Schindler’s List producer presents his Oscar to Yad Vashem memorial


Auschwitz survivor Branko Lustig, one of the producers of “Schindler's List,” presented his Academy Award to Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial on Wednesday, saying it had found its rightful resting place.

Lustig, 83 from Croatia, worked with director Steven Spielberg on the 1993 film that won seven Oscars. It recounts the tale of German industrialist Oskar Schindler's efforts to save Jews from Nazi death squads in World War Two.

“I'm very honoured, I feel this is a good (resting place) for the Oscar,” Lustig told Reuters before the ceremony in Jerusalem, also attended by Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic.

Lustig said he did not feel he was separating from one of his two Academy Awards – the other was as producer of “Gladiator.”

“I'm not parting with it, I am leaving it to the nation, for generations to come… All Yad Vashem's visitors will see it, at my home there is only my wife and my daughter,” he said.

Yad Vashem's chairman, Avner Shalev, said Lustig's donation was added proof that the memorial site was “a natural centre for commemoration and a universal symbol.”

“His decision to separate himself from the award which means so much to a producer, to a creator, and to send it to Yad Vashem for eternity is very meaningful,” Shalev said.

Lustig, a Jew born in Osijek, Croatia, was imprisoned in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. At the end of the war he was reunited with his mother but many family members, including his father, were killed.

He returned to Auschwitz in 2011 to hold his Bar Mitzva, the Jewish boys' right of passage ceremony that was denied him because of the war.

Based in Croatia and Hollywood, Lustig has produced many prominent films and mini-series and has won a number of prestigious awards. He said with a smile that Yad Vashem had better treat the Oscar statue with care and polish it gently.

“They must look after it and not clean it too vigorously because it is a Hollywood Oscar and the gold is very thin.”

Grabar-Kitarovic said the glistening statue was a “beacon of light” and a reminder, because of Schindler, of the sacrifices made by non-Jews to save Jews from the Nazis.

After learning in the summer of 1944 that the Nazis planned to close factories unrelated to the war effort, Schindler, through bribery and personal connections won permission to produce arms and move a factory and its workers to what is now the Czech Republic.

The lists of employees he submitted to the Nazis became known collectively as “Schindler's list.” He managed to save some 1,200 Jews from death. He was honoured by Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations” and is buried in Jerusalem.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Titanic’ composer dies in California plane crash


Hollywood composer James Horner, who scored the Oscar-winning film “Titanic” and its mega-hit theme song “My Heart Will Go On”, died in a plane crash in southern California on Monday, U.S. media reported.

The aircraft came down in the Los Padres National Forest, north of Los Angeles, triggering a fire that charred more than an acre of brush, local fire authorities said.

Star actors from Russell Crowe to Kirstie Alley took to Twitter to pay tribute to Horner, after trade publications The Hollywood Reporter and Variety reported he had died in his private plane.

Director Ron Howard wrote: “Brilliant Composer James Horner, friend & collaborator on 7 movies has tragically died in a plane crash. My heart aches for his loved ones.”

Horner, 61, won two Academy Awards for his work on “Titanic”, one for the score and one shared with lyricist Will Jennings for best original song – “My Heart Will Go On”, performed by Celine Dion.

Horner also composed the music for “Aliens”, “The Karate Kid”, “Braveheart” and a string of other major films. His scores for “Avatar”, “A Beautiful Mind” and “House of Sand and Fog” earned Oscar nominations.

His attorney Jay Cooper told Reuters he had not heard from Horner since the crash, but could not confirm whether he was on board at the time. “He's an experienced pilot, but I know nothing else,” Cooper said.

The Ventura County Fire Department said the plane crashed at 9:30 a.m. (1630 GMT Sunday) and there were no survivors. The cause of the crash was not immediately known.

Don Mankiewicz dies at 93


Writer Don Mankiewicz, nominated  for an Oscar for his screenplay of “I  Want to Live!”died peacefully at home,  surrounded by family, friends and the  two loves of his life, his wife Carol and  his dog, Valentina. The cause of death  was congestive heart failure. He was  93 years old.

In television, Mankiewicz was best  known for writing the pilot episodes  of Ironside and Marcus Welby, M.D.  and the “Court Martial” episode of the  original Star Trek series. His novels  include “See HowThey Run,”“Trial”and  “It Only HurtsAMinute.”

After graduating Columbia  University in 1942, Mankiewicz joined  the Army. He served in Europe in  military intelligence and fought in the  Battle of the Bulge.

A life-long Democrat, Mankiewicz  was an elected delegate to the New  York State Constitutional Convention in  1967, and a delegate to the Democratic  National Convention in 1968. He  served multiple terms on the Board of  the Writers Guild of America West, and  received the Guild’s Morgan Cox Award  in 2008.

The oldest child of screenwriter  Herman J. Mankiewicz and Sara  Aaronson, Mankiewicz was predeceased  by his beloved siblings,  Frank (2014) and Johanna (1974.)

He is survived by his wife Carol,  daughters Jan Diaz (Michael), Sandy  Perez (Richard) and Miracle Herrera  (Juan Carlos), and, from his first  marriage to Ilene Korsen, his son John  (Katie Bergin) and daughter Jane.

Grandchildren are Molly, Jack, Sara and  Rebecca.

The family would like to thank  the amazing Dr. Andrew Lee, Ulanda  Lee, old pal Dr. Melvin Hershkowitz,  Viviane Moekle, who brought Carol  and Don together, guardian angels  the Parkinsons, financial analyst  Diane Sabourin, long-time friends and  traveling companions Karen and Cary  Korobkin and Don’s project  manager  Jill Holland. And, of course, once more,  Valentina. Because she’s the dog.

Services will be private. In lieu  of flowers, donations can be made  to the Special Olympics of Southern  California, 1600 Forbes Way, Suite  200, Long Beach, Ca. 90810, and Smile  Train, 41 Madison Ave., 28th Floor, NY,  NY, 10010.

Damian Szifron: Argentina’s very Jewish Oscar nominee


If Damian Szifron’s “Wild Tales” (“Relatos Salvajes” in Spanish) wins an Academy Award on Feb. 22 – it was nominated last week for Best Foreign Film — it will be Argentina’s third Oscar and the first for a film directed by an Argentine Jew.

The film, which combines humor, suspense and violence, consists of six independent segments, many featuring Jewish characters and details taken from Szifron’s life. The final segment revolves around a Jewish wedding, complete with klezmer music.

The film screened in prominent festivals, included Cannes, and, even before getting the Oscar nomination, broke Argentine box-office records, with more than 3.5 million tickets sold. The movie will be screened at the upcoming Sundance festival and will be released in the United States on Feb. 20. Szifron’s film career started in 2003, with “El Fondo del Mar” (“The Bottom of the Sea”), which starred the Jewish Uruguayan actor Daniel Hendler. Szifron’s second film, “Tiempo de Valientes” (“Time of the Courageous”) is about a Jewish psychologist, Mariano Silverstein.

Szifron, 39, had already established himself as a popular TV writer/director before entering the film world. His series, “Los Simuladores” (“The Pretenders”) in 2002 won the Argentine equivalent of the Emmy, the Martin Fierro award for Best TV Series. And broadcasters in Chile, Spain, Mexico and Russia bought the rights to make their own versions of it.

“The Pretenders” featured numerous Jewish characters based on real people from the small Jewish community center, Bet Am del Oeste” (Bet Am of the West), which serves a middle-class Jewish population in the western section of Greater Buenos Aires. In fact, the fictional characters bear the names of real people from Szifron’s childhood.

Szifron was introduced to film as a child through his father, a movie buff, who would take the young Szifron to as many as three, even five, movies a day. The Szifrons were the first members of Bet Am del Oeste Center to have a VHS video player and hosted groups of children for movie-viewings. In addition, as a teen, Szifron studied film at ORT High School and recorded and edited short films with his friends.

“He is a genius. He recorded and edited our homemade movies in the same camera; he edited during the shoots not in a studio,” his friend Gustavo Brodsky (whose name appears in “The Pretenders”) told JTA.

Perhaps his newfound international film clout will enable Szifron to pursue project he mentioned at a Cannes Festival press conference: a film about how his grandfather escaped the Nazis by jumping from a concentration camp-bound train.

Award-winning American director Mike Nichols dies at 83


Mike Nichols, a nine-time Tony Award winner on Broadway and the Oscar-winning director of influential films such as “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “The Graduate,” and “Carnal Knowledge,” died on Wednesday at age 83.

The prolific director passed away at his home of cardiac arrest, his spokeswoman said. A private service for the family will be held this week, followed by a memorial at a future date.

No director had ever moved between Broadway and Hollywood as easily as Nichols, one of the few people to win the Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy Awards.

Nichols, whose career first blossomed with a comedy partnership with Elaine May in the late 1950s, was married to Diane Sawyer, former anchorwoman of ABC's “World News Tonight” broadcast.

ABC News President James Goldston announced Nichols' death in a memo to staff, saying he “passed away suddenly on Wednesday evening.”

“In a triumphant career that spanned over six decades, Mike created some of the most iconic works of American film, television and theater,” Goldston said. “He was a true visionary.”

In memory of Nichols, marquees on Broadway theatres in New York will be dimmed on Friday evening for one minute.

“Legendary director Mike Nichols shared his distinct genius for storytelling through the worlds of stage and film. Throughout his celebrated career in many mediums that spanned decades, he was always in awe of the thrill and the miracle that is theatre,” Charlotte St. Martin, the executive director of the Broadway League, said in a statement.

Fans and colleagues took to Twitter to express their sorrow.

“Funniest, smartest, most generous, wisest, kindest of all,” actress Mia Farrow tweeted. “Mike Nichols, a truly good man.”

Actor Tony Goldwyn said Nichols was the greatest of the great. “What a gigantic loss!” he added.

Nichols was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, where his parents had settled after leaving Russia. He came to the United States at age 7 when his family fled the Nazis in 1939.

He grew up in New York feeling like an outsider because of his limited English and odd appearance – a reaction to a whooping-cough vaccine had caused permanent hair loss. As a University of Chicago student, he fought depression, but found like-minded friends such as May.

In the late 1950s, Nichols and May formed a stand-up team at the forefront of a comedy movement that included Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters and Woody Allen in satirizing contemporary American life. They won a Grammy in 1961 for best comedy album before splitting, partly because May liked to improvise and Nichols preferred set routines.

In the mid-1960s, Nichols came to be a directing powerhouse on Broadway with “Barefoot in the Park,” the first of what would be a successful relationship with playwright Neil Simon. Later he would stage Simon's “The Odd Couple,” “Plaza Suite” and “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” and Time magazine called him “the most in-demand director in the American theater.”

In all, he won best-director Tonys for his four collaborations with Simon, as well as for “Luv” in 1965, “The Real Thing” in 1984, “Spamalot” in 2005 and a revival of “Death of a Salesman” in 2012, and best musical award as a producer of “Annie” in 1977.

TURNING TO HOLLYWOOD

Nichols also made an impact on American cinema with three influential movies in a five-year period.

The first, a 1966 adaption of the Edward Albee play “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It was nominated for an Oscar in all 13 categories in which it was eligible and won five of them, although Nichols did not take the best director award.

He followed that up a year later with “The Graduate,” starring then little-known Dustin Hoffman as an aimless college graduate seduced by Anne Bancroft as an older woman before falling in love with her daughter. Nichols won an Academy Award for his direction and the movie, which thanks to several memorable lines and the music of Simon and Garfunkel, became a 1960s cultural touchstone.

In 1971, Nichols put out “Carnal Knowledge,” which created a sensation because of its sexual nature. The manager of a movie theater in Georgia was arrested for showing the film and had to appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme Court before being exonerated.

Sometimes Nichols' movies did go off the road. “Catch-22,” “Day of the Dolphin” and “The Fortune” were generally considered commercially unsuccessful and he did not make a feature film from 1975 until 1983, rebounding with “Silkwood,” for which he was nominated for another Oscar.

In the second act of his movie career, Nichols also directed “Heartburn,” Simon's “Biloxi Blues,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Regarding Henry,” “The Birdcage,” “Primary Colors,” “Charlie Wilson's War” and “Working Girl,” which earned him another Oscar nomination.

