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Thread: San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 2015

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    San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 2015



    San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 35 --- 23 July-9 August 2015

    General Forum notice and discussion thread

    "But if Jews invented Hollywood (and yes, we did)," says a web page "Best Jewish Film Festivals," "then why do we need Jewish film festivals at all, let alone 80 of them, scattered across the 50 states like so many kosher delis?" They answer, because Hollywood is about being white and Christian, and never really properly represents Jews and Jewishness, which of course is true.

    San Francesco's is said to be the "world's first and largest Jewish film festival" and is organized by the Jewish Film Institute. The Best Jewish Film Festivals page calls the SFJFF "the first and foremost," though it calls the New York fest "the classiest." "You can’t get classier than Lincoln Center, and you can’t get a richer variety of educated fans than those among its regular audiences." I might add that this Walter Reade Theater audience is getting pretty old, a problem Lincoln Center faces. The "Best" page calls and the Miami one the "best winter escape." You might consider San Francisco's the "best summer escape," since it might allow you to be cool in July and early August when Miami and New York are becoming steamy.

    I will be covering a few more of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival films this year than last and plan on reviewing the titles listed below. The offerings as usual are impressive. See the SFJFF website here.

    ​As I Am: The Life and Times of DJ AM (Kevin Kerslake). A pop music, media, and addiction documentary of the short life of DJ Adam Goldstein, who became famous and influential and died young of drugs.

    Dealing With the Devil (Stéphane Bentura). An investigation of Hildebrand Gurlitt, the Jewish Dresden art dealer commissioned by Joseph Goebbels to sell off "degenerate art" prized out of the hands of Jewish collectors.

    Finsterworld (Frauke Finsterwalder 2013) A dark satire and anthology film of interconnected people in different places, commenting on the present state of Germany; first feature by a documentary filmmaker.

    The Law/La loi: le combat d'une femme pour toutes les femmes (Christian Faure). This French film has Emmanuelle Devos playing Simone Veil, the French health minister in the mid-Seventies largely responsible for the legalization of abortion in France in 1975. This narrative feature seeks to give legal and political maneuvering the edge of a film noir.

    Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw (Rick Goldsmith) A documentary about the black female NBA star who developed mental problems and later became an advocate for more understanding and acceptance of such issues. Narrated by Glenn Close.

    ​​Mr. Kaplan (Álvaro Brechner). Genial aging drama and buddy picture of 76-year-old Polish refugee in Uruguay who launches a Quixotic scheme to capture an imagined local Nazi and turn him over to Israel for trial like Eichmann.

    ​​​​The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer (Shaul Betser, Asaf Galay). Maybe "mistresses" is more like it. This documentary talks about this storyteller who became a famous "American" author writing in Yiddish. A ladies man, he tended to carry his relations with his numerous female translators beyond the linguistic.

    ​​​My Shortest Love Affair/Ma plus courte histoire d'amour (Karin Albou) Centerpiece film, a narrative feature about nine months in the lives of two French forty-somethings who are a couple reuniting after twenty years apart and try to make it work this time.

    ​​Projections of America (Peter Miller) A short documentary about a series of short films to promote America abroad made as part of the war effort by Robert Riskin and reflecting a Jewish leftish outlook. Riskin is chiefly known for his 1937 Best Screenplay Oscar for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Narrated by John Lithgow.

    Villa Touma (Suha Arraf) This Palestine-based drama depicts three unmarried Christian Arab sisters living in a West Bank estate and clinging to past glory. Their fantasy is interrupted by the arrival of an orphaned niece, Badia, whom they take in. Badia disrupts things when she falls in love with a good looking Muslim singer.

    Women in Sink (Iris Zaki) The filmmaker, an Israeli woman, takes a job as a "shampoo girl" in the Christian Arab section of Haifa, Wadi Nisnas, her position gaining her access to many customers' stories of personal experiences.

    Also, already reviewed as part of the SFIFF 2015: Very Semi-Serious (Leah Wolchok), doc about the New Yorker magazine cartoonists and their current editor, Bob Mankoff.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-21-2015 at 10:15 AM.

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    AS I AM: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF DJ AM (Kevin Kerslake 2015)

    KEVIN KERSLAKE: AS I AM: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF DJ AM (2014)



    Rushed portrait of a short, frenetic and remarkable life

    A pop music, media, and addiction documentary of the short life of DJ Adam Goldstein, who became famous and influential and died young of drugs.

    A blogger and self-declared big fan of DJ AM who saw this film at the Hot Docs festival expressed disappointment at its superficiality. He writes "it feels like director Kevin Kerslake wasn’t able to get access [to] enough people who knew him before the film was completed," and wisely concludes "If you, or any member of your family has [ever] struggled with addiction you might benefit from seeing the documentary, but [for] those looking for something about DJ culture, there is not much here." Kerslake uses his music video experience to produce one long speed-freak buzz of a film that is a mix of lots of things about Adam Michael Goldstein, working title DJ AM. As we who know nothing about the turntable scene, or even what DJ's do -- and after this movie I still don't -- I did learn that this man was the leader in the field, a monster of dedication and accomplishment, who took it to a new level of fame, respect, and high pay. He got a million-dollar contract at Vegas. When he began at twenty or so, he and his colleagues were working for a few dollars a night and some beers.

    Many talking heads, mostly white DJ colleagues (introduced with giant print identifications of their names, so big they're more art work than information) who say how much they loved and respected Adam and how worried they were for him when he was one of two who survived, with severe burns, the crash of a private plane in which the other four all died -- and he insisted on working harder than ever at his high-profile career, that included not only cross-country gigs it terrified him to have to fly to, but the MTV addiction-recovery program "Gone Too Far," which made him a high-profile recovering addict (11 years clean) just when painkillers for his injuries were making his own sobriety very, very precarious.

    Probably, like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who suffered a similar fate after a longer clean and sober period, Goldstein had begun practicing his addiction again for some time in secret before the fatal overdose in his New York apartment at 36. The addiction story, arguably the film's stronger element, is valuably augmented by a number of recordings of what appear to be Goldstein's actual shares at various Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which show how deeply he "got" what addiction and recovery are all about and how committed and grateful to the program he was. Almost self-destructively dedicated to the service of other addicts in recovery, he was as passionate a recovering person as he was in all he did, using drugs, DJing, collecting colorful sneakers. (The Widipedia bio, which provides information missing here, says, "Goldstein was an avid sneakerhead, owning over 600 pairs" by 2006.) The film does give the outlines of his life, including his overweight problems, his addiction to alcohol, prescription drugs, and crack cocaine, and his rough experience with rehab at 16. Mr. Goldstein, also an addict who was gay and died of AIDS when AM was young, was not his real father, a fact the boy learned from his mother (to her later regret) early on, a blow to his self-esteem. His mother took him to live in Los Angeles after an early life in Philadelphia.

