June 26, 2019

‘Back to the Fatherland’ Examines Reverse Aliyah

Gil Levanon (left) and Kat Rohrer. Photo by Stefan Seelig

The documentary “Back to the Fatherland” examines the odd (and to many, the embarrassing) phenomenon of young Israelis leaving the dreamland of generations of Zionists to settle, work and frequently marry in Germany and Austria — the lands whose people persecuted and murdered their ancestors.

What makes this film particularly surprising is that its co-producers, directors and stars are the granddaughters, respectively, of a Holocaust survivor and a Nazi officer. Austrian Katherina (Kat) Rohrer and Israeli Gil Levanon, both in their 40s, met and became friends while students at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Today, they are joint heads of GreenKat Productions.

The film opens with the pair visiting Levanon’s grandfather Yochanan in his Tel Aviv apartment to break the news that she is considering moving to Berlin. The first reaction of the patriarch and Holocaust survivor is predictable: “No, never,” he exclaims, asserting that the Germans are bad and will always be bad.

Like most grandchildren, Levanon understands but ignores the old man’s advice and heads for the German capital. Teaming up with Rohrer, the two discover that some 20,000 identifiable Israelis now live and work in Germany and Austria. Most are relatively young, secular and artistic. Politically, they tend to be liberal or progressive and are opposed to what they see as a rightward drift in Israel’s government and people.

The filmmakers interviewed Israeli expatriates focusing on their new lives and then filmed their Holocaust survivor grandparents’ reactions to their descendants’ “reverse aliyah.”

One expat in Berlin is Dan Peled, a young sculptor. His beloved grandmother Lea can neither understand nor condone his decision. To change her mind, Dan invites the 91-year-old to join him on a trip to Vienna, the city of her childhood.

Another Israeli, Guy Shahar, settled in the historic Austrian city of Salzburg, married a local woman and has a young son. 

Asked about Israelis’ exodus to Germany and Austria, Levanon said many leave because they say that life in Israel is too hard or expensive, while others dislike the country’s steady political move to the right. 

“We are very privileged to be able to leave home and experience something else, knowing that we can come back home.” 

— Gil Levanon

There is also the desire among young people to explore other countries and people without rejecting their native land. “We are very privileged to be able to leave home and experience something else, knowing that we can come back home because of the amazing things the older generations have done,” Levanon said, adding, with a touch of resentment, “If you are a Jew from Israel, people immediately say that you are abandoning ship and you’ll never go back [to Israel]. I’m not sure that this is true for this generation.”

The 77-minute film is just beginning to circulate in the United States, and reviews have ranged from lukewarm to negative, including that the film jumps too quickly from one character and language to another, so there is some difficulty in following the sequences.

Other criticism, Rohrer and Levanon say, is based on the reviewers’ inability
to deal with a Holocaust- or post-Holocaust-themed films without the mandatory depictions of sadistic Nazis or emaciated Jews.

The filmmakers see themselves as the “third post-Holocaust generation,” Levanon said, “and we are making this film for the fourth and fifth generations, who will live in a world with no actual survivors left.”

“Back to the Fatherland” opens June 28 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

American Contributions to Israeli Independence Depicted in ‘Eyewitness 1948’

Eyewitness Logo from Website.

Coinciding with Jewish American Heritage Month and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day), the Ruderman Family Foundation announced May 8 they are releasing never-before-seen archival footage that shares the stories of the American Jews who helped establish the State of Israel.

Partnering with Toldot Yisrael, they are making the material publicly accessible and user-friendly for the first time.

“Eyewitness 1948: The American Contribution” — a film series produced in partnership with Toldot Yisrael — focuses on the efforts of Americans in the period leading up to the modern State of Israel’s establishment. The film shares insight on World War II veterans who fought in Israel’s war of independence; volunteers who smuggled weapons, machine parts, and uniforms overseas; businessmen who raised funds to help bring Holocaust refugees to British Palestine; and doctors, nurses, journalists, students, and others who were eyewitnesses to Israel’s establishment.

“The individual stories of these American Jews combine to make an unparalleled collective impact,” Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said in a statement. “The ‘Eyewitness 1948’ film brings to life inspirational stories of solidarity, peoplehood and shared destiny that deserves a broad audience in the American Jewish, Israeli, and other communities.”

The Ruderman Family Foundation — which works to educate Israelis about the American Jewish community and its relationship with Israel — is releasing these films during the annual Jewish American Heritage Month in order to showcase a little-known aspect of 20th century Jewish history that links the U.S. and Israel together.

“We want to convey the message that the State of Israel is a collective enterprise of Jews around the world,” Eric Halivni, Director of Toldot Yisrael, said in a statement. “These short films will help educate Israelis about the unique contribution that American Jews made to Israel’s founding and give American Jews a sense of pride that this is their story, too.”

For more information on “Eyewitness 1948” click here

‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Documentary to Tell Musical’s Origin Story

"Fiddler on the Roof" will be played at various Los Angeles theaters on Christmas Eve.

With a national touring production hitting Los Angeles April 16 and a Yiddish version now playing off-Broadway, “Fiddler on the Roof” is still a hot property 55  years after it opened on Broadway. The iconic musical about life in a Jewish shtetl in Czarist Russia is also the subject Max Lewkowicz’s documentary “Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles.” It tells the story of its creation in New York City In the early 1960s as well as its legacy, influences, and impact.

The film includes background on author Sholem Aleichem, whose stories are the basis of the show; footage of international “Fiddler” productions and choreographer Jerome Robbins at work; and interviews with lyricist Sheldon Harnick, producer Hal Prince, actor Austin Pendleton, Chaim Topol, who starred in the film version; and such notables as Itzhak Perlman, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Fran Lebowitz.

“Fiddler on the Roof” won nine Tony Awards and was the reigning longest-running Broadway musical for nearly a decade. There have been five revivals since the original Broadway production in 1964.

Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films will release “Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles” this summer.

Paying Tribute to Nuremberg’s Little-Known Hero

Ben Ferencz

Among the most high-profile cases in the Nuremberg Trials from 1945 to 1949 was the prosecution and conviction of 22 members of Heinrich Himmler’s Einsatzgruppen death squads. The prosecutor in the case was a 27-year-old Jewish lawyer named Ben Ferencz and, chances are, you’ve never heard of him. Writer-director-producer Barry Avrich has endeavored to correct that with his new documentary, “Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz.”

“Ben should be as well known as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa,” Avrich told the Journal. “Part of my mission with the film was to make sure that people know who the 99-year-old Ferencz is, and will always remember him and his legacy.”

Avrich first learned about Ferencz in 2017 when he saw a “60 Minutes” segment about him. He contacted Ferencz the next day and got the go-ahead to make the film. “I’ve made close to 50 documentaries. This was the simplest green light I’ve ever received,” he said. “Two months later we were filming.”

The documentary chronicles Ferencz’s life and accomplishments through archival footage, contemporary footage Avrich shot in Nuremberg, and interviews with notables including Alan Dershowitz, Gen. Wesley Clark, and Ferencz himself, who lives in Delray Beach, Fla.

Avrich interviewed Ferencz for eight hours, after which the nonagenarian jumped into the pool — as he does daily — for the cameras. Avrich marveled at his subject’s vitality, optimism and acute awareness. “He reads newspapers. He goes online. He stays focused. He’s alert, cognizant, fit. As you get older, you have two choices: Let age swallow you up or fight it. He fights it.”

“Ben’s religion was irrelevant. He’s not a religious man. It’s not what drove him. He’s a crusader, and his mantra is law over war.” — Barry Avrich

As the film chronicles, Ferencz’s family fled anti-Semitism in what is now Hungary, arriving in New York in 1920 when he was 10 months old. Despite meager circumstances, he studied hard and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School in 1943. 

After enlisting in the Army two years later, and serving under Gen. George Patton, Ferencz was transferred to Patton’s headquarters in England and tasked with collecting evidence of Nazi war crimes. Ferencz uncovered recorded evidence that convicted the 22 Einsatzgruppen defendants, 13 of whom were hanged. But his work didn’t end there. He was instrumental in helping Jews reclaim property taken by the Nazis and in getting Germany to agree to preserve hundreds of Jewish cemeteries in perpetuity. He argued human rights and civil liberties cases, wrote books on international criminal law and spearheaded the creation of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. 

“He considers his greatest contribution to be the work he did after World War II in helping to set up the restitution programs for Holocaust survivors, not only Jews but all those who had their lives ruined,” his son, Don Ferencz, said in a later interview. “He considers this most meaningful because the [Einsatzgruppen trial] did hopefully strengthen the concept of a stronger rule of law, but does little to assuage the pain of survivors.”

Avrich pointed out that in prosecuting at Nuremberg, “Ben’s religion was irrelevant. He’s not a religious man. It’s not what drove him. He’s a crusader and his mantra is law over war.” 

“I think he feels more culturally identified as part of a broader Jewish community than as a person of faith,” Don elaborated. “He doesn’t have a well-developed sense of spiritual identity. He’s here to do the best he can to help improve things here while he’s here.”

Don, who followed his father into the law, spoke of the valuable lessons Ferencz taught him and his sisters. “We were brought up to think for ourselves and not blindly accept old ways of solving new problems and have a healthy disrespect for bureaucratic authority. He’d say, ‘You’re a Ferencz. Nothing’s impossible for you. There’s no such thing as ‘can’t.’ He’d say, ‘Your integrity is your most valuable possession. Don’t ever do anything that you would be ashamed of.’ If we all followed that, I think we’d have a better world than we do now,” he said. “It’s a big job to try to influence the way the global society thinks, especially when it comes to the age-old glorification of war. But he set a good example and continues to set a good example.”

“He’s easily the most extraordinary living person on the planet,” Avrich said. When he showed Ferencz the film for the first time, “[Ferencz] wept and put his hand on my hand and said, ‘This is all I can ever ask for.’ I realized at that point if no one ever saw the film, it didn’t matter to me. Ben had been alive to see it and I was satiated.”

The Toronto-based filmmaker, also a director of live specials, award shows and concerts, and stage-to-screen adaptations of Shakespeare plays at Ontario’s Stratford Festival, grew up in a kosher home in Montreal. “I’m not a religious person today but I’m passionate about my Jewish faith and heritage,” he said. He has been to Israel several times and hopes to screen “Prosecuting Evil” there at Yad Vashem. He’s also working to get it shown in U.S. schools, particularly non-Jewish ones.  

Avrich, whose credits include films about Winston Churchill, Lew Wasserman and Harvey Weinstein, is currently working on documentaries about an art forgery case and producer-composer David Foster. 

“I have no interest in making money on [‘Prosecuting Evil’],” Avrich said. “I want to see it get to the widest audience possible.”

“Prosecuting Evil” opens March 1 at Laemmle’s Music Hall.

‘RBG’ Scores Nods for Documentary and Original Song

Julie Cohen (from left), Diane Warren and Betsy West. Photo courtesy of Betsy West

When directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West watched the Academy Awards nomination announcements on Jan. 22, they were surprised and thrilled to hear that their Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary, “RBG,” was nominated for best documentary feature.

“I was very nervous going into the nominations and when we heard that we were nominated, it felt joyful,” Cohen told the Journal. “Now we can relax and begin to enjoy this amazing experience. It’s a very exciting thing when you’re in the great position to have a film that a lot of people connect with.”

Shortly thereafter, the filmmakers had the “great honor” of sharing the news with the Supreme Court justice herself, as Ginsburg was at home recovering from her recent lung surgery. “The biggest thrill of that conversation was just hearing how good she sounded. She sounded really peppy,” Cohen said. “She was really enthusiastic about the film being nominated. She said she felt that it was eminently well-deserved.”

Now streaming on Hulu, “RBG” was both a critical and box-office success. 

“I think there’s a lot in Justice Ginsburg’s story to connect with,” Cohen said. “First of all, she’s become a pop culture icon to a lot of young people. But also, there’s this successful, long-waged battle that she fought starting in the 1970s to secure equal rights for
women under the law and it’s very, very resonant today.”

The director believes Ginsburg’s multigenerational popular appeal and the film’s lighthearted humor have a lot to do with the success of “RBG.” “We didn’t want it to
feel like a history lesson,” Cohen said. “I’m a big fan of comedy in all movies, including serious movies and documentaries.”

Win or lose on Oscar night, “being nominated will have a very big impact and really help us get more attention for the kind of projects we want to do,” Cohen said. “It just increases the visibility of a film that was actually quite visible for a documentary, so that’s great. I feel like the success, the attention and acclaim for ‘RBG,’ both the woman and our film, certainly gives a boost to projects that Betsy [West] and I want to make together, particularly projects that focus on women. We’re working on two, but we’re not disclosing who they are right now.”

Cohen has seen “On the Basis of Sex,” the scripted feature about Ginburg’s early career, and said she thought it was “terrific. It told a slice of Justice Ginsburg’s story that people aren’t familiar with. It happened to be a case that we didn’t include in our film because there isn’t footage of it. Not only is it the beginning of her work on gender discrimination, but it also shows the deep connection between her life’s work and her husband, Marty.”

While she believes that Ginsburg “doesn’t need films to make her more famous,” Cohen thinks that both movies benefited from widespread public interest in Ginbsurg and may benefit each other. “We heard from a number of people that had seen the documentary and then felt very eager to see the feature film,” Cohen said. “Conversely, people who had seen the film in theaters are now saying they wanted to watch the documentary because they wanted to see her in the flesh, telling her own story.”

“RBG” also is nominated in the best original song category for “I’ll Fight,” written by Diane Warren and sung by Jennifer Hudson. “RBG” score composer Miriam Cutler and executive music producer Bonnie Greenberg brought Warren on board. 

“Diane captured the spirit and the essence of the film and Justice Ginsburg without making [the song] super specific,” Cohen said. “In fact, Jennifer Hudson said that when she recorded it, she was thinking about all kinds of fights and battles in her own life. Because it’s in the first person, while it applies very neatly to Justice Ginsburg’s story, it’s universal.”

Warren, who is nominated for her 10th Oscar this year, considers “I’ll Fight” to be the third song in a defiant trilogy, after “Til It Happens to You,” sung by Lady Gaga and nominated in 2016 for the documentary “The Hunting Ground,” and “Stand Up for Something,” sung by Andra Day and nominated last year for the film “Marshall.” “Justice Ginsburg has fought for all of us. What better lyric to write than ‘I’ll fight’?” she said, calling Hudson “the perfect vocal avatar.”

Warren told the Journal she’s glad the academy dropped its proposal to limit the best song performances to two. “I figured it would work itself out, and it did,” she said.

Currently, Warren is working on music projects with singers Elle King and Fifth Harmony’s Ally Brooke. And she’s already thinking about possibilities for next year’s Oscar nominations. “This Is Us” actress Chrissy Metz recorded one of Warren’s songs for an upcoming movie called “Breakthrough,” and another song, “Call the Shots,” is on the soundtrack of the new release “Miss Bala.” 