He won an Emmy in 2001 for “Wit” and another in 2003 for “Angels in America,” a TV miniseries about the AIDS epidemic.

In the mid-1980s, Nichols suffered a psychotic breakdown, which he said was related to a prescription sedative, that made him so delusional he thought he had lost all his money.

Despite his urbane, intellectual manner, Nichols once had a reputation as an on-the-set screamer. Meryl Streep told The Hollywood Reporter, “He was always the smartest and most brilliant person in the room – and he could be the meanest, too.”

The actress said that changed after Nichols married Sawyer, his fourth wife.

Nichols had three children from his earlier marriages.

Explaining the situation in Crimea


As dinner conversations, news shows, and water-cooler talk have turned from Oscar selfies to, well, real news, one topic has dominated  the Twitterverse and the airwaves (Russia! Ukraine! Russia invaded Ukraine!). 

As often happens, though, with complex stories that become part of the national conversation (see: “>”greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Putin, along with, don't forget, many Russians, wax nostalgically for the days when Russia shared the world stage with the United States. It was just so fun! To further the aim of becoming as important as it wants to be in global affairs, Putin acts sttategically and pragmatically towards reaching that aim. 

A necessary ingredient for recapturing global prominence is a close relationship with Ukraine, which aside from having a wealth of mineral deposits and millions of ethnic Russians, serves as a geographic gateway to Western Europe, and comprises the northern edge of the Black Sea, which is the only body of water that gives Russia military and economic access to the Mediterranean Sea, North Africa, and Syria, where Russia has a naval port. A non-allied, or worse yet, hostile, eastern neighbor, would make Russia's standing in the Black Sea trickier.

As Daniel Drezner Riot policemenare hit by fire caused by molotov cocktails hurled by anti-government protesters during clashes in Kiev on Feb. 18. Photo by Stringer/Reuters 

One word: Euromaidan. In late 2013, it looked almost certain that Ukraine's government was inching towards Western Europe's cozy economic umbrella, with its anticipated signing of an Association Agreement with the European Union. Well, that unnerved Putin, who lobbied hard to keep his ally, Ukraine's democratically elected Viktor Yanukovych, under a Russian thumb. Walter Russell Mead “>things turned bloody, with police using live ammunition, protestors using molotov cocktails and rocks, and dozens of civilians and police officers lying dead in the streets after the smoke cleared.

On Feb. 22nd, Yanukovych read the tea leaves and fled Kiev after his own guards abandoned him. Parliament declared him unable to fulfill his duties as president, and installed an interim government, scheduling elections for May 25th.

Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don on Feb. 28. Photo by Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

3. And after all that happened, how did Crimea pop into the picture?

First, let's address the question you should have asked: “What and where is Crimea?” Good question.

Map from Global News

Crimea is an Ukrainian navy chief Denis Berezovsky swears allegiance to the pro-Russian regional leaders of Crimea in Sevastopol on March 2. Photo from Reuters TV

If, though, Russia invaded mainland Ukraine, the underdog would certainly use any means necessary to defend itself. 

6. What next? 

It's useless giving predictions, but there are a few options, with varying probabilities. A Russian invasion is unlikely, as is a Ukrainian counterstrike against Russian forces in Crimea. Matters will likely proceed as far as Russia is willing to take them. With the United States Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on  March 4. Photo by Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

Alice Herz-Sommer, oldest known Holocaust survivor, dies at 110


Alice Herz-Sommer, the 110-year-old Holocaust survivor and concert pianist whose life was the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary, has died.

Herz-Sommer, who was believed to be the oldest Holocaust survivor and was still playing the piano, died Sunday morning in London.

“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” the 38-minute film about her life, is up for best short documentary at the Academy Awards to be handed out next month.

The film showed her indomitable optimism, cheerfulness and vitality despite all the upheavals and horrors she faced in life.

“I know there is bad in the world, but I look for the good,” she told JTA in a brief telephone interview recently, and “music is my life, music is God.”

[Related: At 110, holocaust survivor finds sustenance in music]

Trained as a pianist from childhood, Herz-Sommer made her concert debut as a teenager, then married and had a son.

In 1943, however, Herz-Sommer and her husband, Leopold, and their 6-year old son Raphael (Rafi), were transported to the Nazi model concentration camp Theresienstadt. Her husband died in the Nazi camp, but Herz-Sommer became a member of the camp orchestra and gave more than 100 recitals while protecting her son.

Liberated in 1945, Herz-Sommer and her son returned to Prague but four years later left for Israel. There she taught at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and performed in concerts frequently attended by Golda Meir, while her son became a concert cellist.

After 37 years in Israel she followed her son to London in 1986. She remained in London even after her son died 15 years later at the age of 65.

Israel overlooked in foreign-film Oscar noms


Israel is out and Palestine is in the Oscar race, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced on Dec. 20 its nine semi-finalists in the best foreign-language film category.

Both Israel’s entry, “Bethlehem,” and the Palestinian “Omar” reflect the intensity of the continuing conflict. Director Hany Abu-Assad of “Omar” won critical praise for two previous films, “Paradise Now” and “Rana’s Wedding,” in which the Palestinian protagonists did not hide their antagonism toward Israel but the Israeli foes were nevertheless portrayed as recognizable human beings, rather than soulless sadists.

Abu-Assad largely forgoes such balance in “Omar,” in which the title character and the beautiful Nadia pine for each other on opposite sides of the separation wall, in Israeli terminology, or the isolation wall, in the Palestinian dictionary.

In the process of jumping the wall and participating in the shooting of an Israeli soldier, Omar (Adam Bakri) is caught by Israeli undercover agents, who first torture him and then try to turn him into a collaborator.

Distrusted by the Israelis and reviled as a traitor by his own people, Omar is driven to one last desperate act.

By contrast, in “Bethlehem,” director Yuval Adler and co-writer Palestinian journalist Ali Wakad, draws no moral judgments in the struggle between Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security agency, against Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

As the film’s producer, Talia Kleinhendler, put it, “There is no black and white in this film, only painful shades of gray — like the reality we all live in here.”

This year, a record 76 countries, from Afghanistan to Venezuela, entered their best films. As usual, the choice of nominees by the unpredictable selection committee stunned many professional prognosticators.

Most surprising was the omission of top favorite “The Past” by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who won the Academy Award two years ago with “A Separation.” Similarly slighted was the heavily promoted “Wadja,” the first-ever submission by Saudi Arabia.

Historically, Abu-Assad’s earlier movie, “Paradise Now,” ignited a fierce debate on how to label the sponsoring entity, with the Academy vacillating between Palestinian Authority, Palestinian Territories and, finally, Palestine. With tempers somewhat cooled, all sides seems to have accepted the last designation.

Israeli filmmakers have had their ups and downs over the decades, but their record of 10 nominations places Israel among the 10 most nominated countries.

 “Sallah” (aka “Sallah Shabati”), Israel’s very first entry in 1964, won a surprise nomination and launched Chaim Topol’s career in the role of an elderly Sephardic immigrant from North Africa.

Since then, Israel’s record has oscillated between clumps of nominations in the early 1970s and again between 2007 and 2011, alternating with long dry spells, notably one lasting 23 years, from 1984 to 2007.

Despite fervent prayers, the Israeli film industry has yet to bring home its first Academy Award.

The shortlist of five finalists in the foreign-language and other categories will be announced on Jan. 16. The final winners will hoist their trophies on Oscar Sunday, March 2, in Hollywood. 

‘Bethlehem,’ a film of spies and intrigue and Oscar possibilities


Foreign-language (meaning non English-language) films from 76 countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Venezuela, are competing for Oscar honors this year, with Israel’s entry, “Bethlehem,” pitting Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, against diverse Palestinian factions eager to blow up the Jewish state.

In Hollywood’s hands, this plot would be a no-brainer, with the guys in the white hats mopping up the floor with the bad guys.

However, it is only fair to warn flag-waving partisans on either side, who see the conflict in terms of unblemished virtue against pure evil, that they’re not going to like the way the film handles its subject.

As the film’s producer, Talia Kleinhandler, writes, “What I think is important about this story is that it never attempts to give a clear answer about right and wrong. All the characters in ‘Bethlehem’ are flawed; all are vulnerable. There is no black and white in this film, only painful shades of gray – like the reality we all live in here.”

If this assessment makes it sound like a namby-pamby movie, full of on-the-one-hand, but on-the-other-hand, agonizing, “Bethlehem,” named for the West Bank city where the action unfolds, is anything but.

Co-written by Yuval Adler, an Israeli Jew who served in an army intelligence unit, and Ali Waked, a Palestinian Muslim and journalist, “Bethlehem” is a nail-biting thriller with enough intrigue and bullets to keep the most demanding action fan satisfied.

The film’s time and setting is the Second Intifada, from roughly 2000 to 2005, and in the opening scene, Palestinian suicide bombers have struck in the heart of Jerusalem, with scores dead and wounded.

The central protagonists are Razi, a veteran Shin Bet (or Shabak) agent, and Sanfur, a 17-year-old Palestinian recruited by Razi as an informer two years earlier.

But Sanfur isn’t just any kid with a hankering for American jeans. He is the younger brother of Ibrahim, the local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, whom Razi has been hunting for more than a year.

Like almost everything in the movie, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it depicts, the relationship between the seasoned Israeli agent and the teenage Palestinian boy is complex and often contradictory.

Adler, who is also the film’s director, quotes a veteran Israeli secret service agent who told him that “the key to recruiting and running informants is not violence, or intimidation, or money, but the key is to develop an intimate relationship with the informant, on a very human level. It’s not just the informant who is confused about his identity and loyalties. The agent, too – and especially the good ones – often experience a blurring of the lines.”

Following this dictum, Sanfur, whose own father clearly favors the militant Ibrahim over his younger son, finds in Razi a kind of surrogate father, and Razi cares personally for the boy – even if that clashes with his professional duties.

While the Palestinian militants hate Israel, they dislike their internal rivals with equal intensity. The secular al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, affiliated with Fatah, contemptuously refers to the fervently Islamic Hamas as the “beards,” who in turn loathe the corrupt bureaucrats of the Palestinian Authority.

Co-writer Waked, interviewed in a Hollywood hotel, draws an analogy between these feuds and the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine, when Menachem Begin’s Etzel and David Ben-Gurion’s Haganah detested one another with as much fervor as they did the British soldiers.

Another remarkable aspect of “Bethlehem” is that almost everyone involved in making the movie is pretty much of a novice.

The strong acting lineup, foremost Shadi Mar’i as Sanfur and Tsahi Halevy as Razi, consists almost entirely of first-time actors. Furthermore, for both Adler and Waked, “Bethlehem” is their first feature film.

Adler, 44, said in an interview that his film debut is a major hit in its home country, and won a fistful of awards, including best picture, at the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Israel’s media, which have a much higher tolerance for national self-criticism than their American counterparts, have generally come out with complimentary reviews, though the strongest raves have been in the foreign press and trade papers.

Curiously, while in most countries the political right would have condemned the film’s critical take on the national security service, in Israel it has been the left that has slammed the picture for its supposedly distorted view of the Palestinian struggle.

Thus in an article in the daily Haaretz, headlined “ ‘Bethlehem’ is yet another Israeli propaganda film,” critic Gideon Levy terms as “outrageous” what he sees as the movie’s portrayal of Israelis as the good guys and Palestinians as the bad guys.

Adler, who has steadfastly declined to discuss his own political orientation, considers such charges preposterous. His diverse cast of Israeli and Palestinian actors “made it possible to see the world through their eyes,” he said. “As director, I tried to bring their contradictory viewpoints into a single whole, without taking sides, and without judging them.”

For the Israeli Film Academy, picking “Bethlehem” as the country’s official Oscar contender marks an interesting shift in focus from the two preceding entries, “Footnote,” which dealt with academic rivalries at a university, and last year’s “Fill the Void,” which viewed life and love among the ultra-Orthodox.

It will be interesting to see how the famously unpredictable Academy selection committee reacts to the picture, but the film has been touted as a real Oscar contender in a number of Hollywood publications.

A quick glance at submissions from other countries shows that, contrary to frequent predictions, the world’s producers and directors have not lost their interest in movies about the Nazi era, the Holocaust and the conflict in the Middle East.