    We get some feel for his looks and his personality, since he was often filmed. He was a pretty but overweight boy, a pretty but overweight man, but then after gastric surgery after getting clean and sober became a thin, sexy and handsome man. After the plane crash we see him start to fill out again and lose his sharpness. A sense of duty to other DJ's whose status he had raised, and doubtless addiction to the work, using it as the only escape from drugs, leads him in his last year to push himself when he should have been regrouping. Needless to say, the hectic club scene where the turntable art is practiced is a dissipated drug-addled one in itself.

    But as the Hot Docs online reviewer points out, and due to the ADD flicker of the unrelentingly high-speed editing, we don't get to go into any depth about Goldstein's personal life. His mother is one of the many talking heads, and provides her viewpoint, but her well-considered remarks don't reveal much. The best parts of the film are its scattered excerpts of Goldstein speaking, is a fragmentary but warm portrait of a man passionate about his art and for all his inner demons taking massive pleasure in his work, who cared more about recognition from black DJ's he admired (and working with them) than the endless performances at parties of celebs like Tom Cruise, Leo DiCaprio, or Madonna. It is clear that his prowess was widely recognized and he is respected and missed by many. He appeared as himself in "Entourage" and Iron Man 2, and the latter was dedicated to him after his death.

    Kerslake has done many award winning and cutting edge music videos as well as films on human/animal rights and social justice and adverts for big-name brands. Not so much experience, it seems, in documentary (though he has done one on the making of a Bob Marley remix album). This is a fascinating, complex story. Maybe it is true as Dennis Harvey says in his Hot Docs review of As I AM for Variety that it's "an entertaining look at a talented turntablist who (for better or worse) pioneered his profession’s attainment of rock-star status in terms of glamour," etc. But for many the the jittery, relentless style of this film would keep it from being "entertaining." Kerslake did not consider that his jazzy, hyper kinetic editing may not suitable to an extended biographical film that considers many phases in a complex life. After a while the sameness of the film's look and pace numbs us. Every film, even the most suspenseful and high-speed, grows stronger and more dramatic only by taking occasional breaks, pausing for a breath.

    When he recites what he says is the only rap he ever composed, it's the only reference in the whole film to Goldstein's being Jewish -- 1% of the film. Thus this is one of those occasions when the Jewish Film Festival almost seems to be appropriating something that more rightfully belongs to everyone.

    As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM, 97 mins., debuted at Tribeca and also Hot Docs. Screened for this review as part of the 2015 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-13-2015 at 10:15 PM.

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    DEALING WITH THE DEVIL/LES MARAHANDS D'HITLER (Stéphane Bentura 2015)

    STÉPHANE BENTURA: DEALING WITH THE DEVIL/LES MARCHANDS D'HITLER (2015)


    FRENCH HIDING ART FROM NAZIS, ACTUAL SCENE RESTAGED IN MONUMENTS MEN

    Business is business

    This conventional if well-made French TV documentary goes over in specific detail, focused on one individual, a story already familiar in general outline: the looting of European art in Wold War II and the pillaging of art treasures in Jewish hands. It seems they will never all be tracked down and returned to their rightful owners or their descendants. Two poorly reviewed recent movies dealt with this: George Clooney's The Monuments Men, about the American art experts team assigned to recover art stolen by the Nazis, and Simon (My Week with Marilyn) Curtis' Woman in Gold, about a family member seeking to reclaim a single stolen Klimt portrait. This documentary mentions the Monuments Men and dwells on their heroic French ally, Rose Valland.

    But the spotlight here is on a figure who became known in March 2012 when the reclusive Cornelius Gurlitt was found (through an ID check on a Swiss train) to be hiding out in a small Munich flat with an astonishing €1 billion cache of 1,500 works of famous modern artists like Dix, Nolde, Beckmann, Kirchner, Klee, Kokoshka, Marc, Chagall, Picasso, and Matisse, as well as the likes of Dürer, Renoir, Rodin, Courbet and Canaletto, all of dubious wartime provenance, presumably looted by the Nazis. It had been assembled by the man's German art dealer father, Hildebrand Gurlitt. More can be learned of Cornelius from an his obituary; he died on 6 May 2014. Most of the film traces Gurlitt père's activities during and after World War II.

    He had been perhaps the chief art dealer for the Nazis. Paradoxically, Gurlitt had a Jewish grandmother; and had been dismissed from several museums due to his taste for modern art. But that was what later made him useful. At one time he was charged with selling "degenerate," i.e., modern, art looted from Jewish collections or bought for a song from German museums to make money for the Third Reich and buying "Aryan" art for Nazi officials and for Hitler's planned grand Führermuseum in Linz. Perhaps his deviousness led to the hermit-like behavior of his son, who survived for decades, wholly outside the system, by occasionally selling a small treasure; he even brought one in a small suitcase he took on his last trip to the hospital.

    The documentary fills us in on general background, particularly Joseph Goebbels' efforts to destroy "degenerate" art representing "Jewish intellectualism," a plan then modified to to sell modern art for the profit of the Third Reich and to acquire acceptable or "Aryan" art. What was acceptable included sculpture of ancient Greece, classic landscapes, works of the Middle Ages or representing German roots -- pretty much anything valuable that wasn't modern. We learn something about the various ways Jewish property was stolen by the Nazis. There were other dealers besides Gurlitt, four main ones are named. Those who were "buying" work from museums kept some, always, for themselves.

    But the main focus begins after the 1940 Nazi invasion of France. Gulitt moved right in. Art dealers went on dealing: business is business, even, apparently, when it becomes shady or morally reprehensible. Lots of French dealers were involved too. A few were punished after the war as a token gesture; the rest papered over the ugly spots and moved on. The big French auction house, Drouot, continued to be open throughout the war. You can imagine what it was dealing in during the Forties, and how much this profitable business led to covering of tracks by French auction houses and art dealers when the war was over.

    While the war was on, Gulitt made a huge fortune selling to German museums art bought cheaply at auction in France. During all this, we're told, he prudently stayed in the background, acting through middle men.

    The Nazis sought to rape and pillage Europe and Jewish collections and show off their spoils. Nearly all the big Nazi officials competed to see who could assemble the biggest personal art collection. But France as a nation protected its treasures. As The Monuments Men shows and is repeated here the great French museums, knowing what was coming, moved all their treasures into hiding in provincial chateaux, including the Mona Lisa and other iconic works. When Hitler came to Paris, he was disappointed. Nonetheless there were all the treasures stolen from Jewish collections. The biggest Nazi seizure of art in France was the Scholoss family's holdings of Flemish and Dutch masters, over 300. Erhard Göpel, another German art dealer heavily involved in the French art transfer, took most of the Schloss collection to Germany. We see his wife, who was interviewed, partly in French (she was younger), shaking here head at how awful it all was and yet still claiming today, ever in denial, that at the time her husband had to do what he did, to survive, like.

