Two Israeli films take Berlin festival prizes

Two Israeli films that deal with the conflict with the Palestinians in much different ways were recognized at the 62nd annual Berlin International Film Festival.

The top Berlin Today Award went to the humorous short film “Batman at the Checkpoint” by Rafael Balulu. The 10-minute film was one of five finalists for the award, which goes to films produced in Berlin, though they may be filmed elsewhere.

A Caligari Film Prize honorable mention went to “Bagrut Lochamim” (“Soldier/Citizen”) by Silvina Landsmann. The sobering documentary follows young Israelis completing high school education after military service. In Landsmann’s portrait of the post-military service educational program, the classroom represents a microcosm of Israeli society in which political and social issues are debated under the guiding hand of a wise teacher.

In a refreshing pause from sobering realities, “Batman at the Checkpoint” features 6-year-old Yuval, an Israeli (played by Yoav Saadian Rosenberg), and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud (played by Michel Abou Maneh), who are stuck with their parents in traffic at a checkpoint outside Jerusalem. The two cars sit side by side, and eventually the children get out and end up play fighting over the boy’s plastic Batman doll in an impromptu game of hide and seek.

The filmmaker re-created a checkpoint for the film, which jurors said “succeeds in showing us a well-known conflict by poetically re-setting it as a playful battle.”

The festival ended Sunday.

Israeli astronaut’s story highlights Jewish film fest

The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival returns to town for the sixth year May 5-12 with a diverse menu of 26 feature movies, documentaries and shorts.

“Our films are not just selected, they are chosen,” festival director Hilary Helstein said. Her picks cover such themes as tradition and identity, conflict and issues, history and legacy, and inspiration.

Screenings will be offered at 10 different venues, ranging from the Westside, Beverly Hills and mid-Wilshire to the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys and Thousand Oaks.

The opening-night red-carpet gala at the Writers Guild of America Theatre on May 5 will present “An Article of Hope,” which chronicles the brave life and tragic death of Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first, and so far only, astronaut.

The date of the screening is symbolic in itself as May 5 marks the 50th anniversary of the first American launch into space.

Israel could not have picked a better representative of the Jewish state than Ramon. His mother and grandmother were “graduates of Auschwitz,” whose recollections gave Ramon a deep awareness of the threats facing Jewish life and Israel, and the imperative to defend both.

From boyhood, he dreamed of flying, and, after joining the Israel air force, he became the youngest pilot in the daring 1981 mission to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor.

He was a natural to be picked as the Israeli payload specialist to join four men and two women on the space shuttle Columbia mission, set for January 2003.

Among the intimate footage are scenes of intensive training and lighthearted breaks, including an interlude in which Ramon leads his American comrades in a peppy round of Israeli cheers.

According to all the testimony, Ramon was that rarity, a modest man of action, “quiet on the ground, a fighter in the air,” as one of his Israeli superiors put it.

The film includes detailed scenes of the space shuttle flight and technology, but its heart lies in Ramon’s personal story, exemplified by the items he took with him into space as his very own payload.

Included were a barbed-wire mezuzah, a gift from the local “1939” Club; a pencil sketch of “Moon Landscape” drawn by a 16-year-old boy killed at Auschwitz; a dollar from the Lubavitcher rebbe; and a miniature Torah scroll, the size of a man’s hand, a gift from a Holocaust survivor.

“Ilan saw himself as the representative of Israel and of all the Jewish people,” his widow, Rona, said.

On the 16th and last day of the Columbia mission, 16 minutes before the scheduled touchdown at Cape Canaveral, the space shuttle disintegrated during its entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Scraps of Ramon’s diary were recovered, but not the tiny Torah. On the next mission, Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean carried a replica into space in memory of his friend Ilan.

Following the 8 p.m. screening on May 5, director Dan Cohen will participate in a discussion of “An Article of Hope.”

Other highlighted festival films include:

“Strangers No More,” a short documentary on the children of the Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, who have come to Israel after fleeing poverty and political strife in their homelands, which won an Oscar this year.

“Precious Life,” which explores Israeli-Palestinian relations through the story of an Israeli doctor and Palestinian mother who attempt to get treatment for her baby.

“Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” which traces the Jewish love affair with the great American game, especially when the likes of Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax are in the lineup.

The closing presentation, on May 12, is “Who Do You Love,” a fictionalized bio-pic about Leonard and Phil Chess, two Jewish immigrant brothers from Poland who helped transform rhythm and blues into classic rock ’n’ roll.

For ticket and other information, visit, phone (800) 838-3006, or buy in person at the Westside Jewish Community Center.

Can a Palestinian story prompt dialogue for Middle East peace?

Julian Schnabel must have known that screening a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the United Nations General Assembly would be scene-stealing. To set the town talking, the event would unite all the trappings — provocative subject matter, prestigious venue, Hollywood glamour.

In fact, the March 14 screening of “Miral” in New York drew a crowd of movie stars, diplomats, artists and intellectuals — Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, Vanessa Redgrave,  Ambassadors Jean Kennedy Smith and Qazi Shaukut Fareed, and Dan Rather, among them – raising the profile of an event that openly merged artistic prominence and political power. But when mixed, art and politics — while not exactly strange bedfellows — can stir into a complicated brew. And, sure enough, Schnabel’s screening spawned a flurry of protest from some of the most powerful and prominent voices in the Jewish establishment, who accused the film of being “one-sided” and “anti-Israel.”

The next day, a Los Angeles Times headline declared:  “Screening of ‘Miral’ at the United Nations draws protests from Jewish groups.”

The wave of controversy that ensued called into question whether a high-profile film written by a Palestinian and sympathetic to “the other side” was simply too much for some Jews to handle. That the filmmaker, Julian Schnabel, is Jewish and presenting a perspective counter to the dominant Jewish paradigm was considered a tribal and national betrayal. That the film’s distributor, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein is a New York Jew, and a vocal supporter of Israel, was even more unsettling. Haven’t the Jews and their State of Israel had it hard enough?

First to object was David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who, the night before the screening, sent out an open letter to United Nations General Assembly President Joseph Deiss. “The film has a clear political message which portrays Israel in a highly negative light,” Harris wrote. “Permit me to ask why the President of the General Assembly would wish to associate himself — and the prestige of his office — with such a blatantly one-sided event.”

Next, Simon Wiesenthal Center founder Rabbi Marvin Hier sounded off: “Last night, when the General Assembly Hall was used for the first time to screen a pro-Palestinian film, marked another sad day in the 63-year-old history of the U.N.’s bias against the State of Israel,” he said in a widely released statement. “It’s bad enough that the 55 Moslem countries in the General Assembly have a virtual lock on the political resolutions there. Now the U.N. wants to extend that anti-Israel bias to the cultural and arts world as well.”

That the screening became cause for Jewish opprobrium seems to reflect deeper issues. Was this a protest of the film itself? Neither Harris nor Hier had yet seen it. Was it, rather, a legitimate complaint about bias against Israel at the world’s preeminent political assembly? Or was it, perhaps, a knee-jerk reaction from the old Jewish guard to anything sympathetic to the Palestinian perspective? Whatever the answers, the conversation surrounding “Miral” is raising serious and important questions about the Jewish response to Palestinian narratives — and, perhaps ironically, perhaps not — that’s exactly what the filmmakers want.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, one member of the post-screening panel discussion at the U.N., suggested that “Miral” offers an important opportunity to approach the conflict with new eyes.

“Everybody should go see it,” Kula, president of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said in a phone interview a few days later, from his New York office. “If you’re a Jew and anything about Israel and Palestinians touches you in any way, you should see this film.”

For Kula and the filmmakers, the hope is that the film will provide rare insight into the Palestinian point of view and inspire dialogue.

“After 63 years of conventional diplomacy, we are now further from a two-state solution than ever before,” Kula said. “We need new forms of peacemaking. Let’s recover personal, intimate human stories, which have been completely clouded out by the political and power narratives.”

Films like “Miral,” he said, offer alternatives to Jewish understanding of the conflict, humanizing individuals on the other side and offering openings for empathy. “Either we live in a moment of pikuach nefesh [“saving a life”], which makes marginalizing and vilifying those with whom one disagrees permissible, or [the reactions are a] projection of repressed, disassociated, split-off guilt about what is happening in Israel that is simply too painful to bear.”

If the early ire of mainstream Jewish groups is any indication, American Jews may not be ready to empathize with Palestinians. For older generations, the historic and seemingly endless suffering of Jews has given rise to the indelible notion that the world is against us. “We all construct narratives to help us get through life, so for a post-Holocaust generation to construct a narrative in which everyone is seen as a Nazi out to destroy us is not crazy,” Kula said. “What trauma does is close down the capacity to trust the other, and we have a traumatized group of senior leadership in American Jewish life.”

For some, that trauma is especially real at a place like the U.N., where an Arab bloc of 55 Muslim countries is outspokenly anti-Israel. The U.N. Human Rights Council, for example, has passed numerous resolutions condemning Israel, while countries with far worse human-rights track records, such as Sudan, get by relatively unscathed. So while the filmmakers saw the U.N. as a powerful forum for dialogue, Harris and Hier saw the potential for an echo chamber of diatribes. And while making movies is an art, and not meant to be objective or balanced, using the U.N. backdrop implies a certain seal of approval for a narrative that is discomfiting for many Jews.

“The moment I hear the words ‘U.N. General Assembly Hall’ — it stinks, because it’s never been open for Jews,” Hier said during a phone interview. “Where’s the film telling Israel’s story? Did they ever show ‘Exodus’ there?”

Prolific Israeli producer-director tries Hollywood

Hollywood attracts hopefuls from the four corners of the earth, but few arrive with as many projects as Israeli producer and director Uri Paster.

Sitting in a French cafe in Westwood, accompanied by his assistant/translator Shlomit Basmat, Paster rattled off four movie and theater projects, and that’s just for 2008.

Unlike many of the starry-eyed newcomers to Tinseltown, Paster comes with a solid record of accomplishments in his native country.

At 24, Paster became the youngest resident director for Habimah, Israel’s national theater, and in the following 12 years won seven Israel Theater Awards. His productions included “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Cry the Beloved Country,” “Lost Among the Stars” and “King of the Jews.”

His real forte is directing musicals, such as “Grease,” “Peter Pan,” “The Wiz” and “Kazablan.”

Four years ago, he branched out into movies and directed “King of Beggars,” which became the first Israeli film to have its world premiere in the United States.

Now, at 46, Paster is ready for his Hollywood close-up.

His first project is the musical film, “Sold Out!” a contemporary take on the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, with a twist. Noah is presented as history’s first stage director, who puts the animals through auditions before they are assigned places on the ark or rejected.

The cast of characters gives new meaning to the word multiethnic, reflecting the roles of Noah’s three sons — Shem, Ham and Japheth — as the forefathers of all mankind.

There are an Algerian musician, Reform rabbi, black rapper, Chasidic tenor, Hungarian stripper, Chinese opera singer, French pop vocalist, Jewish kids and for good measure, a bisexual producer. Everyone, though, speaks English.

The ark itself becomes the setting for a Broadway show, with Noah’s wife as the producer.

Paster wrote the script and the lyrics to songs adapted from popular operas and biblical themes, while Ori Vidislavski did the musical arrangement. Israeli actor Shahar Sorek, who starred in “King of Beggars,” is the co-producer.

Paster said that he has received seed money for “Sold Out!” from the same British and American investors who had backed “King of Beggars.”

In late September, Paster will return to Israel to direct his own play, “Goldenman,” at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv.

The title character is a wealthy New Yorker in his early 60s, who combines the less lovable traits of the protagonists of three Moliere plays — he is stingy, a social climber and a hypochondriac.

The setting of the musical is New York and the songs and dances reflect the 1950s era, said Paster.

Later in the fall, Paster will return to Los Angeles for another movie project, titled,”Elsa Stein,” which goes back in history to the roots of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine.

In 1903, a group of Jewish university students from Berlin arrived in Jaffa, lured by the promise by Baron Rothschild to provide land for a settlement in the Galilee.

These Chovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) soon encounter Arab friendship and hostility, Turkish officials, love affairs, high hopes and disillusionment, until, in the end, only Elsa, the title character, sticks it out.

To wind up the year, Paster said he hopes to establish a Jewish Academy for the Art of Musicals as a training ground for Los Angeles teens between the ages of 13 and 18.

The teens would receive instruction in singing, dancing, drama and Hebrew for three months, and then join professional actors in eight performances of the Israeli comedy, “Kunilemel,” in time for Chanukah.

Paster was born and raised in the northern Israeli town of Afula, and when he was 10, his parents took him once a week to a live musical.

“I fell in love with the singers and dancers,” he recalled, “but I was most interested in what was going on behind the scenes, how the show was put together.”

He performed in an entertainment troupe during part of his military service and afterwards studied directing and writing at Tel Aviv University and in London.

Of his current projects, Paster said, “I don’t want to become an American director, but I do want to make modern Jewish movies. I’ve found that American Jews care more deeply about maintaining Jewish culture and understanding the Jewish past than we Israelis.”

