‘Yippee’ — Paul Mazursky documents Chasids gone wild


In all his 76 years, filmmaker Paul Mazursky had never seen anything like the 25,000 Chasidim singing, swaying, blowing shofars and dancing around a lake.

“It’s like the old days at the Apollo in Harlem, with the crowd going wild,” the irreverent Mazursky said. “Can you dig it?”

The scene is from his documentary, “Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy,” which had its Southland premier this week at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. The film is quite a change of pace for the creator of such quirky social comedies and dramas as “Bob”&”Carol”&”Ted”&”Alice,” “Harry and Tonto,” “Next Stop, Greenwich Village,” “An Unmarried Woman,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Enemies: A Love Story.”

Despite his artistic reputation and string of Oscar nominations, Mazursky has found it increasingly difficult to find backing for his iconoclastic movies, which are infused with his wry take on the human condition.

During the past decade, after a quadruple heart bypass operation, Mazursky has gone back to his roots as an actor and comedian, including parts in HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Sopranos,” while looking for the right combination of film and financing.

But last year, he and his two camera crews found themselves in Uman, a Ukrainian town of 80,000, whose population swells every Rosh Hashanah during an invasion of ecstatic Chasidim dressed in white kitels (robes), black suits or streimels (fur hats).

They come to pray at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the great Chasidic master, disputatious tzadik (learned scholar) and great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement. Nachman was buried in Uman in 1811 at the age of 38.

What had brought the insistently secular Mazursky to Uman were the urgings of three disparate Angelenos: David Miretsky, his optometrist; Shmuel Levy, a devout Moroccan-born rock musician; and Rabbi Ezriel Tauber.

All three regularly participated in the pilgrimage to Uman, and they promised Mazursky that he would witness an event unlike any he had ever experienced.

Putting up $50,000 of his own money, and with his broken arm in a sling, Mazursky embarked on the adventure with his friends and a six-man crew, including his son-in-law.

During a brief layover in Munich, he warmed up by filming the beer-swilling Oktoberfest, before stopping in Kiev, where his grandfather is buried, and then reaching Uman after a three-hour drive.

In the run-up to the climax of the three-day celebration, Mazursky meets and talks with Chasidim, policemen, scholars and peasants, combining the roles of an innocent abroad, travel guide and self-described “wise guy from Brooklyn.”

Typical is his encounter with two local peasant women selling fruit from a sidewalk cart. They, like all the other Uman natives, know about Rosh Hashanah, which enriches the town by $2 million each year.

Despite the windfall, one woman is not entirely happy.

“Jews are not cultured people,” she complains. The other woman disagrees.

“They are cultured,” she insists, “they are just different.”

Mazursky’s camera lingers on other happenings. There is a rustic folk festival with pretty dancing girls in costumes and later, Vodka Appreciation Day, during which the filmmaker digs into his bottomless reservoir of jokes, many unprintable.

His favorite joke, told at least three times in the film, goes something like this: Cohen meets Schwartz in New York’s old garment district and Cohen says, “I heard about the fire.” Schwartz puts his fingers to his lips and whispers, “Shhhh, tomorrow.” (The joke dates back to at least the Great Depression, when some storeowners facing bankruptcy would set fire to their shops to collect insurance money.)

The film climaxes on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, when the 25,000 Chasidim throw their sins into the lake and pray, dance and sing through the candle-lit night.

“Madonna and Woody Allen should be here,” Mazursky murmurs.

Before leaving, Mazursky organizes a bull session with Tauber and Dr. Julian Unger, a British neurologist, to explore the meaning of what he has seen.

“We come to Uman because on the day of judgment, Rabbi Nachman will be our lawyer, pleading our case before God,” Tauber explains.

Unger has a darker observation. “You know, 37 years before Rabbi Nachman came to Uman, there was a great pogrom here and thousands of Jews were drowned in the lake.

“When the Nazis came, they again murdered Uman’s Jews,” Unger continued. “It is a great irony that in 2005, we should be dancing in the streets of Uman. We are dancing on the graves of our martyrs.”

Mazursky, the wise guy from Brooklyn, drew his own lessons. “I could never think like a Chasid,” he ruminated during a two-hour interview in his crowded Beverly Hills office.

“I think of life as a cosmic joke, which keeps getting bigger all the time. But I’ve learned tolerance and maybe affection for the Chasidim. They are real people, who can see light in the darkest things,” he said.

The title of the film comes from another Mazursky observation. “It is better to wake up in the morning and instead of kvetching, say ‘Yippee.'”

“Yippee” is available on DVD through the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University and will be included in a retrospective of Mazursky’s works at New York’s Lincoln Center, May 4-10.Paul Mazursky

Get on down to ‘Funkel Town; Middle Eastern humor; Accordians! Accordians! Accordians!


Saturday the 6th

Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts takes you to “funkel town.” It’s Art Garfunkel in concert this evening, singing American tunes from his days with Paul Simon, as well as solo pieces from days since.

8 p.m. $32-$57.50. 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. (562) 467-8818. ‘ TARGET=’_blank’>www.levantinecenter.org.

Monday the 8th

The subjects and media of Susan Soffer Cohn’s art have varied over the course of her career. Focusing in on two of her series is the Pauline and Zena Gatov Gallery at the Alpert JCC. Their first exhibition of the year will present her colorful biblical paintings, with titles like “Miriam Led the Women” and “In the Beginning,” as well as her horse portraits, under the title, “Inspired by New Circles.” The exhibit opens this week, with an artist reception scheduled for Jan. 14.

3601 E. Willow St., Long Beach. (562) 426-7601. ‘ TARGET=’_blank’>www.lmangallery.com.

Wednesday the 10th

The new year means more new art on view — in fact, three times as much at UCLA Hillel’s Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts. It debuts a trifecta of new exhibitions simultaneously today. “American Jewish Legacy” features a collection of historical documents chronicling the Jewish experience in America, from 1654’s arrival of immigrants to New Amsterdam, through today. Also on view are two divergent photographic exhibitions: “Pure Faith” presents images by Israeli photographer Harel Stanton of religious ceremonies from around the world. “Jewish Musical Icons of the 20th Century” displays the photographs of cellist and photographer Jim Arkatov, who, in the course of his distinguished career in various orchestras, also snapped photos of leading musical icons.

574 Hilgard Ave., Westwood. (310) 208-3081.

Thursday the 11th

The Skirball takes a giant leap in making the accordion cool again with the concert series, “Compressing the World.” Tonight’s third installment features the squeeze box stylings of Rob Curto’s Forró for All. The New York-based band plays northeast Brazilian forró pé de serra dance music, known for its use of accordion, triangle and zabumba drum.

8 p.m. $15-$25. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (866) 468-3399.

Friday the 12th

Box-office politics




Trailer for ‘Suicide Killers.’ Click on the big arrow to play.

The first person I met at the Liberty Film Festival preview was a riled up Asian American man with a pompadour, who quickly explained to me what was wrong withHollywood: It is a vast liberal conspiracy.

“But the founders of the studios were conservative,” I said, thinking of the Goldwyns, the Warners and the Mayers.

“Yes,” he said. “But their children are communists.”

The Liberty Film Festival, now in its third year, aims to present and promote the work of conservative filmmakers who, according to the organizers, are ignored, persecuted and otherwise absent from “Hollywood.”

I put Hollywood in quotes because its meaning, as the evening at the Luxe Bel Air Hotel wore on, was elusive.

The Festival, said Mike Finch, executive director of the David Horowitz Freedom Center that sponsored the event, “is a voice for sanity. [Hollywood’s] not just for the far left. All these viewpoints deserve to be heard in Hollywood.”

For him, Hollywood seemed to mean Westsiders who work in the entertainment industry and read the Huffington Post.

“It’s really important that we have films going out with the conservative viewpoint,” said actress Govindini Murty, who organized the festival with her husband Jason Apuzzo. “Because Hollywood is making a major effort on the left to undermine the war on terror.”

For her, Hollywood seemed to mean documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. But Moore himself railed against “Hollywood” when Disney refused to release his controversial documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11.”A bit later, Murty referred to “Hollywood’s” love of documentaries “that undermine the military. They are all extremely radical, very anti-Israeli.”

Here she had me stumped. This clearly wasn’t the Hollywood of “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Marine,” which opened this week. And I couldn’t think of any anti-Israel Hollywood films. Which made me think that for Murty, “Hollywood” means anyone who won’t make movies she likes, or, perhaps, that she’s in.

This is the festival’s third year, and it has grown substantially since its founding, last year attracting some 3,500 viewers. This year’s event will be held Nov. 10-12 at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.

About 100 people gathered at last week’s preview to meet the organizers and get a taste of the 28 films on offer.

If the trailers are telling, I suspect there will be a lot of documentaries and some uneven features with a kind of look-ma-I-have-an-Apple quality. There will be some violence — I saw terrorist body parts splattered in something resembling POM — but no sex or nudity. At Liberty, “conservative” means Christian, and Christian means Family Research Council.

The most promising documentary appears to be “Suicide Killers,” by the Algerian-born Israeli filmmaker Pierre Rehov. The Arabic-speaking Rehov infiltrated a terrorist cell to provide a firsthand look at the people who perpetrate such inhuman crimes.

But the night’s preview was less about these movies and more about why “Hollywood” would never want to make them.

It took me a beat — as they say in Hollywood — but eventually I realized where I’d heard that same complaint: from liberals in Hollywood, from Asians in Hollywood and Latinos in Hollywood. From screenwriters and actors and union members and women and newcomers and old-timers in Hollywood.Heck, I’d even heard it from Jews in Hollywood.

Because here’s the truth: Hollywood doesn’t make anybody’s film.

Zillions of people dream of making a movie. But the studios only release a couple of dozen each year.

Chances are excellent your film — whether it’s about a Chinese lesbian dockworker who stands up to a right-wing corporate conspiracy, or about a blogger from Duluth who brings down a left-wing Washington conspiracy — isn’t going to be one of them.

The five top-grossing films of 2005 were “Star Wars-Episode III,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” “The War of the Worlds” and “King Kong.” There’s not a political plotline in the bunch — unless you count Narnia’s Christian polemic.

Hollywood’s primary, overriding focus is on making movies that do big box office. That explains how this week, Paramount Studios tapped Oliver Stone, the bane of the Michael Medved School of Wholesome Cinema, and Cyrus Nawasteh, whom Clintonites despise for writing “The Path to 9/11” to make a movie version of “Jawbreaker,” about the CIA in Afghanistan. Ideology, shmideology — go make us a hit.

But none of this realmovietik puts conservative tushies in the Liberty Festival seats, so Murty and the other speakers resort to victimhood and conspiracy. Several speakers referred to left-wing Jewish billionaire investor George Soros’ reported interest in buying the 59-film library of Dreamworks. “Soros has taken over the Democratic Party,” said Finch, “and is now making a major play to take over Hollywood. But [Murty and Apuzzo] are gonna beat George Soros.”

Since when is buying the DVD rights to “Gladiator” “taking over Hollywood”?

All these ill-defined, overheated intimations of evil Hollywood are where the Liberty folks lose me. They begin to join thematic forces with the Internet cuckoos, for whom “Hollywood” means only one thing: the Jews. For centuries Jews were kept outside society’s gates. But in the industry they created and in which they are still heavily represented, Jews are often the gatekeepers. And though the Liberty folks stand with Israel and against anti-Semitism, their antagonism toward an amorphous, conspiratorial “Hollywood” has a discomfiting resonance.

The conservatives at Liberty should ease up on the rhetoric. The twin gods of Hollywood are talent and a track record. If you have those, you’re in, no matter how repellent your ideology, or your actions. Just ask Mel Gibson.

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday, July 1
In time for summertime, the Skirball has rekindled its weekly Café Z live music series. Take advantage today, and head down to groove to Elliott Caine Quintet’s Afro-Cuban jazz beats. According to Caine’s Web site, KCRW’s Bo Leibowitz described him as a “terrific trumpet player, bandleader and composer … deserving of wider recognition.”

Noon-2 p.m. Free. Zeidler’s Café, Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

 

Sunday, July 2
Miami City Ballet whoops it up for its 20th anniversary, with its tour of performances of signature pieces by Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp. Included are Robbins’ classic “Fancy Free,” which was the inspiration for the musical, “On the Town,” and Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs,” accompanied, as you might’ve guessed, by songs by the blue-eyed crooner.

June 30-July 2. $25-$95. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500

Monday, July 3
Shaken or stirred, the martini is more than a drink today. It is a symbol. Sculptor Thomas Mann asked artists to riff on it, reinterpreting the conical glass’ shape and context. “The Martini Show” premiered in New Orleans as a benefit for Craft Emergency Relief Fund. It runs here at Altered Space Gallery, through July 24.

Contemporary art+craft+design, 1221 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. (310) 452-8121

Tuesday, July 4
What goes great with burgers and dogs? Your radio dial tuned to 89.9 KCRW-FM. Its special Independence Day programming features “a day of music by American artists who embrace the spirit of independence.” The lineup of musical patriots includes Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Roy Orbison, Patti Smith and the Dixie Chicks. The presentations feature music as well as interview clips and other materials.

