Israelis Do the Riviera


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

case where art — and cash — transcend politics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Should Tookie Die?


Just about one month from now, at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 13, the State of California will execute Stanley Tookie Williams. He will die by lethal injection in the death chamber of San Quentin State Prison, home to the nation's largest death row. At every execution, small crowds gather outside the prison, some to protest, some to applaud. This time, thousands of people across the country — far more than is usual for an American execution — will be paying attention. Williams' story has reignited a conversation about capital punishment, galvanizing people — many of whom have never been outspoken opponents of the death penalty — to spare his life. Their ranks include a growing numbers of Jews. Indeed, the Williams case ought to force on Jews a hard look at what, exactly, our tradition says about the death penalty.

For the past 24 years, Williams, 51, has lived on death row in San Quentin. He started down the path that put him there early on. In 1971, at the age of 17, Williams, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, co-founded the Crips. It quickly became Los Angeles', and then the nation's, most notorious street gang. In 1979, authorities charged Williams with the brutal murders, during two separate robberies, of four people who had no gang connections whatsoever: Albert Lewis Owens, a Whittier convenience store clerk in one incident; and, in the other, Tsai-Shai Yang, Yen-I Yang and Yee Chen Lin — a husband and wife and their adult daughter, owners of a Los Angeles motel. All were gunned down, execution style, in cold blood.

Williams claimed that he did not commit the crimes, but two years later, a jury convicted him and a judge sentenced him to die. While it is not uncommon for capital defendants to claim innocence, serious questions about the testimony and evidence that convicted him were raised — and rejected — on appeal. Among them, Williams alleges that his trial was unfairly moved from Los Angeles to Torrance, where all African Americans in the jury pool were dismissed, and the case was heard by an all-white jury.

But even if Williams is, as he claims, innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted, let's be clear: He was, at the time of his arrest, a dangerous criminal who had done more than his share of reprehensible things. By all accounts, he had been involved in or connected to the kinds of terrible crimes for which he was tried.

But Williams' story doesn't stop there. And what followed is not merely the familiar tale of a convicted killer trying to avoid execution through legal maneuvers. In prison, Williams began to rehabilitate himself. He publicly left the Crips, a position that involved risk to his family and to himself, even behind bars. He then apologized for creating the gang and perpetrating “black-on-black genocide” stating, “I pray that one day my apology will be accepted. I also pray that your suffering, caused by gang violence, will soon come to an end as more gang members wake up and stop hurting themselves and others. I vow to spend the rest of my life working toward solutions.”

This was no ordinary jailhouse conversion. Williams devoted himself to fighting gangs. He spoke out. He wrote nine children's books to steer children away from gang-banging, which he describes as “banging on your own people.” One of these books, “Life in Prison” (Seastar, 2001), received an award from the American Library Association and is used in schools, libraries, juvenile correctional facilities and prisons throughout the country. Williams also recorded anti-gang public service announcements, and began meeting with young people from at-risk communities to tell them to stay away from gangs, and to describe for them the horrors of prison. He also started the Internet Project for Street Peace, which encourages gangs to stop fighting each other. He created a “Protocol for Peace,” a model agreement to end gang feuds, and last year, the Crips and the Bloods in Newark, N.J., signed it, ushering in a truce that has remained in effect.

This work led a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to state, in 2002, that Williams' anti-gang initiatives made him a strong candidate for clemency from the governor. This sentiment was supported by a deputy mayor of Newark, who, in a letter supporting clemency, cited a dramatic reduction in gang-related crime in his city following the signing of what is referred to as “Tookie's Protocol for Peace.”

His was too good a story for Hollywood to miss. In last year's made-for-TV movie, Jamie Foxx played Williams in “Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story.” Williams serves as an inspiration for a generation of vulnerable young people in our inner-cities, kids who are listening when he tells them not to throw away their lives like he did.

But the story of Williams also speaks to us as Jews. Our tradition teaches that within every person, even the worst criminal, there exists a nekudah tovah, a point of pure goodness. The Jewish obligation is to work to uncover that point of goodness, in ourselves and in others, so that it can transform us through the process of teshuvah, the radical idea that we can change, that we can always be better than we are. The concept of teshuvah holds the promise that even the most wicked cannot be defined solely by their worst acts. The divine spark always contains within it the potential for change. This is, of course, the promise of the High Holidays, and just last month, many of us sat in shul on Yom Kippur, affirming our own capacity for transformation and listening to the Book of Jonah, which teaches that no matter how terrible our acts, we are capable of changing for the better, just like the inhabitants of Nineveh.