For more information, Paster’s e-mail is

Jewish life in the City of Lights

Fortunately I traveled to Paris before Pesach, because missing buttery croissants and oven-fresh French baguettes would have been ruinous to my experience. Indeed, France is most famous for its delicacies — wine, cheese, pastries, foie gras — but it is also home to a vibrant Jewish community; one that has prospered for the better part of 2,000 years, but currently suffers from a malaise of bad press.

Despite the historic turbulence of Jewish French life, current population statistics suggest there are between 500,000 and 600,000 Jews living in the region, the majority of whom reside in the cultural capital of Paris. The figure is surprising, considering frenzied media depictions of French anti-Semitism, recent waves of Jewish French immigration to Israel and also because the population was estimated at 300,000 prior to World War II, which suggests that, even though France is depicted as less than empathetic to the Jewish community, the Jewish population there has actually grown.

However, the aftermath of Nazi occupation in France left the country scarred, with a visibly guilty conscience, which I investigated during my stay in a 16th century walk-up on the Ile St. Louis.

In a bustling student cafe on Rue Saint-Guillaume just across from the elite French university Sciences Po, a young Parisian typed on his laptop before striking up conversation about the thesis he is writing on generational divides. He seemed well informed, so I asked, “Is it true that the French are hostile to their Jews?”

He laughed, and said that too many people argue politics about the Arab-Israeli conflict without knowing the history, essentially implying that if there’s hostility toward the Jews it’s related to Israel. But it also begged the question: Is argumentation or even Palestinian empathy what the world perceives as hostile to French Jews?

The following night, Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai attended a screening of his new film, “Disengagement” at an artsy independent theater in Place Saint Germain. The film, a French-Israeli co-production (and a good sign of comity in the arts), depicts a woman’s search for the daughter she abandoned, set against the backdrop of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. The film was, in short, riveting; and the Q-&-A that followed revealed French cineastes. were provoked by its content.

Dressed in black with a white scarf draped around his neck, Gitai, 58, stood aloof at the front of the room, fielding question from critics and fans, brooding during one man’s rant about the film’s lack of a Palestinian portrayal.

“This is an Israeli story,” Gitai said, explaining that the conflict in the film was not between Palestinians and Israelis, but between Israeli soldiers and the Israeli citizens they were ordered to remove from their homes; a conflict between secular Jews and religious Jews.

Scrubbing aside content and politics, there was still the idea that an Israeli filmmaker — telling an Israeli story — had been invited to screen his film at a distinguished arts venue, in a city ensconced in highbrow cultural snobbery. Perhaps more importantly, a famous and beautiful French actress (Juliette Binoche) figured prominently on the theater’s marquee, wrapped in an Israeli flag.

Whether fueled by guilt or regret or just plain reparation, Jewish culture is pervasive almost anywhere you go in Paris: There’s the sophisticated bookstore, Librairie Gallimard, which contains shelves full of books about the Holocaust, French resistance fighters and Nazi occupation, along with a special section devoted to Israeli literature; there’s the Holocaust Memorial on the Ile de la Cite, just behind the Notre Dame cathedral, certainly one of Paris’ most popular destinations; there’s the Jewish quarter, Rue de Rosiers, undeniably well situated in the trendy Le Marais, with some of the city’s best shopping, and near the historic Place des Vosges, an opulent 17th-century manse built for royalty.

So for the few-thousand French Jews who have made aliyah since 2004, there emerges new hope, like Gitai’s crosscultural storytelling or the Paris-born, Israeli-raised pop singer Yael Naim whose shows sung in Hebrew, French and English sell out among young, bourgeois Parisians.

In the song “Paris,” Naim’s enchanting ode to her beloved birthplace, she best captures the conflicting sentiments Jews feel for the City of Lights: I came here / A bit disenchanted / This beautiful illusion of mine / The country is so good to me here / So why do I cry and get upset?

Well, because it’s hard choosing between Paris and Israel. But still, it’s delightful to have that choice.

Debra Winger explores Jewish/Arab day schools

Students at the Hand in Hand Max Rayne Bilingual School in Jerusalem didn’t know they were meeting a celebrity. They weren’t born when the films “Officer and a Gentleman” and “Terms of Endearment” garnered Debra Winger her Oscar nominations.

But Winger’s tour last month to the Hand in Hand Arab-Jewish day schools was not necessarily meant to move the students, but to enrich her own understanding of pathways for Arab and Jewish co-existence.

“I’d like to think I’m helping, but in the end, it feels selfish — how much I got out of seeing this and what it did to my heart,” the 53-year-old actress told a group of reporters in the library of the school’s new Jerusalem campus.

Raised in a secular Jewish household in Cleveland, Winger volunteered on a kibbutz in 1972 and has maintained her connection ever since. In fact, she was introduced to the bilingual schools following a talk at the Jewish Federation in Florida on the occasion of Israel’s 60th anniversary.

Speaking to the federation audience, she recalled a “fight” she had with an Arab American friend that was triggered by the Second Lebanon War, which broke out while Winger served as a judge for the Jerusalem Film Festival.

“We couldn’t even talk to each other,” Winger told The Jewish Journal, recounting the episode. “She would forward me e-mails with newspaper articles for me to read, and I would reply, saying could you please replace ‘Zionist occupation’ with ‘Israel’ before you send it to me, and then I’ll read it, because I want to hear different opinions, and you have to show some respect.”

Eventually the two reconciled and made their private peace.

“I think in a way we have a deeper, richer understanding and more openness,” she said.

At first, the audience — perhaps expecting a more “what-Israel-means-to-me” type speech — responded with silence to the story. But then Lee Gordon, director of the American Friends of Hand in Hand and the bilingual schools’ co-founder, initiated a contagious round of applause. After the talk, he spoke with her about the schools’ efforts at promoting dialogue.

Initially, Winger was skeptical of the educational franchise.

“I thought, ‘Oh, it’s another Jewish school that’s inviting a few Arabs, kumbaya, and, you know, it doesn’t ultimately work,'” she said.

But she accepted Gordon’s invitation and went to Israel with her husband, director and actor Arliss Howard, and their 10-year-old son. Upon touring three of the Hand in Hand schools, Winger’s skepticism softened.

“I used to think I could see the face of a peacemaker,” she said, “but clearly, I’ve been wrong way too much. The [students] look like peacemakers to me. They understand the dilemma in a different way.”

At one point, Winger stopped two children in the yard, and they admitted they didn’t know who she was. They thought she was just some American visitor.

“Do you have any questions for me?” Winger asked.

They stared and smiled.

The students carry on their day as usual in what comes across as a typical elementary school. Teenagers roam the halls in jeans and sneakers, and toddlers storm the yard at recess. At one point, Winger joined the children for folk dancing in the yard.

Several clues hint to the school’s uniqueness. Two languages are spoken: Hebrew and Arabic. Some female teachers wear the traditional Muslim hijabs. Universal messages of love and peace taken from the Torah, the Gospels and the Quran, as well as from great Western thinkers, are printed in Hebrew and Arabic on classroom doors.

The Jerusalem student body is equally diverse — 50 percent Jewish, 40 percent Muslim and 10 percent Christian. The majority of Arabs are Israeli citizens.

A good portion of the classes are taught by an Arab-Jewish team. The school supplements the state curriculum with programs that attend to the dual nature of the school. From fourth grade on, Jews and Arabs study their respective religious traditions independently.

The Jerusalem branch opened 10 years ago, along with the Galilee branch, followed by new schools in Wadi Ara and Beersheva. The new Jerusalem campus testifies to the growth of the school from a small, first-grade class to a full-fledged day school with 450 children. The school is expanding into high school, and this fall will add a 10th-grade class.

Seventh-graders Areen Nashef, a Muslim, and her Jewish best friend, Yael Keinan, both 12 years old, smiled mischievously when they got called out of class to speak with The Journal. This is not the first time they’ve spoken to the press. Friends since first grade, they often get together outside of school and sleep over at each other’s houses.

“I thought Areen was a Jew when we first met,” said Yael who has long, dirty-blond hair and a pink paper clip dangling from her earring. “After a few days, she told me she was an Arab, and after that it didn’t matter.”

Both are proud for breaking stereotypes of the “other.”

“I went to my cousin who lives in Taibe, up north,” said Areen. “They didn’t know that I study at a bilingual school. They study in Arabic and learn Hebrew because you have to communicate. When I told them I study with a Jew, they asked, ‘What, they didn’t hit you, hurt you?'”

Yael, who describes herself as traditional, has encountered similar suspicions.

“I have a friend who couldn’t believe I had an Arab friend. She saw only what she saw on the news,” Yael said.

Both thoroughly enjoy their studies.

“It’s fun to speak more than one language and also learn another culture,” said Yael.

Speaking in Hebrew, the students have much to say about sensitive issues, particularly politics. Areen described wanting “to feel that Jews were hurt by the Nazis.” On the same note, Yael recalled visiting Arab villages that fell to the Israeli forces during the War of Independence.

“I don’t identify with the Jews or the Palestinians,” said Areen. “I just know you have to have two nations. I think you may need a Jewish state, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of another people.”

Crooners celebrate Canuckia’s Cohen and a first for our very own Greenberg

Saturday the 24th

A Leonard Cohen love fest takes place at Royce Hall this evening. The enigmatic genius poet/songwriter is paid tribute in an event titled “The Gospel According to Leonard Cohen,” which is presented by Perla Batalla, a vocalist with whom he has frequently worked. While surprise guests are promised, confirmed performers include Jackson Browne, Michael McDonald, Howard Tate, Bill Gable, Bill Frisell and Don Was.

8 p.m. $17-$52. UCLA Royce Hall, Westwood. (310) 825-2101. ‘ target=’_blank’>

Tuesday the 27th

Despite what we feel is a terrible title, “Melanoma My Love” may be worth your attention. The interesting premise of this Israeli film is a tragic tale about a young dancer who is diagnosed with melanoma at age 30, and given only three months to live. Not wanting to shatter her spirit with such precious time left, her husband chooses to hide the prognosis from her. The film screens — with a conversation with star Sharon Zukerman to follow — at UC Irvine tonight, and Pomona College tomorrow.

Feb. 27, UC Irvine.

Feb. 28, Pomona College International Theater, Pomona.
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Thursday the 1st

Local author T Cooper signs her new acclaimed novel, “Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes” at Malibu’s Diesel bookstore on Wednesday, and Skylight Books today. To quote Publisher’s Weekly’s assessment of her latest, “[Cooper] takes apart the usual Jewish heritage tale and the themes of assimilation, touching them with postmodern parody and Chagallesque folk magic.”

Feb. 28, 7 p.m., Diesel, A Bookstore, 3890 Cross Creek Road, Malibu. (310) 456-9961.

March 1, 7:30 p.m. Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 660-1175.

Friday the 2nd

A Shabbat service with vocal resonance awaits at the Wilshire Theatre, this evening. The 50-voice Tabernacle Gospel Choir led by Justin White joins the Tova Marcos Singers of Temple of the Arts in an interfaith, intercultural “Shared Heritage of Freedom” service. They will be led by Rabbi David Baron and Bishop Charles Blake of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ.

8 p.m. Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 658-9100. IFF: Engaging in disengagement — five horrible days in Gaza

Israeli filmmakers garner praise in Berlin

“I Have Never Forgotten You,” a documentary on the life and work of Nazi Hunter Simon Wiesenthal, was warmly received at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival, which concluded this week.

The Hollywood Reporter praised the film as “a moving testament … that will be viewed for generations to come.” Richard Trank, the film’s director, said he hoped that the documentary would keep Wiesenthal’s example alive.

Trank also co-wrote the script with Rabbi Marvin Hier, founding dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, whose Moriah Film division produced the picture.

“I Have Never Forgotten You” screened as an official entry in the festival’s Berlinale Special, which featured works linked to current events and deserving particular attention.

Israeli filmmakers also did themselves proud at the Berlin festival, which ranks with Cannes and Venice as the most important events of their kind in Europe.

New York-born Joseph Cedar, who came to Israel as a child, won the Silver Bear award as the festival’s best director, besting, among others, Clint Eastwood of “Letters From Iwo Jima” fame.

Cedar’s movie, “Beaufort,” details the final days of the last Israeli unit to be evacuated from the Beaufort Castle in Lebanon in 2000.He is the rare Israeli filmmaker who is also a religiously observant Jew and himself served as a paratrooper in Lebanon.

“It is obvious we’re against war and it’s horrible,” Cedar said after winning the award. “Hopefully, this film will give insight into the specific nature and how absurd combat and war are.”

Another Israeli entry, “Sweet Mud” by Dror Shaul, won the top prize, the Crystal Bear, in the festival’s Generation section for films about children and teens. The film depicts the struggles of a boy growing up in a 1970s kibbutz.

