Sundance 2016: Jewish highlights


Award nominations aren’t all that set the film world aflutter each January. It’s a time not only to look back on the past year’s highs and lows, but also to get a sneak peek at this year’s slate. The Sundance Film Festival, the largest independent film festival in the United States, takes place over 10 days atop a large ice shelf in Park City, Utah, and draws industry tastemakers — agents, distributors, filmmakers, critics and party crashers — who have turned their sights to the 2016 landscape. This year, they took in 195 short and feature-length films chosen from among 12,793 submissions. Here are some of the Jewish moments of note from a Sundance first-timer.

“Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You”

Oscar-nominated filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady earned widespread acclaim in 2006 for “Jesus Camp,” their documentary detailing the power of conservative religious fanatics at a youth summer camp. This year, Ewing and Grady were back, kicking off the festival with a doc focused on a different type of mentor. Sundance founder Robert Redford introduced “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” bright and early on the morning of Jan. 21, a film featuring personal accounts and anecdotes galore from Hollywood heavyweights celebrating the life of one of entertainment’s most influential and prolific TV showrunners.

“Weiner”

“Weiner” is the high-profile documentary about shamed former Jewish Congressman Anthony Weiner, and its very existence seems a small miracle. (Anticipating a massive following pending its release, Sundance Selects snatched up rights to the film before its official premiere.) Co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg were given front-row seating to Weiner’s 2013 campaign for New York City mayor — Kriegman served as Weiner’s chief of staff in 2005 — and the two started out with plans for a film far different from their end product. Instead of the comeback story of a strapping politician, what materialized is an up-close play-by-play of Weinergate: Part 2. The film won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Documentary category and is expected to be released in May.

“The Settlers”

Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan, too, is making a return to Sundance, where his 2007 documentary “Hot House” won the Special Jury Award. His latest focuses on the West Bank occupation. Through candid interviews with early pioneers of the settler movement and extensive footage of Israel’s past prime minsters, Dotan enriches Israel’s labored history with contextual significance for a relatively removed American audience.

“The Settlers” is humble in its ambitions. Dotan doesn’t uncover hidden truths about the occupation, nor does he take great pains in spinning a particular narrative. As he told the audience member who asked his opinion on the presidential election during the Q-and-A: “That’s not my job. My job is to show you what I observe and let you decide. I’m an observer.” But the love he has for his country and his people is palpable. 

“The Settlers” premiered to a packed house. One of the last admitted into the theater, a Pakistani journalist and newly minted short-film producer, grabbed the aisle seat next to me. His name was Murtaza Hussain, Maz for short. We made small talk while waiting for the house lights to dim; I told him about the Jewish Journal, he told me about some of his work — an investigative piece he wrote about three young Palestinians wrongly accused of terrorism inspired his short — and about playing hooky from his own Q-and-A next door. It was an encounter that might have made Dotan smile.

“Little Men”

Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz. Photo by Eric McNatt

Ira Sachs is the rare auteur filmmaker who has built a successful career making personal films without compromising his subdued style for commercial appeal. Although Sachs’ films have found only a small, niche market in Los Angeles, the Memphis-born Jewish father of two is Sundance royalty and the reigning king of New York indie. His latest, “Little Men,” is a big-hearted story about two families experiencing the rat race of Brooklyn’s gentrification from two entirely different, yet inseparable, realities. In classic Sachs fashion, the film comments with grace and nuance on the growing pains of all of life’s stages.

“Indignation”

“Indignation,” based on a Philip Roth novel, follows a young Jewish boy from Newark to a majority-Christian college, where he’s enrolled to escape the Korean War draft. Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is a high-strung, sexually inexperienced idealist who fancies himself a pragmatic, level-headed realist. As Marcus struggles to make sense of a world away from his mother and overprotective father, he gets into a war between faith and reason with the dean of the university (Tracy Letts), complete with ferocious verbal sparring and remarkable tenacity.

Adaptations of Philip Roth novels tend to get a bad rap, so some might take with a grain of salt the author’s praise of “Indignation” as the truest, most faithful one yet. But based on audience reception, Roth may be right about James Schamus’ directorial debut. The film was acquired by Lionsgate’s Summit Entertainment in a $2.5 million deal.

“The Skinny”

“The Skinny” team after the show premiered on Jan. 26, from left: Sundance Film Festival senior programmer Caroline Libresco; “The Skinny” creator, director and actress Jessie Kahnweiler; producer and actress Illeana Douglas; executive producers Rebecca Odes, Andrea Sperling, Paul Young, Jill Soloway and Amy Emmerich. Photo by Melissa Weller

The way eating disorders and body image in general are portrayed in mainstream media and in Hollywood is part of a narrative that Jessie Kahnweiler, creator and star of the new Web series “The Skinny,” means to change.

“I was really frustrated at the lack of eating disorder stories that were honestly depicted, because I’m this loud, Jewish feminist with a moustache who speaks her mind, but, you know, I also struggle so much with pain and self-hate,” Kahnweiler, 30, said after the series premiered at the festival. “I think there was this self-perpetuating cycle of shame because I wasn’t really seeing … stories that I could relate to.”

“The Skinny” is a dark comedy about bulimia, produced by Refinery 29 in partnership with Wifey.TV, a platform founded by Jill Soloway and Rebecca Odes to provide creative space for women to “be the subject, not the object.” The morning before the series premiered as part of Sundance’s Special Events section, ” target=”_blank”>refinery29.com.

‘City of Gold’ captures flavor of Los Angeles


If you live in Los Angeles and care about food, you already know Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times.

You may have traced one of his pithy reviews to a mini-mall in the San Gabriel Valley for Sichuanese hand-torn noodles, or to an unromantic stretch of Hollywood Boulevard for blood-thickened Thai boat noodle soup, or to Compton for succulent barbecue, or to one of dozens of other neighborhoods far from Rodeo Drive or Venice Beach and other icons of Los Angeles culture.

In eating your way down the trail he has blazed, you may have acquired a taste for a different notion of Los Angeles, for the city as a mecca to which the foodways of East and West, both high and low, all make hajj to tell their story upon your palate.

“City of Gold,” a documentary by Laura Gabbert that premiered Jan. 27 at the Sundance Film Festival here, is a dual portrait of both Gold and the city he loves. The camera follows him as he roams from restaurant to restaurant analyzing the food, pointing out subtleties in the metropolitan texture and philosophizing upon the nexus between food, culture, history, geography and anything else that comes to mind.

As Gabbert and Gold lucidly demonstrate, Los Angeles, far from the sprawling, undifferentiated mass derided by its critics, is a multicentric metropolis defined by its many variegated neighborhoods and enclaves. And as Gold explains in his wanderings around the city, it is this profusion of subcultures and their intermingling that create the essence of the city.

“It’s this incredible mosaic of neighborhoods, and in a very real way, food is the best way to experience that,” Gold told JTA.

Restaurant critics are famous for the lengths they take to maintain anonymity, but Gold renounces the tradition in the movie — and in a recent  essay on the subject, where he admits that his identity has long been an open secret in the restaurant world — to reveal his true, or at least his physical, self. He is pale and freckled and rotund — the last being the result, he jokes, of eating his way through so many bad restaurants in search of the good ones. Hardly schlubby, Gold carries himself grandly, almost regally, with a long shower of blond hair to his shoulders, matched by a small mustache.

He has a remarkable palate — in a recent interview, Gold noted in passing that water from the cooler was a tad bitter — and a knack for a vivid turn of phrase, as when he described the critic’s search for anonymity as being “like the fat man’s version of the ‘Bourne Identity.'”

A Los Angeles native, Gold grew up in in a liberal, Reform Jewish household surrounded by books and culture, and with a father whose “idea of religious observance was to drop us off at the shul for religious school and then go get a lot of deli, come back and pick us up.”

His mother, who came from a Louisiana family and converted to Judaism when she married, could cook a few Southern specialties, but in Gold’s words, “There was a lot of Hamburger Helper and Kraft dinners and fried chicken and this kind of Jell-O she learned to make where she put in a little bit of orange sherbet.”

Gold first began to expand his tastes in high school when he dated an Asian-American girl whose mother cooked traditional Chinese four-course dinners.

As a young man, Gold began to explore the city in earnest. While working as a proofreader at a legal newspaper, he decided to eat his way down the length of Pico Boulevard. What started as a lark became an education in urban culture.

“You’d notice that somebody would be selling tamales out of a cart, and then you’d run into them a few months later and they’d have a little grocery store with some Salvadoran stuff on the shelves, and then maybe they’d start selling pupusas over a counter, and then it became a full-fledged pupuseria, and you’d see culture unfolding in real time,” Gold said. “It was fascinating. It was a really interesting way to learn about Los Angeles.”

