story must have influenced me with this movie,” he realized. “I never thought of it before.” 

Although the film’s damaged protagonist, Mathias Gold, is Jewish, it’s not a factor that is particularly germane to the film. Horovitz said that, in the play, Mathilde talks about the Nazi occupation of Paris and what the Germans did to the Jews, but it didn’t occur to him to put that in the screenplay, which includes several new characters.

“It’s not hidden that he’s Jewish, it’s just not an issue in the movie. I’ve written tons of plays that are about being Jewish. I wrote a trilogy called ‘The Growing Up Jewish Trilogy.’ 

“I’ve written 70-something plays, so that’s not my only subject at all.  It’s a piece of that character the way it’s a piece of my life,” Horovitz said.

Even as he is making his film-directing debut with “My Old Lady,” Horovitz’s first volume of poetry, “Heaven and Other Poems,” is being published by Three Rooms Press. Among the advance praise for the poetry are statements by actors Kevin Kline and Dustin Hoffman, as well as writers Neil LaBute and Gay Talese.

 “My Old Lady” opens Sept. 10.

Showbiz meets shtetl: Helping Hollywood get Hasidim right

When it comes to Hasidic characters in movies, film consultant Elli Meyer believes that the real deal trumps a random actor in costume.

But that approach isn’t without its challenges.

Meyer, a New York-based Lubavitcher Hasid, recounted one occasion when he was hired to cast extras for a film but refused upon learning that shooting would take place on Yom Kippur.

“Who told you to hire Jews?” one of the producers said, according to Meyer, though ultimately the shooting was postponed.

Meyer is among a handful of Jews from haredi Orthodox backgrounds who have carved out an unusual niche in show business as occasional consultants on films and TV shows aiming to authentically depict Hasidic life.

These consultants often find themselves having to dispel misconceptions about Hasidim as they advise on language, costuming and plot, sometimes even stepping into rabbinic roles as explainers of Jewish law.

Meyer, 59, has been doing this kind of work for a decade. In 2014 alone he has acted in, consulted on or done casting work for more than half a dozen TV shows or movies.

He said he was motivated to get into the consulting business because he was appalled by the sloppiness of many depictions of Hasidic Jews.

“They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid,” he said of directors and producers in general.

Isaac Schonfeld, a graduate of Yeshiva Shaar Hatorah high school in Queens and an Orthodox Jew, has consulted on several independent films.

Most recently, Schonfeld consulted for the 2013 comedy “Fading Gigolo” directed by John Turturro, who stars as a novice prostitute being pimped out to female clients by a friend played by Woody Allen. One of the major plot lines focuses on a budding romance that develops between Turturro’s character and a lonely Hasidic widow who hires him as a masseur.

Schonfeld brought Turturro and several crew members to a regular social gathering he runs in New York called Chulent that is popular among many former Hasidim and others on the margins of the haredi world.

Other acquaintances of Schonfeld also helped with the film. One, Malky Lipshitz, contributed religious artwork and consulted with Vanessa Paradis, the French actress who played the Hasidic woman in the film. Others submitted voice recordings for actor Liev Schreiber to use to practice his inflection in his role as a member of a Hasidic community patrol vying for the widow’s affections.

Schonfeld pointed to one significant change that resulted from his advice. He said that Turturro had planned to name the Hasidic widow after a friend’s wife named Avital, wrongly believing it to be an authentic-sounding Hasidic name. Schonfeld noted that some people have a tendency to believe that Israeli and haredi names are interchangeable.

Schonfeld recommended similar alternatives that would be more plausibly Hasidic but would still accommodate Turturro’s attachments and artistic considerations. In the end Avital was named Avigal.

But the naming of characters was a minor challenge compared to another conundrum: finding a word for “pimp” in Yiddish to be used in a scene before a rabbinic court where Allen’s character is accused of providing a male prostitute for a Hasidic woman. Finding the one word, “alfons,” rarely if ever used in contemporary Hasidic parlance, required a significant amount of research on Schonfeld’s part.

When it comes to meticulousness, “Fading Gigolo” does not stand alone. “Felix and Meira,” a forthcoming independent Canadian film that follows a Hasidic woman from Montreal who engages in an extramarital affair with a non-Jewish man, also required significant research, consultation and visits to the haredi community.