Making it a triple play, Eytan Fox’s “The Bubble” took top honors in the festival’s International Confederation of Art House Cinemas competition. The film follows the romantic relationship between two men, one Jewish and the other Palestinian.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Israelis Do the Riviera

Amid the celebrities and paparazzi crowding the Cannes Film Festival last week, Katriel Schory roamed the bustling boulevard Croisette like a proud parent.

“Israeli cinema has never had such a presence here,” Schory, director of the Israel Film Fund, said via the cell phone that seems attached to his ear.

Yes, Moshe Mizrahi was nominated for the top prize with his 1972 romantic drama, “I Love You, Rosa,” and Amos Gitai competed five times with his edgy, political films, winning a 2000 award for “Kippur.”

“But I’ve attended this festival for 30 years, and we have a higher profile now than ever,” Schory said. “We’re receiving unprecedented recognition in multiple sections of Cannes.”

The evidence may not appear earth-shattering by Hollywood or Cannes standards. By the time the 12-day extravaganza ends on May 28, almost 1,500 movies from more than 90 countries will have screened in the world’s largest international film festival and market. Yet, for the small but growing Israeli film industry, the progress is dramatic, Schory said. The festival will showcase 15 movies — up from nine in 2005 — some during the first-ever Israel film day, he added.

Two Israeli students, selected by a jury that includes American director Tim Burton, will vie against 15 peers in Cannes’ student competition, perhaps the most prestigious of its kind in the world.

Meanwhile, 40-something auteur Dover Kosashvili (“Late Marriage”), was bustling to meetings with more than 60 financiers — part of a 2006 festival program to help 18 promising directors complete new projects.

On the ground floor of the Palais des Festivals, visitors were streaming to Israel’s official booth, according to Schory: “People are asking, ‘What’s cooking?’ ‘What are the new titles?’ It’s completely different than even several years ago, when once in a while someone used to stop by.”

Schory said he is being wooed by leaders of other international film festivals, who previously ignored him.

“I used to have to beg them to take our movies,” he recalls. “But this year, the Locarno people insisted that I come to their party and that they want a closer relationship with us. And just a couple hours ago, the woman who schedules the Venice festival came up to me and said she wanted to talk as soon as possible about the latest crop of Israeli films.”

Schory’s Israel Film Fund finances up to 70 percent of all Israeli films with his annual budget of $7 million. He has theories about why Israeli cinema is generating interest at home and abroad.

Back in the 1980s, he said, homegrown cinema revolved around the Middle East conflict, a subject too specific to generate foreign sales. Even Israelis were sick of the topic from the news. In the 1990s, filmmakers focused on what Schory calls “navel-gazing” — movies so tediously personal they bored everyone. (Not to mention that the production values and storylines needed work, critics have said.)

In 1998, less than 1 percent of Israelis bothered to see Israeli films: “Our industry was practically dead,” Schory said.

Then came a new crop of artists armed with superior technical skills they had learned at Israel’s blossoming film schools or by working in the country’s bourgeoning TV industry.

“These directors are focusing on intimate dramas dealing with universal, day to day problems — family and social issues that are part of the life of every human being,” Schory said.

Kosashvili’s 2001 drama, “Late Marriage,” about a man torn between his lover and his immigrant family, was the first such film to “pull us out of our slump,” Schory recalls. It didn’t hurt, either, that the Los Angeles Times called “Marriage’s” hottest sex scene “the longest and most erotic, tender and passionate ever to occur in a serious film.”

The drama not only drew some 300,000 Israeli viewers, compared to around 15,000 for previous films; it also earned a slot in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard competition.

Also in 2001, France signed a co-production agreement with Israel that to date has generated 15 films, including Eran Riklis’ searing and highly acclaimed “The Syrian Bride.” Three years later, American distributors bought 9 of the 20 films produced in 2004, said Meir Fenigstein of the Israel Film Festival.

And Israeli movies sold 2.5 million tickets abroad — 1 million of them in France — the following year.

Many of the new directors depict unflinching critiques of Israeli society, a trend now reflected at Cannes. Yaniv Berman’s 30-minute student short, “Even Kids Started Small,” for example, dissects violence at public schools (see sidebar). Yuval Shafferman’s “Things Behind the Sun” depicts a family paralyzed by secrets.

Kosashvili’s new project, “Kishta,” is another kind of domestic drama, an erotic love triangle set in the third century. Cannes officials are providing invaluable help to the director and his producers as they hustle to raise the additional $3 million they’ll need to shoot the $4 million drama.

“The festival has set up meetings with bigwigs we would not have been able to get on our own,” producer Edgard Tenenbaum said by cell phone between appointments. “It’s also great because we don’t have to fly around the world to pitch.”

All this despite ongoing resentment toward Israel due to the Palestinian conflict — especially in European nations such as France. Schory believes this is one

case where art — and cash — transcend politics.

“No one invests in movies for philanthropic reasons or for any special affection for the Jewish state,” he said. “They invest because they’ve seen Israeli movies sell tickets, and they believe they can recoup their money.”

Not that politics are completely absent from the festival; they never are, he adds. Schory cites a panel discussion he just attended in which a Tunisian producer grilled him about the status of Israeli Arab directors.

Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, of the controversial suicide bombing saga, “Paradise Now,” is a judge in the top competition this year.

“That won’t affect us, because Israeli films aren’t participating,” Schory said. “But I don’t think Suleiman could be objective about an Israeli film.”

Even so, he adds, Jewish and Arab filmmakers are at least talking to each other, if only to lament the obstacles to co-production.

“At the end of the day, film is a universal language,” Schory said.

And with that, he headed off to meetings at the end of his day.


N for No-Nonsense Natalie

Natalie Portman has probably populated more fanboy fantasies than anyone this side of Jessica Alba.

Besides presiding over the recent “Star Wars” films as Queen Amidala, she plays a bald, beautiful and badass revolutionary in “V For Vendetta,” opening March 17, the latest film from “Matrix” masterminds Andy and Larry Wachowski. As the missing link between the universes of George Lucas and the Wachowski Brothers, Portman holds a unique place in geek-movie history

“Yes, they’re all somehow linked now,” she says. “It’s sort of hard to put a genre label on ‘V For Vendetta,’ but it fits in the action category with ‘Star Wars,’ even though it’s a little bit more provocative. But I will leave it to all the people who love to write essays about this kind of stuff to make ‘Matrix’ and ‘V’ connections and ‘Star Wars’ and ‘V’ connections. There’s certainly plenty to discuss.”

Portman professes much love for Lucas and the “Star Wars” experience, but she also insinuates that the trilogy provided her with a handy way of staying in movies while she was off attending Harvard University.

“I was in school during the year, and then on summer break I would do a

‘Star Wars,'” says the Jerusalem-born actress. “But I’m done with school, done with ‘Star Wars.’ I’ve graduated.”

“V For Vendetta” is a whopper of a graduation present. Adapted by the Wachowskis from a graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, the movie is set in a future world squirming under the thumb of a totalitarian chancellor (John Hurt). Homosexuality is illegal; freedom of speech is a memory; and hope is in short supply.

One day, a mysterious figure appears, wearing a mask designed to look like Guy Fawkes, the 17th century Catholic revolutionary who tried to blow up British Parliament in 1605. Calling himself V (Hugo Weaving), the cape-wearing anti-hero is planning a series of terrorist attacks against the repressive British government. Portman plays Evey Hammond, a waif who becomes V’s protégé.

Making a $50 million movie with a terrorist as a hero is a bold movie in post-Sept. 11 America. Portman knew the film would spark controversy but found herself instantly drawn to its provocative, envelope-pushing subject matter.

“Being from Israel was one of the reasons that I wanted to do this movie, because terrorism and violence have been such a daily part of my thought process and conversation ever since I was young,” she says. “One of the books that I read to help me with this role was Menachim Begin’s book about his experiences in a Siberian prison. Eventually he came to lead Israel in the British occupation of Palestine. He was called a terrorist by many people. Israelis have been called terrorists all through history.”

“The movie asks important questions, like, ‘When, if ever, is violence justified?’ And ‘What is the threshold for how pressing a situation can be before we have to revolt?’ One of the great things about the movie is that it leaves those questions open for discussion,” she says.

Portman has always tried to pursue thought-provoking material. She played the title role in a Broadway production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 1997, embodied an American stripper living in London for “Closer” (earning a best supporting actress nomination in the process) and starred in the Israeli film “Free Zone,” which premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Fest.

The actress accepted the vanity-destroying role of Evey knowing that one of the requirements was an on-camera trip to the barber.

“It wasn’t traumatic because I was trying to focus on what my character was going through,” says Portman about getting a buzzcut. “We only had one shot to do it. I don’t really have any personal memories of the experience.”

Since shooting the film, Portman’s hair has grown out a few inches. For today’s interview, she’s wearing it spiky and punked-up. Dressed in jeans, an open sweater and the world’s tiniest ballet slippers, Portman looks a good deal younger than her 24 years.

As a former child star who made her film debut in the bullet ballet “The Professional,” Portman is used to suffering for her art, but she drew the line when it came to doing her own stunts. Claiming to be “not in great shape,” she allowed her “Vendetta” double to do all of the tough stuff.

“I would do the end of the stunt,” she says. “Someone else would fall out of the window, and then I would end up there on the ground. That’s movie magic.”

Not everything about “V” has been so easy. In fact, the film has been surrounded by controversy since production got underway last year. Real-life terrorism, the firing of a leading man and the airing of a famous filmmaker’s dirty laundry all figured into the long, arduous process of bringing the graphic novel to the screen.

Originally published in 1981, “V For Vendetta” was written as an indictment of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative politics. A few years later, the rights were scooped up by producer Joel Silver (“Lethal Weapon,” “The Matrix”) who approached the Wachowskis about penning an adaptation. When “The Matrix” trilogy started winding down, the brothers finally decided to revisit the risky material.

Instead of directing the film themselves, the brothers and Silver hired “The Matrix” second unit director James McTiegue to call “action” and “cut.”

The Wachowskis were apparently on the set nearly every single day, which inspired rumors that McTiegue was a mere figurehead and that the brothers were calling the shots themselves.

McTiegue insists that gossip was unfounded.

“The Wachowskis were the producers and they wrote the script,” he notes. “They were a great sounding board but they were the first to tell me that I could take or leave their suggestions.”

The production encountered another problem when the graphic novel’s writer Alan Moore requested that his name be taken off the final film. Stung by the poor adaptation of “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” Moore apparently made his decision without ever seeing a frame of “V For Vendetta.”

“I did call Alan and ask him not to have his name removed,” notes David Lloyd, who illustrated the graphic novel. “I wish he hadn’t done it. But he isn’t happy until the movie is a perfect reproduction. Alan has a clear viewpoint of what he represents as a person and an artist. My viewpoint is completely different. I think they’ve done a great job with the film.”

Yet another potentially disastrous turn of events unfolded when the original actor cast as V — “Rome’s” James Purefoy — was fired midway through the film and replaced by “The Matrix’s” Hugo Weaving. Purefoy apparently wasn’t a dynamic enough presence for the filmmakers. Even though Silver confirms that some of Purefoy’s scenes remain in the film, Weaving receives the sole screen credit and also provides V’s voice.

Portman was surprised when the change was made. She enjoyed working with both actors but saves most of her praise for Weaving.

“With an actor like Hugo, your job is so much easier because he has this incredible, very specific character that he creates just through his vocal and physical expressiveness,” she says. “Even though he was wearing a mask, I felt he was there with me all of the time.”

Originally scheduled to be released in November 2005 — to coincide with Guy Fawkes Day — the film was delayed after a July 2005 bombing in a British subway claimed the lives of 52 civilians. Portman believes the intermingling of reel and real events is indicative of just how much “V For Vendetta” has its finger on the pulse of the times.

“Obviously, when you see any act of violence anywhere with casualties, you’re always horrified,” she says of the London tragedy. “I’m optimistic to hope that this movie doesn’t present an exact vision of our future, but obviously there are many elements that resonate with historical events and current events.”

With its depiction of a repressive government without checks and balances, “V For Vendetta” can be read as a commentary on Bush’s America. Does Portman see any parallels?

“I think that there are many people who will take it that way,” she says. “But there are other people I know who are pro-Bush and they’ve seen this as an anti-fascism movie.”

A few weeks before the release of “V For Vendetta,” Rolling Stone magazine published an unflattering story about Larry Wachowski’s increasingly unusual behavior. Apparently, Wachowski left his wife, took up with a dominatrix named Mistress Strix and began cross-dressing. Wachowski, who never consents to interviews, has yet to respond to the claims.

McTiegue also refuses to comment on the chit-chat surrounding the brothers.

“I pay about as much attention to those stories as they deserve, which isn’t much,” McTiegue says. “I don’t comment on people’s personal lives.”

To hear Portman tell it, “V For Vendetta” dovetails nicely with her burgeoning interest in world affairs. Recently, the actress helped promote the efforts of FINCA, an organization devoted to helping establish banks for women in developing nations.

Visiting Uganda, Ecuador and Guatemala with the group has opened Portman’s eyes to the amount of work that needs to be down to help end global poverty.