Gold slowly transitioned from proofreading into writing, first as a music reviewer — Gold majored in music at UCLA — for the LA Weekly newspaper, where he profiled his classical music heroes like Philip Glass and Pierre Boulez. When the owner of the paper asked him to review restaurants, Gold agreed because he was behind on his rent.

“I turned out to like that,” he recalled. “I thought it was kind of a scam, and it turned out to fit in with my writing style really well.”

Gold’s reviews quickly attracted widespread notice, and he began to write for the Los Angeles Times, Gourmet and other outlets. In 2007 he became the first — and to date only — food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Gold’s erudition on food, spices, history and geography is staggering, yet in traveling the city in “City of Gold” and listening to Gold talk, it becomes obvious that he is describing not simply restaurants and neighborhoods but the entire process through which people combine ideas and spices to create a new culture and a new city. Food is simply the most delicious way to sketch that evolution.

“Everything comes from a place, everything is there for a reason,” Gold said. “There’s cultural reasons, there’s historical reasons, there’s geographical reasons why what you’re getting on a plate is there.”

He added, “There are worlds to be explored in a single taco.”

Sundance festival: Israeli films explore family, war


Two female Israeli directors premiered their films last week at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The feature film “Princess,” directed by Tali Shalom Ezer, explores the challenges of adolescence, while Mor Loushy’s documentary “Censored Voices” looks unflinchingly at the Israeli military’s actions during the Six-Day War. Both films explore issues of power, victimhood and the ethical decisions of choosing whether to confront injustice.

'Princess'

“Princess” follows an emotionally distant 12-year-old girl, Adar (Shira Haas), who is at risk of being expelled from school. Her overworked mother, Alma (Keren Mor), holds down double shifts as a nurse while supporting her boyfriend, Michael (Ori Pfeffer), who stays home all day painting watercolors and getting into tickling matches with Adar. The disaffected Adar befriends the homeless Alan (Adar Zohar-Hanetz), who happens to be her doppelganger — or perhaps her invented fantasy. 

“A few years ago, I had this image of the girl and the boy, two children that look alike, and this image didn’t leave me,” said director Ezer, in an interview at Redstone 8 Cinemas in Park City. “I had to develop this image and to understand these characters. And that was the seed for the film.”

“Princess” shared the Haggiag Award for best Israeli feature at the 2014 Jerusalem Film Festival with “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” another film that looks critically at marriage and power. “I like to explore the dynamic within a family and between couples,” Ezer said. Her previous film, “Surrogate,” also dealt with issues of intimacy and trust. 

Ezer’s characters exist within a world that’s both sensual and frightening. The underlying sexual tension among Michael, Adar and Alan builds, and a naive playfulness gives way to violence. Meanwhile, Alma turns a blind eye to her boyfriend’s actions, leaving Adar alone to defend herself. In one haunting scene, Adar asks her mother, “Do you want to see the most terrible thing in the world?” Alma responds by shutting her eyes. “Her daughter is very important to her, but she has her own needs,” Ezer said of Alma. “This character is really dependent on the love and support of Michael and also Adar. She’s a little bit of a narcissist, and I think that if she were aware and not blind to what’s happening in the house, she feels that she would collapse.”

Yet, despite the horrors Michael brings upon the family, Adar proves to be a survivor and chooses to live, rather than be a victim. “She’s underage, but you see a little woman, and she’s strong and she can fight for herself and she can change her reality,” Ezer said.

Ezer is among a generation of young Israeli filmmakers receiving worldwide acclaim for producing films that bravely tackle challenging topics. “I see a lot of courageous films. My colleagues are telling stories that are so important to us. We’re full of rage. We want to say something to the world. We want to change the world,” Ezer said. “These are the kinds of stories that I want to tell.”

This is Ezer’s debut feature-length film and it’s received glowing reviews from Variety (“fascinating”) and The Hollywood Reporter (“a remarkable achievement”). Expect to see a lot more from Ezer in the future.

‘Censored Voices’

In June 1967, when Egypt, Syria and Jordan attacked Israel on all sides, there was a real fear that the country could be annihilated. Vastly outnumbered, the young nation fought back and quickly captured the Sinai Peninsula, West Bank, Gaza Strip and some of the Golan Heights. By the time of the June 11 ceasefire, fewer than 1,000 Israelis had been killed, compared to more than 20,000 from the Arab forces. Israel had tripled in size, and its soldiers were welcomed home as heroes. Euphoric crowds danced in the streets, soldiers kissed babies, children climbed on tanks, and political leaders drew comparisons to David slaying Goliath, or the Maccabees defeating the Seleucid army. But when author Amos Oz and editor Avraham Shapira spent two weeks traveling to kibbutzim and interviewing the soldiers, they heard other voices. 

“Censored Voices” Photo courtesy of IDF Defense Establishment Archives

The soldiers expressed doubt, fear and despair over the treatment of Arab soldiers and civilians. “There’s a sense of sadness that the newspapers don’t address,” said one. “I wasn’t at the Western Wall, I didn’t hear any trumpets, and I didn’t perform any acts of bravery,” a soldier admits. “I wanted to be left alone. I wanted nothing to do with the war,” said another. “I no longer have the will to steal other people’s land,” said yet another. 

The new documentary film “Censored Voices” exhumes never-before-heard interviews with those soldiers from the days following the Six-Day War. The Israeli military allowed 30 percent of the recordings to be released, which Shapira published as the 1971 international bestseller “The Seventh Day.” Director Loushy convinced Shapira to give her access to the full recordings. “A lot of Israeli journalists had tried to take these recordings, and I think that he felt responsibility for those recordings, because they were so intimate, so personal, so he didn’t want to share them with anyone,” Loushy said.

Loushy filmed the soldiers stoically listening to their recorded interviews from 47 years before. “For me, the powerful thing when I shot the characters was to look into their faces while they were listening for the first time. And I wanted to give the audience the same feeling that I had when I filmed them,” Loushy said.

Daniel Sivan, the film’s editor and one of its producers, acknowledges that the soldiers Oz and Shapira interviewed were not representative of the entire Israeli public. “When you are going around and talking to the soldiers in this dark basement about the pain of the war, soldiers that were really happy with it, and came back and were cheerful, wouldn’t go to this conversation,” Sivan said.

Yet even if the film feels a bit one-sided, the voices it contains provide a prescient look at Israel’s current situation. The soldiers express grave concerns about Israel’s future, heard over archival video of troops evacuating villages, bulldozing homes and recapturing Jerusalem’s Old City. “Are we doomed to bomb villages every decade for defense purposes?” one soldier asks. “Are we doomed to live in the pauses between wars?”

We’re accustomed to photographs of young, victorious Israelis conquering their enemies. This film uses well-preserved footage of Israeli troops kicking and shoving Egyptians, forcing them to march for miles with their hands up and, at one point, shooting a group of blindfolded, unarmed men. “The more horrors we did to them,” one soldier said, “I thought, good thing it’s not the other way around.” At one point, ABC reporter Bob Young glances at a sea of refugee tents in Amman, Jordan, and says grimly, “The only things growing here are the seeds of revenge.”

The filmmakers behind “Censored Voices” recognize the divisive nature of these antiwar messages, especially with an upcoming national election, and hope the film’s release will promote debate about Israel’s history and a possible path toward peace. “Our goal is to make people listen to these voices, see maybe where we took the wrong road in Israel and hopefully create a peaceful future for us, because it can’t go on like this,” Sivan said. 

In Sundance drama, Silverman puts her darkness on display


The Sarah Silverman that the world knows and loves is a loudmouthed, foulmouthed, ribald comedian who tramples on the boundaries of social decency with sharp purpose and uproarious glee.

The Sarah Silverman who stars in the domestic drama “I Smile Back,” which premiered at Sundance, is stripped of both bravado and joy. In the movie, which marks Silverman’s first starring dramatic role, she plays Laney, a deeply depressed housewife who veers into self-destructive behavior. She snorts coke in the bathroom, cheats with a friend’s husband while the kids are at school, sneaks vodka on the sly and even masturbates with a teddy bear on the floor next to her sleeping daughter. The portrait of Laney that emerges is intense, raw and disturbing. It is also unmistakably, recognizably Silverman.

At least partial credit for that insight goes to Amy Koppelman, who adapted the screenplay from her own novel of the same name, along with co-screenwriter Paige Dylan. Koppelman didn’t know much of Silverman’s comedy when she heard Silverman on Howard Stern’s radio show talking about childhood depression. Instinctually, Koppelman felt that Silverman would be a perfect match for the novel.

“I felt she would understand what I was trying to say in the book,” said Koppelman at a post-screening Q&A.

Sure enough, Silverman met with Koppelman and agreed to sign up for the movie.