    A lot of these seizures of art in France during the Nazi occupation -- The Monuments Men shows this in detail -- were held at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris to be sorted before being shipped to Germany. At one point or other Goebbels visited and looked at them. This is where Rose Valland surreptitiously kept a meticulous record of of works taken out of the country that was used after the war to reclaim them. Despite Gurlitt's low profile, Valland tracked him down after the war, having left his native Dresden to escape the American fire bombing and gone into hiding at the castle of Baron von Pöllnitz in Bamburg, Bavaria. When captured and interrogated in 1946, Hildebrand claimed most of his collection had been destroyed in fire in Dresden along with his records. The Monuments Men got hold of the 100 works Gurlitt had brought with him in a truck, only a fraction of his collection, but they did not know, or could not prove, that he held more. He made excuses. He pointed to his Jewish background. He said he never dealt with Nazi officials, and so on. To save his own skin, he turned informer on his dealer colleagues. He managed to pass himself off as not an agent of the Nazis but their victim, and he was released.

    The rest is the story of bluffing, dodging, and "denazification." Later -- we're not told how -- Hildebrand recovered almost all the artworks that had been in his truck. And obviously a whole lot more. But the film does not nail down how he gathered it all, or how the 1,500 works worth a billion euros got to his son Cornelius in the Munich flat. In his post-war recreation, Gurlitt became director of the "Kuntsverein" of Dusseldorf -- where he settled, apparently a home for ex-Nazis living in plain sight, including Hitler's sculptor and his secretary.

    Bentura and her associates interview many sources, including German art dealers, lawyers, and French and German researchers into this part of World War II history, who show how much documentation has been saved or unearthed about all these events. The final phase of the story is the painting over of Nazi history, and the way even today dealers who ought to know better manage to "miss" the illicit origin of an art work that passes through their hands. Money is money, it seems, and sometimes it seems more effort is made to protect the guilty than to help those who have been exploited and stolen from.

    Warning to viewers: this film is 95% in French, and the light subtitles, especially when flashed over reproduced pages of printed German or French War era documents, can be almost as hard to read as the English and Chinese subtitles on a pirated Wong Kar-wai videotape of the early Nineties. Best to polish up your French. Because there are not many photos and no films of Gurlitt, the film has done up a lot of pencil drawings of him and his associates and family. They are okay, but not great.

    Les marchands d'Hitler (Hitler's Dealers), retitled Dealing with the Devil, 67 mins., was originally presented by France Televisions/TV5Monde 13 February 2015. Screened for this review as part of the 2015 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-11-2015 at 10:57 AM.

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    THE LAW/LA LOI (Christian Faure 2014)

    CHRISTIAN FAURE: THE LAW/LA LOI: LE COMBAT D'UNE FEMME POUR TOUTES LES FEMMES (2014)


    LORANT DEUTSCH, EMMANUELLE DEVOS IN THE LAW

    From the camps to the corridors of French power, fighting for women with nerves of steel

    This French film has Emmanuelle Devos playing Simone Veil, the French health minister in the mid-Seventies largely responsible for the legalization of abortion in France in 1975.La loi seeks to give legal and political maneuvering some of the edge of a film noir. It's a made-for-TV movie. Well, Christian Faure's 2000 made-for-TV Just a Question of Love/Juste une question d'amour was a winner, a warm and touching gay coming of age film that was a hit and consciousness-raiser in France (available on US DVD). Faure has made fourteen TV movies since then; this is his fifteenth. This time Faure he landed one of France's most interesting and important film actresses of her generation, Emmanuelle Devos, as his lead.

    During the discussion of abortion Veil was subject to personal attacks, but the film also enlivens things by focusing on her issues with Secrétaire d'État à la Condition féminine Francoise Giroud (Laure Killing), also, like Veil, Jewish, who made things harder by making it a feminist issue of woman's right over her body, while Veil wanted to focus only on the health issue, the death and suffering caused by illegal abortions. (Veil gets Giroud sidelined.) Meanwhile the film sets up a parallel with a crusading young woman photo-journalist, Diane Riestrof (Flore Bonaventura), who becomes involved in the issue, fighting a feminist battle of her own to be accepted as a serious journalist in a male world of tough newsmen of the magazine L'Express. Diane's scenes take us to the "front," to young women in hospital after botched abortions, and to the campaigners on the pro-abortion side and also the pro-lifers. Diane's chief opponent is Rémy Bourdon (Lannick Gautry), whose news territory she's stepping on. Her ally: Miriam (Anne Girouard), L'Express' librarian. Veil's right hand man in her work is Dominique Le Vert (Lorànt Deutsch). Marceline Loridan (Aurélia Petit) is her best, longtime friend, also a survivor of the camps.

    American viewers may find negotiating this melange of figures easier than steering the way through French politics. But we have been getting more of a taste of that in movies recently with the likes of La conquête (2011), about Sarkozy's rise to power; the witty The French Minister (2013) about presidential in-fighting, and, best of the three as a film, The Minister/L'exercice de l'État (also 2011), about a troubled working-class French cabinet minister, directed by Pierre Schoeller and starring the terrific Olivier Gourmet. These show how good the French are at making films about politics. But this, while about a crucial subject, is the kind of film that has lines like "Maybe we should avoid talking to the Left until we find what the Center is going to do."

    This is a new kind of role for Devos, who has sometimes played sensitive, eccentric, or insecure women. Here she is cool, elegant, and invincible playing a woman who, as we're told, lost her brother and both parents in the Holocaust and later close remaining relatives in an accident. Miriam, the L'Express documents boss, tells Diane Veil's faraway look is because of all the dead in her life. She has a husband though (Lionel Abelanski) and a small child, neither of whom she has much time for here: the film begins in medias res, and is a portrait of an issue and its heroine, not of a life.

    No question of Emmanuelle Devos' character's qualifying for a Jewish Film Festival. Simone Veil was a French survivor of both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, eighteen when the war ended, who returned to France and went on to be a train-blazer in French politics at the highest level decades later, rising to the ministry after years as an attorney and in the Ministry of Justice responsible for prisons, working for improved conditions. She had worked to make the Pill legal in 1967. Note that in France abortion had been criminalized since the Napoleonic Code, and the Vichy régime made it a a capital crime. Veil says in the film there are 300,000 illegal abortions a year in France, and seven deaths a day from them. Her chief opponent causes a stir during the government debate (which Veil starts off) by playing a cassette tape of the loud, fast heartbeat of a fetus only a few weeks old. The three-day debate is punishing. Devos gives a display of sand-froid that is memorable; it's another feather in this wonderful actress' cap.

