October 15, 2019

An Oscar overview of all things Semitic

How foreign volunteers fought to get the fledgling Israeli Air Force off the ground and the antics of the Last of the Red Hot Mamas are two of the storylines explored by documentary filmmakers vying for a 2016 Oscar.

Of the 124 documentary features competing in a category that usually plays second fiddle to Hollywood blockbusters and glamorous stars, at least 10 percent deal with themes or personalities of special interest to Jewish (and pro-Semitic) viewers.

In “Above and Beyond,” archival footage and interviews re-create the tense days of 1948, when pilots, navigators, bombardiers and radio operators from English-speaking countries smuggled in and flew planes to form the nucleus of the Israeli Air Force.

The emphasis is on a different war and mood in “Censored Voices,” in which Israeli soldiers who fought in the Six-Day War talk about their experiences immediately after returning to their kibbutzim in 1967.

Far from boasting about their miraculous victory over the forces of five Arab nations, the returning veterans dwell mainly on the brutalizing effect of war on the victors.

The British documentary “Amy” probes the life and early death of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, described by her brother as “a little Jewish kid from North London with a big talent.”

Her meteoric career and tortured life was cut short at 27 through drug abuse and alcohol poisoning.

Among the greatest gifts Jewish immigrants brought to the New World is the old-time deli, and the film “Deli Man” proves it by touring some of the best establishments from Broadway to Hollywood to Montreal.

David “Ziggy” Gruber runs Kenny & Ziggy’s, in the documentary “Deli Man.” Photo courtesey of Cohen Media Group

“The Diplomat” honors the career of the late U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who, despite his Anglo last name, was the son of Jewish refugees from Germany and Poland. In the greatest achievement of his distinguished service, Holbrooke brokered the 1995 peace treaty among warring factions in the Balkans.

Jan Karski was a Polish Catholic and resistance fighter who sneaked into the Warsaw Ghetto to witness for himself the fate of Jews under Nazi rule. “Karski and the Lords of Humanity” tracks his desperate mission to convince British and American leaders, including a face-to-face meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that unless they took action, the Jews of Europe would be exterminated.

“The Outrageous Sophie Tucker” chronicles the ups and downs of the title character, who transformed herself from immigrant girl Sonya Kalish into America’s top female entertainer in the 1930s. She got her start singing for the patrons of her parents’ kosher deli, before hitting the big time as the Last of the Red Hot Mamas.

As confidante of a who’s-who of Israeli prime ministers, Yehuda Avner has literally written the book on the country’s leadership and diplomacy. His writings yielded the earlier film “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers,” which has now been followed up by the documentary “The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers,” focusing on the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres.

 “Rosenwald” honors the life and works of Julius Rosenwald, a son of German-Jewish immigrants and a high school dropout, who rose to become the head of Sears, Roebuck and Co. He spent a large part of his fortune on funding thousands of schools for Black students in the Jim Crow South of the early 1900s.

Henry Schoenker was born in the Polish town of Oswiecim, which the German occupiers renamed Auschwitz, and was the only member of his extended family to survive the Holocaust. Now deaf but unimpaired in voice and memory, he tells of fleeing from one hiding place to another in “The Touch of an Angel.” Amid a world indifference to the fate of Jews, Schoenker also encountered heroic strangers who risked their own lives to save those of hunted strangers.

Some Palestinian filmmakers apparently have realized that the absurd may cut even deeper than a knife. Based on an actual incident, “The Wanted 18” tells the story of an Arab village in Israel that decides to stop buying milk from Jews by purchasing 18 cows to make “intifada milk.” When some Israeli authorities declare the cows a national security threat, the villagers hide the animals.

The documentary is a Palestinian-Canadian co-production, created by Muslim, Christian and Jewish filmmakers.

Hans Frank and Otto von Wachter were Hitler’s two top deputies in Poland, responsible for the killing of millions of Jews and Poles. In the film “What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy,” human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, himself raised by survivors, takes the sons — Niklas Frank and Horst von Wachter — back to the scenes of their fathers’ crimes and witnesses their different reactions.

In addition to the longer feature documentaries listed, a separate Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences category applies to short documentaries. The list of 74 entries already has been whittled down to 10 semifinalists, including “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah.”

In the short, French director Lanzmann dissects the making of his epic, 9 1/2-hour documentary, “Shoah,” which was 11 years in the making and was released in 1985.

The Journal will, in a follow-up article, survey some of the foreign-language films submitted by 81 countries competing for Oscar honors.

The 88th Academy Award nominations will be announced on Jan. 14. The Oscar winners will deliver their acceptance remarks on the evening of Feb. 28.