Silverman has spoken openly about her own struggles with depression, including saying that she never wanted to have children for fear that she would pass her depression on to them.

That alternate scenario is, in many ways, what “I Smile Back” depicts. Silverman’s character, Laney, simultaneously loves her children and feels deeply unworthy to be their mother, a vicious paradox that deepens as she lapses and relapses into addiction.

Though the movie can feel like an unrelenting, and at times predictable, slog, Silverman’s performance is unflinching. Through a series of brutal scenes, often in long close-ups, Silverman portrays her character’s struggles with depression with an intimacy and subtlety that are both powerful and unsettling.

It would be inaccurate to say that Silverman disappears into her character, because  so many aspects of Laney are recognizably Silverman — the sensuality, the sing-song Jewish cadences, the theatricality, the unmistakable intelligence. At the same time, Laney’s pain and bleakness resonate so uncomfortably in part because they are so clearly Silverman’s own, unguarded by the brassiness, earthiness and, yes, the humor of her public persona.

Of course, of course, all the caveats apply: Silverman is not Laney, and Laney is not Silverman, and one shouldn’t confuse the acting with the actor. By her own account, Silverman has been quite successful in her own struggles with depression, and she is not an addict. The fact that Silverman, like many comedians, like many artists, like many people, has battled depression is not news. The relationship between comedy and suffering is complicated, and has been debated and dissected to death.

But the vulnerability and melancholy that Silverman displays in “I Smile Back” are so clearly authentic that one can’t help reevaluating Silverman’s comedy, too. In retrospect, that pain has always been there, hiding in plain sight.

The fact that she can either sublimate that pain into comedy or bare it in her acting doesn’t make either one inauthentic. It simply affirms the scope of Silverman’s talent as an artist.

Jewish David Foster Wallace stuns at Sundance


No, the late great writer David Foster Wallace was not Jewish – but the first actor to portray him onscreen is.

Jason Segel, the Jewish actor known for his roles in films such as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “The Five-Year Engagement” as well as the popular TV show “How I Met Your Mother,” plays Wallace alongside fellow Jewish thespian Jesse Eisenberg in “The End of the Tour,” which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend.

“The End of the Tour” is an adaptation of the book “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” author David Lipsky’s account of a five-day road trip he took with Wallace on a book tour in 1996, just as the publication of “Infinite Jest” was turning Wallace into a literary rock star.

Segel, known almost exclusively as a comedic actor, evoked skepticism among critics when he was cast as the postmodernist author in 2013. In addition, the David Foster Wallace Literary Estate condemned the film last year and said “we do not consider it an homage.” However, after “The End of the Tour” debuted on Friday night at the Park City, Utah festival, some are predicting serious Academy Award attention for Segel (next year, of course — the film does not have a theatrical release date yet).

Eisenberg’s performance is being praised as well, but his talents were already well known after his Academy Award-nominated turn as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in the 2010 film “The Social Network.”

Here is what the critics are saying so far about Jewish David Foster Wallace:

“The revelation here is clearly Segel, who disappears completely into the role of a depressed, reluctant genius.” (A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club)

“It’s Segel, stepping up his game mightily, who turns The End of the Tour into a feast of subtle fragility. Bedecked in Wallace’s signature head bandana and loose-limbed slovenliness, Segel is totally persuasive as a troubled brainiac, socking over Wallace’s uneven flow of verbiage and melting ever so slightly in the heat of a fanboy-interrogator.” (Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York)

“Segel handles Wallace’s intricate, discursive speech with remarkable dexterity, putting Wallace’s brilliant, troubled mind on display for all of us to admire, while still managing to play a human being. That’s a tricky feat for any actor, let alone one mostly known for a CBS sitcom and a handful of Apatowian comedies.” (Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair)

“This is a man of endless contradictions; he’s shaggy and sleepy-headed but sharp and always questioning, wryly candid but then unexpectedly defensive and guarded. The performance is easily Segel’s best work since Freaks and Geeks, devastating strictly on its own quiet terms.” (David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter)

Hearts remarried


Marriage means so much, to all of us. Including to unmarried people. We all want to live paired up, don’t we? To die not alone? What’s sadder than a grave all by its lonesome? Two side by side, we feel we can protect each other through all eternity. 

Marriage is also the inner pillar of our psyche. We think of it all the time, even more than of sex. Why we have marriage, why we don’t, why and when did it become better, at last? Look around. Marriage is our life’s top ingredient, as guaranteed as the sun on a bright day.

I could go on. You see my wife and I just rededicated our vows. I’m still bubbling.

Rededication, by the way, is an American invention we should applaud. Even if one remarries not 50, just five years in, those would be some important five years! In the case of Iris and I, we clocked 30 and then decided: We’re redoing it, in Europe where I’m from — where she stems from, too, one generation past. 

I do remember the times when she, or I, doubted that we would last. A counselor told us to beware when you stop fighting, when you have “peace.” Peace means the end of being unique to each other. Better unique and bleeding. So we rededicated — bleeding and all. We have littler fights these days, and better friendship in between. 

Thirty years. And we’re hoping for another 20.

Wow. 

In honor of our roots, we flew to Eastern Europe. Iris comes from Holocaust survivors. I’m from the other survivors, the runaways from communism. 

The logistics were complex. We’re an interfaith marriage, although we don’t live interfaith; the blood that lost the most is the blood whose traditions we follow. So we were looking for a Jewish environment to remarry. 

For our first vows all those years ago, we eloped to Utah, of all places, because I’d been invited to Robert Redford’s Sundance writer’s workshop. We were married by Brother Johnson, a colorful Mormon judge, and enjoyed a Hopi dance and a bridal suite, both arranged by Mr. Redford, on our first night. 

This second time, we wanted something more traditional. But who would marry two Americans — one a Jew, one not — in Hungary or the Czech Republic, lands where my wife’s folks survived? 

Answer: Uh, apparently not anyone mainstream.

We were thrust from something we expected to be so intimate and personal into hectic East European, post-communist politics, with a very bitter-before-sweet feel of déjà vu. 

Europe is not America; its Judaism, like its Christianity, is barely beginning to become flexible. Liturgical adjustments, so familiar in California, are unheard of. My wife researched a comprehensive number of congregations, which would not deal with interfaith couples, period. Discouraging. But at last, a congregation that called itself Reform agreed to revow us. Its leader, guide and navigator came to talk to us at the apartment we had rented in a street behind Budapest’s Belle Epoque parliament building.

“Hi, I’m Ferenc,” the rabbi said to us, walking in.

He was a robust 60-year-old with a light Hungarian accent, friendly, hands-on, beaming American nonconformity. Rabbi Ferenc Raj, whose stature in today’s Judaism I’ll not detail — Google him if you want; he’s far from being obscure — was the only congregation leader who agreed to remarry us despite the interfaith kink. 

We’ll make the service quintessential, he told us. When the groom (me) is told to say, “According to the law of Moses and Israel,” we shall say, “According to the law of God.” For God — he smiled at both of us — is God for all, not for the chosen alone. At last, the groom crushes the glass. (I’d always wanted to do that!)

Surely, this felt so momentous because Iris’ family memories drifted so richly above this city by the Danube — where her mother and uncles hid with fake papers in 1944, helped by the occasional well-meaning Catholic. Iris and I visited the Dohany Street Synagogue, one of the largest in the world, where footsteps from the past resounded in our minds. Compared to the tests and trials of 1944, this year of 2013 should be like a breeze of reconciliation. Well …  

On this mild September afternoon, up in the Buda Hills, in a family’s backyard, standing inside a sukkah — the model of all sacred Jewish spaces, even the wedding canopy, Rabbi Raj explained — Iris and I were rejoined. In attendance, including our son and daughter, were some 30 people only. Careful they were, almost like refugees. Because they were Reform, a sect still fighting to be officially recognized in today’s Hungary. 

I felt so many things on that afternoon. 

I felt the presence of my own tragically departed ones, starting with my deceased twin brother, whom communism killed. I felt reconnected with my wife, and with my deepest lone self. The ritual was too primal not to touch hidden-most memories, which unlocked and flowed in abundance. We drank blessed wine, my woman and I, surrounded by unprepossessing Reform worshippers who deserve to be accepted even if there were just a handful of them. 

To my readers: Take note that such exclusions still exist. Help leaders like Rabbi Raj — through inclusiveness of them and others, the past might have been different. Help people like Rabbi Raj, even if you’re not Reform or not even religious. 

I could write more about the passive-aggressive relationship of Europe’s Eastern lands to their Jews. Hungary’s erraticism is up there, and then some. When you pass the plaques on this and that building, you’re reminded that Budapest birthed Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb — on the plaque, his name is duly Hungarized, Teller Ede. Equally honored, Herzl Tivadar. Huh, who? THEODORE HERZL? Hey, you’re ours again, Tivadar! I felt like moaning: Would the real Europe ever stand up and say, “I regret that I oppressed my Jewish sons and daughters who so often carried my name to the heights. I repent, I do. Deeply and sincerely, I weep over my cruelty and vow not to restart it!” 

