February 23, 2020

The Strength of Ma’aleh Film School

A scene from the documentary film, “The Strength to Tell.”

A black-and-white film shows a trial being called to session. In less than a second, it’s obvious this is the trial of Adolf Eichmann, in Jerusalem in April 1961, with Eichmann in the bulletproof glass booth. We watch as a witness takes the stand.

We pull back now, in color, to a present-day room where a group of teenagers are watching the footage. A man asks them, “What does the Holocaust have to do with you?” A girl, Avigail Lev, says it has nothing to do with her. The man then asks the teens what they know about Eichmann? Nothing. They Google “Eichmann” and find his Wikipedia entry and start to read. So the real film begins.

“The Strength To Tell,” a documentary directed by Noam Demsky, won Israel Ministry of Culture Best Zionist Film prize of 2013 and will have its West Coast premiere on Feb. 8 at the opening night event of the Ma’aleh Film Festival in Los Angeles. Neta Ariel, director of The Ma’aleh Film School in Jerusalem, and David Siegel, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, are expected to attend.

“The Strength to Tell” tells the story of a group of at-risk teenagers in contemporary Jerusalem whose lives are changed by a unique program at the HaMartef Theater, through which they develop a play based on testimonies of several witnesses at the Eichmann trial. In the process, they met with Holocaust survivors to understand why they testified at the trial, and what doing so meant to them.

We never really learn anything about the program — who runs it or who came up with the idea of using the Eichmann trial in this way, or even who selected the teens. Instead, the film focuses on the teens themselves, and their journey. Avigail is an angry young woman, cut off from her family, a bottled-up rage simmering inside her. She is defiant, dismissive. She has no interest, she says, in being “in the Holocaust.” She doesn’t want to meet the survivors because she’s “not interested in 200-year-old people.” Why would she explore their past, she says, when she isn’t interested in her own.

“I don’t want to dig into my past, I only look to my future,” she says.

Haim lives with his family, has always been told that he is stupid and a loser, but he has always been fascinated by the Holocaust even though he’s not sure he will be able to relate to or understand the survivors’ plight.

We feel we are watching with the teens, as the film shares testimony during the trial from survivors such as Avraham Aviel and Yosef Kleinman; and we witness the teenagers meeting those same, now-aged survivors. At first it is the survivors who talk; later, the teenagers ask questions.
Alchemy occurs. In listening and developing a theater piece composed of words, of movement of scenes about the survivors, the teenagers realize a few things, such as that no matter how terrible is your experience, no matter if you are cut off from your parents, family and friends, no matter how horribly people treat you, you can still go on and live, love and be whole. In understanding the survivors’ trauma, the teens gain perspective on their own. In hearing why one person found the strength to go on — they, too, see their own responsibility to something larger than themselves.

As Avigail says, suddenly “you see things so much less superficially.” And, as Aviel, one of the survivors, says, you learn that in “falling and getting back up — getting back up is the main part.” By the film’s end, the way the teens hold themselves, the way they walk is totally different: they become grounded, self-confident and no longer hostile to the world at large.

Ma’aleh Film School, housed in a building in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood just outside the Old City, near downtown Jerusalem, was founded in 1989 for filmmakers and students from traditionally observant backgrounds. Today, the student population and faculty come from all walks of life, religious and secular, and the students make films that confront such difficult religious and political issues as homosexuality in the yeshiva and domestic abuse, as well as experimental films. The school prohibits nudity or extreme violence in the films, but students have rarely felt constrained by this.

Over time, Ma’aleh came to realize that its collection of student films represents a valuable resource, covering a wide variety of Jewish subjects and reflecting the diversity and creativity of Israel. Out of this was born a program to screen Ma’aleh films on college campuses and for communities all over the world. The Ma’aleh Film Festival Los Angeles was born from this idea.
Today, Ma’aleh needs financial support, as well as exposure — more than ever. In an e-mail sent on the morning of Jan. 2 by Ariel, Ma’aleh’s director, she told of a fire that broke out on the school’s second floor, which houses its offices, destroying all the equipment, records and DVDs, as well as damaging the walls and roof, all of which will have to be replaced.

Which is why she would love as many people as possible to go to Museum of Tolerance on Feb. 8 to view “The Strength to Tell,” a film that speaks to the transformative and healing powers of empathy across generations — and of the importance, as well, of the Ma’aleh Film School in Jerusalem.

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