Warren, who once again had friends over for a “sleepless sleepover” party to wait for the nomination announcements, said “it doesn’t get less exciting” to hear her name. 

“I don’t ever take it for granted,” she said. “The nomination is a win. When you think that there were over 90 songs from movies this year, five songs get chosen and mine was one of them — that was a win in itself. It’s always fun to be in the game.”

A Divided Israel On Display in ‘Foreign Land’

Photo by Shlomi Eldar

Longtime friends Shlomi Eldar, an Iraqi Jew, and Gassan Abbas, an Arab, were both born in Israel but feel like strangers in their country. They express their reasons why in Eldar’s documentary “Foreign Land,” a very personal examination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Abbas, a sitcom star in Israel in the 1990s, was once so popular he feared being mobbed by fans. Now, denied roles, he’s afraid because he’s Arab-Israeli and he fled Tel Aviv for the Arab border town of Umm al-Fahm near Haifa. “I don’t belong,” he says in the film.

Eldar, a TV journalist covering Arab Affairs — a subject that fell on increasingly deaf ears at both his television channel and with the public — left Israel for the United States in 2013. The author of the 2012 book “Getting to Know Hamas,” who also speaks fluent Arabic, he put his expertise to work at the Wilson Center, a global affairs think tank in Washington, D.C. 

“I’m not Arab like Gassan, but we are in the same position,” Eldar told the Journal. “We have the feeling of being a stranger.” 

Eldar and Abbas met when Abbas was cast in a play based on the book “I Shall Not Hate” by peace advocate Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian whose three daughters and niece were killed by Israeli army shells that hit their home at the end of the 2008-09 Gaza War. Abuelaish appears in the film, as do scenes from the play mixed with news footage and interviews with Abbas, his son Nadim and testimony from Eldar.

“Israel has become a divided society. I wanted to [hold] a mirror [up] to the Israeli public and show what’s going on,” Eldar said. He originally intended to cover the subject as a documentary series for Israel’s Channel 10, “but no one wanted to hear about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially a story that shows a Palestinian as a human being, and [talks about] the possibility of peace with a two-state solution. Since 2013, especially, anyone who opposes [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and his policies and wants to talk about the peace process is [seen as] a traitor.”

When “Foreign Land” was released in Israel, Culture Minister Mimi Regev denounced it as anti-Israel, but it nevertheless won the Ophir for best documentary this year, Eldar’s second in the category. He previously won for his first film, “Precious Life,” about an Israeli doctor who saved the life of a Palestinian baby. That film’s hopeful ending is absent from “Foreign Land.” 

“I’ve covered wars in Gaza and Lebanon but never felt a danger more than now,” Eldar said.  “The greater war is inside the society because of the government. The right wing convinced the Israeli public that there is no possibility of peace. And we can do nothing because there are now 400,000 settlers in the West Bank and it would be almost impossible to remove them. Also, the Palestinians are more extreme than they were five, 10 years ago.” 

Eldar said he’s not surprised that American Jews are conflicted about Israel. “Many American Jews think Israel is going in the wrong direction, especially younger people. They worry about the future of Israel. I want them to be aware of the dangers of the situation. You need to be aware of the situation so you can solve it.”

Now living in the U.S., Eldar said he has gone from one divided society to another.

“What’s going on with the Supreme Court, the media and [President Donald] Trump’s government frightens me just as much as in Israel,” he said. “You can hear a lot of familiar phrases from Netanyahu’s speeches in Trump’s speeches. [They have] a lot in common.”

Eldar’s next project is a series about the American Jewish community, “historically and how it is today,” for Israeli TV. Expected to take several years, it will keep him in New York for now, but he hopes to return home one day. “I don’t want to die in America,” he said. “Israel is my country.” 

“Foreign Land” opens Nov. 2 at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino and will screen at the Israel Film Festival on Nov. 18 at the Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills.

‘Science Fair’ Celebrates Beautiful Minds

From left: Harsha Paladugu, Abraham Riedel-Mishaan, Ryan Folk Photo courtesy of Nat. Geographic Documentary Films

Every year, 1,700 of the best and brightest high school students from 80 countries compete in the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). At stake is a $75,000 top prize and recognition that has the potential to make a difference in their lives, and just may change the world. This battle of the brains is the subject of the documentary “Science Fair,” which follows students as they prepare their entries for the competition. 

Co-directed by Darren Foster and Cristina Costantini, who competed twice at ISEF, the film was voted Festival Favorite at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and on had its premiere on the National Geographic Channel September 14th. 

The film follows a diverse group of subjects, among them a pair of teens from a poor community in Brazil who have indentified a protein that could inhibit the spread of the Zika virus; two entrants from the science-focused duPont Manual High School in Louisville, Ky.; and a South Dakota teen from a school that breathes football and has no science program. It also follows a science teacher from Jericho, N.Y., who has had nine students who qualified for ISEF in 2017.

“The film follows a diverse group of subjects, among them a pair of teens from a poor community in Brazil who have indentified a protein that could inhibit the spread of the Zika virus.”

At duPont Manual, the filmmakers selected Anjali Chadha, who built a device that detects arsenic levels in water, and a trio of seniors, Ryan Folz, Harsha Paladugu and Abraham Riedel-Mishaan, inventors of an electronic 3D-printed stethoscope that automatically connects to an online database of heart sounds, making diagnoses easier.  

“They started following us around as we were preparing and practicing presentation,” Riedel-Mishaan told the Journal. “I thought ISEF was a fantastic experience. I saw a lot of amazing projects and met incredible people from all over the world, and got to talk about research with them.”

Riedel-Mishaan has always been interested in math, but a summer camp robotics program after his freshman year expanded that to computer science, which he put to use in his project. 

He’s the son of math professors, who emphasized the importance of education. His father is German and his Guatemalan-born Jewish mother has ancestry in France, Spain, Jamaica “and somewhere in the Middle East. I know some of the people on her side were fleeing Nazi Germany,” Riedel-Mishaan said. “Her family was very religious but she wasn’t and I wasn’t raised with it either. But we did celebrate some of the holidays. My mother wanted me to know about the traditions, so if later in life I wanted to get more involved, I at least would have some aspects of a Jewish upbringing.”

Riedel-Mishaan is now a computer science major at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he’s an orientation adviser for the fall class of freshmen. He hasn’t decided whether he’ll become a software engineer or get his doctorate and become a professor like his parents. “I really enjoy the theory of computer science and I’d like to explore that further,” he said.

He considers “Science Fair” “a really great way to tell kids about the amazing things we have out there for young scientists, and let them know you can get involved in research and do amazing work while you’re still in high school.”

He also hopes that “Science Fair” makes people more aware of the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and the part science fairs can play in that. “It would be great if it can lead to more science programs in schools,” he said.

“Science Fair” opens in theaters on Sept. 21. 

Netflix Claims Farrakhan Documentary Won’t Be Released, Blames ‘Internal Miscommunication’

Photo from Flickr.

Netflix has announced that a documentary of Louis Farrakhan will not be released on their platform, stating that indications to the contrary were due to an “internal miscommunication.”

Farrakhan tweeted that on July 30 that the documentary would air on Netflix on August 1, although that tweet has since been deleted. Some lists of upcoming releases on Netflix showed the documentary as appearing

“This film will not be released on Netflix,” a Netflix spokesperson told Fox News on July 31. “Due to an internal miscommunication, it appeared to be scheduled for release on Netflix, but it is not. We apologize for any confusion this has caused.”

Not everyone is buying Netflix’s explanation.

“Clearly, someone at Netflix thought they were going to stream this starting today,” Hot Air blogger John Sexton wrote on August 1. “Someone also told Farrakhan it was a done deal which is why he was promoting it. I wonder if that’s what killed it.”

Sexton added, “Farrakhan’s teasing of the show on Twitter and the subsequent questions posed to Netflix by Fox News and others probably led someone higher up in the company to realize they were about to make a big mistake.”

The documentary, titled “The Honourable Minister Louis Farrakhan: My Life’s Journey Through Music,” which was produced by Farrakhan’s son Joshua in 2013 and features musicians like Stephanie Mills and Stevie Wonder, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The documentary was shown to attendees at Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam Saviours’ Day Convention in 2014.

Farrakhan has come under public scrutiny for his ties to certain Democrats and progressive leaders as well as his litany of anti-Semitic statements.

Netflix to Launch Documentary On Farrakhan

Screenshot from Twitter.

Update: On July 31, Netflix said the film will not be released on Netflix and there was an internal miscommunication. More information coming.

Netflix will be releasing a documentary in August about Louis Farrakhan, who has a history of anti-Semitic and homophobic remarks.

Farrakhan announced the documentary’s release in a tweet, stating: “On August 1st, watch the premiere of my music documentary “My Life’s Journey Through Music” on @netflix.”

The documentary, titled “The Honourable Minister Louis Farrakhan: My Life’s Journey Through Music,” was produced by Farrakhan’s son in 2014 and discusses Farrakhan’s life and career.

Farrakhan has been in the news in recent months due to his ties to Democratic representatives like Reps. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Danny Davis (D-IL) as well as progressive activists like Women’s March Board co-president Tamika Mallory.

According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL):

“Farrakhan has embarked on a wide-ranging anti-Jewish campaign, which has featured some of the most hateful speeches of his career.  He has repeatedly alleged that the Jewish people were responsible for the slave trade as well as the 9/11 attacks, and that they continue conspire to control the government, the media, Hollywood, and various Black individuals and organizations.”

The ADL also noted that Farrakhan has met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on multiple occasions.

Simon Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper said in a statement sent to the Journal, “We hope that Netflix is planning to afford the opportunity to the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other critics  to share with Netflix viewers Farrakhan’s six decades long history of bigotry and anti-Semitism.”

Netflix has not responded to the Journal’s request for comment.

Moldovan Jews’ Tragic History in ‘Absent’

When Los Angeles filmmaker Matthew Mishory set about making his 2015 documentary, “Absent,” about the ghost village of Marculesti in Moldova, it was personal.

Mishory’s father and grandparents left Moldova prior to World War II, and the 35-year-old Mishory is the only family member who has ever returned. The documentary explores what became of the once vibrant Jewish mercantile community in Bessarabia (now Molodova), which flourished for more than 100 years.

The  71-minute film begins with Mishory narrating, “On a July day in 1941, nearly a thousand people, the entire population of Marculesti, were shot by the Romanian army. I wanted to find out what the current residents thought about the village’s history.”

The village is now one of Europe’s poorest, most remote and least-visited places.

Mishory titled the film ”Absent” because “ultimately, I thought the village and the film were as evocative for what wasn’t visible as what was. This is my only film without complex camera movements or even music. The silence of the place became the score.”

“On a July day in 1941, nearly a thousand people, the entire population of Marculesti, were shot by the Romanian army. I wanted to find out what the current residents thought about the village’s history.” – Matthew Mishory

By the time the film went into production, Mishory’s father was already quite ill.

“I had the memorable experience of calling [my father], after a day of filming, from the former schoolhouse building in the center of the village, where my grandfather had once been a teacher,” Mishory said. “I think my father was pleased somebody had finally paid tribute in some small way to what it had been but no longer is. It was the settling of a very old account.”

Mishory began filming in the fall of 2013. Heading to Marculesti, he said he was aware of the state of the Jewish cemetery. “I knew it had been abandoned to the overgrowth, so I had a sense that this was a place that had a difficult and tenuous relationship with its history.”

Mishory interviewed residents who said they had no idea of the village’s history, a  historian who adamantly denied the massacre, and a village elder who seemed to have been waiting her whole life to share what happened to the village’s Jews. The film ends with the mayor’s 14-year-old son leading the filmmakers to the location of a mass grave, the site of the massacre.

“You really see the full spectrum [in the film] of denial to acceptance with quite a lot of misinformation and, I would say, willful avoidance in the center of the spectrum,” Mishory said. “And that’s closest to the truth of the place.”

Mishory completed the film in 2015 and “Absent” premiered at the Astra Film Festival in Sibiu, Romania, in October that year.

“In a broader sense, the film isn’t about the past, it’s about the present,” Mishory said. “It’s about how we talk about [what happened] and if there’s something to be gained or lost from that history slowly eroding.”

“Absent” is streaming on Amazon. 

Filmmaker Explores Shoah’s Aftermath

From left, Erika Jacoby, Jon Kean, Eva Beckmann and Renee Firestone at a November 2016 screening at the American Jewish University. Photo by Gary Leonard.

Writer-director Jon Kean documented the harrowing experiences of six female Holocaust survivors in his 2007 documentary, “Swimming in Auschwitz.” A decade later, his sequel “After Auschwitz” focuses on the aftermath of liberation, emigration and ultimately, how the same six women rebuilt their lives in Los Angeles.

“I’d never thought of liberation as being a sad day, that’s how naïve I was,” Kean told the Journal. “Liberation was awful for these women. That’s what drove me to make this film. I wanted to see the world through survivors’ eyes. When you’ve seen such tragedy and trauma you’d be forgiven if you gave up. But it’s the exact opposite with these women.”

After interviewing his subjects for the second time, Kean had 30 hours of emotional testimony to condense into 80 minutes. “I knew them so well that we could get to the core of things so quickly. They trusted me,” he said.

The finished product tells “an emotional story that covers history, sociology, psychology and Los Angeles in the 20th century — how Angelenos welcomed these survivors and either made life easier for them or more difficult,” he said.

Kean partnered with the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust to raise funds for the film, promote it and get it screened for young people who might not be familiar with the story. “They know the Holocaust happened but don’t know the facts,” he said. “I’m putting together a curriculum guide with the museum for the next school year. That’s where we can really affect people.”

Growing up in Philadelphia in a family with “a very strong Jewish identity but not as strong religiously,” Kean, 50, became interested in the Holocaust early on.

“In another five years, the eyewitnesses to the greatest horror of mankind will be gone.” — Jon Kean

“The father of one of my best friends was an Auschwitz survivor, and I remember him coming to our Hebrew school and talking with us. The ‘Holocaust’ miniseries came out when I was 11, and it was so powerful to me. I was transfixed by it,” he said. “My bar mitzvah speech was about Simon Wiesenthal and hunting for Nazi war criminals. I got to meet Simon 10 years ago in Vienna.”

Kean earned a degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania but joined a friend in an acting class on a whim, moved to Hollywood, and landed roles on TV shows, including “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Clueless.” Moving behind the camera, he co-wrote and co-directed the 1999 comedy “Kill the Man,” but failed to get subsequent scripts produced. “I wanted to do something that was more meaningful,” he said.

Kean is considering Rwandan genocide survivors as his next subject. “There is an urgency right now,” he said. “It’s not just people forgetting the Holocaust, it’s people forgetting what’s happening right now.”

That urgency exists on another level, with the Shoah generation disappearing. Three of “After Auschwitz’s” six subjects have died.