“I definitely think that maybe someday I’ll be doing other things besides acting,” she says. “But until I do them, I’ve learned not to talk about it. I’ve been interviewed since I was 12 years old and I feel as if I’ve left a trail of unfulfilled dreams behind me.”

After finishing “V For Vendetta,” Portman “took a breather” by contributing supporting performances to Milos Forman’s costume drama “Goya’s Ghost” with Javier Bardem and the kiddie flick “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” with Dustin Hoffman.

“I’m just trying to do different things because I feel like if I can keep myself interested then there’s the hope of keeping an audience interested, too.” l

Amy Longsdorf is a freelance writer who can be reached at

A Small Man With Big Dreams

Thirty-seven year old Ami Ankilewitz weighs just 39 pounds; he suffers from a rare disease called spinal muscular atrophy, which has prevented his muscles from growing and functioning. As a result, his body is skeletal; his small, fragile bones seem mangled and twisted, thinly covered by skin pulled tight. His eyes stare out dark and black from a gaunt, bony face, which appears too large and too animated for Ami’s debilitated body.

But what is clear in “39 Pounds of Love,” the wonderful Israeli documentary film about Ami that is winning awards in festivals all over the world, is that while his body is crippled, his soul is not. Ami is a party boy who frequents Tel Aviv bars. His humor is sarcastic and bawdy. Although he is dependent on others for the most basic tasks, including washing and eating, he has many friends. He is also, as much as possible, self-sufficient. He works as an animator, using the one finger on his left hand not affected by his disease to shift a computer mouse to create incredible animated images that move in ways he cannot.

Ami is a dreamer and a romantic. The film tells the story of his unrequited love for Christina, the beautiful, vibrant, Romanian nurse who tends to him with the sincerity of a lover, but whose heart stays elsewhere. Not only does Christina brush his teeth, carry him from the bath and take him for walks in the park — where people stare and run away — at parties she inhales smoke from Hookahs, and, using her lips, transfers it to Ami’s mouth.

Christina does not love Ami, so, his heart torn asunder, he asks her to leave. He decides to do what he has always wanted to do — travel to the United States, take a cross-country road trip, ride a Harley-Davidson and confront the doctor who told his mother when he was an infant that he would live only until the age of 6.

“[The doctor] just didn’t take into account that I have the soul of a Harley-Davidson,” Ami says in the film.

“39 Pounds of Love” is about Ami’s journey, literal and spiritual.

“The cross country for me is like for you climbing Mt. Everest,” Ami says. He and his band of attendants, including his best friend and caretaker Asaf; Dani Menkin, the film’s director; producer Daniel Chalfen; various other sound and camera guys; and, at certain points, Ami’s Mexican-born mother and his brother, make their way across the States in an RV, forming a fraternity of sorts. They stop in the Arizona desert, where they commune with Native Americans and cowboys. In New Mexico they enter a healing church, where Ami lies down on the pews and is blessed by the pastor. In Texas, they go into a sex shop, where the assistant asks Ami if he is into “bondage.” In California, Ami is blessed by a biker, who lays his hands over Ami’s face, right before Ami gets the ride of his life in the sidecar of a motorcycle.

In the course of his journey, Ami comes to terms with his past and confronts people who, in various ways, have wounded him. In Texas, he visits his estranged brother Oscar, now married with children. Growing up, and even as an adult, Oscar resented the attention Ami received from their mother, and on Oscar’s last trip to Israel, the brothers fought and from then on did not speak. They make up on camera. In Florida, in a somewhat anti-climactic encounter, Ami finally meets Dr. Cordova, now an old man in a Miami apartment, who seems bemused but patient with the person he gave a death sentence to so many years ago.

Throughout, Ami continues to yearn for Christina. And, punctuating the real-life drama, we see Ami’s animation work, a passionate story of two birds. One is blue and skinny like Ami, the other plump and lush with full red lips, like Christina. The birds flirt, and the blue bird, clearly besotted, brings the other gifts of worms. She rejects him nonetheless, and he flies away, dejected, then sets out to climb a mountain so he can reach the sky and steal the moon for his beloved.

“39 Pounds of Love” is a film about dreams. It is a film about the curious manner in which things we long for fulfill themselves in ways we never anticipated. It is also a film about hope, which soars eternal, even after what we hope for ebbs away from us.

For the filmmakers, Ami’s story is almost as remarkable as the story of the film itself.

Menkin met Ami in a Tel Aviv bar and was immediately drawn to him. He started filming Ami, and then, while participating in the 2002 filmmakers’ master class program of the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, showed a three-minute promotional video of Ami to the instructors. Receiving enough encouragement and support from executive producer Lynn Roth, then teaching the master class, Menkin and Ami came to the States and started making their film.

In the process, Menkin invested more than $100,000 of his own money to make the film. He also convinced much of his crew to work for free.

“There are films with budgets of $60 million,” said Menkin, who spoke to The Journal by phone from New York. “But we have $60 million of heart.”

And the efforts paid off. Not only did Ami get to go on his journey of a lifetime, but the film won the 2005 Israeli Academy Award for best documentary and is now on the Oscar short list for films eligible for a best documentary nomination. It was also picked up by HBO/Cinemax, which is supporting its U.S. release.

“When we started making this film, everyone thought we were stupid or crazy,” Menkin said. “But now we are on the short list and everyone wants to interview us.”

The film has brought Ami a degree of fame. Ever since it won the Israeli Academy Award, Ami has been receiving e-mails from people interested in his story, and he has been in demand as a lecturer, even giving a presentation to the Israel Defense Forces.

“He is inspiring people — he is talking about his feelings and how to overcome obstacles,” Menkin said.

He has also found a new love — his caretaker, Vika.

“Ami set goals, and his next goal was being in love again, and she is the one who replaced Christina,” Menkin said. “And this time they are together, so there is a happy ending.”

Dani Menkin and Asaf (Ami’s best friend) will be participating in a question-and-answer session after the evening screenings of “39 Pounds of Love” on Dec. 2 (opening night), 3 and 4 at the Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd. The evening screenings take place at 7:30 p.m. and 9:40 pm. For more information, call (310) 281-8223 or visit

Italian Entry Locked Out of Oscar Race

Even the annual Oscar competition can’t stay clear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This year, the brouhaha is about “Private,” a film centering on a Palestinian West Bank family whose home is temporarily taken over by a squad of Israeli soldiers.

“Private,” the work of Italian director Saverio Costanzo, was shot by an Italian crew and was selected as Italy’s official entry in the foreign language film Oscar category.

It was promptly rejected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which accepted entries from 57 other countries, including Israel and the not-yet nation of Palestine.

The rejection, a news release from the Italian producers hints darkly, was due to the favorable treatment of the film’s Palestinian family.

Not so, Academy spokeswoman Teni Melidonian said. The problem lies in the fact that the languages spoken in “Private” are Arabic, Hebrew and English, but there isn’t a word of Italian.

“Our rules state clearly that an entry must be predominantly in the language of the country submitting the film” Melidonian said.

Italy quickly substituted another film, titled “La Bestia Nel Cuore” (“Don’t Tell” in English), but the controversy shouldn’t overshadow this intriguing movie, which includes some persuasive acting by a mixed Arab and Israeli cast.

Mohammad, his wife, Samia, and their five children live in an isolated two-story house, halfway between a Palestinian village and an Israeli settlement.

Suddenly one night (the film was shot in late 2003 with the intifada in full force), a squad of Israeli soldiers burst into the house to secure it as a lookout post facing Palestinian snipers.

At first, the family is ordered to evacuate the house, but Mohammad stands fast and refuses to leave.

The Israelis agree to a compromise, unthinkable in any other war, of allowing the family to stay in the downstairs living room and kitchen, while the soldiers take over the upstairs bedrooms.

Ofer, the leader of the squad, lays down one condition. On pain of severe punishment, none of the family members can go upstairs, and at night the door to the living room is locked from the outside.

Under the jampacked living conditions, the family’s nerves and tempers quickly fray. The wife wants to leave for the children’s safety. The older teenagers, fed steady TV images of heroic Palestinian martyrs, urge direct resistance.

But Mohammad, a teacher and Shakespeare fan, remains adamant that the most effective path is nonviolent resistance, expressed in the family insistence on staying put.

Mariam, the older daughter, plays a daring game by sneaking upstairs and observing the soldiers secretly through a crack in a closet door.

To her surprise, the young, clean-cut soldiers are quite human. One plays the flute, another does artwork; they miss home, and they complain about their officers.

The exception is Ofer, a disciplinarian and bit of a bully, who keeps the men in line and at one point threatens to shoot Mohammad, but even he eventually complains about constantly moving from one Arab house to another.

Despite the extreme stress, the Arab family is almost too good to be true, regardless of ethnicity. Mohammad is a deeply caring father and tender husband, the wife is scared but loyal, and the youngest kids are Hollywood cute.

The father is portrayed by Mohammad Bakri, a veteran Israeli Arab character actor, whose mixture of fortitude and sensitivity gives the film much of its strength. The wife’s role is skillfully acted by Areen Omari.

In shooting the film, director Costanzo favored hand-held cameras and barely visible interior settings, not always to the film’s or viewer’s advantage.

It is obvious that he intends to steer the audience’s sympathy toward the family. Nevertheless, as in earlier films by both Palestinian and Israeli directors (“Divine Intervention,” “Rana’s Wedding” and “The Syrian Bride”), with foreign audiences in mind, the Israelis are portrayed not as ruthless conquerors but as recognizable human characters.

“Private,” with English subtitles, opens Dec. 2 at the Laemmle Fairfax 3 in Los Angeles, One Colorado in Pasadena and University Town Center in Irvine. For more information, visit or for details.


7 Days in The Arts

Saturday, November 5

Santa Monica Playhouse Youth Performers perform some tikkun olam and a musical show all at once. This weekend, the 10- to-14-year-olds present “Drempels, aka: The Short but Happy Life of the Drempel Hieronymus Aloisius Plonk.” The musical comedy imagines a make-believe mischievous species called Drempels that live underground. Proceeds from today’s and tomorrow’s shows will benefit The Jenesse Center Hurricane Relief Fund in South Los Angeles, which is currently housing more than 300 Katrina evacuees.

7:30 p.m. (Sat.), 5 p.m. (Sun.). $20 (donation). The Other Space at Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 394-9779, ext. 2.

Sunday, November 6

In the Israeli film, “Joy,” the title character and her family are anything but. However, with the help of her favorite reality TV show, Joy Levine hopes she might be able to change her family’s lot by reconciling her parents with the estranged friends who pulled away from them after a mysterious event some 22 years earlier. The film screens on Nov. 5 and 6, as part of AFI Fest.

6:15 p.m. (Nov. 5), 4 p.m. (Nov. 6). ArcLight Hollywood, 6360 Sunset Blvd. R.S.V.P., (866) 234-3378. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Monday, November 7

Veteran newsman Mike Wallace talks with ABC News’ Judy Muller this evening at Temple Emanuel. Having worked on “60 Minutes” since its 1968 premiere, Wallace’s list of interviewees includes American presidents, world leaders and classic entertainers. He reveals some of the stories behind the interviews in his new memoir, “Between You and Me,” and with any luck, tonight at Emanuel.

7:30 p.m. 300 N. Clark Drive, Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (310) 335-0917. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Tuesday, November 8

Simms Taback offers up the differences between a schlemiel and shlimazel, and other vital Yiddish lessons in his book, “Kibitzers and Fools: Tales My Zayda Told Me.” He’s at Children’s Book World this afternoon for storytelling and a booksigning.

Ages 6 and up. 1:30-3 p.m. 10580 1/2 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 559-2665.

Wednesday, November 9

Bi now, gay later? That’s the question in Dan Rothenberg’s new one-man show, “Regretrosexual.” The neurotic Jewish guy is ready to propose to his girlfriend, if only he can get up the guts to be honest with her about his gay-curious sexual past.

8 p.m. (Tues.-Thurs.), through Nov. 17. $18. The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 969-4790. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Thursday, November 10

Every holiday finds us overeating or fasting, but professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett takes the analysis a few steps further today. The USC Casden Institute presents her lecture on “Recipes for Community: A History of the Jewish Kitchen,” which explores the Jewish relationship with food from the 19th century until today.

5:30 p.m. Free. USC campus. R.S.V.P., (213) 740-3405. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Friday, November 11

Being a celeb super couple can be tough. Consider how it feels to be Bennifer in Adam Goldberg’s new film, “I Love Your Work.” At turns somber and self-mocking, the film addresses the culture of celebrity through the story of a movie star who goes crazy trying to cope with his fame after marrying an equally famous starlet.

Regent Showcase Theater, 614 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 934-2944.

Eran Plays With Hot Topics in ‘Sandbox’

“God’s Sandbox,” the latest Israeli film to tackle women’s issues, depends in large part on the mystery and romance of the desert for its effect. This is evident from its very first moments, when a car, driving slowly along a winding desert road, stops at what appears to be no particular point, and lets out a passenger: a middle-aged woman wearing a sensible straw hat to protect herself from the scorching heat, lugging a bulky suitcase. Liz (Razia Israeli), a sensible-looking author, has arrived in this remote Sinai outpost to locate her wayward daughter, Rachel (Orly Perel), who has fled the comforts of home for the pleasures of the desert.

