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


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Producer Artur Brauner donates ‘Europa, Europa,’ other films to Berlin Jewish Museum


Film producer Artur Brauner, 97, a Polish-born Jew who made Germany his home, has donated 21 of his works to the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

Brauner handed over his original films to the museum on Monday.

Described as treasures of postwar German cinema, the films include “Europa Europa” (1990), which won a Golden Globe for best foreign language film. Many of the films are no longer publicly available.

Brauner, who escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to the Soviet Union in 1940, later settled in Berlin. He worked with such renowned actors as Romy Schneider, with whom he made the 1982 film “The Passerby” — her last film. This and “Europa Europa,” both dealing with Holocaust themes, were shown at the museum on Monday. During an intermission, Brauner discussed his films with visiting school groups.

In all, the film company Brauner created after World War II produced more than 500 films, and frequently employed directors who had fled Nazi Germany. Though he focused on the Nazi crimes early on, in such films as “Morituri,” reportedly the German public had little interest in this topic at first. He returned to the subject in the 1970s.

Brauner endowed the Artur Brauner Foundation in 1991 to promote filmmakers working on themes of interfaith and interethnic understanding. In 2009, he presented 21 of his Holocaust-related films to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and archive.

Prolific horror filmmaker Wes Craven dead at 76


Prolific horror filmmaker Wes Craven, who directed the slasher classic “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” died on Sunday afternoon, his family said in a statement. He was 76.

Craven, who was also behind the 1990s horror hit “Scream,” died surrounded by his loved ones at his Los Angeles home after suffering from brain cancer, the family said.

“It is with deep sadness we inform you that Wes Craven passed away,” the family said. “Our hearts are broken.”

Craven suffered from ailing health over the past three years, but continued to work on projects including several television shows, a graphic novel and a new film, “The Girl in the Photographs,” which is set to premiere at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival next month.

Craven, born in Cleveland, shot to fame, at least among horror film fans, with his first feature, “The Last House on the Left,” which has achieved cult classic status over the decades. He moved into film work after spending a few years as a college professor.

Other horror films also now deemed classics quickly followed, including “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Swamp Thing.” But it was with 1984's hit “A Nightmare on Elm Street” that Craven rose to the top of the genre.

The film, which cost less than $2 million, starred Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger, a clawed villain who torments a group of youths through their dreams, was a box office bonanza earning some $25 million, and spawned eight sequels, as well as a television series and novels.

In 1996, he struck box office gold again with “Scream,” another teens-in-peril slasher film which also satirized the genre. Craven directed three more “Scream” films over the next 15 years.

He broke from the genre in 2005 with “Red Eye,” a well-received airline thriller that starred Rachel McAdams.

Craven was awarded lifetime achievement awards by the New York City Horror Film Festival and the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, according to the Internet Movie Database.

Tributes poured in for the film director, writer and producer over social media as news of his death spread.

“Today the world lost a great man, my friend and mentor, Wes Craven. My heart goes out to his family,” actress Courteney Cox, who starred in Craven's 1996 “Scream” and appeared in the franchise's three subsequent films, posted on Twitter.

Actress Rose McGowan, who was also featured in the original “Scream,” said on Twitter: “Shedding tears now. A giant has left us.”

Paul Mazursky, filmmaker, 84


Filmmaker Paul Mazursky, 84, whose perceptive social satires explored the nascent sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s and created complex Jewish characters, died June 30 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of pulmonary cardiac arrest.

In his 17 films, released between the late 1960s and early 1990s, Mazursky sometimes  played the triple role  of director, writer and actor.

Most of his films earned critical acclaim, if not always box office success, starting with “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” and followed by “Blume in Love,” “Harry and Tonto,” “Next Stop, Greenwich Village,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Enemies, A Love Story.”

Born Irwin Mazursky in New York City, he was the only child of David, a laborer, and Jean, who sometimes allowed her son to skip school so they could watch double features together.

Between 2006 and 2011, this reporter sat down with Mazursky in his crammed Beverly Hills office for three extensive interviews, during which the filmmaker shared his unconventional take on being Jewish, his views on filmmaking and the human race, and his frustration at his inability to get financial backing for his projects during the last two decades of his life.

The self-described “wise guy from Brooklyn” was an outspoken atheist with a deep affinity for Jewish life and characters.

In his offbeat 2006 documentary “Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy,” Mazursky joined 25,000 Chasidim in the Ukrainian town of Uman to sing, dance and pray at the grave of the great Chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.

“I could never think like a Chasid,” Mazursky concluded after this experience. “But I learned tolerance and maybe affection for the Chasidim. They are real people, who can see light in the darkest things.”

The film’s title reflects one of Mazursky’s numerous sayings, namely, “It is better to wake up in the morning and, instead of kvetching, say, ‘Yippee.’ ”

Mazursky demonstrated his own ability to discern both light and darkness in the human condition in “Enemies, A Love Story,” based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. Its conflicted hero is a Holocaust survivor who comes to America, where he tries to sort out his relationships with his three concurrent wives.

Mazursky presented a different kind of Jew in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” starring Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss as a very wealthy and very Jewish Beverly Hills couple. The 1986 film was his biggest commercial hit.

But, by the late 1980s, a new corporate Hollywood and a new generation of movie goers seemed to have lost their taste for and understanding of Mazursky’s sly wit, iconoclastic world view and wry take on the human condition.

“I have five scripts in my desk drawer, but no one is willing to finance them,” groused the man who garnered four Oscar nominations for his screenplays and one as producer.

When asked about his outlook as a Jew, Mazursky told the Journal, “I feel Jewish as a secular Jew; I feel emotional about it, and I love the culture. I get angry when anyone says a bad thing about Jews.”

He expanded a follow-up question on his philosophy of filmmaking to talk about his view of life.

“All my films have been shaped by how I feel about life, for better or for worse,” he said. “I think life is a cosmic joke. I believe in the power of love, I think it cures, and the older I get, the less sure I am [that] I know what I know. I always derive an enormous amount of pleasure from the things that humans do that are surprising and touching and sometimes a little crazy.”

Mazursky is survived by Betsy, his wife of 61 years, their daughter Jill Mazursky, four grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Daughter Meg died of cancer in 2009. 

U.S. envoy to Libya killed over anti-Muslim movie


The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other American diplomats were killed, and the U.S. embassy in Cairo was attacked over an anti-Muslim movie.

Amb. John Christopher Stevens and three unnamed diplomats were killed Tuesday night in a rocket attack on their car in Benghazi, the White House confirmed Wednesday morning.

On Tuesday evening, Egyptian protesters climbed over the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, pulled down an American flag, and then tried to set it alight.

The attacks follow the release online of an Arabic translation of a movie directed by Sam Bacile, a 56-year-old California real-estate developer, titled “Innocence of Muslims.”

[UPDATE: More information on “Sam Bacile” here]

The two-hour movie, which according to the Associated Press cost $5 million to make and was financed by more than 100 Jewish donors, attacks the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, making him out to be a fraud.

The film was screened one time at a movie theater in Hollywood, Bacile told the AP.

Bacile went into hiding on Tuesday night, speaking to international media from an undisclosed location.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the attack. “The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind,” she said in a statement.

Director of anti-Muslim movie that sparked attacks on U.S. facilities not Israeli


The director of an anti-Islam film that helped sparked attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities is not Israeli as he claimed, a consultant to the film said.

The Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg reported that a Steve Klein, a consultant to the controversial film, “Innocence of Muslims,” and a self-described militant Christian activist in Riverside, Calif., said that the film's directo,r Sam Bacile, is not Israeli and that the name is a pseudonym.

Goldberg quoted Klein as saying: “I don't know that much about him. I met him, I spoke to him for an hour. He's not Israeli, no. I can tell you this for sure, the State of Israel is not involved.” Klein said: “His name is a pseudonym. All these Middle Eastern folks I work with have pseudonyms. I doubt he's Jewish. I would suspect this is a disinformation campaign.”

Meanwhile, a high-ranking Israeli official in Los Angeles told JTA Wednesday that after numerous inquiries, it appeared that no one in the Hollywood film industry or in the local Israeli community knew of a Sam Bacile, the supposed director-writer of the incendiary film “Innocence of Muslims.”

The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other American diplomats were killed at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and the U.S. embassy in Cairo was attacked Tuesday evening by angry protesters.

Amb. John Christopher Stevens and three unnamed diplomats were killed Tuesday night in a rocket attack on their car in Benghazi, the White House confirmed Wednesday morning. U.S. officials said that the armed attack on the consulate may have been pre-planned.

On Tuesday evening, Egyptian protesters climbed over the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, pulled down an American flag and tried to set it alight.

The attacks follow the release online of an Arabic translation of the movie. Media reports said it was directed by Bacile, who described himself as a California real estate developer. The two-hour movie attacks the Islamic prophet Muhammad, making him out to be a fraud.

The film was screened one time at a movie theater in Hollywood, someone identifying himself as Bacile told the AP.

Bacile said went into hiding on Tuesday night, speaking to international media from an undisclosed location.

Klein told Goldberg that I there are some 15 people associated with the making of the film, all American citizens.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the attack.

“The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation,” she said in a statement. “But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”

The Los Angeles chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Shura Council are scheduled to hold a news conference Wednesday to condemn the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and attacks on diplomatic facilities and persons in Libya and Egypt.

In Washington, CAIR’s national officials called on Muslims in the Middle East “to ignore the trashy anti-Islam film that resulted in the attacks.”

Dan Fogelman explores romance’s range in ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’


A couple years after his Reform bar mitzvah, screenwriter Dan Fogelman devoured Philip Roth’s controversial novel “Portnoy’s Complaint.” The tome was a gift from his cousin, Ken Gordon, now the editor of the Jewish Webzine JBooks.com, “a very literary guy who was my hero growing up,” Fogelman said from New York, where he was doing press for his new comedy, “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” 

“ ‘Portnoy’  was the first book I had ever read where I was laughing out loud. There was this kid masturbating into his sister’s bra, and I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe you’re allowed to write like this.’ ”

Coming-of-age stories also have graced Fogelman’s own comedies, which have ranged from the television pilot “Lipshitz Saves the World”; to Disney’s Rapunzel saga, “Tangled”; to “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” which explores romance as it manifests among three generations of characters.

Thirteen-year-old Robbie (Jonah Bobo) is enamored of his baby sitter (Analeigh Tipton), who harbors a crush on Robbie’s dad, Cal (Steve Carell), who, in the film’s central story line, embarks upon his own midlife quest when his wife (Julianne Moore) leaves him and he is thrust, clueless, into the dating scene.

Enter Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a lothario who takes pity on Cal, slaps him — literally — out of his despair, and mentors him in the art of seduction.

Fogelman — who sold the film’s screenplay for an astounding $2.5 million and is a top writer in Hollywood — comes off as modest and unassuming, as if he still can’t believe his own success.  One can almost picture him shaking his head as, after a bidding war, he recently sold a pitch for a Tom Cruise film to Warner Bros. for $2 million, plus $3 million more if the film gets made. Fogelman has a story credit on “Cars 2,” and reportedly netted $3 million for “Imagine,” which will be his directorial debut. And production just wrapped on “My Mother’s Curse,” inspired by a real road trip Fogelman took with his late mother from her home in New Jersey to Las Vegas, starring Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand.

Fogelman’s childhood in New Jersey, and particularly his bar mitzvah, helped jump-start his entire career. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1998, he loaded up his mother’s old sea-foam-green Nissan Maxima and drove to Hollywood, where he got his first job as a production assistant on “The Howie Mandel Show.”

“I wanted to take a crack at screenwriting, so I wrote a very autobiographical movie called “Becoming a Man:  The Horrifying Ordeal Otherwise Known as Robbie Levine’s Bar Mitvah,” Fogelman, now 35, said. “It was about a confused kid battling insane relatives and the fact that he might have an opportunity to get to second base with a girl at his bar mitzvah, which is haunting him and making him extremely nervous.” (For the record, there was no making out at Fogelman’s simcha.)

Dan Fogelman .  Photo by Henry McGee/Globe Photos/Zuma Press

“I wrote it hoping that maybe a Jewish agent would see it and identify and want to represent me.  And it actually worked.”

The bar mitzvah script not only got Fogelman an agent but also led to his writing job on the Disney-Pixar animated film, “Cars,” followed by screenplays for “Fred Claus,” Tangled” and, of course, “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”

“You spend your fair share of time in your 20s in Los Angeles just being out in bars and seeing guys have various degrees of success with women,” he said of one impetus for the film.

“Two-and-a-half years ago, I met my girlfriend and fell madly for her,” he said. “And in a very short period of time, I went from being single and alone to being in this exciting new relationship to watching it evolve quickly into one that was lovely and committed, but also facing the challenges that actually come from being in a relationship day to day.”