    Using dp Jean-Pierre Hervé's camera work to present scenes at once formal and intimate, Christian Faure delivers a cool, elegant historical film that's well-paced and involving -- if, that is, the issues matter to you and political maneuvering is your thing. Screenwriters Fanny Burdino, Samuel Doux, and Mazarine Pingeo on the whole manage to enliven matters that of necessity involve a good deal of formal exposition. Emmanuelle Devos, Lorànt Deutsch, Flore Bonaventura and the rest never disappoint.

    The Law/La loi: le combat d'une femme pour toutes les femmes,87 mins., was shown on French television on 26 November 2014, and was nominated for a Crystal Globe, Best Television Film or Television Series (Meilleur téléfilm ou série télévisée). Screened for this review as part of the 2015 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, 23 July-9 August 2015,

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-13-2015 at 10:00 AM.

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    MIND/GAME: THE UNQUIET JOURNEY OF CHAMIQUE HOLDSCLAW (Rich Goldsmith 2014)

    RICK GOLDSMITH: MIND/GAME: THE UNQUIET JOURNEY OF CHAMIQUE HOLDSCLAW (2014)


    CHAMIQUE HOLDSCLAW IN MIND/GAME

    Athletic superstar who advocates for understanding of mental illness

    Chamique Holdsclaw's life is recounted here, and the story of the 6'2" girl from the Astoria projects in Queens raised by her grandmother is one of the most glittering ones in the history of American sport. However, she had alcoholic parents and a schizophrenic father, and this legacy came to haunt her later. The point of the documentary is to focus on a very prominent sports figure who experienced psychological difficulties (diagnosis of clinical depression after a suicide attempt and a second diagnosis of bipolar disorder after an arrest and being charged with aggravated assault, criminal damage and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. (Her girlfriend, the object of the assult, who was in her car, fellow WNBA player Jennifer Lacy, was uninjured, but frightened.) Holdsclaw has not only been open about her mental illness and need for psychiatric help and medication, but has coached young basketball hopefuls in learning to recognize and deal with their emotions and has founded the Chamique Holdsclaw Foundation to further her efforts as a "mental health advocate," combating the stigma attached to psychiatric problems. This is particularly true in professional sports, the film shows. Pro athletes are expected to seem invincible and therefore without flaw. Psychological illness is ot accpted as a legitimate illness. It seems that the "stigma" of mental illness particularly haunts the world of sport, though not confined there.

    The film is narrated by Glenn Close, who also is an advocate for understanding of mental health issues, having become sensitized to them by having a younger sister who is bipolar and a nephew (her sister's son) with schizoaffective disorder. Close has her own foundation to combat the stigma of mental illness, Bring Change 2 Mind.

    Holdsclaw's sports career is spectacular, her personal story is affecting and her personality is engaging. She granted filmmaker Rich Goldsmith intimate access to scenes recounting her personal struggles. However some of the narration is stiff and academic-sounding, and the otherwise good-looking documentary seems standard-issue.

    Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw, 57 mins., debuted at the Nashfillle Festival, showing also at Frameline. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The festival blurb says, "Even though Holdsclaw is not Jewish, her struggle and her subsequent advocacy around mental illness issues embody the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world through one’s actions." Evidently filmmaker Goldsmith is Jewish, and Holdsclaw is also gay, justifying the Frameline inclusion. However both of these are somewhat artificial pretexts for the inclusion of a basically mainstream doc in specialized fests. This is mainly the story of a black female superstar athlete who has used her fame to campaign for greater understanding of mental illness.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-10-2015 at 06:07 PM.

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    MR. KAPLAN (Álvaro Brechner 2014)

    ÁLVARO BRECHNER: MR. KAPLAN (2014)


    HÉCTOR NOGUERA AND NÉSTOR GUZMAN IN MR. KAPLAN

    Mutual delusion in search of adventure

    Young Uruguayan filmmaker Álvaro Brechner's second feature is a charmer, though it leaves one with a feeling of something unfulfilled. He plays with several themes and genres here. His Mr. Kaplan, played by Chilean-born TV vet Héctor Noguera, is a 76-year-old man, happily married to Rebecca (Nidia Telles) for 50 years, with a successful son (Gustavo Saffores) and comfortable life. But he feels he has failed to achieve anything of lasting importance in life. A sweet, sad little flashback to his childhood shows how his Polish parents sent little Jakob off by himself to "America" to escape the Nazi terror; evidently his family did not live, so survivor guilt, in the opinion of some critics at least, is an element in the craziness that follows. The director calls Jacobo, as he's now known, a "Quixote Schlemazel,"* according to Jay Weissberg in his short Variety review, but as Weissberg says, Jacobo's too comfortable and successful a man to warrant a Yiddish word for an accident-prone loser.

    But it's a series of fuckups that lead Jacobo to be assigned a driver, tubby, bibulous ex-cop Wilson Contreras (the many-faceted Néstor Guzzini) as a driver and perhaps minder: he has behaved oddly at a family party, had to be rescued from the pool (he can't swim) and then bumps into a relative's car with his. And then he fails an eye test. He is aging. There are hints he's going gaga. But there is spunk in him yet. And so when he hears his niece Lotote (Nuria Fló), a kind of ally, that there's a German man on the beach now people call "The Nazi," he evolves a fantasy of capturing this man, whose improbable name is Julius Reich (German TV actor Rolf Becker), and taking him to Israel for a trial, like Adolf Eichmann. Wilson has been kicked out of the house by his wife and her father, whose crooked dealings got him ousted from the police, and he's in dire need of an exploit too, and naively buys into Jacobo's fantasy, becoming Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote.

    What develops is a comical buddy picture that has some elements of a thriller, also remotely of a Holocaust tale and of a character study about the indignities of growing old. It feels like there could have been more comedy and also more excitement. But both Noguera and Guzman are very watchable and both of them can seem alternately tough, foolish, sad, or silly. Investigation of "The Nazi" leads them to the beach cafe the man runs, and to his sleazy, estranged daughter, who is now a bar prostitute. The two men's efforts to carry out an investigation are absurd, but plausible enough to keep us interested for a while. Then when an actual capture comes there is an interesting revelation about their captive. This is set in the Clinton era, to make it more plausible that a Nazi would still be alive, perhaps. Jacobo originally comes from the village of Sosnowiec, Poland, like the director's own grandfather.