Several former Hasidim consulted for the film in varying capacities. Rivka Katz, formerly a Lubavitcher Hasid, consulted on the script, while Luzer Twersky and Melissa Weisz, who attended Satmar Hasidic schools growing up, both acted and consulted. Twersky plays the protagonist’s husband and Weisz has the part of a Hasidic woman, a minor character in the film.

They pointed to the verisimilitude of a scene set during a Shabbat meal.

“The shtreimel [fur Hasidic hat] was real, the bekeshe [frock coat] was real, the chicken soup was real,” Twersky said of the scene.

Even though it was not shot on the actual Sabbath, the scene seemed so authentic that Weisz, who acted in the scene, said that on a visceral level it felt wrong to be engaging in un-Shabbat-like activity like filmmaking.

Afterward, when conversation turned to the movie, “I got mad,” Weisz recalled, “because they shouldn’t be talking about that on Shabbos.”

But film consultants do not always agree with one another on what makes for the most authentic depiction of Hasidim.

On Twitter, Twersky had criticized the 2010 movie “Holy Rollers,” starring Jesse Eisenberg as a drug-running yeshiva student, for its costuming choices and other issues. He tweeted: “guys with peyos don’t wear short suits and fedora hats.”

Meyer, who worked on the film, says he advises a “mish-mosh look,” piecing together the hat from one Hasidic sect and the side curls of another, unless the director has a particular sect in mind.

To Twersky, that was one of several of the film’s failings.

But he acknowledges that departures from authentic portrayals of Hasidic life are not always such a bad thing.

“We need to get over the fact that we don’t own the story of Hasidic Jews,” Twersky said.

He noted that artistic considerations often result in departures from reality.

“Nobody wants to see regular people doing regular things,” Twersky said. “That’s not a movie.”

Theodore Bikel’s 90th birthday celebration

How do you celebrate the 90th birthday of a man who has had a major impact on American film, television, theater, music and social activism?

By putting on a concert and inviting legends of folk music to perform, of course.

Theodore Bikel has turned 90, and as actor and the night’s master of ceremonies Ed Asner quipped, “Theo has done more in this past decade than most people do in a lifetime.”

Hundreds of fans poured into the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on June 16 to pay tribute to the great performer.

The night began with a screening of clips from some of Bikel’s most memorable film and television roles: an officer in “The African Queen”; the Russian submarine captain in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming”; Zoltan Karpathy, the dialect expert, in “My Fair Lady”; and a hilarious scene from “All in the Family,” in which he plays a German butcher infatuated with Edith Bunker.

Of his many roles, Bikel said in an interview, he has many positive memories — and some less-than-positive ones, including one scene from 1958’s “The Defiant Ones,” in which he played a Southern sheriff in pursuit of two escaped prisoners, a role that earned him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.

“We were traipsing around in a swamp, up to our knees in mud and slime, waiting for two Dobermans to sniff right. I thought, ‘What am I doing here? I’m a classically trained actor.’ It took two days and some of the night. But by and large, it was a wonderful experience of filmmaking and creation.”

But the Saban Theatre show focused largely on his musical contributions. Bikel co-founded the Newport Folk Festival and recorded more than 20 albums, including one called “Theodore Bikel Sings More Jewish Folk Songs.” As he took to the stage, Bikel launched into one of those songs, but first joked, “A friend of mine said it was a misnomer. It should’ve been called ‘Theodore Bikel Sings More Jewish Folk Songs Than Anybody.’”

For many Jews, beginning in the 1950s and ’60s and through to today, the Vienna-born Bikel has been the definitive voice of Jewish song and of the rebirth of Yiddish culture. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino remembers his parents playing Bikel’s Yiddish albums at night. “For my socialist Zionist parents, this was a bedtime prayer,” Feinstein said.

The folk duo Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer strummed their banjos, covering a Woody Guthrie song as well as a Yiddish song about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which killed 146 garment workers — a nod to Bikel’s long history of labor activism.

During a break in the music, speakers from The Actors Fund, Actors’ Equity and SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) praised Bikel’s leadership over the years in bringing fair pay to actors and performers. 

Musician Mike Stein remembered Bikel’s efforts to push the National Theater in Washington, D.C., to become racially integrated. 

“If there’s something we love about Theo, it’s that no amount of fame and achievement ever changes his fundamental mensch-ness. He remains one of us, devoted to making the world better for all of us,” Asner said.