Oh well. Evil didn’t stop in 1945, and doesn’t target Jews only.  See what’s happening right now to the ancient minority Christians, burned in their churches, routinely killed, in Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia, while the world is in busy conference talking about anything else but that. 

Let’s all do the little that we can do. Like, let’s all remarry. 

You know what I mean.


Petru Popescu is a Romanian-born, best-selling novelist. He lives with his family in Beverly Hills.

Ravages, rape, Rodriguez and real estate


Once again, there is rich fare to be unearthed for the summer season, despite the glut of over-the-top and youth-oriented commercial product. Documentaries abound, some of which have intensely political or social implications, while others deal, in sleuth-like fashion, with searches that end in unexpected places or uncover unpleasant truths. 

A few of the offerings are award winners, and one, in particular, marks the auspicious debut of a director who may well be an Oscar contender.

That director is Benh Zeitlin, whose devastating fiction film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” won this year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Camera d’Or at Cannes, for best first film. The story is taken from the play “Juicy and Delicious,” by Lucy Alibar, who collaborated with Zeitlin on the screenplay, and is set in a remote marshland community of Louisiana referred to as “The Bathtub.” As the film begins, an impending storm, reminiscent of Katrina, threatens the island’s inhabitants.

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old African-American girl who lives on the island with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), serves as narrator.  At first, she doesn’t know that her daddy is dying, and she doesn’t understand that he is tough in his childrearing because he wants to prepare her to deal with the harsh circumstances of her life when she is alone.

The core of the film, according to Zeitlin, is an exploration of how we can survive the loss of those things that made us — our parents, our land, our culture.

The director, who is half-Jewish, on his father’s side, pondered the impact of that cultural heritage on his choice of themes.

“Judaism is always taking on the big questions, and that aspiration toward wisdom, I think, has a major influence on my work. Hushpuppy is definitely a little wise-man; she’s a mensch and a half.”

Don’t miss this one; it will break your heart.

The film will screen at the Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF) on June 15 and will open in theaters on June 27.


Ellen Page and Jesse Eisenberg in “To Rome With Love.” Photo by Philippe Antonello © Gravier Productions, Inc., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In stark contrast to the tragic tone of “Beasts” is the lighthearted approach of Woody Allen. After last year’s homage to Paris, Allen has moved to the Eternal City, creating a potpourri of diverse scenarios in “To Rome With Love.”

The stellar cast includes Alec Baldwin as a successful architect who revisits Rome and relives the failed romance of his past; Academy Award winner Roberto Benigni as a very dull man who suddenly garners fame and fortune, only to learn the price of celebrity; Penelope Cruz as a prostitute who finds herself impersonating a young man’s wife; and Allen himself as a retired opera director who unexpectedly finds a man with untapped singing ability and senses an opportunity to revive his own career by promoting his discovery.

In the production notes, Allen is quoted as saying, “I felt the city of Rome lent itself to a number of diverse tales. It was pregnant with possibilities. If you stop a hundred Romans, they’ll tell you: ‘I’m from the city, I know it well, and I could give you a million stories.’ ”

The film is the opening presentation at LAFF on June 14 and will open in theaters on June 22.


The documentary “The Invisible War” examines the explosive subject of rape in the military.

The movie’s writer-director, Kirby Dick, said he first became aware of the issue from an article in the Web magazine Salon and was shocked to learn that these assaults are usually committed by what he called “serial perpetrators.”

In addition, according to producer Amy Ziering, the response by the military constitutes a second victimization and causes such severe emotional damage to the victims that they can’t heal.

2nd Lt. Elle Helmer of the U.S. Marine Corps. at the Vietnam War Memorial in “The Invisible War.” Photo courtesy of Cinedigm/Docudrama Films

“What I mean by that is the fact that they weren’t believed; that they weren’t supported; that they were then themselves ostracized and victimized and exiled; that they had to serve right after the assault. Ninety-nine percent of them have to go back to work in the vicinity of their perpetrator, and even report to them, etc., etc.”

Ziering said that, as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, she has particular empathy for victims of violence. “I think my father’s Holocaust background has always made me acutely interested in, and sensitive to, trauma and second-degree trauma, and working through trauma, and what all that means, so that has been an influence on my life and my preoccupations in work.”

The film received standing ovations at Sundance, where it garnered the Audience Award, and has made an impact in Washington, Ziering pointed out. After Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw the documentary, he held a press conference to announce some changes in policy and procedure. For the filmmakers, that was an encouraging first step.

The film will screen at LAFF on June 16 and will open in theaters on June 22.


Eugene Jarecki in “The House I Live In.” Photo by Sam Cullman

Another pressing issue is examined in Eugene Jarecki’s documentary, “The House I Live In,” as the filmmaker details the 40-year history of our anti-drug efforts, which began with Richard Nixon’s declaration that “drug abuse is public enemy No. 1.” Jarecki comes to the conclusion that our country’s so-called “war on drugs” has been an abject failure and has resulted in more illicit drug use now than ever before.

Jarecki interviews an eclectic mix of people, including his family’s onetime housekeeper, police officers, prison officials, writers, doctors, judges, attorneys, journalists, dealers and addicts, as he examines issues involving race, class and our economic system.

He begins his documentary by explaining that his parents were both fleeing anti-Semitic persecution in Europe when they came to America. His mother ran from the pogroms in Russia, while his father escaped Hitler and the Final Solution.

“As children,” Jarecki says, “my brothers and I were taught that we were the lucky ones who made it out, but with that luck came a responsibility. ‘Never again’ didn’t just mean that people like us shouldn’t suffer; it meant others shouldn’t suffer either.”

The film will screen at LAFF on June 22 and 24, and will open in theaters in October.


We change focus with “The Queen of Versailles,” a documentary by noted photographer/filmmaker Lauren Greenfield that explores the materialism intrinsic to our culture through the saga of billionaire couple David and Jackie Siegel, who were building the largest house in America, a 90,000-square-foot mansion, dubbed Versailles, modeled on the chateau in Il-de-France and the Paris Las Vegas Hotel.

David and Jackie Siegel in “The Queen of Versailles.” Photo by Lauren Greenfield, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Jackie invited Greenfield to visit the family at its 26,000-square-foot “starter mansion” in Florida, and the filmmaker learned that both David and Jackie came from humble beginnings.

“She had a down-to-earth quality despite her fantasy life (jets, palaces, huge domestic staff). She could go seamlessly from caviar to McDonald’s, Versace to Walmart, priceless antiques to kitsch with comfort and without snobbery.”

It was that quality that helped Jackie cope with the 2007 financial meltdown, as the time-share business that had made David a billionaire imploded, and the couple was forced to downsize their lifestyle and put Versailles on the market.

“The film asks questions about consumerism,” Greenfield concluded, “our addiction to it, and the consequences. David Siegel sums it up for me in the end when he says, ‘This is a vicious cycle. No one is without guilt.’ ”

The film will screen at LAFF on June 15 and 16, and will open in theaters on July 20.


Two upcoming documentaries deal, in detective-story fashion, with far-reaching quests, albeit with differing objectives.

“Searching for Sugar Man,” by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, tells the unlikely story of a Mexican-American singer/songwriter known as Rodriguez, who was attracting a following in the small bars and clubs of Detroit during the 1960s and early ’70s with his songs about the seamy side of life, the dark side of love, drugs, the corrupt social system and the underclass. His first album, “Cold Fact,” was released in 1970 and earned good reviews but bombed commercially, as did his second album. 

In the meantime, a bootleg copy of “Cold Fact” turned up in South Africa and was an instant smash among the white anti-apartheid population because of its anti-establishment lyrics. Rodriguez became an icon in that country, and his album went platinum, unbeknownst to him or anyone else in America.

Stephen Segerman was completing his year of compulsory military service in the South African air force when he first heard a cassette of the album in the early 1970s.

“His lyrics offered a drug-fueled escape from the harsh realities of life and a raw look at the sexual politics of the time,” Segerman said, “all wonderfully evocative and inspirational to young whites living under apartheid’s strict rules and censorship, who were searching for some kind of message or inspiration from the counter-culture happening in Europe and the U.S.A. in the ’60s and early ’70s.”

The songs were particularly inspirational to Segerman, who is from an Orthodox, observant Jewish family and was strongly opposed to apartheid.

“As one of the Jewish baby boomers, born soon after the second world war and the Shoah, I feel we had even more reason, and responsibility, to be aware and sensitive to prejudice of any kind, and that is why there were many South African Jews to be found among the ranks of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and across the world,” he said.