Argentina’s “The German Doctor” follows the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’ “Angel of Death,” as he flees to the South American country and befriends an unsuspecting family there.

In years past, the U.S. Academy wrestled with the proper terminology for the “Palestinian Authority” or “Palestinian Territories,” but apparently everybody has stopped worrying about the problem, so the film “Omar” is credited with coming from “Palestine.”

Omar, the baker, lives on one side of Israel’s security wall, while the beautiful Nadia lives on the other side. But the romantic scenario turns very grim as Omar becomes a “freedom fighter” battling the ruthless Israeli occupiers.

One of the more interesting entries is The Philippines’ “The Transit,” which deals with the lives of Filipinos working in mostly low-paid jobs in Israel.

For World War II buffs, there is Russia’s “Stalingrad,” which chronicles both the epic battle and love among its ruins.


“Bethlehem” will be released in local theaters Feb. 21, 2014. Oscar nominees will be announced Jan.16 and the winners will be crowned on March 2.

Truth thief: The failures of ‘The Book Thief’


It’s not surprising that 20th Century Fox is launching an Oscar campaign for “The Book Thief,” a hauntingly beautiful film based on Markus Susak’s award-winning novel set in Nazi Germany.  The New York Post has called the film “Oscar bait.”

But I was disturbed by the film, and not for the right reasons. I wish it was because the film correctly represented the evil that ended more than 60 million lives, including 30 of my family, and psychologically damaged hundreds of millions more, some of whom became my patients. I wish I was disturbed because it highlighted the moral betrayal endured by righteous resistors of Nazism, some of whom were graduate students in a class I designed on the Psychology of the Holocaust.  

Instead, I was disturbed by how the film put a warm, cozy glow on the terrors of the Third Reich; by how it underrepresented evil and misrepresented goodness. It was, as New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden wrote, “Holocaust kitsch,” or better put by another reviewer, “unfiltered schmaltz.”

This touching movie fails because it is a fairy tale pretending to be real. There was little in this story that matched the real-world experiences of the survivors and children of perpetrators I have known personally or helped professionally. In fact, the actions, postures and tones of its characters violated basic physiological responses to trauma.  It is as if the studio spent millions for experts in film production but not a penny for an expert in psychological trauma.

Director Brian Percival explained that he chose this “positive” angle with the hope that the gentle portrayal of the German people will provide empathy for the German population who underwent Nazi rule. One way he elicited this empathy is by under-representing the rampant spread of anti-Semitism that infected all but the most robust Germans. In this fairy tale, people seem to join the Nazi Party solely for the better pay. Crowds appear neutral, hurling no invectives toward a Jew carried away by the Gestapo, or anyone trying to defend him. The Nazi epidemic is marginalized to the fringes of the population. It’s easier to have empathy for people in the middle of the bell curve. 

But by under-representing badness, the film under-represented goodness and the quiet, revolutionary act it had to be. The few who could resist Nazism would have had to keep their humanity in constant focus, hidden under guard. They never would have risked piquing the interest of neighbors by hauling snow inside their home to build a snowman in the basement to please a Jew hiding there. They would have lived with constant terror, every move carefully calculated to protect their humanity. Because of this discipline, they would have displayed moments when bravery and kindness emerged vigorously, not whimsically and impulsively.

In this fantasy movie, people acted normally, with a little more pain from a slightly more painful situation. But our response to extreme situations not only elicits an increase in stress, it changes us. It doesn’t just create a quantitative increase, it creates a qualitative shift. It’s not just a stressor, it’s an earthquake. It breaks us apart, and we reconstruct ourselves to either accommodate or resist the maliciousness.

Most humans who live under constant threat will end up accommodating the maliciousness. It’s not because it’s easier. We are physiologically hardwired to do whatever we must to survive. Our fight/flight system sends a cascade of chemicals through our nervous system, hijacking our brains to reallocate resources away from empathy and thoughtful decision making toward threat detection, violence and escape. Very few can override this necessary hardwiring, especially when it is driven by a widespread ideological virus, which the Nazi movement made sure to unleash and cultivate.

People who are referred to as “good” are able to override primitive fight and flight responses and keep enough resources for empathy and thoughtful decision making.  Those are the real heroes. But this phenomenon is so unlikely that Yad Vashem made a memorial for people able to do this. Out of 70 million Germans alive in 1939, only 525 were recognized as “Righteous Among Nations” — fewer than eight in a million.

So, while the director reached his goal — the audience did seem to respond with empathy for the Germans — it was an empathy for a whitewashed reality that didn’t and could never exist. Had the director not been driven by his own predisposition, he could have sharpened our focus on how good people actually act in the midst of extreme threat, and he could have intensified our empathy for them. But by wanting to spread empathy across the German population, he evoked an indiscriminate empathy for the Germans without standards or merit. Many of the parts for a movie worthy of Oscar consideration were present in this production — except the truth. 


Orli Peter is director and founder of the Center for Accelerated Psychology.

Oren says ‘Gatekeepers’ makes his job harder


Israel's U.S. ambassador,  Michael Oren, said the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Gatekeepers” complicates his mission.

The movie compiles interviews with six former leaders of the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, and records their perceptions of how successive Israeli governments missed opportunities for peace.

“This is a good movie that presents a narrative of 45 years of occupation but is completely devoid of information on Israel's peace plan offers — (Ehud) Barak's Camp David attempts, then [Ehud] Olmert, from the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the rocket fire on us,” Oren told Ynet in a story posted Sunday. “Whoever views the movie without knowing the background can leave feeling that Israel is to blame and didn't do a thing.”

Oren said he hesitated to criticize the movie for fear of being attacked as limiting speech freedoms, but added that he felt that Israel was “on the defensive” in its effort to explain its right to exist.

Alan Arkin relishes his role as a team player


Alan Arkin is not an actor who seeks individual glory. But that hasn’t prevented the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from singling him out several times. This year, Arkin has again been nominated for an Oscar, this time as best supporting actor for his work in the critically acclaimed “Argo.” It is the 78-year-old actor’s fourth Oscar nod; his first was for his feature-film acting debut, starring in the 1966 Cold War comedy “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.”  Arkin won his only Oscar for his supporting role in the 2006 film “Little Miss Sunshine,” which also won the Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. This year, the cast of “Argo” received that same award, which was particularly rewarding for him, as it is his work as part of an ensemble that the actor finds most satisfying.

Currently on location in New Orleans filming “Grudge Match,” alongside Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone, Arkin spoke by phone about his role in “Argo” as well as the importance of being able to gel well with his fellow cast members when selecting a project.

“If I’m going to be working closely with an actor, it’s very important that it’s somebody that I can be congenial with, that I can have a rapport with and not feel like that if my character has to touch them that they’re going to be antsy about it,” Arkin said. “Or if I can jump on their lines, or they can jump on my lines, yes, it’s very important to me. Maybe ultimately the most important thing about a project to me is how comfortable and flexible I can be with the people I’m working with.”

Arkin said he finds the idea of a solo performance being singled out as “the best,” and competition in general, unappealing. “The winning and the losing is all isolating and it’s nonsense,” he said. “I don’t know who’s got the right to say this is better than that. You can say that in a horse race. You can look at a horse and say, ‘This horse came in first, and this one came in second,’ but I don’t know how you have a right to do that with performances. One person’s meat is another person’s fish.”

Arkin’s long and diverse career began in the 1950s, not as an actor at first, but as a musician. Although he became intrigued with acting when he was only 5, it was music legends such as Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson who influenced his musical ambitions. Arkin’s parents, David and Beatrice, who were of Russian and German decent, often hosted famous figures from the folk music world at their home, which inspired Arkin to form a calypso combo called the Tarriers in the mid-’50s.

A few years later, Arkin moved to Chicago and joined the famous Second City troupe, where he honed his skills in improvisation and comedy.  Although he has received critical acclaim for his dramatic roles in films such as “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” and “Wait Until Dark,” the consummate character actor is often most attracted to films with a comedic disposition. “My favorite films are serious comedies,” Arkin said. “If I had to pick one genre, it would be comedies with something serious to say, like “The Russians Are Coming” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” But the older I get, the more I like to work in comedy.”

 “Argo” would fit in to that category, although it was much more than the film’s comedic element that appealed to him. “Everything worked,” Arkin said. “The character, the script, the director, and it was a story that worked. It was the entire package. It was exciting and interesting. My favorite thing about a project is when everything works together, and you can’t pull it apart.”

“Argo” is based on the actual events and people surrounding the CIA’s rescue of six American embassy workers from Iran during the midst of that country’s 1979 revolution, by having them pose as a production crew scouting locations for a phony Canadian film project.

Alan Arkin in “The Russians Are Coming, ­the Russians Are Coming,” his first film.  Photo © 1966, United Artists

One of the controversies surrounding this year’s Oscar race is the omission of Ben Affleck on the list of best director nominees for his work on “Argo.” It’s a snub that has become even more puzzling since Affleck’s win for Outstanding Directorial Achievement from the Directors Guild, as Arkin pointed out.

“I haven’t got a clue what it means or what it comes out of. He’s won every award in the universe. It’s a complete mystery to me, as it is to everybody else. I don’t believe in it anyway, to tell you the truth,” he added. “I think the nomination, to me, is the really exciting part, because it puts you in a group with people who you admire, and it turns it into a shared communal experience.”

In “Argo,” Arkin plays the role of film producer Lester Siegel, who helps the CIA operative, played by Affleck, pull off the charade. Although Siegel’s character is a fictional composite, Arkin revealed that he based his performance on two real-life filmmakers — director/producer Sydney Pollack and legendary studio chief Jack L. Warner.

“I just relish a good character,” he said of his process of delving into any role. “I don’t care what his profession is particularly. If the character is alive, then he’s alive. It’s my job to make the character alive, no matter if he’s a dentist or a street cleaner or the president of a company. To me, it’s the internal life of the character that’s important, not what the job is. I have fun with a well-written character.”

Writer Chris Terrio’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Argo” is littered with memorable one-liners, many of them delivered by Arkin. But while great dialogue is always attractive to an actor, the ensemble-loving Arkin returned again to the importance for him of how characters he plays are integrated into the production, as a whole. 

“I don’t need to have the best lines in the movie. I need to have lines that define a character, that help give me the picture of what his role is in the entire event. But I don’t need to be the best thing in something. That’s not what I look for.” 

Fairy tales won’t bring peace: A tale of ‘Five Broken Cameras’


Five Broken Cameras (2011), a documentary currently up for a 2013 Oscar and co-directed by the film’s narrator and videographer, Palestinian Emad Burnat, and Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi, attempts to erase the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The film unfolds as a Palestinian fairy tale, narrated in a soothing, storytelling voice:

Once upon a time, a poor Palestinian farmer lived in a West Bank village called Bil’in. He had four sons, a doting wife, and many friends.  A few of the men worked, while the women spent their days cooking, cleaning, raising children and otherwise being invisible. The men smoked, danced, watched soccer games and occasionally picked olives. Life seemed perfect.  One day, big bad Israelis erected a “barrier” through Bil’in, seemingly for the sole purpose of irritating the villagers. For the next five years, chronicled through the life of the farmer’s youngest son, the farmer and his friends nonviolently protested this fence. Some got hurt and some even died because of Israeli soldiers’ unprovoked and excessive use of force. Then, because of the villagers of Bil’in, the fence came down. Moral of the fairy tale: Israelis are bad; Palestinians are good; the farmer’s son is very cute and has tragically suffered his loss of innocence because of Israel. An intelligent viewer walks away feeling highly manipulated without knowing why. 

The film portrays reality through a broken lens. Its manipulative narration and visual editing craft a seemingly simple story of Palestinian nonviolent resistance to Israel’s security fence, but its covert intent is to denigrate Israel. The film is part of an aggressive industry whose sole aim is to delegitimize and blame only Israel with predictable key techniques, all of which the film utilizes.