89.9 KCRW-F, ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Wednesday, July 5
Collapsing just moments after a performance of his stirring trio, “In memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich,” at the Jewish Music Commission concert last month, professor Joseph Dorfman was unable to be revived. He died at age 65. In his memory, a concert will be held this evening at Valley Beth Shalom, to benefit the newly founded fund in his name.

7:30 p.m. Free (general), $15 (reserved seats). 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. R.S.V.P., (818) 788-6000.

Thursday, July 6
Gay lovers struggle to deal with their oppressive societies against the backdrop of World War II France in the case of “A Love to Hide (Un Amour à Taire),” and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the case of “Zero Degrees of Separation.” The two films are part of this year’s Outfest 24th Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which begins today.

Times, prices and screening venues vary by film. Abovementioned films screen at Directors Guild Theatre, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.

Friday, July 7
More lovers caught on opposite sides of the political fence emerge in the film, “Only Human.” Opening today, the Spanish production tells the farcical tale of Jewish Leni, who brings home her boyfriend, Rafi, to meet the folks. But madness ensues when they find out Rafi is Palestinian.

Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino. (818) 981-9811. Laemmle One Colorado, Pasadena. (626) 744-1244. www.laemmle.com” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Next Year in Cannes


It’s a tough thing trying to arrange a Shabbat dinner at the Cannes Film Festival.

My friend, Scott Einbinder, had gotten the idea two years ago, during my first trip to the festival. At first, I was hesitant. I was focused on business, a filmmaker obsessed with my career. Plus, I was perfectly happy to twiddle my thumbs alone in my hotel room all Shabbat.

Einbinder, who is less observant, had to convince me, a “Young Israel” Jew, that this was a good idea. What better way to escape the madness and deal-making of the festival, he argued, than by joining together with friends for a Shabbat Friday night dinner?

I stayed skeptical. Would people be willing to spend $90 to attend a dinner without music, when they could instead be dancing it up with Paris Hilton at the MTV party?

We sent out e-mails, hired a five-star party planner and lo and behold, 42 people showed up. Einbinder flew in Rabbi Mendel Schwartz and his wife, Esther, of the Chai Center for spiritual leadership, and we invited the local Chabad rabbi to welcome the crowd. Steve Kaplan, our co-host, arranged free use of a magnificent villa, and our inaugural event was a great success.

This year, we wanted to do it bigger and better. Our goal was to double the number of guests. The rabbis joined as hosts, as did Hollywood heavyweights Craig Emanuel and Joan Hyler.

Unfortunately, the villa was not available. Rumor had it that Lenny Kravitz was staying there, and although Jewish, Shabbat dinner was not on his itinerary. Our party planner spent several months trying to find an alternate venue and eventually found a quaint, beachfront restaurant a few minutes walk from the hustle and bustle of the festival. The Chabad rabbi worked his kosher magic, and we hired one of the best chefs in town.

The response was great, everything was set and we were on our way to Cannes — then the bad news came. The restaurant bailed. Seems it wasn’t thrilled with the sweetheart deal we had negotiated and was talking to another party with a fatter wallet. Welcome to Cannes.

Our dream dinner was turning into a disaster. Fortunately, Einbinder was already in Cannes. Along with the Chabad rabbi — who no doubt threatened the wrath of God — they convinced the restaurant owner to honor the negotiated price. We were back in production.

Cannes is hard to describe. Its beauty is unparalleled, its ambiance is magical, full of romance and excitement. Most of all, people who travel there have a sense of jubilation.

We spent Friday recruiting a few more guests to the Shabbat dinner. I bumped into veteran producer Arthur Cohn, who unfortunately couldn’t make the walk to the restaurant but was so excited, he wrote a check for two seats just so he could somehow participate.

On my way to the dinner, I pulled aside two eager, young British paparazzi who were hanging out in front of the Carlton Hotel. I told them that although Tom Hanks and Penelope Cruz would not be attending, our Shabbat dinner was a unique party not to be missed. For a nominal fee and the promise of delicious kosher food and wine, they agreed to shoot the event until sundown.

As the sun started to set, guests trickled into the party. Twilight in Cannes is always beautiful, the calm waters adding to the tranquility of the Shabbat. About 15 guests huddled for a quick prayer service, while others circled the hors d’oéuvres and posed for photos. Shabbat candles were lit and Kiddush recited. Then it was off to the requisite buffet.

More than 80 studio executives, producers, directors, lawyers, agents, distributors and rabbis all enjoyed a Shabbat dinner together in the south of France. For some, Shabbat was a new experience. For others, a weekly ritual. Still for others, it was simply another networking event.

But amid all the business talk, I couldn’t help but notice that this Shabbat experience was transforming business acquaintances into friends, strangers into family — from all over the globe, Jew or non-Jew, Reform or Orthodox, Sephardic or Ashkenazi, it didn’t matter. In a town that evokes images of Bridget Bardot in a bikini and Pamela Anderson in “Barb Wire” leather, we were infusing Cannes with Kiddush, conversation and tranquility — the very essence of Shabbat.

After a few short speeches and probably a few too many l’chaims, the delicious dinner was over. Everyone was happy and vowing to bring more friends next year. One woman came up to me and proclaimed that she would return to Cannes next year “if only to experience such a Shabbat again.”

One guest was so moved that he said he was making plans to throw his son a bar mitzvah party so he can share with him the experience of his Jewish tradition.

The next few days were very gratifying for all of us. We were the talk of Cannes. As we walked the Croisette, familiar Hollywood faces stopped us and promised they’d come next year

I even found myself next to Paris Hilton at a party. She’d heard all about the dinner. “I’ll attend if I have a Jewish boyfriend next year,” she told me.

I’m available!

I got into the movie business because I thought movies could change the world. I’m not sure if my movies will ever change the world, but I know that our Shabbat dinner certainly affected a few people.

There may be a lot of stress and aggravation in planning a Shabbat dinner in Cannes, but I know it was biggest Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s name, I had ever been involved with. Next year, we plan to have an even more spectacular event. Who knows? Maybe Lenny Kravitz will sing with us.

Max Gottlieb is a film producer living in Los Angeles. If you would like to be placed on the invitation list, e-mail snowmax@comcast.net.

” alt=”Cannes 3″>

” alt=”Cannes 5″>

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, May 20

High school teacher Eddie Friedman has made it his mission to take students on the March of the Living, as a way of teaching them about the Holocaust. Over the years, he accumulated a collection of photographs depicting the experience. UCLA Hillel’s Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts has mounted an exhibit of his work, titled, “From Destruction to Rebirth: A Photographic Journey by Eddie Friedman.” It is on view through June 29.

10 a.m.-4 p.m. (Mon.-Fri.). Free. 574 Hilgard Ave., Westwood. (310) 208-3081.

Sunday, May 21

We’re not sure what Thai massage has to do with celebrating your Jewishness, but don’t let that stop you from attending today’s Santa Barbara Jewish Festival. Event organizers also have plenty of traditional activities and entertainment, including musical performances by the Moshav Band and Kings on Holiday, kosher food vendors, children’s carnival rides and Israeli dancing.

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Oak Park, 300 W. Alamar Ave., Santa Barbara. (805) 898-2511. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Monday, May 22

Opening this week, the thriller film, “Hate Crime,” tells the story of Robbie Levinson (Seth Peterson), a young, gay CPA targeted for harassment by his new next-door neighbor. When Robbie’s lover is brutally murdered, he becomes a suspect, and must investigate the case himself to be exonerated.

Laemmle Sunset Five, 8000 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 848-3500. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Tuesday, May 23

It’s a CBS kind of night, over at the JFS gala. The Jewish Family Service annual fundraising dinner honors three community leaders this year, among them, CBS exec Deborah Barak. And keeping the evening all in the CBS family, this year’s masters of ceremonies are actors Rob Morrow and David Krumholtz, of the series “Numb3rs.”

5:30 p.m. Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (323) 761-8800, ext. 1220.

Wednesday, May 24

Opening this week is another exhibit that challenges us not only to never forget, but also to act. “Rwanda/After, Darfur/Now: Photographs by Michal Ronnen Safdie” presents some 40 black and white and color images taken in 2002 post-genocide Rwanda and in a 2004 Chadian Bahai refugee camp, where exiles of the Darfurian genocide take shelter. The exhibition is presented by the Skirball Cultural Center, with a number of related programs scheduled during its run.

$6-$8 (general), Free (members, students and children under 12). 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

Thursday, May 25

We’d hoped “paloozas” would die with the ’90s, but here’s one worth checking out, despite the hackneyed name. “Identi-palooza” is a five-week comedy series at the Skirball, in which top comedians and writers present their unique points of view. It begins tonight with Beth Lapides, Kevin Rooney, Cindy Chupack, Rob Cohen and Stephen Glass commenting on “The Ish Factor.”

Ages 21+. 8 p.m. $8-$15. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (866) 468-3399.

Friday, May 26

When Mark Goffman’s grandfather’s wife of 50 years passed away, he suffered a heart attack, a stroke and then fell into a coma. As he lay in the hospital bed, he was visited by the cellist in his quartet, who came to say a private goodbye, and confessed her love for him, which she had kept secret all the years he’d been married. He awoke within minutes of her visit, and married her soon after. The story inspired Goffman, a television writer and producer, to write a play incorporating his grandfather’s story, as well as his own stories of dating and falling in love. “Me Too” runs through June 25.

8 p.m. (Thurs-Sat.), 7 p.m. (Sun.). $23-$28. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. R.S.V.P., (323) 960-7745. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Leonard Cohen Film Toasts Songwriter


“He’s the man who comes down from the mountaintop with tablets of stone,” says U2’s guitarist, The Edge, in “Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man,” a documentary on Cohen, one of the greatest living songwriters, that is screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Comments on Cohen’s many biblical references in his songs and his almost mystical authority are sprinkled through out the film, which is slated for a May theatrical release from Lionsgate, even as the many interviewees also point out that Cohen can also be droll and erotic in his work.

The film’s director, Australian-born and L.A.-based Lian Lunson, expanded upon The Edge’s comments in a telephone interview:

“I think with great writers like Leonard Cohen, the gift they have has so much weight behind it, that even if the lyric isn’t religious, it takes on a religious aspect because of the great amount of contemplation that has gone into it.”

The film interweaves interviews with various subjects with a wry, introspective 71-year-old Cohen — his face creased and hair gray but both his mind and his wardrobe sharp. Interspersed, too, are performances at the “Came So Far for Beauty” concert tribute to Cohen at the Sydney Opera House.

At that show, produced by American Hal Willner (who also produced UCLA Live’s Randy Newman tribute), such musicians as the McGarrigle Sisters, Rufus Wainwright, Beth Orton, Nick Cave, Linda Thompson and Antony (of Antony & the Johnsons) perform versions of songs from throughout Cohen’s career. Eventually, late in the film, Cohen sings — in his gravely rumble of a voice — “Tower of Song,” in a surprising special performance staged just for the film by Lunson, a longtime music video director.

As Cohen and others recall, his youthful influences included the Jewish liturgy he heard in synagogue. Cohen was born in 1934 in Montreal to an influential English-speaking family. His father was a clothing manufacturer, his paternal grandfather helped lead numerous Jewish civic and religious institutions and his maternal grandfather was a rabbi and Talmudic scholar.

Cohen became first an accomplished poet and then, starting with 1967’s “Songs of Leonard Cohen” (which contained the oft-recorded “Suzanne”) a singer-songwriter. According to Ira Nader’s Cohen biography, “Various Positions,” Cohen’s Judaism has influenced his songs greatly — “Who By Fire” is based on the melody of a Yom Kippur prayer, “Mi Bamayim, Mi Ba Esh,” and “If It Be Your Will” is derived from a “Kol Nidre” phrase.

Cohen talks movingly in the film about how his father’s death — when he was just 9 — galvanized in him a compassionate but unsentimentally mature view about the limitations of life on earth.

“It was in the realm of things that couldn’t be disputed or even judged,” he tells Lunson.

And he explains he’s been searching for other such things to give his life structure and discipline — truth — ever since. He describes himself as drawn to “the military and the monastery.”

While remaining Jewish, he has pursued an interest in Zen Buddhism for some 30 years at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center with a Japanese master, Joshu Sasaki Roshi.

“He was someone who deeply didn’t care about who I was, and the less I cared about who I was the better I felt,” Cohen tells Lunson.

Speaking quietly but unguardedly, Cohen appears amused when discussing his lifelong dislike for blue jeans, his following among young “punksters” and his regrets about once revealing that “Chelsea Hotel” was written about a sexual encounter with Janis Joplin. “She wouldn’t have minded, but my mother would have minded,” he says of his indiscretion.

“Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” was produced by Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions, which arranged distribution with Lionsgate. Lunson and Gibson are longtime friends, and she helped him put together the album, “Songs Inspired by ‘The Passion of the Christ,'” which included Cohen’s “By the Rivers Dark.”