    Brechner's story may suggest that for younger Latin American Jews, World War II is a fading dream, but his main interest seems to be in the search for dignity and two men helping each other in a search for dignity; his first film, Bad Day to Go Fishing/Mal día para pescar, also pursues this theme, which resonates nicely in the relationship between Jacobo and Wilson. Weissberg thinks the plot here is "as predictable as your Great-aunt Bella’s matzoh balls." Maybe the movie's greatest weakness is that Brechner is too little invested in it. This is fun anyway, and must have been fun for Noguera and Guzman to play together. But it's not clear if Brechner can become as much of a factor as Daniel Berman, the well-known Argentinian Jewish director. Nor is this as clever as last year's SFJFF Argentinian film, Hernán Guerschuny's El Crítico, which got a US theatrical release. And though this has whimsy, once again there's no rivaling Carlos Sorín's wonderfully understated and unique films set in Patagonia.

    Mr. Kaplan,98 mins., has been released in Uruguay, Brazil, Spain and Chile, and played in two dozen international festivals. It was screened for this review as part of the 2015 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (23 July-9 August 2015). Weissberg says a US theatrical release is coming.

    _____________________
    *From the Urban Dictionary:
    "A 'schlemiel' is the guy most likely to spill the wine at dinner.
    A 'schlemazel' is the guy most likely to have the wine spilled on him.
    And the 'nudnick' is the guy most likely to ask (in a nasal voice), 'Gee, what kind of wine was that anyhow?'"

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-13-2015 at 10:03 PM.

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    FINSTERWORLD (Frauke Finsterwalder 2013)

    FRAUKE FINSTERWALDER: FINSTERWORLD (2013)


    CARLA ZURI AND LEONARD SCHLEICHER IN FINSTERWORLD

    Dark collection of interconnected film tales roast today's Germany

    You can see where things are going in the sardonic anthology film Finsterworld, a remarkable if over-ambitious first narrative feature by the young German documentary fimmaker Frauke Finsterwalder, which interrelates its ten or twelve characters and separate storylines, by the fact that a central thread is a school instructional trip to the site of a Nazi concentration camp. It's a class from an elite school, with a soft and sweet boy and girl (Leonard Schleicher, "Dominik," and Carla Zuri, "Natalie") and a sneering tall, blond meanie (Polish actor Jakob Gierszal, "Maximilian"). Natalie is absorbed in Daniel Clowes' cult graphic novel of the 'nineties, Ghost World. None of the kids are paying attention to the pompous teacher, Nickel (Christof Bach), who would like to impose his liberal German guilt with ironically Nazi-like fervor. Dominik and Natalie are horribly punished for their sweetness, and Nickel for his righteousness, while Maximilian triumphs, returning to school to score the goal, having won the girl. None of these kids, least of all Dominik, the history student, cares for the lesson about the Nazis.

    Maximilian's parents despise Germany, and tell us so, as they head to Paris driving a Cadillac Escalade. The wife, Inge Sandberg (Corinna Harfouch), who seems to run the show, has directed her company not to send them a "Nazi car," meaning any Gereman brand; hence the Escalade. She even refuses to go to a German highway rest stop, declaring German public toilets dirtier than anything in the Third World (but not Paris!), preferring to relieve herself en route in a field. This leads the Sandbergs to an encounter with a student who's gone AWOL from the class trip. Meanwhile there is the hermit ("eniseidler") and raven trainer (Johannes Krisch), who has spotted Tom, another character, putting on his Furry suit, and subsequently finds his quiet life of nature and meditation rudely destroyed and himself transformed into a villain.

    Maybe Finsterwalder and her co-writer Christian Kracht are having a little too much cruel fun, but it's amusing to trace the ingenious and far-fetched ways they have their characters interconnect. (I diagrammed them; but I needed a bigger sheet of paper than I had.) The two threads that precede those of the class and the couple involve Claude (Michael Maertens), a lonely foot masseur-pedicurist who makes house calls, including the nursing-home-confined (and also lonely) Frau Sandberg (former Fassbinder regular Margit Carstensen), who just happens to be the mother of Inge's husband (Benard Schutz, "Georgi"). We see the relationship between pedicurist and client grow from affectionate to creepy. The screenplay plays a bit with the ideas of masks, costumes, skins, and ashes, with a reference to Nazi camps implied each time. I won't go into details about that. Some of it's too creepy, and too much designed to surprise the audience, to reveal in a review.

    Right at the beginning of the movie, Claude, in his car, feels compelled to take a cell phone call from a new client while driving. He has to because business is bad, so he tells Tom (Ronald Zehrfeld), an amiable and easily bribed sweetheart of a traffic cop who pulls him over. As we follow Tom, he switches his police uniform to become a "Furry," joining a club of folks who congregate wearing hairy animal suits. This is not known to his girlfriend, a frustrated documentary filmmaker (Sandra Huller, "Franziska") who's trying to do a film about a bored lonely man, and is hitting a brick wall. "But depressing is good for documentaries, isn't it?" says Tom. They are not working out as a couple. He suggests she go to Africa, and cover colorful natives. Or cute animals.

    Movies that seek profundity humorlessly by skipping around among a set of connected stories like Crash or 27 Grams tend to be unbearably pompous. Finsterwalder escapes the worst pretensions of that genre by crafting an obviously over-the-top, darkly sardonic fairy tale. Her references to documentary, her previous métier, are sardonic too. But that character's mention of admiration for Austrians (Haneke and Seidl) and Sofia Coppola and the alienated ending of Antonioni's L'Eclisse can't be wholly ironic. And she and her co-writer Christian Kracht, even if we accept the preposterous artifice of the interwoven stories, pay the price with it of never engaging us deeply with any of the characters the way Roy Andersson does. Andersson's world view is equally pessimistic, but there is a delicacy and sweetness in his little tales that leaves one feeling touched, not put off. Finsterworld has a defiant energy about its negativity and anti-Germanness. But it's guilty of an unevenness of tone and a resorting to what Kevin Matthews calls "cheap shocks." I'm a fan of new German cinema and am excited about Christian Petzold, Benjamin Heisenberg's The Robber , Christoph Hochhäusler's The City Below and other stuff from the Berlin School. Those movies have a chastening coolness lacking here. However, the acting and tech credits, particularly dp Markus Forderder's ironically bright cinematography, are all fine.

    For a German it might be bracing to have the country so overtly discussed in a narrative feature and so bitterly condemned by almost everybody here. On the other hand though it's all intentionally absurd and over-the-top, one feels lectured at times.

    Finsterworld (a pointed play on the director's name), a manageable 91 mins., debuted Aug. 2013 at Montreal (see Hollywood Reporter review by Boyd van Hoeij) and opened in Germany 17 Oct. 2013. Screened for this review as part of the July-Aug. 2015 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-13-2015 at 10:58 PM.