“In another five years, the eyewitnesses to the greatest horror of mankind will be gone,” Kean said, noting that Renee Firestone, 94, “travels all over the United States and speaks almost every day because she knows she has to do it now. Erika Jacoby [age 90] does the same.”

Kean said he knows “there are a lot of people who won’t see the film because of the word ‘Auschwitz.’ But to me this is a post-Holocaust story, a story about overcoming trauma. Everybody can relate to that.”

“After Auschwitz” opens May 4 at the Laemmle Music Hall and Laemmle Town Center 5 theaters. Some screenings will feature a Q-and-A session.

‘RBG’ Tells Remarkable Story of Justice Ginsburg

Her childhood friends call her Kiki. To her grandchildren, she’s Bubbe. And among social media-immersed millennials, she’s achieved pop icon status as the Notorious RBG. But most people know Ruth Bader Ginsburg as Justice Ginsburg, the venerable liberal voice and first Jewish woman on the Supreme Court of the United States.

In their enlightening documentary “RBG,” filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen highlight the many accomplishments of Ginsburg’s illustrious legal career and her work as a lifelong defender of civil rights and equality for women, while revealing the often-surprising details of her personal life.

“We want people to learn more about her history, but we also want them to see her as a human being, and we think that comes through in this film,” Cohen said when she and West met with the Journal.

Among the revelations: Ginsburg is a night owl, a terrible cook, is passionate about the opera and has quite the collection of fancy white collars to wear with her black robes. The 85-year-old justice works out regularly with a trainer, lifting weights and doing planks and pushups while wearing a “Super Diva” sweatshirt.

Ginsburg’s exercise regimen is “a great symbol of the determination she has shown throughout her life,” West said. “Whenever she’s met a challenge, she attacks it headlong and figures out a way. Her challenge as an older woman is to keep herself in shape to do the job that she loves.”

It took West and Cohen two years to secure the justice’s participation, but once she was on board, they were granted access to Ginsburg in the gym, at home, in her office and at public appearances and social occasions. In the end, they had 100 hours of archival audio and video, home movies, and newly shot interview footage with Ginsburg, her associates, friends, family members and notables, including Gloria Steinem and Bill Clinton, who nominated Ginsburg for the Supreme Court during his presidency.

“The idea of a quiet little Jewish grandma as a rock star is a little ridiculous and crazy. The unexpectedness is a big part of it.” — Julie Cohen

The filmmakers included never-before-seen footage of Ginsburg and her late husband, Marty, who was her greatest champion, and video clips of her with the late Justice Antonin Scalia. The two justices “had interests in the law and opera in common, and on the basis of IQ, they were kindred spirits even though their positions were different on legal issues,” Cohen said. Scalia and Marty had something in common, West noted: “They made her laugh.”

In “RBG,” Ginsburg is seen cracking up while watching Kate McKinnon’s impersonation of her in a clip from “Saturday Night Live.”

“She’s a serious, reserved person who does have a sense of humor,” Cohen said. “She can have fun at her own expense.”

Ginsburg was also quite amused by the internet-fueled Notorious RBG phenomenon, which went viral because “people were galvanized by her words, her ideas and by her speaking truth to power by these powerful dissents that she issued. It just happened organically,” West said. “It mushroomed because people loved it. [The idea of] a quiet little Jewish grandma as a rock star is a little ridiculous and crazy,” Cohen added. “The unexpectedness is a big part of it.”

“RBG” traces Ginsburg’s roots to her childhood in New York, as the only child of Russian-Jewish immigrants. “She grew up in Manhattan, but her parents were from the tenements of the Lower East Side and they would bring her there to show her where they’d worked so hard to leave,” Cohen said. “Her story is a Jewish story. She’s from immigrant stock, and education was everything. Her family wanted her to succeed in the professional world and she took that to heart. The fact that she was a girl didn’t stand in the way.”

Cohen added that Ginsburg’s Jewish identity “means a lot to her, and it’s grown stronger in recent years. She speaks at temples and at JCCs frequently. She’s a great role model for Jewish women.” A Jewish New Yorker herself, Cohen said she “can relate to [Ginsburg’s] ambitions and aspirations. I see the reflection of my own family in her.”

“RBG” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where Ginsburg saw it for the first time.

“We had the great experience of sitting across the aisle from her and were able to watch her watching it. She was extremely engaged in the film,” Cohen said. At the post-screening Q&A session, the justice “said she had high expectations and they were exceeded,” West added. “We were speechless.”

Ginsburg, who battled cancer twice, in 1999 and 2009, appears to be in good health now and “keeps up a very vigorous travel schedule. She has a lot of energy,” West said.

The film’s theatrical release will be followed by its debut on CNN and streaming services this fall.

“I hope the audience gets an appreciation for the role she’s played in American history, from fighting for and winning rights for women as a young lawyer in the 1970s to her scathing dissents as a Supreme Court justice,” West said.

“I also hope they get some insight into her strategy, how she figured out how to appeal to the male justices and make them understand that discrimination actually exists,” she added. “You may admire the notorious RBG, but there’s probably a lot you don’t know about her. There’s so much more to her surprising, romantic and inspiring story, and that’s the story we wanted to tell.”

“RBG” opens May 4 at the Laemmle Music Hall and Town Center 5 theaters.

‘I’VE GOTTA BE ME’: The Complex Life of Sammy Davis Jr.

Photo from the Estate of Altovise Davis.

The recently released documentary, “Sammy Davis Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” begins with a clip of Davis performing onstage, in which he tells the audience: “I’m colored, Jewish and Puerto Rican. When I move into a neighborhood, I wipe it out.”

The line, which elicits raucous laughter and thunderous applause, serves as an introduction to the documentary’s attempt to unravel the complexity of one of America’s greatest entertainers.

Written by Laurence Maslon and directed by Emmy Award-winner Sam Pollard, the documentary premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year and will be screened at the April 25 opening gala of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. It will also be shown on PBS stations later this year as part of the American Masters series.

“It’s such an extraordinary film about an extraordinary entertainer, not just in how Davis made his way through America over decades, but also his role as an activist,” said the film festival’s executive director, Hilary Helstein.

After the film’s screening, there will be a Q-and-A with George Schlatter (creator of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”), actor Tom Dreesen and Davis’ son, Manny Davis. Actor Stan Taffel — Davis’ archivist, will moderate the Q-and-A.

In the 100-minute documentary, Pollard has rounded up Hollywood legends such as Schlatter, Billy Crystal, Norman Lear, Kim Novak, the late Jerry Lewis, Whoopi Goldberg and Quincy Jones to share their memories and insights about the legendary performer who died in 1990 at the age of 64.

“I know there’s sort of a kinship between the plight of a Negro and the plight of a Jew: the oppression, the segregation, the constant trying to survive and trying to achieve dignity.” — Sammy Davis Jr.

The film shines a light on Davis’ formidable talents as a singer, dancer, actor and impressionist. It homes in on his hardscrabble childhood, when he began performing with his family at the age of 3 and never went to school. And it focuses on Davis’ struggles as a Black man trying to live in a white-dominated world.

“[Davis] was such a unique blend of talent and insecurity and anger and perseverance — in what he went through to being accepted,” we hear from one of the film’s voiceovers. “He was a complicated Black man in a society where race and culture have always posited certain challenges.”

Davis was one of the members of the “Rat Pack,” a group of entertainers including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop and others who socialized together while performing in Las Vegas and in Hollywood movies in the 1960s. Yet, as the film points out, while his Rat Pack buddies would stay in hotels on The Strip, Davis was forced to head to the outskirts of town to stay at ‘Black Only’ hotels.

When he fell in love with white actress Kim Novak, Columbia Studios threatened to ruin both their careers if they married. Davis ended up marrying a Black woman to quell the brewing scandal.

In 1943, at the age of 18, Davis was drafted into the U.S. Army’s first integrated infantry unit, where he was subjected to such overt racial prejudice that he eventually punched out one of his colleagues. In an interview in the film, Davis speaks about how he was painted white and had urine poured into his beer.

Despite working with his Rat Pack friend Frank Sinatra to help campaign for John F. Kennedy’s presidential run, Kennedy refused to allow Davis to perform with the Rat Pack at his inauguration, because Davis had married Swedish actress May Britt, a white woman, at a time when interracial marriages were still illegal in 31 states.

Davis was deeply involved in the civil rights movement and participated in the 1963 March on Washington alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

And yet, he would later end up alienated by many people within the Black community due to his support of Republican President Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign — even though he had been a lifelong Democrat.

Davis and his new wife, Altovise — at Nixon’s invitation — would become the first Black people invited to stay at the White House (sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom no less). But in a clip included in the documentary, he speaks about how he later apologized for supporting Nixon, which he considered a mistake.

Sammy Davis Jr. in a scene from the documentary “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me.” Photo from the Estate of Altovise Davis.

The episode cements the movie’s title, which, while also the name of Davis’ signature song, underscores his role as a trailblazer who did things on his own terms, no matter the consequences.

Davis was the first Black man to do impressions of white people. Norman Lear, who produced “All in the Family,” says in the documentary that it was Davis’ idea to plant a kiss on the cheek of Carroll O’Connor’s character Archie Bunker — a bigoted white man — in his guest appearance on the show.

And, of course, in 1961 Davis was the first famous Black entertainer in Hollywood to convert to Judaism — at a Las Vegas ceremony after studying with Rabbi Max Nussbaum at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

In 1953, Davis met and would go on to become lifelong friends with performer Eddie Cantor. Cantor gave Davis a mezuzah, which Davis wore around his neck as a good luck charm.

On Nov. 15, 1954, Davis was in a horrific car accident in San Bernardino while driving back to Los Angeles from a show in Las Vegas. He lost his left eye in the crash and later said it was the one night he forgot to wear the mezuzah. During his stay in the hospital, the hospital’s chaplain rabbi visited him.

In the documentary Davis says that despite his mother being Catholic and his father Baptist, “After the accident I needed something desperately to hold onto. I found myself being more and more convinced that Judaism was it for me. I know there’s sort of a kinship between the plight of a Negro and the plight of a Jew: the oppression, the segregation, the constant trying to survive and trying to achieve dignity.”

Davis also speaks about the difficulty of coming back from the accident. He recalls how his great friend Jerry Lewis flew out in his private plane to Davis’ hospital bedside. “All I did was sit with him for seven days,” Lewis says in the film.

Davis also speaks openly about how it took him two years to achieve the simple act of pouring water into a glass from a pitcher.

Davis didn’t merely pay lip service to his newly embraced religion. While filming “Porgy and Bess” in 1959, he told studio head Samuel Goldwyn that he would not work on Yom Kippur. He would continue to publically embrace his Judaism.

At the beginning of the documentary, Davis, Sinatra and Martin are performing onstage when Sinatra says, “I’ve got to catch a train soon.” Davis quips, “What are you complaining about? I’ve got to go to a bar mitzvah in a minute.”

Davis’ adopted son, Manny, recently told the Journal in an email, that he had found his father’s conversion “strange.” Initially raised not practicing any religion, Manny said he always thought that Jews and Catholics were white. After being adopted by Davis and Altovise, Manny wrote, “I now had a Black Catholic mother and a Black Jewish father. I didn’t know what to think.” However, he added, his parents had a plaque on their front door that read, “Anyone of any race, creed, color or religion is welcome in this home, as long as you bring love in your heart.”

Davis spent his personal and professional lives trying to be both included and inclusive. In the documentary, American Jewish historian David Kaufman notes, “Sammy was a one-eyed Negro Jew appearing together on the same stage [as the Rat Pack]. It was a pretty powerful statement of inclusion. He [was] one of the boys.”

It was precisely Davis’ combination of being Black and Jewish that made him such an iconic touchstone. In an email to the Journal, Kaufman said, “These two outsider groups are arguably the most representative minorities in the American historical experience, and, inarguably, together they have been the most essential contributors to American popular culture — a culture which cannot be imagined without the Jews who created Hollywood, the Blacks who created Jazz, the Jews who dominated American comedy, the Blacks who dominated American sports, the Jews who monopolized the Broadway musical, the Blacks who monopolized popular dance, and the many, many artists of both groups who gave us the American songbook.”

Manny Davis said he believed the Jewish community embraced his father because “he was an extremely talented entertainer who, at the time, experienced a horrible tragedy that could’ve made most people give up on the hope of having a better life. The fact that he was ‘colored’ lent a certain dynamic that was ahead of its time. He embraced the religion for the rest of his life.”

It’s also something Sammy Davis Jr. addresses in a clip in the documentary, when he says, “When you are a performer, you deal with such intangibles that you really need a religion to hold onto.”

Sammy Davis Jr. takes aim in a backstage photo with dancers from one of his shows in a scene from “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me.” Photo from the Estate of Altovise Davis.

However, it was the “tangibles” that also played a role in the entertainer’s demise. Much like the dancer in “The Red Shoes,” Davis could not stop performing and could not stop seeking the limelight and the embrace of audiences.

That urge to keep going, to keep performing, to keep traveling and to keep entertaining led to the unraveling of his marriage to May Britt, and to complicated relationships with his children.

Coming from a life of poverty, Davis embraced all the excesses that came with his hard-won successes. He always had to wear the most expensive clothes and buy the most expensive cars.

His excesses literally killed him. Davis was always smoking. In a clip in the documentary with talk-show host Larry King, Davis tells of how he promised his doctors he would quit smoking, and then, cigarette in hand, tells King on national television that, yes, he lied to his doctors.

The King appearance would be Davis’ last major interview. Barely two years later, on May 16, 1990, he died in his Beverly Hills home from laryngeal cancer.

The documentary is a fitting legacy for a man nicknamed “Mr. Show Business,” who nevertheless felt he wouldn’t be remembered. Although his only No. 1 hit would come in 1972 from the song “The Candy Man” — written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley for the 1971 film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” — Davis would always be “Mr. Bojangles,” for one of his famous songs. Originally penned as a country song in 1968 by Jerry Jeff Walker, Davis made it his own when he first recorded it in 1972.

“Mr. Bojangles” focuses on a phenomenally talented entertainer who ultimately disappears into oblivion. “That’s my fear,” Davis says in the documentary. “I’ll land up like Mr. Bojangles.”

The documentary proves otherwise. As a voice-over in the film states: “Sammy was show business from the tip of his toes to the top of his head.”

In November 1989, the Shrine Auditorium in Hollywood hosted an event celebrating Davis’ 60th year in entertainment. Although he was very ill, Davis slipped on his tap shoes and literally went toe-to-toe onstage with a much younger Gregory Hines, the renowned tap dancer, singer and actor.

Pop music legend Michael Jackson then came onstage and sang a moving tribute to Davis with the song, “You Were There.”

As the camera pans across Davis’ face, he can be seen fighting back tears.

He died six months later.

As Billy Crystal notes at the end of the documentary:

“He was a wonderful, one-of-a-kind comet who flew past the Earth way too quickly.”

