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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oren ‘categorically denies’ he singled out GOP as taking partisan Israel shots


Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, “categorically denied”  that he specified the Republican Party when he described as harmful making Israel a partisan issue.

“I categorically deny that I ever characterized Republican policies as harmful to Israel,” Oren said in a statement emailed Tuesday to reporters. “Bipartisan support is a paramount national interest for Israel, and we have great friends on both sides of the aisle.”

Rep. Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), in a training session Monday for Jewish activists at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., said Republican efforts to depict President Obama as insufficiently pro-Israel were a salve to those who longed for a wedge between Israel and its most powerful ally.

“We know, and I’ve heard no less than Ambassador Michael Oren say this, that what the Republicans are doing is dangerous for Israel,” she said.

Oren has repeatedly said attempts to make Israel a partisan issue are detrimental to the bipartisan support the Jewish state has for years enjoyed, but he has never singled out one party as more responsible than the other for promoting such divisions.

The CNN-NPR-NY Times Middle East Conspiracy


Have you noticed that when people complain about bias in the media, it’s always bias against their own point of view and never bias in favor of their side?

When press accounts confirm your interpretation of events, they’re fair, accurate and objective. When the upshot of a news story is that your team is the bad guys and the other team is the good guys, it’s obvious that the reporter or paper or network or corporation is in the tank for the other side. And when articles and broadcasts balance ammo for your side with ammo for the other side, they’re guilty of the fallacy of false equivalence, which turns righteous battles between right and wrong into vapid he-said/she-said standoffs.

Nowhere is this more true than in coverage of the Middle East.

Supporters of Israel are furious that when pictures of Palestinian casualties are shown, the causes and context of the war are left out—Hamas’ rocket attacks on southern Israel, which precipitated the attack on Gaza; its cynical use of civilians as human shields, which is a war crime; its intention to destroy Israel and Jewry, which amounts to genocide—all get scandalously short shrift from the press.

Supporters of Hamas are just as enraged about the inhumane living conditions in Gaza, which Israel has blockaded; the Israeli refusal to allow the international press into the battle zone; what they believe is the original sin of Zionism, the displacement of Arabs, and that when Israel is portrayed as a victim, the suffering of the Palestinian people is conveniently omitted.

And what if you’re not a partisan of either side, but think of yourself instead as an independent advocate for human rights and peace? Then not only will you bring down on yourself the opprobrium of both sides for failing to take a stand at a moment that demands a choice, you will also find in the prevailing media narrative no hook to hang your conciliatory analysis on, no peg for your empyrean perspective, no patience for your it’s-all-so-complicated heartsickness.

Any news story can be successfully picked apart from any vantage point. Why does the Los Angeles Times disparage the Israeli point of view as ““>anonymous mitigating hearsay about a Hamas sniper? Why aren’t the networks airing the “>Israeli scholar’s assertion that Palestinian casualties aren’t excessive because “so far well over three-quarters have been armed gunmen, and that is a percentage which is very rarely attained in urban warfare”?

In fact, two reasons make it really hard to conclude (but not to claim) that a mainstream media outlet is biased—on the Middle East or on anything else. And a third reason makes the whole enterprise of watchdogging the press somewhat quixotic.

One is the sheer quantity of content. The stories and pictures you saw may be plenty to convince you, say, that the Associated Press is unfair to Israel, but the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” The only way to determine anything defensible about bias in reporting is to analyze a scientific sample—to examine a slice of stories that’s large enough to be representative of all stories and to choose that slice randomly, without knowing what’s going to be in it.

Some people may feel that they watch CNN so much or read The New York Times so regularly that they have plenty of data to base conclusions on. Not so. That’s why pollsters are paid big bucks: The methods they use to construct the universe of people they survey are even more important than the questions they ask them.

Second is the difficulty of coming up with an objective measure of bias. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. If you can show me a journalistic scoring system that Alan Dershowitz and Noam Chomsky can agree on, then I’d like to show you how to earn 12 percent a year in a very special investment fund.

But even if you had a scientific sample; even if you devised a neutral litmus test for bias, the strange truth is that media spin probably matters a lot less than we assume.

Yes, public opinion is an important element of public policy. Nations care what people think about them. But the audience for cable news is astonishingly small, maybe 2 million people on a good day; the daily readership of a prestige newspaper is hardly more than that, and the only way that public radio can claim north of 20 million listeners is to count all the people who listened to any of its programs during a week.

Sure, the Internet has surged as a source of news, but its audience is fragmented into niches. If you want to get really depressed, chew on this: For decades, Americans have said that their number one source for news is local television news. Not only is that audience scattered among a thousand stations in a couple of hundred media markets, the amount of attention those stations give to international news is a tiny fraction of the airtime they give to celebrities, freak accidents and crime.

