December 10, 2018

Ghinsberg’s ‘Jungle’ Adventure Finds Its Way From the Amazon to the Big Screen

Actor Daniel Radcliffe portrays Yossi Ghinsberg in the film "Jungle." Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

One night during the 20 days Israeli backpacker Yossi Ghinsberg was lost in the Bolivian Amazon, he was wrapped tightly in his mosquito net when a swarm of army ants began tearing at his flesh.

“I pulled them off my eyelids, out of my ears, out of my hair, from my arms and legs,” Ghinsberg, 58, wrote of the experience. “My body was like a sieve, drops of blood seeping through every patch of bare skin.”

Ghinsberg’s memoir of the 1981 experience, “Jungle: A Harrowing True Story of Survival in the Amazon,” now is a film, “Jungle,” starring Daniel Radcliffe, which opens Oct. 20.

The ants were just one of the traumas Ghinsberg, then 22, endured in one of the most dangerous jungles on earth. He survived starvation, two near-deadly immersions in quicksand; dozens of leeches; a flood that carried him roughly through the forest; hurtling through a river canyon that constantly pulled him under the water; vicious fire ants; a fungus that left his feet bloody; oozing pus; and myriad jaguars.

On a mountain peak, a big cat once approached him, clearly interested in a meal. Drawing on a technique he had seen in a James Bond movie, Ghinsberg shot a flame through insect repellent spray to create a fireball aimed at the feline. The flames scorched his hands but also frightened off the cat.

On a mountain peak, a big cat once approached him, clearly interested in a meal.

“Yet almost every morning, I would see jaguar tracks just a couple of yards from my head,” Ghinsberg said in a telephone interview from his home in a subtropical rain forest two hours outside of Brisbane, Australia. “I had no gun, no machete. It’s a mystery, because jaguars in that area can and will attack.”

Ghinsberg grew up the son of Romanian immigrants. His father, he said, had a vendetta against God. He had survived the Holocaust in a German work camp in Siberia, and afterward “obsessively broke every Jewish law on purpose,” Ghinsberg said. “He would only eat pork, and on Yom Kippur, he would prepare a feast and eat it.”

But Ghinsberg also had a devout uncle, a rabbi and kabbalah scholar named Nissim, who unexpectedly called Ghinsberg to his home in Rehovot one day. The 83-year-old had something to give the young man before Ghinsberg started his compulsory service in the Israeli navy. The gift was a small book, a kabbalistic treatise, filled with symbols and prayers in Aramaic. “This was with me during the Holocaust and the hard times, and it protected me,” Nissim told Ghinsberg. “Promise me you’ll always keep it with you.”

When Ghinsberg returned home an hour later, he was shocked to discover his mother screaming — Uncle Nissim had just died of a heart attack.

Ghinsberg kept the book with him throughout his navy experience. He kept it in tow when he went off on the exotic backpacking trip Israelis famously embark on after their military service. “I went to South America with the idea that I would be an explorer, that I’d find lost tribes, become one of them, marry the chief’s daughter and find riches of gold,” he said.

In La Paz, Bolivia, Ghinsberg chanced to meet a guide who promised him that kind of adventure: Karl Ruchprecter, who presented himself as a maven of the jungle. Ghinsberg convinced two fellow backpackers, Marcus Stamm, a Swiss traveler, and American Kevin Gale, to join them. Looking back, “I was so naïve,” Ghinsberg said of choosing to trust Ruchprecter.

The journey started benignly enough — though Ruchprecter took his time shooting the wild animals he had promised the group. When they were ravenous, he killed a monkey, which was “very, very gamey” in taste,” Ghinsberg recalled. “But when you’re hungry to that level, you just need the energy to come in, and that’s why nothing is disgusting.” If necessary, he added, “I would have eaten human flesh.”

Then there were the tensions that began to divide the group. Stamm developed a painful foot fungus and was unable to keep up with the others. He also was a “saintly figure” who eschewed eating monkeys and chopping down trees to get at the fruit, Ghinsberg said. “His tragedy was that his compassion wasn’t appropriate for such circumstances.”

Moreover, Ruchprecter turned out to be a sociopath and a compulsive liar. At one point, he told Ghinsberg that the Israeli could not visit his uncle’s Bolivian ranch because the man was a fugitive Nazi war criminal who hated Jews. (Later Ghinsberg learned Ruchprecter had no such uncle.)