“I took the idea of the film to Mel because he’s a huge Leonard Cohen fan, always has been, and he said, ‘Let me put it out there and see,'” Lunson said. “He loves Leonard Cohen.”

 

‘Thin’ Exposes Hefty Secrets and Lies


Alisa, a 30-year-old Jewish divorcee, consumed 200 calories most days. But every few weeks, she repeatedly binged on gargantuan amounts of junk food, then purged by vomiting, swallowing diuretics and Ipecac. After several days, the mother of two usually landed in the hospital.

“I remember at one point thinking … ‘This is the one thing I want so badly, to be thin. So if it takes dying to get there, so be it,'” she says.

Alisa is one of several severely ill eating disorder patients profiled in “Thin,” the film debut of renowned photojournalist Lauren Greenfield. The raw documentary also profiles Polly, who slit her wrists after eating two slices of pizza; Brittany, a goth teenager determined to lose 40 pounds, and Shelly, who was force fed through a surgically implanted stomach tube for five years. Handheld cameras follow their rocky physical and emotional journeys at the Renfrew residential treatment center in south Florida.

The movie joins an expanding body of work on female dietary obsessions, including the PBS documentary, “Dying to be Thin”; Eve Ensler’s play, “The Good Body,” and Greenfield’s own 2002 book and exhibit, “Girl Culture.”

Her documentary focuses less on the complex causes of eating disorders than the Herculean task of recovery for patients who use food the way addicts use drugs. Polly, a shy psychiatric nurse, weighs in at 84 pounds, but blissfully talks about the days when she sucked food out of her feeding tube with a syringe. Brittany reminisces about the “chew and spit” game she used to play with her mother: “We’d buy bags and bags of candy and just chew it and spit it out. We just thought of it as a good time.”

During 10 intense weeks at the center, Greenfield learned that while societal pressures often trigger eating disorders, they are actually mental illnesses with grim statistics. Anorexia is the deadliest of all psychiatric disorders, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry, with mortality rates of up to 20 percent. No statistics exist on Jewish women, but experts say they may be particularly vulnerable, in part, due to more zaftig body types and the drive to look all-American (i.e. svelte).

All seriously ill patients are tough to treat: “Secrets and lies are a big part of eating disorders, because you have to hide your habits from friends and family,” Greenfield explains from her Venice, studio. “At Renfrew, women would clandestinely jog in place in the shower, or conceal weights in their clothing to cheat the scale.”

The center’s rules, therefore, are strict. When Polly arrives at the clinic, staff members promptly search her luggage and whisk away “contraband” such as cigarettes and prescription drugs. In another scene, the usually feisty Polly is obliged to eat a cupcake for her birthday, which she consumes slowly and with disgust. Afterward, she cries bitterly.

Alisa also appears pained when required to sketch a silhouette of herself, which she draws as an obese figure — though after a month at Renfrew she is healthily trim, with an uncanny resemblance to Natalie Portman. She traces her eating disorder to age 7, when her pediatrician declared her fat and she was placed on a 1,000 calorie per day diet.

On camera, she does not discuss how her Reform background fueled her disease, but she answered e-mailed questions through Greenfield.

“Alisa believes that Jews are a proud people; they are very concerned about self-image and there is a strong emphasis on education and money,” the director says. “She thinks that makes for more of a need to overachieve and be perfect, which can drive an eating disorder. So her sense is that being Jewish contributed a lot to her [illness].”

The filmmaker, who is also Jewish, relates to her subjects because she was once obsessed with the scale. At 12, she began physically comparing herself to the other girls at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu and went on to become a chronic teenage dieter. At Harvard University, she “went on a crash diet and lost 26 pounds, in the process gaining so much confidence that I threw myself into my first serious relationship,” she says.

Eventually Greenfield — named one of 25 top photographers by American Photo magazine — dedicated much of her career to chronicling how the Barbie-doll culture scars women. But her 2002 book only touched upon the life-threatening topic of eating disorders, save for several pictures snapped at Renfrew. The artist remained haunted by one of a gaunt patient standing backwards on a scale so as not to see her weight gain.

In June 2004, Greenfield returned to Renfrew with cinematographer Amanda Micheli to further explore the subject, this time in a cinema verite-style film. But she found that earning patients’ trust proved difficult.

After many setbacks, Greenfield won them over by showing she would turn the camera off whenever she was asked to do so. Polly made the request while on a suicide watch, but changed her mind after the director spent the night talking with her. She allowed Greenfield to shoot her purging her breakfast the next morning, an act that is almost always done in secret and is forbidden at the center.

Alisa also purges on camera, but expresses a moment of hope during one group therapy session.

“For a fleeting moment I imagined a better life,” she says. “And maybe — pun intended — I can taste recovery.”

“Thin” will screen at the Sundance festival Jan. 19-29 and on HBO this fall.

 

Songs of Power


On a December day in 1993, an anxious Lee Hirsch sat on a747 bound for riot-torn South Africa with $600 and a small video camera.

The 20-year-old filmmaker didn’t know a soul inJohannesburg, but he had two telephone numbers and a mission: To make adocumentary about the protest music that had spurred the anti-apartheidmovement. To buy his ticket, he had sold his car and ignored the StateDepartment official who had called about the travel advisory.

“It was months after [American student] Amy Biehl had beenmurdered in Cape Town, and the plane was empty,” said Hirsch, a politicallyprogressive Jew from Long Island. “I was very scared, and I was prepared toturn around and go home the next day.”

Instead, he struggled for nine years to make “Amandla! ARevolution in Four-Part Harmony,” which won the audience and Freedom ofExpression Awards at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and opens today in LosAngeles. Named for the Xhosa word for power, the exuberant movie explores the historyof apartheid and the music that helped overturn it. While some of the songshave previously been featured on the soundtracks of fictional films such as”Cry Freedom,” the documentary is the first to explore the phenomenon ofprotest music itself.

For the energetic Hirsch, who punctuates conversation withyouthful invectives such as “awesome,” one inspiration was the Jewish mandateof tikkun olam (repairing the world).

“I learned about it in a college class on the earlyChasidim, the Jewish radicals of their day,” said Hirsch, whose previous filmprofiled his godfather, the Holocaust survivor. “Coming out of the Jewishhistory of oppression, I feel we have the responsibility to stand up and makethe world a better place. In ‘Amandla!’ I wanted to show the power of music toaffect this kind of social and political change.”

Hirsch has been preoccupied with anti-apartheid music sincesuccessfully lobbying his Vermont boarding school to divest its South Africanholdings in the 1980s.

“I’d watch a news broadcast about unrest in a township andrealize that people were singing, because I could hear it under thenewscaster’s voice,” he said. “I started becoming obsessed with the music, andI vowed to learn more.”

Easier said than done. No studies or books existed on thesongs, which were largely undocumented. And the white, Jewish filmmaker didn’tknow any of the black activists or performers. His first break came when hecalled one of his telephone contacts two days after arriving in Johannesburgand reached a Zulu family whose son was prominent in the MK, the military wingof the African National Congress. Before long, he was tagging along tounderground meetings in the townships, which he describes as “row after row ofunpaved streets and garbage burning in overstuffed receptacles.”

“Suddenly, I was in the middle of things,” he said.

By the mid-1990s, Hirsch had partnered with “Amandla!”producer Sherry Simpson, an African American TV music producer based in LosAngeles, and had relocated to Johannesburg to develop the film. Over the nextfive years, he criss-crossed the country with his video camera, filling 12notebooks with research and persuading activists to appear in his film.

Parliament member Thandi Modise described how she sang tocomfort herself when her water broke during a prison beating and she was dumpedin her dank cell to give birth. An ex-death row warden stood in the former”hanging room” at Pretoria Central Prison and recalled leading shackledactivists to the gallows (they sang, too).

At a 1995 rally, Hirsch filmed a beaming President NelsonMandela dancing to a victory song before the country’s first democraticelections. 

He believes he was granted the access because he was aneager American, not a white South African; it didn’t hurt that he was Jewish.”It’s well known that most of the white anti-apartheid activists were Jews,” hesaid by telephone from his publicist’s office in Manhattan. “These people wereloved by the black community as if they were black, as if they were one of theirown.”

For two years, Hirsch lived in the guest bedroom of one suchactivist, Dr. Paul Davis, a “struggle doctor” who cared for detainees when theywere released from prison. Hirsch grew to love the multicultural Shabbatdinners Paul held with his wife, Allison Russell, a chief physician at thelargest black hospital in South Africa. “They were a tremendous inspiration tome,” Hirsch said of the couple. “We talked a lot about tikkun olam and what ourresponsibilities are to the world as Jews.”

Ten years after Hirsch set off on that empty flight forJohannesburg, he still considers directing socially-conscious films to be oneof those responsibilities. “I want to make movies that fuse my activism with alarger audience,” he said.

“Amandla!” opens Feb. 28 at Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 SunsetBlvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; and in March in Orange County. 

7 Days in the Arts


2/SATURDAY

Monique Schwartz has people talkin’ about our mommas. No need to organize a posse though. This is actually kind of Schwartz’s way of doing that herself — to analyze and combat stereotypical depictions of Jewish mothers in film. Her documentary “Mamadrama: The Jewish Mother in Cinema” screens today as part of the Laemmle’s “Bagels and Docs: A Jewish Documentary Series.”

10 a.m. Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. For more information, including other screening dates and times, call (323) 848-3500 or visit www.laemmle.com.

The wacky duo is at it again, only this time they’re being sponsored by Muslims. Thanks to the Iranian Muslim Association of North America (IMAN), the comedy duo of Rabbi Bob Alper and Egyptian-born Ahmed Ahmed continue their goal of “building bridges in troubled times through laughter,” tonight at IMAN Cultural Center.

7:30 p.m. $18 (in advance), $20 (at the door). IMAN Cultural Center, 3376 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 202-8181.

3/SUNDAY

It’s been 10 years since “The Quarrel” hit theaters, and this morning, the Sunset 5 hosts a special screening of the film about two old friends reunited after the Holocaust and the differences and disagreements that still separate them. Following the screening, the film’s writer-producer David Brandes moderates a discussion on “Good and Evil in Islam and Judaism” between Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Dr. Khaled M. Abou Fadl. Proceeds benefit The Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity.

10 a.m. $12 (general), $118 (sponsors). Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 556-5639.

Panic grips your heart as you realize you only have only 27 days left till Chanukah. We know, that lunar calendar’ll get ya every time. But fret not, dear readers. For today is the Contemporary Crafts Market. Jewish trinkets and tchochkes are yours for the buying at this gift extravaganza. So quit the kvetching and head on down.

Nov. 1-3, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. $6 (adults), free (children 12 and under). Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, 1855 Main St., Santa Monica. (310) 285-3655.

4/MONDAY

We know there’s a pole-vaulting joke in here somewhere, but we’re pretty sure the folks involved in the two one-act plays that make up “Folk and Race” have got that covered. So instead, here are the basics: Act One is the dramatic interpretation. It’s a play about a Jewish pole vaulter who hides his religion to gain a spot on the 1936 American Olympic team after his better is kicked off for being Jewish. And Act Two is a parody of Act One, a la Mel Brooks. Take the leap and check it out.

8 p.m. Nov. 4, 5, 11, 12, 18 and 19. $12. The Theatre District at the Cast, 804 N. El Centro Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 651-5862.

5/TUESDAY

Bursting with fruit flavor is Jewish artist Rebecca Newman’s latest exhibition “Between the Branches.” The 17 new drawings continue her study of Southern California tropical tree species, everything from bananas to bougainvillea. They’re on display now at TAG, The Artists’ Gallery.

11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Tuesday-Friday), through Nov. 9. TAG, The Artists’ Gallery, 2903 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 829-9556.

6/WEDNESDAY

Things we can learn from (818), a non-profit “dedicated to furthering the education, production and distribution of filmmaking in the San Fernando Valley”: 1. “Valley film” is not a euphemism for porn. 2. The Valley has already made important contributions to the world of film. 3. It’s a worthwhile trip over the hill this week for the Valley Film Festival, screening 16 films, including four from Valley residents and one from Israel, called “Raging Dove.”

Nov. 1-7. El Portal Theatre, 5267 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. For information call, (818) 754-8222 or visit www.valleyfilmfest.com.

7/THURSDAY

The UJ’s series “In Their Own Words: Conversations With Writers” continues tonight when Journal arts and entertainment editor Naomi Pfefferman interviews author Dara Horn. Horn will discuss her first novel “In the Image,” a story that examines the nature of good and evil, and the presence of God.

7 p.m. $15. University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1546.

8/FRIDAY

So you think the ballet “The Nutcracker” just conjures up Christmasy images of Sugar Plum Fairies. Not if Akiva Talmi, the kibbutz-bred producer of the esteemed Moscow Ballet, has his way. He pushed his ballet to informally dedicate its 2002 season to” celebrating the contributions of Jewish cultural heroes of the former Soviet Union,” who had to downplay their heritage to succeed back in the U.S.S.R.

Nov. 7-9, 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. Saturday matinee. Terrace Theater, Long Beach Convention Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd.,Long Beach. (213) 480-3232.