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    ​​​​THE MUSES OF ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER (Shaul Betser, Asaf Galay 2014)

    SHUL BETSER, ASAF GALAY: THE MUSES OF ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER (2014)


    SINGER AND SOME OF HIS LADIES

    A famous writer's collaboration/flirtations, keys to his international fame

    Maybe "mistresses" is more like it. This documentary talks about this storyteller who became a famous "American" author writing in Yiddish. A ladies man, he tended to carry his relations with his numerous female translators beyond the linguistic. "Enemies: A Love Story," "Gimpel the Fool," "The Friend of Kafka," and "The Magician of Lublin" are among Singer's best known and best-loved stories. "Enemies" was made into an excellent movie (Paul Mazursky, 1989); so was his story "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy" made into a more popular one, Yentl, with Barbra Streisand, a Hollywood musical, with music by Michel Legrand, adapted from the Broadway play adaptation by Leah Napolin. Early on, Singer was translated by Nobel prize author Saul Bellow, but he preferred to have a "Harem" of female translators.

    Maybe Singer was a little Jewish guy from Poland with big ears and a heavy accent, but, he was a dapper as well as charming man, and in one woman's word, "very frisky." It suited him to have three women, always, his loyal wife, Alma; a longtime mistress who was passionate and fascinating but emotionally unreliable; third, a woman, often found among his translators, who was a rational and intelligent partner. (Some of them he slept with; some he did not. The ones who address the camera here do not admit to having done so.) Many of his numerous lady translators didn't know Yiddish or Hebrew. He simply translated from his manuscript, or from a page of the Yiddish edition of the Jewish newspaper The Forward where they were published in the original, into his "Yinglish" and they would type a corrected version of it in good English.

    Surprisingly, there are numerous little films of Singer doing this, going to meet his ladies in the famous cafeterias he frequented, and other things. The filmmakers delight in presenting these films in a quaint old-fashioned format. These English translations were, obviously, collaborations, flattering to the young women who collaborated, and Singer liked them so much he chose for them to be the texts from which his stories were translated in all the other languages. But Hebrew/Yiddish speakers, going over the originals found in The Forward, find that the English versions distort the originals, to make them more palatable to American, non-Jewish, readers, and are watered-down in vocabulary and less colorful in their idioms. Singer biographer Janet Hadda thinks he can be seen as a "betrayer" of the Yiddish language because of the way he did this. But he knew English was his key to being a famous writer; no writer could become famous whose work was hidden in a minor, dying language like Yiddish. And Singer did become famous: he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978 (he died in 1991).

    This little documentary probably assumes a familiarity with the writer's works; however, it could provide an unusual introduction to him and his writing. Viewers are warned that this is the usual combination of archival footage with talking heads. It is an intelligent film with neat, clear organization into logical topic headings. A number of the former translators and relatives have been located and interviewed; there is also footage from an earlier documentary about Singer. It's a partial docu-bio based on a special angle. But this isn't a work of bold journalistic investigation -- until the last 25 minutes, "The Last Translator." when Duba Leibell provides a more intimate story.

    The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer, 70 mins., debuted Haifa 13 Oct. 2014; US debut Jan. 2015 as the opening night film of the New York Jewish Film Festival (Lincoln Center); also Seattle 4 June 2015. Screened for this review as part of the July-August 2015 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-14-2015 at 06:41 PM.

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    MY SHORTEST LOVE AFFAIR (Karin Albou 2015)

    KARIN ALBOU: MY SHORTEST LOVE AFFAIR/MA PLUS COURTE HISTOIRE D'AMOUR (2015)


    PATRICK MIMOUN AND KARIN ALBOU IN MY SHORTEST LOVE AFFAIR

    The twain does not meet

    This very French, and yet in French terms unconventional, film of a failed relationship is off-putting for men and very much the woman's point of view. To a man, this seems, however amusing or intended to amuse, unfair to men, and more than a little repetitious and tedious. It contains two comical American Jewish songs, and there are reminders that the man, whose family name is Italian, is not; but this is a battle of the sexes, not the sects. The man is a sexual stereotype; or should we just say he's a typical man? (But not all men are typical.) The premise feels contrived. Louisa (played by the writer-director herself) and Charles (Patrick Mimoun) were lovers when they were eighteen or twenty. Twenty years later they meet again in Paris during the "Nuits Blanches," and it is not a mere accident. Charles, a Columbia professor and known now as a writer, has come to realize that Louisa is who he's always been writing about in his fiction. And since recently his creative juices have dried up, he has been wanting very much to see her again. She has been alone since her husband died several years ago. Magically, the old couple make love again in a rush before Charles returns to New York, where he lives. And he has gotten Louisa pregnant, just that one time. (Albou when playing this role is really pregnant, very pregnant, and is naked a lot of the time, and her bravery is admirable.)

    Now comes the screenwriting twist that makes it all possible. When he learns Louisa is pregnant, Charles impulsively decides to leave New York, where he has lived for a decade, to try living with Louisa and be there for his child. And perhaps to get his inspiration back. But from the moment Charles gets off the plane he and Louisa are like oil and water. He has issued a warning before even arriving: he is allergic to cat hair. Her cat is her dearest companion, her pal, her roommate. She likes having flowers around; he's allergic to them too. In sex, Charles, now anyway, has tastes having become jaded, no doubt, likes all the conventional "male" sorts of things: lively music, or none; bright light; talking dirty -- preferably in English. Louisa, like most girls (and she says women remain young girls in their fantasies of perfect sex) wants soft lights, no words, gentleness, romance. Out of bed they clash just as much. In the morning he wants music and coffee; she wants the news and tea. And worse still, being French, they have endless discussions about all this. The irony of this is that this story about a woman frustrated in her desire for romance becomes a very unromantic movie.

    I am a great fan of Claire Denis, but not of her much admired Friday Night. This reminds me of that. Mind you, My Shortest Love Affair is a comedy. It just happens to be more tedious than funny. The dark cinematography by Nicolas Berteyac, featuring lurid images of the Moulin Rouge neighborhood of Montmartre where Louisa lives, grew on me after a while. I liked Louisa's intelligent, lived-in face. And I even began to accept after a while that as Charles, Patrick Mimoun was doing his thankless job of playing the boorish, stubborn male quite well.

    Karin Albou became known with her feature debut Little Jerusalem (2001), which won Best Screenplay at Critics Week at Cannes that year; and for The Brides' Song (2008).

    My Shortest Love Affair/Ma plus courte histoire d'amour, in French with several punishing moments of English, a merciful 76 mins., awaits release. It was screened for this review as part of the 2015 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, where it was featured as the Centerpiece Film (29 July 2015), and a "Sneak Preview."



    Note: For mature audiences; contains nudity
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-15-2015 at 01:38 AM.