The group split up after a couple of weeks. Ruchprecter went off with Stamm to walk to a faraway town, and Gale and Ghinsberg decided to reach civilization by fording the treacherous Tuichi River. It was during that attempt that Ghinsberg was swept off the raft and over a waterfall, suffering a bloodied head along the way. From that point on, he was stranded alone in the jungle until Gale arrived with a boat to rescue him nearly three weeks later. Meanwhile, Ruchprecter and Stamm disappeared and were never seen again.

Along the way, Ghinsberg, who had not previously thought much about God, became a believer. “I found my faith during this experience, because many times there was nothing for me to do but scream, ‘God, please help me!’ ” he said. “Every time I found an egg to eat, or when I survived a storm in which trees were collapsing all around me, I felt that it was Providence. I don’t need to believe — I know.

Ghinsberg two days after he was rescued from the Amazon. Photo courtesy of Kevin Gale.


After Ghinsberg was rescued, he read many of the Jewish books Uncle Nissim had left him and studied kabbalah at Tel Aviv University, as well as with scholars in Safed. He went on to explore Eastern religions and Native American shamanism, returning to Bolivia to help villages there develop ecotourism businesses. His 1985 memoir became a cult phenomenon in Israel.

Today, Ghinsberg lives in Australia with his third wife, Belinda, and their two young children (he also has a 32-year-old daughter from a previous marriage). He works as a technology consultant and a motivational speaker, drawing on his own experiences of survival in the jungle. He meditates regularly in addition to celebrating Shabbat and the Jewish holidays with his family.

The film’s producer, Dana Lustig, says Ghinsberg’s story offers inspiration for anyone struggling to overcome tribulations. “Who among us hasn’t had a heartbreak?” she said by way of example.

Ghinsberg agreed. “I hope this film will empower people,” he said, “and give them hope and perspective about battling their own traumas.”

Q & A with Daniel Radcliffe

Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

In the “Harry Potter” films, actor Daniel Radcliffe battled the evil Lord Voldemort with his wand and fortitude. Since the eighth Potter film premiered in 2010, the English actor has tried to diversify his career with films such as the supernatural thriller “Horns,” the gay, Jewish beat poet saga “Kill Your Darlings” about Allen Ginsberg, and the horror film “The Woman in Black.”  Now he’s back with a new movie, “Jungle” — which hits theaters on Oct. 20 — based on the book of the same name by Israeli adventurer Yossi Ghinsberg. The memoir tells of Ghinsberg’s misadventures during three weeks stranded in the Amazon jungle in Bolivia in the early 1980s. The Journal recently caught up with Radcliffe, whose mother is Jewish, to talk about his new film.

Jewish Journal: Why were you drawn to the story and to the character of Yossi Ghinsberg?

Daniel Radcliffe: I pursued the part passionately. Sometimes when a story is true and incredibly powerful and communicates something that’s useful about the human survival instinct, I just wanted to become a part of further disseminating that story into the world.

JJ: Did you identify with the story’s themes of survival, especially as an actor after Harry Potter?

DR: You can be worried that people will typecast you, but I’ve been lucky because for every director who saw me out there as just Harry Potter, there was another one who was excited by the prospect of reinventing that image.  You just sort of grab those opportunities when they come around as much as you can. And also I’m very lucky that I’m in a position where I don’t have to work, so I don’t have to accept roles that I’m not passionate about.  

JJ: You spent many hours speaking to Yossi about his experiences. What kinds of questions did you ask him?

DR: Just talking to him about his inner monologue; how he kept himself going.  He said an interesting and also very sad thing about hope. I asked whether the hope of getting home is what kept him alive, and he said actually the opposite was true. Most of the time, he was just surviving from one moment to the next. He said that the moment when a plane flew overhead, he thought he was going to be saved. But the second when that plane flew away was the most demoralizing, deepest despair he had ever felt. He said as useful as hope can be, it can also break your heart.

JJ: Did you learn anything interesting from Yossi about Israelis?

DR: It was this idea that for the generation of kids who grew up as the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors, like Yossi, what is your responsibility?  What do you have to live up to? I think that because Yossi wanted to go off backpacking, that was a disappointment to his father, a Holocaust survivor, and so I think his journey was tinged with a bit of guilt.

JJ: You went on an extreme diet for a month to lose weight for the final scenes of the film.