As Fogelman wrote the script, he said, “It was interesting for me to explore love from all the different ways people can feel it. We can all identify with the 13-year-old longing for someone older and unattainable, and the 17-year-old who is confused by impending adulthood, sexuality and emotions. And we’ve all been in the throes of first loves and in relationships that have gone off the rails and become stagnant.”

The fictional Cal re-enters the dating scene, after decades of marriage, by frequenting a glittering bar populated with almost impossibly good-looking singles.The film’s co-directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, intended the watering hole to be reminiscent of “whatever the bar is ‘of the moment,’ whether it be the Standard downtown or the way the Skybar was 10 years ago,” Fogelman said. “It’s the kind of scene where you’d have to put on nice big-boy clothes and be really sophisticated and sharp.”

Gosling’s character — with a six-pack so impressive his love interest, played by Emma Stone, remarks that he looks “Photoshopped” — was partly inspired by one kind of Los Angeles 30-something single. “In L.A., your progress into adulthood and adult relationships can get a little bit stunted,” Fogelman said. “My Jewish summer camp friends who stayed back East were on first or second children by the time many of my L.A. friends were just starting to get married. Things seem to happen a little slower out here — I don’t know whether it’s because careers take longer to get locked in, especially in the entertainment industry, or if it’s the culture, which can be flashy.”

His own success notwithstanding, Fogelman insists he’s a “pretty boring, regular guy.” His best friends remain his Jewish camp friends who have also moved out here.  And, like the nice Jewish boy that he is (even though he describes himself as “neurotic and overthinking”), he intends “My Mother’s Curse” as an ode to his late mother, Joyce, who died three years ago following surgery to remove a tumor.

Streisand’s character even shares his mother’s name, as well as the penchant she had for collecting frog sculptures; the character is also “obsessive about drinking eight bottles of water a day, Weight Watchers and has a group of yenta friends that she relies on heavily,” Fogelman said.

“The movie’s theme is, basically, when you discover that your parent isn’t just a parent, but actually is a human being who had a life before you — and the point that a parent realizes her child is actually a grownup, and you have to let them go a little bit.

“My mom and I were exceptionally close, and I really dug her,” he said.

“Crazy, Stupid, Love” opens on July 29.

Filmmaker puts JCorps in spotlight


In 2008, Adam Irving, a filmmaker and photographer, left his doctoral program in media studies at the University of Texas to make the transition from theory to practice. He landed in Hollywood with the dream of making films, but soon after his arrival found himself feeling unfulfilled by the vanity within the entertainment industry.

“Most of the work I do is serious, introspective documentary films about important issues — so overall, it’s very fulfilling — but there are aspects of my work, like working in reality television and doing model shoots, where I’m just making beautiful people look good,” Irving said.

Earlier this year, in part to connect with people who possess a passion for giving rather than a passion for being famous, he spearheaded the Los Angeles branch of JCorps, an international, nondenominational social volunteer force for young adults ages 18 to 28.

“I thought, what could be better than giving back and volunteering, which is one of the most selfless, fulfilling acts you can do,” Irving said. “It’s the polar opposite of chasing celebrities around Hollywood Boulevard.”

JCorps’ headquarters in New York provided some seed money, but Irving raised additional funds from family and relatives in his hometown of Toronto so he could expand operations even more.

Together with the chapter’s co-director, Rebecca Pasternak, he organized their first meet-up last September at the Midnight Mission shelter in Skid Row, where 20 volunteers fed 100 meals to the homeless. Since then, they’ve cleaned up beaches and sent packages to American troops. Earlier this month, they gave away clothing to more than 3,000 people at the National Council for Jewish Women Thrift Shop on North Fairfax Avenue, followed by kibitzing at Schwartz Bakery down the street. Each of the events is usually topped off with time to socialize over a meal at a local hangout.

Story continues after the video.

” title=”la.jcorps.org” target=”_blank”>la.jcorps.org.

Reitman follows heart to quirky ‘Juno’


When Jason Reitman decided to become a filmmaker, he was not only following the path of his father, producer-director Ivan Reitman, but that of his heritage as well.

“I think Jewish people are great storytellers,” the 30 year-old film director said. “Celebrating our heritage and our holidays has so much to do to with storytelling. We’ve survived so long, partly on our ability to tell stories. I love to make people laugh, and I’ve always had an attraction to telling stories.”

Reitman’s latest labor of love is “Juno,” a quirky, but sweet comedy about a “whip-smart” Minnesota teen confronted with an unplanned pregnancy.

“Well, it kind of caught me off guard,” Reitman said of the script by Diablo Cody. “I was in the midst of writing a screenplay when I was asked to read Diablo’s screenplay and I just fell in love with it. It was unusually written, very original, with characters I hadn’t seen before. About halfway through, I realized, if I don’t direct this movie I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life.”

“Juno” marks the debut screenplay written by novelist and blogger Cody, who first gained notoriety with her 2006 memoir “Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper.”

According to the film’s production notes, Cody wrote the screenplay for “Juno” while working as a phone-sex operator/insurance adjuster while living in Minneapolis.

“I love how original Diablo is, and we really get along,” Reitman said. “We kind of have a brother-sister relationship.”

The director and writer are already set to re-team for a second project; a comedic horror movie by Cody titled “Jennifer’s Body,” which Reitman will produce.

Originally, Reitman shied away from a film career fearing he would always be in the shadow of his father’s success.

“I always felt a sensitivity over being my father’s son and people feeling like the world was just handed over to me,” he told the Los Angeles Times in a recent interview. When he did finally decide to become a filmmaker, his father gave his blessing.

“He told me I needed to follow my heart,” Reitman recalled.

Ivan Reitman built his career as a producer and comedy director with films like “Stripes,” “Twins” and the mega-hits “Ghostbusters” and “Ghostbusters 2.”

Jason Reitman literally grew up on the sets of many of his father’s productions. In fact, he was just 11 days old when he visited the set of the influential college comedy “Animal House,” which Ivan Reitman produced.

Jason Reitman launched his feature film career in 2005 with the critically acclaimed dark comedy “Thank You for Smoking.”

For that, Reitman directed from his own screenplay, which he adapted from the 1995 novel of the same name, by Christopher Buckley. Up until then, Reitman had been making short films and entering them in festivals. When he was about to make the leap to features, Reitman naturally turned to his father, whose advice was “to trust my screenplay.” Reitman’s debut feature proved the young director as a talent capable of handling mature subject matter.

For “Juno,” his second feature, Reitman has assembled an exceptional cast that includes Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Michael Cera and, in the title role, 20-year-old Ellen Page. Reitman says of his young star, “I’d seen her in a movie called ‘Hard Candy.’ Anyone who sees that movie can’t walk away without being impressed with her.”

When he met the Nova Scotia native, Reitman was sold immediately. “I couldn’t imagine anyone else reading the dialogue,” he said.

Page and “Juno” have both received rave notices at festival screenings around the world, including the Rome Film Festival, where “Juno” won the Best Film Award.

One of the themes that runs throughout “Juno” is of family, a subject close to Reitman’s heart. When 16-year-old Juno tells her family about her pregnancy, they are much more supportive than judgmental, a reaction that Reitman himself might embrace if confronted with the same situation.

“My wife and I talked about it, and I think if my daughter came to me at 16 and told me she was pregnant, I don’t think I would freak out,” Reitman said. “I’d be heartbroken, but I imagine we would be supportive of her.”

Reitman’s own relationship with his family may have contributed to his insights in that regard. “My parents have been very accepting with me. I’ve never had any kind of problem with them.”

Unlike many Hollywood offspring, Jason Reitman was raised in a stable and loving atmosphere. “My parents have been together for over 30 years and are responsible for me being the man that I am,” Reitman said. “I talk to my father every day. He’s helped me become the person that I am.”

Reitman also credits his mother, actress and director Genevieve Robert, with contributing to his abilities as a director: “No one’s better at story telling than my dad and my mom.”

” target=”_blank”>http://www.foxsearchlight.com/juno/

Pat Sierchio is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America, West.

Books: ‘Primo Levi’s Journey’ traces the path of a survivor


“Primo Levi’s Journey” defies neat categorization. It’s part travelogue, part Holocaust remembrance, part philosophical reflection.

The documentary’s roots lie in the Italian Jewish writer’s long journey after his liberation in January 1945, from Auschwitz to his hometown of Turin on a train trip escorted by Russian soldiers for a 10-month zigzag course across much of Europe. It seems guided, or rather misguided, by an unknown hand and could have been mapped out by Kafka himself.

Levi and 600 other Italian camp survivors and ex-prisoners of war crossed from Poland to Ukraine, laid more than two months in Belarus, then traveled through Moldavia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany, finally reaching northern Italy thousands of miles later.

He wrote down the recollections of these wanderings in “The Truce” (published in the United States as “The Reawakening”) many years after describing his one year in Auschwitz in his major work, “If This Is a Man.”

In 2005, Italian filmmaker Davide Ferrario decided to mark the 60th anniversary of Levi’s liberation by retracing the route with a camera crew. Intercutting footage from the 2005 journey with Levi’s earlier observations on the same places, the film is disorienting in the beginning. Only gradually does it become clear that Ferrario is contrasting how much — and how little — has changed in the 60-year interval.

In the cities, Americanization and globalization have left their obvious marks. Intimate pubs, and corner stores have given way to McDonalds and supermarkets patronized by jean-clad natives and foreign immigrants. But, to his surprise, Ferrario found that in rural and farming areas, time has often stood still.

In Belarus, he encounters a perfect replica of the 1930s Soviet Union, as if preserved in amber. After being arrested as a suspicious foreigner, Ferrario is proudly treated by the local KGB to a grainy agitprop film of peasants celebrating the joys of working on a communal kolkhoz.

Old hatreds remain, as in Lvov, where young Russians beat a young singer to death for performing patriotic Ukrainian tunes, and in Munich, where neo-Nazis mourn the good old days.

Levi’s 1945 observation of a planet “that prefers disorder to order and stupidity to reason” seems as apt as ever.

There are some truly Kafkaesque sights along the way. In Budapest, it is the Cemetery of Communist Statues, displaying huge sculptures of Lenin, Stalin and muscular workers with a sign, “We accept credit cards.”

Like most Italian Jews, Levi grew up thoroughly assimilated and really awoke to his Jewishness only in Auschwitz. In one scene from his 1945 travels, Levi encounters two Yiddish-speaking girls and introduces himself as a fellow Jew. The girls reject him outright, saying, “You don’t speak Yiddish, you can’t be Jewish.”

When Levi returned to Turin after the war, he resumed his profession as a chemist, writing intermittently. In 1987, he fell down a flight of stairs in his home and died. The coroner classified the death as a suicide, though Levi’s family and some friends protested that he had died accidentally.

Ferrario believes that the writer took his own life, but, hesitating to use the word “suicide,” simply states in the film that “he threw himself down the stairs.”

Perhaps Elie Wiesel had it right, when, hearing of Levi’s death, he remarked, “Primo Levi died 40 years earlier in Auschwitz.”

“Primo Levi’s Journey” opens Nov. 2 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

Neil LaBute bears a heavy load


During one of many cringe-worthy moments in Neil LaBute’s play, “Fat Pig,” a cad chastises a co-worker for dating a plus-sized woman named Helen.

“I don’t understand you taking God’s good gifts and pissing on ’em,” the cad, Carter, warns his colleague, Tom.

Tom is handsome and successful, and Helen is simply considered too fat to grace the arm of a corporate player. It doesn’t matter that she is smart and funny — she is a “cow,” a “sow” or “off-the-charts gross,” according to office personnel.

“I’m not saying … that she shouldn’t meet somebody,” Carter adds, “but it should be a fat somebody, or a bald one. Whatever. Like her.”

The scene sports the kind of nasty, brutally honest dialogue audiences have come to expect from LaBute, a playwright and filmmaker who has been both lauded and reviled for his warped morality (some would say, amorality) tales. The auteur — who will turn 44 on March 19 — has been called a misogynist and a feminist, a moralist and a misanthrope, for cruelty fests that dissect gender politics and the slimier aspects of human nature. “I do like to poke my finger in a mess and see what happens,” he says, chuckling, in his West Hollywood office one recent morning.

“Neil is a button pusher, but he does explore the underbelly of us all,” says Jo Bonney, who directed “Fat Pig’s” successful off-Broadway run in 2004 and 2005 and will direct its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse May 11-June 17.

“You emerge from his plays praising him for the metaphoric slap in the face or simply wishing you knew where he lived, so you can hunt down the bastard and deliver a literal slap of your own,” New York magazine noted in 2004.

In person, the writer is a study in contrasts and contradictions. He is alternately mischievous and irreverent, imploring and earnest — but so charming, even endearing, that he seems likelier to elicit a smile than a slap.