First, the film provides absolutely no context. Why is there a security fence? Emad alludes to a “barrier” being erected to “secure and separate the settlers.” Wrong. Israel temporarily built a security fence in response to the second intifada (2000-2005). The fence literally prevents Palestinian terrorists from walking from their villages, like Bil’in, into Israeli cities, like nearby Modi’in, and blowing themselves up. While it must be frustrating for a Palestinian farmer to walk through a gate to get to his field (as seen in the movie), it is surely more inconvenient for an Israeli girl to lose her parents and three siblings to a suicide bomber (as happened during the Jerusalem Sbarro restaurant suicide bombing on August 9, 2001). It seems that the fence is so troublesome that it has erased all of Emad’s memory as to why it is there in the first place.

Second, the film ignores Palestinian terrorism against Israel. It is as if terrorism simply does not exist. An hour into the film, Emad mentions that “Israel is beginning its massive attack on Gaza” and shows images of infuriated villagers. He does not say why Israel is in Gaza. In fact, Israel began its operation to stop the over 7,000 rockets that had been fired from Gaza into southern Israel and to stop weapons smuggling into Gaza by internationally recognized terrorists. On March 1, 2008, alone, 56 rockets struck Israel from Gaza. Several landed on Ahskelon’s Barzilai Hospital, which at the time was treating, in addition to Israeli citizens, premature Palestinian babies in its neonatal unit. Not surprisingly, Emad forgot to mention this. 

Third, the film paints Palestinians as the sole victims and Israel as the sole aggressor. There are no discussions of morality, only Emad’s views of good and evil. To show this, all Palestinian demonstrations in the film are peaceful (boys marching and banging with toy instruments, men singing songs and waving flags), and all Israeli soldiers are heavily armored, trigger-happy men with guns. For another picture that shows the manipulative use of “nonviolent demonstrations,” see www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDohNq9BORo.   Or, read the Feb. 2010 Haaretz article that discusses the 110 Israeli security personnel who had been injured in Bil'in protests, including one soldier who lost an eye.  Or watch a scene in the film in which Emad’s son  asks, “Daddy, why don’t you kill the soldiers with a knife?” Emad responds, “Because they’d shoot me.” No, Daddy, that is the wrong answer. Son, the answer is because it is morally wrong to kill. Sadly, the distortion of values and lack of clear morality pervades the film.

Fourth, the film downplays the harsh realities of life under Palestinian Authority (PA) rule. That definitely would not paint a pretty picture for this fairy tale, so it had to be left out. When Emad is injured in a tractor accident, he states without any elaboration that he probably would have died had he been treated in a Palestinian hospital instead of an Israeli hospital. He is right. But this should not be the case. There is no excuse for poor Palestinian health care. The Palestinians are one of the largest recipients of international assistance per capita in the world. Donors gave roughly $30 billion in international aid to Palestinians between 1993 and 2012. Where has that money gone? According to U.S. Congressional testimony in 2012, current PA President Mahmoud Abbas has deposited almost $13 million in U.S. taxpayer dollars into a secret bank account, just as Yassir Arafat did when he was president of the PLO. According to former U.S. national security advisor Elliot Abrams, Arab leaders are reluctant to give aid to the PA because PA “officials will just steal it.” Or it will be used to fund terrorism.  It truly is appalling that Emad can neither rely on a Palestinian hospital to save his life nor on his elected Palestinian Authority government to cover his health costs.

This film is not about the fence.  It is actually part of an ongoing effort to deny Israel's right to defend its citizens with non-violent security measures  like the fence.   The film also underscores the difficulty Israel has in finding a true partner for peace. If Israel cannot find peace seekers among those who profess to be the ordinary people of Palestine, like Emad, then who will meet Israel at a negotiating table already forsaken by Palestinian terrorists ruling Gaza and the self-proclaimed “moderates” ruling the West Bank? 

The reality is that Israelis and Palestinians are caught up in a tragic conflict. Both sides, Palestinians and Israelis, suffer as a consequence. The more tragic reality is that fairy tales like Five Broken Cameras do nothing to advance mutual understanding, recognition, or peaceful coexistence.


Roz Rothstein is the CEO and co-founder of StandWithUs and Yael Mazar is a research analyst for StandWithUs.

Mark Boal’s journey from journalism to movie chronicler of the Middle-East wars


The time: 2003. The place: Black Site: Undisclosed Location. A battered man strung up by his wrists is being questioned by an interrogator. When he refuses to answer he is forced to the ground and held down by three men wearing ski masks. A black towel is wrapped around his face and the interrogator pours water from a pitcher over the towel while shouting questions at his prisoner: “Who is in the Saudi Group? What’s the target? When is the last time you saw Bin Laden?” 

This is the act of torture that is known as water boarding.  And in an Oscar season filled with controversies, it is this scene, which takes place early in the multi-nominated film “Zero Dark Thirty” about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, that has created the most heated debates and angry protests from the halls of the motion picture academy in Beverly Hills to the chambers of Congress in Washington, DC. At the center of the controversy stands the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, and its screenwriter, Mark Boal, the same creative team who produced the 2009 Academy Award winner for best picture, “The Hurt Locker.” 

Boal, who also won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “The Hurt Locker,” is nominated again this year for his “Zero Dark Thirty” script, while Bigelow was snubbed in the best director category. The omission, many believe, may be at least in part due to the film’s appearance of supporting the efficacy of torture. 

Boal  has worked as a journalist for 20 years  moved into the film business when an article he wrote became the basis of the 2007 Iraq war-related film, “In the Valley of Elah.” During his time as an embedded reporter in Iraq, he said, he also gained first-hand insights for his work on “The Hurt Locker.” For “Zero Dark Thirty,” however, Boal relied on information from people closely involved in the Bin Laden operation, who supplied him with “first-hand accounts of actual events,” as stated at the opening of the film. 

When he began the project, Boal’s script was about the failed hunt for Bin Laden in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, but that version was shelved when the terrorist leader was killed by Navy Seals on May 2, 2011.  As a result of the news, Boal started fresh, telling the story that led up to that day. 

As with all feature films based on fact, Boal struggled with the delicate balancing act of staying true to the story while having to create a workable screenplay. “Storytelling is kind of universal, but screenwriting is its own craft,” he explained. “Zero Dark Thirty” was based on some research that I did, but it’s also a written document — it’s not a documentary, it’s a screenplay. I talked to a lot of people who were involved in the mission and double-sourced information, but I approached it as a screenwriter. There’s homework and research to do, but I’m writing parts for actors, and, in this case, a story that follows one main character over 10 years.

“There are over one hundred speaking parts in the film,” he added. “But at the same time it’s doubly challenging, because it has to be honest and faithful to what actually happened. In some ways, this story would probably be easier to tell if it was pure fiction.”

Even so, Boal said, “I found it an exciting story to work on because of the dedication and the complexity and the morality and immorality and the excitement of the hunt. All that makes for good drama.”

The tortures scenes depicted in the film have been aggressively attacked from two sides:  Some claim the film endorses the efficacy of torture, while others complain that the scenes are presented as more brutal than what actually occurred.

But Boal thinks both miss the point. “The political point is that this work was carried out by people without regard to politics one way or another. It was carried out by civil servants, not by Republicans or Democrats,” he said. “But of course that’s the last thing they want to talk about in Washington. And the real point is that the country and Washington have to face that they’re culpable for what they did.  Rather than bash the movie for depicting the policies that they implemented, they should have a frank discussion about it. The torture that’s in the film is still relevant. To see that these kinds of harsh punishments are still going on –not in the exact same way –but it’s always convenient to bash Hollywood instead of actually doing the hard policy work of going down the hall and seeing what could be done, for example, to stop doing business with countries that torture people.”

The fact that ‘Zero Dark Thirty” has been the subject of both public and secret investigations by Congress does not surprise Boal, who also believes the attention has helped bring audiences out to see the film. “That’s what they do in Washington. They use things to create publicity platforms for themselves. They’re politicians,” said Boal. “I think at the end of the day I find it gratifying that people go out and see the movie and have a solid or moving movie experience. I can’t change Washington, and I wouldn’t ever begin to try.”

So far, Boal’s three films, “In the Valley of Elah,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” all have focused on events surrounding the war on terror. And though he said he has no definite plans to continue exploring that subject matter, he hopes others will continue down that road.

“I think all three of these movies are important subjects for Hollywood to explore, and I hope there are other movies about them. But what movies can do that other mediums cannot do, is reach a broad public audience, and Hollywood has a responsibility to make films about tough subjects and not just superheroes.”

Holocaust, Jewish themes remain prominent among foreign Oscar offerings


The long-forecast “Holocaust fatigue” among filmmakers and their audiences has not yet arrived, judging by the entries for 2013 Oscar honors by producers and directors in numerous countries.

Each of a record 71 foreign — meaning non-English-speaking — countries has submitted its top film, ranging alphabetically from Afghanistan to Vietnam.

So broad a representation of the world’s tastemakers and opinion-shapers, though hardly scientific proof, tends to reflect the topics and themes likely to attract home audiences.

So, just as in Hollywood, there are lots of movies on love in all its permutations; high and low comedies; and spy, action and detective thrillers.

But also entered are five movies that deal directly with the Jewish fate during the Nazi era and its aftermath, one film with talmudic roots and one on the wartime clash between Russian and German armed forces.

Also of special interest to Jewish moviegoers are the Israeli entry, and, after an absence, a Palestinian film.

Probably the least-expected entry is “Lore,” submitted by Australia. While the Aussies speak in what might still be considered colonial dialect, that would hardly be considered a foreign language by the standards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

But “Lore” features an all-German acting and -speaking cast. The title character is a 14-year-old girl, the daughter of a high-ranking SS officer and his like-minded wife, who are arrested by Allied authorities in the closing days of World War II in Europe.

Lore is charged by her mother to take her four younger siblings, one still a baby, across rubble-strewn Germany, pass through the Russian-occupied zone and find the farm of her grandmother in American-ruled West Germany.

Along the way, Lore is befriended and protected by a young man, to whom the adolescent girl is physically and emotionally attracted. To her horror, the Nazi-suckled Lore discovers that her protector seems to be one of the despised and evil Jews she has been taught to hate all her life.

The only Australian part of the film is its director, Cate Shortland, and under the Academy rules, that entitles her country to enter “Lore” as its own.

Shortland, who with the Journal during a visit to Los Angeles, was asked why she would make a film on this particular topic and in a language she doesn’t speak.

“I have long been interested in totalitarianism and, especially, what it does to children,” she said, adding that it was challenging to view ultimate evil from the perspective of the perpetrators.

Her decision was reinforced by her marriage to a man whose German-Jewish parents arrived as refugees in Australia, and by her own conversion to Judaism four years ago.

Aside from “Lore,” the other four entries dealing with the Holocaust were made in Eastern European countries dominated in the postwar decades by communist regimes, which largely ignored the extermination of its Jewish populations during World War II.

One of the entries is from Macedonia and another from Serbia, two countries established by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

“The Third Half,” by Macedonian director Darko Mitrevski, has some of the elements of a Hollywood product — poor boy falls in love with rich girl, and the underdog team beats the champion.

In this case, a scruffy, low-class workingman and part-time soccer player pursues the aristocratic daughter of a rich Jewish banker, and his laughable provincial team beats the league’s top team.

What sets “The Third Half” apart is the time — 1941 — and the locale of Macedonia, occupied by Nazi ally Bulgaria. The occupiers introduce all of Hitler’s racial agenda, including the graphically depicted humiliation and deportation of the Jews.

Bulgaria, which saved its own Jews but turned the Jews of occupied Macedonia over to the Germans, has bitterly protested the film as a perversion of history. According to Mitrevski, Bulgarian authorities have retaliated by blocking talks for Macedonia to join the European Union.

The director remains unfazed. “I am fascinated by the individual stories of Holocaust survivors,” he said. “There should be 11 million such movies of Jewish, Gypsy, homosexual and political survivors.”

In Serbia’s submission, “When Day Breaks,” an elderly music professor, who has always considered himself a Christian, discovers that he is the son of Jewish parents, who left him with a farmer’s family and later perished in the Holocaust.

As the stunned professor wanders through present-day Belgrade, he finds that few people remember the war years or that the city’s neglected fairground served as a concentration camp for the city’s Jews. With his musician friends, he set about to establish a memorial on the site.