It wasn’t until 1995 that Segerman learned that the “Cold Fact” CD was nowhere to be found in the United States. “That surprised me, as I thought everyone knew him, and it prompted me to go and find out what happened to Rodriguez.”

The odyssey of his search, which was joined by South African journalist Craig Bartholomew, together with its unexpected conclusion, comprises the basis of this film. The “Sugar Man” of the movie’s title refers to one of the “Cold Fact” tracks about a Detroit dope dealer.

The film will screen at LAFF June 19 and 20, and will open in theaters on July 27.


The other “detective” saga is “Portrait of Wally,” directed by Andrew Shea, which documents a 13-year legal battle over a noted 1912 painting by Austrian-Jewish artist Egon Schiele of his mistress/model Walburga (“Wally”) Neuzil. The painting is one of innumerable works of art stolen from Jews by the Nazis during World War II.

The film attempts to unravel the painting’s murky chain of custody after 1939, when it was owned privately by Jewish art dealer Lea Bondi and then confiscated by a Nazi art collector when Bondi fled Austria.

After the war, the painting apparently was acquired under questionable circumstances by Rudolf Leopold, who had a museum in Austria, but the work’s whereabouts was not known to Bondi’s family. When it appeared at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in 1997, on loan from the Austrian Museum, Bondi’s heirs requested that the painting be kept in New York so that its rightful ownership could be established, but MOMA and the Leopold contingent objected. District Attorney Robert Morgenthau subpoenaed the painting and began a criminal probe that eventually landed in federal court. 

Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the family found itself opposed by all the museums in New York, including the Jewish Museum. Ultimately, money changed hands, and the case was settled in 2010.

The film will open in theaters on July 20.


Finally, the most deeply personal of the upcoming releases is “Tzipora’s Nest,” artist Malka Nedivi’s documentary about caring for her “difficult” mother, Tzipora. 

As the film opens, Nedivi gets a phone call from her mother, who lives in Israel and who says that she has been reduced to eating moldy bread. In response, Nedivi leaves her husband and son and moves with her two daughters to Israel, where she was born, to help her aging parent. She decides to document her caretaking experience on film, and, in her narration, recalls her childhood and the various methods she would use to run from her mother’s unbalanced behavior. It seems Tzipora would approach Nedivi with kisses on some occasions and hurl curses in her direction at other times.

When Nedivi arrives at her mother’s home, she realizes that Tzipora is a hopeless hoarder and is deteriorating. Over the next four years, she films her struggles to stabilize her mother’s life, to deal with Tzipora’s descent into dementia and to achieve some sort of reconciliation in their relationship.

In the end, after Tzipora dies in a nursing home, Nedivi has come to feel that she has finally made peace with her mother.

The film will open in theaters on Aug. 20.


For more information on the Los Angeles Film Festival, visit lafilmfest.com.

Obama’s Rabbi, Sundance Social Action Man, Tim Rutten, Shapiro Family


Rabbi Funnye
Rabbi Capers Funnye with Cantor
Judy Greenfeld, the founder and
spiritual leader of the Nachshon
Minyan.

Obama’s Rabbi Visits L.A.

The man whom many are calling “Obama’s rabbi” paid a recent visit to Los Angeles to pray with local Jews. Rabbi Capers Funnye Jr., cousin to first lady Michelle Obama and spiritual leader of Chicago’s Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, attended Encino’s Nachshon Minyan on April 4. It was a prescient invitation, since Funnye made national headlines the following day when he was featured on the cover of The New York Times Sunday Magazine. As in that article, Funnye shared with the community his journey from a disenfranchised African American Jew-by-choice to a nationally respected rabbinical figure. A frequent lecturer on conversion to Judaism, Funnye is spreading a message he hopes will unite all Jews of diverse origins.

Redford and Bycel
Robert Redford and Lee Bycel

Sundance’s Social Action Man

Fresh from his tenure combating global injustice with American Jewish World Service, former Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) dean Lee Bycel is turning to art. Well, sort of.

Bycel will assume the first-ever executive director position of The Redford Center, a public advocacy arm of Robert Redford’s Sundance brand, which along with the cutting-edge independent film festival will include a forum for social action initiatives. With Bycel at the helm, leaders and artists will collaborate in developing action-based solutions to the most compelling civic, environmental and social challenges. The center will be based in San Francisco, but will offer a wide range of events and programs hosted at the Sundance Preserve in Utah.

Prior to traveling to Darfur and Chad where he addressed issues of genocidal conflict, Bycel worked in other influential circles. He holds a doctorate of applied theology from the Claremont School of Theology, is an ordained rabbi and a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley. In Los Angeles, Bycel served as HUC-JIR’s dean for 15 years and was also president of The Brandeis-Bardin Institute. He was a senior adviser of Global Strategy for the International Medical Corps and a senior moderator of Leadership Seminars at the Aspen Institute.

Upon Bycel’s appointment, Redford had encouraging words for him: “In Lee we have found a dynamic leader whose entire career has been devoted to community building and shaping programs that empower people to make social change.”

“I am particularly excited about the impact of his international and community experience and the global perspective as the center navigates the 21st century. Lee’s life work has shown he is not averse to risk or looking at new ways of doing things and that will serve us incredibly well,” the Sundance founder said.

Tim Rutten

(From left) Steven Nichols, chair, Major Gifts;
Nicole Mutchnik, chair, Anti-Defamation League
Pacific Southwest Region;
L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten;
and ADL Regional Director Amanda Susskind.

Shapiros
Shirley and Ralph Shapiro

Tim Rutten Lectures at ADL Briefing

The Anti-Defamation League invited their largest donors to a private briefing at the new Beverly Hills Montage Hotel in March. The topic? Judeo-Christian relations under Pope Benedict XVI, as demystified by L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten, who lectured on the topic. Rutten was previously awarded the Anti-Defamation League’s annual First Amendment prize.

Hard Times Equal Giving Times For Shapiro Family

Despite economic hardships that have decreased otherwise ample portfolios, Ralph and Shirley Shapiro are giving — and giving big. In the past year, The Shapiro Family Charitable Foundation has donated more than $6 million to establish endowed chairs in the dental, medical and law schools at UCLA, the couple’s alma mater.

Last September, the Shapiros’ $1.5 million gift to endow a chair in public interest law helped launch the UCLA School of Law’s $100 million endowment campaign. In April 2009, the Shapiros pledged another $1.5 million for an endowed chair in honor of the law school’s current dean, Michael H. Schill. Last December, they committed $2 million to the Geffen School of Medicine and in March 2009, another $1 million to the Dental School in honor of its dean, No-Hee Park.

As UCLA leaders note, this kind of private endowment enables an institution like UCLA to operate at an optimum level even when higher education enrollment is down across the country.

Leonard Cohen Film Toasts Songwriter


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Blizzard of Flicks for Jewish Eyes


At the Sundance wintertime festival, which began Jan. 19 and runs through Jan. 29, Jewish viewers can check out a blizzard of flicks, including:

Opening night film, “Friends With Money” (Jennifer Aniston, Jason Isaacs), spotlighting successful adults approaching midlife crisis. It’s the latest feature by Jewish writer-director Nicole Holofcener, whose self-deprecating comedy-dramas have been compared to the work of Woody Allen — not surprising, because her stepfather produced all of Allen’s films, and she virtually grew up on his sets.

Paul McGuigan’s “Lucky Number Slevin,” revolving around a Jewish mobster, “The Rabbi”; his arch rival (Morgan Freeman), and the chaos that ensues when the Jew declines to pick up his phone on Shabbat.

Tony Krawitz’s “Jewboy” (Australia), about an Orthodox youth searching for his place in the world (See last week’s story at www.jewishjournal.com).

Anders Thomas Jensen’s “Adam’s Apples” (Denmark), a black comedy spotlighting a disgruntled neo-Nazi sentenced to community service at church

Yoav Shamir’s documentary, “Five Days” (Israel), on the historic evacuation of 8,000 even more disgruntled Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Frieda Lee Mock’s “Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner,” which profiles the Pulitzer Prize winner who was raised Jewish on a bayou and channels Jewish themes into his work.

Alan Berliner’s “Wide Awake,” a self-portrait of the odd filmmaker’s insomnia, manias and obsessiveness.

Lian Lunson’s “Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man” (See main story).

Rex Bloomstein’s documentary, “KZ” (United Kingdom), about contemporary Germans living in the shadow of the Mauthausan concentration camp (See last week’s piece).

Tiffany Shlain’s short documentary, “The Tribe: An Unorthodox, Unauthorized History of the Jewish People and the Barbie Doll,” on how the busty blond figure — created by a Jewish American — serves as a metaphor of Jewish assimilation and identity

For film schedules and information, visit festival.sundance.org/2006.