The ‘Kid’s’ Staying Power


Every day during the summer of 1942, 12-year-old Robert Evans set out with a copy of Radio Registry under his arm and hit every audition room in New York.

"I [made] up one story after another about my brilliant career," the legendary producer recalls in "The Kid Stays in the Picture," a juicy new documentary based on his 1994 tell-all memoir. After months of rejection, he capitalized on his uncanny knack for accents and landed a gig that appalled some members of his Jewish family: playing a Nazi concentration camp colonel on "Radio Mystery Theater."

"[There] I was, a 12-year-old Jewish kid … labeled the top Nazi in town," he says with a laugh.

It’s the kind of outrageous chutzpah hijinks one would expect of Evans, whose roller coaster of a life is chronicled like a Hollywood epic in "Kid." The doc recounts his discovery as an actor by silent movie star Norma Shearer, his ascension to Paramount production chief in his 30s, his penchant for bedding actresses such as Ava Gardner and Raquel Welch and greenlighting such hits as "Love Story" and "The Godfather." It also describes how Evans — perhaps the last great producer of the pre-Jerry Bruckheimer era — was busted for cocaine and linked to the notorious Cotton Club murder case in the 1980s (he was never indicted). And how his very public fall from grace bankrupted him and made him a pariah, though he’s since reclaimed the spotlight with his memoir and the documentary, directed by Oscar nominees Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein.

"I’ve been from royalty to infamy and back again," the 72-year-old says in his famous purr-growl while reclining on his fur-covered bed at his Woodland Drive mansion.

Morgen agrees: "Bob’s life is like a movie. He’s also a tragic figure in the sense that he almost lost everything because of his transgressions." Morgen, 32, who attended Jewish studies classes at Amherst, adds that the producer "in a way reminds me of King David. Just as David had his love for Bathsheba, which was his big transgression, Bob had his addiction to excess and to cocaine."

Even the way the producer (ne Shapera) became Robert Evans sounds like a scene from a Hollywood melodrama. Evans says it happened late one night in 1942 when his dentist father, Archie, tearfully asked young Bob and his brother, Charles, to adopt Archie’s dying mother’s maiden name. "It was a means of exacting revenge against [Archie’s] father, a gambler who would step out for a newspaper and return home, broke, three weeks later," the producer says.

Cut to 1956, when the strikingly handsome Evans — then a millionaire partner in Charles’ clothing firm, Evan-Picone — caught Shearer’s eye while sunning himself by the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Shearer said his confident manner reminded her of her late husband, the Jewish movie mogul Irving Thalberg, and would Evans like to play him in the James Cagney flick, "Man of a Thousand Faces"?

Evans did, and some months later — in a completely unrelated incident — he was "discovered" by mega-producer Darryl Zanuck while dancing the tango with a countess at a posh supper club. Zanuck decided to cast him as Ava Gardner’s Latin lover in the 1957 film version of Ernest Hemingway’s "The Sun Also Rises" — but the author (and Evans’ co-stars) disagreed. "Everyone on the set knew [Hemingway’s] thoughts about how this Jewboy would ruin the film," Evans says. "But he couldn’t convince Zanuck."

Instead, the stogie-smoking Zanuck observed Evans’ bullfighter shtick, put a bullhorn to his lips and proclaimed, "The kid stays in the picture. And anybody who doesn’t like it can quit."

Evans recalls: "It was then that I realized I didn’t want to be some actor sh–ing in his pants to get a role, but the guy who gets to say, ‘The kid stays in the picture.’" After finagling a three-picture deal at Fox, he was named head of production at Paramount in 1966.

During his tenure there in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Evans hired the Polish-born Holocaust survivor Roman Polanski to direct the classic films "Rosemary’s Baby" (1968) and "Chinatown" (1974). He resorted to a typically Evans-esque stunt when Polanski wanted to leave the "Chinatown" set to attend a seder in Poland.

"Bob said, ‘Roman, I’ll throw you the best Passover you ever had,’" Morgen says. "He ended up with Kirk Douglas leading the seder with Polanski and Walter Matthau in attendance."

Evans went on to bring the quintessential 1960s Jewish American film to Paramount, though not without his share of tsuris. He wanted a Jewish actress to star in "Goodbye Columbus," based on Philip Roth’s biting novella, and was appalled when filmmakers instead cast Ali MacGraw. "Ali MacGraw, an 18-year-old spoiled Jewish American Princess?" he shouted incredulously at producer Stanley Jaffe on the telephone. "She’s a 28-year-old over-the-hill shiksa." The actresses’ luminous screen test convinced him otherwise, however, and, "I fell in love with her while watching the dailies," Evans recalls. In October 1969, they were married.

But the producer didn’t want to talk about MacGraw — who left him for Steve McQueen three years later — or the Cotton Club case when Morgen and Burstein arrived to film him in early 2000. It didn’t matter that Morgen had studied Evans’ movies as a cinema-obsessed kid (the poster to Evans’ "Popeye" hung over his bed) or that he had attended Crossroads School in Santa Monica with the producer’s son, Josh. ("There were rumors that Josh’s dad was possibly involved in a murder," Morgen recalls.)

Evans, who narrates the film, says, "It’s difficult to make a picture that shows your life, warts and all, and we had very big fights about it."

Not that Evans didn’t try to put on the charm, instructing his butler to prepare caviar omelets for Morgen and Burstein and regaling them with stories beside a vast swimming pool. "We knew that Bob was trying to ‘seduce’ us," says Burstein, 30, who grew up Reform but attended an Orthodox grade school in Buffalo, N.Y. "And we, in turn, were trying to ‘seduce’ him."

Evans is glad they did. During the "Kid screening at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, he received a 12-minute standing ovation and he’s now back on the Paramount lot, making movies with directors such as Wes Anderson. "I hope the film inspires people to know that when you’re down, it ain’t over," he says, sounding like the chutzpah kid who reinvented himself as the "Jewish Nazi" in 1942. "Sometimes it hurts, but you’ve gotta stay in the picture.

Rocky Mountain Chai


Move over Sundance, Slamdance, Digidance and Nodance. The two-week showbiz schmoozefest in Park City, Utah, traditionally a launching pad for Jewish indie cinema, is now home to SchmoozeDance, a forum for Jewish filmmakers, journalists, observers and studio execs to celebrate Jewish film.

“Since everyone’s schmoozing at Sundance, I thought the Jews should, too,” founder Larry Mark said.Mark has dedicated the past five years of his life to Jewish cinema. A circulation marketer at The New York Times by day, the movie buff was annoyed by the ubiquitous stereotypes he heard about Jewish film. “It was, ‘Oh, Jewish cinema — that’s “Fiddler on the Roof” or Holocaust stuff,'” he said. “But there’s so much more.”

Mark proved his point by starting JewishFilm.com, the online Jewish film archive; there are now some 800 listings, including past Sundance entries like Boaz Yakin’s “A Price Above Rubies” and Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi.” To keep his site current, Mark compulsively studies Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and worldwide film festival lineups. (He’s also the editor of MyJewishBooks.com.)

Now he’s turning his attention to Park City. “I’ve always wanted to go to a real industry film festival,” explained the affable Mark, who’ll use vacation time to attend the fests.

SchmoozeDance is starting small. This year, it’s an oneg Shabbat and a kiddush sponsored by JewishFilm.com Jan. 19 at Park City’s only shul, Reform Temple Har Shalom. “I even had yarmulkes made up that say ‘SchmoozeDance at Sundance,'” said Mark, who’s invited everyone from Village Voice critic J. Hoberman to Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein.

In 2001, movies to watch include Michael Apted’s “Enigma,” based on Robert Harris’ best-selling novel about Britain’s elite team of code-breakers facing their worst nightmare in March 1943. Nazi U-boats have unexpectedly changed their enigma code, endangering a merchant shipping convoy of 10,000 men.Sundance opens with Christine Lahti’s “My First Mister,” a March-October romance starring Albert Brooks and Leelee Sobieski. The festival will also premiere “Divided We Fall,” about a Czech family that harbors an escapee from Theresienstadt; the documentary “Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey,” about the life of the remarkable African American mediator of the 1949 Arab-Israeli armistice; and “Trembling Before G-d,” a highly anticipated doc about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews by Sandi Simcha DuBowski (see story, page 27).

Then there’s director Marc Levin, winner of the 1998 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for “Slam,” a lyrical feature about an incarcerated Black poet; he’s back in Park City this year with Slamdance opener “Brooklyn Babylon,” a Black-Jewish “Romeo and Juliet” inspired by the Song of Songs. Set in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where Black-Jewish tensions have simmered since the riot of 1991, Sol, a charismatic rapper ready to break into the music business (hip-hop MC Tariq Trotter), meets Sara (Karen Goberman), a young Jewish beauty ready to break free of her religious background. Sparks fly.

The provocative pic brings Levin, director of the video version of Anna Deavere Smith’s L.A.-riot saga, “Twilight: Los Angeles,” back to his Jewish roots.

“[As] the millennium was approaching, I felt it was time to do my Bible film, a hip-hop Solomon and Sheba in the neighborhood where my parents and grandparents all grew up,” he said. “In a way, it completes my trilogy: ‘Slam,’ ‘Whiteboys’ and ‘Brooklyn Babylon.'”

In dramatic competition at Sundance, the Yale- and Stanford-educated writer-director Henry Bean offers “The Believer,” starring Theresa Russell and Billy Zane, based on the 1960s true story of an ex-yeshiva bocher turned anti-Semite. In real life, Danny Balint committed suicide the day The New York Times printed an exposé revealing he was Jewish. In the movie, we meet the 12-year-old Balint (Ryan Gosling) arguing with his rabbis and dodging gentile toughs on the street. By 22, he is a skinhead and budding fascist leader; when the court sentences him to “sensitivity training” with elderly Holocaust survivors, his conflicting feelings set him on the path to self-destruction.

While Balint was hiding his Jewishness, “at the same time he was compulsively revealing it,” said Bean, the screenwriter of “Internal Affairs” and “Enemy of the State.” “He would bring knishes back to the Nazi headquarters and hang out with girls who looked obviously Jewish. The notion of somebody hiding something and revealing it at the same time fascinated me.”

Fall Film Festivals


Fall is here, and with it a harvest of Jewish cinema. Two film festivals are offering sneak peeks of the best Jewish movies of the year. There’s an engaging assortment of features, documentaries, revivals and short films – some 30 in all – many of them personal stories of the Holocaust or assimilation.The Sephardic Educational Center’s Fourth Annual Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival (see page 33) opens Nov. 9 with the West Coast premiere of “K,” the latest thriller by French-Algerian filmmaker Alexandre Arcady. A North African Jewish cop is at the center of this mystery about a Holocaust survivor who may not be who he seems.

The International Jewish Film Festival & Conference, Nov. 8-21, opens Wednesdayat the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where actor Gene Wilder will appear at a screening of his rabbi-in-the-Old-West saga, “The Frisco Kid.” New fare includes the antiwar story “Kippur” from controversial Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai (story below); the Holocaust documentary “Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness” (see page 32); “Simon Magus,” a tale of love and demonology starring Noah Taylor of “Shine” fame; and reprises of terrific films such as Istvan Szabo’s Hungarian family saga, “Sunshine.”

For information on seminars and screenings (most are at the Laemmle Theatres), contact the Sephardic fest at (310) 273-8567 and the International Jewish Film Festival at (818) 786-4000.

Celebrating Jewish Filmmakers In a BIG Way


Earlier this year, Greg Laemmle wasn’t sure there was going to be another Cinema Judaica: The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival.

The vice president of Los Angeles’ premiere art house chain founded the festival four years ago, theorizing that if cities like Fresno and Buffalo have a Jewish festival festival, Los Angeles should have one, too. Hollywood is the seat of the film industry, after all.

But six months ago, Laemmle was ready to give up. It wasn’t so much that the festival was losing a lot of money — it wasn’t. The problem was that coordinating the festival was overwhelming Laemmle and his company, “and the turnout didn’t seem to make all the work worthwhile.”

The change came last spring, when producer and publisher Phil Blazer walked into Laemmle’s office above the Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles. Blazer, president of Jewish Life, a not-for-profit organization that underwrites Jewish cultural projects, had a proposal for Laemmle. “He said he shared my feeling that Hollywood should have the best Jewish film festival in the world,” Laemmle recalls. “And he told me he could raise money and arrange publicity to make this a major event.”

The result is the first International Jewish Film Festival and Conference, Nov. 2-18, which is bigger and better than past Jewish film festivals. Blazer secured director Arthur Hiller as the festival chair, and Arthur Cohn, the Oscar-winning producer of the Holocaust classic, “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” and the lauded “Central Station” as the honorary chair. Blazer is also amassing some $80,000 in funding, which far surpasses Laemmle’s previous budget of $10,000. “I have at least that amount just to rent films,” Laemmle says.