Documentary Highlights ‘GI Jews’ Who Served In U.S. Armed Forces

Screenshot from YouTube.

What do Henry Kissinger, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner and half a million American Jews have in common?

They all served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II, representing 11 percent of the Jewish population in America at the time. Some 11,000 did not live to celebrate the victories over Germany and Japan in 1945.

Their deeds and presence on the battlefields and rear echelons of Europe and the Pacific are recognized in the national PBS special “GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II,” premiering on the PBS network, and locally on PBS SoCal KOCE, at 10 p.m. April 11.

PBS says the documentary is “in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day,” which commemorates the uprising of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto against Nazi troops in 1943. Britain and most countries of the European Union mark Holocaust Memorial Day on Jan. 25, the date Russian troops liberated the Auschwitz death camp in 1945.

The 90-minute-long special will evoke different emotions and remembrances, depending mainly on a viewer’s age and life experiences.

For those of us who served in the American armed forces from 1941 to 1945, it will resurrect a time, some 75 years ago, when we had full heads of hair, no wrinkles, and spent a lot of time thinking and talking about what comic strip hero Li’l Abner used to call “females of the opposite sex.”

For civilians of the era, it was a time when the country was solidly united. The clearly demarcated enemies were the “Nazis” or “Krauts” and the “Japs.” The movies featured John Wayne and similar macho types mowing down hundreds of evil-looking enemies without suffering a scratch.

The era’s popular songs promised everlasting peace and uninterrupted bliss, once the boys (and gals) came home again.

To its credit, the film pulls no punches about the anti-Semitism encountered by most of the Jewish men and women in the service. Their tormentors wore the same uniform. Many had never met a Jew before but had imbibed the stereotype of the ugly Jew with their mother’s milk.

Carl Reiner’s barracks mates couldn’t believe that the future comedian, director and writer was Jewish because “everyone” knew that Jews were draft dodgers.

Alan Moskin’s fellow soldiers frequently addressed him as “kike” or “Nigger lover,” while other Jewish soldiers were clearly worried when one of their number, Isaac Ashkenazi, insisted on praying aloud in Hebrew three or four times a day.

During this reporter’s basic training in Camp Blanding, Fla., a fellow GI asked what church I belonged to. When I said “Jewish” his eyes widened in disbelief because I didn’t have a crooked nose, didn’t lend money at exorbitant interest rates and didn’t have horns growing out of my forehead.

Finally convinced, my buddy put a hand on my shoulder and, delivering his highest compliment, said, “Tom, you’re a WHITE Jew.”

Obviously, not all gentile GIs disliked Jews, and some stood up for them when it counted. One was Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds from Knoxville, Tenn., who had been taken as a prisoner of war, along with 1,292 other U.S. soldiers, during the war’s last German counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge.

As the highest-raking noncommissioned officer among the POWs, Edmonds was ordered by the German commander of the camp, a Major Siegmann, to have all the Jewish soldiers fall out in formation the next morning.

Edmonds realized what fate awaited the 200 Jewish POWs and, instead of separating them, had all 1,292 U.S. soldiers line up in front of their barracks. The enraged Major Siegmann turned to Edmonds and insisted, “They can’t all be Jews,” to which Edmonds responded, “We are all Jews.”

At this, Siegmann pointed his pistol at Edmonds’ forehead, but the American calmly informed the German officer that “according to the Geneva Convention, we only have to give our names, rank and serial numbers. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and when we win this war, you will be tried for war crimes.”

At this, Siegmann turned around and left. After the war, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, inducted Edmonds into the ranks of its Righteous Among the Nations.

In general, anti-Semitism was not the top concern of most Jewish GIs. Comedian-writer-composer Mel Brooks, wearing the uniform he sported as Cpl. Melvin Kaminsky, asked an interviewer after finishing off his first cheeseburger, “Why did the Jews deny me this all my life?”

Long-time producer Lisa Ades, in a phone interview, cited two major influences in tackling “GI Jews.”

“I saw ‘Night and Fog,’ the French documentary on Nazi concentration camps, when I was a child in Hebrew school, and it deeply affected my sense of Judaism,” Ades said. A more contemporary factor was her marriage to Prof. James E. Young, a distinguished American Holocaust scholar.

Observing that a major portion of the Jewish GIs were children of immigrants, Ades said the documentary had special relevance today, a time when anti-immigrant voices are being raised in the United States.

Despite considerable production and publicity assistance by WNET, the PBS flagship station in New York, it took Ades almost five years to obtain sufficient financing to make the film. Major grants came from the National Endowments for the Humanities, the Corp. for Public Broadcasting and the Righteous Persons Foundation.

Despite the documentary’s eyewitness interviews and extensive research, it appears its creators could not resist romanticizing and over-simplifying the impact the war had on its participants.

“After years of battle, these pioneering servicemen and women emerged transformed: more profoundly American, more deeply Jewish, and determined to fight for equality and tolerance at home” — states the film’s press release, a statement that appears to be more retroactive hope than reality.

This is not the time and space for a deep analysis of what makes men go to war (though draftees had little choice in the matter) and the impact of their experiences. But most veterans can probably vouch that, having spent up to five years in the service, they were fully focused on mundane goals such as getting an education, starting a family and paying for a home.

It is also quite doubtful that their wartime experiences motivated Jewish vets to participate in the civil rights struggles or become markedly more religious.

Nor did the war spell the end of anti-Semitism in America or full acceptance of Jews as equal citizens. That momentous change was arguably due to other factors — the civil rights struggle and Israel’s battlefield victories that radically changed the world’s perception of Jews as fighters.

Indeed, as Ades said, “This film is not the end of the story.”

“GI Jews” airs on KOCE at 10 p.m. April 11 and at 1 p.m. April 15. The documentary can also be viewed online at www.pbs.org/gijews for four weeks, beginning April 12.

Review: ‘A Dying King’ Reveals the Medical Circumstances That Led to the Shah’s Death

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The death of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1980 had profound consequences in shaping the Middle East today, yet there was some mystery surrounding the circumstances of his death. A new film is being released that explains how the declining health of the Shah led to his departure and death, and that it could have been avoided had the Shah received proper treatment.

The documentary “A Dying King,” which was written and directed by Bobak Kalhor, consists of interviews from the many doctors treating the Shah who explained that he had been living with cancer for six years prior to the Iranian revolution. The Shah suffered from a rare type of leukemia known as chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which was diagnosed by French doctors only after the Shah noticed a lump in his spleen while water skiing.

Due to the Shah’s paranoia of his people viewing him as weak, only a handful of people knew he was dealing with cancer; even his family didn’t know. But the Shah’s declining health from the cancer inhibited his ability to lead the country, and was a driving factor behind his decision to leave Iran when the revolution was brewing.

The Shah bounced around various countries, including Mexico, Morocco, the Bahamas the United States and Egypt. His health deteriorated to the point where his cancer had turned into a more severe form of lymphoma, and eventually his spleen had to be removed. But, according to the documentary, the surgeon who removed the Shah’s spleen accidentally snipped off part of his pancreas because the spleen was never drained, causing an infection. He eventually succumbed to his ailments in July 1980.

“A Dying King” suggests that the Shah could have prevailed from his illness had the doctors properly treated him and had his presence in different countries not become such a major issue. For instance, Iran demanded that the U.S., which was treating the Shah in New York at the time, extradite the Shah back to Iran in exchange for the hostages that had been taken in the American embassy. The Shah was sent to another country instead.

“A Dying King” adds an additional piece to the puzzle of how the Shah lost his throne in Iran, an event that reverberates to this day.

‘One of Us’ Reveals the Bitter Consequences of Leaving Chasidic Community

Screenshot from Twitter.

Fewer than two percent of Chasidic Jews ever leave the fold. The documentary “One of Us” reveals why, telling the stories of three people who have left — and paid a high price for their personal freedom.

Etty, a young mother of seven, walks out on her abusive husband and loses custody of her children. Luzer, an actor, struggles with depression and his decision to leave his family. And Ari battles addiction as he comes to terms with the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

“Coming from a community where the collective is all that matters, these people had a ‘me’ inside that needed to have a voice,” said Heidi Ewing, who co-directed the film with Rachel Grady.

The filmmakers met in 1999 while working on a TV documentary about the Church of Scientology. “We’ve been able to build a career digging deep into subjects that interest us,” said Ewing, adding that filmmaking is “an opportunity to go into unknown worlds, ask questions and put together a story.”

Among their successes was the Oscar-nominated 2006 documentary “Jesus Camp,” about a charismatic Christian summer camp.

For their sixth film together, the filmmakers sought to crack open a window on a world they knew little about, one hidden in plain sight in their Brooklyn neighborhood.

“We were no experts on the Chasidic community before we started doing this film,” Grady said. “As outsiders, we will never truly understand.”

Grady, a nonreligious Jew, and Ewing, a non-practicing Catholic, found their way into that world through Footsteps, a support organization that helps Chasidic Jews who want to leave.

There, they found Etty, the young mother, who agreed to participate, Grady said, “with a lot of caveats,” such as hiding her face until she was ready to reveal it. “This is not someone who seeks attention,” Grady said. “She would never have chosen the spotlight had she not been in these circumstances.”

The film chronicles Etty’s custody fight amid ostracism and a smear campaign by the Chasidic community. “We couldn’t even grasp how difficult it was for these people to exit and start over — especially in Etty’s case,” Ewing said.

“She’s considered a turncoat, a traitor, because of the suspicion is that she won’t raise her children Chasidic,” Ewing said. “The way they look at it, these are the community’s children, to make up for what was lost” in the Holocaust.

Grady finds it ironic that Jews, who have a long history of facing religious oppression, would persecute their own. The Holocaust, she said, “gives you some context for this extreme behavior — things start to make sense, like why they hate the police, why they hate dogs,” she said.

Another of the film’s story lines follows Ari Hershkowitz, a young adult who as a boy was raped and beaten by a counselor at a Chasidic summer camp. He has struggled with anger, resentment and substance abuse, and is now working to stay clean and make up for lost time. “I was robbed of my life,” he says in the film.

Luzer Twersky has his own painful story. After an abusive childhood, he married at 19, fathered two children, and then walked away from his life. “Depression is something I’ll probably deal with for the rest of my life,” said Twersky, now 32. “There are issues that I deal with that have a lot more to do with how I was raised than religion.”

Describing himself as “genetically and psychologically Jewish,” Twersky said that now, “I’m not religious at all — I’m not even culturally Jewish.” He is in contact with his parents and some of his 11 siblings, but not with his ex-wife or children.

Though Twersky misses the food, the music and the sense of community, “I don’t miss the rules or the dogma or any of that, not for a second,” he said.

He drives for Uber to pay the bills, but his acting career is picking up. He often plays Jewish characters, as he did in three episodes of “Transparent” in 2015. Twersky recently shot an episode of HBO’s “High Maintenance,” and is rehearsing for a stage production of “Awake and Sing,” among other projects.

Hershkowitz is currently studying for his GED. Etty is planning to appeal the court’s custody decision. “A woman in Etty’s situation won on appeal,” Grady said, “so there’s a precedent now, a glimmer of hope.

Grady and Ewing have stayed in touch with their subjects, as the film’s release approaches. “Our main concern is preparing them for what’s coming at them,” Ewing said — including both national exposure and the Chasidic community’s potentially negative reaction.

“One of Us” has played at a handful of film festivals, before mostly New York secular Jewish audiences, who Ewing said were “outraged and offended by some of the things they saw.”

The filmmakers are currently developing several projects, including one about “fundamentalists, not necessarily religious” ones, Grady said.

As for “One of Us,” the directors say the film is less about religion than the universal theme of individuality. “I feel that it’s better to shine a light on a community that has been unchecked for so long,” Ewing said, “and have a productive conversation among Jews about these issues.”

“One of Us” opens at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and starts streaming on Netflix on Oct. 20.

Close Encounters of the Spielberg Kind

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Although Steven Spielberg is one of the world’s most respected and successful directors, earning critical acclaim and billions at the box office, he hasn’t been the subject of a feature-length documentary — until now. In more than 30 hours of interviews conducted over a year, filmmaker Susan Lacy (PBS’ “American Masters”) got the Academy Award-winning moviemaker to talk at length about his influences, his films, their themes and how his life has informed them, resulting in an HBO documentary, “Spielberg,” which premieres Oct. 7.

“He is very shy about interviews, does very few. So this was quite an extraordinary experience to hear him really open up,” Lacy said at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour. She also got more than 80 of Spielberg’s colleagues, collaborators, friends and family members to comment as Spielberg dissects his work in the film.

Full of anecdotes and fun facts about iconic movies, the documentary also is intensely personal, with revelations about Spielberg’s childhood and family and how both affected his movies. His parents’ divorce and its impact on his family influenced “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” “Saving Private Ryan” was inspired by the stories he heard from his father, a pilot who served in World War II.

“His early movies drew on what he knew,” Lacy said of Spielberg, who grew up in the Phoenix suburbs watching television, reading comic books and chasing his sisters Anne and Nancy around with a Super 8 camera. He was also the target of bullying and anti-Semitism, which made him ashamed of being Jewish.

“He didn’t want to be connected to Judaism as a child because he didn’t want to be a pariah. Growing up in the suburbs of Phoenix in the only Jewish family on the street, it made him an outsider,” Lacy told the Journal.

Neighborhood kids would laugh when Spielberg’s grandfather called him by his Hebrew name, Shmuel. “I always wanted to fit in, and being Jewish, I couldn’t fit into anything,” he confides in the film. “I began to deny my Jewishness … I didn’t want to be Jewish.”

Lacy explained that when Spielberg met actress Kate Capshaw, who converted to Judaism before their wedding in 1991, “She said, ‘You must reconnect with your faith.’ Then he made ‘Schindler’s List,’ and it brought him back completely into the fold, and proud of being Jewish.”

Spielberg had read Thomas Keneally’s book about Oskar Schindler in 1982, but held onto it for a decade until it was the right time to make the film, which earned him two Oscars and led to the creation of the USC Shoah Foundation.

“It was, emotionally, the hardest movie I’ve ever made,” he told Lacy. “It made me so proud to be a Jew.”

Capshaw and Spielberg’s seven children are not in the documentary, but his sisters, his father and his late mother are “because they were there at the birth of his becoming a filmmaker and could talk about who he was at that time in his life,” Lacy said.

With 2 1/2 hours to work with, Lacy focused on Spielberg’s film directing, eschewing other projects and giving less play to his less successful movies, including “1941” and “The Color Purple.”

“He was not reticent to talk about failures,” Lacy said. “But if you want to tell a real story with a beginning, middle and end, and in any kind of depth, you simply cannot cover everything.”

It was more important, she said, to highlight the common themes in his oeuvre, including families’ separating and reuniting, the resilience of children, fighting for freedom and good people trying to do the right thing against all odds.