Heavyset and bearded, wearing a red-checked shirt and a mop of black curls, he has the kind of friendly, rumpled appearance that would no doubt raise eyebrows among the image-obsessed characters of “Fat Pig.” Until recently he was a practicing Mormon, but he left the faith after years of conflict with fellow Latter-day Saints.

“My kids were raised in the church, and they hate almost everything I write,” he says, with regret.

Yet a sign in his office unapologetically proclaims the name of his company, Contemptible Entertainment, and the writer-director looks like a proud parent as he surveys the posters from “LaButeville” that cover the walls of the room. With relish, he notes that the largest image — the one closest to his desk — depicts the nastiest character he has ever created: Chad Piercewell from LaBute’s 1997 debut feature film, “In the Company of Men.” In that movie, the fictional Piercewell convinces a colleague to seduce and dump a deaf secretary as a symbolic act of revenge on all women — and for sport.

Other posters advertise LaButian fare such as the sexual musical chairs saga, “Your Friends and Neighbors,” in which a brute excoriates a lover for bleeding on his 300-count cotton sheets, among other not-so-friendly exchanges. “bash: latterday plays,” spotlights murderous Mormons; “Some Girl(s)” follows a soon-to-be-wed commitmentphobe who visits ex-girlfriends to “apologize” (and to seek material for his new book); and “The Mercy Seat” revolves around a man who would have died in the World Trade Center attacks had he not skipped work for adulterous sex.

“I wouldn’t necessarily want all these guys as friends,” LaBute admits. “They’re extremes; I often write in extremes.”

But then again, he hopes he’s not just a “purveyor of [grotesquerie] — that it’s not just, ‘I really like to see people suffer,'” he says.

LaBute prefers to view himself as a chronicler of transgression, and of how ordinary people can tumble into ethically questionable territory. He believes in what the late Holocaust scholar Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” and says he “ascribes to the effect that banality can have on an audience — that cool, calculated moving forward, one step at a time, until you cross the line. It’s the insidiousness of it, you know; it doesn’t take much to go there.”

As John Lahr once wrote in The New Yorker: LaBute “brings to his observations about human nature something that other contemporary American writers have not articulated with such single-minded authority: a sense of sin.”

To understand LaBute’s preoccupation with sin — and casual brutality — one has only to ask him about his childhood in a town outside Spokane, Wash. The model for many of his male “beasts,” he says, was in part his father, Richard, a volatile truck driver who infused the house with a sense of menace. The elder LaBute was also handsome, charming and seductive. But when LaBute’s father returned home, the writer recalls, “You never knew what would set him off, and it was that unpredictability that created fear.”

Occasionally the trucker’s tantrums escalated into punching or slapping LaBute and his mother.

“My father may well have been bipolar, and helped by medication, but he wasn’t someone who would have ever sought that kind of help,” LaBute says. “He was always a person who blamed the other party…. I know my father had a rough upbringing, but there’s always an excuse, unfortunately.”

Because LaBute’s home was “a tough house and a small house to grow up in,” he sought safe havens outside the family circle. He escaped into his school’s theater department — and into services and Bible study classes he attended, alone, at a nondenominational church walking distance from his house. “[The atmosphere] gave me a sense of quiet, of peace and especially of community — everything I had been missing growing up,” he says.

LaBute chose to attend the Mormon Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, because, “It seemed as far away as I could get from my father, not just geographically, but spiritually — a place he wouldn’t follow.”

Red diaper babies seen anew in ‘Commune’


It’s not on his resume, but filmmaker Jonathan Berman is really an anthropologist. Each of his three acclaimed documentaries, “The Shvitz,” “My Friend Paul” and his latest, “Commune,” is an examination of a small self-selected community.

“Oh, totally,” he said when asked if he sees these as ethnographic films. “I was working on the trailer for ‘Commune’ for YouTube, and I was thinking about how tribal and innocent it seemed.”
“Commune,” which opens Nov. 10, is a fascinating and frequently funny look back at the Black Bear Ranch, one of the most successful of the communes begun in ’60s America. Located in an abandoned mining area in the remote wilderness of Siskiyou County, Black Bear has managed to stay alive long after the word “hippie” became an antique.

Although Berman was too young to have experienced the hippy movement first-hand — “My sister was part of that era,” he said, laughing — he felt an instant affinity for the subject, in part because of his family background. Although he grew up in Merrick, Long Island, as a classic Reform Jewish suburbanite, Berman’s dad was a product of an earlier, tougher brand of Jewish activism.

“My father, Herb Berman, ran a local newspaper, the Brooklyn Graphic,” Berman said. “He was very community-minded. It’s a whole theme, the whole Jewish thing of people always looking for justice and utopia. He was always looking for tzedakah.”

The founders of Black Bear were, coincidentally, also pre-hippie utopians with a strong strain of Jewish radicalism in their lives.

“The first time I went up to Black Bear, I was struck by how familiar it all seemed,” Berman recalled. “Then I figured out — look at who the key people were: Richard Marley, half-Jewish, an ex-longshoreman from Brooklyn and labor organizer; Osha Neuman, Herbert Marcuse’s stepson and an East Coast radical; Efrem Korngold, whose father, Murray, helped found the L.A. Free Clinic; Harriet Beinfeld, who was an anti-war organizer. They were all red-diaper babies, interested in social justice, Jewish.”

They were also a little paranoid about being back in the glare of the media spotlight, even if the media in question was an independent documentary filmmaker and the spotlight was more like a flashlight.

“When we first got there it was [in the middle of] a reunion, and everyone was in a circle with someone blowing a ram’s horn — heck, it was a shofar,” Berman said. “And they immediately said to us, ‘Who are you? You’re the media. You’ll get it all wrong.'”

Given the coverage that such communities have attracted since the ’60s, ranging from active hostility to sniggering prurience, “They have good reason to be slightly paranoiac about the media,” Berman concedes.

But he stayed and stayed and finally was told, “You’re pretty good, you stuck around.”
The result, as in his first film, “The Shvitz,” a loving portrait of the vanishing world of the Jewish bathhouses, is an acute and sympathetic picture of a small but hardy group of people who come together as a self-created community in the face of the stresses of contemporary life. And, as in that film, Berman found himself with not merely a subject but also friends and, as he said with a chuckle, “co-conspirators.”

Much as the bathhouses have all but disappeared, most of the ’60s communes have faded from view. But there are still a few people up at Black Bear, the land itself is now in a perpetual trust and, most important, the animating spirit of the commune lives on in its now-dispersed members.
“Many of them remain activists,” Berman said. “Some of the families stayed in the area and became the primary motivators behind the Salmon River Restoration Council, which is a major environmental group up there. The ones who went back to the cities are involved in community organizing, public health work, legal aid work. There’s a palpable feeling of people keeping the faith even after they left.”

Berman feels a bit of that himself.

“To be frank, I haven’t even disassociated myself yet,” he confesses. “I have to move on to the next film. I’d like to move on to something else so I can come back [to the people from Black Bear] as a person, not as a filmmaker.”

“Commune” opens Friday, Nov. 10 at the Laemmle Grande Theater, 345 S. Figueroa St.

For information, call (213) 617-0268 or visit www.laemmle.com or www.communethemovie.com.


Click the big arrow to play the trailer for ‘Commune

‘Catch A Fire’ ignites filmmaker’s memories of anti-apartheid dad


Shawn Slovo remembers how her Jewish parents, African National Congress activists, left home in the middle of the night to attend secret meetings. She recalls police regularly raiding their Johannesburg house and arresting her mother and father. All the while, she said, she resented “having to share my parents with a cause much greater than myself.”

Slovo grew up to become a screenwriter who honored her parents (and exorcised childhood demons) through her movies.

After her mother, Ruth First, was assassinated by a parcel bomb in the early 1980s, she wrote “A World Apart” (1988) about their volatile mother-daughter relationship.

When her father, Joe Slovo, who was chief of staff of the ANC’s military wing, described the black freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso, she penned “Catch a Fire,” which opens Oct. 27.

If “A World Apart” is a tribute to the writer’s mother, “Fire” salutes her father — albeit indirectly — who died in 1995.The thriller recounts how Chamusso, a foreman at South Africa’s Secunda oil refinery, remained apolitical until he was falsely accused of bombing a section of the refinery. After he and his wife were brutally interrogated and tortured, the African became politicized and left his home near the factory to offer his services to Joe Slovo’s guerilla unit in Mozambique. Using his inside knowledge, he told the guerillas he could raze the coal-to-oil refinery and keep it burning for days. With Slovo he created his plan to sneak back over the border, with mines strapped to his body, to furtively enter the factory on a coal conveyor belt. Chamusso only partially succeeded in his mission; he was arrested six days later and spent 10 years in prison on Robben Island. But his solo act raised morale among blacks struggling to overthrow the apartheid regime.

“It sums up the spirit of Joe,” Slovo’s younger sister, Robyn, the film’s producer, said in a telephone interview.

Although Joe Slovo was one of ANC’s top leaders and a close friend of Nelson Mandela, “he was a man who more than anything was interested in ordinary people,” the producer said. “And Patrick Chamusso was an ordinary working man who was completely uninterested in politics until he was terrorized into action.”

The producer denies that Chamusso was a terrorist, or that “Fire” glorifies terrorism.

“There’s nothing equivalent in Patrick’s actions and events taking place in the world today,” she said. “Our film is about the struggle of a man to achieve the right to vote, and democracy in a police state that ran on race lines. It’s much more like the American War of Independence than the suicide bombings in the Middle East.”

Shawn Slovo believes the movie, directed by Phillip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger”), ties in to a filmmaking trend that would have pleased her father: The telling of an African story from the perspective of a black man rather than a white outsider (her father appears only briefly in the movie). Hollywood studios have released a number of such films this year, including Kevin MacDonald’s recent “The Last King of Scotland,” about Idi Amin. “Fire” has earned mostly good reviews, including one from the Canadian magazine Macleans, saying it “is certain to generate serious heat at the Oscars.”

For the screenwriter, the film is much more than an African espionage drama.

“The parallel for me is the way in which the political affects the personal, and how apartheid shattered and destroyed family life,” she said. “My engagement with the characters and the history has to do with my past, and my family’s past.”

In 1934, the 8-year-old Joe (born Yossel) Slovo immigrated to South Africa to escape pogroms in his native Lithuania. Four years later, he was forced to abandon school to help support his impoverished family, taking a factory job, which was where he first learned of the wage disparity between blacks and whites. He was further politicized while discussing Marxist politics with fellow Jewish immigrants who shared his ramshackle boarding house.

By age 16 he had joined the South African Communist Party and rejected Zionism in favor of his own country’s liberation movement. Even so, he considered himself “100 percent Jewish” and linked his work to the historical Jewish struggle for social justice, Robyn Slovo said.

At law school, he met First, daughter of Russian Jewish communists, and Nelson Mandela, with whom he helped found the ANC’s military wing in 1961. Slovo was abroad, two years later, when Mandela and others were arrested and sentenced to life in prison at Robben Island.Shawn was 13 that year, and she was desperate for her parents’ attention as her father vanished into exile; in retaliation for his disappearance, First was arrested and placed in solitary confinement, where she attempted suicide to avoid cracking under psychological torture. With her father labeled South Africa’s most wanted man and “Public Enemy No. 1,” Shawn was taunted at school, where even her Jewish best friend ostracized her. (Robyn and another sister were hounded as well.)

“A 13-year-old doesn’t understand politics; she just wants her parents,” the screenwriter said. “But I also felt guilty, because how could I complain about their absence when they were fighting for the liberation of 28 million blacks?”

After her mother’s suicide attempt, the family was allowed to immigrate to England, where Shawn Slovo insisted upon attending boarding school because she felt unsafe at home.

“It was also a rebellion, a reaction to the past turbulence,” she said. She entered the film business because “it was as far away from my parents’ work as I could get.”

During the rest of her childhood, Joe Slovo was mostly abroad in ANC training camps, reachable only through an intermediary or a fake name and address.

In the early 1980s, when she was in her 30s, she began to confront her parents about their devotion to politics over family. Joe declined to answer her questions, in his avuncular, matter-of-fact way: “His response was always, ‘This was in the past, let’s put it behind us and move forward,'” the screenwriter recalled.

‘Syrian Bride’ Weds Simple Tale, History


The guests at this Middle Eastern wedding were more mournful than joyous. But even more troubled was the Druze bride herself. All dressed up, she was stuck at a border crossing in the dusty demilitarized zone between Israel’s Golan Heights and Syria.

It wasn’t clear if she’d be allowed to cross for her wedding. And if she did, she might never see her family on the other side again.

Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis witnessed and filmed the incident, which became part of his 1999 documentary, “Borders.”

Now, the director has returned to this material in his searing, new feature film, “The Syrian Bride,” which is loosely based on that stressful 1998 day at the border. The film also confronts personal and psychological limits, especially those faced by women in traditional societies. And it’s generated controversy and won awards across many borders. The film will screen at this year’s Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles.