Summoning all her powers of persuasion, Liz begs Rachel to return, but the younger woman is adamant that this Bedouin beachfront encampment, which seems to be stocked with an array of other dropouts, is her new home. Mustafa (Sami Samir), who does double duty as the local cafe’s proprietor and Rachel’s boyfriend, senses the tension cutting through the air, and offers to while away the time by telling the women “a love story from the desert,” and proceeds to narrate a tale of the passionate romance between Nagim (Juliano Merr), a sheik’s son and free spirit Leila (Meital Duan). Desperately attracted to the non-Bedouin roustabout, Nagim begs his father for permission to marry her, but his father refuses and the lovers are cast out, forced to fend for themselves in the unforgiving desert.

“God’s Sandbox” toggles between past and present, between the story and its telling, and — in so doing — offers an unusual mix of romance and drama, social critique and passionate love story. The story is also about the Israeli generation gap: The battle between Liz and Rachel is left mostly unsketched, but from its vague outlines, it is clear that Rachel has rejected Israeli society in its entirety, embracing another culture in the hopes of cleansing herself of its impurities. Working from a script by Yoav and Hanita Halevy, director Doron Eran piles on a full plate of burning social issues, adding Jewish-Arab relations and female-genital mutilation to the pile.

Yes, female-genital mutilation; as in another recent film, Ousmane Semb?ne’s “Moolaadé,” “God’s Sandbox” embroils itself in the thorny debate over certain native cultures’ practice of removing young women’s clitorises. Leila, journeying with Nagim to see his uncle in the hopes of finding shelter, witnesses a barbaric scene out of a nightmare: a young woman crying wordlessly and hideously, like a wounded animal. Leila asks another bystander why this woman is crying, and the response she receives is a finger silently pointing between her legs. Simultaneously entranced and horrified, Leila watches as a gathering of female elders washes the prone woman’s body as she jerks and cries, her eyes wide open in terror. An older woman wields her scalpel, its metal point glinting in the faint light, and when knife touches body, the “patient” lets loose a horrific, unearthly scream.

An onlooker remarks, “Purification is a precious thing to a man,” and those words end up ringing true for Leila in unexpected ways.

In fact, the Hebrew title of the film translates as “purification,” and in addition to its most obvious resonance there lurks a possible explanation of Rachel’s rebellious hostility. “God’s Sandbox” emphasizes the quasi-mystical properties of desert life, choosing to take place in a never-specified Neverland removed from daily socio-political care, but Liz and Rachel are very clearly marked as Israelis. Rachel is a sister to the Israelis who choose to drop out from the pressures of life in the Holy Land, whether permanently or just for a few years. In rejecting her mother’s entreaties, she is also rejecting the call of her homeland to return to its constricting embrace.

“God’s Sandbox” craftily lays out the power relationships between characters through the use of different languages: English is the language of shared discourse, but mother and daughter speak Hebrew among themselves, being that Hebrew is the language of exclusionary intimacy. Meanwhile, Rachel and Mustafa occasionally speak Arabic to each other, an expression of their own bond, and of Rachel’s petulant dismissal of her mother’s claims to her.

“God’s Sandbox” ultimately tries to bring together its two story lines, but their union is awkward at best. Still, though the variegated topics it tackles make for an odd coupling, there are moments of genuine power here, as well. Claudio Steinberg’s photography is lovely to look at, lending the film’s desert landscapes a grandeur that renders it a down-home version of “Lawrence of Arabia.”

The film opens July 29 in L.A. For more information, visit

In Search of ‘Shlomi’

Shlomi, the 16-year-old protagonist of the Israeli film, “Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi,” has his hands full.

He cooks the family meals, cleans up, does the laundry, is the peacemaker in his quarrelsome Moroccan family and bathes his grandfather, who greets him every morning with the film’s title.

For his pains, the wide-eyed Shlomi is considered none too bright by his family and in school, where he is flunking out.

Worse, Shlomi believes the outside world’s assessment of him, which seems to be confirmed by his first attempt at romance. When he suggests to his girlfriend that they “upgrade” their relationship — Hebrew slang for having sex — she “freezes” him out.

At home, the situation is even worse. His obsessive mother has kicked out her hypochondriac husband for a one-time slip with her best friend. Shlomi’s older brother is the mother’s favorite, and she regales the boy with clinical details of his real and fancied sexual conquests.

Shlomi’s older sister has twin babies but regularly returns to her mother’s home to detail her fights with her husband, who shamefully surfs the Internet for porn.

It all looks like another story of another dysfunctional family, a recurring theme in Israeli movies, when Shlomi’s life slowly turns around.

A perceptive teacher and school principal gradually peel away Shlomi’s layers of self-doubt and discover an exceptional mind and poetic sensibility.

A neighboring girl recognizes Shlomi’s real inner worth, and in a beautiful scene they shyly offer each other their finest gifts — she, the herbs she grows in her garden, and he, the diet-defying cakes he bakes in the kitchen.

The film’s theme is “the pain created by the gap between one’s outer image and the inner truth,” said Shemi Zarhin, the film’s director, himself of North African descent.

“Monsieur Shlomi” is a charming film, a word rarely applied to Israeli movies. Oshri Cohen portrays Shlomi with absolute veracity and his relationship with his grandfather (Arie Elias) is deeply affecting.

As a special bonus, Ashkenazic viewers will get a much-needed insight into the lifestyle of Israel’s Sephardic Jews. Although director Zarhin’s ancestors came to Palestine nearly 300 years ago, “both I and Oshri grew up with the mindset that we were part of Israel’s underclass,” he said.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi” opens July 16 in Los Angeles.

World Briefs

U.S.: Sept. 11, Pearl Death Linked

The alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks is believed to be the murderer of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who American authorities now believe is behind both incidents, is in U.S. custody. Pearl, the Journal’s South Asia bureau chief, was kidnapped last year in Pakistan. His captors forced him to admit his Jewishness on videotape before slitting his throat and decapitating him. In a related development, a Hollywood studio reportedly has paid a “high six-figure sum” for rights to the memoirs of Pearl’s widow, Mariane.

Palestinian Film Gets Oscar

A Palestinian film could be nominated as best foreign-language film by the Oscar committee. “Divine Intervention” an absurdist look at the story of two Palestinian lovers, was rejected by the academy last year after it was submitted by its French producer.

“We’re not trying to be the U.N. and say that Palestine is a country. We’re saying that there’s a film industry that considers itself Palestinian, and it has come up with a film worthy of submission,” said John Pavlik, a spokesman for the Oscars. Nominees for the 76th Academy Awards will be announced Jan. 27.

Kidnap Story Revealed

Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum was making an unauthorized trip to Abu Dhabi when he was kidnapped. The news about Tannenbaum, who is being held captive in Lebanon, came after the Israeli Supreme Court lifted a gag order on the case. According to security sources, Tannenbaum was lured to Abu Dhabi in autumn 2000 by an Israeli Arab who offered him a business proposition, but who actually was a Hezbollah operative. Once there, Tannenbaum was drugged and transported to Lebanon, possibly via Iran. Tannenbaum’s family tried to keep the gag order in place, fearing public pressure could scuttle a deal being negotiated to return the businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers held by Hezbollah in exchange for the release by Israel of several hundred Arab security prisoners.

Mending Branches?

Presidential candidate Howard Dean conducted his first major meeting with U.S. Jewish leadership Friday. The Vermont governor, who miffed some Jews last month by saying America should approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with more “evenhandedness,” visited the sukkah of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square synagogue to shake hands with children before his first major meeting with about 25 Jewish communal leaders, Dean spokesman Eric Schmeltzer said.

“[The] fact that there is this meeting shows he wants to listen,” said the synagogue’s rabbi, Adam Mintz. “I think he needs to hear from Jewish leadership that [his Middle East position is] problematic,” because Israel is “responding to terrorists” when it carries out military measures against the Palestinians.

Rabbi Attacked Near Paris

A rabbi was attacked near his synagogue in the Paris suburbs. Michel Serfaty, rabbi of the Ris Orangis Synagogue, was on his way to Shabbat prayers last Friday night in Evry when a car approached and a number of youths began shouting racial insults at him. He was then hit across the face by one of the men and was lightly injured. Two men have been detained by police and are being investigated for what police termed “a racially motivated attack.” Investigators said the men had yelled “Yid” and “Palestine, Palestine will smash your face in.”

Visiting the synagogue on Sunday, Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF organization of French Jews, described the attack as “unacceptable and worrying for the future of French society.”

The attack was also strongly condemned by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who said he would visit the synagogue in coming days.

‘Sesame Street’ Opens in Mideast

A new string of “Sesame Street” episodes is airing in Israel, the Palestinian areas and Jordan. The 26 episodes, which teach tolerance and coexistence, are being produced with money from the European Union, the Ford Foundation and other sources. The new episodes were broadcast in Israel in September. Arabic versions will be aired in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jordan at the end of October. The new shows are different from the Palestinian-Israeli version that was produced in 1998.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The Circuit

Film Fest Fun

The succession of subtitles onscreen was riveting and jarring: “The biggest singer in France is Israeli…. Mike Brant looked relaxed and beautiful, except his head was lying in a pool of blood.”

The text flashed across the screen during a teaser for “Mike Brant: Laisse Moi T’aimer,” an Israeli documentary exploring the stormy, short-lived starburst of Brant, an Israeli singer who didn’t even speak fluent French when he took France by storm with his pop hits in the early 1970s. By 1975, at age 28, he fell to his death from the sixth floor of his Paris apartment building in an apparent suicide.

“Mike Brant,” an Israeli 2003 Cannes entry, was one of more than two-dozen cinematic offerings at the 19th Israel Film Festival, a film anthology spotlighting the latest crop of feature-film fiction and documentaries coming out of Israel.

Erez Laufer, director of “Mike Brant,” was one of the honorees at the opening-night gala, held at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. Laufer, during his acceptance speech for the Cinematic Award, told the audience that he was pleased to be at Cannes 33 years to the date of Brant’s first performance on a French TV show.

Israeli filmmakers were, naturally, the focus of the fete, but they weren’t the only ones being honored on opening night. The festival also saluted a couple of local yokels who are doing all right for themselves. Richard Riordan, former L.A. mayor and prospective newspaper publisher, introduced Humanitarian Award-recipient Larry King. Marvel Entertainment’s Avi Arad presented the Visionary Award to Laura Ziskin.

Ziskin, who previously had a hand in “Pretty Woman” and “Fight Club,” said, “I work under the motto that movies aren’t made. They’re forced into existence.”

Meir Fenigstein, festival founder and executive director, shared his incredulity over his event reaching the big 19. He spoke highly of the “challenge bringing the unique films and creativity of Israeli filmmakers to the U.S.A.”

“The festival allows us to see Israel without the politics,” said Kobi Oshrat, the Israel Consulate’s cultural attaché. “It shows what Israeli society is all about.”

This year’s festival, which runs through June 8, highlights films like “Slaves of the Lord,” another Cannes entry; and festival opener “All I’ve Got,” a macabre romantic comedy written and directed by Keren Margalit, which was screened at the gala opening and underscored the special “Reflections of Women” category.

Following the screening of “All I’ve Got,” The Circuit chatted with Ronit Reichman, a Tel Aviv University graduate and the producer of “Under Water,” who is in the process of relocating her Tamuz Productions to Los Angeles, where she will produce a three-part documentary on Islamic terrorism. The Circuit also caught up with Laufer, also a Tel Aviv University alum.

“In France, there’s a big ’70s revival right now, so people were ready for this film,” Laufer said of his Cannes reception. For Laufer, chronicling the life of the late Brant was “a journey to try and piece it together from what people say, from archive footage. You try to find the person.”

Also in attendance: L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; “Wisdom of the Pretzel” producer Shai Werker-Option; “In the Ninth Month” writer-director Ali Nassar and star Nissrin Faour; “Return From India” producer Evgeny Afineevsky; “Local Hero in Jerusalem Beach” director Natali Eskinazim; David Lipkind, Israel Film Fund executive director; Meital Dohan, star of “God’s Sandbox,” and the film’s producer, Yoav Halevy; and Arthur Hiller, director of the original “The In-Laws,” who — with Arnon Milchan, Mike Medavoy, Michael Fuchs, Peter Chernin, Sumner Redstone, Sherry Lansing, Ron Meyer, Joe Roth, Terry Semel, Haim Saban, Steven Spielberg, Ted Turner and Jack Valenti — comprised the impressive roster of honorary chairs and co-chairs for 2003’s Festival.

For more information on the 19th Israel Film Festival, call (877) 966-5566 or visit .