Like the professor, “I cannot not remember,” said director Goran Paskaljevic in a phone interview. “If we forget the crimes committed during World War II, and later in Bosnia, that opens the door to new crimes.”

The Czech Republic’s entry, “In the Shadow,” starts as a film-noir detective story, but as it evolves, it leads to the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic show trials of the 1950s, staged by the communist regime in Prague.

The Holocaust targeted not only Jews, but also other “racially inferior” people, particularly the Romas (Gypsies). Hungary, an Axis partner during the war, relives this past in its Oscar entry, “Just the Wind.” The movie depicts the murder of five Romani families in an isolated village and the subsequent trial of the suspects.

“White Tiger” is an enigmatic Russian film that centers on some of the devastating tank battles between German and Soviet forces during World War II. The title character is a massive German tank, which appears suddenly to destroy its Russian opponents and just as suddenly disappears into the void.

Critics have interpreted the film’s underlying theme as pointing to war as a natural part of the human condition or as a representation of the German lust for power and domination, which will fade away for some time and then suddenly reappear.

The Latvian movie, “Gulf Stream Under the Iceberg,” goes back to the biblical and talmudic legend of Lilith, the reputed first wife of Adam, who in subsequent reincarnations controls men through her sexual attraction.

Israel’s contender, “Fill the Void,” wrestles with profound issues of faith within the Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) community of Tel Aviv. Director Rama Burshtein, a New York native who became fervently Orthodox after making aliyah, focuses the film on whether 18-year-old Shira will follow her mother’s wishes to marry the husband of her older sister, who died in childbirth.

Shira is caught between the strictures of her community — whose rituals and lifestyle are depicted in loving detail and not without humor — and personal choice.

In the Palestinian film, “When I Saw You,” Tarek is a precocious 11-year old, who flees his West Bank village after the Six-Day War and ends up with his mother at a refugee camp in Jordan.

Seeking freedom and adventure, Tarek leaves the camp and falls in with a group of militant anti-Israel fighters.

The motion picture academy will winnow down the 71 foreign entries to an initial shortlist of nine semifinalists and is scheduled to announce the results on Dec. 21. Subsequently, five finalists will be made public on Jan. 10. The Oscars will be presented on Feb. 24.

Among film critics, the favorites for the top prize are Austria’s “Amour” and France’s “The Intouchables,” which were both nominated for Golden Globe awards. However, Israel’s “Fill the Void” and Australia’s “Lore” also are considered likely contenders, and the selection committees for best foreign-language film are well known for their often-unexpected choices.

In the meantime, though, the academy has already announced its 15 nominees for best documentary choices. Included are “5 Broken Cameras” by directors Emad Burnat, a Palestinian, and Guy Davidi, an Israeli; and “The Gatekeepers” by Israel’s Dror Moreh. “The Gatekeepers” consists of lengthy and surprisingly frank interviews with six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, discussing the past and likely future of the tumultuous regional conflicts.

Remembering Marvin Hamlisch: One singular sensation… and what he did for love


It was early 1989, and TV producer Terre Blair called her mother with the exciting news.  “I’m engaged”, she announced.  “I’m getting married to Marvin Hamlisch!”  “Marvin Hamlisch?” the prospective mother-in-law replied.  “You mean the boxer from Las Vegas?”  “No, Mom.  That’s Marvin Hagler,” Terre laughed.  “Marvin Hamlisch is a composer;  he writes songs, and he tours.”  “Just what this family needs,” said Mom.  “An out-of-work songwriter.”

Actually, by the time Hamlisch was 31, he had accomplished as much and certainly won more awards than most composers do in an entire lifetime.  But the Pulitzer Prize and Tony award, as well as three Oscars and four Grammys, are part of his past.  “I don’t know whether it’s my Type A personality, or the way I was raised, or what it is,” mused Hamlisch, “but there’s something in me that tends to only look forward, and not back.”

A clear example of that occurred after his wedding to Terre, which was attended by Liza Minelli, Carly Simon, Ann-Margret, and Roberta Flack, who serenaded the couple with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” “I have a house on Long Island, and when I was single, my office there had most of my memorabilia in it.  When I got married,” recalled Hamlisch, “I decided to take down all the awards, all the photos, and just have a picture of my wife there and a nice little reproduction from the Museum of Art.  So when I’m sitting there, looking at the piano, I’m not thinking about what I should have done, what I could have done, what I had done… I’m just thinking in terms of, now what can I do?” 

The composer also believes all the acclaim can put a crimp in the creative process.  “You never start out focused on trying to win an award or have something become famous.  You just start out wanting to write something good, and I think what happens, unfortunately, is that the trappings of celebrity get in the way.”  Hamlisch also has a new-found perspective on fame and fortune.  “You know, when you’re a bachelor for 45 years, as I was, the things that make you happy tend to be entwined with the things that you do.  If you do a good movie or have a hit song, you go, ‘Ooh, I’m happy!’  Any kind of happiness on its own, like walking along the ocean, or looking at a good piece of art, is never as good as the three Oscars.”

“But when I got married,” he continued, “all that stuff went into another category, so the three Oscars are real fine, but that’s a professional happiness.  That doesn’t beat the happiness of waking up to your wife or sitting in the office with her or walking and talking with her or just thinking about her.  Separating the music world from the ‘world world’ allowed me to get back to how I was when I started all this.  And that’s what you have to do, I think, in order to do well.  You have to always go back to how it was.”

How it was, for the writer of “The Way We Were,” was a Manhattan childhood that included being the youngest student ever admitted to the Juilliard School of Music.  While still in college, he began working on Broadway shows, and composed the Lesley Gore hit “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows.”  Hamlisch’s burgeoning career truly soared when he scored a series of films, including “Take The Money And Run,” “The Way We Were,” and “The Sting.”

In 1974, Hamlisch began a year-long tour as accompanist and straight man to the legendary and, at the time, elderly Groucho Marx.  “He was the grandfather I never had, a nice old Jewish man, not at all grouchy.  A real sweetheart of a guy.  But he was getting a little senile, and he used to tell the same joke over and over.  He would say, ‘I bought an anklet for this girl, and I had it inscribed.’  I would ask, ‘What did it say?’  He would answer, ‘Heaven’s above.’ “  Was this joke told onstage or off?  “Anywhere.  Always.  Constantly.”

During that tour, Hamlisch composed the score for “A Chorus Line”.  The day before the play received its first New York press reviews in 1975, he approached its director/choreographer, Michael Bennett.  “I asked him, what happens if we were wrong about the show, if it’s not as good as we think it is?  Michael looked at me and said, ‘Have you done your best?’  I said yes.  He said, ‘Do you think you’ve wasted any time?’  I said no.  He asked, ‘Is there anything up there you’re ashamed of?’  I said no.  He said, ‘That’s all you can do.’”  The Pulitzer, Tony, and a record run on the Great White Way confirmed the duo’s belief that they had a winner.

Hamlisch is busy these days with commercial projects, but he seems more enthused with a symphonic work called “The Anatomy of Peace,” inspired by a book of that name.  “I’m grappling with some big issues right now,” he says.

Fame and fortune has granted Marvin Hamlisch that opportunity, but to him, that aspect of his career is secondary.  “You’re going to think this is really hokey,” he confided, “but I really don’t care if people remember I wrote ‘The Way We Were.’  I mean, hopefully, they’ll play it at a Bar Mitzvah here or there;  that’s fine with me.  But I just hope people connect me somehow with music that had a kind of integrity, and that was melodic.  That’s all I care about.  Forget awards, forget accolades.  I started all this to write good music, and I just want to keep doing that.”


Steve North is a broadcast journalist with CBS News.

Composer Marvin Hamlisch dies at 68


Composer Marvin Hamlisch, who earned critical acclaim and popularity for a prolific output of dozens of motion-picture scores and shows including “The Way We Were,” “The Sting” and “A Chorus Line,” has died in Los Angeles. He was 68.

Hamlisch collapsed after a brief illness and died on Monday, a family spokesman said in a statement. The spokesman gave no more details.

The composer and conductor was the creative force behind more than 40 film scores, including original compositions and musical adaptations such as his arrangement of ragtime composer Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” in the 1973 film “The Sting.”

[From the archive: ‘Chorus Line’ composer’s music still has a kick]

He won two Oscars for best score and best song for “The Way We Were,” also released in 1973, which starred Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand. Hamlisch first worked with Streisand as a rehearsal pianist for “Funny Girl.”

His other film scores included “Sophie’s Choice,” “Ordinary People,” “The Swimmer,” “Three Men and a Baby,” “Ice Castles,” “Take the Money and Run” and “Bananas.” His latest effort was for a film based on the life of pianist Liberace.

On Broadway, he won a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize for the 1975 musical “A Chorus Line,” which at the time became the most successful show on the Great White Way. He had been working on a new Broadway musical called “Gotta Dance.”

Hamlisch earned the rare distinction of winning Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards.

At the time of his death, he held the position of principal pops conductor for several symphony orchestras across the United States and was scheduled to conduct the New York Philharmonic in this year’s New Year’s Eve concert.

He is survived by his wife of 25 years, Terre.

Reporting by Christine Kearney; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Matthew Lewis

David Mamet: At what cost?


It has been suggested that the purpose of a college education is to ease the transition into adulthood. After several decades teaching college-age students, I would agree, only substituting delay and prevent for ease.

Eric Hoffer wrote in “The Ordeal of Change” (1963) that the secret of America was the trauma undergone by the immigrants. They — my ancestors and yours — came here with nothing, most ignorant of the language, most ignorant of the land and the cultures, and ignorant of what would be expected of them. Having suffered to learn the above, they were, in effect, born anew. Their strength was the lack of fear of challenge. They had paid for the immunity.

Little, and nothing of worth, is acquired without cost. Even the love of family, and even the love of God must be earned, kept and reciprocated. But the organization or individual who refuses to acknowledge cost, who demands goods, services or status as a right rejects the essence of Americanism and the hard-won heritage left us by those who paid.

There is a cost for education. Teachers must be paid. That education not paid for is appreciated by students in direct proportion to its cost.

There is a cost for housing. Someone must improve the land and build the structures. Private enterprise must strike a bargain with buyers or potential buyers and find a mutually attractive price. The cost of subsidized housing is decline in building (what builder or landlord would work to sell at a loss?) and/or quality, and increase in graft and corruption. (Someone along the line — administrator, bureaucrat or clerk or functionary — is, finally, in charge of doling out sub-cost housing; and he has a powerful incentive to subvention and theft, as the potential occupant has to bribery.)

There is a cost for food. That one-seventh of Americans are now receiving some sort of government dole in food is not a sign of compassion, but of money leached from the actual economy (free exchange of services and goods) — which money must, if left in the free market, produce jobs, which produce groceries.

There is a cost for health care. The result desired by most Americans is not improved insurance, but improved care. Semantically, this misunderstanding is about to bankrupt our country. The profession of medicine exists to promote care. Insurance exists to increase premiums and decrease service and claims. That is what insurance does. To reconfigure the patient-doctor relationship into one of patient-bureaucrat is, as we watch, the destruction of the profession of medicine, and a triumph of the notion of equality. Under Obamacare, there will be third-rate, grudging, non-responsive health care for all. The cost of this illusion will be national bankruptcy.

There is a cost for security. The cop on the corner carries a sidearm, as the community has licensed him, secondarily to use force, and primarily to advertise the community’s intention to protect itself. This advertisement would be less effective were he only to carry a bumper sticker.

The same is true globally. Peace is preserved in the world not through the proclamation of good intentions, or the sick suggestion of guilt, but by the creditable advertisement of power and of the nation’s willingness to use it. An individual, a community, a country may delude itself that “we are all alike, and if we could just sit down at a table …” and so on. But we are not all alike. The homeowner and the burglar cannot coexist happily. Nor can Israel and Islamic jihad. One must suffer.

Mobility has a cost. Energy must come from somewhere, and its location and difficulty of extraction will carry a price. The wealthy can buy electric cars and vote for entire landscapes defaced by windmills*, but how will the trucks bring them their food?

Knowledge has a cost. Magic phrases may hide but cannot change the eternal, difficult realities of war and peace, poverty and wealth. Our denial, in four years, has cost this: the doubling of the national debt, the massive increase in the size of government, a decrease in the freedom of the individual and of the states, the depletion of our armed forces, a crippled economy.