In the real-life episode, the bride from a village that became Israeli after the 1967 War was to marry a Druze from Damascus. The Druze religion is a medieval offshoot of Islam, and the Druze people have been divided among several countries in the region.

The bride’s listed nationality, like that of many former Syrians in the area, was listed as “undetermined.” This designation meant that once she crossed into Syria, she would never be allowed to return to her village; nor would her relatives be allowed to visit her.

Riklis lingered with his camera, hoping to shoot the nuptials. But the Syrian border official balked at the Israeli stamp on the bride’s passport, while his Israeli counterpart refused to erase the stamp. So the bride sweated for hours in the sun as her taffeta gown wilted.

“It was just a short sequence, but it obsessed me,” Riklis said. “It was the image of a bride in a white dress, in an almost Western setting, and having to deal with politics and bureaucracy, when all you want to do is get married.

“I quickly realized I had everything I needed to make a successful movie,” he added. “There was Israel, there was Syria and the people caught in the middle.

“What I’ve tried to do in all my films is to tell simple stories of simple people, set against the backdrop of local, regional and even world politics,” he said. “And this had all the ingredients to tell the story of the whole history of the Middle East.”

And that’s precisely what he attempts in his new, fictional work, “The Syrian Bride.” The title character is Mona (Clara Khoury) from the village of Majdal Shams, whose wedding day is the saddest of her life. Her arranged marriage to a Syrian actor, whom she has never met, will mean utter isolation in a strange city.

Her father, a recently released political prisoner, will be unable to see her off because he is prohibited from going near the border. Her brother, who was excommunicated after marrying a non-Druze, is also banned from the wedding.

Above all, Mona dreads losing her sister, the feisty Amal (Hiam Abbass), who is unhappy in an arranged marriage to a man who refuses to allow her to become a social worker. But while Mona silently broods throughout the film, Amal gradually speaks up, defying village convention, as well as bureaucrats threatening the wedding.

“Bride” joins the burgeoning trend of Israeli films — such as Amos Gitai’s “Free Zone” — that tackle Middle East strife through intimate human dramas. It won 16 awards on the festival circuit, making it perhaps the most honored film in Israeli history.

“It’s hard to imagine a recent film that presents a more nuanced portrait of Israelis and Arabs, of Jews and Druze, of their equal capacity for heartlessness and generosity,” The Forward said.

Riklis, who calls himself a “filmmaker without borders,” spoke to The Journal from the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba, where he was researching a movie on globalization. The easygoing director said he felt completely at home in the foreign milieu, having crossed borders all his life. The son of a scientist who worked internationally, Jerusalem-born Riklis spent his youth, respectively, in Montreal, New York, Beersheva, New Haven, Rio de Janeiro, London and Tel Aviv.

Attending an American high school in Brazil helped shape his world view in the late 1960s, he said in unaccented English. Israeli pride was high after the 1967 victory, but Riklis’ American classmates fiercely argued over their own Vietnam War.

“This opened my eyes to a more nuanced approach to world politics, and made me aware that there is always another way of looking at things,” he said. “That later shaped my approach as a democratic filmmaker who tries to show all points of view.”

To reflect his heroines’ viewpoints in “Bride,” Riklis said he sought “an open-minded woman with a traditional Arab background” to co-write the drama. Because the Druze do not have a tradition of theater or cinema, he was unable to find a suitable Druze partner.

Instead, he pursued Palestinian Israeli Suha Arraf, who grew up in a Christian village in the northern Galilee, worked as journalist for Haaretz newspaper and won kudos for her documentaries on Arab life. Thirty-six and unmarried, brash and outspoken, she refuses to make documentaries on subjects such as female suicide bombers because she perceives them as cliched — the kind of film critics might expect her to direct — and “I am not a puppet,” she said from her Haifa apartment.

Although Riklis had tactfully depicted Arabs in his 1991 soccer film, “Cup Final,” Arraf was initially cautious.

“I don’t agree to work with just any Jewish filmmaker,” she said, briskly. “A lot of Jews want to make movies about Arabs, and there are a lot of stereotypes.”

Actress Haim Abbass had an even stronger response: “I thought, ‘Who … is this guy who is so interested in such intimate stories of Arab culture,'” she said from New York.

Riklis won over both women by stating that he did not represent Syrians, Israelis or Druze, but rather the truth. He added that he wanted to tell the story because “everyone knows about the Palestinians, but few realize the Druze were also occupied in 1967.”

While Riklis researched the film by spending time in the real village of Majdal Shams, Abbass prepared in a more private manner.

“I found I identified with my character on almost every level — on both feminist and political fronts,” she said.

The actress had grown up in a traditional Muslim village near the Lebanese border. While her parents were modern, the villagers weren’t. Abbass was severely criticized for refusing to wed her cousin in an arranged marriage at 18, for smoking and for planning to attend university to study theater and photography, which was not perceived as a woman’s profession.

She also related to the fictional Amal because the border had separated her own family.

“I knew that my mother’s sister was in Syria, and that my mother and aunt could never see each other,” she said. “I grew up acutely aware of the exile and distance caused by war.”

Jewish-Palestinian hostilities eventually led Abbass to relocate to Paris, where she won roles in Arabic language films, such as 2002’s “Satin Rouge.” “The Syrian Bride” is her first made-in-Israel movie, although the dialogue is mostly in Arabic.

While Palestinians and Jews worked well together on the set, the movie initially drew ire from both Arabs and Israelis. Druze viewers resented the depiction of how their tradition treats women. A Palestinian director dismissed the movie as “an Israeli liberal token job” and all but one Arabic film festival refused it.

Meanwhile, Jews complained that the Israeli characters are villainous. (Riklis insists they’re well-rounded border types.) The film became a critical and commercial success in Israel only after it won accolades and audiences in Europe; even so, it did not win a single Israeli Oscar.

Riklis said he wasn’t upset about the Oscars, because “Bride” has proven its universal appeal. Although inspired by that 1998 Druze wedding, “the movie transcends geography, because its really about all people at a crossroads, living with physical and emotional borders.”

 

‘Protocols’ Exposes Ugly Legacy of Lies


Not long after Sept. 11, an Egyptian cab driver in New York told filmmaker Marc Levin, whose documentary “Protocols of Zion” is being released Friday in Los Angeles, the act of terrorism was caused by Jews rather than by Muslim fundamentalists.

No Jews had died in the attack, the cabbie said. They all had been warned in advance to stay away, part of the Jewish plan for world domination as spelled out in the “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

This encounter opened Levin’s eyes to the resilience of the fraudulent “Protocols” and ultimately prompted him to make his new documentary “The Protocols of Zion,” which inevitably examines the staying power of anti-Semitism as well as this notorious artifact.

Levin was stunned by his encounter with the cabbie. A child of the 1960s who gobbled up Kennedy-conspiracy and other sinister theories, he remembered when he was first introduced to the “Protocols.”

“Someone gave it to me as ancient history saying, ‘You need to read this because it’s the greatest comic book of conspiracy thinking,'” he said. He never imagined that 40 years later he’d be “going down the streets of New York and people would say this is alive and well” — not to mention factual.

Levin said evidence points to agents of czarist Russia as creating and first publishing the anti-Semitic “Protocols” in 1905, a time of civil unrest in a country with a long history of animosity toward Jews. It purported to be an account of a meeting by Jewish elders on their secret plans for world domination. It attracted a following in Europe, including Hitler. In 1920, American industrialist Henry Ford translated it into English and offered it free with new cars.

Like many others, the 54-year-old Levin figured the hard lessons of the Holocaust had wiped out the book’s following — as well as the world’s taste for lies about Jews. But intrigued by the cabbie, he discovered that both the “Protocols” and the “no Jews died in 9/11” slurs had a strong following in an Arab/Muslim world shocked by the impact of Sept. 11 and already inflamed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He found “Protocols” also had a following among some Arab Americans as well as among some American black nationalists and white supremacists.

Indeed, Egyptian and Hezbollah TV each have broadcast miniseries since Sept. 11 based on the “Protocols” to millions of Arabs and Muslims during Ramadan. And Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group, incorporated a belief in the “Protocols” into its charter.

Levin’s “Protocols of Zion” has the style of a first-person essay and intersperses scenes of humor amid the chilling revelations — as when a street fanatic decries Mayor “Jew-liani.” It’s stylistically akin to Michael Moore films, in which the director’s journey is part of the experience.

Levin patiently confronts those who espouse the “Protocols” as truth and tries to reason with them. He also movingly disproves the “no Jews died in Sept. 11” falsity. At the same time, he consults with his aging father, a former labor organizer who had taken him to the 1963 March on Washington, wondering what is happening in the world.

The filmmaker also broaches sensitive issues beyond the “Protocols,” such as the blaming of Jews for the death of Jesus. In “Protocols,” Levin is shown on the phone trying to persuade several Jews in the entertainment industry to watch Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and talk about it. He gets the runaround.

“Marc Levin is a truth seeker and courageously rushes past taboos and PC language to deliver a scary, human and often funny film,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “One other important fact he discovered is how unavailable too many Jews in Hollywood are to confront the uncomfortable new-old phenomenon of anti-Semitism.”

The film is both shocking and important, said Alison Mayersohn, senior associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s L.A. office: “Here we are, it’s the 21st century, and people believe this again — or still.”

A New Jersey-raised New Yorker who considers himself a secular Jew, Levin has had a long and wide-ranging filmmaking career. He has been especially interested in racial and cultural topics. His dramatic feature “Slam,” about a rap poet’s life amid mean streets and prison, won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. His “Twilight: Los Angeles” was an adaptation of Anna Deavere Smith’s play about the 1992 L.A. riots.

As a result, Levin has a certain street credibility and hip-hop-informed savvy. But that hasn’t won over black nationalist Eric Ture Muhammad, executive director of the Black African Holocaust Council, who attended a recent screening in New York.

“I have no proof,” he was reported in the New York Observer as saying about the “Protocols,” “that it’s a fabrication. I’m not here to say that I believe in it. However, it is uncanny how so many similarities in terms of what we see in the world today fit those ‘Protocols.'”

Reached by telephone, Muhammad said he takes issue with the movie for failing to refute the Protocols, point by point. He said it’s more accurate to describe Levin’s work as a film essay about discovering anti-Semitism in a post-Sept. 11 world.

“I’m for proving or disproving the facts behind anything,” Muhammad told The Journal. “If the Protocols are a forgery, we’ll all celebrate. If it’s true, that’s something to be dealt with.”

It is just such a mindset that intrigued and disquieted Levin in the first place — that an articulate, educated observer could find the Protocols to be plausible, even when Jews, not to mention reputable historians, can immediately spot the forgery as transparently ridiculous and fraudulent.

In Los Angeles for recent interviews, Levin is aware of a certain disconnect in talking about his film’s troubling subject in such a place as the dining room of Beverly Hills’ Le Meridien hotel. It’s tempting to think the whole world — certainly the whole country — must be as secure and accepting of him, his work, and of Jews. And yet Levin no longer takes such things for granted.

“Before Sept. 11, I didn’t give a lot of thought to these subjects,” he said. “One thing I can say for sure after making this film is that I’m much more mindful than I ever was. I have come to subscribe to the theory that when there are traumatic world-changing events there’s almost this default setting, certainly in the West and now we see the Muslim world adopting it, to blame the Jews. It’s almost built into the system.

“For me, the big question is how do you defuse the hate? How do you combat that? I would say that’s a question we’re going to struggle with,” he said. “I would say the battle for ideas matters. So those of us who deal in ideas are part of this. That’s what my film is saying. We have a responsibility to try to figure out how you fight this.”

The film opens today in Los Angeles. At 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 3, it screens at the Desert Jewish Film Festival in Palm Desert, co-sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. For more information, visit

Spectator – The Great ‘Wall’ of Israel


Simone Bitton’s new documentary, “Wall,” opens with long, meandering shots of the Israeli security fence, the great concrete and barbed-wire structure that straddles more than 450 miles of land in Israel’s disputed territories.

As the camera lingers on the wall, the disembodied voices of two Israeli children are heard talking to the filmmaker.

“We shoot the Arabs from there,” one says of the wall.

“No,” says the other. “The Arabs shoot at us.”

“Who shoots at whom?” the filmmaker asks them, and they have no answer.

What Bitton tries to establish in this scene, and indeed throughout the rest of the film, is that notions of security are murky and propagandistic (despite the fact that since the construction began on the fence in 2003, the government says that terror attacks were reduced by 90 percent) while what she sees as the devastation of the wall is real. For Bitton and most of her subjects, the wall is something that concurrently, divides friends, separates farmers from their land, creates a prison (of Gaza), ruins the environment and prevents people from getting to work.