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    PROJECTIONS OF AMERICA (Peter Miller 20

    PETER MILLER: PROJECTIONS OF AMERICA (2015)



    Nostalgic propaganda, well-meaning adverts for a victorious America

    Projections of America (Peter Miller) A short documentary about a series of short films to promote America abroad made as part of the war effort by Robert Riskin and reflecting a Jewish leftish outlook. Riskin is chiefly known for his 1937 Best Screenplay Oscar for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Narrated by John Lithgow. Written by Peter Miller and edited by Amy Linton.

    Robert Riskin was a screenwriter associated with the feel-good classics of Frank Capra, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, It Happened One Night, You Can't Take It With You. There were eight films done together. This was a fusion, because Riskin was liberal-left and Capra was a conservative Republican; and after they tried forming a joint production company, they soon had a falling out. Riskin's most individual effort, though according to Peter Miller's documentary Projections of America he was more the organizer than the writer, was supervising a series of short US (black and white) propaganda films called "Projections of America" developed and shown during Riskin's two and a half years as director of the Office of War Information or OWI's European branch, described in historical articles as "a secret film unit." A notable "Projection" featured Toscanini conducting Verdi, and the most popular of them was "Autobiography of a Jeep." German boys loved watching the exploits of the tough, feisty car developed by US auto companies to use in the war effort. Miller's documentary presents numerous clips from "Projections" films, but says they have hitherto been filed away and forgotten. Some historians and film writers who appear as talking heads here think the Riskin-supervised "Projections" are invaluable cultural documents showing "how we wanted to be understood" during WWII and right after. No harm certainly in showing that Americans are not all gangsters and cowboys or matinee idols and blonde babes, one of the first aims of the "Projections."

    We hear from German and French survivors of the war who remember seeing the films when they were young at the war's end. The Germans, notably Jews who had been in hiding, a youth who spent the war working in a movie house, and another non-Jewish youth who had been avoiding the war in a small town, describe being excited to see anything American, indeed anything not Nazi. One was awed by skyscrapers; others noted the greater freedom of America, and its variety. The movie house boy removed a huge portrait of Hitler from the lobby and replaced it with one of Willy Bergel, a German film and theater star of the time. Not an ideal choice, as it turns out, considering that Bergel had acted in a number of pro-Nazi films and was blacklisted for a while after the war, though not permanently.

    But not everybody was eager to be Americanized, however well meant the effort. The French speakers note that their fellow countrymen were not so enthusiastic about being subjected to American propaganda, and that after the war they considered the American presence, after all, an occupation. France is the western European nation that has done most to fight from being swamped by the cultural invasion of US movies.

    For a while in Germany the "Projections" films were shown at war's end for fee in half-ruined cinemas with no heating. People dressed warmly and waited in line to see them. From what we see and hear the "Projections" voiceover narrator's tone is invariably the high-minded drone to be heard later in Fifties Encyclopedia Britannica films, stentorian, humorless, and in this case, full of idealistic fervor. Did Riskin write their scripts after all? At any rate they seem to have come from like-minded colleagues whose thinking reflected liberal-left dreams of how America "ought" to be. Notably audiences seem to have retained the apolitical elements, the jeep, skyscrapers, Toscanini. Toscanini had been chosen especially for his eventual passionate rejection of Mussolini and Fascism to come to America. But it was hearing Verdi that mattered to the young German Jewish girl.

    Actually, Miller's documentary never goes into any deep analysis of the individual "Projections" shorts. What is shown seems naive, blithe, well-meaning and innocent -- pretty harmless as propaganda: could yesterday's propaganda ever convince, when it comes in the form a shiny old fashioned black and white film? These shorts, as we glimpse them, seem drenched in nostalgia today, full of the energy and pride of America and Americans at the end of the War. But having experienced the simplistic pedantry of Fifties instructional films firsthand, I find it hard to see the "Projections" as charming and quaint. Their eagerness to convert everyone to an "American way of life," however clothed in folksiness, has a totalitarian subtext. They are tiresomely simplistic. Propaganda is dumb. It's one-sided and monolithic.

    Unfortunately Riski's career was ended by a debilitating stroke in 1950. He never recovered, and died in 1955. Clearly his contribution to America's wartime propaganda effort was immense. But one may balk at the claim by talking heads in this film that the "Projections of America" films were "enormously important" simply because they were translated into many languages and very widely shown, or that they represent an important part of "our" history or that they reflect anything about "us." At least none of that can be quantified, and isn't really illustrated in any detail by Miller's documentary. In effect this feels like yet another propaganda film, a propaganda film for propaganda films. Maybe now "we" are all seen as cowboys and gangsters again, or matinee idols and Hollywood babes, but updated ones not as classic as the old black and white ones. (It would have been nice if Miller had pointed to other times more recently when Hollywood has engaged in US government propaganda efforts.)

    It's interesting to read a review of Peter Miller's documentary by Anne Dessuant, a critic for French weekly Télérama apropos of a French TV presentation. Riskin, she says, was firmly convinced that cinema could change the world. She notes how a film about the daily life of a Swedish community is narrated by "a very didactic Ingrid Bergman" and says these films were part of "an immense ideological offensive." The great irony of this story, Dessuant pointedly concludes, is that most of the men who worked on these idealistic films depicting their dream of a better America wound up being interrogated before the House Un-American Activities Committee -- and blacklisted in Hollywood.

    Projections of America, 52 mins., premiered on German TV 23 September 2014, and has been shown in Canada. It was screened for this review as art of the 2015 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-16-2015 at 08:21 PM.

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    VILLA TOUMA (Suha Arraf 2014)


    CHERIEN DABIS AND MARIA ZREIK IN VILLA TOUMA

    SUHA ARRAF: VILLA TOUMA (2014)

    Snobbish, repressed Christian Arab women imploding in post-1967 Israel

    The Palestinian writer-director previously penned the screenplays for two films from Erin Riklis released in the US, The Syrian Bride (2004) and The Lemon Tree (2008). Writing for an Israeli director, she turned out stories that were on the stereotypical and feel-good side. Working on her own with Villa Touma, she has produced something more unusual and austere, the more so by being set in the years shortly after the 1967 war. The Christian Arab family of three aunts living in Israel are a noose around th neck of Badia (Maria Zreik), who they take in, after she's reached the age of 18 in the orphanage where they put her after her black sheep father and her mother died in unexplained circumstances.

    Some have mentioned Chekhov, but Badia's first months with her aunts seem more like Dickens (Cinderella could also be mentioned). Actually one French critic called this "a horror film." The two older aunts consider themselves much too good for Badia or for most of the community. Then plump Juliette (Nisreen Faour), who's in charge, has her study languages and piano, and uses marriages and funerals as ways of finding a suitable husband for Badia, since the unstable, medicated widow, Violette (Ulla Tabari) won't tolerate strangers coming to the house; she really would rather Badia be locked up in her room and forgotten, like her. If the situation drags for the sisters, it drags for the viewer too.