“Steven is actually an incredibly personal filmmaker,” Lacy said. “The box office has never been what’s driven him. What has interested him has changed and matured as he’s grown up. But that boy who loves movies, loves moviemakers — that kid is still in him.”

Just 21 when he made his first television movie, “Duel,” he stood up to the network, refusing to blow up the menacing truck at the end of the film. He insisted on shooting “Jaws” on the ocean, although it was a logistical nightmare to do so. “Having a vision and sticking to it, not letting anybody get in the way of it — that’s probably the best lesson you could learn from Steven Spielberg,” Lacy said. “ ‘Schindler’s List,’ a 3 1/2-hour, black-and-white movie about the Holocaust, could have been a huge flop. But it was something he needed to do, he knew how to do it, and he stuck with that.”

Lacy appreciated that Spielberg “in no way tried to steer this film and did not see it until it was finished.” So when he called to tell her he liked it, “I almost fell on the floor. What happens if Steven Spielberg doesn’t like your movie?” she said. “I’d set a very high bar, and I was nervous all the time that I would not achieve it. I hope I did.”

She came away from the project secure in the knowledge that Spielberg “is exactly who he seems to be. Sometimes you’re disappointed when you meet a hero and that did not happen with Steven,” she said. “He was everything I expected him to be and more. I’m not trying to be gushy here, but he’s a really, really good human being. He’s a mensch.”

‘Drowning Sea’ focuses on Jews’ safe harbor in Shanghai

Keith Eisner (far right) shares his father’s book with Hongkou residents in “Above the Drowning Sea.” Photo courtesy of Time & Rhythm Cinema

He’s best known for crafting courtroom dramas. But longtime “Law & Order” showrunner and head writer René Balcer’s latest project takes on a different kind of drama: the escape of European Jews to Shanghai on the eve of World War II.

Balcer tells the real-life stories of Jewish refugees and the Chinese residents of Shanghai who helped them in “Above the Drowning Sea,” a feature-length documentary that follows the refugees’ voyage from Nazi-controlled Europe to the east coast of China. The film, narrated by actress Julianna Margulies, will screen on Oct. 5 at USC’s Annenberg Auditorium, as a joint presentation by the USC Shoah Foundation, USC Pacific Asia Museum and the US-China Institute.

Getting out of Europe required a visa from a foreign country, and that’s where Ho Feng-Shan came in. The Chinese consul-general in Vienna defied the Gestapo and his own government to issue as many as 3,000 visas to the refugees.

Director René Balcer

Balcer, who wrote and directed the film with longtime collaborator Nicola Zavaglia, became interested in the subject while visiting the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, housed in a former synagogue. Balcer’s wife is Chinese, and her father grew up in Shanghai.

“The documentary, to me, was a way of looking at today’s refugee crisis through a historical lens and see what history could teach us,” Balcer said in an interview in his office at the couple’s Brentwood apartment.

Strewn about the office are piles of scripts and research material for television projects, including the upcoming “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders,” an eight-episode NBC series for which Balcer served as executive producer. It recounts the 1990s case of brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez, who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing their parents.

Such true-crime fare seems like a far cry from “Above the Drowning Sea,” but Balcer always has sought out captivating historic figures. He chronicles the intricate history of Japanese-Jewish relations as effortlessly as he recites the history of race relations in his home country of Canada. Besides winning an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, a Writers Guild of America Award and four Edgar Awards for his television work, Balcer has written and produced award-winning documentaries on art and China.

Balcer shot “Above the Drowning Sea” in six countries on four continents. Among the stories told in the film is that of William Eisner, who left Austria at age 6 and traveled with his family to Shanghai in 1939. He and his son Keith Eisner recount the harrowing journey and the help he got from the Chinese.

“I feel a sorrow for his lost childhood. It was all ripped away, everything was,” Keith Eisner says in the film. Balcer has a personal connection with the younger Eisner: He once hired him to help write an episode of “Law & Order.”

Jerry Moses, born in 1934, recounts a fearful childhood in Breslau, Germany. “I always thought I was going to die. I didn’t think about toys, only death,” he says. He left Shanghai in 1947 for Chile and later worked in Los Angeles in real estate and the clothing business.

Lotte Marcus remembers her family scrambling to find a consulate that would offer them visas. After hearing of her uncle’s death at Dachau, then a labor camp, their plight became extreme. In 1939, her parents sewed diamonds into their coat linings and fled Austria with Lotte, then 11 years old.

The world turned its back on Jewish refugees, and in the summer of 1938, delegates from 32 countries met at the French resort of Evian. The delegates expressed sympathy for the German-Jewish refugees, but most countries, including the United States and Great Britain, were unwilling to ease their immigration restrictions.

Ho’s decision to help Jews escape Vienna is especially remarkable considering the Chinese nationalist government’s close ties to Nazi Germany. Hitler even trained and supplied the Chinese soldiers in their fight against the Communists. But after witnessing Kristallnacht in November 1938, in which Jewish homes, shops and synagogues were destroyed, Ho decided to help the Jews get to Shanghai.

“Great humanitarian acts aren’t necessarily the product of governments. It’s usually the product of thousands of individuals performing small acts of charity and compassion. And that’s really what we found in this,” Balcer said.

When the Nazis took over the building that held the consulate, Ho opened his own office, even setting up shop at a nearby restaurant. He became known as the Chinese Oskar Schindler.

After weeks at sea, the refugees found Shanghai to be “a city in chaos,” Marcus recalled. “The streets were loaded with cars, rickshaws, pigs, farmers carrying chickens. It was a mass of people. … We saw dead babies just lying on the street.”

Years of foreign invasion, civil war, Western occupation, poverty and famine had made Shanghai an “open city” where no one checked the passports of new arrivals. In total, more than 20,000 European Jews found safe haven there before and during World War II.

Many settled in the city’s Hongkou District, where they opened watch repair shops, photography studios and other speciality stores. They did business with the Chinese and their children played together. After the Japanese invasion, the Jews were forced into an overcrowded ghetto of approximately 1 square mile.

In one moving scene in the film, two childhood friends, one Jewish and one Chinese, are reunited after decades apart. They pore over old photographs and eat challah, recalling their time spent together during the war.

Stories like theirs are in danger of being lost. It’s why Balcer wanted to make a film about Shanghai’s Jews now — and to highlight the connection to Europe’s current migrant crisis.

Making the documentary, Balcer said, “was a way of looking at today’s refugee crisis through a historical lens and seeing what history could teach us. Because history doesn’t necessarily repeat, but it rhymes.”

“Above the Drowning Sea” will screen at 6 p.m. Oct. 5 at USC’s Annenberg Auditorium, and will be followed by a panel conversation. For more information, go to abovethedrowningsea.com.


Violence, distrust erupt in Israeli film ‘Death in the Terminal’

A scene from "Death in the Terminal." Photo courtesy of First Look Media/Topic

On Oct. 18, 2015, a terrorist began shooting inside the bus terminal in the Israeli town of Beersheba. Muhand Al-Aqabi, a Bedouin from a nearby village, shot and killed Sgt. Omri Levi, a 19-year-old soldier, and at least nine others. After a prolonged shootout, Al-Aqabi was killed by security forces.

But the shootout wasn’t the only carnage at the bus terminal that day.

A security guard shot an Eritrean asylum seeker whom he assumed to be the terrorist. As the Eritrean lie bleeding to death, Israeli civilians kicked and cursed him, and spat on him. The killing of Habtom Zarhum, a 29-year-old unarmed refugee, grabbed headlines around the world and provoked soul-searching within Israeli society.

The incident is the subject of “Death in the Terminal,” a new documentary that premieres Sept. 6 on the entertainment and media website Topic.com. In the film, directors Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry dissect the attack and the extrajudicial killing of Zarhum using cellphone video, footage from a number of security cameras and eyewitness interviews.

The documentary raises difficult questions: How does one make sense of a quickly unfolding situation in which one’s life is at risk? When should one act, and when should one gather more information? How do deeply held societal fears and prejudices affect those judgment calls? And what would each of us do in such a circumstance?

The film’s executive producers are Megan Ellison and Mark Boal, both producers of “Zero Dark Thirty,” and Israeli director Alma Har’el. It has received strong critical praise and numerous festival awards.

The filmmakers were drawn to the idea of telling the story differently than other media reports. “Nobody really looked into it,” Shemesh said. “It was so traumatic and terrible. After two days, three days, everybody forgot.”

The film reconstructs a minute-by-minute account of the 18 minutes after the attack. The eyewitnesses recall hearing the first round of gunfire, seeing -— even participating in — the beating of Zarhum, hearing a second round of shooting, and then realizing that Zarhum was not a terrorist.

“When we began, nobody wanted to talk to us,” Shemesh said. Through research, they were able to locate eyewitnesses to the incident.

The attack came amid heightened tensions, with stabbings and shootings of Israelis and Palestinians filling the day’s news.

“It was a very tense period of time,” Shemesh said. “People were panicked. … I was scared about my children. You think twice to go on the bus or not.”

The film begins with footage of the terminal. Cheerful Mediterranean music plays over the speakers as shoppers and soldiers stroll around. The normalcy is shattered by gunshots and panic as people run and seek cover.

The first eyewitness interviewed in the film is Daniel Harush, a soldier who was meeting a friend at the terminal. He recounts how they stopped to use a restroom when they heard the gunshots and hid. Harush says he went out and saw the dead soldier, lying in a pool of blood. He returned to hide with his friend in the restroom stall, but when they then decided to come out again, the terrorist shot Harush in the arm.

Lihi Levi, a clothing store worker and nurse also interviewed that day, helped treat a wounded soldier and is relieved that no one besides the terrorist appears to have been killed — until she and a paramedic are asked to treat the fatally wounded Omri Levi and are unable to revive him.

Meanwhile, a prison officer named Ronen Cohen hears the shots from outside the terminal and runs in as everyone’s running out. He sees the Eritrean man on the ground and people kicking him and becomes worried the man might have a gun or explosive belt. Cohen and a friend pick up a row of chairs and place it on top of the suspected terrorist to pin him in place.

The filmmakers manage to unfold the story without revealing Zarhum’s innocence until about halfway through the 52-minute film. The title could refer simply to the death of the Israeli soldier. Like Cohen and others, viewers are left to assume that Zarhum is “the terrorist” — until doubt creeps in.

Cohen and three others are now on trial for Zarhum’s killing. Even though Cohen was advised not to talk to the filmmakers, the filmmakers say he wanted to clear his name after media reports condemned him.

“We also thought Ronen [Cohen] was a kind of an animal. This is the way he was presented in the two-minute headlines in the news,” Shemesh said. “From the first time we met Ronen, we felt so differently about him. …
We gave the people on trial a chance to explain themselves.”

A voice of reason, or at least skepticism, in the film comes from eyewitness Moshe Kochavi, a kibbutz volunteer. He recalls seeing the “terrorist” on the floor and people hitting him and shouting at the crowd, “You’re savages!”

“I had to save these people. What do I mean by saving? People are corrupting, in this very moment, their souls,” Kochavi explains in the film.

We then see surveillance footage of Kochavi being pushed away from the scene, as a soldier comes and forcefully kicks Zarhum in the head.

“Everyone wants to be like Moshe Kochavi,” Shemesh said. “You wish you could be like him but you don’t know what you would do. … Most people would run away and hide.”

Kochavi admits in the film that “something didn’t feel right,” although he’s not sure what it was. He recalls bending over the man and saying, “How can you be a terrorist? You don’t look like one!”

A falafel-stand worker, Hosni Kombaz, shares that concern. He noticed that the suspected terrorist looked like a Christian Eritrean — and was wearing slippers. “I’d never seen a terrorist in slippers,” he says in the film.

Kombaz says he wanted to shout at the crowd to stop, that the man they were kicking and spitting on wasn’t the terrorist. But he didn’t, because he was worried he’d be attacked as well. “If I was Jewish I would have shouted it … but I was afraid because I’m an Arab, so I didn’t shout it,” he says.

Part of the film’s power comes from a universality to the story. No country is immune from terrorist attacks or racial and ethnic tensions. A vigilante mob could form anywhere, not just in Israel.

“This film came out amid all these immigration problems in Europe, and there were terror attacks in the U.S. Everyone opened their ears and eyes to this film because of that,” Sudry said. “Everyone is afraid of ‘the other’ now.”

The film ends as it began, with security footage of the terminal. Only this time, it plays backward, with panic being restored to normalcy. This time, the calm seems frautght with danger and the possibility of violence — an apt metaphor for life in Israel today.

Film tells story of daring creators of ‘Curious George’

An illustration of author and artist Margret and Hans Rey. Courtesy of Mammoth Advertising

In June 1940, children’s book authors Hans and Margret Rey were alarmed by Nazi troops approaching Paris, blasting canon fire in the distance. Both German-born Jews, they knew they had to flee, but it was impossible to obtain a train ticket, and they did not own a car.

Instead, they bought a tandem bicycle, but Margret found the contraption tricky to ride. And so Hans obtained some spare parts and, in one night, patched together two separate bicycles.

At 5 a.m. the next day, they pedaled out of Paris, just 48 hours before the Nazis marched into the city. They carried little with them, save for unpublished manuscripts, including one that would eventually become their beloved 1941 book, “Curious George.” Along the way, they slept in stables and on the floors of restaurants. And when a checkpoint officer became suspicious of their German accents, their manuscript depicting a charming monkey convinced him to let them pass through.

The details of their escape and immigration to the United States in October 1940 is recounted in Ema Ryan Yamazaki’s new documentary, “Monkey Business: The Story of Curious George’s Creators,” now available online at platforms such as Amazon and iTunes.

In a telephone interview, Yamazaki, 28, pointed out that while the mischievous monkey has become an America icon, most people don’t realize that the character was created by Jewish refugees from the Nazis.

While the Reys weren’t fond of self-analysis, the documentary posits that they brought elements of their fraught past to George’s adventures. Margret once described the character as a monkey who finds himself in trouble — and gets out of it through his own ingenuity.

Filmmaker Ema Ryan Yamazaki. Courtesy of Mammoth Advertising

“She could have been describing the Reys themselves,” Yamazaki said.

The documentary also describes how Margret and Hans met in Germany when he was dating her older sister. Years later, Margret took action when she learned that her old friend Hans, a talented artist, had taken a bookkeeping job with his brother-in-law’s firm in Brazil.

A person interviewed in the film recalls how Margret declared at the time that Hans was a “damned fool” and that she was “going to Brazil to marry him.”

In 1935, she sent Hans a telegram, asking him to meet her ship at the docks in Rio de Janeiro. Upon her arrival, she promptly told him that he was leaving his job and that they would collaborate together on their own artistic projects. The couple soon married and, after moving to Paris, worked on a manuscript that ultimately would lead to “Curious George.” Margret wrote the text, and Hans, who went by the professional name of H.A. Rey, drew the illustrations.