Simultaneously, the sixth annual SchmoozeDance and KidzDance festivals — the Jewish counterpart to Sundance on Jan. 20-21 — kick off with a screening of Amos Gitai’s “Free Zone at Temple Har Shalom” in Park City, Utah. The Israeli film focuses on a confused American (Natalie Portman) on a road trip with a bickering Israeli and Palestinian. For information, visit www.jewishfilm.com.

 

Two Dark Tales Illuminated at Sundance


Martin Scorsese has famously influenced a whole generation of American filmmakers, from Abel Ferrara and Quentin Tarantino to Rob Weiss and Nick Gomez. But his influence is not limited to filmmakers in this country.

One who has channeled the Gotham-based auteur, albeit subconsciously, is Tony Krawitz, an Australian director, who specializes in short films. Krawitz’s most recent effort is “Jewboy,” a one-hour feature about Yuri, a Chasidic Jew, who comes back to Sydney, Australia, for his father’s funeral and has a crisis of more than just faith.

Although Krawitz says that he refrained from watching Scorsese’s films while making “Jewboy,” his lead character Yuri reminds one at times of Harvey Keitel’s Charlie in “Mean Streets,” as well as Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.”

Like Keitel’s Charlie, Yuri places his fingers over the flame of a burning candle. He wonders if God will really punish him, if the flame is truly eternal. He also wants to feel something, even if it’s pain. That is why he touches the fire, since his religion prohibits him from touching a woman, from even holding hands with any female other than a family member.

The provocative title of the film “reflects the mentality of the lead character, so marked is he by being an Orthodox Jew 24/7,” says Krawitz, speaking from Australia. “Jewboy” makes a powerful statement about the oppressiveness and sterility of this Orthodox environment. Smothered with extended family whose expectations are that he will follow his father by becoming a rabbi, Yuri sees a future of loveless marriage, platitudes uttered by friends, and constraint.

More than anything else, he wants to connect with other people, and not only figuratively. The tension in the film occurs whenever he wants to touch a woman. There is a moment early on when he and his Lubavitch girlfriend circle their fingers through powdery flour on a table, coming tantalizingly close to touching each other. They both shudder and smile secretly as they part from the exercise, an erotic fillip in their claustrophobic world.

Krawitz, 38, was born in South Africa but grew up in Bondi Beach, a neighborhood of Sydney with a large Chasidic presence. He remembers a high school classmate who told him that he would not be able to touch a woman until he got married. Although Krawitz considers himself a secular Jew, this early exposure to the Orthodox world led to a lifelong fascination with that community.

As a university student, Krawitz drove cabs and on occasion was called “Jewboy” by his fares. Yuri, too, becomes a cab driver, which leads him into Sydney’s demimonde of sleaze, a scaled-down version of the Times Square in “Taxi Driver.”

Ewen Leslie, who gives Yuri’s character a tremendous inner life, bears a physical resemblance to Travis Bickle. Both dark-haired ghosts of the city, Leslie, when he takes off his shirt, reveals a sinewy, bony physique that is very similar to De Niro’s in that film. And Yuri’s small, nondescript one-room apartment calls to mind Bickle’s lodgings.

Yuri’s awkwardness with women and his conflicted feelings about sex are yet another echo.

Tortured as he is by his religion’s restrictions, Yuri goes to extremes to honor them: carrying a drunk, cleavage-displaying rider out of a cab by wrapping her with his jacket; touching the window of a peep show gallery as the topless dancer performs for him; and finally reaches the precipice, holding back his arms as a sexy prostitute presses her breasts against his chest and then fellates him.

After this encounter, Yuri rushes through the neon underworld with what Krawitz terms a “strobe-light effect,” the increased speed and then slow-motion of the camera, evocative of the turmoil in the streets in “Chungking Express,” a film that Krawitz says did influence him. In this case, “messing with speed” mirrors the inner confusion Yuri is undergoing.

At the end of the film, he holds his grandmother’s hand as she, a concentration camp survivor, watches a tennis match and roots for Australia’s Mark Philippoussis.

“I have faith in him,” she says.

“Jewboy,” which was entered into Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, is Krawitz’s first film at Sundance. Although slightly less than an hour long, it will compete in the feature category.

Also competing at Sundance, in the documentary category, is “KZ,” perhaps “the first postmodern Holocaust movie,” says its director Rex Bloomstein. “It explores the subject in a different way.”

Certainly, there is more than an element of postmodern irony about a bunch of present-day, lederhosen-clad Austrian youth, singing roistering tunes about the concentration camp in Mauthausen and hoisting mugs at the very place where SS officers once clinked glasses of Schnapps after massacring their victims.

But that’s just one example of irony. Bloomstein interviews present residents of Mauthausen, including a young, dark-skinned teenage girl, presumably of mixed ethnicity, who wears a T-shirt with the words “New York” running across it and says that living in Mauthausen “is a perfect dream.” In the background, her surly, silent boyfriend, arms folded, leans against a car, impatient for the interview to end.

Bloomstein also interviews older residents of the town who lived there during World War II, one of whom beams with pride over having been married to an SS officer.

“KZ,” an abbreviation for the Austrian name for concentration camp, “Konzentrationslager,” depicts not only the town’s residents, but also the tour guides and the tourists.

One tour guide, an intense young Austrian with a shaved head, speaks to the visitors in staccato tones. He has a defiance about him, so consumed is he with anger at his country and the town’s legacy. Another guide is an older middle-aged man, who admits that he has become an alcoholic after years of working at the camp.

For the first 15 minutes of the film, neither guide mentions the word Jews, because Mauthausen was not exclusively a Jewish concentration camp. It began as a labor camp and later admitted large numbers of Russians and Poles as well as Jews, who were not brought to the camp until 1944, according to the film.

Bloomstein, a 64-year-old resident of England, has made numerous television documentaries with Jewish themes, including the three-part series, “The Longest Hatred.” But “KZ” marks his first time at the helm of a documentary film.

He was making a TV documentary called “Liberation” when he noticed the beer drinking and singing taking place within yards of the former concentration camp. He was “haunted by the disjunction, the reality of people enjoying themselves, and then the reality over there” at the camp, and decided to make a film that would show “the interface of memory and history and the present.”

Using a hand-held camera, Bloomstein finds one man, standing next to a crematorium, who straightens out his trousers after his girlfriend tells him they’re rumpled; then, camera in hand, she takes a picture of him. Bloomstein finds another man visiting the camp, a swarthy fellow, who writes in a book of visitors’ comments that Israel should be ashamed at how it has treated the Palestinians and the Kurds. His daughter simply writes, “Peace.”

Unlike most Holocaust documentaries, this one, as its press materials proclaim, contains no archival footage, no survivor testimonials, no voice-over. Bloomstein points out that there is also “No music.”

He doesn’t want an artificial stimulus for people to feel sad. He wants the filmgoer to be one of the tourists and take in everything as if he were there — the gas chambers, the ovens, and the “Wailing Wall,” the wall in front of which Jews, left to die, stood naked for days in the snow and in the burning heat. For postmodern irony, this is about as gruesome as it gets.

For more information on the Sundance, visit

Sunrise, Sundance, Swiftly Fly the Films


 

“When you’re a falafel king/you’re a falafel king all the way/from your first alef-bet/till your last dying day…” OK, maybe that’s not exactly how the musical spoof, “West Bank Story,” begins, but the short film indeed opens with a cadre of snapping dancers taking on the guys on the other side of the tracks. Yet, in this 22-minute film, instead of Maria and Tony, we have David and Fatima, and the war is not between the Jets and the Sharks, but between the Jewish Kosher King and the Palestinian Humus Hut next door. You can probably guess the rest, but hopefully, since the short was directed and co-written by L.A. native Ari Sendel, you’ll get a chance to see it here soon.

“West Bank Story” was one of a handful of Jewish-themed films screened at the Sundance Film Festival, which ended Sunday night in Park City, Utah. With the deafening chatter around this small town about which studio picked up which film for how many millions of dollars, it’s hard to sniff out, not the hottest films — but the most Jewish. While hordes of ecstatically friendly moviegoers snaked around the corner hoping to get into a screening of “Hustle and Flow,” the feature about a pimp-cum-rap star from Memphis (which Paramount got in a $16 million deal), I’m desperately trying to sell my extra ticket to a midnight showing of “Odessa Odessa” (I’d take $5-$10), a documentary that follows elderly Ukrainians in Odessa, Brighton Beach and Ashdod. A six-minute short from Israel, “Meet Michael Oppenheim,” which, through photographs and sweet narration, attempts to trace filmmaker Roni Aboulafia’s family history in Israel, preceded the 96-minute doc.