But what about the death penalty specifically? Many American Jews, if they think about capital punishment at all, don't consider it a Jewish issue. Yet within Judaism, there's significant consensus: All major denominations of Judaism have taken stands opposing the death penalty or supporting a moratorium on executions. Getting to this point, however, has required a long, nuanced and fascinating evolution.

Biblical law mandates capital punishment for no fewer than 36 offenses, from murder to the desecration of Shabbat to talking back to your parents. Of course, neither the letter nor the spirit of this law reflects current Jewish values. More broadly speaking, Jewish tradition offers three basic rationales for a death penalty: deterrence, retribution and the restoration of balance to a social fabric torn by a terrible crime-like murder. But how do these principles apply today?

First, there is simply no evidence that capital punishment serves as a deterrent. In fact, in each year over the past decade, states without the death penalty have had lower murder rates than states that have capital punishment. And we now live at a time and in a society where retribution can be achieved by means other than capital punishment. Long prison sentences — especially life without parole — unavailable in biblical and talmudic times, can now fulfill the retributive inclination of Jewish law. At the same time, it guarantees that the ultimate nightmare — the execution of an innocent — does not occur. Finally, long prison sentences also serve to remove the murderer from society, allowing for the restoration of the social fabric that would be at risk if dangerous criminals were returned to the streets. In the Williams case, those calling for clemency are arguing that he should be spared, not freed.

The very things that make so many of us uneasy about the death penalty today also concerned the rabbis 2,000 years ago. While they could not write the death penalty out of the Torah, they erected almost insurmountable procedural and evidentiary safeguards and obstacles that essentially ensured that a Sanhedrin, a Jewish court, would never hand down a death sentence. For example, the rabbis ruled that two witnesses were required to testify not only that they witnessed the murder for which a criminal was being condemned, but also that they had warned the perpetrator beforehand that, if he carried out the offense, he would be executed, and that he accepted this warning and nevertheless stated his willingness to carry out the act.

Jewish unease with the capital punishment also informed the decision of the State of Israel not to have a death penalty except in the case of convicted Nazi war criminals. To date, despite its ongoing battle with terrorism, only one person, Adolph Eichmann, has been tried and executed by the Jewish State.

In the United States, despite decades of trying, the justice system has proven unable to create a foolproof death penalty. In Jewish tradition, this alone would be reason enough to oppose capital punishment. But the rabbis make an even more profound claim. Mishna tells us that those appearing as witnesses in capital cases were instructed: One who destroys a single soul, it is as if he has destroyed an entire world. And one who sustains and saves a single soul, it is as if that person sustained a whole world (M Sanhedrin 4:5). In other words, even when confronted with a person who is accused of horrendous crimes, we are still obligated to recognize the value and inestimable worth of every human being. We are compelled to consider the potential contribution the condemned might make if spared. Who, at the time of his conviction in 1981, would have thought that Williams would be capable of work that, in 2001, led to him being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize?

Judaism also abhors an inequitable dual system of justice, especially in capital cases. The Levitical demand for “one standard for the stranger and the citizen alike” is reinforced in the Talmud (B Sanhedrin 32a) to ensure procedural fairness in capital proceedings. The fact that the death penalty in the United States disproportionately impacts the poor and people of color serves to underscore its incompatibility with Jewish values. Whether or not Williams received a fair trial and sentencing, it is horribly clear that many people, who, like him, are poor and black, do not.

My Jewish values convince me that the capital punishment system in our state and in our country is beyond repair. I could cite the example of Illinois, where a Republican governor, a man who is a conservative Christian and once ardently supported the death penalty, ordered a halt to executions. He then commuted all death sentences to life sentences. Ethically, he had little alternative after students at Northwestern University discovered that more people on Illinois' death row were innocent of the crimes for which they'd been sentenced to death than the number of people Illinois had executed since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s.