Though Bitton interviews both Israelis and Arabs, none of her subjects has been personally affected by the terror attacks that caused the wall to be built in the first place.

Bitton intersperses her interviews with both Israelis and Arabs with excruciating shots of the wall itself — concrete sections being craned into place, giant bulldozers shoveling gravel, and buffering them all is the ambient soundtrack of machinery and helicopters humming loudly and obnoxiously.

Bitton, a French filmmaker who has made seven other documentaries about the histories and cultures of the Middle East and North Africa, considers herself an “Arab Jew.” She said that she made the film because “The very idea of a wall erected between Israelis and Palestinians tore me apart…. I felt this wall would be insurmountable for all the good-willed people like myself, while creating hundreds of new suicide bombers.”

Her film, she said, “is an act of resistance [against the wall]”

“I identify myself with [Israel], because I, too, am a Jew and an Arab at one and the same time,” Bitton said. “Judaism is part of this country’s history, but one day, Israelis must agree to become a little Arabic, too. That day, the walls will come tumbling down.”

“Wall” opens in Los Angeles on Sept. 23 at the Laemmle Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 477-5581 or visit

Our Date With Drew’s Date


There are plenty of guys with crushes on Drew Barrymore, the actress who began as a child ingénue at age 6 in “E.T.” and who captivates as an adult in sexier roles like her turn as one of “Charlie’s Angels.”

There are also plenty of guys who are trying to make it in Hollywood, living hand-to-mouth, scrambling just to pay rent, taking any job in the industry just to get by until stardom hits.

But there are few guys indeed who can combine their passion for Drew and their showbiz struggle into one neat package. Actually, there’s only one guy like that — Brian Herzlinger, an aspiring filmmaker who documented his attempts to get a date with America’s sweetheart in “My Date with Drew.”

The film’s trailer explains the mission impossible: “30 days. $1,100. For an ordinary guy to get a date with Drew Barrymore.”

Herzlinger is no ordinary Hollywood everyman. He’s a Jewish 29-year-old from New Jersey, who did many of the usual Jewish things: attended JCC summer camps, went to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah. Eventually, he ended up in Los Angeles and signing up for JDate (he’s no longer an active member). While dark and ethnically handsome, he’s of average height, not in the best of shape, as he likes to point out, and quite hairy (he ponders a chest wax during the film).

So how does this “ordinary” Jewish guy — a combination of the endearing Steve Guttenberg and the can’t-hold-in-a smirk Jerry Seinfeld, with a dollop of Woody Allen self deprecation — go about getting a date with the ultimate Hollywood shiksa goddess?

After winning $1,100 in a game show, he and friends buy a video camera at Circuit City, planning to return it for a refund within 30 days. (Is that ethical, rabbi?) They try to get to the actress using the six degrees of separation. (In the Jewish world, it’s supposed to be only four degrees — so too bad he wasn’t going for Barbra.)

It’s not easy for Herzlinger, who had been in Hollywood for five years after film school, working various entertainment biz jobs, such as a PA on some TV shows, and making his own short films. Using his friends in low places, Herzlinger and his three co-filmmakers (“The Drew Crew”) manage to interview, among others, Drew’s facialist; her ex-boyfriend, child celebrity Corey Feldman; a psychic who, for $75, predicts the endeavor will be a success but not within the time frame; and Herzlinger’s parents in New Jersey.

By the way, his mother thinks Drew is too “slutty” for her son. And hers wasn’t the only earful Herzlinger got: “During this process, I’ve never had so many Jewish grandmothers come up to me and say, ‘Tateleh, you should go out and meet my granddaughter…'”

The film took four months to shoot and edit — they had to whittle down 85 hours of footage — and another two years to sell after doing the film-fest circuit.

“I was worried that people out here would be so jaded that they wouldn’t get the ‘lifelong quest’ aspect,” Herzlinger said. “But the response across the board has been that people say they’ve been inspired to follow their own dreams.”

Now the four friends who did “My Date with Drew” are going to work on a reality TV show with a similar premise — following people who try to fulfill lifelong dreams in 30 days.

So does Herzlingerever get his date with the beautiful Barrymore?

He doesn’t want to give away the ending (and neither do I).

“I had the highest highs and the lowest lows,” he said. “This was the biggest roller coaster of my life.” For more information, visit www.mydatewithdrew.com.

 

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday, February 19

Before “all that jazz” there was “Ragtime,” Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ description of America in the early 1900s, as well as the title of their 1998 musical. The Tony Award-winning epic follows three families – one African American, one WASP, one Jewish – living in New York at the turn of the last century, and deals with the class and race issues of the time. It plays at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center through March 6.

8 p.m. (Thurs.-Sat.), 2 p.m. (Sat. and Sun.). No matinee Sat., Feb. 19. The Feb. 27, 7 p.m. performance will be interpreted for the hearing impaired. $20-$47. 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. (562) 856-1999, ext. 4.

Sunday, February 20

Israeli Greek singer Shlomi Saranga has recorded more than 20 albums, performs regularly in Greece and Israel and is now in the midst of his first U.S. tour. Catch his Southern California debut tonight.

8:30 p.m. $50-$75. The Canyon Club, 28912 Roadside Drive, Agoura Hills. (818) 879-5016.

Monday, February 21

Steven Jay Fogel came late to painting. The businessman and author only took it up at age 48, but his intensely personal works have been given a showcase at the USC Hillel Jewish Center Gallery. His exhibition, “Relationships: My Friends and Their Stories,” is influenced by World War II and the Holocaust, as well as personal tragedies and experiences. It is on view through March 10.

9 a.m.-5 p.m. (Mon.-Fri.). Free. 3300 S. Hoover St., Los Angeles. (213) 747-9135, ext. 14.

Tuesday, February 22

“Samson and Delilah” comes to Orange County Performing Arts Center for four nights only, beginning tonight. The biblical tale of a woman’s betrayal and her lover’s subsequent downfall may be dated, but the French opera’s music by Camille Saint-Saëns endures.

7:30 p.m. (Feb. 22, 24 and 26), 2 p.m. (Feb. 27). $35-$185. Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Wednesday, February 23

No such thing as a free lunch? Perhaps. But today you can find free movies, thanks to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Academy Foundation and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. This evening they are screening “I Used to Be a Filmmaker,” and “Capturing the Friedmans.”

7:30 p.m. James Bridges Theater, UCLA, Westwood. (310) 206-3456.

Thursday, February 24

The world gets a little smaller today, as African musician Habib Koité performs with his band Bamada at the Skirball. Koité’s music has been described as Pan-Malian, a convergence of the varied indigenous musical styles of his country. “I’m curious about all the music in the world, but I make music from Mali,” he said. They play tonight only.

8 p.m. $15-$20. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (866) 468-3399.

Friday, February 25

Head back to UCLA tonight for more flicks. They’re not free this time. The Otto Preminger series begins with this evening’s double feature, which screens his first hit in Hollywood, “Laura,” followed by, “Fallen Angel.”

7:30 p.m. $5-$8. James Bridges Theater, UCLA, Westwood. (310) 206-3456.

Religious Tensions Spark ‘Campfire’


 

Sitting in a booth at Milky Way restaurant, Joseph Cedar, a lean young man in jeans and baseball cap, hardly looks the part of an Orthodox Jew, who is also one of Israel’s most perceptive filmmakers.

He is in town for a couple of days to talk about his latest movie, “Campfire,” which will be screened Nov. 8 and Nov. 11 at the AFI Film Fest (see sidebar).

The film itself is another surprise. It focuses on the lives, struggles and hang-ups of Israel’s religious Zionists, the backbone of the settler movement in the West Bank and Gaza — not the first subject that comes to mind when thinking of a popular hit coming out of Israel’s strongly secular-leftist movie culture.

Yet “Campfire” (Medurat Hashevet in Hebrew) was nominated for the Israeli Oscar equivalent in all 13 categories, an unprecedented feat, and won five, including best picture, director and screenplay.

It is Israel’s official entry for the (U.S.) Academy Awards foreign film competition and has won a number of awards at the Chicago, Berlin, Korean and Indian film festivals.

At the center of the film is the Gerlik family of Jerusalem in 1981: mother Rachel, an attractive 42-year old widow; and her two daughters, rebellious 18-year-old Esti and innocent but awakening 15-year-old Tami.

A year after her husband’s death, Rachel is desperate for a communal support network in her life and wants to join the founding group of a future religious settlement in the Samaria region of the West Bank.

Ideologically in tune with the movement, Rachel is taken aback when Motke, the head of the screening committee, doubts that as a single woman, she will be acceptable unless she remarries.

Toward that end, Motke’s wife casts about for suitable candidates. One is a pompous cantor-singer (veteran musical star Yehoram Gaon), the other is Yossi, a friendly 50-year-old bus driver, who can’t seem to hook up in a lasting relationship with a woman.

As the two suitors pursue their quest, Motke, of the settlers’ group, wavers as he reinterviews Rachel and other applicants. He is looking for people who measure up ideologically and religiously, and don’t want to join merely for the cheap housing. He wants no one who doesn’t exactly fit his world or is too poor to match the living standard of the core group.

Meanwhile, Tami, the younger daughter, hangs out with her friends at B’nai Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement.

There is much close friendship and patriotic singing, but when Tami is sexually molested by some of her nastier comrades at a Lag B’Omer bonfire, she is publicly slandered and becomes a near outcast.

After all the conflicts, the film ends on a rather abrupt happy ending, but that’s not what has made “Campfire” such an exceptionally popular and critical success in Israel.

Rather, Cedar, who also wrote the script, explores a real, complex and divisive subject, yet his characters are not mere ideological mouthpieces, but three-dimensional, fallible and struggling human beings.

The film’s greatest strength lies in the subtle and unblinking depiction of human relationships, whether between middle-aged men and women, mother and daughters or adolescent boys and girls.

“Campfire” comes alive through an ensemble cast of some of Israel’s finest stage and screen actors. The veteran Moshe Ivgy gives the performance of his life as Yossi, the bus driver, a somewhat shy, awkward but never comical bachelor, matched at every point by the sometimes anguished, sometimes luminous Michaela Eshet as the widow Rachel.

Hani Furstenberg, a 25-year-old actress, is utterly convincing as the 15-year-old Tami, going through the purgatory of the teen years.

Assi Dayan, Moshe Dayan’s son and a confirmed secular leftist, endows Motke, the unsympathetic leader of the religious settlers, with real humanity.

Cedar’s only previous film — three years ago — was “Time of Favor,” which also took an unsparing look at the religious right and represented Israel at the Academy Awards.

Cedar is one of three young American-born directors who have made a major contribution in raising the level of Israeli movies in recent years.

The trio includes Eitan Gorlin, a yeshiva graduate, whose critically acclaimed “The Holy Land” centered on the odd relationship between a yeshiva student and a Russian prostitute.

Eytan Fox, of “Yossi & Jagger” fame, again explores sexual identity, embedded in a Mossad vs. Nazi war criminal thriller, in the gripping film “Walk on Water,” to open in the United States in January.

Cedar was born in New York into a highly intellectual Orthodox family, who made aliyah when he was 6. The family moved into the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem, inhabited mainly by religious Zionists, and many of his friends later established settlements.

Cedar, a former paratrooper, lived one year in a West Bank settlement while writing “Time of Favor.”

After he graduated from New York University film school and returned to Israel to make his first movie, his friends of the religious right were elated.

“They told me that since I was the first observant Jew to make an Israeli feature film, here was a chance to show how great we really are,” Cedar recalled.

After “Time of Favor” and “Campfire,” many of his former friends from the settlements and B’nai Akiva are now among his more vocal critics, but Cedar denies that his movies are anti-anything.

“All the characters in ‘Campfire’ are religious, some are ‘good’ and some are ‘bad.’ But the critics just look at the ‘bad’ characters,” he said.

Cedar’s main interest, he maintained, lies in the social dynamics among religious Zionists, but he faults them for their “elitist” attitudes and an ideological purity which excludes all others, as well as their indifference to Sephardic Jews, the poor, and, of course, the Palestinians.

Still an observant Jew, Cedar now lives in Tel Aviv with his journalist wife and their 3-year-old daughter, within “a community of people who don’t want to belong to a community.”

“Campfire” will screen Nov. 8 at 9:45 p.m. and Nov. 11 at noon at the ArcLight Theatre, 6360 Sunset Blvd., with Cedar and Furstenberg in attendance. For tickets and other information, call (866) 234-3378 or visit www.afi.com/onscreen/afifest/2004. Additional details on the movie and Cedar can be found at www.campfiremovie.com.

Holocaust, Israel at AFI Fest

Among the 136 films from 42 countries to be screened at the AFI Fest, four additional pictures besides “Campfire” may be of special interest.

“Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust” documents how the movie and TV studios have depicted the Hitler era from “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” to “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist”.