A parade of fellow folk luminaries also took turns on stage: The venerable Tom Paxton led the audience in a sing-along of “How Beautiful Upon the Mountain,” taken from Isaiah 52:7, and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary delighted fans with “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Light One Candle.” Arlo Guthrie brought Bikel and the rest of the musicians on stage for a rousing rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.”

“Everybody up here, many of you, we sing for a living, we act, we do things that are important,” Guthrie said. “The most important thing for me is what it’s like to have an act of kindness done to you by somebody who’s well-known. It doesn’t happen all that often. Theo was one of those people you could count on. He is a kind man, and to me that is more important than all the other stuff.”

Composer and arranger Artie Butler took a seat at the piano to perform a couple of romantic songs, gently singing, “Here’s to life, here’s to love, and here’s to you.” Craig Taubman, well-known to synagogue audiences in Los Angeles, sang “Take your shoes off, you’re on holy ground.”

But the greatest crowd response was to Bikel himself, who received a number of standing ovations. He wore all black, including suspenders and a peasant cap reminiscent of the clothing worn by Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” a role he played more than 2,000 times on stage from 1967 to 2010, more than any other actor.

Despite his age, Bikel belted out song after song, pumping his fist in the air to punctuate the lyrics. The night neared a close with Bikel and the Greek-born tenor Alberto Mizrahi dramatically swapping lines in a Hebrew song about the rebuilding of the Holy Temple. And then, Bikel picked up an acoustic guitar and softly sang the Phil Ochs song “When I’m Gone,” a nod to his own mortality: 

“There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone 

And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone 

And you won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone 

So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.”

Even after Bikel is gone, his music will reach new ears. At one point in the evening, Rhino Records executive Mark Pinkus announced that the label would be releasing 12 classic Bikel albums on iTunes. “Theodore’s music was loved throughout the 20th century. We’re going to make sure people love it throughout the 21st century,” Pinkus said.

In the meantime, Bikel has no plans to slow down. He’s just released a new edition of his autobiography, “Theo,” with a chapter in which he reflects on turning 90. “It’s a fairly voluminous chapter. There’s a lot to reflect on,” he said. “A friend asked me, ‘Now that you’re 90, what do you have to look forward to?’ I said, ‘91.’ ”

He’s also taken to translating Yiddish literature, in an effort to connect a younger generation to the ideas of great writers that inspired him. And a documentary he produced and stars in, “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem,” based on his long-running one-man show, will premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July.

“I’m not the retired type,” he joked. But, there may be a moment of relaxation awaiting him. He said he and his wife, journalist Aimee Ginsburg, are heading to Europe for a river cruise next month. “That’ll be fun and restful. I can sit on a boat and contemplate the world as it passes me by.” 

Journalist Torgny Segerstedt speaks truth to Nazi power in Swedish film, ‘The Last Sentence’

The Swedish film “The Last Sentence” opens with a 1933 newsreel of Adolf Hitler strutting as Germany’s new chancellor and ends with 1945 footage of Russian troops closing in on the Führer’s bunker.

During those 12 years, as Hitler first threatened and then swallowed one European country after another, one Swedish journalist defied his government by relentlessly attacking the Nazi leadership from the moment it assumed power.

His name was Torgny Segerstedt, a theology student turned journalist and, ultimately, editor of a leading liberal newspaper in Gothenburg. On the day of Hitler’s ascension to power, Segerstedt wrote that the new German leader was “an insult” to his country and Europe.

Segerstedt kept up his barrage week after week, predicted that Hitler would plunge Europe into war and named his pet bulldog “Winston” in honor of Churchill, another early Nazi foe.

After a few more choice observations by Segerstedt, such as “the devil is synonymous with Hitler,” an enraged Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering sent a telegram to the Swedish prime minister declaring that any more such editorials would upend Germany’s “good will” toward Sweden.

The Swedish government was worried, but Segerstedt was not cowed. In one editorial, he denounced his country’s silence on the passage of the Nazi anti-Semitic laws, writing, “We are responsible for what we say and for what we do not say.”

Following the outbreak of World War II, German armies easily overran Denmark and Norway, while a third Swedish neighbor, Finland, battled Soviet invaders.

Seeing threats on all sides, the Swedish government enforced a policy of strict neutrality and introduced press censorship. Initially, the censors excised some editorials, to which Segerstedt responded by leaving the space blank; later the authorities would seize the entire run of an offending paper.