    Badia has an ally in the younger Antoinette (Cherien Dabis), but they're both treated like children by Juliette. A breakthrough comes when Badia connects with a sexy wedding singer named Khaled (Nicholas Jacob), who of course is Muslim, and from a refugee camp. Of course the older sisters don't approve at all, but this messes up their plans. The paradox is that though under the older aunts' control, Badia is emotionally stronger and healthier than they, and also young. But that's not going to save her, as we find out when the secret trysts, the tragedy, the melodrama, and the ironic finale come.

    Arraf deserves credit for making a Palestinian film that's quite unexpected, both contemporary and genre; she makes up for the dues she previously paid to convention. Somehow though all the rich atmosphere she has created, the excellent mise-en-scene, and the terrific acting by the four accomplished ladies, deserve more than the somewhat cobbled-together final plot line provides, but for much of the way, Villa Touma really grabs you, and the cast make the ramped-up, complicated sociological and familial tensions feel real.

    Villa Touma, 85 mins., debuted at Venice Aug. 2014; many other notable international festivals. Theatrical release in France 10 Jun. 2015. Screened for this review as part of the 2015 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. French title La Belle promise. Lukewarm French critical reception (AlloCiné press rating 3.2).

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-21-2015 at 03:25 PM.

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    WOMEN IN SINK (Iris Zaki 2015)

    IRIS ZAKI: WOMEN IN SINK (2015)


    A STILL FROM WOMEN IN SINK

    [SPOILER ALERT]

    Relaxed by having their heads massaged, women talk about life in Israel as they see it

    For her little documentary Women in Sink, young Anglo-Israeli filmmaker Iris Zaki uses a brilliantly simple device. She attaches a camera over the shampooing sink at Fifi's, a hair salon in Haifa run by a Christian Arab woman. It's a smart setup: the ladies are relaxed by having their heads massaged and sloshed with warm water and caressed by gentle hands with slippery shampoo; the gleaming black porcelain of the sink makes a dramatic background, setting off the faces. Zaki does the shampooing (it's not rocket science), chatting with her clients as she does so, drawing out their experiences and views about Arabs and Jews, the current state of Israel, and their own lives. Throughout the interviews, Zaki skillfully maintains a low profile and allows the women to speak uninhibitedly.

    The views that spill out of the "women in sink" are clearly not in sync with Zaki or each other: there is quite a range of political views. A Palestinian friend who's seen this film said Zaki has chosen to study the Jewish Israeli center from the viewpoint of its margin -- the filmmaker at the margin, the rest out there in the middle. At least one Jewish woman expresses outrageous misconceptions about the Palestinians (a word never used), saying they get equal treatment now, and were never originally made to leave but urged to stay. Another expresses more liberal views. She is not pleased with the occupation, with how Arabs are treated, with how both Arabs and Jews are raised to fear each other. She says mixed preschools work well to create a mood of mutual tolerance, and wishes there were more of these. One customer says, inevitably, that things would be much more gently managed if women were in charge. (What about Angela Merkel? Margaret Thatcher? Golda Meir?)

    One talking-head-in-the-sink complains that Israel has provided less help to Holocaust survivors, like her, than European countries have done. Others note the prevailing macho, militaristic mood of the country and say it is becoming worse, even the young moving constantly to the right. But individually, the clients on camera, one of whom turns out to have been coming to the salon since 1983, see their own lives as currently okay. The salon's proprietor, whose hair Zaki washes twice, is happy being single and having put her business first.

    As one of the clients says and as is probably true of hair salons, little and big, the world over, there is a clubbish, family feeling about Fifi's. One client tells how the staff here helped her get through a time when a close relative was seriously ill. Being an outsider, and the setup being somewhat artificial, despite the relaxing effect of being shampooed, Zaki doesn't get to overhear any intimate local secrets. But it's clear this is a place where women come to connect, gossip, and relax.

    The proprietor is happy to live in Israel, among Jews; it feels right to her. A Jewish client says the proprietor's being Arab does not bother her at all; in fact during the Intifada, she says, she felt it was even more important to show support and friendliness toward Arabs.The spirit of coexistence must be essential to the clientele of such a place. A rabidly anti-Arab lady would not be likely to patronize a hairdresser's run by an Arab woman located in the Arab part of town.

    The blurb about this film led one to think it would be more vivid and colorful -- and more Arab. It describes this as being set at "a little hair salon in [Wadi Nisnas] the heart of the Arab community of Haifa." One had expected an Arab atmosphere, and for Arabic to be spoken. My friend thought there may have been more Arab women present than we see, but others may have been afraid of being filmed. In any case, why there are not more Arab women in an Arab-run hair salon in the Arab part of Haifa, Israel's most Arab-friendly city, is unexplained. In the film, even the Arab women speak only Hebrew except for a phrase or two. None of the women who figure in the documentary is a Muslim by faith, though there are several Christian women and one happens to be of mixed Christian-Muslim parents.

    Iris Zaki has found a neat way to make a documentary and has provided an intimate portrait of Haifa, if a partial one. In the end, one has not learned much about Wadi Nisnas, the Arab quarter of Haifa where Fifi's salon is located. Fifi's, as seen by Zaki, dwells somewhat in a protected bubble. But its regulars still provide a cross section of Israel today, from the female angle.

    The film flips through many faces, seemingly recording snapshots of every one of the women whose hair Zaki washed, including, several times, Fifi's, but dwells only on a selected few. The constant chatter is relieved in the film by brief pauses featuring Arab music and shots of the wider activity in the busy little salon showing women coming and going, snacking, or in the chairs having their hair done, and employees sweeping up curls that have fallen to the floor.

    In 2012 Zaki received the award for best documentary in the student competition at the Astra documentary festival in Romania for her short film My Kosher Shifts. It depicted her conversations with the Hasidic clientele registered on a fixed camera while working part time on the desk of an Orthodox Jewish hotel in London, the Croft Court, in Golders Green, where she found visitors were eager to talk to her. (This film was described in detail in the Forward.) Her new film is an extension of this method. Maybe next time she needs to disappear more from her film. But her economy of means and ease with her subjects promise that she may be an Israeli documentarian to watch, one with a distinctive woman's touch.

    Women in Sink, 36 mins., debuted April 2015 at the Visions du réel fest at Nyon, Switzerland and won the short film jury prize. Also showed at Karlovy Vary. Screened for this review as part of the 2015 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Presented at the Castro Theatre Tuesday, July 28 12:00 pm and at the Lakeside Theater Friday, August 7 12:30 pm.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-05-2015 at 11:38 PM.

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