Houghton Mifflin published the first “Curious George” book in 1941, about a year after the Reys arrived in New York City. They began living their American dream as the book and its six sequels went on to sell more than 75 million copies worldwide.

Yamazaki, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a British father, first read “Curious George” in Japanese as a girl in Japan. “I thought he was a Japanese monkey,” she said with a laugh. When Yamazaki moved to the United States to study filmmaking at New York University at 19, she happened to move into a Greenwich Village apartment a block away from where the Reys first settled in the United States.

But she knew nothing about their story until she chanced to meet Lay Lee Ong, a Malaysian-born immigrant who had become Margret’s dear friend after Hans died in 1977. By then Ong had become the literary executor of the couple’s estate. Margret died in 1996.

Just two years out of film school, Yamazaki was looking for a story for her first feature-length documentary. She was so fascinated by Ong’s tales that she immersed herself in research on the Reys.

Yamazaki was charmed by a 1966 radio interview featuring the couple, in which Hans declared, “We are in the monkey business, you might say.” The Reys’ immigrant saga also appealed to Yamazaki, who grew up mostly between Osaka and Manchester, England, before moving to New York to follow her own American dream.

For the documentary, which is narrated by actor Sam Waterston (“Law & Order”), Yamazaki tracked down and interviewed the Reys’ friends, cousins and neighbors in New York and in Waterville Valley, N.H., where the authors acquired a summer cottage in the 1950s. She also spoke with Louise Borden, author of “The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey” (2005).  And she pored over the Reys’ letters and journals at their archive at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Her documentary incorporates photographs and footage of the Reys as well as animation to describe their journey.

Margret and Hans Rey in 1968. Courtesy Mammoth Advertising

One surprising element revealed in the film is that Margret didn’t particularly like children. The couple never had children of their own, regarding “Curious George” as their child. In one television interview shown in the documentary, Margret tells a reporter that she never spoke to the neighborhood kids in Waterville Valley because they had nothing of value to say.

In the film, friends and neighbors describe Margret as blunt and sometimes rude.

Even back in 1940, when the Reys visited the consul who granted their visa to the United States, Margret refused to hold her tongue. She shouted that the man had taken too long to issue the documents — all the while ignoring Hans, who was stepping on her toes in a fruitless effort to silence her.

Waterston, in an email to the Journal, said he was drawn to the documentary, in part, because of how Yamazaki brought to life the authors’ “resilience, adventurousness and curiosity, in the face of WWII and their own peril … against the hard images of destruction as the Nazis invaded France.“

Yamazaki said the Reys’ immigrant story resonates today.

“There’s been so much discussion recently about refugees and immigrant bans,” she said. “But this beloved book was created by refugees who became immigrants turned Americans. I think their story is a good reminder about the people who want to come here and pursue their own American dreams.”

Documentary filmmaker takes a look at the Pulitzer Prize at 100

Does the Pulitzer Prize truly represent the best in writing, photography and music composition? Or is it an arbitrary reward based on politics and whoever happens to be on the jury that year?

The independently produced documentary film “The Pulitzer at 100” strikes a reverent tone in discussing the prize’s centenary. Director Kirk Simon says he has “great respect” for those who have won the Pulitzer. “It clearly is writing that excels, or photographs or music,” he said.

The film, which premieres on Aug. 11 at Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills, weaves together several narratives: a coterie of recipients reflecting on the prize and what it meant for their careers; selections from award-winning pieces of journalism or fiction, read by A-list actors; and details about the life of Joseph Pulitzer, the prize’s eponymous publishing magnate.

Born in Hungary in 1847 to a Jewish family, Pulitzer came to the United States in 1864 to join the Union Army in the final months of the Civil War. He then moved to St. Louis, where he worked first as a reporter. In 1878, after making some profitable business deals, he bought the bankrupt St. Louis Dispatch at public auction, and merged it with the St. Louis Evening Post, into the St. Louis Post and Dispatch (now the Post-Dispatch), still the city’s daily newspaper. He developed a style of journalism that mixed investigative reporting with sensational coverage of sex and crime that appealed to the growing ranks of mass transit commuters.

His move to New York City and purchase of the New York World newspaper led to a circulation war with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. While both men engaged in scandal-mongering “yellow journalism,” Pulitzer later decided to establish his namesake prize to elevate the public’s respect for the profession and recognize excellence in journalism.

Director Kirk Simon. Photo from Twitter

Pulitzer donated $2 million to establish Columbia University’s journalism school, which opened in 1912. The university at first refused the gift because at the time, journalism was considered an unsuitable field for educated students. Columbia has administered the prizes since they were first handed out in 1917.

The film focuses on the past half-century of award-winning coverage, including stories written about the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the West Africa Ebola crisis.

“It’s the top honor. But this is a show-me business. And if you think you can put your feet up and say, ‘OK, I’ve got this award, I’m fine now,’ you can’t,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman says in the film. “Every day you’ve got to go out, and you’ve got to beat the competition.”

Friedman, who won the prize in 1983, 1988 and 2002, won an international reporting prize for his coverage of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and its aftermath, including the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (a winner in 1990 and 2006), who reports regularly from war zones, is one of several speakers in the film who questions the prize’s merit.

New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof. Photo from Facebook

“The Pulitzer is the standard metric of success, and everybody knows it’s a little bit misleading, that in some ways it’s a prize for the event, not for the people who cover it,” Kristof said. He won the 1990 prize for international reporting for his coverage of 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre, in which Chinese soldiers fired on pro-democracy demonstrators, sharing the prize with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.

Kristof was then the Times’ Beijing bureau chief and said that people who had helped him cover the crackdown were put in jail or fled the country.

“It felt kind of unfair that they had taken all the risk, got none of the credit, and here I was, being heaped on with prizes,” he said. “And there is a certain irony in gaining from a surge in human misery.”

Similarly, editors and reporters of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans recount the challenges of covering Hurricane Katrina. While winning the Pulitzer was “great recognition for that commitment,” James O’Byrne said, the staff gladly would give back the award, Manuel Torres said, “if we can have our city without the destruction, without the death, without the suffering that we went through.”

Fiction writers strike dual tones of reverence and skepticism. Writer Michael Chabon says winning the prize in 2001 for his novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” was “truly one of the absolute greatest days in my entire life.” The story follows two teenage boys enthralled by comic books in 1940s New York, and Chabon says the award emboldened him to take more stylistic and narrative risks.

Writer Junot Diaz refers to his fellow jurors as “slightly evolved monkeys” who are simply doing their best. Novelist Michael Cunningham thinks different jurors would not have awarded his book “The Hours” the prize for fiction in 1999, joking that it’s “another reason the prize goes into the sock drawer.”

Writers are eager to criticize the Pulitzer for its sins of omissions (“A Farewell to Arms,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Invisible Man” and “The Great Gatsby” all failed to win). Critics also point out that jurors historically have lauded privileged white men, although great strides are being made toward inclusivity. Not explored in the film is the bias that jurors have typically shown toward liberal writers or writers who advocate against conservative causes.

The film also pays homage to the enormous work that goes into the creation of such exemplary writing, and it serves as a meditation on the transformative power of creativity.

Pulitzer-winning dramatists discuss the joys and challenges of their craft, including Paula Vogel, whose play “How I Learned to Drive” examines issues of pedophilia, incest and misogyny; Ayad Akhtar, whose play “Disgraced” looks at identity politics and Islamophobia; and Tony Kushner, whose landmark opus “Angels in America” about the AIDS crisis has been staged countless times.

Interspersed with the interviews are dramatic readings from Pulitzer-winning novels, poems and plays by such actors as John Lithgow, Natalie Portman, Helen Mirren and Liev Schreiber.

Simon has been nominated for an Academy Award four times, winning once. One nomination was given for producing “Isaac in America: A Journey With Isaac Bashevis Singer,” and he won in 2011 for the HBO short documentary “Strangers No More,” about a school in Tel Aviv that educates the children of immigrant workers.

The Pulitzer recipients Simon reached out to “were very receptive to my requests. I would say the only person who was not was Philip Roth,” who won the fiction prize for his 1997 novel “American Pastoral.” The famously elusive writer, Simon decided, turned down the request because “he wants his work to be judged by his work.”

While the bulk of the film is devoted to the written word, it also profiles award-winning photographers and composers, such as Nick Ut, whose photograph of a naked girl fleeing a napalm bombing helped cement Western public opinion against the Vietnam War; composer John Adams, whose haunting piece “On the Transmigration of Souls” remembers the victims of Sept. 11; and jazz composer Wynton Marsalis, whose jazz oratorio “Blood on the Fields” concerns a couple moving from slavery to freedom.

But most of the prizes are for journalism, and just as Joseph Pulitzer intended, his prize shines a spotlight on the hard work of investigative reporters.

“I don’t think that the American public, the general public, has a full sense of what’s involved in investigative reporting,” Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron says in the film. “Many times they think it’s just a matter of having a source. And it’s a lot more than that. It’s hugely challenging. It’s hugely difficult. It’s a lot of tedious work that takes place over a long period of time.”

Simon hopes his documentary also contributes to a greater respect for the work of quality journalism.

“We have to question and show how hard it is to present the truth, and these days in the world of [President Donald] Trump, you have a government standing between you and reporting the truth,” he said. “So it’s never been easy, it always changes, and that’s what journalists are up against.”

“The Pulitzer at 100” premieres Aug. 11 at Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, with director Kirk Simon in attendance. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com.


ROMEO IS BLEEDING *Red Carpet Interviews*

The documentary Romeo Is Bleeding found an unlikely star in Donté Clark.  Clark turned to spoken word poetry to transcend the wide-spread violence in his hometown of Richmond, California where knowing a victim of gun violence is a way of life, not the exception.

Director Jason Zeldes first learned of Clark from his cousin, teacher Molly Raynor, who updated him about her talented student.  Zeldes’ interest grew.  Upon hearing about Clark’s writing project, a play about life in Richmond based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, he asked if he could document the process.

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Russell Simmons signed on as executive producer after the film’s completion in another coup for the already-successful project.

Romeo Is Bleeding has already been recognized multiple film festival awards, with more surely on the way.

Take a look below for interviews with director Jason Zeldes, stars Donté Clark and Molly Raynor, co-editor Kevin Klauber and executive producer Russell Simmons:


—>Keep in touch with the author on Twitter and Instagram @realZoeHewitt.

A Polaroid master gets her due in Errol Morris’ documentary

Elsa Dorfman. Photo courtesy of NEON

Before digital photography made selfie images just a cellphone click away, Polaroid filled the desire for immediate gratification with its portable instant cameras.

But for Elsa Dorfman, Polaroid means the 20×24 camera, a 235-pound behemoth that produces instant images 20 inches by 24 inches. She has used it to photograph the famous (including Bob Dylan and her good friend, the late beat poet Allen Ginsberg) and the nonfamous in her Cambridge, Mass., studio.

Her work is now the subject of “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography,” by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, best known for “The Thin Blue Line” and the Oscar-winning “The Fog of
War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.”

“There’s something about the experience of having your picture taken by Elsa — being part of her world, going to her studio, having your photo taken and watching it develop,” Morris said.

He and his family have posed for Dorfman many times since they first met her 26 years ago — after Morris’ wife, Julia, commissioned a portrait of their 4-year-old son as a Father’s Day gift. They became friends, and Morris floated the idea of making a film about her. Dorfman didn’t take him seriously.

“I’d say, ‘Sure, whatever.’ I blew it off,” Dorf-man said. “Then one day, he said, ‘I have the crew for next week.’ ”

In early 2016, Morris interviewed her as she talked about her life and displayed her archive.

“Making the movie was like psychoanalysis,” Dorfman said. “It made me think about the different periods in my life.”

Now 80, the “not observant but very Jewish” Dorfman always was a people watcher, a self-described “starer” and, at times, an eavesdropper. As a teenage exchange student, she chronicled a 1954 trip to Germany with a Kodak Pony that friends gave her, but she didn’t start taking photos professionally until 10 years later, when she received a Hasselblad at the age of 27. In 1976, Polaroid produced just five 20×24 cameras, and after a few years of pleading, she got to use one for the first time in 1980. It was love at first snap.

“This camera was very magnetic,” she said, comparing the immediate attraction to falling in love with her husband, Harvey, a defense attorney, when they met in 1967. She also loved that it freed her from the time-consuming darkroom, because she was a busy mom to her toddler son, Isaac, now 40.

“She kept making these Polaroids, not getting a tremendous amount of attention as an artist, selling them at modest prices and collecting this amazing array of photographs,” Morris said.

The film’s title has both a literal and metaphorical meaning, he said. In her work, Dorfman would take two photographs and have the buyer choose one; she would keep the other, or B-side.

But like a 45-rpm record, Morris said, a B-side is “something discarded, rejected. Elsa was a B-side artist. She was never really given her due, never taken seriously, certainly not by Polaroid. The irony, of course, is the B-sides are some of her best photographs.”

Morris owns many photos that Dorfman has taken of his family, but not all are on display in his Cambridge office or his homes there and in Vermont because the prints are fragile. Too much light and too much or too little humidity can damage them. That’s why Dorfman stores her archive in the dark.

Today, she continues to occasionally shoot with the 20×24 camera — at $5,000 and up per session — but film for it is rare and of questionable quality as it degrades over time. She owns a digital camera, “but I never use it,” she said. “To me, a photograph is something you have in your hand, you put on your wall.”

As for the future of her archive, she said she doesn’t want her son and grandchildren to be burdened by having to care for it but probably will leave it to them. “And they can decide what to do with it,” she said.

Morris said that he saw Dorfman as “a kindred spirit” who shares an interest in people presenting themselves to and being recorded by a camera. He compared “The B-Side” to his documentary “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control,” which profiled people with unusual careers.

Ironically, although he’s known for his documentaries, he doesn’t particularly like the genre and said he got started making them by “happenstance.”

Raised by a Polish-Jewish single mother, a Juilliard-trained pianist, in Hewlett, N.Y., Morris wanted to be a writer but got interested in film at the University of Wisconsin. As a graduate student, he met filmmakers Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and worked with Herzog on his film “Stroszek” in 1976. He released his first documentary, “Gates of Heaven,” about the pet cemetery business, two years later.

To a resumé that now includes features, shorts, commercials and TV series, Morris will add “Wormwood,” a Netflix series starring Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker, and may go to Russia to make a film about Mikhail Gorbachev. “Nazis always interest me,” he said, mentioning a possible project about Hitler’s chief architect, Albert Speer.

Morris’ personal agenda includes a trip to Israel; he hasn’t been back since his son’s bar mitzvah. “I’m very proud to be a Jew,” he said.

The director hopes “The B-Side” will bring Dorfman the recognition she and her work deserve. “She’s a fabulous underdog who worked hard, is unpretentious and yet has created work that is deeply interesting and profound,” Morris said. “To know Elsa is to love Elsa.”