There is no way to “ease the transition” into national health, but we may accept the trauma; which is to say, face our difficulties and, like all other immigrants, figure out the price and choose to pay it.

Our choice in November is between a businessman, with expertise in cost-benefit analysis, and a community organizer who offered to trade us our cow for the magic beans. And now it’s time to reckon up the cost of his performance.

* Landscapes are also defaced by strip mining, but only one of the two processes provides useful energy.


David Mamet is a Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony- and Oscar-nominated playwright, essayist, screenwriter and film director. His latest book is “The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture” (Sentinel).

For Mideast foes’ Oscar films, family trumps flag


As their nations warn of war, the Israeli and Iranian directors facing off at next week’s Academy Awards share a reluctance to see politics read into their movies, both of which are portraits of troubled families.

Joseph Cedar, director of Israel’s “Footnote,” and Asghar Farhadi, maker of Iran’s “A Separation,” stress that their works are about human issues and not conflicted governments that seem to be slipping into ever deeper diplomatic isolation.

Yet, even as the filmmakers put art before politics in competing for the Oscar in the foreign language film category, neither man can escape the fact he hails from a country that is vigilant about its portrayal at home and abroad.

Farhadi created his delicate, Golden Globe-winning divorce drama “A Separation” under Iranian censors who impose strictures in the name of Islamic morality and national morale.

“Footnote”, a comedy of errors about a father and son who are Talmud scholars locked in acid rivalry, has been remarked upon in, and welcomed in, Israel for what it lacks—any mention of the military or of regional enemies.

Cedar’s last movie, “Beaufort”, also was nominated for the foreign language film Oscar, but its depiction of Israeli troops under fire in Lebanon and the director’s anti-war rhetoric were denounced by some countrymen as defeatist.

“I learned not to interpret my own films,” Cedar said.

But, in an interview with Reuters, he described “Footnote” as an examination of a debate central to Jewish scholarship.

“The son is all about interpretation and commentary. The father is all about fact and verifiable empiric data. And sometimes I feel like the father, sometimes I feel like the son,” Cedar said.

He shied from offering a metaphor to the Jewish state itself, where pragmatism and ideology often clash and whose secular founding principles have been challenged by increasingly assertive religious minorities.

“There is something about this film that has allowed lots of audiences to see something different,” Cedar said.

LET AUDIENCES DECIDE

Farhadi has been similarly reluctant to entertain theories that his film is a parable for the struggle between Iran’s young dissidents and its paternalistic mullahs, and he told Reuters it is up to audiences to take from the movie what they will.

“I think in every story there are many hidden themes and it depends on which ones you choose to highlight. I included themes that mattered to me … and it depends on the viewer which of the themes emerge more strongly for them.”

“A Separation,” has earned critical acclaim around the world at film festivals and other events with its tale of an Iranian couple on the verge of divorce whose problems grow ever more complicated when other people become involved in their lives.

When asked recently by the Washington Post whether one bedridden old man weighing in on the couple’s issues represents the state, Farhadi chided the reporter, “if you have a political discourse about him, you are belittling this character.”

While Iran is notorious for its film censors – award-winning director Jafar Panahi was sentenced to jail in 2010 and banned from making films – it has remained cautious in its remarks about “A Separation.”

“Sometimes we see those who run these festivals grant precious awards to films whose main theme is centered on the poverty and hardships of a country’s people,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told Reuters after “A Separation” won its Golden Globe Award in January.

“This should not lead our artists to ignore the glaring positive points and features of our nation, and instead illustrate the kind of things welcomed by such festivals’ organizers,” he said.

Farhadi has acknowledged adopting a non-partisan tone to get the film made in Iran but not because of problems with censors.

“No, I wasn’t confronted with any censorship,” he told Reuters. “Some countries did ask me, in order to show the film, that I should change the film’s title from what it is right now and I didn’t agree.”

Cedar said he had briefly met Farhadi and looked forward to seeing him again in the “cultural arena” of Hollywood’s Oscars.

“Putting aside all of these geopolitical sides, it (“A Separation”) is a film that really raises the level of the whole competition,” he said.

Reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte

American historian Oscar Handlin dies


Oscar Handlin, one of the foremost American historians of the 20th century, has died.

Handlin, who taught at Harvard University for more than half a century, died Tuesday of a heart attack at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 95.

He was one of the first generation of American Jews to enter the discipline of American history, and the first Harvard historian to take an interest in the history of American Jews.

Handlin served as the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and then Carl M. Loeb University Professor emeritus at Harvard. He was university librarian from 1979 to 1984 and acting director of the Harvard University Press in 1972. He wrote more than 30 books on an array of topics such as family, education, race, freedom and historiography.

The Brooklyn native was the son of Russian immigrants. He entered Brooklyn College at the age of 15 and four years later began graduate school at Harvard, according to the Boston Globe.

Handlin joined the Harvard faculty in 1939 as an instructor and remained there until his retirement.

A Jewish community president who can’t be called to the Torah? Meet Bulgaria’s Alex Oscar


Under a cloudless blue sky, in a square wedged between the National Assembly and the Rectorate of the University of Sofia, Alexander Oscar, the young president of Sofia’s Jewish community, issued a blunt message to his countrymen.

The occasion was Bulgaria’s Holocaust remembrance ceremony on March 10, a day meant to celebrate the country’s heroic rescue of its 50,000 Jews during World War II, a feat unequalled in any Nazi-allied country and a rightful mark of pride here.

But Oscar was determined not to let his fellow Bulgarians revel too much in their self-congratulation. He reminded them of the deportation of 11,000 Jews —most of whom perished—from Thrace and Macedonia, territories then administered from Sofia. He recalled the 1941 law that forced Jews to wear a yellow star and prohibited them from occupying public positions. And he noted that of the Jews deported from Sofia, all of the men were dispatched to labor camps.

As one local put it, Bulgarian Jews were raped, but not killed.

“We do not want to be radically changing the whole perspective,” Oscar said later. “Slowly, slowly we are doing it.”

Gradual yet determined change may well be the perfect slogan for Oscar’s three-year tenure as community president. Just 32, he is among the youngest presidents of a major metropolitan European Jewish community, and he has undertaken a number of initiatives to improve outreach to the young and to enable Sofia to run more like Jewish collectives in the West.

But Oscar holds another distinction he is less eager to mention: He is one of the only Jewish community presidents outside the former Soviet Union who is technically not Jewish, according to religious law. Born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother but raised as a Jew, Oscar cannot be called to the Torah in his own hometown.

Among the changes Oscar is hoping to institute is one that would correct that anomaly.

“The challenge today is how to bring Judaism more to the people of the community,” Oscar told JTA in an interview in Bulgaria’s capital city. “What I mean is, 99 percent of the members of the community are non-Orthodox; they are Liberal. Unfortunately, there is only one way of belonging to the synagogue, which is the Orthodox way. And now the challenge is how we make the community more pluralistic and open.

“We have a bunch of people, let’s say 10-12 people, observing all the mitzvot. Let’s say they are Orthodox,” Oscar said. “The rest of the people, they are really searching for a meaningful Jewish way which is different from the traditional Orthodox way.”

Across Europe, tensions have flared periodically between established Jewish religious communities, which tend to be Orthodox, and the rank and file, who are overwhelmingly secular. In Germany, Reform Jews lobbied for years to win state funding that previously had been granted only to the Orthodox. In Barcelona, a legal challenge to remedy a similar situation is reportedly underway.

But in Eastern Europe, where there’s little tradition of non-Orthodox Judaism, the idea of a Reform religious approach—known in Europe as Liberal or Progressive—exists largely as a Western import. This is doubly true in Bulgaria, which virtually alone among European Jewish communities is Sephardic.

“Some Central and Western European countries have 200 years of Progressive Jewish history to hang your hat on,” said one Jewish professional working in Europe who requested anonymity to preserve his working relationships in the region. “There’s nothing like that in Bulgaria. So there is more of that kind of unusual I-may-not-be-observant-but-my-observance-is-traditional-when-I-do-it.”

Oscar believes many Bulgarians are hungry for just that sort of Western-style Reform Judaism, citing the recent visit of an American Reform rabbi who gave several well-attended lectures.

But in pushing for such changes, Oscar has set himself on a collision course with the small part of the community that is religiously observant—and possibly with a far larger group that, while not personally Orthodox, may want the community to adhere to its traditions.

“I cannot agree that we have to lower the standards just because most people are not observing the same level,” said a member of the Sofia synagogue board who asked not to be named. “My opinion is that we have to educate as many people as we can to teach them how to live as Jews.”

Oscar is among the generation of Eastern European Jews who benefited from the millions of dollars of Western philanthropy that flooded into the former Soviet bloc after the fall of communism, much of it coming from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the overseas relief agency funded primarily by the Jewish federation system.

Those dollars have yielded a passionate cadre of young Jewish leaders, products of Jewish summer camps, leadership training seminars and sustained exposure to the Jewish organizational culture of the West.

But they have also introduced particular models of Jewish community—especially, models of religious community—to areas with no history or familiarity with them.

“I think at times unintentionally, and at times intentionally, we are—all of us across the spectrum—very much projecting our own models onto these social contexts,” said Berlin-based Rabbi Josh Spinner, the American-born executive vice president and CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. “It might not be possible to restore the pre-Communist way of doing things, but one has to at least be sensitive to it. Instead, the assumption is that those people need to think like me. It’s all a set of discourses that we have imported.”

A neurologist currently pursuing his doctorate in neuro-ophthalmology, Oscar was not even a teenager when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Among his earliest impressions of Jewish life were the American money and volunteers that started pouring in during the 1990s.

“For me at that time, I was a kid of 11, 12 years of age, it was very astonishing why people who practically we had never seen are helping people that they had never seen,” Oscar said. “And it was really very important for me. It was the basic question that I was asking myself in the next couple of years until I really understood that this was the main mission of Jewish people, to help each other.”

Oscar’s enthusiasm led to his being tapped for a community leadership post in 2003 by Emil Kalo, then the community president. Oscar told him he’d join the board only if he could be the vice president in charge of youth affairs.

The young leader first earned his stripes by making good on a promise to open a bar where young Jews could gather. Elsewhere in Europe, such things have happened outside of community structures. But Oscar placed his hangout on the top floor of the Jewish community building overlooking Vazrazdane Square in central Sofia.

Now Sofia’s community president, Oscar has eschewed the salary and chauffeured car that are considered standard perks for European Jewish community heads. He speaks of communal transparency and youth empowerment, and he carries with him a trio of Apple computer products: iPhone, iPad and laptop.

These days, along with Martin Levi, a 23-year-old lawyer also not halachically Jewish, whom Oscar tapped for the community board, Oscar is hoping to exert a liberalizing influence on the community’s religious institutions.

How divisive this effort will be depends in large part upon whether Oscar’s constituents are as comfortable with his thinking as he believes they are, and upon how much they oppose change.

Despite his talk of pluralism, Oscar opposed the establishment of Chabad Lubavitch in Sofia as a religious entity distinct from the established community. Oscar says he is not against Chabad’s religious character, but he opposes the idea of having a Jewish community institution split apart from the rest of the community.

“I’m not trying to replace the Orthodox synagogue with a Reform synagogue,” Oscar said. “I just want to make more options for the people in the community. So, some of them will be Orthodox. Some of them will be Liberal. We have to create as many opportunities as possible.”

Oscar winner ‘Strangers’ promises no Hollywood ending


One day after an Oscar went to the 40-minute documentary “Strangers No More,” about the Bialik-Rogozin School in south Tel Aviv and its undocumented students from 48 countries across the Third World — a 12-year-old girl named Esther who stars in the movie is facing probable deportation from Israel, along with an estimated 120 of the 800 pupils in the school.

Esther Aikpaehae fled her native South Africa with her father, Immanuel Aikpaehae, after her mother was killed. They arrived in Israel four years ago — thus missing the five-year amnesty set by Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai last July as a condition for foreign workers to receive landed immigrant status in this country. Her circumstances typify what has befallen many children here — escaping genocide, starvation and war, as documented in “Strangers No More,” only to remain vulnerable because of their unsure future. The film, an HBO Documentary Films Presentation produced and directed by Americans Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon of Simon & Goodman Picture Co., has also won three Emmy awards, in addition to garnering the award for best short documentary at the 2011 Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood on Feb. 27.

