September 18, 2019

Films from life

The films slated for release this fall include an unusual array of documentaries and docudramas. 

One of the documentaries, “The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers,” presents a large segment of Israel’s history from the perspective of Yehuda Avner, former Israeli ambassador to Britain, Ireland and Australia. Avner also held posts at the Israeli Consulate in New York and the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. The movie is a follow-up to the earlier film “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers,” released in 2013, and both are taken from Avner’s highly successful memoir, “The Prime Ministers.” Both films are produced by Richard Trank, who also directed, and Rabbi Marvin Hier, for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s film division, Moriah Films.

From “The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers”: Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, right, and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan meet their troops on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War. 

Trank said that when Hier first approached him with the project, he never dreamed he would be spending two years interviewing Avner and making not one but two films from Avner’s book.

“What attracted me to it right away,” Trank said, “was the unique perspective Yehuda had of Israeli history, as well as the anecdotal approach he took to telling contemporary Israeli history. Also, Yehuda was a master storyteller and it was apparent right away to me that we would have a film that was not only informative but also emotional as well as entertaining.”

In addition to his diplomatic duties, Avner served as either speechwriter or adviser to five Israeli prime ministers: Golda Meir, Levi Eshkol, Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. Although the current documentary contains footage of all those leaders, it focuses primarily on the administrations of Begin and Rabin, the latter being Israel’s first prime minister to have been born in Israel.

Trank said that, in conducting his research, he was surprised to learn how much Begin and Rabin respected each other and found ways to work together despite their glaring differences.

“Yitzhak Rabin was the prototypical Sabra, the Israeli-born Jew,” Trank said. “He was profoundly secular, informal and often to-the-point in a way that confounded his friends and opponents. He was incredibly methodical and logical during both his military and political careers. And, as shown in the instance of the Oslo Accords, willing to compromise, even when he knew that the political opposition might be tremendous.”

In contrast, Trank said, “Menachem Begin was the epitome of the Old World European Jew. He was a very formal man who believed in pomp and circumstance and ceremony. He was incredibly erudite while being an autodidact. At the same time, he was also a military commander long before he was a politician. Like Rabin, he was also willing to compromise, as evidenced by Camp David and the decisions he made about withdrawing from the Sinai.

“Both men also put country above personal gain and were first and foremost patriots,” he said.

The movie contains archival film and photos, some of which, according to the promotional material, have never been shown publicly.  The audience gets a glimpse behind the scenes of such seminal events as the first peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, as well as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel and his subsequent murder in Egypt; the rescue by Israeli forces of hostages at Entebbe; the Camp David accords; issues surrounding the 1982 war in Lebanon and the assassination of Rabin, among numerous other notable chapters from Israel’s past.

Trank hopes audiences leave his film impressed by Israel’s accomplishments as such a young country and with an appreciation for how Israel has managed to thrive in the face of deep challenges and difficulties.

“Also, I am hoping that people get an understanding that many of the issues that Israel is grappling with now are not new, but also not insurmountable,” he said. “Sometimes you need to take a long view of history to understand why progress is a mixture of increments as well as grand leaps of faith.”

The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers” opens Oct. 14.

Before Israel’s founding, Nazi war criminals responsible for the Holocaust who were put on trial claimed in their defense that they were “just following orders.” In an effort to test the pervasiveness of people’s willingness to harm others when instructed to do so by authority figures, social scientist Stanley Milgram developed his obedience experiment in 1961 while at Yale University. The experiment, one of the most famous in the history of psychology, and what it engendered, form the focus of Michael Almereyda’s docudrama “Experimenter.”

Although Milgram’s parents, who were Jewish and who came from Europe, were already in the United States by 1933, when Milgram was born, there is an underlying sense that his investigation was, at least in part, prompted by issues surrounding the Holocaust. 