“The B-Side” is playing at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles and opens July 7 at the Laemmle Playhouse in Pasadena and Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino. 

Syrian teen and mother start over in L.A. in ‘Dalya’s Other Country’

Rudayna Aksh (left) and Dalya Zeno are featured in the documentary “Dalya’s Other Country.” Photo by Julia Meltzer

A documentary from a Jewish director about a Muslim teenager attending a Catholic high school may sound like a hypothetical ecumenical exercise. But Julia Meltzer’s “Dalya’s Other Country” is an engaging coming-of-age story about a young girl and her mother who flee war-torn Syria to start a new life in a strange, new place — Los Angeles.

As children of the Diaspora, Jews will relate to the film, which premiered on PBS stations on June 26 and is streaming on pov.org.

Dalya Zeno lived a comfortable, middle-class life in Aleppo, Syria, where she was born, until 2011, when civil war turned the city into a war zone and it became increasingly clear to her family that they would have to leave. Her parents separated and eventually divorced. Her father, Mohamad Hassan, an olive oil exporter, moved to Turkey. Dalya’s mother, Rudayna Aksh — whose sons, Mustafa and Hammoud, were born in Los Angeles in the 1980s when she and her husband lived here and she became a U.S. citizen — returned here with Dalya in 2012.

Meltzer, a Reform Jew, had lived and worked as a teacher in Syria on and off between 2000 and 2010 and made her first film there, “The Light in Her Eyes,” about a Quran school for women and girls. Following a screening of the film at the Levantine Cultural Center on Pico Boulevard (now the Markaz) in March 2012, she met Mustafa Zeno and they became friends. They discussed the Syrian civil war, its impact on his family and the family’s plans to get out.

“I felt that the war was going to go on for a long time, and I still do,” Meltzer said. “I thought one way I could be of service was to tell the story of someone coming from Aleppo.” With Mustafa as a producer, the Zeno family consented to be filmed. “They had seen my other film and knew I knew about their culture. I wasn’t a random Jewish person,” Meltzer said.

But for Dalya, having a camera crew in her life was intrusive, especially at first.

She had finished eighth grade at a Muslim school in L.A., but there wasn’t a Muslim high school nearby and her parents thought that there would be too much peer pressure at a public high school. She enrolled at Holy Family High School, a private, all-girls school in Glendale, where she was the only Muslim student.

“I struggled a lot,” said Dalya, now 18 and a student at Pasadena Community College. “I was awkward and scared. I already stood out, and having the cameras around made me stand out even more. It was really nerve-wracking. It took me till my junior year to get used to it.”

The turning point was an overnight trip for the junior and senior classes when she “opened up to my classmates and they opened up to me,” she said. “From that day on I felt so much better. Going to Holy Family was the best decision ever. Holy Family is my family.”

Shooting the film there, however, was “complicated,” Meltzer said, citing restrictions, disruption concerns and privacy issues that necessitated getting a signed release form from every girl that appeared on camera.

Originally, Meltzer intended to focus solely on Dalya and a friend, who is Korean-Palestinian and American-born, but she opted to also depict the struggle Rudayna faced as a woman starting over after a divorce. As she says in the film, “My marriage fell apart, and then my country, too.”

“Here’s a mother and daughter who are in some ways going through very similar transitions at totally different places in their lives,” Meltzer said. “I thought it was a good way to go.”

“When I first came here I was discouraged,” Rudayna told the Journal. “I didn’t stay in contact with my friends because I wasn’t happy with myself. I had no hope. But when I started going to [Glendale Community College] and worked on my studies, that helped me a lot. I started thinking about something else — the future. I had no time to think about bad things.”

Rudayna is transferring to UCLA this fall, and Meltzer plans to document her experience for a short film that Mustafa will co-produce.

Mustafa said he is proud of what his mother has overcome and achieved. “To me, it’s important to show that Muslims, specifically Muslim women, are neither perpetrators or victims,” he said. “They do have agency to control their lives.”

Mustafa, who teaches Arabic at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles (YULA), and his brother, Hammoud, who lives in New York, are seen in “Dalya’s Other Country.”

Mustafa, who worked with the Los Angeles Arab Film Festival for four years and directed it in 2014, is developing a documentary about refugees and fences and walls, both literal and figurative, as well as a short feature about a dystopian near-future in which Muslims are sent to internment camps, as Japanese-Americans were during World War II. Both he and Meltzer are involved with NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.

This summer, Dalya plans to visit her father in Turkey, where she would like to volunteer at a refugee camp. She also plans to transfer from Pasadena City College to Cal Poly Pomona and study to become an architect. She said she thinks about “one day going back to Syria and help contribute to rebuilding it.”

But it would only be for a visit. “I’ll always miss Syria,” she said. “I don’t think there will be peace anytime soon because there are so many groups fighting for control. But even if the war stopped, I wouldn’t go back because I’ve had so many opportunities to grow here and I love my life here.”

Rudayna said she wouldn’t move back to Syria, either. “I have a life here. I don’t want to go back to where the bad things and bad memories were,” she said.

She said she hopes her story will encourage women in situations like hers to get an education and become self-sufficient. She said she believes that the film will give people a better understanding of the situation in Syria and the plight of refugees. “We all have to think about others and how we can try to help,” she said.

As the film’s titular subject, Dalya admits that watching the film is “embarrassing
to me.”

“I don’t like to see myself as clueless and struggling and having people see how I was,” she said. “But I’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback, and I’m just hoping someone benefits from it, even if it’s the smallest thing that they take from the experience.”

At a time when Muslims face increased prejudice, “The most important thing is for Americans to stand by each other because that is the only thing that will keep us together and strong,” Dalya said.

In the film, she attends a protest against then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims traveling to the U.S.

“It’s something I felt very strongly about because I could have been in these people’s shoes if I didn’t have citizenship. All these Americans, Muslims and non-Muslims were standing up with each other, and I felt so much love,” she said. “It made me more hopeful.” 

‘Monsters’ looks at young prisoners hoping to change the script of their lives

From left: Antonio, Jarad and Juan in “They Call Us Monsters.” Photo courtesy of The 2050 Group

Filmmaker Ben Lear. Photo courtesy of The 2050 Group

Ben Lear was a bit nervous before he visited a juvenile hall while making what ultimately would become his new documentary, “They Call Us Monsters,” about teenagers awaiting trial as adults after being accused of heinous crimes.

He never before had met anyone accused of a violent felony, and had grown up in a world far removed from the gang-infested streets his subjects called home. The 28-year-old is the son of comedy legend Norman Lear (“All in the Family,” “Maude”); he attended the elite Crossroads School in Santa Monica; became a bar mitzvah at Leo Baeck Temple; and was raised in a Brentwood home where actor Walter Matthau was a frequent guest.

But the younger Lear also inherited his father’s penchant for work and activism that tackles major social issues, and so one day in 2013 he found himself sitting down with accused felons taking a screenwriting class at a facility called the “Compound” at Sylmar Juvenile Hall.

“I was expecting them to be just hard, kind of inhuman criminals,” Lear said during a recent interview in Hollywood. “I thought I would feel like they wanted to [physically attack] me. But it turned out that I didn’t feel that for a second. They didn’t want to fight me. They were happy [and] grateful that I was there.

“They wanted to talk, to communicate, to connect, to share, even as they faced spending their entire lives in prison. It was just profoundly human, more human than your everyday experience, because of the barriers between us in terms of where you come from and your circumstances.”

Not just differences in terms of race and class, but also “the fact that they had been accused of these crimes and I hadn’t,” Lear explained. “So it makes you ask the question, Could I be capable of that? …  [And] the answer is yes … under the wrong circumstances.”

“They Call Us Monsters” primarily revolves around three teens facing trials as adults and long prison sentences for gang-related offenses. Antonio, 14, expresses no remorse for two attempted murders; Juan,16, could receive more than 90 years for a first-degree murder; and Jarad, also 16 and the clown of the group, faces some 200 years for four attempted murders in a shooting that left a woman paralyzed.

The documentary follows the boys as they attend a screenwriting class, taught by director-producer Gabriel Cowan, who helps them shape their own movie about a 12-year-old boy’s loss of innocence — all based on their own lives.  At that age, Jarad witnessed his father attempting suicide by repeatedly stabbing himself.

Paralleling their story is the journey of California bill SB 260, which allows some youths tried as adults the possibility of parole after serving a number of years. It became law in early 2014.

The question at the heart of the documentary is whether teenagers should be sentenced as adults — to lengthy prison sentences — or whether they deserve a second chance at freedom after they serve some time. Experts in the film say adolescents’ brains are not fully developed, so they are capable of change.

Lear said he didn’t want to make a white-savior film, with Cowan essentially “riding in on a stallion” to help the teens. Nor was he attempting to create an advocacy movie, though he understands how some viewers could perceive the documentary that way.

But he does believe that SB 260 “made enormous sense to me … because it incentivizes hope. … I would say these kids deserve the opportunity to earn their way out of prison through proving that they’ve changed their lives and that they can be productive, safe members of society.”

He added, “I don’t advocate letting people out of prison just because … obviously, you have to honor the victims as much as you can. … But at a certain point, you have to accept that a human being is capable of change. … You’ve got to work years and years on yourself, emotionally, academically, in terms of job training. … You have to show insight, responsibility and remorse on a really profound level.”

Lear grew up with a father committed to social change and who founded the progressive advocacy organization People For the American Way in the 1980s. The younger Lear said he was aware from a young age that his father was prominent in the television industry, though at the time he was growing up, Norman Lear’s most famous shows were off the air. “But I had an understanding of the cultural resonance,” the younger Lear said of his father’s sitcoms.

Yet as an aspiring filmmaker from age 11, he said he put pressure on himself to match his father’s success in show business “in a ridiculous, childish way. But you’ve got to escape that trap or you’re just going to be stuck feeling like s— about yourself forever.”

Lear switched his youthful ambitions from cinema to music because “on some level, it was something completely different, totally separate and unique,” he said. “And it was nice to have a phase of my life when I was doing something that was completely in my own realm.”

He studied guitar from age 11 — Lear created all the music for “They Call Us Monsters” — earned a degree in musical composition from New York University and penned a folk opera, “Lillian,” a fantasy that also tackled environmental issues.

But by the age of 24, Lear was ready to return to filmmaking. In 2013, he saw the potential for a fictional feature based on a New York Times article he had read involving prison life. “I never intended to make a documentary,” he said.

Instead, Lear set out to research his fictional idea with Cowan, an old family friend, who ultimately decided to teach a screenwriting class at the Compound. The collaborators then turned to Scott Budnick, a producer of “The Hangover” films who also was an ardent activist for juvenile justice. Budnick arranged for Lear and Cowan to visit a variety of youth facilities and to meet people who had been tried as adults when they were teenagers.

“I’d never met anyone from that world before,” Lear said. “And slowly over that period, the idea for a documentary started to form.”

Lear found it difficult to reconcile the ebullient boys he met at the Compound with their vicious criminal charges. “That was one of the challenges that [also] inspired me to make the film,” he said. “I wanted to present that challenge to the world.”

To create some balance in the film, Lear also interviewed the one victim he was able to locate and persuade to appear on camera, Yesenia, the young woman Jarad left paralyzed. She was eager to be in the movie, according to Lear.

“I told her … ‘You’re going to be the voice … of the survivors of violent crime,’ so there’s a lot of dignity in that. It was the same thing that got Juan, Jarad and Antonio to do the film. … I said, ‘You guys are going to be the voice of thousands of teenagers who are locked up and aren’t going to get heard from otherwise.’ ”

At one point during the Journal interview, Lear was surprised to see his friend Frank Carrillo sit down at a nearby table at NeueHouse Hollywood. Carrillo, who was tried as an adult at 16 and given a life sentence for murder, was exonerated of his crime after 20 years in prison and released about six years ago. He was one of Lear’s early consultants for “They Call Us Monsters.”

After giving Carrillo a hug, Lear said, “He is exactly what my movie is not about. His is a very different story … the wrongful conviction story. This is the rightful conviction story. Now let’s figure out what to do about it.”

“They Call Us Monsters” is streaming now at pbs.org. 

‘Bert Berns Story’ pays tribute to a music pioneer

Bert Berns in the studio. Photo courtesy of Brett Berns

The name Bert Berns might not ring a bell, but his songs certainly do. As a prolific songwriter and music producer, Berns is the man behind such pop and soul hits as “Twist and Shout,” “Hang On Sloopy,” “Under the Boardwalk” and “Piece of My Heart.”  The founder of Bang! Records, Berns was one of the most influential music figures of the 1960s. But he died in 1967 at age 38, never achieving widespread recognition or fame.

His son, Brett Berns, has made it his life’s mission to remedy that with his documentary, “Bang! The Bert Berns Story,” which opens May 5 at the Laemmle NoHo 7 in North Hollywood. It’s a loving biographical homage to the father he barely knew.

Brett Berns was only 2 years old when his father, who suffered from rheumatic fever since childhood, died of heart failure, leaving behind his widow, Ilene, and two other children, Cassie, 10 months, and Russell, 2 weeks at the time.

“He knew he was going to die young, and sure enough, he did,” Berns said. “I didn’t get to know him, and he’d been pretty much written out of the history books. I knew I had to tell his dramatic life story and get people to pay attention to the body of work he left behind.”

The documentary, Berns’ first film, “was a 10-year effort. The biggest challenge was just getting started,” he said. He gradually conducted interviews with his father’s friends, collaborators and well-known soul singers, enabling him to land major stars. “Cissy Houston and Solomon Burke were heroes to guys like Paul McCartney, Van Morrison and Keith Richards. It was an enormous coup to get them, but I think they agreed to [be interviewed] because they loved Bert and his music.

“We got everyone we wanted, except for Neil Diamond,” Berns said, noting that his mother, a music industry bigwig in her own right — she took over at Bang! Records after her husband’s death — resisted taking part until McCartney and Morrison were on board. “She made me fight for it. But she’s a big star in the film. She was one of the toughest and most inspiring people I knew.”

Ilene Berns died in February at age 73.

Berns turned to author Joel Selvin and his book “Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues” for “so much of my father’s music and story that I wasn’t aware of. He’s the world’s leading authority on my dad,” he said. The film not only covers Berns’ creative career, it reveals his mob connections and his ties to Judaism and Israel.

Berns was born in the Bronx, N.Y., to Russian-Jewish immigrants who changed their name from Beresovsky. “His Jewish identity was mainly cultural, ethnic, nationalist. He was one of those tough, fighting Jews that took the lesson of the Holocaust and personalized it. He loved Israel. He was such a passionate Zionist,” his son said, offering an example: Bert Berns once turned a record release party into a fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal. “He wanted to fight in the Six-Day War, but he had young children, he was running the label and his heart was failing,” his son said.