DR: I was generally having a fillet of fish or chicken and a protein bar every day, as well as vast amounts of coffee and cigarettes. It just makes you feel a tiredness that seeps into your whole being.

JJ: What was it like to film the scene in which your character removes parasitic worms from his forehead with a pair of tweezers?

DR: When you look up and you see the crew looking beyond grossed out, you go, OK, clearly it’s gone all right.

JJ: What was your most difficult moment on the shoot?

DR: One moment that was particularly heartbreaking was when the final scene was postponed for a week because the river had risen 7 or 8 feet and washed away our set. In my hotel room, I had a massive bar of chocolate and I had asked the kitchen to give me a steak for that night; I was going to eat finally. I was so close that I could practically taste it, and then it got rescheduled a week. 

What’s a nice Jewish boy like Daniel Radcliffe doing playing a neo-Nazi?

In his new film, “Imperium,” Daniel Radcliffe plays FBI agent Nate Foster, who goes undercover to take down skinheads planning to set off a dirty bomb.

The film, which opens Friday, is taut and exciting. It is also a movie the former “Harry Potter” star doesn’t want his 93-year-old Jewish grandmother to see. (More on that later.)

“Imperium” is loosely based on the experiences of FBI agent Mike German, who spent 16 years with the bureau, a dozen undercover. German co-wrote the screenplay with director Daniel Ragussis.

Both Daniels are on the phone to promote the enterprise, one definitely more tired than the other.

Radcliffe’s critically acclaimed, sold out off-Broadway play “Privacy” had closed the night before, followed by an apparently lengthy closing night party. But despite the joking promise that his exhaustion might lead him to reveal something juicy — “You never know what I might say” — Radcliffe stays on message, painting a self-portrait of an intelligent young actor who has survived fame without a semblance of pretense or affectation.

On the face of it, Radcliffe does not seem the obvious choice for the role. For one thing he’s a Brit, though you couldn’t tell by the mid-American accent he adopts for the film. And for another, he doesn’t fit the burly Jason Bourne tough guy image we’ve come to expect from our movie heroes. But that’s exactly what led Ragussis to cast Radcliffe.

“When I first met Michael German, he was so different from the prototype FBI agents,” Ragussis said. “He was very intelligent, a soft-spoken guy who studied philosophy in college. I spoke to him and said you’re not what I expected.

“He told me being an FBI undercover agent isn’t about physical powers but social skills, dealing with people, and once I realized that it enabled me to conceptualize the story and turned me on to an actor like Daniel.”

In fact, Radcliffe’s relatively small stature — he is listed as being 5-foot-5 — only ratchets up the tension as Nate Foster is forced to use intelligence to ingratiate himself within various extremist groups and maintain his cover.

Radcliffe’s nuanced performance as an agent with no field experience who has jumped into potentially volatile waters without a life vest almost certainly will win critical raves. His character must do battle not only with the Nazis and Klansmen, but his own superiors, who at a critical juncture want to pull him out, believing he is on the wrong track.

Radcliffe said he “was lucky to have Dan here with me.”

“He did an unbelievable amount of research, so I had him to go to as a source,” said the actor, who added that he prepared for the film “like any other role.” Radcliffe also consulted German, read books and went “online to look at terrifying message boards.

He also shaved his head on screen, wore Nazi regalia and of course offered the Nazi salute. That brings us back to grandma.

Radcliffe said his maternal grandmother — he never knew his granddad — “was an evacuee during the war,” taken to the country to stay with people away from Nazi bombers. He recalls her telling him stories “about how our family came to the UK and where we came from.”

“We originated in Russia and left because of the pogroms. I don’t know if the story is true, but supposedly my great-great-grandfather was on a ship from Russia bound for America. It stopped off in London, and he thought, ‘oh, that was quick’ and got off. He went to work in a textile factory and married the owner’s daughter.”

Radcliffe was raised in a very secular environment — “I’m going to be a real disappointment to you,” he told a reporter for a Jewish news service — but with a keen awareness of his Jewish background and “what it means to my mom and her mom.”

It is the reason he believes “Imperium” will not be appropriate for grandma.

“It may be a little too close to the bone,” Radcliffe said. In fact, he thought about her during the filming, “about how odd it is. The strangeness of it struck me a few times.”

Radcliffe finds it impossible to define how his Jewish heritage impacts his work.