All roads seem to lead to Israel in the Jewish films at Sundance, even those not directly about the Holy Land. Take “Protocols of Zion,” documentarian Marc Levin’s personal journey to uncover the resurgence of this anti-Semitic screed since Sept. 11. He starts off at the site of the World Trade Center, talking to people who blame the Jews for the tragedy, and then goes to Middle America and the home of the White Supremacists and other Holocaust deniers. Levin veers away from the “Protocols” to Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” and then to the streets of Patterson, N.J., to speak to the Palestinian street kids, he ends up — where else? — at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, finding the “Protocols” at the root of all these problems (not without the help the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper and the Anti-Defamation League’s Rabbi Abraham Foxman). “Protocols” has been picked up so far by HBO, with an airdate as yet undetermined (they’re hoping to sell it to the big screen first).

Perhaps it’s a paranoia arising from “Protocols” that I begin to see Jews everywhere at Sundance (well, we are running all of Hollywood, aren’t we? When Levin tries to get someone on the phone to discuss Jews in Hollywood, he gets passed around from Norman Lear to Larry David to Rob Reiner and back to Lear again). When I randomly attend “Palermo Hollywood,” a feature from Argentina, I am surprised to discover that one of the main characters turns out to be Jewish (nicknamed by his friends “the Jew”), and is running away from his wealthy political family that maintains its standard of living despite the financial crisis.

But the most prominent Jewish film here at Sundance is “Wall,” a French/Israeli documentary about the security “fence” being built in Israel.

“I was surprised to find that there are many Jews that are pro-peace in Israel,” one foreign journalist told me when she exited the film. Indeed, director Simone Bitton presents a moderate look on both sides of the concrete and barbed wire structure, as she interviews “regular” Palestinians and Israelis, i.e. not the fanatics, the leaders and the spokespeople, but those who live adjacent to the $1 billion project that is meant to bring security to Israel. Bitton is half-Arab and half-Jewish, which is probably why — with her fluent Hebrew and Arabic — she is able to have frank conversations with both sides. The picture won a Special Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary category, so I’m sure it will be available for viewing soon.

In searching out films with a Jewish or Middle East subject matter, I came across “Planet of the Arabs,” a six-minute compilation of clips portraying the Arabs in American film and television.

Dr. Emmett Brown: “Oh my God, they found me, I don’t know how, but they found me. Run for it, Marty.”

Marty McFly: “Who?”

Dr. Emmett Brown: “Who do you think? The Libyans!”

Filmmaker Jacqueline Salloum shows this clip from “Back to the Future” and more — from “Lawrence of Arabia,” to “The Muppet Show,” to (Gov.) Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “True Lies” — to tell audiences to “turn off your televisions,” to avoid these negative stereotypes.

Perhaps the fictional and real characters in the “Planet of the Arabs,” “The Wall” and “Protocols of Zion” will one day be like Ahmed and Mahmoud, and David and Fatima from “West Bank Story,” who, after their stores burn down, realize how much they have in common, and make falafel sandwiches together.

 

Boys Will Be Boys in ‘Harold,’ ‘Garden’


When “The Graduate” hit theaters in 1967, a poster depicted Dustin Hoffman as the quintessential aimless college graduate: “This is Benjamin. He’s a little worried about his future.”

If every decade has its disaffected-youth films, two unconventional summer movies are adding to the mix with stories of post-college ennui.

“Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” a stoner grossout comedy about roommates on a burger run, transcends its genre to become a clever spoof on racial stereotyping. (The beleaguered protagonists are Korean American and Indian American.)

Zach Braff’s Sundance hit, “Garden State,” meanwhile, is a quirky dark comedy about a slacker-actor who is emotionally reborn after returning home for his mother’s funeral.

Although the movies drastically differ in tone, both were written by 20-something Jewish authors not so far removed from their own aimless, post-college years. And both began with the frustrations of said authors, who felt contemporary films did not reflect their personal experiences.

“I just didn’t feel there had been a movie addressing what it’s like to be 20-something today,” says Braff, 29, star of NBC’s “Scrubs.” “I wanted to explore what it’s like being that age in 2004, when you’re trying to figure out who you are.”

“Harold” screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, both 26, had similar criticisms while bonding over teen comedies at their Randolph, N.J., high school and later while rooming together in Los Angeles.

“We couldn’t relate to most of the protagonists we’d see in youth comedies,” Hurwitz says. “They were these good-looking, suave guys, like Paul Walker in ‘She’s All That,’ but they didn’t look like us or the people we hung out with. So when we started writing, we figured we’d create R-rated comedies that represented ourselves and our group of friends.”

Sitting side by side in a luxurious suite at the W Hotel in Westwood, Hurwitz and Schlossberg seem more like nice-Jewish-boy archetypes than the authors of a film featuring raunchy poop jokes. With affable expressions and hands clasped in their laps, they apologize for using the occasional expletive and for a certain “Harold” joke involving the Holocaust and a starlet’s breasts (“I’m embarrassed by that,” says Hurwitz, blushing).

They became close friends while serving on their high school debate team; both engaged in “hard-core” cramming for the SATs to secure admission to a top university, which pleased their professional Jewish parents. Hurwitz dutifully went off to the University of Pennsylvania to become an investment banker, Schlossberg attended the University of Chicago to become a lawyer; they scrapped those sensible plans only after their first screenplay, “Filthy,” sold to MGM their senior year.

“Filthy” was a grossout comedy featuring culturally Jewish protagonists like Hurwitz and Schlossberg, but the screenwriters wanted “Harold” to be even more radical. They intended the movie to reflect the predilections and ethnic diversity of their social circle, which included Korean Americans, Indian Americans and Jews who had more in common with the protagonists of “American Pie” than “Yentl” or “Bollywood/Hollywood.”

“Yet whenever we saw characters like us on screen, they were relegated to stock, stereotypical roles,” Schlossberg says. “But we’re just like everyone else our age in terms of attitudes and issues.”

The screenwriters and their friends liked to talk about women, to watch “South Park,” to rip on each other in politically incorrect ways (Hurwitz and Schlossberg were nicknamed “Manny” and “Shevitz”), and to embark upon the kind of munchies quests only people in their 20s undertake. “Harold,” in fact, was partly inspired by a late-night, two-hour trek to the Valley, during which the authors braved crack addicts while searching for the perfect Boston cream doughnut.

As for why the main characters are Korean American and Indian American, Hurwitz and Schlossberg thought it would be subversive to create a youth comedy in which the most marginalized minorities were the leads. The film revolves around Harold (John Cho) a put-upon office drone, Kumar (Kal Penn), a rebellious medical school applicant and, to a lesser extent, their Jewish neighbors, Rosenberg and Goldstein (a.k.a. Manny and Shevitz).

“The movie both pokes fun at stereotypes and subverts them, which is unique in this kind of broad comedy,” director Danny Leiner says.

For example, Harold is introduced as the generic “Asian guy” but ultimately gets the girl; the Indian Kumar is smart but prefers partying to science; and Rosenberg and Goldstein, far from being studious Jews, are the film’s biggest slackers, contentedly smoking dope out of their shofar bong.

The protagonist of “Garden State” is more anguished: the Jewish Andrew Largeman reflects the kind of malaise Braff says he experienced after graduating from Northwestern University and while struggling to make it as an actor.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine Braff as angst-ridden, given that by age 26 he had become the star of the hit sitcom, “Scrubs,” and didn’t have to wait tables anymore. This year, he hit Hollywood gold again when his debut film, “Garden State,” sold for $5 million in an unprecedented team distribution deal with Miramax and Fox Searchlight.

Sounding weary but friendly on the phone during a press junket day, he says he wanted “Garden State” to describe “what it felt like for me going home to New Jersey” when he was drifting, in his early 20s.

“Man, I was so excited to get out of Jersey and to go off to college, but when I got there I was incredibly lonesome and scared and confused,” he recalls. “That was the first time I realized I was homesick for a place that no longer existed, because my mother had moved to a new house, all my friends had gone off to college and nothing was the way it used to be.”

The meandering film eschews the traditional, three-act screenplay structure to enhance this sense of youthful aimlessness and alienation. “If I had submitted it to one of my screenwriting classes, I would have received an F,” Braff says.

That, apparently, was the grade the studios gave “Garden State” when it first made the rounds; every one of them rejected the movie, which was eventually financed by an independent producer. Variety called the film “A sort of ‘The Graduate’-lite for a generation unacquainted with the original,” but Braff feels it offers a unique message for 20-somethings at the millennium.

“It explores how that comforting concept of home disappears when you grow up, and how it won’t be in your life again until you create it from scratch,” he says.

Both films open today in Los Angeles.