“With tremendous effort and dedication, the school provides the support these children need to recover from their past,” Goodman and Simon wrote on the movie’s official Web site. “Together, the bond between teacher and student, and amongst the students themselves, enables them to create new lives in this exceptional community.”

While only a minority of students at the Bialik-Rogozin School on Ha’aliya Street near Tel Aviv’s cavernous Central Bus Station are in Israel illegally, they’re all united by their common language, Hebrew. The film focuses on the educators at the school, in particular principal Keren Tal and teacher Smadar Moeres, as well as three students: Johannes from Ethiopia, Esther from South Africa and Muhammad Adam from Darfur. The documentary follows the three students through the course of an academic year, detailing the hardships they faced before arriving in Israel and the ways the Bialik-Rogozin School — where “no child is a stranger” — has offered refuge in the country they now call home.

“Many things make this school special,” principal Tal, who accompanied the two directors to the Academy Awards ceremony, says in the film. “This is the only school of its kind in Israel: a public school whose students come from 48 different countries — Christians, Muslims and Jews together. In our school, we welcome every student, regardless of where they came from, regardless of their background. Children are children, and in education there is no such thing as ‘strangers.’ ”

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who visited the school recently, issued a statement praising the Bialik-Rogozin School and “Strangers No More.” “In a world of cynicism, alienation and hatred, this movie proves in the most direct and convincing way that there is the chance for a better world. Whoever finished watching the movie with dry eyes has some sort of problem with their tear ducts.”

Huldai called the film “the ultimate calling card for Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Israel to present to the world. After reports have been issued ad nauseam about Israel, the occupying, brutal country that tramples human rights, it’s necessary that the world learns of this side of Israel, the beautiful Israel.”

Yet the school is in the media spotlight for another reason, too, as the issue of the illegal immigration status of the children of foreign workers and asylum-seekers, and their possible deportation, has become front-page news.

Esther’s father says the attention has put them on a roller coaster of emotions: “We were hoping very much the film would win, but we didn’t think it would attract so much attention. It is hard to fluctuate between such great happiness to such great sorrow when the deportation is still pending.”

NGOs and aid organizations, including Hotline for Migrant Workers, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) are advocating for children currently being held for unknown periods of time and under unknown circumstances at a new detention center in Ben-Gurion Airport operated by the Interior Ministry’s Oz Unit. As many as 120 foreign students at the Bialik-Rogozin School are among the 400 youths slated for deportation. It is not known whether the school’s children might be moved to the new center.

Although the Interior Ministry is obligated to publish its policies, it has refused thus far to answer questions concerning the future operation of the new detention center at the airport, and the deportation procedures in general, and those pertaining to children in particular. The only concrete information received at present is photo shots of swings and slides set up in the airport’s detention center.

“Will children be separated from parents? Will a time limit be set for keeping a child in detention? What type of personnel will be tasked with carrying out arrests and supervising daily life at the detention center? What type of training would those who come in contact with children receive? Which procedures would be allowed pertaining to the use of force and handcuffing? And will there be no alternative provided for children but to be placed behind bars?” asks ACRI spokesperson Ronit Sela.

At the school, the hope is that the film will help convince the government not to deport the children; indeed, according to reports, congratulations were received at the school from Education Minister Gideon Saar and President Shimon Peres.

“Strangers No More” is scheduled to be shown on HBO soon.

This is not Israel’s year in the Oscar races


“The Human Resources Manager” struck out early in the best foreign-language film competition, while the documentary feature “Precious Life” was short-listed among the 15 semi-finalists but didn’t make the final five cut.

However, still in the running is “Strangers No More” in the documentary short category.

Directed by American filmmakers Kirk Simon and Karen Goodman, the film is set in the Bialik-Rogozin School in an impoverished, crime-ridden section of south Tel Aviv.

The school educates, and integrates, some 750 students from 48 countries, including Sudan, The Philippines, Ukraine, and points in between, many the children of foreign workers.

In barely 40 minutes, the doc takes a loving look at the difficulties and triumphs of the school and its passionately involved teachers, among whose supporters are the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the locally based Jewish World Watch.

A bloodier side of the Middle East is shown in “Killing in the Name,” in which a Jordanian wedding party is decimated by an Al Qaeda suicide bomber.

Among the dead are the groom’s father and 26 other relatives. The grief-stricken groom, Ashraf, decides to break the Muslim world’s silence on terrorism by starting a “de-radicalization” project, during which we meet an Al Qaeda recruiter and young boys in madrassa school training for jihad.

Jed Rothstein produced and directed the film.

Others in the running are “Poster Girl” by Sara Nesson, in which a gung-ho American woman soldier is traumatized by her experiences in Iraq.

In “The Warriors of Quigang” Chinese villagers battle bureaucrats to remove a poisonous chemical plant, while in “Sun Comes Up,” South Pacific islanders search for a new habitat when their tiny island is threatened by a rising ocean due to climate change.

All five films are currently playing at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in West Hollywood. Check box office at (310) 478-3836.

Danish filmmaker finds hope despite family’s dark history


Susanne Bier, whose Danish film, “In a Better World,” is a favorite for Oscar honors, is an anomaly.

She is a woman director in an overwhelmingly male profession, and she is emphatically Jewish in a country and industry in which such affirmation is hardly the norm.

After a Golden Globe win for helming the year’s best foreign-language film, Bier, who studied for two years in Jerusalem, is in a strong position to repeat in the same Academy Award category. However, she faces stiff competition from the other four finalists, who represent Algeria, Canada, Greece and Mexico.

Israel, which seemed close to its first Oscar when its entries made the final five cut in each of the last three years, struck out early this year with “The Human Resources Manager.”

Bier, youthful and animated at 50, was born in peaceful Denmark, but the fates and persecutions of forebears in Nazi Germany and Czarist Russia have deeply affected her personal and artistic outlooks.

Her paternal grandfather, a real estate executive in Berlin, was farsighted enough to leave Germany for Denmark in 1933, when his son, Susanne’s future father, was 2 years old.

Three decades earlier, her mother’s family arrived in Denmark in 1903, the year of the infamous Kishinev pogrom.

But the secure refuge in Denmark was shattered in 1940, when Nazi armies invaded the country. Both families were saved in the celebrated 1943 boatlift to Sweden, which saved almost all of Denmark’s Jews.

Susanne’s father, then 12, vividly recalled the experience to his daughter. The car in which the family was driving to the boat rendezvous ran out of gas, next to a German command post. After a very anxious time, a passing Danish motorist supplied the refugees with fuel.

After the Allied victory, both families returned to Denmark, but from their backgrounds and experiences they transmitted two life lessons to Susanne.

“I felt early on that even in the most secure life, there is always the potential for catastrophe,” she said during an interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

From left: Toke Lars Bjarke as Morten, Mikael Persbrandt as Anton, Markus Rygaard as Elias and William Jøhnk Nielsen as Christian. Photo by Per Arnesen, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

On the reverse side, her parents taught her “to address the world in a positive way,” to look for the good even in evil times, and to deal morally and righteously with others.

Bier grew up as somewhat of a tomboy, preferring soccer scrimmages with the lads to playing with dolls; she was socially awkward, an avid reader and had a creative bent.

But upon finishing high school, she decided to explore her Jewish roots by studying in Israel. She spent half a year at the Hebrew University and one-and-a-half years at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.

She left Jerusalem, after “two years of partying,” with a working knowledge of Hebrew and a vague sense that she would eventually marry a nice Jewish lawyer and have six kids.

Her religiously observant parents, whom she phones at least once a day, approved of this tentative life path. However, Bier discovered that “all the nice Jewish boys I encountered were just too boring” and she was more attracted to not-so-nice non-Jewish boys.

In her actual marital life, Bier has struck somewhat of a compromise, explaining, “My first husband was non-Jewish, my second husband was a nice Jewish boy, and I am now in a relationship with a non-Jewish man.” She is the mother of Gabriel, 21, and Alice Esther, 15.

Still searching for a fulfilling career, she studied architecture in London and then attended Denmark’s National Film School, graduating in 1987.

After these eclectic preparations, her movie career took off auspiciously with the Swedish film “Freud Leaves Home,” which won critical acclaim.

From left: Mikael Persbrandt as Anton and Trine Dyrholm as Marianne. Photo by Per Arnesen, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Her next effort, “Family Matters,” flopped badly, but Bier recovered, and her subsequent nine films, released at the rate of about one every two years, have been generally popular and well received by critics.

With the beginning of the 21st century, Bier really hit her stride as director and screenwriter. Her 2004 movie, “Brothers,” was a box office and artistic hit and was remade in an English version.

Two years later, she scored even better with “After the Wedding,” which made the final cut for an Academy Award. Now Hollywood came calling, and in 2007 she directed “Things We Lost in the Fire” with Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro and David Duchovny.

Her current Oscar contender, “In a Better World,” was released in her native country as “Hoevnen,” Danish for “Revenge,” which seems a more pointed title.

The film stars some of the leading Scandinavian actors and a remarkable 12-year-old boy, William Johnk Nielsen, whom Bier discovered.

Like many of the director’s movies, “Better World” deals with complex family relationships, this one between two fathers and their respective sons, and the intense bond between the two boys.

Also typical of Bier’s outlook, the movie ends on a note of hope. “Too many European films celebrate pessimism,” Bier said, “but desolation is no good. It is better to communicate that there’s some hope in the world.”

A few years ago, Bier and her frequent writing collaborator, Anders Thomas Jensen, worked on a project centering on the Holocaust, but couldn’t get the script right and shelved the project.

She hopes to deal with the topic in a future film and rejects the notion of “Holocaust fatigue” among the public and movie producers.

That notion gained some currency this year when not a single feature movie or documentary dealing with the Holocaust, the Nazi era or World War II was submitted in the Oscar and Golden Globe competitions. Nevertheless, Bier is confident that in the future, Hollywood and European producers will return to that subject.

Can you tell me how to get to Jewish ‘Sesame Street’?


Oscar the Grouch and Moishe Oofnik, his Israeli cousin who lives in a recycling bin on Rechov Sumsum in Tel Aviv, opened up what would turn out to be the most explosive plenary session at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.

They introduced the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose address that included talk of resisting some Palestinian demands on settlement building would be rambunctiously interrupted by left-wing activists, creating a buzz throughout the rest of the three-day conference in early November.

The two Muppets, however, were at the GA for something much less polarizing—to help roll out “Shalom Sesame,” a new version of the iconic children’s puppet show that is geared toward a North American Jewish audience aged 3-7.

The 12-part DVD series, which was given a soft release in late October, was taped in Israel using the Muppets and the set of the Israeli version of “Rechov Sumsum,” the show on which Moishe Oofnik stars. It is aimed at presenting life in Israel and Jewish culture to North American Jewish children that they may not ordinarily receive.

“We don’t look at it as being about religion but tradition and culture,” Shari Rosenfeld, the vice president and project director for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the “Sesame Street” franchise, told JTA. “We want to provide building blocks with Jewish literacy, an introduction to Hebrew language learning, to showcase the Jewish people, and to create a connection between the U.S. and Israel.”

Sesame Workshop enlisted an education advisory board that represented a diverse cross-section of the Jewish community, Rosenfeld said.

The project is a revival of the “Shalom Sesame” series that ran from the mid-1980s to early 1990s and also was an outgrowth of the Israeli version of the show. That project consisted of 11 VHS tapes and actually was run on PBS. Rosenfeld estimates that about 1 million copies of the tapes were sold.

The new version will be released on DVD and be available for sale online and at Jewish bookstores. It will be rolled out officially Dec. 5 with a screening at 120 JCCs across the country.

The Sesame Workshop, out of which Sesame Street has been produced for 41 years (previously under the name The Children’s Television Workshop), now produces 20 versions of the show with puppeteer groups based in countries ranging from China to Ireland to Jordan. Though its U.S. ratings have sagged in recent years, the show in its various forms is aired in 120 countries.