“I don’t think I can separate the various parts of my life,” he said. “But the view that was always imparted to me by my mom and [Irish] dad is that the Jewish people and the Irish people were hard workers, that the Jews always punched above their weight class intellectually in terms of their numbers of people. I know that influenced me I suppose on some level, gave me a sense of responsibility to continue that. It’s something I thought about. I wouldn’t say it’s a driving force, but it is an influence.”

Considering the film’s topic, our conversation inevitably turned to America’s gun culture.

“The gun thing is alien to me,” Radcliffe said. “But I don’t think I was in Virginia” — the film was shot in Hopewell, a small city south of Richmond — “for more than a day before three separate people said, ‘hey, you’ve got to come shoot with us.’ I’m up for anything and I had a lovely day, but that’s never something I’m going to get used to.

“But the thing that most surprised me is that there is a huge wave of people who are not the slightest bit racist, who are highly intelligent and who love guns. The image that is sometimes portrayed the world over is that the Second Amendment people are sort of crazy, and I haven’t found that to be the case.”

Another American subject — how we seem to allow young actors a moment of fame and then chew them up — also brought out Radcliffe’s positive side. He said he had people around him “who were never going to allow me to become arrogant or obnoxious. But I have to say it’s very human to focus on the negative.”

Radcliffe then mentions Jodie Foster, Elijah Wood and Toby Maguire as positive role models for American actors.

Like them, Radcliffe has literally grown up in front of us, although to a degree none of them could match: He starred in eight “Harry Potter” films in 11 years, starting at age 11 and finishing at 21. While one of the rules for this interview was no questions about the new “Harry Potter” play and book — Radcliffe had nothing to do with either — the old films were not out of bounds, And, no, there are no regrets.

“There has never been a moment where I wish it hadn’t happened, any mistakes I’ve learned from,” he said. “Nobody’s life is all rainbows and sunshine. There were moments, but mostly related to being a teenager.”

Still, Harry Potter will always be with him. Even today, five years after the last film was released, a writer who shall remain nameless will talk about his granddaughter Samantha, who is a big fan and celebrating a birthday and can Daniel send a photo? Of course, he can — a promise stars make all the time but seldom deliver.

Unless they’re Daniel Radcliffe.

NOW YOU SEE ME 2 *Movie Review*

Sometimes movies just need to give their audiences what they came looking for, and in this case it’s heist scenes and magic.  NOW YOU SEE ME 2 really shines when it draws from the first one’s playbook and showcases those elements.

Jesse Eisenberg, Morgan Freeman, Lizzy Caplan, Woody Harrelson and Daniel Radcliffe comprise this talented cast.

For a full review and analysis of the film’s themes and eagle eye details to watch for, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

Daniel Radcliffe reveals recent drinking problem

Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe talks about a drinking problem he had during the making of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” ” title=”” target=”_blank”>

Briefs: Jewish Dems slam Huckabee; ‘Settlement’ crackdown expected

Outpost Crackdown Seen This Week

Vice Premier Haim Ramon said last week that troops and police could be deployed as early as this week for a mass-removal of outposts erected in the West Bank without state approval. He indicated that the operation could be timed to coincide with President Bush’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority .

“I hope and assess that in the coming period and thereafter, during the U.S. president’s visit to Israel and afterward, real steps will be taken to remove those outposts,” Ramon told Israel Radio.

The U.S.-led peace “road map” obligates Israel to remove all outposts from the West Bank, where the Palestinians want a state. But the government has yet to take any comprehensive actions. Ramon did not say how many of the scores of outposts would be removed, but he predicted the crackdown would mostly take place east of the West Bank security fence, which many Israelis see as a future border with Palestine.

Speaking to Reuters last week, Bush made clear he considers the settlements a serious issue to be raised with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during his visit.

“I will talk about Israeli settlement expansion, about how that is, that can be, you know, an impediment to success,” Bush said.

Jewish Dems Slam Huckabee

Jewish Democrats slammed Mike Huckabee as an “extremist” after he won the Iowa caucuses. The former Arkansas governor’s wide margin over other Republicans on Jan. 3 was the surprise of the first vote of the season in the effort to select a candidate.

Huckabee drew strong support from Christian evangelicals who share his adamant opposition to abortion and to church-state separation. His advocacy on behalf of the poor and his break with Republican orthodoxies about reducing the role of government also cultivated independents.