“Witness” also touches on anti-Semitism in America and revives the debate on whether the positive of conveying the murder of the 6 million to mass audiences outweighs the negative of trivializing the Holocaust. An interesting historical review and analysis, which tries to cover too much too fast. Screens Nov. 9 at 7 p.m.

“Calling Hedy Lamarr,” an Austrian documentary, takes a look at the glamorous and tragic life of the Jewish-born actress. The “most beautiful woman in the world” also invented a torpedo guidance system during World War II. Screenings Nov. 6 at 3:30 p.m. and Nov. 10 at 9:45 p.m.

“Ninth November Night,” a short film on Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein’s mission to remind his countrymen of the horrors of Kristallnacht. Screens Nov. 13 at 9 p.m. and Nov. 14 at 1 p.m.

Israeli native Ariel Vromen directed “Rx,” in which he tracks the interactions among three friends during a weekend in Mexico. Screens Nov. 12 at 7:15 p.m.

For tickets, locations and other information, call (866) 234-3378 or visit www.afi.com/onscreen/afifest/2004. — TT

Caouette’s Journey to Hell and Back


When gay Jewish filmmaker Jonathan Caouette was a preteen in Houston, he frequented sock hops at the Baptist church near his home. Invariably, church elders warned he was destined for hellfire: “And I would tell them that I was possessed by the devil,” Caouette, 31, said.

His tart reply wasn’t far from the truth, according to his new documentary memoir, “Tarnation,” named for an archaic term for “damnation.” The experimental self-portrait describes Caouette’s hellish childhood, during which he endured physical abuse, a mentally ill mother and brutal foster homes. The raw, hallucinatory film is compiled from 20 years of home movies, answering machine messages and snippets of underground films — all edited on a borrowed Apple computer for a total production cost of $218.32. Lauded as “a category-defying work of blistering originality,” by the Guardian and “astonishing” by The New York Times, it won best documentary at Los Angeles Film Festival and a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes.

If the movie exposes Caouette’s childhood demons, it’s also steeped in a zeitgeist obsessed with public exorcisms performed on reality television programs and cringe-fests such as “The Jerry Springer Show.”

Caouette has been turning his life into a kind of reality TV from age 11, when he first pointed a camera at himself and his relatives. He recorded family arguments and performed impassioned monologues influenced by underground filmmakers such as John Cassavetes and Paul Morrissey. In one such sequence, he portrays a battered housewife, “essentially channeling my mother, who was being beaten by her second husband,” he said.

For the budding cinephile, the camera became a “protective force field, a means of controlling and validating the family chaos,” the boyish director said from his Queens, N.Y., apartment. “It was a grand way of saying, ‘Pinch me, but is this for real?'”

The reality was that Caouette was living with his overwhelmed grandparents as his mother, Renee, was repeatedly hospitalized for acute bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. A former child model, she had suffered mental illness since undergoing electroshock therapy following a childhood accident. During a manic period, she whisked 4-year-old Jonathan off to Chicago, where she was kidnapped and raped.

“I remember cowering under a bed while she was being strangled,” the filmmaker said.

Back in Houston, Renee went on a rampage, breaking windows throughout the neighborhood with Jonathan in tow. The boy was promptly placed in a series of foster homes where he was sometimes tied up and beaten. When his grandparents assumed custody two years later, they attempted to curb his wild behavior by enrolling him in a highly structured Jewish day school.

“But I didn’t have the attention span to sit through the long day or to retain a new language, Hebrew,” he said. “I was a mess of a child already at 6.”

It didn’t help that Caouette felt like an alien while visiting his classmates’ pristine Jewish homes.

“Our house had gum all over the floor, like a New York subway, and rat droppings all over the beds,” he said.

His wealthy Jewish relatives eventually stopped inviting him to holiday celebrations.

The discord turned Caouette into an angry preteen who staged suicide attempts and hit his grandparents. After smoking PCP-laced joints at 12, he was hospitalized eight times for a depersonalization disorder that made him feel like he was disconnected from his body and living “in a constant state of unreality.”

Former Houston Chronicle film critic Jeff Millar, who became Caouette’s big brother in 1984, remembers walking through his home and noting “broken mirrors and holes where Jon had punched through the wall.”

“I felt he might be capable of making a bad decision that could kill him,” Millar said. “But I also saw that he was innately talented and that he had a rigorous film aesthetic. I felt that if he managed to get through what was sure to be a troubling adolescence, he would do something creatively spectacular.”

Caouette proved Millar right two years ago, when he decided to turn his 160 hours of home video into a film. He had nursed Renee back to health after a lithium overdose and hoped to create a cathartic piece about their relationship.

An early version of the movie convinced filmmakers John Cameron Mitchell and Gus Van Sant to sign on as executive producers and secured a slot at New York’s 2003 MIX Film Festival. But as Caouette sat next to Renee at the screening, he worried he had made a terrible mistake.

“I wondered if I had exploited her, exploited all of us,” he said.

As patrons embraced him after the screening, Caouette began to change his mind. He now views the movie as a healing trip to Tarnation and back: “It’s the story of people going through hell and coming out OK, sort of,” he said. “It’s still not entirely OK, but it’s better than it’s ever been.”

“Tarnation” opens today in Los Angeles.

Roasting Woody Allen — Gently


One could call “Who Killed Woody Allen?” a “benign revenge comedy.” Co-authors Tom Dunn, Dan Callahan and Brendan Connor wrote the whodunit after Allen allegedly withdrew the rights to his play, “Death,” from their theater company in 2001. The playwrights say they had already rented a theater, hired 15 actors and were a week into rehearsal when they received the news. “So we decided to move from Woody Allen’s ‘Death’ to Woody Allen’s death,” Dunn said.

The black comedy is set at Allen’s funeral, with his celebrity friends as suspects. But it’s more of an homage than a roast. (Number of Soon-Yi gags: one.)

“We’re huge Woody fans, and we respect him too much to take potshots,” Connor said.

“We’re comedy writers in large part because of his influence,” Dunn said.

In fact, the 32-year-old authors have been in love with Allen’s films since they attended Holy Trinity High while growing up in Levittown, N.Y. The childhood friends viewed Allen movies together such as “Mighty Aphrodite” and “Manhattan Murder Mystery.”

Of why these Irish Catholics admire the Jewish auteur, Connor said, “It’s hysterical the way he captures uniquely New York neuroses.”

Dunn, for his part, said, “We really connected to Woody’s thoughtful absurdist humor. We drew on that when we started doing improvisational comedy together in high school.”

The friends moved from improv to sketch comedy to founding their Empty Stage Theatre Company around 2000. The goal was to produce lesser-known works by well-known authors; after staging an obscure David Mamet piece, the Allen fans set their sights on “Death.” According to Dunn, Allen granted the rights to one production but declined when the opening dates changed. “We were totally shocked,” Dunn said.

Eventually the “Death” rights issue inspired a play about Allen’s last rites; but the piece doesn’t dis Allen. In fact, the authors invited the filmmaker to opening night, assuming he’d get a kick out of the tribute. Instead, they received a letter from Allen’s attorney, Irwin Tenenbaum: “Mr. Allen appreciates your invitation but is unable to attend,” states the letter, which The Journal viewed on a Web site. “Since I have not read the play and am unfamiliar with its contents, I trust that you have adhered to and stayed within the parameters of applicable law with regard to the use of my client’s name and character. I reserve all of my client’s rights with regard to this project, should events prove otherwise.”

Actually, the play makes relatively few references to Allen. Rather, it focuses on the shenanigans of the funeral’s self-absorbed celebrity guests, who include a stammering Diane Keaton (Jillann Dugan), a kvetchy Alan Alda (Ed Moran) and a creepy Christopher Walken (Peter Loureiro). The stars pay their last respects rather disrespectfully, treating the service like a photo-op, a chance to glean publicity and promote their films.

The funeral itself is structured like an awards ceremony, with Oscar host Billy Crystal (Christopher Wisner) as emcee. “Sitting shiva, cover the ‘mirra,’ it’s going to be a Jewish funeral tonight,” Crystal sings in an Oscar-style medley. The stars continue their shameless mugging even as a detective arrives to interrogate them (we’re told Allen’s ex, Mia Farrow, has been cleared because she was in Angola at the time of the murder, “auditioning children to adopt.”)

“The play is a satirical take on celebrity culture,” Dunn said. “Of course, we’re spoofing what we want the most — celebrity — and the irony isn’t lost on us.”

“Who Killed Woody Allen?” is apparently moving the authors closer to that goal. The play ran for eight months off-Broadway, earned rave reviews and will have its Los Angeles debut Sept. 22, directed by Dunn, with most of the original cast in tow.

The co-authors, meanwhile, are pitching TV and film projects, including the movie rights to “Who Killed Woody Allen?” “We even asked Woody if he was interested in directing,” Dunn said. “But we haven’t received a response.”

“Who Killed Woody Allen?” runs Sept. 22-Oct. 3 at the Improv Olympic West Theater, 6636 Hollywood Blvd., in Hollywood. For tickets, $18, and information, call (323) 960-4412 or visit www.plays411.com/wkwa.

For more information about the play, visit www.whokilledwoodyallen.com .

Watch Out


When Bill Platt pitched his action-oriented “Darklight” TV movie two years ago, he hoped to create a new genre: “Chai-Fi.”

The 32-year-old filmmaker intended the project — inspired by the Jewish “demoness” Lilith — to merge his heritage with his sci-fi obsession.

“I wondered if I could make Jewish legend fun for audiences who liked ‘The Matrix,’ he said. “And I wanted to see if I could create my own Jewish superhero.”

He wasn’t imagining a comedic MOT superhero like Jonathan Kesselman’s “The Hebrew Hammer” or Alan Oirich’s Menorah Man. Platt rather set his sights on Lilith, the talmudic demon queen turned feminist icon. The film — typical Sci-Fi Channel fare — is more for “Battlestar Galactica” fans than Lilith aficionados. Yet Platt did meticulous homework at the University of Judaism’s library.

Traditional sources describe Lilith as Adam’s surly first wife who considered herself his equal; declining to be dominated, she ultimately fled the Garden of Eden and morphed into a murderous incubus.

“Darklight” reimagines Adam’s ex as an immortal who suffers amnesia, who eventually uses her powers to thwart a plague. It’s the kind of debut feature one might expect of the enthusiastic Platt, who’s always been a bit chai-fi.

Growing up in Reston, Va., he immersed himself in his Conservative Hebrew school as well as comics and the “Star Wars” movies. At NYU’s graduate film program, he honored his Jewish grandparents — who had supported his superhero fixation — with a short starring Yiddish theater star Mina Bern.

His futuristic police thriller, “Bleach,” won the 1998 Student Academy Award and jump-started his career as a producer of the Sci-Fi Channel’s “Exposure Studios”; when he suggested “Darklight” to that network in 2002, he brought genre elements to the Jewish-inspired character.

Like any self-respecting superhero, Lilith has an arch-nemesis, a mad scientist, and a superhuman task: saving mankind.

“It’s amped-up tikkun olam,” Platt said. “She’s repairing the world, except she’s doing it on a grand scale, one curse at a time.”

“Darklight” airs Sept. 18 at 9 p.m. For moreinformation, visit www.scifi.com/darklight .

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Free tunes at the Skirball this afternoon, as part of their continuing “Café Z” series. This time it’s the Latin jazz stylings of Angelo Metz’s Brazilian Ensemble, performing for you al fresco, as you imbibe frothy coffee drinks in the shade.

Noon-2 p.m. Free. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

Sunday

Eastern Europe meets western this evening, with the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony’s performance of “Two Streams in the Desert,” a merging of klezmer and Ladino music. The orchestra, along with Russian clarinetist Leo Chelyapov, flautist David Shostac and the “Jewish Pavarotti” Alberto Mizrahi entertain with both Ashkenazi and Sephardi sounds.

7:30 p.m. $12-$36. Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. (323) 461-3673.

Monday

This week, UCLA welcomes the Mercedes Benz Cup 2004 men’s
tennis tournament. See Andre Agassi and other top players show off their
athletic prowess, or just come for the guys in tennis shorts.

DVD Set Showcases Legendary Producer


Over a period of 42 years, legendary producer Arthur Cohn has made only 12 films, of which half have been recognized with Academy Awards, giving the Swiss producer the highest batting average in the annals of the motion picture industry. This record has been recognized by the Hollywood Walk of Fame with a star for Cohn, the only foreign producer so honored.

Now, in an unprecedented collaboration, five major Hollywood film companies have joined to release a DVD set of 10 films by Cohn.

Among the six Oscar-winners in the nine-disk boxed set being released this month are the classic "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," "Dangerous Moves" and the documentaries "One Day in September" and "American Dream."

As impressive as Cohn’s filmography is the decision by Sony, Paramount, Buena Vista, Universal and Miramax — normally intense competitors — to pool their copyrighted films into one DVD set.