At the same time, the highest Swedish officials ratcheted up the pressure on Segerstedt. “Don’t drag Sweden into war,” pleaded the prime minister, noting that he was receiving reams of hate mail about the “Jew lackey.”

Finally, the journalist was bidden to an audience with King Gustaf V at the royal palace in Stockholm. “If Sweden gets into the war, it will be your fault,” the monarch warned Segerstedt, and when the latter tried to raise moral arguments, King Gustaf noted snidely, “We know why you are defending the Jews.”

Ah, the Jews again — how did they get into the picture?

The answer lies in the film’s alternative plot, which dilutes the straightforward story of one man’s moral courage in speaking truth to power into a rather soggier plotline of love and infidelity among middle-aged couples.

Segerstedt had married a worldlier Norwegian girl when he was a young theological student, but, in his late 50s, he became involved in an affair with Maja Forssman, the wife of his publisher and best friend.

A wealthy woman, Maja was also rather imperious (“I take what I want”) — and Jewish.

In the film, shot in black-and-white, Segerstedt is portrayed by Danish actor Jesper Christensen (“Melancholia,” “Nymphomaniac”), who bears a startling resemblance to the real-life character he portrays.

Segerstedt’s handsome, patrician face and bearing, on top of his intellectual gifts, made it quite understandable that, even in his mid-60s, he attracted women and reciprocated their affections.

The film notes that Segerstedt wrote 10,000 articles in his life and made as many enemies. His liaison with Maja (Pernilla August) handed his foes a handy anti-Semitic cudgel.

In a Skype interview, the film’s director, Jan Troell (“Everlasting Moments,” “The New Land” and “Emigrants”), turned back a suggestion that he had dragged in his protagonist’s love life to add some pizazz to the sober story of a journalist’s struggle against authority.

“I followed the biography and available material on Segerstedt closely,” Troell said. “We know that a man can be a hero in one aspect of his life but less admirable in another.”

“What is interesting is the contrast between the official persona and the full human being,” added Troell’s daughter, Johanna, who served as her father’s “adviser [and]go-fer” and plays a small role in the film.

In the film, as Segerstedt nears the end of his life, his one wish is to outlive his nemesis, Hitler. In the final days of World War II, it’s a close call, but, at least on the screen, Segerstedt gets his wish.

 

“The Last Sentence” opens June 20 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, and on June 27 at the Town Center in Encino and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena

‘Chef’ and the redefining of starving artist

Talk about food for the Seoul.

For decades, writer/director/actor Jon Favreau has been a staple in the film world, indie and beyond. All over the map, he appeared alongside Keanu Reeves in The Replacements and in other kooks like Daredevil, then turned around and directed the likes of Elf and Iron Man, leaving no waters uncharted.

But his 1996 breakthrough Swingers is responsible for launching him, alongside Vince Vaughn, into their celebrities today. Ripe with risk and resolve, Swingers is the cult classic that gave Favreau his early street cred. He wrote Chef in just a few weeks, about the same time he took to write Swingers, further mounting evidence that the most candid and sincere creations come from a free-flowing and unedited union of heart and mind.

He can also lasso a stacked cast — with Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. gracing the bill. But that the powerhouses have only minor roles embodies Chef’s courage and refreshing self-esteem, further contributing to its multifaceted authenticity.

Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) is a renegade in the culinary industry, respected for both his expertise and fearlessness in the kitchen. His top-doggedness comes complete with a lovable and loyal staff, and independence the rule of thumb in day-to-day kitchen operations. He makes a decent living as chef de cuisine at a Los Angeles restaurant, serving upscale comfort food to patrons the majority of which are happy to fork over an extra $100 to substitute the green beans for haricots verts. As par for the course, he has an unrealized relationship with his son (Emjay Anthony) and a suggestive one with his hostess (Johansson). He’s divorced to a Miami mami (Sofia Vergara), but she isn’t bitter and they remain friends. Things are fine.

Until the most respected food blogger in the city, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), writes a review as hurtful as his reputation is oxymoronic. He calls out @ChefCarlCasper for his unapologetic neediness manifested in a caviar egg “meant to impress the country club brunch crowd,” and posits that his “dramatic weight gain is best explained by the fact that he must be eating all the food sent back to the kitchen.”