Twenty years later, Brett Berns graduated from the University of Virginia and fulfilled his father’s unrealized dream by making aliyah and joining the Israeli army. Brett’s connection to Judaism solidified during his college years, when he began to study Hebrew and visited Israel. The Yad Vashem memorial made an indelible impression on him. “It really shocked me, and I came back wanting to learn as much as I could about the Jewish people and Israel and be part of that experience,” he said.

Berns served in the infantry and was a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces, and planned to stay in Israel, but when the rights to his father’s music reverted to his heirs in 1990, he returned to the United States to help administer the publishing. “As I started to dig into my father’s music and legacy, I became, with my sister, a champion of my father’s legacy and efforts to tell his story,” he said.

As the documentary continues to be screened at film festivals and opens to the public, Berns is working on other ways to do that. “Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story Musical,” by Daniel Goldfarb, played a limited run off-Broadway in 2014 and is being readied for its Broadway debut, “hopefully in the fall,” Berns said. “It’s a jukebox musical, but my dad’s songs are so deeply autobiographical that they really serve the story.”

He added that there might be a scripted film or TV version of Bert’s story in the future.

Berns said he thinks his father would love the film, the play, “and all of our efforts to have him achieve the recognition that’s eluded him all these decades. We got him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, and with the 50th anniversary of his death this year, I hope people will take away the message of his life. He never gave up on his dreams, and he lived life like there was no tomorrow. I think there’s a lesson from that for everybody. He inspired me, and I hope he’ll inspire generations to come.”

Film focuses on how war warps human behavior

A scene from the documentary “The Memory of Justice.” Photo courtesy of HBO

“I go on the assumption that everyone is guilty.”

This sentiment of a guilt that is assumed automatically through membership in the human race is expressed by Jewish master violinist Yehudi Menuhin at the beginning of “The Memory of Justice,” and it’s an assessment that is largely borne out over the course of the 4 1/2-hour HBO documentary that airs April 24.

Although publicists for the film make a point that the screening date was set intentionally for Holocaust Remembrance Day, the production deals with three examples of man’s inhumanity during the 20th century.

The first and longest segment does focus on the Holocaust, but the second part covers France’s attempted suppression of the Algerian bid for independence, and the third on America’s role in the Vietnam War.

“The Memory of Justice” is a massive — and masterful — restoration of a film of the same title released in 1976 that was produced, written and directed by Marcel Ophuls. He and his father, Max Ophuls (nee Oppenheimer), were German-born Jews, who resumed their brilliant film careers after fleeing to France and then the United States.

The main part of the film’s Holocaust-themed segment deals with the postwar Nuremberg war crimes trials that began in 1945 and in which an international tribunal tried 22 top political and military leaders of the Nazi regime. (Hitler had cheated the gallows by shooting himself as Soviet forces closed in on his Berlin bunker.)

Interviews with 40 people, perpetrators and victims, form the backbone of this segment. The two main figures are Telford Taylor, chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, and Albert Speer, an architect who served as Hitler’s minister of armaments.

Taylor went on to cover the Vietnam War (1955-75) and his views on war crimes, as well as similarities between Nazi and American conduct during the war in Southeast Asia, were expressed clearly in the title of his 1970 book, “Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy.” A considerable part of the film is based on Taylor’s book.

After a 20-minute intermission, both in the press screening and the TV presentation, Ophul’s documentary moves on to the Algerian war (1954-62), in which France tried to squelch its colony’s independence movement, and in which both sides systematically tortured their enemies. In French history, the conflict is known as “the dirty war.”

The final segment focuses on the Vietnam War. The centerpiece is the 1968 My Lai Massacre, in which U.S. soldiers killed, mutilated and raped up to 500 unresisting men, women and children.

“The Memory of Justice” has been widely acclaimed as a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, which it is, but the mass of material can at times overload the attentive viewer, who also may have difficulties in quickly adjusting to the film’s shifts in tone from gruesome depictions of death camp atrocities to merry songs of the era.

Ophuls, now 89, did not take an active part in the film’s restoration. Instead, the living link between the 1976 original and the current version is Hamilton Fish, a personality worth his own biographical film.

He is the descendant of an old American family of Anglo-Saxon and Scottish extraction. Formally named Hamilton Fish V, during a phone interview he invited a reporter to address him as “Ham.”

The Fish dynasty produced a series of rock-ribbed Republican politicians, including a former governor of New York. Another member of the clan, Hamilton Fish III, was a congressman from New York’s Hudson Valley for 25 years and the nemesis of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“Ham,” 64, however, has flipped in the opposite direction, and as publisher of The Nation, is credited with preserving and upgrading America’s premier liberal magazine.

In 1975, he partnered with Ophuls to produce the original version of “Memory of Justice” and, in 2011, embarked on the “excruciatingly difficult” six-year project to restore and revive the documentary.

Some of the challenges called for scanning 50 reels of the 16 mm original negatives, frame by frame, eliminating dirt and scratches, restoring the soundtrack and adding new subtitles in English, French and German.

“What I take away from the film are the continuing questions of justice and accountability, of a system of international law to counter rogue behavior by government leaders,” Fish said.

However, looking at the present state of the world in general, and in Washington, D.C., in particular, Fish sounded a pessimistic note: “We see a renewed emphasis on military power at the expense of meeting human needs at home.”

“The Memory of Justice” will air at 5 p.m. April 24 on HBO2, HBO Now, HBO Go and HBO on Demand.

ALIVE AND KICKING *Director Interview and Movie Review*

ALIVE AND KICKING is a walk through the history of swing dancing up to present day.  It’s a documentary narrated by some of the original Lindy Hoppers as well as the current swing-dancing elite.

The swing dance world seems to be a separate entity from other genres of dance. For instance, unlike other forms in which winning competitions can translate into big bucks, competition payouts in swing are surprisingly low.  Instead, the titles lead to better teaching jobs–and that’s what pays.

Even more fascinating: competitive swing routines are improvised!  Dancers don’t know when they’ll get called to center stage during competition or even what music will be playing.  It’s unbelievable that these complicated dances are improvised and only further emphasizes just how talented these dancers are as well.

The facts keep coming all the way through ALIVE AND KICKING with impressive dance routines serving as the backdrop for a flurry of facts.

Susan Glatzer, a former Hollywood studio executive, first conceived of the documentary as a project for someone else.  She realized the film had become her project, though, as the amount of footage she shot started accumulating.  An avid swing dancer for 18 years, Glatzer documented a world with which she’s passionately in love.  In fact, while interviewing her alongside “Queen of Swing” and Lindy Hop creator Norma Miller, Glatzer became positively giddy when asked what it was like meeting Miller the first time.

For more about the history of swing directly from Susan Glatzer and Norma Miller, take a look below:

Stay in touch!  Find the author as @realZoeHewitt on Twitter and Instagram.

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


Documentary chronicles comedy of Robert Klein

Comedian Robert Klein (right), with his son, Alexander (left), and director Marshall Fine. Photo courtesy of Starz

In his 52 years in show business, Robert Klein has been in over 40 movies, hundreds of television shows and several Broadway musicals and plays, including “They’re Playing Our Song,” for which he earned a Tony nomination. His signature music-filled, improvisational standup routines spawned four comedy albums, nine HBO specials and earned him two Emmys for his music and lyrics. Altogether, they made him a comedy icon.

Now, still very much active at 75, Klein is the subject of the documentary “Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg,” premiering March 31 on Starz. He is scheduled to appear on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” that same night.

Directed by author and filmmaker Marshall Fine, the documentary showcases Klein’s life on and off the stage in new and archival footage, coupled with interviews with colleagues and admirers, including comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, David Steinberg and Billy Crystal.

“I was very impressed by what those guys said. It made me feel good,” Klein said in a telephone interview from Florida, where he had booked several engagements. “Some of them speak of me in the past tense, but I don’t find it offensive. You can see in the documentary that I’m still working.”

The documentary features many of Klein’s best-known bits, including “I Can’t Stop My Leg,” which he first performed — singing and playing the harmonica — at The Improv in New York in the 1960s.

“We’ve done it in every one of the nine HBO specials. We’ve done it in Spanish, German, a hip-hop version. It’s a silly joke but it works,” Klein said, noting that he suggested clips for Fine to use in the film. “I wanted to make sure the material that he used was the best he could find.”

Some of the material showcases his favorite Jewish jokes.

“I’ve always been a high-profile Jew,” Klein said. “I’m not observant, and I have no guilt about not going to synagogue. But I had a bar mitzvah. We never had bread and butter with meat at home because my father was brought up in a kosher home. My mother’s parents came from Hungary and were very assimilated. I was born in 1942 so I not only heard about the Holocaust, I met many survivors while working in the Catskills as a lifeguard.”

Klein grew up in The Bronx with a “high intensity, very funny” father and comedy icons Jonathan Winters and Lenny Bruce as influences. He studied at Alfred University and Yale before getting an improv education at Second City in Chicago in the mid-1960s. In the documentary, he reminisces with long-time friend and fellow Second City alumnus Fred Willard, who encouraged him to do standup.

Klein’s fame skyrocketed after he began appearing regularly on “The Merv Griffin Show” and “The Tonight Show.” Among his 82 appearances on “The Tonight Show” were a dozen as guest host, subbing for Johnny Carson. “He was so important for my career,” Klein said of Carson.

Klein hosted “Saturday Night Live” twice, including the fifth show of its first season, and remembered “SNL” cast member Gilda Radner and actress Madeline Kahn fondly.

“Both died of ovarian cancer. I do a benefit every year because they still haven’t cured it,” he said. “I don’t really watch [“SNL”] now, but I love to see that they’re doing their satirical duty by driving Trump crazy.”

Klein, who resides outside of New York City in Westchester County, has an apartment in the city and has lived in Los Angeles at times over the years, working at comedy clubs and on television shows such as “Sisters.”

Most recently, he appeared as Debra Messing’s father on “The Mysteries of Laura,” which shot in New York, a convenience he’d prefer on future TV or movie projects. ”I hope that something else will come along. I like being home,” he said.

Klein has been commissioned to write and perform four short pieces for “National Geographic Explorer” segments. He said he has enjoyed the process, so he’s considering writing a sequel to his 2006 memoir, “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue,” a story that ends when he  reaches the age of 25. Additionally, although his first screenplay wasn’t produced, he has higher hopes for a script he’s collaborating on with Marshall Fine.

Though it’s still improvisational and observational, Klein’s standup act has evolved and now incorporates material about aging. “The only way to deal with the difficulties of old age is to laugh at them,” he said. But, noting that many of his buddies are dealing with health issues, he exercises with a trainer and regularly walks “30 to 40 blocks at a good clip. My doctor says I have a quiet heart.”

Klein revealed that he has been in love four times: with his college girlfriend; his ex-wife, mezzo-soprano Brenda Boozer; and two post-divorce girlfriends. He isn’t keen on remarrying.

“But it would be wonderful to have a partner, have someone to go places with,” he said. “Everyone’s always trying to fix me up, and I appreciate their kindness. But I’m so set in my ways. What woman wants to live with W.C. Fields pictures on the wall and my model airplanes?” One of the models, he added, was a gift from Jonathan Winters’ daughter.

Klein has one son, Alexander, 33, who decided two and a half years ago to try standup comedy. “I’m encouraging him all the way,” Klein said. “He’s performing two, three times a week. He’s good. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter who your father is.”

Asked what he’d still like to accomplish, he responded that he doesn’t have a bucket list. “I’ve had such an interesting life, and I’ve done so many interesting things. Whoever would’ve thought? Private jets, making money, having people recognize me and appreciate what I do. It may be somewhat pretentious to say, but I think making people laugh is a very high calling. And good times or bad times, you could always use a laugh.”

He’s gratified that “Starting with nothing — no money, no connections — I made a pretty big career. A lot of it was good fortune,” he said. “I’ve been doing this since I was 23 years old. I’ve been in [the Screen Actors Guild] for 52 years. People feel like they know me. It’s a good feeling and I enjoy it whenever I’m on stage. I have no complaints. It’s been a wonderful ride.”

Bruised but Unbroken: Remembering Khojaly

(The featured image is from my interview in the new documentary Running From the Darkness)

I can still feel their hands as they grab my arm and separate me from my brother. My body remembers the way the baton bludgeoned my skin, over and over. I still shiver thinking about the cold, how the wind and snow worked hand in hand with my captors to further torment me. It has been 25 years since I was subjected to these horrors during the Khojaly Massacre, and it is an event I can never forget.

On the night of February 25th, 1992 my hometown Khojaly, located in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, was invaded by Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. That night, our village was bombed and many buildings were destroyed by shelling and fire. When I tried to flee into the forest to escape the siege, I was captured and tortured by the Armenian soldiers. My only crime was that I was an Azerbaijani living in a land that Armenia wanted to claim at all expense. The treatment I was subjected to during those days in captivity was one I do not wish on anyone. I was fortunate enough to have survived; however, hundreds of others from Khojaly, including over 300 women, children, and the elderly were not so lucky. 613 innocent civilians lost their lives that night, in what Human Rights Watch would label as the “largest massacre to date in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”

For many years I tried to remove these events from my memory; I thought sharing my story would only reopen the emotional wounds that remained when the bruises of my torture faded. However, two years ago as I was perusing Facebook, I found an article about an Armenian who was receiving an award. When I realized I recognized him, it was as if I was back in that barn in 1992. The man receiving that award was the very same soldier who had ordered the countless beatings when I was their prisoner. After seeing this post, I decided it was time to speak out and tell my story. We often hear the phrase “never again” when discussing massacres such as Khojaly, and I believe that ideal can only be accomplished if survivors like me tell their stories.

While I have made a point in the past few years to tell my story, my voice is only one of many that needs to be heard to truly understand what occurred in my town. This is why I am excited and honored to be a part of a new documentary that was created by film-makers in Los Angeles to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the tragedy in Khojaly. Having debuted on February 21st at the world-famous Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles to a great acclaim, Running From the Darkness features survivors from the massacre providing a space for first-hand accounts of what happened that night. Additionally, experts who have written books on Nagorno-Karabakh offer insights on the conflict and why we need to hold the perpetrators responsible. While the documentary’s primary purpose is to shed a light on the horrible events of February 25th, 1992, it also portrays the strengths of modern-day Azerbaijan. My homeland, known as “the Land of Fire”, has emerged from the ashes of catastrophe as a nation that celebrates multiculturalism and promotes religious tolerance.

This documentary not only commemorates tragedy, it also serves as a reminder that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is far from over. The international community has taken note of the quagmire; organizations such as the UN Security Council, UN General Assembly, the Council of Europe, European Parliament, and NATO have all condemned the continued Armenian occupation of Karabakh. The Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), comprised of the United States, Russia, and France, has been tasked with negotiating a peaceful settlement to this conflict. With the mounting pressure from these organizations, I am hopeful that a resolution will emerge in the very near future so that I, and other survivors, can finally go home.