There’s no question that some elite media set the agenda for much of the rest of the press. And some nonnews programming, like talk radio hotheads, get demonstrably big listenerships. But it’s next to impossible to prove a cause-and-effect relation between these bloviators and public opinion, and the same is true of the impact of the mainstream press on public attitudes and beliefs. In the end, why Americans think what they do about Israel and Hamas is as much a mystery as how they decide who to vote for or what toothpaste to buy.

I get just as steamed as anyone else when I see a Middle East news story that I think is wildly unfair. I’m just unwilling to ascribe it to a conspiracy or to think it matters as much as the frustration and fury I feel.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

The Siege of Sacramento’s Castle Incumbent


Letters to the Editor


Chamberlain Ad

I do not know if I can communicate how deeply offended I was by the Republican Jewish Coalition’s (RJC) Neville Chamberlain ad on page 6 of the Sept. 8 Jewish Journal. Besides the complete lack of intellectual honesty, the appalling lack of logical reasoning fails beyond the pale to measure up to the traditions of Judaism specifically and humanity in general:

Rather than deal with the threat that Al Qaeda actually presents to our national security, President Bush has chosen to waste hundreds of billions of dollars on a personal vendetta in Iraq washed in five years of the blood of the Iraqi people and citizenry of our great nation.

Rather than communicating with a government seeking to open communication between the United States, President Bush consciously closed all potential paths of dialogue and continuously vilified and threatened a sovereign nation in a tinhorn cowboy attempt to force Iran into a diplomatic mistake of nuclear proportions.

Rather than assist Israel to defend itself against continuing malicious attacks from Hezbollah or Hamas, Bush specifically chose to do absolutely nothing for five years, and more importantly, two weeks of Israel’s invasion into Lebanon, then sent the single most ineffectual secretary of state within the last century to negotiate a failed cease-fire proposal.

If The Journal is so strapped for cash, it would be a far better use of its ad space to place a plea for donations and financial support from its readership, rather than compromising all dignity and integrity by running further tripe from the RJC.

Richard Adlof
North Hollywood

Shame on the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) for running two ads which desperately tried to denigrate the Democratic Party.

First, shame on the RJC for taking an issue of great bipartisan agreement — support for a strong U.S.- Israel relationship — and turning it into a wedge issue for tawdry partisan political advantage. Any objective observer of U.S. politics has to agree that both of our major political parties are remarkably supportive of Israel. This fact is crucial in maintaining the strong relationship between the United States and Israel. For the RJC, however, it appears that twisting the truth for some petty partisan gain is apparently more important than maintaining bipartisan support for the Jewish state.

It is true that in both parties there are a handful of politicians who are not part of this bipartisan consensus. Carter is one of these outsiders who find no support for their positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict within their own parties.

Jewish newspapers, like all newspapers, have an obligation to not print false and misleading ads. We hope in the coming weeks, as RJC slings more mud, this newspaper will fact-check their ad copy to make sure the RJC doesn’t continue to use these pages to violently twist the truth.

Marc Stanley
First Vice Chair
National Jewish Democratic Council

The Republican obsession with Iraq has left Israel open and vulnerable to the possible nuclear overtures of a Holocaust-denying Iran. The Republican obsession with the Cold War almost led to a military defeat for Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War (and did lead to a country-permeating malaise). The Republican obsession with a fundamental Christian theology that is based on the apocalyptic demise of not only Israel but Jews everywhere is too eviscerating and too self-evident to even require an elaboration.

Does any Jew still believe that the Republican party has their true interests at heart?

Marc Rogers
Thousand Oaks

We applaud the recent public discussion about the support for Israel by the political parties (“GOP Sees Israel as Way to Woo Democratic Jews,” Sept. 1).All who are pro-Israel should appreciate the positive influence our growing Jewish Republican community is having on the GOP. Our access to senior GOP leaders is warmly encouraged, and, in return, the Jewish community is increasingly impressed by an administration and a Republican Congress that have been deeply pro-Israel.

The example of U.N. Ambassador John Bolton is instructive. The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) was virtually alone among national Jewish organizations in supporting the nomination of this hero of the Jewish people, who not only helped to defeat the odious “Zionism is racism” resolution years ago, but who now vigorously defends Israel at the United Nations against unfair demonization and delegitimization. Many Jewish Democrats now see that Bolton is the right man at the United Nations.

Putting aside the issue of Israel, moderate Jews might approach 21st century American politics with an open mind on who is best on both national security and domestic public policy issues. It is time that respectful attention be paid by Jews to positive GOP ideas about economic growth, welfare and entitlement reform, medical liability and tort/legal reform, energy independence and educational choice and competition to best serve children.