In the film, Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) acts as narrator, addressing the audience directly. His experiment has the participants working in two-person teams, separated from each other and communicating only through an intercom.  One team member (the teacher) quizzes the other member (the pupil) and is instructed to deliver increasingly strong electric shocks whenever a wrong answer is given, even when cries of pain and pleas to stop are heard.  In reality, the pupil is a plant, and the cries and pleas come from a tape recorder.

According to the results, 65 percent of the teachers were willing to administer the highest level of 450 volts and all of the teachers went as far as giving 300 volts, because they were instructed to do so by those they perceived to be in charge.

Although his findings are considered significant, there are those professionals and laymen who condemn his methods as deceptive and manipulative.  

Asked if some people reacted to the experiment with such hostility because the results hit too close to home, Almereyda replied, “Milgram came to the conclusion that if his results had been different, if people showed themselves to be largely resistant to authority, un-compliant and able to think and act with full responsibility, that would have made for a cozy, reassuring story — no feathers would’ve been ruffled, no one would’ve cared. But the results painted a darker picture. 

“As Milgram wrote in his book, the experiments indicate how ‘the kind of character produced in American society cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment in response to a malevolent authority.’ Who wants to hear this?  So yes, the results hit uncomfortably close to home.” 

It is worth noting that Milgram’s obedience experiment took place as the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel was being broadcast around the world.

“Experimenter” opens Oct. 16.

Three men, each of whom has family ties to the Holocaust, meet to face the past in the documentary “What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy.” 

An extreme close-up of Philippe Sands’ eyeball in a still from “What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy” Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

While researching a book on the Nuremberg trials, Philippe Sands, an international human rights lawyer dealing with cases of genocide and crimes against humanity, comes in contact with Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, both sons of highly placed Nazi officials. Frank’s father was the Nazi governor general of Poland, while von Wächter’s father was the Nazi governor of Galicia, where Sands’ Jewish family was killed.

The film is replete with footage of Jews and Nazis during World War II, as well as home movies of the Frank and von Wächter families. In his narration, Sands remarks that he doesn’t understand how people could sing and dance after having engaged in mass killing.

As the three men revisit significant sites that hearken back to the Holocaust and then appear onstage at a symposium in London, it becomes clear that Frank and von Wächter, who are friends, hold starkly contrasting views of their fathers.

Remembering his father fondly, von Wächter insists that he was a good and decent man who rejected the racial policies of the Nazis and protested the annihilation of the Jews to Hitler, so that his only fault lay in believing Hitler would change his politics.  

In the film, he says that the question of his father’s historical responsibility is a very complex one. “He was absolutely somebody who wanted to do something good, and he wanted to get something moving and find some solution about all these problems who arose after the first war. He was a complete optimist.” Even when presented with evidence to the contrary, von Wächter holds to this view of his father.

Frank, however, despises his father, who was hanged after the Nuremberg trials. “My father really had deserved to die at the gallows for what he had done,” Frank says. “He deserved it.”

Frank carries a picture of his dead father, taken soon after the execution. He explains, on the one hand, that he keeps the picture to be certain the man is really dead. 

“But, on the other hand, and this is what hounds me all my life, the Germans know exactly what can happen if you are losing civil discourse, if you are losing democracy. It leads to, can lead to, extermination camps. We know this by heart, because we have done it, the Germans. And people of this merciless kind of living and killing are still alive in Germany.”

“What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy” opens Nov. 6.

We find another biopic in “Pawn Sacrifice,” which tells the fascinating, yet disturbing odyssey of chess champion Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire). The film centers primarily on events surrounding Fischer’s celebrated 1972 match against Soviet chess grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). However, the story does go back to Fischer’s dysfunctional childhood in Brooklyn as the son of a Jewish mother preoccupied with her Communist Party activism. The boy, who never knew his father, soothes his loneliness with the study of chess, and he becomes a prodigy by the age of 7. 