More recently, the state of Georgia apologized for what it now acknowledges was the “grievous error” of executing Lena Baker, a black woman, in 1945. And a Missouri prosecutor just reopened an investigation to determine whether, as many now fear, the state mistakenly executed Larry Griffin in 1995. And the Supreme Court, as far back as 1987, acknowledged what we all know — that if you are poor or a person of color — you are far more likely to get the death penalty than you are if you are white or a person of means. And California's system of justice is as overburdened and flawed as that of many other states where such problems arise. So if we begin in December a Texas-style run of executions (in addition to Williams, two other death row inmates have received their execution dates) we, too, will risk killing innocent people. We, too, will create dual systems of capital justice: one for the poor and blacks and Latinos, and one for those privileged by having white skin or money.

But even death-penalty supporters are speaking up to save Williams. They, too, recognize that something is terribly wrong when a state can execute a man who is literally saving the lives of others every day that he lives.

Innocent or guilty, victim of a flawed trial or not, Williams is set to die in one month's time: a young criminal who evolved into something more, someone more than even the sum of some truly horrible crimes.

Was his transformation entirely sincere?

I believe it was. But in the end, the worth of his contribution does not depend on how much of him is truly redeemed versus how much his pursuit of good works is spurred on by his fear of death. He is now a force for good in the world, keeping others from making the same mistakes he made.

His appeals have been exhausted, and time is almost up. The only way Williams' life will be saved is if Gov. Schwarzenegger decides to spare him.

If we believe the things that we pray and the things that we say, if we are committed to the values that we claim to treasure, we do not have the luxury of complacency when confronted with what we are about to do to Tookie Williams. Because let's be clear: if the State of California executes this man, it will do so in our name. We will stand as his executioner in the death chamber next month.

Whether you are for or against the death penalty, there are two questions that we — as Jews, Californians and Americans — have to answer: Does the man deserve to die? And do we want to be the ones to kill him?


Daniel Sokatch is the executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and part of a multifaith coalition seeking to stop the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams.

Jewish Weddings in Space


Joss Whedon’s quirky space Western, “Serenity,” features outlaws who act like Wild West gunslingers, an assassin who forces his victims to commit hara kiri, a telepath who inexplicably goes berserk, a Buddhist planet — and Jewish nuptials in space.

Based on Whedon’s short-lived 2002 TV series, “Firefly,” whose fan base helped spur the movie, “Serenity” revolves around the outlaws’ attempts to discover the telepath’s true identity after she beats up everyone in a bar.

Enter hacker broadcaster Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz), who plays the bar’s security tapes for the renegades — as well as a video of his wedding to a bimbo android. In one of the film’s funniest moments, she looks on robotically as Krumholtz (CBS’s “NUMB3RS”) ecstatically stomps on a glass at the end of the Jewish ceremony.

Mr. Universe is not the first member-of-the-tribe character the non-Jewish Whedon, has created, says Jewhoo Editor Nate Bloom; his titular Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a sidekick named Willow Rosenberg, among other multicultural pals.

Whedon said he created “Serenity,” which opens Friday, as a kind of “Wagon Train” in space. That’s about how Gene Roddenberry described his conceit for the original “Star Trek” series. But unlike “Trek” and many other sci-fi works, “Serenity” depicts real, rather than invented, human religions. So while a Jewish wedding in space may sound offbeat, hey, just think of it as the final frontier for the Diaspora, though don’t expect bubbe to approve of the intermarriage android thing.

It’s Hello Again for ‘The Goodbye Girl’


Basically, it’s boy meets cute girl, girl hates boy and vice versa, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl will live happily, at least as long as it lasts.

The characters are updated and slightly older, Neil Simon said, but otherwise, a new TV version of his "The Goodbye Girl" retains the easy charm and predictable plot of the 1977 hit film and later Broadway play.

"The Goodbye Girl," TV style, will premiere Jan. 16 on Turner Network Television (TNT) at 8 p.m. and encore at the same time on Jan. 17 and 18.

Simon originally wrote "The Goodbye Girl" as a film, starring Richard Dreyfuss, who won an Oscar, and Marsha Mason, then Simon’s wife, who received an Oscar nomination.

The principals then and now are Paula McFadden (Patricia Heaton), a 30-something New York dancer and divorcée, whose actor boyfriend has just dumped her and left town. Not enough, he surreptitiously subleased the apartment to an actor friend, Elliot Garfield (Jeff Daniels), who arrives one dark and stormy night to the horror of Paula and her precocious daughter, Lucy Hallie Kate Eisenberg).