"It’s as if Ford, BMW and Toyota decided to build one car together," observed one film critic.

Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, said that in his 23 years in the business, he had never heard of such a multistudio collaboration before.

"Normally, there would be endless discussions on how to put the deal together, how to split the profits, how to appropriate the credits and so forth," Barker said. "In this case, all this was less important than our shared love for Arthur’s movies and our admiration for the man."

"He is one of a dying breed of great film producers, who is meticulously involved in every phase of a movie and who will spend years to get the results he wants," Barker added. "Nowadays, they list 15 co-producers on a blockbuster, and you have no idea which producer did what."

Cohn is also a man of extraordinary persistence. "I finished ‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis’ in 1971, and it was turned down by 36 distributors in Europe and America," he recalled. "It was only after the academy awarded it the Oscar for best foreign language film that it became an international hit."

Another indicator of the influence of Cohn’s movies is "One Day in September," a documentary on the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. It was only after the film came out that the German government finally agreed to compensate the families of the victims, Cohn said.

As a footnote, Cohn’s grandfather was the chief rabbi of Basel. Because of his friendship with Theodor Herzl, the first Zionist Congress was held in the Swiss city in 1897.

Cohn is currently working on two projects. One is "The Yellow Handkerchief," which he described as "an old-fashioned love story, without violence, sex or special effects." The other project is "The Ruined Map," based on the novel by the late Japanese writer, Kobo Abe ("The Woman in the Dunes").

Included in the DVD set, "Arthur Cohn Presents" are the following feature films and documentaries: "American Dream," "Behind the Sun," "Black and White in Color," "The Sky Above, the Mud Below," "A Brief Vacation," "Central Station," "Dangerous Moves," "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," "One Day in September" and "Two Bits."

Bonus features include the short Holocaust documentary, "Children of the Night," and segments from Vittorio De Sica’s "Woman Times Seven," which Cohn also produced.

"Arthur Cohn Presents" is available in video stores and is distributed by Home Vision Entertainment at a list price of $199.95.

Meyers Writes Her Own Happy Ending


A decade ago, filmmaker Nancy Meyers became intrigued by a Hollywood friend who exclusively dated younger women.

"They were always between 25 and 30," said Meyers, 54, who directed the Mel Gibson hit, "What Women Want." "Over the years, he went from his 40s to his 60s, but the women never got any older."

As she advanced through her 40s, Meyers felt increasingly "invisible" around her friend; she wondered, "If I were stranded on a desert island with such a man, would I still be invisible?"

Her musing led to a movie premise about a cradle-robber who falls for his girlfriend’s mom.

Because Meyers’ screenplays always reflect her life, she wasn’t ready to tackle the topic until she divorced around 2000 and found herself 50ish and single.

"Suddenly my premise became a completely different kind of story," she said. "I wanted to write about the realities of a couple falling in love late in life."

Her new romantic comedy, "Something’s Gotta Give," tells of Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson), a roguishly charming record company executive whose girlfriends are under 30. When he attempts to consummate his latest relationship at her mother’s beach house, he collapses from a heart attack and is left in the care of the mom, Erica Barry (Diane Keaton), a no-nonsense Jewish playwright. As the two are forced into each other’s company, sparks unexpectedly fly.

Last week the National Board of Review named Keaton 2003’s Best Actress for her performance.

Time magazine called the comedy a "December-December romance"; it’s one of an unprecedented new crop of films, including "House of Sand and Fog," that frankly depicts older couples having sex.

Yet some viewers see "Give" as Meyers’ romantic fantasy, complete with a cute young doctor suitor for Erica played by Keanu Reeves. While the director admits the Reeves relationship is a stretch ("I’ve not dated a 36-year-old doctor, unfortunately," she said), she doesn’t think the Harry-Erica pairing is far fetched.

"People say, ‘You’re movie is so optimistic,’" said Meyers, who admits she’s had one age-appropriate relationship since her divorce. "Are these people suggesting that if single men had the option, they’d never go with anyone their own age? I don’t think that’s true. There are a lot of men married to women their age who aren’t waiting for their spouses to die or to get a divorce so they can have that trophy wife. And I think that a lot of men, when they do meet someone close to their age, feel they have found something perhaps more solid than when they’re dating a woman 25 years younger. I mean, it must be a relief not to have to act 35 in bed when you’re 60."

The down-to-earth Meyers has always had a penchant for turning fantasy into reality. The daughter of a Philadelphia voting machine manufacturer, she dreamed up her first movie — literally — while under anesthesia at the dentist at 14. "It was a Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedy," she said. "When I awakened, I told the dentist the entire plot."

Yet Meyers initially didn’t set her sights on Hollywood, due to the more conventional path outlined for women of her generation. "At my Reform temple, girls weren’t even bat mitzvahed," she said. "I was always jealous of the boys, because for girls it just wasn’t done." While attending American University, she said she "went with the program and got engaged to a Jewish boy my junior year. But instead of getting married, I canceled weeks before the wedding and moved to California in 1972."

Early on, she sold cheesecakes, based on her Aunt Estelle’s recipe, while struggling to support herself as a screenwriter. She met her future husband, TV writer Charles Shyer, while on a date with his best friend, Harvey Miller.

"Charles was this cute guy wearing a B’nai B’rith T-shirt," she said.

In 1979, Meyers, Shyer and Miller collaborated on "Private Benjamin," based on her idea about a naive Jewish woman (Goldie Hawn) who joins the Army after her husband dies on their wedding night. The story reflected Meyers’ experience of canceling her wedding and reinventing herself in Hollywood, but observers saw the character in a less flattering light.

"People like to call Judy Benjamin a Jewish princess, but I take great offense at that expression," she said. "It’s a racist, sexist caricature: the girl who gets a nose job, who shops and wants to be taken care of. But Judy is actually a woman of her time, with the problems of her time. Because of social conventions, she was following a road that wasn’t right for her, and the Army allows her to grow up and to figure out her life."

Meyers shared a 1981 Oscar nomination for "Private Benjamin"; over the years, she became known for films she co-wrote with Shyer, including 1984’s "Irreconcilable Differences" and 1991’s "Father of the Bride," which he directed.

Along the way the couple had two daughters, but didn’t marry until 1995. "I wanted us to be filmmaking partners without having that husband-and-wife-team cliché hanging over us, because in Hollywood, people always assume the wife isn’t responsible for the work," she said.

In 1998, Meyers made her directorial debut with "The Parent Trap," a remake of the Disney classic about twins who get their divorced parents back together. Behind the scenes, the opposite was happening for Meyers and Shyer, the film’s co-author.

"The relationship had changed to the point where neither one of us thought we could get it back where it was," she said.

They separated that year.

"What Women Want" (2000) her first project without Shyer, reflected those circumstances. The female lead, played by Helen Hunt, is a recently divorced advertising executive who reveals she had collaborated with her husband and is nervous about going it alone.

Despite Meyers’ trepidations, the movie became a box office smash and made her one of the most sought-after female directors in Hollywood; it’s perhaps one reason Nicholson, who had never worked with a woman director, agreed to read "Something’s Gotta Give" around 2001.

"I hadn’t worked for two years, I didn’t want to work, but this was the kind of script I had never seen," said Nicholson, who is himself perceived as an aging playboy. "One of the biggest misperceptions about me is that I am not a romantic, but I’ve always been deeply sentimental. And one of the most refreshing things about this picture was getting to do the kinds of things on film that I do in real life."

Meyers, for her part, shares attributes with the fictional Erica: The character is also a successful writer who calls her daughter "Bubbie" and peppers her speech with Yiddishisms.

While it’s surprising to hear Keaton, the WASP from "Annie Hall," refer to Diane Sawyer "going into caves in Afghanistan with a shmatte on her head," the actress was comfortable with the role.

"This film is Nancy’s celebration of older women, and I’m thrilled she picked me as her representative," Keaton said.

So will viewers enjoy seeing such a celebration on screen? Meyers thinks so.

"Baby Boomers want characters who reflect their lives," she said. "We’re not dead yet. Just a bit over 50."

"Something’s Gotta Give" opens today in Los Angeles.

When a Yeshiva Bocher Loves a Hooker


Sitting at a French Cafe in Westwood, Eitan Gorlin comes across as the very antithesis of the Hollywood self-promoter. The writer-director of “The Holy Land” has indeed kept such a low profile that, during months of inquiries, his name drew an absolute blank among Israel film mavens in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles.

But the debut feature by this unknown has already won remarkable recognition in America, including an Independent Spirit nomination for Gorlin as “Someone to Watch.”

For now, Gorlin is focusing on his film. “‘The Holy Land’ shows the underbelly of real life in Jerusalem after the tourists and Orthodox families go to sleep,” he said.

Yet the film packs a great deal more into its 96 minutes.

On the slender storyline of a young, sheltered yeshiva student who falls in love with an even younger Russian prostitute, “The Holy Land” ranges across the Israeli landscape of the late 1990s, with its ultra-Orthodox Haredim, ultra-religious Zionist settlers, Arab collaborators and terrorists and Russian and American immigrants.

The film’s protagonist is Mendy, who is studying at a yeshiva in B’nai B’rak and finds it increasingly hard to keep his thoughts off women and sex and on Torah reading. His rabbi advises him to “get it out of his system” by visiting a prostitute.

Mendy takes off for Jerusalem and, at a strip club, meets Sasha, a 19-year-old prostitute from the Ukraine. The inexperienced Mendy falls hard for the hooker, while vaguely hoping to “save” her, and, in turn, she introduces him to Mike’s Place.

The seedy pub in East Jerusalem is run by Mike, a big, blustery American ex-war photographer, whose joint is a combination of Rick’s Cafe in a postmodern “Casablanca” and the cantina in “Star Wars.”

Yet the pull of Mendy’s early and simpler religious life grows as his new secular experiences and relationships become more complex and disturbing. The resolution of this internal conflict in the movie’s last minutes adds the ultimate shocker to the iconoclastic film.

The struggle between the secular and religious poles in Israel, in the lives of individuals as in the general society, is an evolving theme for filmmakers and writers. Since “The Holy Land” represents such a singular, largely autobiographical, vision, Gorlin’s own background serves as a useful program guide.

At 34, Gorlin’s life has moved between the religious and worldly poles and has encompassed the bohemian restlessness and searching of the American expatriate writers of the 1920s.

He was born in Silver Springs, Md., studied at The Yeshiva of Greater Washington (D.C.) and, after graduating at 17, headed for Israel and enrolled at the national religious Yeshiva Sha’alvim.

After a stint as a congressional intern in Washington, the wandering spirit struck again. For the next two years he lived in Paris, London, Prague, Cairo, Calcutta, Bangkok, Saigon and Hanoi, doing odd jobs as waiter, bartender, party promoter and street performer.

He interrupted his global tramping for a three-year stay in Israel, during which he served as a gunner in an Israeli army tank unit, and met the real-life Mike, who hired him as a bartender.

(Mike’s Place subsequently moved to Tel Aviv, where it was blown up by two British Arab terrorists in April of this year.)

Returning again to the United States, Gorlin wrote three scripts and a novella, titled “Mike’s Place, a Jerusalem Diary,” which became the basis of the movie.

At the end of 1999, he had raised enough private money (he won’t disclose how much) to return to Israel and, for one solid year, worked 20 hours a day, seven days a week, to cast and shoot “The Holy Land.” For the principal roles he cast two sabras: 23-year-old Oren Rehary as Mendy and 19-year-old Tchelet Semel as Sasha, with American actor Saul Stein portraying Mike.

Once the film was in the can, nobody wanted to screen it. “We were turned down by every Jewish film festival in the United States and by the Jerusalem Festival in Israel,” he said.

Finally, on a sudden impulse, he entered his picture in the 2002 Slamdance Film Festival.

“The Holy Land” was not only one of the 14 feature films accepted among 1,000 applicants, but it walked off with the top Grand Jury Prize. Success bred success. Gorlin won the 21st Century Filmmaker Award at the Avignon/New York Film Festival, and later was nominated for the Independent Spirit “Someone to Watch” award.

After these successes, an American film distributor, CAVU Pictures, finally showed up, signed Gorlin to a contract, and the picture is currently slated for some 15 cities.

Like Mendy, Gorlin keeps struggling with his religious identity.

“We seem to be the chosen people of an angry God. Maybe we’re doing something wrong,” he said. “Part of me wants to reject God, but I can’t do it.”

“The Holy Land” opens Aug. 1 at select Laemmle Theatres.For more information, visit www.laemmle.com/theatres .

Stone’s ‘Persona’ Wears Out Welcome


In the violence-ridden month of March 2002, which saw the Passover massacre at a Netanya hotel and the siege of Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah, filmmaker Oliver Stone traveled to Israel and the West Bank to shoot a documentary on the escalating conflict.