Liev Schreiber (left) as Boris Spassky and Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer in “Pawn Sacrifice.” Photo by Takashi Seid

Fischer’s rise to the top of the chess world is chronicled along with his paranoia, arrogance, incessant demands and increasing mental deterioration. His winning match against Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland, which garners worldwide attention, also symbolizes the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Years later, he plays Spassky again, in Yugoslavia, which violates United States sanctions. The American government ultimately seeks to arrest him and, as a result, he lives in a succession of countries and is never able to return to his homeland. Although he is Jewish, Fischer begins making virulent anti-Semitic pronouncements, railing against the United States and Israel, among other targets. He ends his days as an exile in Iceland.

In the press notes, director Edward Zwick says he wants his film’s audience to lose itself in an unfamiliar experience. “The challenge of this movie was to portray chess in a way people will understand. We tried to make it exciting and suspenseful, even for people without a deep understanding of the game, because it brings the audience inside the mind of Bobby Fischer. I think it’s a really funny, emotional and truly entertaining film.” 

“Pawn Sacrifice” opens Sept. 18.

Moving over to the Middle East, two films coming out this fall deal with groups that have suffered extreme discrimination in the region.

One is a feminist movie that marks the debut of Pakistani filmmaker Afia Nathaniel. “Dukhtar” (“Daughter”) tells the story of Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz), a young mother from a remote village in Pakistan. Her much older husband, Daulat Khan (Asif Khan), is the head of a tribe warring with a rival clan led by Tor Gul (Abdullah Jan), and both sides are suffering heavy casualties. Tor Gul says he will make peace if he can marry his opponent’s 10-year-old daughter, Zainab (Saleha Aref), and the deal is sealed. But Allah Rakhi wants to save her child from the fate she herself endured, so she takes the girl and runs away, with henchmen from both tribes in pursuit, vowing to extract a murderous revenge for her rebellious act.

Zainab (Saleha Aref) dressed as a young bride in “Dukhtar.”

The film becomes something of a road movie as mother and daughter get a ride from unsuspecting truck driver Sohail (Mohib Mirza). After he realizes what’s at stake, Sohail is faced with a choice about whether to risk his life by transporting his two passengers to a safer destination.

The filmmaker said she had difficulty getting financing for the film in Pakistan because her portrayal of women goes against the country’s norm. “Usually in Pakistani cinema, women serve as the objects of desire, and roles for women are dumbed down to serve the male gaze in the industry -— the innocent woman, the vampy woman, the petulant sister-in-law, the conniving mother-in-law, etc., with a bit of raunchy dance numbers and colorful language thrown in.”

She continued, “So, as you can imagine, it was extremely difficult to find financing for a film like ‘Dukhtar’ in Pakistan because the film is grounded in realism with no song and dance, and the story has two female leads — completely unheard of in Pakistani cinema to have such a thing. A female lead is rare enough, but two women in the lead, and with me as a female director, the combination was a tough one to fight for.

“It took me 10 years to make the film. So I owe this film to my entire team and their dedication and talent.” 

“Dukhtar” opens Oct. 16.

The prohibition of homosexuality invoked by strict Islamic practice underlies the movie “A Sinner in Mecca” by filmmaker Parvez Sharma, who is also the documentary’s subject. The movie focuses on Sharma’s hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, a journey regarded by Muslims worldwide as life’s supreme accomplishment.

A still from “A Sinner in Mecca”

Sharma undertakes his hajj as a marked man. There is a fatwa against him because of his 2008 film, “A Jihad for Love,” in which he argued that one could be gay and also be a good Muslim.

By entering Mecca, Sharma is taking two major risks: He is in danger of being discovered as a gay man, a crime in Saudi Arabia punishable by death; and he is secretly filming the rituals of the hajj, which is forbidden, as these rituals are not allowed to be seen by non-Muslims. 

In the film, Sharma contends that the prophet Mohammed established Islam as a religion of peace, but he feels the religion has been hijacked by a violent minority.