Looking for Truth in Documentaries

A Palestinian boy, about 8 years old, dressed in a red T-shirt and missing his two front teeth, is yelling in Arabic: “I foresee my death and I run toward it. On your life, this is a hero’s death and he who seeks the death of a suicide warrior, this is it.”

The scene, which aired on Palestinian Authority television in 1998 appears again in “Relentless: The Struggle for Peace in Israel,” a documentary recently released by the media watchdog organization Honest Reporting. The documentary, which examines both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and evaluates each side’s commitment to the peace process by comparing how each held to its obligations as outlined by the Oslo accords, addresses the perpetuation of incitement as only one Palestinian violation.

Based on a PowerPoint presentation that the film’s executive producer, Raphael Shore, developed while teaching a political science class in Israel, “Relentless” uses TV clips, polls, analysis and newspaper articles to make Israel’s case.

Adopted by Jewish organizations, including American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Jewish National Fund, Aish HaTorah, and various JCCs, “Relentless” has been viewed by more than 10,000 people (both Jewish and non-Jewish) since its February release. As such, it is one in a slew of recent films that organizations and individuals have developed in order to promote the Jewish State, offer insight into Israel’s position in the conflict, and ultimately, “to get Jews behind Israel,” Shore told The Journal.

The question of whether such films can be considered documentary or propaganda largely depends upon whom you ask.

“We feel, and I don’t think we’re unique, that Israel is going to be facing a lot of international pressure in coming years,” Shore said. “The Palestinian and Arab world has won the media battle and, as a result, Jews are finding it difficult to come to the support of Israel. Our goal is to get Jews back supporting Israel and understanding that Israel has a higher moral ground.”

While the filmmakers hope that their documentaries will initiate further support for Israel, they insist that their motivation for making their film was not to push a particular political agenda. Instead, each felt it was important to show a side of the story that had been left untold.

In “Jenin: The Battle for Truth,” scheduled for completion in July, writer and political commentator Avi Davis attempts to set the record straight regarding the controversial battle of Jenin.

“The headline that stays in people’s minds when they hear the word ‘Jenin’ is ‘massacre,'” Davis said. “It’s very difficult to take that word back.”

Through interviews with media experts, eyewitnesses and reporters that covered the event, Davis hopes his documentary will create awareness of the partiality that exists in reporting today.

AIPAC and the Jewish Television Network (JTN) have taken a more emotional approach. Limited only to private showings, AIPAC’s “A Soldier’s Story” and “When War Is in Your Backyard” attempt to give a voice to those individuals on the front line of the conflict. Through personal interviews, AIPAC’s “A Soldier’s Story” examines the moral conflict that Israeli soldiers face on a daily basis, while “When War Is in Your Backyard,” tells the stories of individuals struggling for normalcy despite the constant threat of terror.

In the JTN production, “No Safe Place: Six Lives Forever Changed,” executive producer Jay Sanderson and producer Harvey Lehrer have set out to acknowledge the human toll of terror.

“We felt there wasn’t a human face on the suffering of innocent Israelis,” Sanderson said, adding that the film is expected to be picked up by major television networks in the near future. “We wanted to put a human face on this side of the struggle because we didn’t feel it existed.” “No Safe Place” does that through six heart-wrenching testimonials of Israelis whose lives have been drastically altered by acts of terror, including that of a woman whose mother and 5-year-old daughter were murdered in a suicide bombing attack, a boy who suffers from extreme trauma as a result of witnessing the murder of his father during the Passover massacre and a bus driver who lives in fear as a result of the high risk involved in riding buses in Israel today. Lehrer hopes the documentary motivates people to action.

Some, however, question how a documentary will be accepted in the mainstream when it is affiliated with an organization or individual that is known to support Jewish causes. Richard Trank, executive producer of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s film division, Moriah Films, encounters such a problem on a regular basis. He believes that it is more likely that independent filmmakers and media outlets will be taken seriously in the mainstream than an organization or individual who has a known political agenda.

“It could be a great film, totally balanced, but there’s this hump they have to get over,” said Trank, who produced “The Long Way Home,” the 1997 Academy Award-winner for Best Documentary Feature.

Davis paid particular attention to the challenge of objectivity, he said.

“I went to Jenin as a journalist and I am very pro-Israel, but I went there to conduct a documentary that is balanced and fair. I wanted to present both sides of the story,” Davis said. “I made great pains to give everybody a fair shake which is why I allowed the correspondents to defend themselves.”

Trank acknowledges the challenges that those like Davis encounter in addressing such controversial subjects and supports any efforts being made to educate and to support Israel.

“The reason why organizations are coming out with these is that there’s been a concern about how Israel’s position has been portrayed during the intifada — people should be upset,” Trank said.

While Jewish documentarians seem to be concerned about appearing overly sympathetic, Jewish leaders are concerned that notoriously provocative director Oliver Stone’s new documentary on the Middle East, “Persona Non Grata,” will not be sympathetic enough (see story, above).

Mark J. Harris, professor at the USC School of Cinema-Television, realizes that one man’s propaganda may be another man’s truth, and he applies a rule of thumb to films concerning the controversial situation in Middle East:

“Any film that attempts to demonize the other side would, in my view, be propaganda,” Harris said. “But if people are sympathetic to the point of view expressed in these films, they may be more inclined to see them as documentary truth.”

To order a personal copy of “Relentless: The Struggle
for Peace in Israel,” visit

‘Terrorist’ Helped Israeli Heal

In August 1978, El Al stewardess Yulie Cohen Gerstel stepped off the bus at London’s Europa Hotel and saw a man hatefully staring at her.

“I think he’s going to start shooting at us,” Gerstel, now 46, told a supervisor.

Seconds later, she was cowering behind a car while the man and an accomplice opened fire on the rest of her El Al flight 016 crew. Shrapnel pierced her arm as one stewardess bled to death, another lay comatose and an attacker blew himself up with his own grenade. Police captured the other terrorist, Fahad Mihyi, of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the man who had hatefully stared at Gerstel.

“The piece of shrapnel was removed from my arm and kept as evidence for [his] trial,” she recounts in her powerful one-hour documentary, “My Terrorist.”

The film explores the deeper psychic injuries Gerstel endured and how she overcame them by meeting Mihyi in 2000 and campaigning for his release from prison. The straightforward but intensely personal piece stands out amid the flurry of third-person documentaries emerging on the Middle East crisis, including Ilan Ziv’s 2002 suicide bombing expose, “Human Weapon,” and Oliver Stone’s “Persona Non Grata” (see page 26). Gerstel’s film has been controversial in Israel, where one columnist called the director a traitor.

In a phone in interview from Tel Aviv, Gerstel said, “Of course when I read these things I feel upset. But I have to raise my daughters in a war zone. And I want to show my little girls there is another way.”

Back in the late 1970s, however, Gerstel was overwhelmed by negative emotions. Around the time she testified in Mihyi’s trial, she said she “gained 20 kilos [44 pounds], my eyes were swollen … my heartbeat disordered. The diagnosis was hyperthyroid, [caused by] post traumatic stress disorder.”

While a daily pill stopped the physical symptoms, Gerstel continued to suffer from fear and survivor’s guilt. Every year, she scrupulously avoided the memorial service held for her slain El Al colleague.

Nevertheless, she began sympathizing with the Palestinian cause after the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatilla; by 1999, she was shooting a documentary about an exiled PFLP activist, Imad Sabi.

She said she was sitting in the Nablus living room of some Palestinian friends in 2000 when “suddenly I thought, ‘My terrorist could be sitting here in this room and I wouldn’t recognize him….’ After the Camp David agreement, I felt, ‘If Barak and Arafat can shake hands, everyone should find it within himself to meet his enemy. And Fahad Mihyi was my enemy.”

The filmmaker began tracking him down and, after locating him at Britain’s Dartmoor prison, she sat down to write him a letter in July 2000.

“Fahad, Salaam,” the letter began, “Are you aware of the Camp David agreement? I’ve been trying to figure out what happened to you personally and to Palestinians in general that turned us to be enemies.”

To her surprise, Mihyi responded with a deeply remorseful letter and in September 2000, Gerstel nervously waited to meet him at Dartmoor prison. The muscular, youthful-looking Arab who greeted her looked familiar, “except the hatred was gone from his eyes,” she said.

Over the next hour, Gerstel was mostly silent as he talked nonstop, profusely apologizing for his terrorist activities and touching on topics such as his childhood.

“The whole encounter was so emotionally loaded,” she said. “I looked at the window, trying to get oxygen.”

As she left the prison, however, she felt as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

“I had felt so much fear and hate and guilt and trauma, that to meet the person who had created these emotions was to let go of them,” she said.

Gerstel agreed when Mihyi’s attorney asked her to write a letter to the parole board on his behalf. She learned that while he should have already been released from Dartmoor, he could not be deported, as required under British law, because he was stateless.

“So he was rotting in prison,” she said.

But Gerstel vacillated when the second intifada broke out two weeks later — and when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in September 2001.

“I felt I could not go on helping Fahad, because everything was destroyed inside of me,” she said. “But then I realized that he believes in nonviolence, which is completely the opposite of the Sept. 11 attackers.”

Gerstel finally wrote to the parole board, and then gave up corresponding with Miyhi.

“His attorney told me that he was expected to be released, and that he wanted to disappear, to live a normal life, and I’ve respected that,” she said.

Assisting Mihyi has helped Gerstel return to a more normal life.

“Facing your worst fears is a difficult journey, but it’s worth it,” she said.

“My Terrorist” screens May 30, 8:30 p.m. at theDirectors Guild, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, as part of the AmnestyInternational Film Festival. For information, call (310) 815-0450. To purchasethe videotape, contact the U.S. distributor, Women Make Movies, at .

A Man Without Fear

When Marvel Comics founding father Stan Lee createdDaredevil in 1964, he tagged his blind superhero: “Man Without Fear.” Thenickname also applies to Avi Arad, head of Marvel Studios, Marvel Enterprises’film/television division. Israeli-born Arad rescued Marvel from Chapter 11 inthe ’90s, turning it into a major film provider with “Spider-Man” and now”Daredevil.”

“Daredevil,” starring Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock, thelawyer-turned-vigilante with heightened senses, symbolizes Marvel’s catch-up torival D.C. Comics, which for decades had the Hollywood edge with billion-dollargrossing franchises “Superman” and “Batman.”

“Prior [Marvel] management was really afraid of the moviebusiness,” Arad said. “They were run by financial people who had no interest inentertainment.”

That changed when Arad put Marvel on the Hollywood map.Marvel’s first smash in 1998 came with only a minor character, Blade. “X-Men”followed in 2000, and “Spider-Man,” which took in more than $403.7 milliondomestically, became the fifth-highest grossing film of all time.

Raised near Tel Aviv, Arad served in the Israeli army beforemoving to America, where a job driving a Nabisco truck connected him with a toycompany.

“I got a job in research and development and found out I hada knack for inventing toys,” said Arad, 55. “So I went on my own.”

“If you had a successful toy,” said Arad — the creator of”My Pretty Ballerina” — “you turned it into a cartoon. It was a naturaltransition for me to expand into animation.”

Since coming aboard as Marvel Studios’ chief in 1993, Aradplayed a key role in saving Marvel Enterprises from bankruptcy and untangled anearly two-decade web of courtroom battles over “Spider-Man’s” film rights, asdetailed in Dan Raviv’s 2002 book “Comic Wars.” Over that time, movie specialeffects have come a long way.

“I don’t know if we could’ve made the ‘Spider-Man’ that wehave today even five years ago,” Arad said. 

After “Daredevil,” 2003 will bring “X-Men 2,” “Hulk” and theshooting of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” sequel — with a Michael Chabon screenplay — for 2004. “Ghost Rider” (starring Nicolas Cage) and “Fantastic Four” will follow.

“He really cares about these characters,” Stan Lee saidabout Arad. “He gets the best writers and the best directors.”

So, will “Daredevil” attract a mass audience on a”Spider-Man” level while placating some diehard fans who feel that the movie’scasting choices and costumes stray too far from the comic?

As Arad told a reporter, “Ben Affleck looks good in even apaper bag.”

“Daredevil” opens in theaters Feb. 14.

Bogeymen Unmasked

“Promises” is a beautiful documentary and, in light of thedaily body count of Israeli and Palestinian victims, a heartbreaking film.

A nominee for best documentary at last year’s AcademyAwards, “Promises” was filmed in and around Jerusalem between 1997 and 2000,while the Oslo treaty hopes for peace were still flickering.

Its “stars” are seven kids, four Israelis and threePalestinians, between the ages of 9 and 13, whose normal childhood pursuits andproblems are overlaid by the suspicions and hatred of the “other,” transmittedby parents, teachers and religious guides. The children live in West and East Jerusalem, in a religious Jewish settlement and in a Palestinian refugee camp.And although their homes are within a few miles of each other, none has evermet a youngster from the other side.

As the 106-minute film introduces us to the homes, schoolsand playgrounds of each of the children, it dawns on the American Jewish viewerhow little is known, not only of the lifestyle of an Arab family, but even ofthe daily ritual in a strictly Orthodox home.