To the benefit of Israel and the United States, the days of one-party Jewish voting are, thankfully, over.

Joel Geiderman
Chairman
Larry Greenfield
Director
Republican Jewish Coalition, California

Illegal Jewish Immigrants

Your articles focused on illegal Israeli immigrants who are not terrorists and do not take low-paying jobs away from minorities (“Living and Working [IL]Legally in America,” Sept. 8). Instead they engage in commercial activity that is beneficial to Israel.

Thanks to your article calling attention to them, perhaps immigration officials will divert attention from terrorists to crack down on these Israelis.

Are you The Jewish Journal or the anti-Jewish Journal?

Marshall GillerWinnetka

The Jews Didn’t Do It

Not all conspiracy theories are equal (“The Lie That Won’t Die,” Sept. 1). Richard Greenberg’s article asks us to believe otherwise, holding out only two possibilities to the American public: Either you accept the government version of Sept. 11 or you are a “conspiracist.”

But the world is much more complex than these two positions allow, and the democratic process itself depends on citizens who question official stories. David Griffin, author of “The New Pearl Harbor” and three additional books on Sept. 11, raises important questions about the adequacy of the Kean Commission report.

Upsetting the Bipartisan Applecart


It is a troubling paradox: Israel may be protected from new pressure from Washington by the upcoming presidential election, but that protection could foreshadow long-term damage to U.S.-Israel relations.

The reason: more and more, the pro-Israel effort is getting sucked into the quicksand of bitter partisan politics.

In today’s take-no-enemies political climate, the bipartisanship that has been the goal of pro-Israel activism in Washington — a goal steadfastly pursued, if not often attained — is in dire jeopardy.

The good news for pro-Israel lobbyists is that President George W. Bush and his political team see strong, smooth U.S.-Israel relations as a political necessity. Two big reasons: Jewish money and Jewish votes.

With his poll rankings sinking, the President is counting on a record war chest to blow past the Democratic opposition next year. Increasingly, re-election strategists see Jewish money as an important piece of the funding puzzle. Bush’s support for a hawkish government in Israel, they believe, will be a strong selling point with pro-Israel donors.

Even the wildest optimist among the Republicans doesn’t expect Bush to win a majority of Jewish votes. But a jump to 30 percent — in 2000, Bush won only 19 percent — could prove critical, especially in a state the Democrats remember with trepidation: Florida.

Maintaining a cordial relationship with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is seen as a catalyst for that kind of financial and electoral bounce from Jewish donors and voters. Republican Jewish activists are already hitting hard on the Democratic challengers for being soft in their support for Israel.

Even more important, smooth relations with the Sharon government are necessary to keep Evangelical Christians in line. In recent years, the religious right has made support for Israel its top foreign policy priority. The Evangelicals say they simply feel called by God to support Israel, but apparently the Lord has a special preference for Israel’s right wing; even Ariel Sharon isn’t hawkish enough for many of today’s new breed of Christian Zionist.

There’s no danger the religious right will turn to the Democrats next year, but Bush needs a high and enthusiastic turnout from them, and winning amens from their top leaders for his support for Sharon can contribute to that cause.

Those political factors point to relatively smooth U.S.- Israel relations in the short run — not an insignificant development at a time when world opinion is overwhelmingly hostile to Israel. But the auguries for the future aren’t so reassuring.

In an increasingly polarized America, there is a growing danger that Israel will get whipsawed by a partisan balance that can change with staggering speed. For decades, pro-Israel activism has tried to steer a deliberately bipartisan course. The idea was that support for Israel should never be associated with any particular faction, providing a layer of insulation for those inevitable times when the political winds change direction.

True, politicians in both parties sometimes tried to gain an advantage by using Israel as a political club to bash their opponents. But for the most part, there was an acknowledgement that support for Israel should not be Democratic or Republican , liberal or conservative.

That could be changing.

Conservative Republicans, who now ardently support Israel, are increasingly using support not just for Israel but for the most right-wing factions there as a litmus test that they hope and expect most Democrats will fail. The religious right is one of the most polarizing forces in the nation today; Americans are either for them or bitterly against them, with middle ground hard to find. To the extent that support for Israel is now linked to this faction, the Jewish State could be dragged into the center of one of the "culture wars" that increasingly dominate American political life.

It’s revealing that some of Israel’s biggest boosters today — former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the Rev. Pat Robertson — are slashing, controversial figures who have brought the same aggressive stance to their support of the Sharon government. That association could discourage even loyal supporters of Israel on the left and add to the erosion in the bipartisan foundation built so carefully by the pro-Israel lobby.