“In choosing a candidate so beholden to the extremist elements in the Republican base, Iowa Republicans have sent a strong message about the role and power of the religious right in GOP politics,” the National Jewish Democratic Council said in a statement. “Governor Huckabee’s record and rhetoric would certainly not play well with Jewish voters in a general election campaign.”

The release quoted Huckabee as once saying: “I got into politics because I knew government didn’t have the real answers, that the real answers lie in accepting Jesus Christ into our lives.”

Lebanese Rockets Hit Israel

A rare rocket salvo from south Lebanon jarred Israel, though no one was hurt. At least two Katyusha rockets slammed into the northern Israeli border town of Shlomi early Tuesday, causing damage to buildings but no casualties.

Lebanese authorities had no immediate comment on the attack, which for many Israelis aroused memories of Hezbollah rocket barrages during the 2006 war. But Israeli security analysts said Hezbollah was unlikely to have been responsible and that the rockets — relatively small 107mm Katyushas — were likely fired by Lebanon-based Palestinian terrorists looking to disrupt President Bush’s visit to the region this week.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal is bigger now than before its war with Israel, Ehud Barak said.

“Hezbollah has learned the lessons of the Second Lebanon War,” the Israeli defense minister told a security conference in Tel Aviv on Monday. “Today, Hezbollah has more rockets than before the war.”

The arsenal of more than 10,000 rockets was a strategic asset against Israel during the 34-day conflict, though many of the missiles were destroyed on the ground in air strikes.

An Israeli commission of inquiry into the Second Lebanon War will deliver its final report on Jan. 30 to Olmert and Barak. The commission’s interim report, issued in April, was highly critical of Olmert’s handling of the war, but stopped short of calling for his ouster. Israeli analysts have said they do not expect the final Winograd report to call for Olmert to step down.

Hillel Joins Conference of Presidents

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life had been an adjunct member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which acts as an umbrella group and a convener of the presidents of 51 major Jewish organizations. The Conference of Presidents’ membership committee voted unanimously to give the group full membership.

“We see this as a recognition of the need for the conference to include those who will be future leaders of the Jewish community and to give them a voice in our deliberations,” Conference chairwoman June Walker and Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein said in a joint statement released Monday.

Anti-Semitic Newspaper Distributed in Tblisi

A newspaper accusing Jews of plotting to “shed the blood” of Georgians was distributed in Tblisi. According to the Tblisi Bureau of the UCSJ: Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, the newspaper issued by the political movement Axali Sitkva calls for its readers to “say no to Jewish mason spies!” and claims that “other people’s property to a Jew is like an abandoned thing, the owner of it is the Jew who will appropriate it. For the Jew to acquire it, Georgians blood should be shed in the streets.”

The paper is distributed in the Georgia capital’s subway stations. The UCSJ report did not state what reaction, if any, has come from the police or the Jewish community to the distribution of the anti-Semitic newspaper, which violates Georgia’s laws against ethnic incitement.

Peer Falls in Australian Tennis

Israel’s Shahar Peer lost in the semifinals of a tennis tournament in Australia. Unseeded Belarusian teenager Victoria Azarenka, Peer’s doubles partner, defeated the fifth-seeded Peer, 6-4, 6-2, on Friday to reach the Mondial Australian Women’s Hardcourts final, a primer for the Australian Open, in Queensland. Azarenka, the world’s 30th-ranked player, was beaten in the title match by another nonseed, Li Na of China. Peer entered the tournament ranked 17th in the world. Last year she advanced further than any Israeli in a grand slam event by reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, which begins Jan. 14 in Melbourne.

Radcliffe Giving Specs to Shoah Exhibit

The lead actor in the “Harry Potter” films will donate his first pair of eyeglasses to a Holocaust memorial project. Daniel Radcliffe, whose mother is Jewish, will give the glasses he wore when he was 6 years old to the RESPECTacles Project, where they will join 1,000 pairs. Other celebrities donating include Yoko Ono, Stephen Fry and Jerry Springer. The art project was inspired by a famous photo of a mountain of misshapen and broken glasses taken from Holocaust victims — a testament to the magnitude of Nazi cruelty and murder. The exhibit will be on display Jan. 21-26 at the town hall in Liverpool, England, as part of the national commemorations leading up to Great Britain’s National Holocaust Memorial Day on Jan. 27. At the close of the exhibit, the glasses will be donated to Vision Aid Overseas.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.