The result is "Persona Non Grata," airing on HBO on June 5, which is neither as pro-Palestinian as Stone’s critics had feared, nor as balanced as his admirers might have wished.

On the positive side, the director of "JFK," "Nixon" and "Wall Street" is careful to give equal time to both sides and he features some of Arafat’s more blood-curdling past speeches to his Arab followers, which are rarely reported in the general media.

The imbalance is in the kind of footage and spokesmen selected to represent the opposite sides. There are extensive scenes of killed and wounded Palestinians, houses demolished, hassles at roadblocks and the constant rumbling of Israeli tanks.

Granted, there are also bloody scenes in the aftermath of the Passover massacre, in which a terrorist killed 29 Israelis celebrating a seder. But the burden of the Israeli case is carried by a series of earnest but undramatic talking heads, mainly Shimon Peres, alternating with Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu and historian Meir Pail, who is highly critical of Israeli policy.

They are all quite eloquent, especially Peres and Netanyahu, but since each has his own take on the present and future situation, they tend to cancel each other out and likely to confuse the casual viewer.

A somewhat comical refrain is Stone’s increasingly futile and frustrating attempts to finalize an appointment with Arafat.

The most effective Palestinian spokesman turns out to be Abu Kassir, a pseudonym for the masked leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, who says he’s just fighting the occupation and simply wants a return to the pre-June 1967 boundaries.

There is a short interview with a spokesman for the political wing of Hamas, who maintains that he knows nothing about the terrorist operations of his organization, but otherwise, the crucial fundamentalist Muslim viewpoint, calling for the destruction of Israel, is omitted.

Stone, working with French and Spanish producers, makes it harder to follow the already complex thread of the story by constantly intercutting between different scenes and spokesmen.

The 75-minute "Persona Non Grata" premieres on HBO on June 5 at 7 p.m., and will be shown again June 8 at 11:15 a.m., June 13 at 6:30 a.m., and June 17 at 2 p.m. Playdates for HBO2 are June 10 at 10:15 p.m., June 21 at 8:15 a.m., and June 30 at 5 p.m.

From Blaxploitation to ‘Booth’


On Nov. 15, 2002, filmmaker Larry Cohen should have been atthe multiplex, gauging opening day reaction to the film he wrote, “PhoneBooth,” about a man who must outwit a sniper while trapped in the eponymoustelephonic cabin. But the Washington Sniper changed all that.

No, Cohen was not the target of a hit. But his movie was,last October, when 20th Century Fox postponed the release because of thesnipers (who were ultimately apprehended after killing 10 people and criticallywounding three).

“Phone Booth,” directed by Joel Schumacher and starringcurrent “it boy” Colin Farrell, opens in theaters April 4. 

On this sunny day, Cohen, 64, was bathing in the sunshinethat filled his elegant, 1920s-era home; he was ready to discuss an eclecticcareer, which includes significant contributions to “blaxploitation”(1971-1974) — the urban crime flicks featuring African American actorsdisenfranchised from mainstream Hollywood. This short-lived, but influential,wave was popular and controversial because of violent, racially charged andpolitically incorrect depictions of police, politicians, pimps and drug lords.Blaxploitation recently made a kitschy comeback in rap, the 2000 “Shaft”remake, and last summer’s “Goldmember: Austin Powers III” and “Undercover Brother.”

Long before Quentin Tarantino revived blaxploitation in the1990s, Cohen was the only white — and Jewish — writer-director creating thesource material. During blaxploitation’s starburst, Cohen made the 1973 hit”Black Caesar,” starring Fred Williamson — a seminal work championed in PublicEnemy’s 1989 rap anthem “Burn, Hollywood, Burn!”

Perhaps Cohen’s “in” to this insular trend came from hisfamily’s roots in Harlem, where “Black Caesar” took place. Cohen’s mother livedon 125th Street. His father, of German Jewish descent, was a landlord, andCohen’s grandfather ran a furnishings store.

Cohen grew up in Washington Heights, where he was barmitzvahed despite a secular upbringing and attended George Washington HighSchool, from which legendary independent film director Sam Fuller was expelled.

Cohen’s current home, which he shares with wife Cynthia, waspurchased from Fuller and originally owned by William Randolph Hearst.

Cohen has Sammy Davis Jr. to thank for his footnote intoblack film history. Davis hired Cohen to create a vehicle for the Rat Packer.

Cohen was offered $10,000 to write a gangster picture in the”Little Caesar” vein. Then Davis experienced IRS problems. Cohen was stuck withhis treatment.

But American International head Samuel Arkoff approachedCohen after “Super Fly” and “Shaft” hit big.

“I had that treatment in my car,” Cohen said. “We made thedeal in 20 minutes.”

Cohen hired James Brown to score his second film. “Hereinvented himself as a result of ‘Black Caesar’ into the Godfather of Soul,” he said.

“Black Caesar’s” success caught Cohen by surprise. “Therewere lines around the block in New York … in February!” he said. 

Cohen has garnered praise from his blaxploitation peersbecause he never glamorized criminals.

He added, in a scene where honking taxi cabs leap onto thesidewalk, “those are real pedestrians running out of the way. We said, ‘Let’sjust do it.’ New Yorkers are good at getting out of the way of traffic.”

Cohen pushed the guerrilla filmmaking to absurd heights inthe sequel, “Hell Up in Harlem,” where an improvised fight scene had actorsbrawling throughout LAX, up the baggage carousel ramp, and out onto the tarmacamid taxiing 747s. Incredibly, airport security never intervened.

“Today we’d be shot or arrested or both,” Cohen said.

As fodder for potboilers, Cohen is not through withtelecommunication. David Ellis is directing his latest script,  “Cellular.”

Among the DVDs on Cohen’s shelf sits “Reservoir Dogs.”Compared to “Black Caesar,” some might consider Tarantino’s moviespseudo-blaxploitation. But not Cohen, who admires his work.

“Quentin told me he went to Baldwin Hills to see ‘OriginalGangstas’ on opening day,” Cohen said. “I asked him, ‘Why’d you go all the wayout there to see it?’ He said, ‘I wanted to see it with the audience it wasintended for.'”

“Phone Booth” opens in theaters April 4.  

Stalin’s Jewish State


When Yale Strom was growing up in a traditional,socialist-Zionist home in Detroit, he was riveted by his father’s tales of aJewish state founded 20 years before Israel in a Siberian swamp.

Three decades later, he remembered the obscure Jewishgeography lesson to make the intriguing documentary, “L’Chayim, ComradeStalin!” about the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) founded by Stalin in 1928.

Papa Joe’s motivations weren’t altruistic; he hoped topopulate the Chinese front and to funnel Zionist dollars into the U.S.S.R. Butat least 40,000 Jews made the gruelling, 5,200-mile journey to build a Yiddishmecca in waist-deep mud and snow. They were successful, in part, untilStalin’s purges closed most Yiddish institutions and sent residents off toGulags from 1948 to 1953.

Musician-filmmaker Strom — whose documentaries aboutvanishing Jewish culture have carved a niche in the Yiddish revival movement –retraced the journey when he boarded the Trans-Siberian railroad and made theweek-long trek to Birobidzhan in 2000. He alighted in the world’s only railroadstation with Yiddish-language signs, although finding Yiddishkayt provedelusive in a region where less than 6,000 Jews remain. Eventually, he visitedthe local synagogue, the Yiddish newspaper and the capitol’s main thoroughfare,still called Sholom Aleichem Boulevard.

He interviewed local Jews and recorded conversations withhis suavely anti-Semitic interpreter, Slava, who turned out to be the grandsonof the high-ranking official who originated the idea of a JAR.

So was the JAR a Yiddish utopia or a Jewish reservation, thedocumentary asks. Strom and his wife, “L’Chaim” writer-producer ElizabethSchwartz, think it’s both: “It’s historically significant as a Jewish statefounded on Yiddish secularism,” Schwartz said. “But it’s also a bit like thefake TV suburb in the film, ‘Pleasantville,’ where everything seems perfect,but realities start to bleed through.”

Strom, nevertheless, maintains his youthful fascination withwhat he calls “the first Jewish state established since 70 B.C.E.” “These werepioneers who made aliyah to the end of the world,” he said.

The film opens March 5 in Los Angeles. Strom will alsoperform with his jazz-infused klezmer band, Klazzj, at the Workmen’s CircleMarch 9. For information, call (310) 552-2007. Strom’s “The Book of Klezmer:The History, the Music, the Folklore” (A Cappella Books, $28) is now in stores.

Illuminating ‘Moonlight Mile’


Brad Silberling heard the terrible news from a police detective the morning of July 18, 1989. His 21-year-old girlfriend, actress Rebecca Schaeffer (TV’s "My Sister Sam") had been shot dead by a stalker in the foyer of her Sweetzer Avenue apartment building.

On many a Yom Kippur since, Silberling — the director of "Casper" and "City of Angels" — has lit a yarzeit candle in her memory. This Yom Kippur, he’ll also remember Schaeffer in a more public way with the premiere of his intimate drama, "Moonlight Mile" — inspired by the relationship forged with her parents after he moved into their Oregon home for the funeral and shiva.

At the beginning of the film, as in real life, Silberling’s alter ego, Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal) places a spadeful of earth on his murdered fiancée’s casket. He dutifully stands beside her parents (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon) as the cantor chants the "El Malei Rachamim" memorial prayer. But when another woman unexpectedly enters his life soon after, he’s torn between following his heart and fulfilling his role as the bereaved son-in-law-to-be.

The movie, Silberling’s quick to say, is based on emotional, rather than literal truth. He was Schaeffer’s boyfriend, not her fiancé, though they’d just started talking about the possibility of marriage. He didn’t even attempt to go out on a date for two years after her death. In fact, it took him five years to muster the emotional distance he required to begin writing "Moonlight Mile."

"I wanted to explore this very strange journey that I’d never seen on film," the 39-year-old director said of the movie. "Like, how you go through every possible emotion in the aftermath of a death. For example, I’d be sitting with Rebecca’s parents, and we’d just be roaring with laughter, dishing on people who were mouthing [platitudes]. There would be this bizarre, completely inappropriate humor at moments you’d never expect."

Gyllenhaal, who spent hours quizzing Silberling about his experience, said he was drawn to the movie’s quirky-funny approach. "Brad taught me that what we consider strictly a sad time is actually filled with everything: humor, oddities, idiosyncrasies," said Gyllenhaal, whose mother, Naomi, is Jewish. "The movie isn’t a high drama about mourning, like ‘In the Bedroom.’ It’s more about the subtleties of everyday life after a tragedy."

On a recent afternoon, boyish, affable Silberling — who grew up attending Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village — is wearing faded jeans in his office, not far from Schaeffer’s old apartment. He recounts how he was 23 when he met her on a blind date in 1987 at the nerve-wracking premiere of his UCLA graduate student film. He knew he liked her when, sensing his anxiety, the dark-haired actress patted his knee and told him everything was going to be fine. "We just sort of fell into each others’ lives," said Silberling, who said he was surprised to learn that Schaeffer had once aspired to become a rabbi.

The morning she was murdered, Silberling found a loving message she’d left on his answering machine. It was the last time he heard her voice. Within a few hours, he was sequestered in a room at Cedars-Sinai, waiting for her parents to identify the body. Although he’d only met them just a few times, he bonded with them during endevors such as cleaning out Rebecca’s apartment, while tabloid reporters slapped $50 bills on the windows.

The director discovered that Schaeffer’s father, Benson, a child psychologist, had interrupted his lucrative practice for a time to study Yiddish theater. Her mother, Danna, a wickedly honest, salty-tongued writer, told Silberling "Of course, I’d like you to remain celibate for the rest of your life, but we can negotiate that." (Sarandon said that line in the film.)

The three became inseparable when Silberling moved into Rebecca’s old room for several weeks after the funeral. "I needed to be there partly because when all three of us were together, Rebecca was present," he said. "And I remember thinking, ‘It’s wild, but we’re kind of this weird new family, and I can see never leaving. But at the same time, I was aware of the people tugging at my sleeve saying, ‘You know, you’re it for them now. You are Rebecca for them, because she was an only child. So any time you can hang with her parents would be really good.’"

Silberling said he brought those conflicting sentiments to the character of Joe as well as "the swirl of emotions over, ‘How do you dare connect with another [woman]?’"

In real life, the Schaeffers were supportive when Silberling finally began dating again around 1991. They attended his 1995 marriage to actress Amy Brenneman (TV’s "Judging Amy"), where the bride andgroom read a tribute to Rebecca. (The couple now have a 1-year-old daughter, Charlotte.)

The Schaeffers were the first people Silberling allowed to read a draft of "Moonlight Mile." "I was nervous, but they liked it," said the director, who recently traveled to Oregon to show them the completed film. The screening, he said, was an emotional high. "I think they feel proud of the journey they’ve taken, and so do I."