Israel’s Sundance Pics Garner Praise


These are hard times and good times for Israel’s movie industry. Major international films crews have all but abandoned the Jewish State as an on-site location since Brad Pitt and Robert Redford scuttled plans some three years ago to shoot “Spy Game” around Haifa and switched to Morocco instead.

The intifada has also scared off Hollywood celebrities (with very few exceptions), who used to pop up at Israeli film festivals and award ceremonies.

In their isolation, however, Israeli producers and directors have come up with a number of films that have garnered acclaim and awards at film festivals in the United States, Europe, Japan and Argentina.

There is some hope that “Nina’s Tragedies” can extend the streak at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, during the Jan. 15-25 event.

Two other Israeli films will be screened at Sundance, and at least two more at the affiliated SchmoozeDance, the Jewish festival, on Jan. 16.

“Nina’s Tragedies,” subtitled “A Very Sad Comedy,” is directed and written by Savi Gabizon (“Lovesick on Nana Street”) and won 11 Israeli Academy Awards. It is Israel’s entry for foreign-language film Oscar honors and is given a slim outside chance to qualify as one of the five finalists for the big prize.

With its multitude of characters and subplots, it’s not an easy movie to summarize.

Basically, it revolves around the real and fantasy lives of Nadav (Aviv Elkabeth), a nerdy-looking 13-year-old, whose sexual awakening is stimulated by peeping through windows, but whose overriding obsession is on his beautiful aunt Nina (Ayelet July Zorer).

When Nina’s husband Haimon (Yoram Hatav) is killed on reserve army duty, Nadav’s highest hopes are fulfilled when he is asked to move in with the aunt to help out the disconsolate widow.

However, his elation is short-lived as handsome and sensitive photographer Avinoam (Alan Aboutbul) wins Nina’s affection and bedspace. Nina has some additional problems, when she spots her late husband, or his doppelganger, walking stark naked down the city streets.

Meanwhile, back at Nadav’s home, his fashion designer mother has kicked her increasingly religious husband out of the apartment. He joins a Chabad-like group, whose members dance in the streets to reclaim secular Jews for the faith.

There are more characters, including an adult peeping tom and his kooky Russian girlfriend, but despite it all, Nadav survives and even grows up a bit by learning about the nature of love, sexuality and family.

Both the acting and direction are well-above average, but what strikes the Diaspora viewer is the yuppyish tone and setting of the film. Just about everybody seems to live in an elegantly furnished apartment, wear stylish clothes, patronize upscale cafes and never worry about money.

Surely, Israelis are entitled to some escapist fare in these times, but it is odd how many Israeli movies fall into the same category.

As Hannah Brown writes in her Jerusalem Post review of recent Israeli movies, they “are set in a bizarre vacuum, a kind of ghost landscape, in which there are no wars, no Palestinians, no hourly news broadcasts or newspapers, no political discussions, no army service.”

An exception is the excellent “Yossi & Jagger,” which was honored at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Though the film’s focus is on the understated homosexual relationship between two army officers in combat, “Yossi & Jagger” astutely explore the real problems facing Israel’s younger generation.

Judging by the plot summaries, at least three of the four Israeli films to be shown in Park City also deal with real life in the Jewish State.

“The Garden,” which is having its world premiere at Sundance, tackles the unusual and unexplored problem of gay Palestinian teenagers, rejected by their own families, who cross the Green Line to work as male prostitutes in downtown Tel Aviv, in constant danger of deportation.

“Checkpoint,” also at Sundance, centers on one of the most grating symbols of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the road checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers to prevent terrorist infiltration.

To the Arab population, the checkpoints are constant and humiliating reminders. The film won a top award at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival.

Set for the SchmoozeDance festival are “Do They Catch Children Too?” and “My Mom, the General.”

The first focuses on Israel’s foreign workers, mainly Asians, and the lives and fears of their children.

Apparently a bit more light-hearted is “My Mom, the General,” in which director Shevi Rosenfeld records the doings of her 59-year-old mother, and grandmother of six, who decides to volunteer for reserve service on the army’s front lines.

For more information about the Sundance Festival, visitwww.sundance.org .

Comic Book Icon Battles Everyday Life


In the biopic "American Splendor," cranky comic book icon Harvey Pekar frets in the supermarket. "This may be the shortest line, but I’m taking a risk because it’s an old Jewish lady," he says. When the woman argues with the manager, he storms out of the store.

The banal but frustrating scenario is typical of Pekar’s autobiographical comics, the source for the well-received film. The movie chronicles his miserable life as a working-class intellectual in Cleveland, his dead-end job as a file clerk, his prickly third marriage, his weird friends, his cancer scare, his unplanned parenthood and his struggle to turn his life into a comic, although he can’t draw. An edgy hybrid of cartoon, drama and documentary, the film — by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman — won this year’s top prize at Sundance.

While previous comic book superheroes counterbalance their Jewish creators’ fear of anti-Semitism, Pekar empowers people in a different way. "By recording the average person’s mundane struggles, he elevates the ‘little guy,’" Pulcini, 38, said.

Pekar’s wry observations about these unsung heroes make him "the ultimate mensch of the comic world," Tikkun magazine wrote in 1992. In the tradition of Yiddishist-socialist authors of the early 20th century, he is "the self-educated, militantly egalitarian Jew in a world of pedigreed deceivers."

Not that Pekar, 63, has escaped his own case of Jewish paranoia. "His pessimism feels like Jewish immigrant angst," said Paul Giamatti, who plays the artist in the film. "That was crucial for me in approaching the role: his family’s Holocaust legacy and the financial instability of his childhood home."

At the Four Seasons Hotel recently, Pekar — looking incongruously cheerful in a Hawaiian shirt — described growing up with Polish parents who lost relatives in the Shoah. His mother, the daughter of a schochet (kosher slaughterer), was a communist who read the Daily Worker and refused to attend synagogue. His father, an Orthodox talmudic scholar, agonized over having to work Saturdays to eke out a living in the family grocery store.

"Every night he would play cantorial records, the last thing before he went to bed," Pekar said, quietly. "A lot of it was so mournful … I wouldn’t be able to sleep."

His 1992 comic, "Sheiboneh Beis Hamikdosh" ("That the Temple Will Be Rebuilt"), describes how he tried to like the music, but couldn’t until he was asked to review a cantorial record as a freelance critic in the 1970s. "Then I could see the beauty of it," said Pekar, who by then had lost his father. He named the ’92 comic after the most famous song of his father’s favorite cantor, Moshe Koussevitzky.

While Pekar now considers himself a champion of Jewish music, he preferred jazz albums in his youth. It was while scouring a 1962 garage sale for LPs that he met underground comic book artist Robert Crumb: "His work got me thinking that comics didn’t have to be just about superheros, but about wage slaves like me," Pekar said. When Pekar showed him the storylines he had created, Crumb agreed to illustrate them.

The result, in 1976, was "American Splendor," which made Pekar a godfather of autobiographical comics. Recurring characters included his nerdy co-worker, Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander in the film), and an elderly pal who recalls pushcart peddlers in 1987’s "Pa-aypr Reggs!"

Other comics describe Pekar’s complex relationship with his wife, Joyce Brabner, who alternately praised and grumbled about her husband during an interview.

"I’m supposed to be the balabusta while the house is falling down around us," she said, wryly. "And there’s Harvey … with his elbows sticking through his sleeves, reading and reading because Jews are supposed to be the ‘People of the Book.’ It’s like ‘Knowledge is golden but money, well, that will take care of itself.’"

In fact, financial concerns were a reason Pekar sought to turn "Splendor" into a film starting in 1980. Two decades later, he finally enlisted producer Ted Hope and filmmakers Pulcini and Berman, known for lively documentaries such as "Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s."

"Our first point of bonding with Harvey was that we come from ethnic backgrounds he can relate to: Jewish and Italian," said Berman, 39. "The second point was that we were not going to turn him into some fake, Hollywood hero."

The writer-directors cast Giamatti ("Big Fat Liar"), known for precise portrayals of losers, to play the gloomy Jew. One of Giamatti’s techniques: "I found a CD of cantorial music and listened to it to evoke a melancholy mood."

Pekar, in person, transitions from melancholy to fretful — the kind of guy who’d agonize over the supermarket checkout line.

"I’m obsessive compulsive and unhealthily pessimistic, and the success of the film hasn’t changed that," he said.

"American Splendor" opens today.

A Jewish New Wave


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

Park City, Utah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woody’s Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woody: “This istruly the lunch from hell.”

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

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

All rights reserved by author


‘I Don’t Feel Any Need to Apoligize’

By Leila Segal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Price Above Rubies” opens nationally onMarch 27.



Leila Segal is a writer who lives inLondon.

All rights reserved by author


Exploring the Dark Side

By Naomi Pfefferman,Senior Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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