The footage alternates the setting at Mecca with scenes in New York that include Sharma’s husband, Dan, and scenes in his native India. It also juxtaposes the deeply felt spiritual rituals of the Hajj with what Sharma believes is the encroaching commercialization of the pilgrimage.

In a statement released with the film, Sharma said, “ ‘A Sinner in Mecca’ is a provocative road-trip through the fault lines of Islam. It is a groundbreaking revelation of an Islam never seen or heard from before and hopes to significantly change the rhetoric and debate around this religion.”

“A Sinner in Mecca” opens Sept. 11.

On a lighter note, “Very Semi-Serious,” by documentary filmmaker Leah Wolchok, takes us behind the scenes of the cartoon department of The New Yorker magazine to reveal the process for deciding what will appear in the publication, and also gives us a glimpse into the lives of veteran cartoonists, as well as fledglings who aspire to the profession. 

Wolchok’s movie is anchored by cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, who says in the film, “The New Yorker isn’t the bedrock.  It’s the Everest,” meaning that the magazine is the gold standard for cartoons.

Mankoff has opened the submission process so that every Tuesday, legends of the profession come in alongside newcomers to meet with him and bring in their work. As he evaluates the submissions, Mankoff tries to be constructive, but he also can be blunt when trying to help the cartoonists improve.

“It’s fascinating,” Wolchok says in the notes, “because it’s such a vulnerable moment to capture. I know, as someone who’s constantly putting my work out there for critique.  These cartoonists are working in their heads all week and then coming with 10 or 15 cartoons, hoping that Bob will hold onto a few to show to [magazine editor] David Remnick.” 

According to the film, of approximately 1,000 cartoons submitted each week, only 15 will be used in a week’s edition.

Individual interviews, many of which reveal the pain underlying the cartoonists’ art, are interspersed with montages of cartoons. Some of these are well-known among aficionados, such as Mankoff’s signature one in which an executive is on the phone in his office. The caption, which has become the title of Mankoff’s memoir, reads, “How about never. Is never good for you?”

During the process of filming, Mankoff comes to see that his major accomplishment will be the development of new talent. In the press material, he is quoted as saying, “There’s not much of a secondary market anymore for cartoons. There aren’t many magazines that do it. So, it’s as though the major leagues just had the major leagues and there were no minor leagues. I sort of had to become much more of a coach to make sure that the tradition of The New Yorker cartoons would live on in a new generation. That became very obvious to me during the making of the film.”

“Very Semi-Serious” opens Nov. 30.

 Also of interest:

Jewish comedy writer Robert Cohen, who hails from Calgary, Canada, takes the audience on a road trip from one end of his native country to the other in the documentary “Being Canadian.”  Now a resident of Los Angeles, Cohen seeks to dispel what he considers some popularly held misconceptions about our neighbor to the north and its citizens. At the same time, he attempts to discover whether there is something unique about “being Canadian.”  Opens Sept. 18.

Aaron Sorkin, of “The West Wing,” “The Newsroom,” “The Social Network” and “Moneyball” fame, has written a biopic, titled “Steve Jobs,” about the legendary tech genius. The film, starring Michael Fassbender and based on the book “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson, which came out Oct. 24, 2011, just weeks after Jobs died of pancreatic cancer, focuses on three of Jobs’ signature products: the original Mac, the NeXT Computer and the iMac. Sorkin also includes a back story to go with each of the product launches and depicts the various interrelationships between Jobs and the people significant in his life and work. Opens Oct. 9.

The documentary “Peace Officer” explores what William “Dub” Lawrence, former sheriff of Davis, Utah, considers the increasing militarization of police SWAT teams around the country. While he was sheriff of his rural community, Lawrence established the town’s first SWAT team. After his son-in-law was killed by that unit in what Lawrence deems a questionable confrontation, he became obsessed with hunting for the truth behind the incident. The audience becomes privy to his investigation of the shooting, a probe that widened to include police shootings and unannounced raids carried out by SWAT teams nationwide. Opens Sept. 18.