This year’s 50 titles include classics such as “Schindler’s List” and Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” plus more new features and foreign films than ever before. There will be more than half a dozen Los Angeles premieres, including “Kadosh,” the controversial Israeli film about women in ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim; “Yidl in the Middle,” a documentary about growing up Jewish in Iowa; and “Train of Life,” Radu Mihaileanu’s Sundance-winning Holocaust tragicomedy, the festival’s opening night film at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The festival’s premiere event will take place Nov. 3, also at the Academy, co-sponsored by State of Israel Bonds Holocaust Division. The event will feature a screening of “Gentleman’s Agreement,” the landmark 1947 film starring Gregory Peck as a Gentile journalist who poses as a Jew to experience bigotry. The film was a seminal screed against anti-Semitism at a time when Hollywood Jews were loathe to address Jewish concerns on camera.

The gala will also feature a screening of “Children of the Night,” Cohn’s documentary about children who died in the Holocaust; and excerpts from “The Last Days,” the Oscar-winning documentary about the Hungarian-Jewish Holocaust. Peck will be honored, as will Renee Firestone, a survivor featured in “The Last Days.” Temple Shalom for the Arts is supporting the event.

On Nov. 4, Joan Micklin Silver will be on hand for a screening of her new romantic comedy, “A Fish in the Bathtub”; she will also appear with Mihaileanu and other filmmakers at a festival conference that “hopefully will inspire young directors to make Jewish films,” Laemmle says.

Other festival films will explore gay-Jewish themes (see sidebar), such as Jean-Jacques Zilbermann’s French hit comedy, “Man is a Woman,” which explores the relationship between a gay man and a Jewish heterosexual woman; and “Aimee & Jaguar,” about a lesbian affair between a Jew and a German during World War II.

If there is a theme that dominates the festival, it is the Holocaust, Laemmle says; more than half the films touch upon the Shoah. It is, apparently, still the defining Jewish experience for many non-Israeli filmmakers. The recent films, however, do not confront the enormity of the Holocaust: “We’re not seeing ‘Shoah’ or ‘Night and Fog,’ but very specific, personal stories,” Laemmle says. In the documentary “Nothing’s Changed,” a survivor returns to the Ukraine; “Tak For Alt: Survival of a Human Spirit” profiles survivor and Civil Rights Activist Judy Meisel; and “Train of Life” (see review) is Mihaileanu’s ode to his father’s Romanian shtetl. &’009;

“Train of Life,” he told The Journal, actually began with what the villagers called the Train of Death, a cattle car that drove in circles until its passengers died of thirst.

Mihaileanu remembered the ghost train at a Paris dinner party several years ago, when a historian described Russian villagers who supposedly evaded the Nazis by “deporting” themselves on a fake train. The director immediately realized the story could be told in a tragicomic way, a return to the Jewish tradition of utilizing humor to endure suffering. And he knew the film could help connect him to the shtetl world he never knew.

His father served as the consultant on the set, where he ecstatically helped recreate a fairy tale version of his shtetl. The elder Mihaileanu will be at hand when “Train of Life” premieres at the Academy next week. “It’s my Hollywood dream, and my father has to be there,” the director says.

The new International Jewish Film Festival is Laemmle’s Hollywood dream. “My hope is that it can do for Jewish film what Sundance has done to promote the growth of independent film around the world,” he says.

For general festival information, call (818) 786-4000. Tickets for the Academy events and invitations to the filmmakers’ conference (you must have an invitation) are available at (818) 786-4000. For State of Israel Bonds Nov. 3 pre-gala reception and event, call (323) 939-3000 and ask for Brigitte Medvin.

Most festival screenings will take place at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino. Tickets (excluding the special events) are $8, $4.50 (for a package of four) and $5 for senior citizens.

Meandering Plots Derail ‘Train’


“Train of Life” uses fantasy and humor to deal with a Holocaust theme. Sound familiar?

Actually, the French film (with English subtitles) was conceived and completed before “Life Is Beautiful,” and the central role of Shlomo the Fool was offered initially to Roberto Benigni, director and star of “Life Is Beautiful.”

It is “Train of Life’s” misfortune to be released a year after the Oscar-winning Italian film, to which it inevitably will be compared and judged.

Radu Mihaileanu, the Romanian-born writer and director of “Train” started with a clever and promising idea: news of the approaching Nazi army reaches a remote East European shtetl. The rabbi and the Chelm-like wise men ponder what to do, but it is Shlomo, the savant-fool, who comes up with an ingenious idea.

The shtetl will deport itself, via an old but renovated train, with some of the village people dressed up as Nazi officers and soldiers guarding the “deportees,” until the train reaches Israel, where everybody will live happily ever after.

The elders select Mordechai, the woodworker, to be the Nazi commander. The barber shears his beard and payes, the tailor fabricates a German colonel’s uniform, complete with medals, and off they go.

While “Life Is Beautiful” remained true to its fable on its own terms and stuck to a simple story line, “Train” is weighed down by meandering subplots.

One repugnant villager becomes a rabid communist and organizes a revolutionary cell aboard the train. A band of hapless partisans tries to blow up the train. A horde of Gypsies comes aboard and makes beautiful music (and love) with the shtetl’s klezmorim.

Then there is Esther, the shtetl’s sexpot, who is given to baring her breasts and poses fetchingly in the nude in a mikvah scene.

If the movie is approached with the same good-humored disbelief as in viewing, say, “Fiddler on the Roof,” it could work. Otherwise, the excesses of the story line extend to many of the character portrayals, with the rabbi and village elders bordering frequently on Yiddish caricatures, given to a great many “Oys” and gesticulating arguments.

An exception is Lionel Abelanski, who gives a touching and restrained performance as the wise fool.

Rufus (no last name) faced a special challenge. The Gentile actor had first to learn how to be a shtetl Jew, and then a shtetl Jew posing as a Nazi officer. Considering the strain of the double transition, he acquits himself credibly.

Agathe de la Fontaine, the passionate Esther, looks lovely, dressed or undressed, and not much more is required of her.

Writer-director Mihaileanu is the son of a shtetl-born writer and was a member of the Bucharest Yiddish Theater before leaving Romania in 1980. He moved to Israel and then settled in France, where he became a filmmaker.

“Train” has won more than 10 international awards, including the Audience Award-World Cinema at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.

“Train” will open the Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 2 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science.

Community Briefs


Even for an international film producer and inveterate traveler, Arthur Cohn has covered a lot of territory recently.

During the last week in October, the winner of a record five Oscars and producer of “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” and “Central Station” was feted in Shanghai at his very own “Arthur Cohn Day” by the Chinese government and film industry.

He used the occasion of a retrospective of his works at the Shanghai International Film Festival to premiere his latest documentary, “Children of the Night.”

Conceived as a cinematic memorial to the 1.3 million Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust — and their rescue from the anonymity of statistics — the film resurrects the faces of its subjects, sometimes at play, more often ragged and starving.

Although the film is only 18-minutes long, Cohn spent three years scouring archives across the world for material, of which only six yielded scraps of usable footage.

For the feature film to follow the documentary at the Shanghai festival, Cohn had originally selected his 1995 movie “Two Bits” with Al Pacino. However, government officials in Beijing insisted on “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” the 1971 classic about an aristocratic Italian-Jewish family that is ultimately destroyed by the fascists.

Cohn says that he took the Beijing fiat as a signal that “the theme of the Holocaust has been openly recognized by the Chinese government for the first time.”

His reception in Shanghai was remarkable, as press and public mobbed him like some rock star. More than 130 journalists covered his press conference, during which a giant banner above his head proclaimed “World Famous Producer Arthur Cohn” in Chinese and English.

For the screening itself, Chinese fans fought for tickets to the 2,000-seat theater. When the two films ended, the audience sat, as if stunned, for three-minutes, before quietly leaving.

For most Chinese, it was their initial introduction to a Holocaust theme. Said a young hotel manager, “Six million dead … that’s as if they murdered every bicyclist in this city.”

A reporter for the Shanghai Star perceived that “Cohn seems to cherish a special feeling for the Jews.” Indeed, the producer’s next release will be “One Day in September,” referring to the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

The production will be a “thriller with documentary footage,” says Cohn, with Michael Douglas in the central role of the commentator.

“One Day in September” will have its world premiere on Jan. 18 in Los Angeles, under the auspices of the American Film Institute.

A couple of days later Cohn arrived in Hollywood to report on his Shanghai triumph and participate in the first annual International Jewish Film Festival here.

He officiated at the American premiere of “Children of the Night” and presented an award to veteran actor Gregory Peck.

Cohn, who stands a rangy six-foot, three inches, is a third generation Swiss citizen and resident of Basel.

His father, Marcus, was a respected lawyer and a leader of the Swiss religious Zionist movement. He settled in Israel in 1949, helped to write many of the basic laws of the new state, and served as Israel’s assistant attorney general until his death in 1953.

The family’s Zionist roots go even deeper. The producer’s grandfather and namesake, Rabbi Arthur Cohn, was the chief rabbi of Basel. He was a friend of Theodor Herzl and one of the few leaders in the Orthodox rabbinate to support the founder of modern Zionism.

It was because of this support, says Cohn, that Herzl chose Basel, rather than one of Europe’s more glittering capitals, as the site of the first Zionist Congress in 1897.

Of the filmmaker’s three children, two sons have served in the Israeli army and studied at Israeli universities.

“Girl Power”


Cult filmmaker Sarah Jacobson can one-up any L.A. Jewish reader who felt like an outcast in high school.

Her small-town Minnesota classmates told her she was going to burn in hell. “Everyone was really blond,” adds Jacobson, now 27. “It was like L.A., except in Minnesota, people are born that way.”

At Jacobson’s synagogue, meanwhile, “people were totally materialistic.”

And so, alienated from both sides of the mainstream, the honor student gravitated toward the fringe, driving her mom’s station wagon into Minneapolis to hang around the punk rock scene.

The filmmaker describes her teen angst in “Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore,” her gritty, ultra-low budget, sexually explicit film about a smart, suburban young Jewish woman in search of cool punk friends (and good sex) at the local B-movie theater.

Ranked by Spin magazine as one of the “50 Biggest Influences on Girl Culture,” the movie is not Jacobson’s first foray into guerrilla cinema. Inspired by her mentor, George Kuchar, “the King of trash filmmaking,” Jacobson scraped together $1,600 to make the half-hour “I was a Teenage Serial Killer,” when she was just 19. Film Threat magazine named the movie, about “a woman who kills dumb men,” one of the “Top 25 Underground Films You Must See.”

An unexpected business partner — her own mom — helped Jacobson raise the $50,000 required for “Mary Jane.” Unfazed by the flick’s mohawk-sporting stars, Ruth Jacobson moved to San Francisco and began sending postcards to strangers, asking for money. “My mom wanted me to have all the opportunities she never had for herself,” explains Sarah, who, in turn, offered her previously conventional Jewish mother a whole new career.

After “Mary Jane” played at Sundance in 1997, Sarah hauled the film to festivals around the country while mom worked on distribution.

Next up for mother and daughter: Sarah’s new movie, “Sleaze,” about “an all-girl band on tour in Missoula, Mont., who hook up with the town geek.” The name of the Jacobson’s production company: Station Wagon Productions.

“Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore” plays at the Nuart March 12-18.

Cinema Judaica


In years past, the Sundance Film Festival — a two-week marathon of industry schmoozing, skiing and screenings in Park City, Utah — has served as the launching pad for Jewish independent cinema. The gematria-laced, sci-fi-tinged “Pi,” the Simon Wiesenthal Center-produced Oscar winner, “The Long Way Home,” the Academy Award-nominated “Shine,” and the critically lambasted “A Price Above Rubies” all surfaced there in recent years.

This year, Jewish filmmakers triumphed once again, as several top festival trophies went to films containing Jewish subject matter. The Dramatic Feature Directing Award went to Eric Mendelsohn for “Judy Berlin,” a surreal meditation on dysfunctional Jewish families trying to make sense of their lives during a solar eclipse. And co-winning the Audience Award for World Cinema was “Train de Vie” (“Train of Life”), another dramatic comedy, almost film as fable, set during the Holocaust.

Like a French version of a Sholom Aleichem story, “Train of Life” spins the yarn of a shtetl, scheduled to face annihilation at the hands of the Germans, that finds hope when the village idiot proposes a plan to buy a train, disguise the townspeople as Nazis and deport everyone to Eretz Yisrael. Many of the film’s seriocomic incidents — Jewish tailors faking Nazi uniforms, swastikas replacing mezuzahs, etc. — may straddle the line of good taste for some, but, like “Life Is Beautiful,” the film’s life-affirming sentiments strive to win over its audience.

Other features that generated positive buzz included “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.,” a documentary about a Holocaust revisionist by Erroll Morris that received rave response, as did “Fools Gold,” Jeffrey Janger’s road movie about a pair of Oklahoma outlaws — one Latino, the other Jewish — on the lam.

Also receiving attention was “A Walk on the Moon,” directed and produced by actors Tony Goldwyn (grandson of movie mogul Sam Goldwyn) and Dustin Hoffman, respectively. Set in 1969, the bittersweet drama centers around a bored Jewish mother (Diane Lane) and daughter (Anna Paquin) who find themselves lured to Woodstock while vacationing in the Catskills. At the press conference for the film, “Moon’s” screenwriter talked about the resistance she met while shopping around her nostalgic script. Mentioning that studio execs had found her story “too soft, too small, not global enough and too ethnic,” Hoffman quipped, “Hey, that describes me!”