Co-director B.Z. Goldberg (with Justine Shapiro), a youngAmerican raised in Jerusalem, has a rare knack of bonding with the youngsters,and they reciprocate by unaffectedly telling their stories, often with brutalhonesty. We meet Sanabel, a lovely Arab girl, whose journalist father has beenheld for two years in an Israeli prison as a security risk; Mahmoud, a blond,blue-eyed Hamas supporter, and Faraj, who lives in the Daheishe refugee camp.

Their Israeli counterparts are Yarko and Daniel, bright andhandsome twins living in a secular home; Shlomo, a fervently Orthodox yeshivastudent, and Moishe, who grows up in a Jewish settlement surrounded by Arabs.

Though separated by generations of hostility, some of thekids express a natural curiosity to meet the fabled bogeymen on the other side.With Goldberg as the intermediary, Yako and Daniel visit Faraj, and, speakingin halting English, the boys soon find a more common language in their sharedenthusiasm for soccer and volleyball. This scene was shot in 1997 and during arevisit two years later, the small spark of tentative friendship had all butatrophied, more by neglect than animosity.

Looking at the situation in Israel today, the precariousmoment when the children saw each other as human beings, rather than enemies,has passed again.

It may well take another generation to rekindle the spark,but “Promises” is a needed reminder that there can be an alternative in the Middle East to hatred and bloodshed.

“Promises” will be screening Sunday,Feb. 23, at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. at Tarbut V’Torah, 5200 Bonita Canyon Drive,Irvine. For more information, call (714) 755-0340, ext. 134, or visit .  

Unchosen Actor, ‘Chosen’ Director

Years before he directed the play version of "The Chosen" — now at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica — David Ellenstein was up for the starring role in the 1981 film of Chaim Potok’s classic novel.

"So I began reading the book as a chore," said Ellenstein, whose staging is a co-production of his own Los Angeles Repertory Company and the West Coast Jewish Theatre. But then the secular Jewish actor was riveted by the tale of two boys — one Chasidic, the other a Conservative Zionist — who forge an unlikely friendship in 1940s Brooklyn. "I didn’t previously know there was a rift between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews," he said. "I wasn’t aware that some Jews did not favor the creation of the state of Israel. For me, the novel brought a whole Jewish world to life."

So it’s fitting that Ellenstein — who eventually lost the film role to actor Robby Benson — has helped bring another version of "The Chosen" to life. It began when he attended a Jewish theater conference in 2001 and was invited to direct "The Chosen" for the Arizona Jewish Theatre. His 2001 staging of the adaptation, by Potok and Aaron Posner, earned rave reviews and the attention of Naomi Karz Jacobs, founder of the West Coast Jewish Theatre. She told Ellenstein her Los Angeles-based group had staged 35 readings since 1993 but aspired to produce its first fully-staged drama. Eventually, Jacobs convinced her group to put up half the $45,000 budget while artistic director Ellenstein persuaded the Los Angeles Repertory Company to do the same.

"The rep is devoted to great literature, and the Jewish Theatre aims to promote Jewish culture," he said. "This play absolutely does both."

The collaboration is part of an encouraging trend for Jewish theater in Los Angeles. While 20 other cities in the United States and Canada have sustained long-standing Jewish troupes, Los Angeles hasn’t, said Susan Merson of the now-defunct Los Angeles Streisand Festival for New Jewish Plays. "The problem is that this is a film town, so in general people aren’t interested in the theater," she said. So while mainstream companies routinely woo the large Jewish theater audience with Jewish fare (example: Charles Busch’s "The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife" recently at the Ahmanson Theatre), Jewish groups haven’t come up with the money to sustain a lasting Jewish theater.

In recent years, however, some tenacious individuals have helped to make a difference. Efforts include The Jewish Women’s Theatre Project, founded by Karen Rushfeld and Jan Lewis, which earned rave reviews for its first fully-staged show, "Hair Pieces," in 2001. The L.A. Jewish Theater often produces plays written by Jorge Albertella, its artistic director. Alexandra More produces and directs celebrity staged readings at the Westside Jewish Community Center.

Now, "The Chosen" is earning good reviews at the 150-seat Miles Playhouse; it’s perhaps the first production under the auspices of a Jewish group to undertake the higher cost of an Actors’ Equity agreement (instead of a sub-100-seat contract). "We want to raise the stakes for Jewish theater in Los Angeles," Ellenstein said.

To prepare, the director and his five actors studied books on the Israeli War of Independence and spoke to a rabbi who had known Potok when he taught at the University of Judaism. Actor Robert Grossman drew on memories of his Yiddish-speaking immigrant grandfather to create his role of the Chasidic Reb Saunders. Ellenstein, meanwhile, focused on the directing challenges.

"The play has a narrator — one of the boys grown up — who isn’t in the novel," he said by way of example. "The narrator is a theater device that can become hackneyed, so my advice to the actor was to remember he’s invited the audience to share a message: that there’s more than one way to get to God."

"The Chosen’s" co-adapter, Posner, said he was moved to tears during the play’s 1999 debut in Philadelphia. Though the esteemed novelist was ill, he agreed to attend the West Coast premiere in Santa Monica. Then, during the first week of rehearsal, the director and his cast received shocking news: Potok had died on July 18 at age 73. "We didn’t even know he had cancer," Ellenstein said.

The cast subsequently decided to dedicate the show to Potok’s memory — and to the play’s message, which resonates even more after the anniversary of the Sept. 11 tragedy. "It’s about accepting the validity of points of view that are very different from your own," Ellenstein said.

“The Chosen” is playing thru Oct. 13 at the Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. For tickets and more information, call (800) 595-4849.

If You Had Her Moves

Gouging out eyeballs and hitting people with chairs are just some of the actions taught by Wade Allen. For Allen, the director of Krav Maga Worldwide’s Hollywood division, it’s all in the name of self-defense.

Krav Maga, (pronounced krahv muh-GAH), was originally developed for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), but this martial art looks nothing like the moves you saw in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." In typical Israeli fashion, Krav Maga is all about efficiency, which means down-and-dirty, kick-’em-in-the-groin fighting — whatever it takes to win.

This combat style also claims to put women on an equal footing with their male counterparts, an essential consideration for the IDF, in which both men and women serve. This factor made Krav Maga ideal for Jennifer Lopez’s latest film, "Enough," in which she plays a battered wife who fights back against her bigger, stronger husband.

To look believable in her big showdown at the film’s climax, Lopez trained with Allen for two months, taking the abuse Allen dished out — and then some.

"She got bruised and battered around a little bit," Allen says, "but she’s a tough lady. There’s a swagger in her walk that isn’t something that you’re taught. She definitely has that in her."

And it seems that others are following Lopez’s example. "There’s definitely been an upward swing in our student attendance," says Allen, "Sept. 11 and Jennifer’s movie did a lot to get women in."

‘Marriage’ Material

Somewhere in the middle of the Israeli import "Late Marriage," a 12-minute sex scene unfolds between the main characters.

"I [said I would] do the scene because it was natural," said Ronit Elkabetz, one-half of that onscreen couple.

The 37-year-old Israeli actress believes that the film’s much-talked about passage stands out for its realism: no shying away from anatomy — female or male; no Hollywood-stylized romance, ripe with female exploitation. Just warts-and-all lovemaking shot in real time to convey the power — and the awkwardness — of the characters’ union.

There are others reasons why the film connected with Israelis, Elkabetz said.

"It’s a really good story," she said, adding that the film’s foreign Georgian community backdrop didn’t hurt.

In Dover Kosashvili’s "Late Marriage" ("Hatuna Meuheret"), Elkabetz portrays Judith, the worldly 34-year-old single mother who becomes the center of controversy and conflict between her 31-year-old lover (Lior Ashkenazi) and his traditional immigrant family. The lighthearted tone that shades "Late Marriage" does not prepare viewers for the film’s raw, decidedly un-Hollywood ending.

"Late Marriage," which premiered at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, brought Elkabetz much acclaim.

Growing up in Haifa, she admired American actresses such as Bette Davis. After serving in the army, she moved to Tel Aviv to make films such as "Ben Gurion" (1997).

"I don’t think there’s a difference being an actress in Israel," she said of her craft. But she did say that Israel’s government-supported film industry does not allow for tremendous career or salary growth. Perhaps that’s why the actress, who recently won a screenwriting grant, plans to make her own films.

Despite her relocation to Paris, where she works in film and on stage, Elkabetz will always act in Israeli projects."It’s my family, it’s my country," she said.

"Late Marriage" opened May 22 in limited release at Regent Showcase, 614 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 934-2944; Laemmle Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811, and Edwards South Coast Village 3, 1561 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 540-0594.

Georgian Life

What is the meaning of courage?

In Hollywood, it is often the brave, handsome soldier who risks his life, or the enterprising businesswoman who succeeds against all odds. The triumph of the individual: that’s the American Way.

But not all cultures glorify that path, and when faced with a character that chooses a different path, we may be hard-pressed to deem that choice "courageous."

But that’s exactly what Israeli writer-director Dover Kosashvili says of Zaza, the main character in his film "Late Marriage," the winner of nine Israeli academy awards and other world festival awards, which will be shown at the Israel film festival here this week.

Zaza (Lior Loui Ashkenazi) is a 31-year-old Tel Avivian bachelor who humors his parents as they fix him up with "suitable" girls. Zaza is handsome, intelligent and successful, so why are they are so worried about him? They’re Georgian.

Sometimes we forget that the term Israelis includes as great a variety of people and cultures as exists in America. There are the oldtimeAshkenazim and the Sephardim, the religious, the secular, the settlers, then there are also the new immigrants: the Ethiopians, the Russians — and each have their own subculture and traditions. In Hebrew and Georgian, "Marriage," Kosashvili’s first feature film, portrays one of those subcultures, the Georgian community — though certainly not at its best.

Zaza’s parents — his mother is actually played by the director’s mother ("I couldn’t find an actress who could do a convincing Georgian accent," he says) — live across the street from their prized son, and ship him on many interviews of other young Georgian woman of good families. (Ashkenazi studied for five months with the director to learn the language.) But Zaza doesn’t take their concerns seriously, because he is in love with Judith, a divorced mother who is more typically "Tel Avivian."

Zaza’s entire extended family gets involved and forces Zaza to make a choice, one they themselves once had to make, and their fathers before them. But how he chooses isn’t exactly the point; for a foreign audience (and probably most audiences seeing this French-Israeli co-production will be outsiders) it’s the otherworldly values inherent in the relationships in the movie: family loyalty, respect, tradition, community.

Kosashvili, 35, views the world and his film philosophically. "I don’t believe that Zaza even has a choice," he told The Journal in Hebrew from his home in Israel. A Georgian immigrant himself who came to Israel at age 6, Kosashvili says the characters are a composite of his community, though the story is something he heard from a friend. "On the whole, I don’t believe in choice. The freedom to choose is nonexistent in this world," he said. Kosashvili’s worldview is definitely not an American one of manifest destiny.

"Zaza is not seeking the moment when he is supposed to decide. He is searching for the point to which he is suppose to arrive," the director said, noting that his character is not a coward, but one who acts within his own constraints.

But what about love conquering all?

"Zaza is investigating the nature of his great love," Kosashvili explains. "He discovers that his great love is for his parents."

Bogeymen Unmasked

"Promises" is a beautiful documentary and, in light of the daily body count of Israeli and Palestinian victims, a heartbreaking film.

Considered a favorite for best documentary at this year’s Academy Awards, "Promises" was filmed in and around Jerusalem between 1997 and 2000, while the Oslo treaty hopes for peace were still flickering.

Its "stars" are seven children, four Israelis and three Palestinians, between the ages of 9 and 13, whose normal childhood pursuits and problems are overlaid by the suspicions and hatred of the "other," transmitted by parents, teachers and religious guides. The children live in West and East Jerusalem, in a religious Jewish settlement and in a Palestinian refugee camp. And although their homes are within a few miles of each other, none has ever met a youngster from the other side.

As the 106-minute film introduces us to the homes, schools and playgrounds of each of the children, it dawns on the American Jewish viewer how little is known, not only of the lifestyle of an Arab family but even of the daily ritual in a strictly Orthodox home.

Co-director B.Z. Goldberg (with Justine Shapiro), a young American raised in Jerusalem, who also narrates the film, has a rare knack of bonding with the youngsters, and they reciprocate by unaffectedly telling their stories, often with brutal honesty. We meet Sanabel, a lovely Arab girl, whose journalist father has been held for two years in an Israeli prison as a security risk; Mahmoud, a blond, blue-eyed Hamas supporter, and Faraj, who lives in the Daheishe refugee camp.

Their Israeli counterparts are Yarko and Daniel, bright and handsome twins living in a secular home; Shlomo, a fervently Orthodox yeshiva student, and Moishe, who grows up in a Jewish settlement surrounded by Arabs.