With living space hard to come by in the Big Apple, Paula and Elliot reach a reluctant and hostile modus vivendi by sharing the apartment. When both suffer professional rejections, they console each other with sympathy evolving into friendship and love.

Aside from introducing a few contemporary gadgets, such as cell phones, the script is pretty much the same as the original.

"Our characters are a bit older, they talk faster and the romance is more adult," director Richard Benjamin noted.

But is the Elliot Garfield character Jewish? Simon was noncommittal, but Benjamin guessed that "he seems to have a Jewish gene somewhere."

For comparison, the original "Goodbye Girl" with Dreyfuss airs Jan. 15 at 10 p.m. on TCM (Turner Classic Movies).

7 Days In Arts


19/SATURDAY

B’nai B’rith is one more organization hopping onto the “shop for Israel” bandwagon. And who can blame them? Frankly, we commend them on merging our two favorite hobbies: shopping and supporting Israel. Worth the shlep today (or tomorrow) is their Fine Art Show: Israel’s Most Renowned Painters in Costa Mesa. Fifteen works by three top Israeli painters on sale with a portion of the money going toward the Crisis in Israel Fund.

Noon-7 p.m., Oct. 19 and 20. Free. Marriott Suites, 500 Anton Blvd., South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa. For more information, call (818) 227-6588.

20/SUNDAY

Playing on all sorts of bizarre ’80s nostalgia this week is Warner Bros. Television’s original movie, “Big Time.” A very blonde Molly Ringwald is unrecognizable at first glance in her role as a television network head’s new bride. And in another eerie turn, Christopher Lloyd comes ‘back to the future,’ again playing a character named Doc. The drama takes place in the early days of television and centers around the people working in the burgeoning field. Michael B. Silver, probably best known for his role as Leo Cohen on “NYPD Blue,” plays Walt Kaplan, a floor manager who really wants to direct.

Airs at 8 p.m. on TNT with an encore at 10 p.m. For more information visit www.tnt.tv.

21/MONDAY

It just keeps getting stranger. Those of you who cried when they took “Growing Pains” off the air or wished for a fifth installment in the “Karate Kid” saga, may take comfort in the knowledge that Alan Thicke and Pat Morita are still hard at work too. They join Shari Lewis, her daughter Mallory and their sock puppet friends as “Lamb Chop’s Special Chanukah” and “Shari’s Passover Surprise” is released on double feature DVD. Let’s everyone breathe a sigh of relief.

$19.98. Available wherever DVDs are sold.

22/TUESDAY

Public television junkies rejoice tonight as “The Writers Bloc Presents…” reunites Jim Lehrer and Robin MacNeil at the Skirball. All of you who’ve been missing “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” can get another dose of the duo as they discuss their latest writings.

7:30 p.m. $15. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For reservations, call (310) 335-0917.

23/WEDNESDAY

Images of Turner Classic Movies execs plotting ways to compete with “Shark Week” spring to mind, as we learn that October is the channel’s Nazi month. Officially, they’re calling it “America’s Ultimate Enemy: Hollywood Takes on the Nazis.” There are all sorts of Nazi movies playing through Halloween. This morning you can catch Lana Turner, Laraine Day and Agnes Moorehead in “Keep Your Powder Dry.” Might just want to set that alarm.

Airs at 2 a.m. on TCM. For more information visit www.turnerclassicmovies.com.

24/THURSDAY

Speaking of Lehrers, this guy’s been described as “a latter-day Tom Lehrer” by the Los Angeles Times. His name’s Roy Zimmerman, and he and New York transplant Marc Maron work to make you laugh and raise money for the Aero Theatre tonight. Maron’s been hailed by the New Yorker and the Village Voice, who said his “manic inventiveness recalls Robin Williams at his best.” All we know is two funny Jews sounds like good times to us.

7 p.m. and 9 p.m. $20. Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. For reservations, call (310) 395-4990.

25/FRIDAY

Is it possible that the man who gave hope to every 1950s geeky Jewish boy was also a war criminal? Kissinger may have proved to his generation that power was indeed the greatest aphrodisiac, but the new film “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” brings to light some weightier questions about his career. The film opens its West Coast exclusive one-week engagement tonight at the Nuart Theatre.

$9 (general), $6 (seniors, children 12 and under and weekend matinees). Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 478-6379.

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