Jewish images also turned up in unexpected places. In “Home Page,” filmmaker Doug Block uses his nephew’s bar mitzvah and a family seder to contrast traditional Jewish community with the fragmented one found across the World Wide Web. In “Fools Gold,” the twentysomething Jew, struggling with both Jewish identity and anti-Semitism, attempts to keep kosher as he is being pursued and, to his dismay, learns that his “wanted” photo is an old bar mitzvah picture (in a postmodern Hitchcockian cameo, the director used his own bar mitzvah photo for the shot). And in the hip romance, “The Invisibles,” a fresh-out-of-rehab rock star named Jude displays an uncanny Chassidic knowledge, offering rabbinical tales from the Baal Shem Tov and offhand comments about planting trees in Israel.

One of the festival’s sleeper hits, “The Invisibles” shot for an astounding $7,000 in eight days and was directed by Noah Stern, a Conservative Jew from Chicago whose production entity, ZH Films, stands for Zionist Hoodlum (a reference to the infamous Oscar speech Vanessa Redgrave gave in the 1970s).

If the overt Jewish presence in, of all places, Park City seemed jarring to some, the juxtaposition wasn’t wasted on “Invisibles” director Stern, who told The Journal: “Most Jews in Hollywood hide from their identity, but like many at Sundance, I have no interest in hiding. There’s a ghettoization in the industry about being a Jew, but we prefer not to be a part of that ghetto. And if we’re labeled freaks for doing that, dayenu.”

Community Briefs


Even for an international film producer and inveterate traveler, Arthur Cohn has covered a lot of territory recently.

During the last week in October, the winner of a record five Oscars and producer of “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” and “Central Station” was feted in Shanghai at his very own “Arthur Cohn Day” by the Chinese government and film industry.

He used the occasion of a retrospective of his works at the Shanghai International Film Festival to premiere his latest documentary, “Children of the Night.”

Conceived as a cinematic memorial to the 1.3 million Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust — and their rescue from the anonymity of statistics — the film resurrects the faces of its subjects, sometimes at play, more often ragged and starving.

Although the film is only 18-minutes long, Cohn spent three years scouring archives across the world for material, of which only six yielded scraps of usable footage.

For the feature film to follow the documentary at the Shanghai festival, Cohn had originally selected his 1995 movie “Two Bits” with Al Pacino. However, government officials in Beijing insisted on “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” the 1971 classic about an aristocratic Italian-Jewish family that is ultimately destroyed by the fascists.

Cohn says that he took the Beijing fiat as a signal that “the theme of the Holocaust has been openly recognized by the Chinese government for the first time.”

His reception in Shanghai was remarkable, as press and public mobbed him like some rock star. More than 130 journalists covered his press conference, during which a giant banner above his head proclaimed “World Famous Producer Arthur Cohn” in Chinese and English.

For the screening itself, Chinese fans fought for tickets to the 2,000-seat theater. When the two films ended, the audience sat, as if stunned, for three-minutes, before quietly leaving.

For most Chinese, it was their initial introduction to a Holocaust theme. Said a young hotel manager, “Six million dead … that’s as if they murdered every bicyclist in this city.”

A reporter for the Shanghai Star perceived that “Cohn seems to cherish a special feeling for the Jews.” Indeed, the producer’s next release will be “One Day in September,” referring to the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

The production will be a “thriller with documentary footage,” says Cohn, with Michael Douglas in the central role of the commentator.

“One Day in September” will have its world premiere on Jan. 18 in Los Angeles, under the auspices of the American Film Institute.

A couple of days later Cohn arrived in Hollywood to report on his Shanghai triumph and participate in the first annual International Jewish Film Festival here.

He officiated at the American premiere of “Children of the Night” and presented an award to veteran actor Gregory Peck.

Cohn, who stands a rangy six-foot, three inches, is a third generation Swiss citizen and resident of Basel.

His father, Marcus, was a respected lawyer and a leader of the Swiss religious Zionist movement. He settled in Israel in 1949, helped to write many of the basic laws of the new state, and served as Israel’s assistant attorney general until his death in 1953.

The family’s Zionist roots go even deeper. The producer’s grandfather and namesake, Rabbi Arthur Cohn, was the chief rabbi of Basel. He was a friend of Theodor Herzl and one of the few leaders in the Orthodox rabbinate to support the founder of modern Zionism.

It was because of this support, says Cohn, that Herzl chose Basel, rather than one of Europe’s more glittering capitals, as the site of the first Zionist Congress in 1897.

Of the filmmaker’s three children, two sons have served in the Israeli army and studied at Israeli universities.

Community Briefs


Even for an international film producer and inveterate traveler, Arthur Cohn has covered a lot of territory recently.

During the last week in October, the winner of a record five Oscars and producer of “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” and “Central Station” was feted in Shanghai at his very own “Arthur Cohn Day” by the Chinese government and film industry.

He used the occasion of a retrospective of his works at the Shanghai International Film Festival to premiere his latest documentary, “Children of the Night.”

Conceived as a cinematic memorial to the 1.3 million Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust — and their rescue from the anonymity of statistics — the film resurrects the faces of its subjects, sometimes at play, more often ragged and starving.

Although the film is only 18-minutes long, Cohn spent three years scouring archives across the world for material, of which only six yielded scraps of usable footage.

For the feature film to follow the documentary at the Shanghai festival, Cohn had originally selected his 1995 movie “Two Bits” with Al Pacino. However, government officials in Beijing insisted on “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” the 1971 classic about an aristocratic Italian-Jewish family that is ultimately destroyed by the fascists.

Cohn says that he took the Beijing fiat as a signal that “the theme of the Holocaust has been openly recognized by the Chinese government for the first time.”

His reception in Shanghai was remarkable, as press and public mobbed him like some rock star. More than 130 journalists covered his press conference, during which a giant banner above his head proclaimed “World Famous Producer Arthur Cohn” in Chinese and English.

For the screening itself, Chinese fans fought for tickets to the 2,000-seat theater. When the two films ended, the audience sat, as if stunned, for three-minutes, before quietly leaving.

For most Chinese, it was their initial introduction to a Holocaust theme. Said a young hotel manager, “Six million dead … that’s as if they murdered every bicyclist in this city.”

A reporter for the Shanghai Star perceived that “Cohn seems to cherish a special feeling for the Jews.” Indeed, the producer’s next release will be “One Day in September,” referring to the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

The production will be a “thriller with documentary footage,” says Cohn, with Michael Douglas in the central role of the commentator.

“One Day in September” will have its world premiere on Jan. 18 in Los Angeles, under the auspices of the American Film Institute.

A couple of days later Cohn arrived in Hollywood to report on his Shanghai triumph and participate in the first annual International Jewish Film Festival here.

He officiated at the American premiere of “Children of the Night” and presented an award to veteran actor Gregory Peck.

Cohn, who stands a rangy six-foot, three inches, is a third generation Swiss citizen and resident of Basel.

His father, Marcus, was a respected lawyer and a leader of the Swiss religious Zionist movement. He settled in Israel in 1949, helped to write many of the basic laws of the new state, and served as Israel’s assistant attorney general until his death in 1953.

The family’s Zionist roots go even deeper. The producer’s grandfather and namesake, Rabbi Arthur Cohn, was the chief rabbi of Basel. He was a friend of Theodor Herzl and one of the few leaders in the Orthodox rabbinate to support the founder of modern Zionism.

It was because of this support, says Cohn, that Herzl chose Basel, rather than one of Europe’s more glittering capitals, as the site of the first Zionist Congress in 1897.

Of the filmmaker’s three children, two sons have served in the Israeli army and studied at Israeli universities.

A Cinematic Look at Israel


The Israeli Film Festival, now in it’s 15th year, has, in many ways, come of age — in subject matter, directorial style and sensibility. Some offerings are powerful, lyrical, unflinching. Others are self-conscious, slight, even silly.

Film festivals, after all, by their very definition, are eclectic, uneven affairs, and this one is no exception. But, taken as a whole, it’s a welcome and provocative cultural import from a country that doesn’t lack for complexity and contradictions.

As in years past, the festival highlights are those films that dig deepest into the identity conflicts and cultural quirks that define the country itself. Whether it be a look at how the rigid social mores of a tightly knit Orthodox community affect one of it’s female members, or the dilemma faced by a middle-aged Palestinian man who must decide whether to sell his last family plot of land in order to make way for Israeli developers, the movies that hold our attention most closely are those which allow us into specific, evocative places we may otherwise not be able to go. Once we’re there, we often recognize parts of ourselves in the bargain.

By contrast, the formulaic thrillers and generic romantic comedies that are included here seem derivative and, ultimately, forgettable. We’ve seen this stuff at our local multiplex before, and with far better production values.

Along with the features, there are documentaries presented here that plunge directly into the prickly stuff of contemporary Israeli society. An emerging Sephardic feminism, the tension between religiosity and secularism as played out inside one family, and the final public and private moments of Yitzhak Rabin are all topics given a serious look on the documentary slate.

Some feature highlights from this year’s festival:

* “Mr. Baum” (80 minutes) The third film in a trilogy directed by Assi Dayan, a well-known actor in Israel and the son of the late Moshe Dayan. Through its title character, Mr. Baum poses the age old-question: If you had only a brief time left to live, what would you do? In this case, Mr. Baum has but a mere 92 minutes, which provoke his banal journey through this uneven but macabre comedy. Winner of the 1997 Israeli Academy Award for Best Picture.

Under Siege


In Roger Hanin’s semi-autobiographical film, “Soleil” (1997), 13-year-old Meyer is kicked out of school for being Jewish in Vichy North Africa. It is a sign that things have changed for his family in Algeria, where Jews had peacefully lived for centuries amid the Moslems. Now, Meyer’s communist father must go into hiding; his mother, Titine (Sophia Loren), must raise her children alone, charming black marketeers into giving her food. She manages to talk authorities into keeping Meyer out of jail when he is caught writing anti-government graffiti.

“Soleil” will debut here at the Director’s Guild on Oct. 28, the gala opening of the second annual Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival, sponsored by the Sephardic Educational Center. Like all 13 of the festival shorts, features and documentaries, “Soleil” emphasizes the ethnic diversity of Sephardic Jews.

The festival continues on Nov. 3, 5 and 8 with films such as “Novia Que Te Vea,” about the courtship of a Sephardic boy and an Ashkenazic girl in Mexico City after World War II; the documentary “The South: Alice Never Lived Here,” in which Greek-Bulgarian filmmaker Sini Bar David revisits her Jaffa Sephardic neighborhood; and “Zohar,” about the Israeli music superstar, Zohar Argov, who committed suicide in 1987.

The screenings will take place at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills and at the Laemmle Town Center in Encino; there also will be a filmmakers’ seminar on Nov. 8 at the Music Hall. For a festival schedule and information, call (310) 441-9361. *


“Soleil” with Sophia Loren will debut at the Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival on Oct. 28.

The Female Woody Allen


Julie Davis, a 28-year-old Dartmouthgraduate and former Playboy Channel editor, shot “I Love You, Don’tTouch Me!” for an amazing $68,000. When money ran out, she hocked herbubbie’s diamond ring to help finish her tale of a conscientious25-year-old Jewish virgin. A largely Jewish cast of newcomers,including Marla Schaffel, Meredith Scott Lynn and Mitchell Whitfield,stars in the film.

“I Love You” was a surprise hit at last year’sSundance Film Festival, where the young director was hailed as afemale Woody Allen (“being compared to him was the orgasm of mylife,” she says). Distribution rights were picked by The SamuelGoldwyn Company (“my parents were kvelling”). MGM, which boughtGoldwyn last year, finally released the film last week at the SantaMonica AMC, Avco Westwood, and many local theaters.

Davis points out that the movies rarely allowJewish women to enjoy sexual chemistry with Jewish men, with the soleexception of “Crossing Delancey.” “The Jewish girl on screen isalways nagging, grating and sexually uptight,” says Davis. “I hope mymovie will be a corrective — to show Jewish women as the wild,sexual, smart, funny, passionate women that they are, looking for menwho aren’t intimidated by their strength, who are real intellectualchallenges.”

Like her idol Woody Allen, Davis worked out herown angst on film. “It was so therapeutic for me,” says Davis, and inmore ways than one. The film worked its magic on Scott Mandell, OrionPictures post production executive who was charmed by her revealingportrait and is now her boyfriend.

“I would never have been able to fall in lovewithout having made this film,” says Davis. “This may have been themost expensive personals ad ever created.”


A Jewish New Wave


Ella Lewenz, pictured with one of her children,is the subject of her granddaughter’s documentary.
Filmmaker Myles Berkowitz made the comedy “20 Dates” on a budget of$60,000.

Park City, Utah

Jewish filmmakers descended on this snowy townlast month for their annual 11-day-long holiday ritual of schmoozing,skiing and screenings, better known as the Sundance FilmFestival.