And what will happen when the volatile Israeli electorate turns to left-leaning leaders? Will the Evangelicals still support an Israel that aggressively seeks land-for-peace agreements with the Palestinians?

This isn’t to say that support from the right should be spurned. But it should be balanced by much more energetic and sustained pro-Israel outreach to other factions, starting with the liberal Democrats who once comprised the pro-Israel base in Washington.

The Jewish community itself needs to avoid being caught up in the venomous political environment of the day. There is an important place in the Jewish community for the political right, which is enjoying its day in the sun — but also for groups on the left, which seem to be in full retreat.

Partisan leaders can afford to play zero-sum games with Israel; the Jewish community, concerned more about Israel’s future in a troubling time than about scoring political points, needs to take a different approach.

Anxiety about Jewish Literature


As long as the Jewish people lives, it will generate a living culture, and as long as that culture values the written word, Jews will write books.

Individual genius notwithstanding, these books will reflect the Jewish culture of their time. The Talmud was argued and codified when the Jewish elites concentrated on interpreting Jewish law, and the New York intellectuals generated Commentary and Partisan Review when American Jewish elites began "arguing the world." In between, Jews of Spain took up poetry, and Jews of Poland created hagiography about their rebbes, each in creative response to their religious communities. The diarists of the ghettos during World War II raised the pen against the swastika in an appeal to history that was as absolute and passionate as their forefathers’ appeals to God.

Our present anxiety about Jewish literature derives not from a slump in contemporary Jewish writing, but from the insufficiencies of American Jewish life. An ignorant Jewry inhibits even the knowledgeable Jewish writer.

Sholom Aleichem, at the turn of the 20th century, assumed that his main readers would be familiar with the Jewish prayers, though they might no longer be observing the commandments. Thus, when he wanted to create an "ordinary Jew," he imagined a dairyman so saturated with liturgy and Bible that he could improvise riffs on the psalms as he guided his horse over a country road.

But when Tova Mirvis writes in the first-person plural about "the ladies auxiliary" of an Orthodox synagogue, she feels obliged to explain one Jewish ritual per chapter to educate a potential readership of Jews who may know as little as gentiles about their religion. Her self-consciousness about what earlier writers could take for granted — intimacy with Jewish languages, texts and way of life — saps the energy from her voice, which could just as easily belong to the Methodist down the block. Some Yiddish words used to draw a laugh in the general culture as reminders of the immigrant condition that American Jews had outgrown. Nowadays, every manifestation of Jewish observance is played for comedy.

Add indifference to the ignorance, and Jewishness becomes silly putty. Say what you will about the Jews who wrote in German, even Heinrich Heine and Karl Kraus — who accepted baptism as their passport to European civilization — but they never lost their awe or dread of the religion they no longer practiced.

Judaism throbs in their works as pulsating conscience and threat. They registered the high cost of being a Jew. There is no such tension in authors such as E.L. Doctorow or Grace Paley, who treat Jewishness as whatever they wish it to be. Because of the benignity of American democracy, conversion to American liberalism requires no ceremony. Modern Jews don’t have to acknowledge that they are switching allegiances as they substitute leftist pieties for the tough Jewish discipline: They can pretend that they have never defected at all. If American Jews judge Judaism by the standards of The New York Times rather than judging The Times by the standards of Judaism, those writers who dream of being reviewed by The Times will reflect its values instead of God’s.

Cowardice is the third and most serious hindrance to the quality of the Jewish book in America. I wonder whether there has ever been in the history of the Jewish people a generation as craven as the one in whose midst we live. The single Columbia University professor Edward Said — who falsified his biography so that he could blame the Jews for losses inflicted on him by the Egyptians — managed to cow thousands of his Jewish fellow academics into apologizing for the existence of the Jewish State. In the 53 years since the Arab countries launched against Israel the longest and most protean war in modern history, the Jews of America have been beating a steady retreat from defense of the Jewish homeland. Most American Jews don’t even have the grit to speak out for what other Jews daily defend with their lives. No wonder Mark Helprin looks for heroes in World War I, and Michael Chabon in the comic book supermen of World War II. They would be hard put to find models of heroism among the Jewish elites of Los Angeles or New York.

The Jewish book reflects this moral collapse, and our best books are those that tell of it most honestly. Saul Bellow’s "Bellarosa Connection" registers the consequence of forgetting and neglecting what is sacred and significant. Midge Decter wrote "Liberal Parents, Radical Children," and Philip Roth adapted it as the superb novel "American Pastoral." Cynthia Ozick is our toughest naysayer, refusing the placebos of a homogenized culture. Those books are the truest that expose the ignorance, the indifference and the cowardice, reminding us through negative, if not yet positive, representation of what the Jewish people could yet become.

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