Chefs, as all artists, are a sensitive people. Despite Carl’s intuitive backlash against serving the traditional menu Ramsey is ultimately treated to, which included fan-favorites French onion soup and a filet, rounded out with true-blue chocolate lava cake, he let himself be convinced by the restaurant owner Riva (Hoffman) to “play the hits.”

But Ramsey can’t be bought with uninspired plates of yesteryear, so up went the review and down went Carl. Tweets were catapulted, ganache lava strewn and publicists summoned.

Chef is a movement, an homage to a punk-rock mentality where the only way to create from a true heart without constraints of the corporate stronghold is to burn down the establishment and start again with the ashes. Only when you’re truly lost can you start to find yourself — and Carl’s rude awakening from his safe and half-hearted complacency finds him rubbing his eyes open to a versatile domain without those constraints, with the people who matter most.

Growing up in an Italian and Jewish family, the film industry veteran has early emotional attachments to the romance of food. His inspiration was born from the inherent similarities between the restaurant business and the filmmaking business. If ever there was a clan of artists who lamented the value of commercial success over creative fulfillment as much as filmmakers, it’s the chefs. What begins as a journey of constant discovery and endless opportunity for growth, be it in the kitchen behind a saucepan or on set behind a camera, is traded in for a repetitive, mundane ride on the respective industry’s Lazy Susan. As Carl bemoans his restaurant’s creative rut, citing a menu that hasn’t changed in five years, Riva — the owner, the bank, the one who finances the kitchens and saucepans and sets and cameras — has a responsibility to minimize unnecessary risks. He and most others in his position didn’t get to where they are by fixing what isn’t broken.

So offers Riva, “Be an artist on your own time.”     

But all professions are shackled to a bottom line one way or another.  For Favreau, the more poignant comparison is both fields’ total dependence, intrinsic and otherwise, on the preferences and whims of others for success.

“All of their (chefs) happiness is linked to other people, same with filmmaking,” he said during a recent Q-and-A at the ArcLight Hollywood theater.

One of the most intimate, vulnerable gestures for an artist is to show their work and ask for feedback. To witness their labors of love stand trial is to withstand a whirlwind of simultaneous thrill and terror; all validation rides on the verdict. Nothing else matters to them except conveying their vision — for them, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, the perceived silence burns the whole forest down.

Facing unfavorable verdicts along the way is inevitable, and overcoming an incinerated ego left in failure’s wake is not an easy or pretty feat, as demonstrated by the fallout of Carl and Ramsey’s physical and cyber food fight. But positive feedback and the feeling of resounding encouragement is a powerful drug, and when it comes, the grind is avenged and pain of the past dissipates into a purple haze.

“I may not have been the best husband, and I’m sorry if I wasn’t the best father to you, but I’m good at this. I get to touch people every day with what I do. And I love it.”

The self-aware yet idealistically hopeful Chef truly is a class-act. Favreau wanted the respect of the chef community, explaining that only a small niche need appreciate the efforts to make those efforts worth it. He knew he couldn’t bluff an art form as specific and honest as cooking, nor did he want to, so he decided to undertake the transformation from passive eater to well, active feeder. And who better to show him the ropes than local culinary royalty Roy Choi, the man behind the elusive, gourmet Korean Kogi truck and one of the founders of the celebrated food truck movement. Choi’s food first entered Favreau’s life on the set of Iron Man 2 — Hollywood foodie Gwyneth Paltrow had called in the Kogi to feed the crew, and Choi showed his taste buds no mercy.

Soon after, Favreau rode along with Choi for a night on the food truck circuit, a night Choi, who joined Favreau at ArcLight, described as practice rounds of drop off the money, pick up the laundry a la The Sopranos. He’d taken a bite, and the bite bit him. He decided the film was a go. Choi then sent him to an accelerated French cooking program and he worked his way up the line, until he could prove to master Choi he was the real deal. Every last crumb, shank, pickled onion and parsley snip pictured was cooked — and eaten — on set.

With Choi acting as chief consultant on all things kitchen — from food prep to line cook lingo (Chef is rated R for language, Favreau was told any movie about cooking that has a PG rating is bullshit), from farmers market etiquette to a chef’s tattoos, the movie captures the rich culture behind the seasonings. John Leguizmo as Martin, Sancho Panza to Carl’s Quixote, is a deliciously executed side dish, and Bobby Cannavale brings a toned-down though no less-welcomed version of Cannavalian flair.