“Shalom Sesame” is the first attempt by the workshop to reach out to a specific ethnic group.

“The closest thing we have done to this is the Mosaic Project in which we created content from our shows in Arab countries,” Rosenfeld said. “That didn’t have the same kinds of legs as ‘Shalom Sesame.’ ”

The Sesame Workshop is looking at this as a pilot for potentially addressing other religious and ethnic groups.

“Sesame Street” in its various forms has not shied away from difficult issues.

Its South African version has a character with AIDS. The show broke ground in the United States when it first aired in 1969 with black and white characters living on the same block, which got it banned in Mississippi. And its Israeli show has Arab-Israeli and Palestinian characters.

“Shalom Sesame,” however, promises to be a bit more vanilla, despite its GA debut.

“It is not designed to meet the needs of children in Israel or Palestine, but it is designed to meet the needs of North American children,” the Sesame Workshop’s spokesman, Philip Toscano, told JTA.

“I know we take a lot of time trying to take the basic fundamentals of trying to teach about Israel and about the holidays and that kind of thing. I don’t think you will see the Muppets talking about the major political conflicts of Israel, Palestine and the rest of the Middle East.”

Bielski Family, Doc Make ‘Defiance’ Personal


The film “Defiance” told the story of the Bielski brothers, who led a group of partisans in fighting the Nazis and established a self-sustaining Jewish community in the forests of Belarus, but it didn’t show what is ultimately their greatest triumph.

“The Bielski brothers assured the survival in the forests of 1,200 Jewish men, women and children,” said Sharon Rennert. “There are now 15,000 living descendents of these survivors.”

Rennert, a Los Angeles documentary filmmaker, knows the story well. She is the granddaughter of partisan leader Tuvia Bielski (portrayed by actor Daniel Craig in the film), and, together with her mother Ruth Bielski and aunt Brenda Bielski Weisman, she shared some of the family history at American Jewish University last week.

The film brought the story of armed Jewish resistance during World War II to wide popular attention. Before it, individual writers and activists labored largely in obscurity to document the deeds of the partisans and to counter the prevalent picture that all Jews went quietly to their doom.

Now that “Defiance” has left movie theaters, these activists — foremost of which is the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (JPEF)— are expanding their efforts to transmit the history and legacy of the fighters to schools and the general public across the country.

Nevertheless, without the movie and its high-powered stars — it was co-written and directed by Edward Zwick and also stars Liev Schreiber — it is unlikely that the intimate recollections of the three Bielski women would have drawn some 400 people to an AJU auditorium for an evening hosted by the Women’s and Holocaust divisions of State of Israel Bonds.

In a plug for the sponsors, moderator Michael Berenbaum, director of AJU’s Sigi Ziering Institute, quipped at the opening that “Most of us would have done better [financially] by investing only in Israel Bonds.”

Berenbaum put the role of the Jewish partisans in perspective by noting that most European resistance movements went into full action only after Germany’s defeat became a certainty. Even ghetto fighters, however heroic, generally rose at the point where they realized they were certain to die at the hands of the Nazis.

The unique achievement of the Bielski Brigade was not only to offer early physical resistance, but also to create a haven in the forest for women, children and the elderly.

The unique aspect of the presentations by the three Bielski descendants was to draw pictures of Tuvia, Zusia, Asael and Aron Bielski as ordinary fathers and grandfathers, whose daring deeds went largely unknown.

Most stories (and movies) end with the young warriors exulting in their victories, just as romances wrap up when boy marries girl, not after 30 years of marriage.

In Tuvia Bielski’s case, after the war he lived first in Romania, then Israel, and finally in the United States, where he worked as a New York trucker and taxi driver.

He never quite assimilated anywhere. Though sought out by survivors who owed their lives to him, he hardly ever mentioned his past to his children and grandchildren.

Granddaughter Sharon, who screened parts of her forthcoming documentary “In Our Hands: A Personal Story of the Bielski Partisans,” showed in the film and recalled in her talk a tall, gentle, elderly man with glasses who never bragged but once told her, “Always stand up for what you know is right.”

Ruth Bielski remembered her father, Tuvia’s, largely unknown involvement in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and his attempts to feel at home in the new country.

“My father and mother never really allowed themselves to be happy, because they survived,” she said.

In “Defiance,” brothers Tuvia and Zusia (“Zus”) are shown in frequent confrontations, but in reality they lived near each other both in Israel and New York, and their two families maintained close relationships, Ruth Bielski said.

When Tuvia Bielski died in 1987, he was buried at a Long Island cemetery, but his remains were later transferred to Israel and reburied with full military honors.

Well before director Zwick started filming “Defiance,” Mitch Braff, a documentary filmmaker in San Francisco, was startled one day to learn that an old family friend had been a partisan during World War II.

Despite a good Jewish education, Braff had never heard anything about the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis, and he decided to do something about his own and the general ignorance on the subject.

In 2000, he founded the JPEF, which has since produced nine short films, 200 video clips of interviews with surviving partisans and provided speakers to schools and colleges.

He worked closely with Zwick during and following the shooting of “Defiance,” and the two men are collaborating on an ambitious educational classroom program for sixth- to 12th-graders.

Named RESIST, the program is set to kick off in the fall with teacher-training courses at public, private and religious schools, which will incorporate the material in their history and social studies classes.

Currently, Holocaust studies are part of the mandatory school curriculum in California and seven other states.

JPEF collaborated with Clay Frohman, co-screenwriter and co-producer of “Defiance,” in creating the new teacher guide, which does not avoid some of the ethical issues inherent in the partisans’ actions.

At times, the Bielski brothers resorted to stealing, killing and revenge, Frohman noted, adding, “The Jews weren’t always the good guys and the Germans not always the bad guys. In any moment, you could be a good guy or a bad guy. We are all capable of all these things.”

A photo exhibition on the partisans is currently showing in New York throughout April and may come to Los Angeles in the future.

For more information on Rennert’s film and the JPEF, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.

For more information on Rennert’s film, visit www.bielskidocumentary.com.

Additional information on JPEF is available at www.jewishpartisans.org, and the foundation can be contacted at (415) 563-2244, or mitch@jewishpartisans.org.

Oscar Ballot 2009


Thank you for visiting jewishjournal.com. The Oscar contest is now closed.

Oscar Ballot Thank You


Thanks for participating!

Less controversy surrounds this year’s Oscar foreign film entries


ALTTEXT
Scene from ‘Waltz With Bashir’

A record number of 67 countries are vying for the Oscar in the best foreign-language film category, with generally obscure directors from Afghanistan to Venezuela dreaming of sudden recognition in Hollywood and beyond.

Among five entries of special Jewish interest, three deal with Middle East conflicts, one with terrorism in Germany, and one with the friendship between a Jewish and a Muslim family in Morocco.

In contrast to previous years, there have been no acrimonious controversies so far. Apparently all sides have tired of arguing whether the Palestinian entry should be officially designated as coming from Palestine, the Palestinian Authority or the Palestinian territory, and plain “Palestine” has won out.

Nor has any film been disqualified for too much English dialogue, as happened to Israel’s “The Band’s Visit” last year,

The substitute entry for Israel was “Beaufort,” the story of an Israeli army unit during the first Lebanese War, and that conflict between neighbors is revisited by two movies this year.


‘Under the Bombs’ trailer

Lebanon’s “Under the Bombs” depicts Israel’s 2006 invasion to wipe out Hezbollah terrorists and the devastation it brought to the southern part of the country.

The film’s only professional actors play an upper-class Muslim woman, living abroad, and the Christian taxi driver she hires in Beirut to search for her son and sister in a destroyed southern village.

On their odyssey, the oddly paired driver and passenger encounter refugees, puzzled and bitter by the loss of homes and relatives, but Franco-Lebanese director Philippe Aractingi largely steers away from sweeping denunciations.

Some villagers accuse Hezbollah fighters of “stirring up a hornets’ nest” and dislike them almost as much as they do the Israelis.

“This is not a political or propaganda film,” said Aractingi in a phone call from his home in Paris. “It’s a human rights film about people caught in a war they don’t want or comprehend.

“When I was a schoolboy in Beirut, we were taught that Lebanon was a neutral country, like Switzerland. So people don’t understand why they’re being bombed.”

Israel’s entry, “Waltz With Bashir,” is also about war in Lebanon, this one in 1982, but in every other respect the approach and technique are radically different.

Director Ari Folman combines state-of-the-art animation, an anti-war theme and psychological analysis in the autobiographical story of a traumatized Israeli soldier trying to recover suppressed memories of combat.

Aractingi and Folman have never met, but the Lebanese director said he “loved” “Waltz With Bashir.” He hopes to meet his Israeli counterpart, if both films are among the finalists, although a public meeting might be “politically risky” for Aractingi.

“Salt of This Sea,” the Palestinian entry, is more hard-edged and propagandistic than such skillful predecessors as “Divine Intervention,” “Olive Harvest” and “Rona’s Wedding.”

Soraya (Suhar Hammad) is a young Brooklyn-born woman of Palestinian descent, who learns that when her grandfather abandoned his stately Jaffa home in 1948, he left behind a bank account of 315 pounds in the British-Palestine Bank.

Obsessed with the idea of reclaiming her grandfather’s savings, Soraya comes to Israel, meets handsome young Emad (Saleh Bakri, Israel’s current heartthrob), and when the bank manager tells Soraya that the account no longer exists, the pair get the money (plus interest) by holding up the bank.

Later, disguised as Israelis and with Israeli license plates on their car, the pair visits the grandfather’s home in Jaffa and giddily samples the attractions of Tel Aviv.

There are no scenes of outright Israeli brutality, but the film conveys the Palestinians’ sense of humiliation during airport interrogations, searches at roadblocks and denials of exit visas to study abroad.

The Moroccan entry, “Goodbye Mothers,” by director Mohamed Ismail, is an oddly affecting though somewhat amateurish film that focuses on the close friendship between a Jewish and a Muslim family.

The location is Casablanca, and the time is the early 1960s, when large numbers of Moroccan Jews clandestinely made their way to Israel in defiance of a ban by the Moroccan government.

Both families are portrayed with equal sympathy, and the only shady character is an Israeli emissary sent to spur the exodus to the Jewish state. The film is marred by some wild mugging and overacting, reminiscent of silent movies, and frequently awkward English subtitles.

Germany’s entry, “The Baader-Meinhof Complex,” also looks back to the 1960s and ’70s, when the West German “Red Army Faction” went on a murderous rampage against some its leading countrymen allegedly subservient to American and Israeli “imperialism.”

Amid incessant gun battles, the only comic relief in the high-tension docudrama comes when Yasser Arafat’s men in Jordan try to train and impose a minimum of discipline on the unruly, and frequently nude, German terrorists of both genders.

Director Uli Edel, who lived through the film’s era as a young man, recreates the setting and mood of the time with impressive fidelity.

Some German critics have complained that the film “humanizes” the gang and its psychopathic leader, Andreas Baader. But in an interview, Edel pointed to his long closing scene, which dwells on the senseless, brutal murder of a German businessman.

For the first time, Jordan has entered a film, but “Captain Abu Raed” steers away from war and politics by offering a mellow tale about an aging airport janitor who is mistaken for a glamorous international pilot by neighborhood urchins.

Nine finalists among the 67 competing films will be announced the week of Jan. 12. They will be winnowed down to five on Jan. 22, with the winner clutching the Oscar at the Academy Award ceremonies on Feb. 22.

The Golden Globes award nominations by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which often foreshadow the Oscar picks, include “Waltz with Bashir” and “The Baader-Meinhof Complex.” The two movies are also frequently mentioned as favorites by various groups of film critics.

Also among likely foreign film contenders are Italy’s “Gomorrah,” Sweden’s “Everlasting Moments,” France’s “The Class,” Argentina’s “The Lion’s Den,” Turkey’s “Three Monkeys” and Singapore’s “My Magic.”

“Salt of This Sea” and “Under the Bombs” are considered long shots.

In the Documentary Features category, with a record 94 entries, “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh,” about the World War II Israeli heroine who parachuted behind enemy lines, has qualified among the 15 finalists.


‘Waltz With Bashir’ U.K. trailer