That’s hardly big news in an industry with morethan a few Jewish members. What is news is that Jews were alsoturning up in full force on screen. While mainstream Hollywood hasbeen leery of taking on Jewish characters and subjects — theHolocaust being the exception– a new generation of independentdirectors is turning the cameras on their heritage.

When Robert Redford started screening cutting-edgework at his festival almost two decades ago, it was rare to see ayarmulke or a non-stereotyped Jewish family on a Utah screen. Butlast year, there was such a profusion of Jewish artists tacklingJewish themes that the Salt Lake City Jewish Community Center hosteda reception for them.

This year’s selection continues the trend.”There’s a diverse group of independent Jewish films here, and theydon’t all look alike,” said director Judith Helfand (“Healthy BabyGirl”).

Beyond the patently Jewish-themed films — more onthose later — it’s worth noting that the festival’s two winningdramatic films were imbued with a spirit that’s Jewish, even thoughthe characters were not. The Grand Jury Prize went to “Slam,”director Marc Levin’s neo-realist, humanistic drama about Washingtonprison life. Levin said that he next plans to film “BrooklynBabylon,” a cross-cultural love story between Jews and Rastafarians,which he hopes will be the “‘West Side Story’ for themillennium.”

The Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy went to”Smoke Signals,” a poignant Native American father-and-son storyco-produced by Scott Rosenfelt, whose own father died the day beforethe Sundance awards ceremony. “It’s so ironic,” he said while sittingshiva with hisfamily. “For the past year and a half, I’ve poured my heart and soulinto this film dealing with the loss of a father. But life is notlinear; it’s cyclical — that’s a concept in Native American cultureand on the Jewish calendar too. I still feel like my father knowsabout this [award], that I have honored him with my work, and that wehave come full circle.”

Other evidence of the Jewish “New Wave” atSundance include:

“Pi” (Winner:Dramatic Directing Award) “Pi” is thebrainchild of twentysomething writer-director Darren Aronofsky, aBrighton Beach-raised Harvard grad whose father teaches science atYeshiva of Flatbush junior high school. In “Pi,” a tortured mathgenius named Max Cohen, with a knack for cracking codes, findshimself pursued by Wall Street suits and kabbalists searching for thehidden numbers behind the Almighty’s secret name. “It’s a spiritualsearch,” said Aronofsky. “The message of ‘Pi’ is that you shouldn’tspend all of your time searching for God in this lifetime. The beautyis in the chaos. It’s about enjoying life — which is also aChassidic message.” The film’s rich Jewish imagery, said thedirector, “comes from a trip to Israel. I got involved with the AishHaTorah Discovery program for three days in Jerusalem. That’s where Igot my introduction to numerology. It didn’t quite work for me, butit gave me a lot of respect for Judaism, and I used a lot of thematerial in this film.”

“A Price Above Rubies” One of this festival’s most lovingly-crafted tales is alsosure to be one of most controversial portraits of traditional Jews tobe released by a major studio (Miramax Films, a subsidiary of theWalt Disney Company). Manhattan-born writer-director Boaz Yakin tellsthe harrowing story of a pretty young Hassidic wife (ReneeZellwegger) who endures a veritable “Perils of Pauline” throughBrooklyn’s Boro Park. Her tribulations include an unloving husband(Glenn Fitzgerald), too busy praying and poring through the Talmud tosatisfy her needs, a judgmental sister-in-law (Julianna Marguiles)who kidnaps her baby; and an adulterous brother-in-law (ChristopherEccleston) who seduces her while reciting the “Woman of Valor” lovepoem–providing the film’s title about a woman’s worth. She findssolace in the arms of a sensitive non-Jewish Puerto Rican sculptor(Alan Payne). Yakin is ready for controversy after a successfullaunch in Park City. “The response to my film at Sundance has beenfantastic. It’s been a real high,” said Yakin, awaiting theinevitable criticism. “It’s all downhill from here.”

“A LetterWithout Words” This fascinating andentertaining documentary traces the rise of the Third Reich via newlydiscovered home movies. Director Lisa Lewenz grew up as anEpiscopalian. At 13, she learned the family secret: Her dad had takenon a new identity in America, converting and marrying out of Judaismto spare his children from the anti-Semitism he had experienced inGermany. Lewenz spent 16 years of her life trying to piece togetherher missing family history, partially to find out more about her ownJewish identity. “One of my subversive goals,” she said over coffee,”was to inspire people to really explore their own families andfriends. I think so few of us ever really delve into that pastbecause we’re so busy living in the present.”

“Obsession” Perhapsthe sweetest Jewish images at the festival were offered up by PeterSehr, a German director who is, naturally, Catholic. “Obsession”concerns a ménage àtrois between a young female musician andher two men, and their friendship with two aging Russian Jewishbrothers, Simon and Jacob Frischmuth (played by Allen Garfield andSeymour Cassell, respectively). “People are a bit surprised that aGerman director would put two Jews in there,” said Sehr, who haspresented one of the first glimpses of Jews in contemporary Berlin.”What I tried to show was 50 years of absence. I think the biggestloss in German cultural life is the loss of its Jewish community, andI think only now we realize how big this loss is. This is my smallopportunity to give something back to the community, my wish that wewould have what we don’t have now: people with humor, generosity, acertain type of attitude toward life, a type of love which I’mmissing with my own people.”

“20Dates” Appearing at the rival SlamdanceFilm Festival, New Yorker Myles Berkowitz took the Dramatic AudienceAward for making a comedy about his two biggest failures in LosAngeles: his professional and his social lives. He consults amatchmaker, married friends, a rabbi, and even crashes a traditionalJewish wedding, posing as a videographer so that he can interview theprettiest girls at the reception. We get to see each one of his 20miserable real-life dates, many of whom are brutally honest, thanksto a hidden camera. Although Berkowitz claims that “religion is notan issue” in his dating habits (most of his pursuits are non-Jewishwomen), he remains proud of his Jewish heritage and his family’stemple, the Pelham Jewish Center in New York. “Slamdance wanted toopen my film on Friday night,” he said somewhat slyly. “But just likeSandy Koufax, I refused to pitch on a holy day. I told my family Iwas not going to première my movie on Shabbos.” Berkowitz’sfinished effort, a polished homage to Albert Brooks’ “Real Life” andWoody Allen’s romantic comedies, cost $60,000, provided by a LebaneseChristian producer.

Now that Jewish themes are trendy at the festival,dire
ctor Judith Helfand suggested that the Jewish filmmakers gatherfor a Shabbat dinner in Park City next year. “The only problem,” shesaid, “is that all the Jews will be at the movies on Friday night.We’ll have to work on that.”

Woody’s Story

“Wild ManBlues,” which won Sundance’s DocumentaryCinematography Award, includes the first-ever real-life portrayal ofWoody Allen’s very private life. Directed by Academy Award winnerBarbara Kopple, the real focus here is on Woody’s recent Europeanjazz tour. Fans will be surprised to see Soon-Yi mothering Woody,while Woody notes that Soon-Yi was once “this kid eating out ofgarbage pails in Korea”; Soon-Yi referencing “Manhattan” as herfavorite Woody Allen movie (starring the teen-aged Mariel Hemingwayas his love interest); and an epilogue in which he visits hisparents’ condo to drop off some new trophies. His father, examiningthe DGA Life Achievement Award, admires the quality of the engravingbut never recognizes the achievement, while Woody’s mother, whenprovoked, lets him know what she really thinks of him:

Woody’s Mom: “Sure,you did a lot of good things, but you never pursued them! I took youwherever I thought was good for you.”

Woody: “Like where?Hebrew School? All that junk?… You still think I’d still be betteroff if I was a druggist, right?”

Woody:’s Dad: “Maybeyou would be. Maybe you’d do more business as a druggist than you didas an actor?”

Woody:“I probablywould. Maybe if I had a drugstore, I’d have a bigger audience than Iget for my movies! Mom, how do you feel that both Christopher[Woody’s nephew] and I are going out with Asian women?”

Mom: “I personallydon’t think it’s right. I would have liked him from the beginning forhim to end up with a nice Jewish girl! [Soon-Yi recoils.] That’s whythe Jews — someday, not in your time — will be extinct! And that’svery bad!”

Woody: “This istruly the lunch from hell.”

Kopple, who grew up in the Reform Jewish communityof Scarsdale, N.Y., notes the meaning behind this interaction. “Itcertainly says, whenever you go home again, you’re a child,” shesaid. “There, he has all these awards, and all the father is lookingat is the engraving. [And Woody has] a typical Jewish mother. It washysterical. Throughout the entire film, it was hard for me to controlmy laughter.” — HarryMedved

Harry Medved hosts “Cinema Beshert: MeetingYour Mate at the Movies” at the University of Judaism on Sundaynights.

All rights reserved by author


‘I Don’t Feel Any Need to Apoligize’

By Leila Segal

Boaz Yakin is waiting for theother shoe to drop: While his new film, “A Price Above Rubies,” got awarm welcome from audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, theChassidic community has yet to react to his tale of emotionalrebellion, which opens here next month.

Director Yakin is known for his criticallyacclaimed debut, “Fresh,” set in gangland Brooklyn. In “A Price AboveRubies,” Sonia (Renee Zellweger), a young wife and mother living in aclose-knit Chassidic community in New York, finds herself frustratedby her allotted role. She sets out to explore her individuality andsexuality, and her journey to self-fulfillment encompasses a job inthe jewelry business and an affair with her brother-in-law, Sender(Christopher Eccleston).

While Yakin realizes that his choice of backdropfor the movie is bound to provoke controversy, he insists that thefilm’s main concern is societal repression, not a critique of theChassidic way of life: “‘A Price Above Rubies’ is about the power,fear and anxiety that can be created by feminine sexuality in aconservative society,” he says. “I only used the Jewish background asan excuse to tell a story that is really about one woman’s struggleto discover herself in a society which emphasizes conformity and dutyover self-fulfillment.

“It could apply to any community. It shows you awoman who essentially has a certain kind of selfish need and acertain kind of passionate need that isn’t being met, because, in anystrongly knit group, the needs of the individual are subordinated tothe needs of the group, which is very healthy in certain ways. But,like Sonia, there are those people who don’t fit, and they’remiserable, and that’s what this film is about.”

Yakin, himself from a yeshiva background,acknowledges that, in some respects, the film is critical of theChassidic way of life: “I’ve presented a very warm, sympathetic viewof the Chassidic world, but it’s also got a sense of humor, and, inplaces, it is critical,” he says. “Isn’t that what Jewish humor hasalways been about? Isn’t that what we’ve always been able to do? Weshould be able to make art that is critical and loving and humorousabout our own people. Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize fordoing it, and his stories are far more violent, sexual and criticalthan mine.”

True, Jewish tradition encourages discussionrather than imposing dogma. But should that discussion should beallowed to extend beyond the Jewish community, exposing our faultlines to the scrutiny of the wider world?

“The biggest victory someone else can have is toalter your own perception of yourself and your own sense of personalfreedom,” is Yakin’s response. “Historically, Jews have beenghettoized by other people. What we have today is a self-imposedinsularity that leads to total paranoia. Now I don’t forget history;I appreciate history. But when you let crimes against you dictate theway you look at yourself and at the world around you, you have letyour oppressors win.

“Anyone who’s going to be an anti-Semite is goingto be an anti-Semite no matter what we say about ourselves. The morewe can show ourselves as human beings, warts and all, the stronger wewill be.”

And while the Chassidic community, aware of itsvulnerability, is unsurprisingly defensive, if the Chassidim chosenot to participate in modern culture, then they cannot complain whenothers take up the torch on their behalf, asserts thedirector.

“My feeling is that there is nothing more healthythan art that is self-critical,” says Yakin. “Any society that can’tsurvive criticism isn’t going to make it anyway. As an artist, yourlife’s work is to explore the spirit of life in general. If my filmdidn’t offend anybody, I’d feel like I’d totally failed. I don’t feelany need to apologize for it or to soften it up.”

“A Price Above Rubies” opens nationally onMarch 27.



Leila Segal is a writer who lives inLondon.

All rights reserved by author


Exploring the Dark Side

By Naomi Pfefferman,Senior Writer

Hungarianfilmmaker János Szász agrees that his movies areunrelentingly bleak. “I lost half my family in Auschwitz, so all myfilms, in a way, are pessimistic,” says the soft-spoken, 40-year-oldauteur. “I see the dark side of life.”

Szász’s eerie “The Witman Boys,” Hungary’sOscar entry, is a grim, frightening tale of adolescence. Set amid thewintry mists of Transylvania, it f
ollows two brothers obsessed withsex and sacrifice after the death of their father. The exquisitelyphotographed film has earned accolades from Cannes to Sundance, whereSzász was recently toasted at a Variety magazine reception for”10 leading new independent directors.”

During a telephone interview, the filmmaker tracedhis gloomy vision to the Holocaust, to the mother who survivedAuschwitz and the father who survived Mauthausen. He loves hiscountry, its people and language, yet, as a Jew, he has always felthimself something of an outsider in Hungary.