So few movies have the attentiveness required to convey the heart of our day to day. Chef devotes itself fully to that attentiveness. Visibly excited to get back to his Swingers roots, in Favreau’s case, sticking to the traditional menu doesn’t disappoint.

‘Walk’ changes a life

For Aaron Wolf, an anecdote sparked a personal memory that inspired a film. The same day he read reflections by Rabbi David Wolpe about the Sinai Temple rabbi’s father, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, and about the kindness of a stranger, Wolf went to his keyboard and banged out the first draft of what would become “The Walk.”

“I tend to think very visually,” said Wolf, an actor and director as well as a writer. “I read Rabbi Wolpe’s paragraphs — maybe three brief, very cool paragraphs — and I said, ‘This has to be a film.’ ” 

And now it is. Clocking in at 20 minutes and starring Peter Riegert (“Crossing Delancey,” TV’s “Dads”) and newcomer Sawyer Barth, the short, fictionalized story received its Los Angeles premiere before a hugely appreciative audience at the Skirball Cultural Center. (At that same event, the filmmaker showed a teaser of his next project, “Restoring Tomorrow,” a full-length documentary about the renovation of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.)

From the Skirball, “The Walk” moves on to festivals around the country and in Canada.

“The Walk” hits close to home, the 32-year-old filmmaker said. Wolf drew on conversations he’d had with his own grandfather, Rabbi Alfred Wolf, when the two would walk in the hills of Los Feliz. Aaron was a boy of 8 when these walks/talks started.

“He loved taking hikes and being at one with nature,” Wolf recalls of his grandfather, who passed away in 2004 at 88. “We would talk about life, but I never felt like he was pounding me with information. I was his equal, and we were having conversations.”

Wolf channels these talks in crafting his tale of Danny (played by Barth), who, following the death of his rabbi father, returns alone to the synagogue where his father officiated. Danny is befriended by a goodhearted congregant named Alfred, who takes him into services and then returns the following day so that the two can walk to shul together. Danny’s apartment, Alfred says, is on his way.

“I don’t like to be alone,” Alfred tells the boy, knowing full well that companionship is what his new young companion desperately needs. Over the course of a year, Alfred and Danny share walks, food, stories and wisdom. The story has a heart-warming twist that will not be revealed here.

Wolpe, who is recognized as a producer of the film as well as its inspiration, says he was touched by the “bare bones” appeal of the film.

“It’s such a beautiful, moving and human story,” Wolpe said. “And it has a relationship that I thought felt genuine, and that was just a wonderful thing to see.”

Wolpe’s own story — recounted in his book “Why Faith Matters” — tells of how his own father, Gerald Wolpe, lost his father when he was 11. En route to the synagogue to say Kaddish, young Gerald encountered an older man, the temple’s shammas, named Mr. Einstein, who subsequently made a practice of walking with the boy to shul for the 11 months of his mourning. As in the film, Einstein told the boy his house was on his way. Years later, Gerald Wolpe introduced his first-born son to Mr. Einstein.

“The lesson of it is an old man sees a young man in need, and mentors him, and then, later, the young man goes to see him and presents him with his own child,” said David Wolpe, whose father died in 2009. “I think my father would have been thrilled to see that his story inspired this film.”

Following the Skirball screening, Wolf and Riegert shared stories of the film’s genesis. It was shot over just four days in and around Brooklyn. As if the challenges of shooting a low-budget independent film weren’t substantial enough, the crew worked around the tail end of a blizzard that dumped 10 inches of snow on the city. 

Riegert, who was sent the script by his agent, said he and Wolf discussed the project over dinner at an Italian restaurant in New York, and the actor admired Wolf’s courage as much as his writing abilities. 

“It’s not everyday that I get to play an old Jew,” deadpanned Riegert, who is doing exactly that on the Fox series “Dads.” “I was really flattered to be asked, and Aaron has got a very tasty look at life. It’s fun to meet new talent, obviously, so I’m hoping he’ll be running Paramount Pictures in three years.” 

When Wolpe recounts the story, he emphasizes the ripple effect of an act of kindness. 

“Because Mr. Einstein did [what he did], my father told the story. Because he told the story, I told the story,” Wolpe said. 

“Because I told the story, the film was made and other people will see the story. It’s a beautiful thing how such a selfless act can have endless ripples in people’s lives.”