Though separated by generations of hostility, some of the kids express a natural curiosity to meet the fabled bogeymen on the other side. With Goldberg as the intermediary, Yarko and Daniel visit Faraj, and, speaking in halting English, the boys soon find a more common language in their shared enthusiasm for soccer and volleyball. This scene was shot in 1997, and during a revisit two years later, the small spark of tentative friendship had all but atrophied, more by neglect than animosity.

Looking at the situation in Israel today, the precarious moment when the children saw each other as human beings, rather than enemies, has passed again.

It may well take another generation to rekindle the spark, but "Promises" is a needed reminder that there can be an alternative in the Middle East to hatred and bloodshed.

"Promises" opens March 22 at Laemmle’s Music Hall Theater, 9036 Wilshire Blvd. Beverly Hills. Call (310) 274-6869 for times.

Oscar buzz for ‘Beaufort’ builds

Oscar nominees of the Tribe

By Jay Firestone

Best Film
Ethan and Joel Coen – “No Country for Old Men”

Best Actor
Daniel Day-Lewis – “There Will Be Blood”

Best Director
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, “No Country for Old Men”
Jason Reitman – “Juno.”
Julian Schnabel – “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”

Best Adapted Screenplay
Ronald Harwood – “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen – “No Country for Old Men”

Best Foreign Language Film
“Beaufort” – Israel
“The Counterfeiters” – Austria

Best Original Song
“So Close” – Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz
“That’s How You Know” – Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz
“Happy Working Song” – Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz

Produced by
Gil Cates

Hosted by
Jon Stewart

Joseph Cedar, director of the Oscar-nominated Israeli film, “Beaufort,” and an Orthodox Jew, has resolved a thorny Shabbat dilemma.

Traditionally, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences holds a high-profile public symposium for the five finalists vying for the best foreign-language film Oscar on the day before the award ceremony.

This year, the symposium will be on Saturday morning, Feb. 23, and Cedar was uncertain whether he could participate on a Shabbat.

“I had a long talk with my rabbi in Israel,” said Cedar, 39, who is in Los Angeles with his family. “He decided that I could attend as long as I didn’t use a microphone and walked to the event at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

Cedar figures he can cover the two-mile distance in about an hour, an almost unheard of feat for pedestrian-phobic Angelenos, but no big deal for Israelis.

Even for an Israeli who was born in New York, but whose parents made aliyah when he was 5.

Meanwhile, the excitement in Israel about its film industry’s first Oscar nomination since 1984 is building up.

Gilad Millo, the resident Israeli consul for public affairs, said that more than a dozen of the main Israel media outlets will send television and print reporters to cover the Oscar ceremonies.

In addition, some 30 cast members and financial backers of “Beaufort” will arrive in Los Angeles on Feb. 20.

The social component of the Oscar award season kicked off for “Beaufort” Tuesday evening (Feb. 12) with a screening and reception sponsored by the Israeli consulate and the entertainment division of The Jewish Federation.

Topping the parties will be an Oscar night bash for Israeli and Hollywood filmmakers in one of the city’s poshest private homes.

Cedar, who is not given to hyperbole, said that he and his family were very happy about the nomination, but his main satisfaction was that the film could now be assured a bigger exposure and longer life.

He described his reactions in a phone call last week, after spending the day on the obligatory Disneyland tour with his wife, journalist Vered Kelner, 6-year old daughter, Amelia, and 3-year old son, Levi.

A paratrooper during the first Lebanon War, Cedar has infused “Beaufort” with gritty realism in depicting that conflict, not in the glory of victory but in its indecisive, exhausted end.

The movie is based on the novel, “Im Yesh Gan Eden” (If There Is a Paradise), by Ron Leshem, who co-wrote the screenplay with Cedar.

Cedar’s first two films, “Time of Favor” and “Campfire,” were both voted Israel’s top films and Oscar entries in 2001 and 2004, respectively.

Millo termed the Oscar nomination a “landmark event” and an auspicious beginning of Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations.

Taken together with the successes of other current Israeli entries at prestigious European film festivals, optimists are foreseeing a breakthrough for the country’s film industry, akin to the golden ages of French and Italian films in the 1950s and ’60s.

So far, no Israeli has ever won an Academy Award, but Millo believes this is about to change.

Asked what kind of celebration he has planned if “Beaufort’s” title is pulled out of the envelope on Feb. 24, Millo answered, “It’s not a question of ‘if,’ but of ‘when.'”

The trailer

Jewish Journal Contributing Writer Orit Arfa ran into the ‘Beaufort’ gang at Ben Gurion Airport as they prepared to fly to Hollywood. Orit’s report is here.

Actor of ‘Favor’

"I am not Menachem."

So says Israeli heartthrob Aki Avni, referring to his character in "Time of Favor," the Israeli psychological thriller opening in Los Angeles movie theaters Feb 1. The film, winner of six Israeli Oscars last year, including picture of the year, tells the story of a religious settler army unit in which one student, Pini, takes to heart his rabbi’s ideological rantings about the Temple Mount, and crazily decides to blow it up.

Avni plays the lead character, Menachem, a religious company commander who must weigh his loyalty to the rabbi and the unit with his own sense of personal responsibility and his love for the rabbi’s daughter, Michal, and in the end, save Pini from himself.

Even now, pounds thinner, hair choppier (he’s just growing it back after shaving it all off for his last film) than when he played the 23-year-old religious commander, it’s hard to separate the actor from the character. That quiet confidence, charismatic goodness and soft-spoken assurance with which Menachem carried the film (he won an Oscar for best actor) comes across in person.

Avni, 35, in a typically Tel Avivian formal outfit of sleek black — collarless blazer, untucked buttoned shirt, stylish pants — stands at attention to demonstrate how he got into the role of Menachem. Chin raised, shoulders back, heels clicked together, instantly, he becomes the character, the one on the screen who stole the heart of Michal and the audience with his sympathetic portrayal of a conflicted man: religious, idealistic, but learning to doubt.

Very different from the real Avni, who in the past few years has started becoming observant.The boy who grew up in Rehovot in what he calls an "atheist house" now keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath, and has an older brother who’s a Bretslover Chasid living in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim. "I became interested in the wisdom in Judaism. … It would be a shame to lose it," he says.

His film character goes in a different direction. Menachem slowly disconnects from the spirited singing of his soldiers, his rabbi’s orders to soldier on and forget Michal — though it’s never clear how far Menachem breaks from it.

Playing the part of Menachem was no problem — he’d already starred in the popular weekly drama series, "Basic Training"; but to absorb the religious settler aspect, Avni spent time in yeshivas in Hebron and elsewhere. "I wanted to know the [behavioral] code between the students and the rabbi," Avni told The Journal.

Avni acts his part as convincingly as fellow actor Assi Dayan acts the role of Rabbi Meltzer, a chillingly sane man with a belief in the Greater Land of Israel, who holds sway over many impressionable yeshiva bochers (students), indirectly influencing Pini, a diabetic genius, to try to bomb the mosque after being rejected by Michal.

But did they play their parts too well? In Israel, during the year since the film has come out, many religious people were outraged because they felt the film portrays settlers in a negative light.

"All in all, it’s not a biography, it’s a movie," Avni says. "Even though the story could be realistic, in a far-off possibility, but it could be realistic."

The possibility of fanatical words leading to acts of terror isn’t really far off; it’s the world we live in today, post-Sept. 11, the world the film is being released into, even though it was made long before. But Avni is not concerned that "Favor," depicting Israel now to the world at large, depicts the nation in a fanatical light. "The movie clearly says there are extremists everywhere, but we [in Israel] don’t accept them."

Avni believes American audiences will appreciate the film more now. "There is a great parallel between the story [of the film and that of] every extremist," he says. "Of course," he adds, "there’s a big difference between Pini and terrorists."

Like most Israelis, Avni has a lot to say about the situation — about Yasser Arafat not being a partner, about the failed Camp David talks, the need for a Palestinian state so that Israel can act freely, and the effect on Israelis and Israeli culture. "Whenever the security situation is bad, luxury is the first thing that hurts…. Today there are fewer people going out," Avni explains. "But people always want to be entertained, and we have a nation that’s very, very strong; people are very strong in the State of Israel … and no one will break us. Everybody understands that now more than ever."

His patriotism aside, Avni plans on spending more time in — where else? — Hollywood. Avni’s wife, Israeli model Sandy Bar, will join him in their Marina del Rey apartment next month, and he is hoping to land work here. He has already signed with the Don Buchwald agency.

After nearly a decade of fame in Israel — in theater, television and film as, say, the Israeli equivalent of Tom Cruise — can the big fish from the small sea handle it as small fry here in Tinseltown?

"I’m nobody here. No one knows me," he admits. "But I love challenges. You know what? I look at it as something very good that happened to me. Israel, it was like my laboratory. I learned what I should do and what I shouldn’t do," he says.

Avni started acting at age 12; his formal training began after his army service, studying at the Yoram Levinstein studio in Tel Aviv. For a few years Avni was pigeonholed as a TV show host ("The Price Is Right") before he got cast on the dramatic "Basic Training."

He doesn’t seem to care that he might have to start all over again. "To tell you the truth. I feel like I’ve done it already. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone," he says. "I know the feeling of going on the street when people want your autograph, I’ve done it already. I want to work in the biggest professional system that I can find, which is here, probably. That’s what interests me."

Beyond Bay

Oded Fehr’s shining moment came when an Arab recently unrolled his car window and shouted, "You make us Middle Easterners proud!"

He was referring to the Israeli actor’s performance as dashing desert warrior Ardeth Bay, Brendan Fraser’s Mummy-busting partner in "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns." "Given the political situation, that was the nicest compliment I could get," says the star of the new NBC drama "UC: Undercover," who was voted "Sexiest Import" by People in 1999. "Arabs have been unfairly typecast as terrorists, and I was proud to play one who was heroic."

After twice portraying the saber-slashing Bay, it was Fehr who was typecast. Requests poured in for him to play mysterious foreigners; he declined them all. "If I wasn’t careful, I was going to be forever doing ethnic types," he says.

When "UC: Undercover" creator Shane Salerno asked him to play an FBI unit leader named Frank Donovan, Fehr jumped at the chance. For the 30-year-old Tel Aviv native, it was a break as important as "The Mummy," which he landed just six months after graduating from England’s Old Vic Theater School in 1997.

"I had no idea about what I was doing on ‘The Mummy,’" confides Fehr, who had to take crash courses in horsebackriding and swordfighting. "I was convinced that the director hated me." Instead, director Stephen Sommers was so impressed that he expanded Fehr’s role and rewrote the ending so Bay wasn’t killed.

For "UC: Undercover," the training went way beyond swordfighting. Fehr studied with real S.W.A.T. team members (his experience in the Israeli Navy during the Gulf War and working in El Al security helped).

He also interviewed FBI undercover agents and was struck by how similar their job was to his own. "They would talk about their ‘role’ and learning their lines and when they’re ‘in character,’" he says. "That was a revelation."

If I should Forget Thee

The ancestors of Israeli filmmaker Ron Havilio arrived in the Holy Land shortly after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, and in "Fragments: Jerusalem" he pays loving tribute to the city of his birth and the history of his forebears.

Keeping to a leisurely pace, the six-hour documentary will screen on four evenings on the Sundance Channel, starting March 5.

Havilio mines a treasure-trove of historical paintings, etchings, still photos, postcards and various artifacts, mixed with interviews of aged relatives, to recreate the Jerusalem of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Given current religious tensions among Jews in Israel and deadly confrontations with Arabs, some of the historical photos and reminiscences are startling.

For example, a sharp mid-19th century photo of the Western Wall shows men and women, intermingling freely and praying together.

Grandparents recall how, during the 1921 anti-Jewish disturbances in Jerusalem, an Arab neighbor lent her garb and even her own baby to a Jewish woman so she could safely pass through the Arab mob and seek police help.

By bitter contrast, there are photos of Jewish corpses, victims of the deadly 1929 riots in Hebron, lined up in long rows.

But most of the scenes illustrate and celebrate the daily life of Jerusalem’s citizens and neighborhoods. One wonderful segment shows the official neighborhood "caller" making the rounds and waking up the faithful at 3 a.m. for Selichot services at the Kurdish, Persian and Greek synagogues.

The scene is shown in the documentary’s seventh and final "chapter," titled "Abba" and devoted to Havilio’s father.

The elder Havilio incorporates the transition between the old and modern Israel as he is sworn into the underground Haganah, Bible in one hand and pistol in the other. One casualty of this process is the family’s old Mamila neighborhood, which becomes a no-man’s land in the heart of Jerusalem after the 1948 war and is then "renewed" by urban construction following the reunification of the city in 1967.

"Fragments" has won a number of international awards but is regrettably marred by jerky sequences that jump from one time epoch to another and from general to detailed family chronology. The series is billed as a "mosaic" of Jerusalem, but kaleidoscope would be more apt, and some tight editing would add considerably to the enjoyment of the six-hour experience.

"Fragments: Jerusalem" will air on the Sundance Channel in four Monday installments at 9 p.m., starting March 5 and continuing March 12, 19 and 26.