While working on “The Witman Boys” in small-townTransylvania, he was devastated by “the ruined synagogues, with onlya few Jews left to [frequent] them.” He recalled how his parentsnever spoke of their Holocaust experiences. Instead, his belovedfather, a prominent screenwriter, fell into a quiet depression eachevening.

Only after Szász’s father died, in theearly 1980s, did a grandfather briefly speak of the “vast trains” tothe camps. The family silence molded a filmmaker: Szász becameobsessed with telling the stories of outcasts, “lost nobodies,”people alienated from the system.

The award-winning “Woyzeck” (1994) focuses on alonely, degraded railway worker who lashes out at society by killinghis wife. “The Witman Boys,” unloved by their cold, stern mother,seek a gruesome revenge.

Szász cast the film by scouringTransylvania for unknown talent; he knew he had found one of hisactors when he came across a teen-ager brooding alone in a darkclassroom while his peers gathered for auditions in theauditorium.

Today, however, the director wants to move beyondthe dark side. “I have to change because I have a beautiful youngdaughter, and I’d like to show that at the end of the tunnel, thereis a little light,” says the filmmaker, whose mentors have includedthe Oscar-winning director Istvan Szabo of “Mephisto.” To this end,Szász is relocating to Los Angeles, where William Morris hasexpressed interest in him.

Nevertheless, the bespectacled Szász hashis eye on at least one more somber endeavor, a Holocaust-themedproject. “I’m hoping it will help me explore my Jewish identity,” hesays, with a sigh. And perhaps, he muses, it will finally exorcisehis personal demons.


Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival


In Roger Hanin’s semi-autobiographical film, “Soleil” (1997), 13-year-old Meyer is kicked out of school for being Jewish in Vichy North Africa. It is a sign that things have changed for his family in Algeria, where Jews had peacefully lived for centuries amid the Moslems. Now, Meyer’s communist father must go into hiding; his mother, Titine (Sophia Loren), must raise her children alone, charming black marketeers into giving her food. She manages to talk authorities into keeping Meyer out of jail when he is caught writing anti-government graffiti.

“Soleil” will debut here at the Director’s Guild on Oct. 28, the gala opening of the second annual Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival, sponsored by the Sephardic Educational Center. Like all 13 of the festival shorts, features and documentaries, “Soleil” emphasizes the ethnic diversity of Sephardic Jews.

The festival continues on Nov. 3, 5 and 8 with films such as “Novia Que Te Vea,” about the courtship of a Sephardic boy and an Ashkenazic girl in Mexico City after World War II; the documentary “The South: Alice Never Lived Here,” in which Greek-Bulgarian filmmaker Sini Bar David revisits her Jaffa Sephardic neighborhood; and “Zohar,” about the Israeli music superstar, Zohar Argov, who committed suicide in 1987.

The screenings will take place at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills and at the Laemmle Town Center in Encino; there also will be a filmmakers’ seminar on Nov. 8 at the Music Hall. For a festival schedule and information, call (310) 441-9361. *


“Soleil” with Sophia Loren will debut at the Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival on Oct. 28.

Family Business


Seated, the late Max Laemmle, founder of the theater chain, with son Robert, left, and grandson Greg.

Back in the heyday of the self-made Jewish movie moguls, the studios were, to a certain degree, family businesses. For Louis B. Mayer, Jack and Harry Warner, and others, nepotism was standard operating procedure, a way to protectively surround themselves with their own kind and to lend a hand to relatives and friends who otherwise may have had a rockier time of it, particularly during the Depression.

Nepotism reached unprecedented heights at Universal Pictures, which was founded in 1915 by Carl Laemmle, an affable and unpretentious German-Jewish immigrant. According to author Neal Gabler’s “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” Laemmle at one time had more than 70 friends and relatives on the studio payroll. It was a source of amusement within the industry, prompting Jack Warner to quip that Laemmle “was making the world safe for nephews.”

In retrospect, contemporary Los Angeles filmgoers have “Uncle Carl” and his unabashed nepotism to thank for the eventual creation of a lively, eclectic chain of movie theaters.

Two years after the family’s ties to the studio were severed during a 1936 corporate reorganization, Max Laemmle, a nephew who had been an able Universal executive under the elderly Laemmle, co-founded the Laemmle Theatre chain with his brother, Kurt. Today, almost 60 years later, Max’s son, Robert, and grandson, Greg, run the family business as president and vice president, respectively.

Laemmle movie houses — there are eight locations in all — dot the Los Angeles landscape, from Pasadena to the grand Royal in West Los Angeles. On any given weekend, the chain screens a smart and interesting mix of mainstream hits, independent art films, festivals and retrospectives. Foreign-film showcases, revival screenings and campier themes, such as a recent series centered around noir-ish femme fatales, are Laemmle mainstays.

Last week’s movie listings are a case in point. Along with commercial flicks such as “Volcano,” “Father’s Day,” “Breakdown” and Bruce Willis’ new sci-fi epic, “The Fifth Element,” Laemmles also screened “Gray’s Anatomy,” “Das Boot,” “Ridicule,” “Pink Flamingos” and “I Was a Jewish Sex Worker.” As a result, the chain attracts a diverse audience — from the popcorn-munching masses to the culture vultures and film-school wonks who patronize such nonprofit venues as UCLA’s Melnitz Theater, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Bing Theater.

To a great degree, the bigger, slicker pictures at the chain’s multiple screen houses pay for the more marginal movies, including titles of Jewish interest such as “Carpati” and “Anne Frank Remembered.”

“In some respects, the special series that we do exist because of the multiplex phenomenon,” said Greg Laemmle, during a recent interview. “We couldn’t do this kind of programming without them.”

Greg Laemmle’s latest project is the Jewish Cinema Series, which begins on Friday, May 23, and runs through June 26. He also programs the company’s wintertime Cinema Judaica festival. Partly because of those efforts, the theater chain has become an important part of the local Jewish cultural landscape.

For Laemmle, a thirtysomething graduate of UC Berkeley and a onetime administrator at Brandeis-Bardin, it’s a role that he particularly enjoys.

“It was a lot of fun putting [the Jewish Cinema Series] together,” he said. “I remember being taken as a child to see ‘Hester Street’ and ‘Lies My Father Told Me.’ Movies aren’t the same as going to day school or to synagogue, but Jewish film is a fun, recognizable experience. You see your experiences documented up on the screen, and it puts them in a context.”

The series opens with “Like a Bride,” a Mexican production that chronicles the coming-of-age of two Jewish girls in 1960s Mexico City: One is from a traditional, marriage-minded family of Turkish-Jewish immigrants in the garment business. Her friend is the daughter of intellectual Eastern European Holocaust refugees.

“Saint Clara,” an offbeat Israeli-Czech production, follows with a one-week run, beginning on May 30. Opening on June 6 is the memorable klezmer documentary “A Tickle in the Heart,” the story of the “rediscovered” Epstein brothers. Interestingly, it was jointly produced by the German government and a Brooklyn yeshiva.

While all three films have made the rounds of the festival circuit — including previous stops in Los Angeles — they merit a second look.

A scene from “Mamele.”

Also getting some much-needed exposure are the 23 films from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s that constitute the “Yiddish Film Festival,” the final portion of the Laemmle series. These films first premièred as a major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1991, before traveling to the Soviet Union, Europe and other American cities. They were restored and presented at MOMA by Brandeis University’s National Center for Jewish Film, which is co-presenting their Los Angeles première on June 14.

Several Yiddish actors featured in the series are tentatively scheduled to attend local screenings. For older moviegoers, titles such as “Mamele,” “The Light Ahead,” “Without a Home” and “Yiddle With a Fiddle” may bring back a welcome rush of half-remembered sounds and images. For the rest of us, they represent a rare chance to see up on the screen an earthy, witty and vital world that mostly vanished with the Holocaust.

As for the current state of “Jewish film,” Greg Laemmle finds the field of American independent features to be a bit discouraging.

“Jewish cinema may be all over the place in terms of directorial style, language, etc., but what the films have in common is that they address the Jewish experience,” he said. “The next question, of course, is quality. Unfortunately, I see a lot of stuff that may address Jewish content but doesn’t deserve to be in the theater.”

Laemmle pointed to a dependence on schmaltzy clichés as one example. Superficial, juvenile treatment of subject matter is another.

“What I see mostly is angry and dealing in stereotypes — usually revolving around the bar mitzvah experience,” he said, with a laugh. “Documentaries, on the other hand, have been a rich field. In a sense, this is really a great age for cinema, in that anyone with a camera can make a film. I’ve seen such compelling, authentic stories about Jewish subjects…but, unfortunately, if it’s a documentary, the public still regards it as academic, educational — something that will be ‘good for them’ like eating vegetables.”

Laemmle, who is married and the father of young triplets, maintains that despite their iffy profitability, Jewish film festivals provide an important cultural contribution in an era of rapid assimilation.

“So far, I’ve gotten very positive feedback,” he said, “but we’ve only put this festival on for two years now, and these things grow very slowly…. We do this without any financial support from the Jewish community. We don’t go out and solicit grants and donations or anything like that. We’re prepared to do it and perhaps lose a little money. But audience attendance and support will justify this program. If people think this is worthwhile, they have to get up off their butts and go buy tickets.”

Uncle Carl couldn’t have said it better.

The Jewish Cinema Series runs from May 23 to June 26 at Laemmle’s Music Hall Theatre, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Some movies from the Yiddish Film Festival will also screen at the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino. For a festival schedule or other information, call (310) 274-6869.


Three Films to See


“Like a Bride” (“Novia Que Te Vea”)

Filmmaker Guita Schyfter presents us with a rich, sharply rendered portrait of Mexico City’s Jewish enclave during the 1960s with this quiet, coming-of-age movie, based on a novel by Rosa Nissan. Through her two female protagonists — Oshinica Mataroso (Claudette Maille) and Rifke Groman (Maya Mishalska) — Schyfter explores the tensions between a Jewish minority and a Catholic majority, tradition and modernity, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, and men and women.

Oshinica, the dark-eyed daughter of Turkish-Jewish immigrants, dreams of studying to become a painter, a notion that her wedding-minded family finds ridiculous. She is groomed for marriage from such an early age that she recalls cavorting in the gowns from her trousseau as a young girl. Her best friend, Rifke, a firebrand and the daughter of intellectual Holocaust refugees, finds her own Zionist identity rocked by a love affair with a handsome, non-Jewish political rebel, the son of a right-wing politician.

The struggles of both friends to define their place in the shifting sands of the 1960s defines the narrative of this freshly told wry tale, but it’s the larger emotional crosscurrents and visual details of Jewish Mexico City that Schyfter nails with affectionate relish. Oshinica’s father conducts his Luganilla market shmatte business with appropriate theatrics. The local Jewish youth group is flush with Spanish-accented kibbutz idealism. The older women set the tone at home during their sewing circles and canasta games.

The direction is sometimes plodding, and Maille, best known here for her role in “Like Water for Chocolate,” delivers a rather stolid performance, but “Like A Bride” is ultimately a treat — restrained, funny, moody and brimming with la vida.

English subtitles. Opens on May 23.

“Saint Clara”

A quirky blend of Israeli attitude and Czech surrealism, “Saint Clara” is set in the Golda Meir junior high school of a remote Israeli industrial town. The eponymous Clara, a Russian immigrant and a wide-eyed teen psychic, falls in with a group of scruffy, punkish classmates who suddenly begin acing their math tests with the aid of her clairvoyant powers.

The movie, directed by Ari Folman and Ori Sivan and based on a novel by Czech dissident Pavel Kohout, veers between amateurish stabs at realism and delightful forays into dark absurdity reminiscent of “Montenegro” or the films of Jim Jarmusch. Despite uneven performances and the self-conscious hipness, there are some things to like about “Saint Clara.” Well-known stage actor Yigal Naor’s portrayal of Headmaster Tissona, a pompous and passionate Francophile with lonely delusions of Edith Piaf, is a central highlight. His character deserves a movie of his own. Israel Damidov is also fine as Elvis, Clara’s tragicomic Russian uncle. And for moviegoers who still entertain images of Israeli youths as the straight-arrow, ballad-singing kibbutzniks of old travel posters, this film should give them a bit of a surprise.

English subtitles. Opens on May 30.

“A Tickle in the Heart”

The engaging title refers to the emotions evoked by Yiddish music, and, happily, it’s also an apt description for the overall effect wrought by this beautifully photographed documentary. It tells the story of Max (on clarinet), Willie (on trumpet) and Julius (on drums) Epstein, three brothers who began playing klezmer music 60 years ago, only to watch it die out from the vantage point of their retirement community in Florida. To their astonishment and delight, the music’s resurgent popularity among a new generation leads them back out on the road, playing to affectionate crowds in Germany, along with gigs in Poland, Brooklyn and Florida.

Along the way, director Stefan Schweitert captures poignant, revealing and funny visual details. With the buoyant, elderly Epstein brothers as his subject, Schweitert has created a love letter to klezmer music and its bittersweet history that is infused with sensitivity and good humor.

Opens on June 6. — Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor