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Thread: San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 2021

  1. #1
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  2. #2
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    At last a documentary portrait of Saul Bellow

    Perhaps in a moment of enthusiasm, the eminent critic James Wood wrote that Saul Bellow was the finest prose stylist of the twentieth century. Surprising we've waited till sixteen years after his death for someone called Asaf Galay (qualified: he previously did one about his great Yiddish forebear Isaac Bashevis Singer), to make a documentary film about a man who was the leading writer in America for decades, who received, besides the Pulitzer, the Nobel for Literature, and most deservedly.

    Sadly, a bit late. In his heyday, which lasted about forty years, Bellow was a central figure in American, indeed English language, fiction. Now as Prof. Hana Wirth-Nesher says toward the end as a sort of postscript-epitaph, Bellow's writing is considered "offensive," and he is no longer read as much.. But this film, the first of its kind, however flawed or leaving room for comment and addition, is a superb piece of work and a pleasure to watch and even, for a lover of American fiction, a thrill. Here is the last great literary man from when one man could matter, the man, we learn, who turned the Hemingway sentence on its end and made it more inward and complex.

    Literary reputations change. The "offensive" is on two counts: racism, noted in a passage in Bellow's (late, 2000) novel Ravelstein, read and commented on by the black novelist Charles R. Johnson; and, in considerably richer detail, misogyny, noted in many clearly autobiographical passages in various novels and evidenced in his behavior toward women as a man who had five wives and often depicted them unflatteringly in his pages.

    No one of his five wives speaks ill of Bellow here. But two of the marriages were brief and ended acrimoniously. His fourth wife, a Romanian mathematician, says she felt after their eleven years together he simply was done with the experiment and ready to try something new. He married women younger, much younger, and the last time much, much younger: forty-seven years younger. But he was up to it, since at eighty-four he fathered a daughter by Janis, whom we hear from the most, reporting a happy, youthful-seeming union, and is worshipful and full of good memories. A man who has five wives must have a complex relation with the fair sex.

    What we get here that we wouldn't get from a print biography is images, first of all, many handsome, nostalgic ones of the city of Chicago. The film also shows us many pages of the novels and lets us hear people, in some cases close relatives, read from them. Then there are all the people, in person, the children, the nephew, the admiring writers, the literary authorities.

    Three very significant writers express in detail their debt to Saul Bellow and admiration for his work and his achievement: Salmon Rushdie, Martin Amis, and Philip Roth. Roth was his successor, almost his child and literally his friend. Luckily, Galay was able to interview Roth before his death in 2018. Rushdie and Amis show that to feel kinship with Bellow does not require one to be Jewish - or American.

    They and other speakers make clear the lasting importance of Bellow's third novel, The Adventures of Augie March. So much so that its opening lines are to be read and remembered today, and are read and commented on here: "I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent." The first part, "an American, Chicago born," has the sound of a Walt Whitman. The ending, Prof. Wirth-Nesher suggests, is a Jew speaking. A Jew has to knock. Whitman didn't.

    That Bellow was a Jewish writer is central and this film clarifies how that worked and how the way it worked changed. For me the most enlightening words - though she is saying things she wrote decades ago - come from Vivian Gornick (whose In Search of Ali Mahmoud touched unique cords for me as someone with ties to Cairo). Bellow wrote as a Jew who was proudly American (though, interestingly, he was born in Canada), a Jewish writer who grew up constantly exposed to Yiddish, Hebrew, and English and became a master stylist and innovator in an American literary idiom he made his own. As Roth took up the mantle as the foremost American Jewish writer, the role of being Jewish became more of a shtick and could be played with and joked about as well as continuingly chronicled. Other Jewish writers, Bernard Malamud and above all J.D. Salinger, neither mentioned here, contributed to making Jewishness increasingly mainstream. And they mattered. But I see listed online an academic article (often cited, perhaps) called "The Death of the American Jewish Novel," dated 1978.

    It seemed so important to read the Jewish writers in late Fifties and Sixties America. It was. This film shows how it doesn't matter in the same way any more and has not for decades. Gornick explains this is because Jews are so much more assimilated, as has been happening similarly, but later, to blacks and Hispanics (and latest, Asians).

    Galay is judicious; the voices here feel essential, no one unnecessary. And we are also fortunate in hearing fairly often from Bellow himself, and even see him, laughing and chortling a little too much, perhaps in embarrassment, on the Dick Cavett show. Always he is the natty dresser with the nice suit, the jaunty hat, the bright bow tie, the bright smile, the fresh, smiling face, always vivacious, charming, sometimes a little too sure of himself. Not for him the diffident, perpetually tentative voice of that other, more recent, and half Jewish Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Patrick Modiano. (What would he say about Bob Dylan?) Bellow explains how it was fun to win the Nobel at first, but then it meant he and his wife had to hide - in Chicago. But he died at their summer place - in Massachusetts; and I feel that the film's promise of telling us about Chicago is not quite kept.

    Nearly half of the novels are not mentioned. They don't talk about Henderson the Rain King. They never mention it, or Seize the Day. They do talk about The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet, Humboldt's Gift, and Ravelstein. This choice perhaps reflects a biographical bias. The film is handily hung on the story of Bellow's five wives and how they figure in these novels. That is alright: this excellent film digs deep and enjoyably into the life, the man, and his place in the pantheon. Next time a filmmaker can reexamine that place (will he rise in a post-racial, post-#MeTo world?), and delve more deeply and widely into the novels. This film, with its fresh footage of key people and its balanced, enjoyable unfolding, is unlikely to be majorly bettered, though.

    The Adventures of Saul Bellow, 84 mins., was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-19-2021 at 10:03 PM.

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    THE CONDUCTOR (Bernadette Wegenstein 2021




    Woman innovator of classical music

    As the first and so far still the only woman conductor of a major American orchestra, Marin Alsop is a uniquely important person in the world of classical music. It is right that she should have a film portrait and Bernadette Wegenstein has provided an excellent one. This film is inspiring. It's full of joy as well as struggle. It should be seen by many. It can serve as an example and, yes, an inspiration to more women to break through the glass ceiling Alsop penetrated about fifteen years ago when she was named music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She also has held that position with the Orchestra of São Paolo, Brazil and recently has assumed it with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

    Struggle and spirit dominate the film. Largely narrated by Alsop herself, it's full of humor and enthusiasm, the joy of making music; the inspiration of passing on the gift of classical music to disadvantaged youth and inspiring young people, especially young women, to become conductors. But there is no getting around the fact that she had a hard time getting where she is, and not an easy early life altogether. She grew up in a tiny basement apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan, the only child of classical musicians (a violinist and a cellist) who made little money and had to be working all the time. Her mother was severe. Her parents expected her to become a musician, preferably a pianist so they could be a piano trio. She hated the piano but became a violinist and studied at Juilliard and at Yale. She got degrees in violin at Juilliard in 1977 and 1978.

    But from very early on she wanted above all to be a conductor. At the age of nine she says her father took her to a performance where Leonard Bernstein led an orchestra in a young people's concert with his typical vivacity and gyrations and knew that was what she wanted to do, and nothing else. But at Juilliard, she recounts an interview with a "tall, German, scary" conducting teacher who told her definitively No, a woman cannot conduct a symphony orchestra. She applied repeatedly and was rejected every time.

    It's interesting to learn how Alsop worked around this, notably by starting her own groups, an all-female "swing" string group String Fever in 1981. And then, after that basic practice, with the financial support of Tomio Taki, a wealthy Japanese businessman at whose wedding she had played, she started the 50-piece Concordia Orchestra specializing in 20th-century American music. After that, frankly, it gets complicated. Major conductors have so many overlapping gigs over different time spans and in different countries it's hard to keep track of them. Importantly, Alsop has been a helper and teacher. Significent programs she has fostered are the The Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship and the OrchKids program for underprivileged Baltimore children.

    Her relationship with her first inspiration, Leonard Bernstein, turned out to be a magical one. After several tries, she gained admission to a Tanglewood summer conducting workshop. When she arrived there, Bernstein announced, "Where is this Marin Alsop I've been hearing about?" From then on he took her under his wing and went from being a teacher to a mentor and a friend and major supporter. This was a dream relationship for her. She has a big picture of Lenny in her office (she's not the only one).

    But she tells a surprising story about herself and Bernstein. After many concerts where he rushed up to embrace and congratulate her dramatically after conducting, one time he stayed in the back and did not come forward. She went to him and asked if something was wrong. He said "I've been thinking. If I close my eyes when you're conducting, I can't tell if it's a man or a woman." She answered if he wanted to listen to her with his eyes closed, that was fine by her. The prejudices of the Old Boy Network of classical music lingered in Bernstein too.

    It seems in the cases of both the BSO and São Paolo she may to some extent have lifted orchestras out of doldrums, and in fact a Brazilian orchestra person suggests São Paolo is similar to Baltimore, a city with problems, poverty, crime. She reports the BSO not having made many recordings for a while; São Paolo playing in a train station converted to a concert hall and the orchestra "hungry" for music. The filmmaker follows Alsop to Brazil and interviews people. The musicians like her, find her "clear" and authentic. With the Vienna orchestra, it was the other way around but also, Alsop says, good for her: coming to "the birthplace of classical music" as well as a place not traditionally friendly to women musicians, an environment that's severe and judgmental and imposes the highest standards. To do this, and still be relaxed and herself, she says has been a most valuable challenge. (She also makes an effort to speak both Portuguese and German: not here, but elsewhere, she has said she likes studying languages, though doesn't think herself particularly gifted that way.)

    When Alsop came to lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, it was a nightmare. Orchestra members raised an uproar, insisting they had not been sufficiently consulted. The reception was anything but friendly. It seemed like her appointment might not go through. How she straightened this out may be more complicated than can be fully explained in this film. A central event, though, was a personal talk she wangled with the musicians, though a friend who was coming as soloist who loaned her ten minutes of her time, with no board members present. Here, she spoke about outreach, promotion, and recording, and the musicians came around.

    Conducting classes show Alsop to be a sure, incisive, and entertaining teacher. She is Director of Graduate Conducting at the Peabody Institute, Baltimore's music school, but her own Taki-Alsop Conducting Fellowship is what seems here to be most important in fostering female and minority conductors.

    Her spouse is Kristin Jurkscheit, a former horn player she met at her gig previous to Baltimore as conductor of the Denver Symphony Orchestra (1993-2005). Jurkscheit now directs Taki-Alsop. We hear from her a bit; we briefly see the handsome house they share in Baltimore. We see their teenage son pursuing his passion, rock climbing, making a move that might make Alex Honnold gasp. One thing Alsop says stands out: that when someone comes to you and says something is their passion and they do not want to do anything else, you do not turn them away. "The one thing I never want to do to a young person is to tell them 'You're not' something, 'You can't do' something." She will not repeat the mistakes done to her. she makes sure her son knows he is loved and feels free to pursue his own dreams.

    The film can't focus as much on the music because of all the social and biographical concerns. But it does show Alsop engaging with Mahler, Stravinsky, Mozart, and other musical loves, as well as engaged in a mind-blowing performance of a Bernstein Mass and being the first women in 118 years to preside Last Night of the Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall — following the conductor's leading the BSO in annual tours of the UK. It feels like I'm being promotional, and it feels as if the film is too. But sometimes it has to be that way. About Marin Alsop there is much to admire and little to dislike. She has been a special positive influence on classical music and remains so.

    The Conductor 90 mins., debuted at Tribeca June 2021. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival(July 22-Aug. 1, 2021) where it was presented as the centerpiece documentary. (Wednesday July 28, 2021 6:00 p.m.)

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-19-2021 at 10:33 PM.

  4. #4
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    MY FATHER AND ME (Nick Broomfield 2029)



    Portrait of a father and of a changing country

    My Father and Me isn't like Nick Broomfield's searching, sometimes unpleasant documentaries but a warm and affectionate portrait of his late father, a great English industrial photographer - his work showed “the beauty and might of post-war industrial Britain” - the "industrial sublime" - who passed away at the age of 94, of whom Nick's son Barney, speaking with an American accent he must have learnt from his American mother, says "that is the kind of dude I want to be when I'm 94." Maurice is what Nick called him; he never liked being called "dad." (And remember you Yanks, the English pronounce Maurice "Morris.") Maurice had beautiful wife, like a movie star, who was a Czech Jewish refugee. She died rather suddenly at 60 from skin cancer, and Maurice feel into a very serous depression that lasted some years.

    But he had a whole rebirth. His relations with Nick had long ago become warmer. Through art class, Maurice met Suzy, and the two of them clicked: a late-life id;ll ensued full of marvelous adventures. Through Nick's encouragement, Maurice's photographs were brought out. Many of the negatives had deteriorated from bad storage, but very attrative young women for the V&A came to catalogue and preserve them. The prints were exhibited in museums and Maurice basked in this renewed recognition.

    These photographs reflect Maurice's origins in the industrial northern town of Derby (second Yank warning: pronounced "Darby"), whose grimness he kept mum about, and his father's leftist faith in factories and the working class. They are a kind of imagery not seen anymore, glamorous, staged, elaborately lighted portraits, but always with people, lovingly and flatteringly posed. Reprinted large and shown in a gallery it's clear what they are: works of art. The pacifism and humanism of the artist can be seen, I guess, in which of Nick Broomfield's 30-odd films his father liked best: Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, a film that shows the Wuornos' human side. A clip from it here shows that, for this is about Nick too.

    There is plenty of footage and plenty of stills of Maurice, of Nick, of Barney - great friends apparently toward the end of Maurice's long life - and of the women in their lives who include Nick's American wife and early collaborator Joan Churchill. Shots and arcival clips of this family invariably show good looking people generally having a good time.

    In a Times review of Nick's 1998 documentary Kurt and Courtney, an unrevealing but ultimately controversial portrait, Janet Maslin said his "offbeat investigative tactic" was "burrowing into scuzz." But she notes he's a "deceptively mild-mannered British filmmaker whose favorite interview question seems to be 'Really?' He's mild-mannered and understated here, but there's no "burrowing into scuzz." Maslin wound up finding the result engrossing. My direct experience of Brooomfield is his 2014 investigation Tales of the Grim Sleeper. He was present at the NYFF press screenings for that. But even more impressive to me was Nick's 2007 Battle for Haditha, a recreation of a real event in the Iraq war using real Iraqis speaking Iraqi ARabic and real Marines. Nick Broomfield is an impressive filmmaker and an influential one who ought to be more influential.

    All that isn't much needed here, but the mild-mannered and understated English Jew is typically present, unconcealed, in this pleasant and interesting portrait of his father and the family context from which he comes. Incidentally this is a personal portrait of drastic and discomfiting changes occurring in England, especially to the industrial north, over the last century. All that honor, beauty and pride of the English industrial worker seems thrown away now. "Maurice found it heartbreaking that the skills and expertise of generations of the most highly trained craftsmen in the world were being allowed to die out. The pride of the working class community that Maurice had grown up in no longer existed." Alongside the pleasant fading away of a good looking, admirable old man accompanied by his loving and loved wife Suzy and loving son and grandson lurks this side truth that's quietly devastating.

    My Father and Me, 97 mins., debuted at the New York Film Festival Oct. 2019; also shown at Chicago (Oct. 2019) and Tel Aviv (Docaviv) Jul. 2021. Screened for this review as part of the SFJFF, Ju.. 22-Aug. 1, 2021. BFI review.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-19-2021 at 04:38 PM.

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    CHARLATAN (Agnieszka Holland 2020)



    Natural healing and gay romancing

    The 72-year-old Agnieszka Holland has been busy lately with Spoor (2017) and Mr Jones (2019) and now Charlatan (2020), about Jan Mikolášek (Ivan Trojan), the real life healer and herbalist who performed diagnoses by looking at flasks of urine. Am I alone in thinking she may be turning a little bit kooky herself? My favorites of her films remain Olivier Olivier, Europa Europa and The Secret Garden, from the early 1990's, plus Total Eclipse (1995) for the 20-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio's uniquely balls-out performance as Arthur Rimbaud. (Grégoire Colin was 16 when he starred in Olivier, Olivier.)

    Charlatan is solid, old-fashioned filmmaking, a biopic of a real person with fictional embellishments. The nice cinematography switches back and forth between drab for the present and colorful for the past or for when things are going well for Mikolášek, whom we see fielding crowds of mostly poor patients (but :"I am not a doctor," he repeatedly says). The present time turns dark for him following the death of Czech Communist president Antonín Zápotocký in 1957 - whom Mikolášek had cured and who therefore protected him. He had had plenty of rich and powerful cures in his heyday, but exposés and attacks went on and at the coming of the new regime, finding Mikolášek an offense to modern enlightened communism or a threat to state medical authority, authorities arrest him and seek the death penalty. The charge is that he has caused several important people to take tea with strychnine and die. He would not have done that - in this movie he never does anything wrong as a healer, though in other ways plenty. Overlapping the present narrative sequence is a sequence of flashbacks to his youth. Young Mikolášek is nicely played by veteran actor Ivan Trojan's 18-year-old son Josep, who has the right looks and a pale, thin authority.

    As we just saw with Mr. Jones and have seen before, Holland knows how to make a handsome-looking, atmospheric historical movie and this is fun to watch - except it doesn't all quite gel. Once the aging Mikolášek is arrested and held in prison, his goose appears to be cooked, so where's the suspense? The best parts seem to be the first, pristine ones with the pale, gifted Mikolášek learning from a peasant healer woman (Jaroslava Pokorná) and outdoing her, then as a full-fledged rich and famous pro doing the same thing only much more so and for money. We're asked to believe it's really possible accurately to diagnose specific diseases by looking at urine in the light, spotting gout, kidney ailments, heart trouble, gall bladder from color, viscosity, and little things floating around. Mikolášek seems to nail it every time and diagnoses one of four herbal compounds he has made up. Even the Nazi occupiers, with some convincing, swear by him.

    Young Mikolášek is good and bad. When they want to cut off half his sister's leg because she has gangrene, he sneaks in and heals it overnight with an herbal poultice. Then when the old lady gives him a bag of kittens to drown "so they don't suffer" he dispatches them in a more violent manner she doesn't like - nor do we. There are hints of violence in his nature but they're not coherently integrated into the narrative.

    A significant curlicue added to the story is a gay romance between youngish Mikolášek (a slightly awkward transition because Trojan senior has taken over at this point) and his new assistant, Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj), a well muscled but poorly educated man he takes on anyway because there's an instant attraction. This is an invention by the writers based on Mikolášek's brief and unsuccessful marriage and his living with the assistant and implies the relationship lasts through the rest of Mikolášek's career. Palko has a wife at whom Mikolášek judiciously scowls. This gets complicated and fills out some lively but perhaps unnecessary flashback footage toward the end, with exteriors very nicely shot by dp Martin Strba and clasically edited by Pavel Hrdlicka. It feels as if the writers, Marek Epstein, Martin Sulc, and Jaroslav Sedlácek create a conflict in order to resolve it, but I didn't mind terribly because I so much admired the rhythmic editing of the final courtroom stairway sequence. But the Czech version of Wikipedia shows the film's final trial segment is sheer fabrication.

    Charlatan, 118 mins., debuted at the Berlinale (Feb. 2020), Holland's third film to do so in recent years. It also featured at Pyeongchang, Transylvania, Odesa, Sofia, Moscow, Kyiv, Mill Valley and at least eight other international festivals in 2021, including Frameline (San Francisco). Screened for this review as part of the San Franciso Jewish Film Festival (Jul. 22-Aug. 1, 2021). Holland receives the SFJFF's 2021 Freedom of Expression award.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-19-2021 at 10:53 PM.

  6. #6
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    WET DOG/NASSER HUND (Damir Lukacevic 2021)



    Adaptation of a German tale of hidden Jewishness among Arabs in Berlin

    "Ein nasser Hund ist besser als ein trockener Jude" is a saying. "A wet dog is better than a dry Jew." Actually, in Iran. We learn that midway in this film. In German, because this takes place in Berlin. The family of Soheil (which, by the way, is an Arab name but not a Muslim one, see) has moved here from another German city, Göttingen. They immigrated from Iran. Now for the family businesses, they're in Wedding, a neighborhood of Berlin that has a lot of Arabs, Soheil complains. But he assimilates. Oh, does he assimilate.

    The adept and appealing and effortlessly stylish young actor Doğuhan Kabadayı (who is German-Turkish, in fact) who plays Soheil looks very Middle Eastern. Maybe he could be a Sephardic Jew - or an Arab. He is thin and looks tall; dark, with big eyebrows, a long nose, thick lips, floppy black hair. He projects fun and confidence. From when he forces himself on a soccer game, he charms the local boys. The cool new kid on the block is a....Jew. In this feisty Berlin neighborhood "we're all one family, Turks, Arabs, Kurds..." they enthusiastically tell him when he says he's Iranian. Only not that. Not Jews. Not part of the "one family." After a bad experience wearing his Star of David neck chain at a market he leaves that at home and never mentions to anyone that he's a Jew. This is facilitated because of his looks and his confidence and because his family is not religious. They didn't give him a bar mitzvah, did not raise him as a Jew. He doesn't particularly think of himself as Jewish. But he did wear that Star of David chain. In Göttingen - not in Wedding.

    Immediately he becomes a secret night graffiti artist, moniker "King Star." His giant tag appears everywhere. If this kid is 15 he is prodigious. Later, he reveals King Star is him, and he becomes a celebrity. The local gang welcomes him. He learns to hug and kiss everybody, call each other "habibi" and say "Assalamu alaykum." He even, when his new best friend Husseyn (Mohammad Eliraqui, nominated for a German newcomers award) begs him to, eventually dresses up and goes to the mosque with him - but he leaves abruptly, during prayer, feeling uncomfortable.

    In a fight with another gang, Soheil uses a hand blade that's passed to him by Husseyn and boldly stabs a guy, immediately gaining increased cred. Nothing fazes Soheil. It all seems a lark to him. It's his father (Kida Khodr Ramadan) whom this hurts... when he finds out his son is a fledgling gangbanger.

    Soheil attends the local high school, but the film seems most at ease doing gang fights and exploits, and the "multicultural" young German Arab-Turkish-Kurdish actors vividly create the feel of male camaraderie. The action might seem too schematic if it didn't have a clear relation to the eponymous autobiographical German bestseller by Arye Sharuz Shalicar. The fact that eventually Shalicar emigrated to Israel and became a member and then an official spokesman for the IDF suggests he had a knack for assimilation, and for violence.

    Still it would all seem way too easy were it not for the charisma of the boys and the panache of Kabadayı. As a German review of the film on the programme guide Spielfilm says, he's "a real discovery" who "plays Soheil's development in all its facets very vividly" and is "just as engaging" as "a high-spirited street artist and rebel" as he is "as a shy lover and a courageous fighter for his convictions."

    The film may have trouble with the big transitions. You'd think his pals' decision to rob the "Jew-lery" store that his father runs would stop Soheil but it doesn't seem to. He gets involved instead in a provocation (also impressing his buddies) by spray-painting a smiley face on a cop car in front of the store, which gets him arrested. Why his father is gentle and affectionate in retrieving him is a bit hard to figure.

    It's a school provocation that finally brings Soheil "out." He paints a giant tag, "JUDE" (JEW) on a wall, which becomes a school scandal and hints at Soheil's desire to reveal himself, but he doesn't. (Perhaps he's inspired by Banksy. The book is set in the nineties but this film is set in the present.) He finally admits to the "JUDE" painting but what it means to him or to his parents isn't articulated. His father convinces him that he must acknowledge his Jewishness.

    In a somewhat underwhelming and awkward scene, but also a fascinating one, Soheil slowly confesses to the gang that he is indeed the odious Jew one of them spotted in the store wearing the Star of David necklace at the beginning. It feels like Husseyn and the others want to hug him and forgive him, but the rules and the story don't allow it, and he walks out, leaving also Selma (Derya Dilber), his sweet Arab girlfriend.

    Selma reappears, to hear his troubles:"For the Arabs I'm a Jew, for the Germans a Turk or an Arab, and for the Jews I'm a terrorist from Wedding," Soheil says, echoing the words on the book jacket. Indeed, when he visits a Jewish museum, he's received with suspicion. Some of the old gang try to betray him to the rival gang from Kreuzberg. Selma gets pregnant. Husseyn becomes a friend again - and Soheil becomes an Israeli, all in the blink of a final montage. Maybe they needed a miniseries - and a mindset complex enough to make this seem like more than a Young Adult novel.

    The film was produced by Warner Brothers Germany, and an article on Deutsche Welle (DW)'s website about the making of the film shows much sincerity. All the cast members are Muslim, butl in workshopping they heard from a young Jew who'd suffered the same kind of ordeal as the protagonist/author. Kida Khodr Ramadan, who plays Soheil's father, is a Lebanese immigrant to Germany who grew up in Kreuzberg. He expressed concern that the anti-Semitism and resentment among groups are more open then when he was a student; he attributes it to social media. Kabadayı's Instagram shows he likes River Phoenix in Stand by Me, Ezra Miller in The Perks of Being a Wallflower ("The best and mosst beautiful coming of age film") and especially Ryan Gosling in Drive ("My favorite Neo Noir"). It's impossible not to like this young adtor and want to see more of him. His male costar Mohammad Eliraqui has a Brandoesque intensity.

    Ein Yasser Hund/Wet Dog, 100 mins., is scheduled for release in Germany Jul. 29, 2021. It was screened for this review as the "Next Wave Spotlight" film of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (July 22-!utust 1, 2021), Suggested viewing time Friday July 30, 2021, 7:00 p.m. Available nationwide.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-22-2021 at 09:20 AM.

  7. #7
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    Africa (Oren Gerner 2019)



    Not so easy to let go

    Israeli filmmaker Oren Gerner has shown an interest in everyday moments of significance in his shorts. In this first feature he makes his father Meir and mother Maya and their usual surroundings the focus and has persuaded them to play a version of themselves. Meir, a retired IDF officer, has little to do now but putter around in his wood working shop. Deprived of the job of planning the annual village celebration, turned over now, to his disgust, to teenagers, he has substituted the self-imposed task of buiiding his grandson, Guli, a bed. It's a metaphor, a ship for him and Guli to sail in searh of the blue lion. In his youth he dreamed of being a sailor.

    Gerner's approach isn't some humble zen observation of the quotidian but a forthright manipulation of events to make clearcut points about his aging father's difficulties accepting lesser competence and a diminished role in family and community. His father, Meir, his mother, Maya, a therapist, as well as other family and community members, have all kindly volunteered to appear in this drama. It's hard not to be aware of this and to wonder what they think of it all - which makes the suspension of disbelief a bit difficult.

    There is bravery on the part of all concerned. Some, like the young granddaughter, who administers a five-minute questionnaire from her school class to sum up his whole life, warning him "grandparents get only one page," has contributed only minimally, though little Guli, the grandson, puts a ferocious energy into his brief appearance to accept his new bed and play on it with his grandpa. (It's a fine gift.) Meir himself and his wife Maya have made the larger and more valiant contribution but teenagers and elders alike have also chipped in. It took a village.

    When Gerner follows his parents to bed, we're out of docu-fiction territory because, how could a camera follow an old couple there without prior planning? The home movies of the halcyon holiday in Namibia are delicately used, but Gerber isn't quite up yet to making this into something haunting and suggestive. Likewise the plot line isn't suggestive enough to make the focus on Meir's overweight and aging body and still handsome face as resonant as they might have been.

    This is a portrait of a macho type whose mindset makes him ill suited to accepting frailty and age. He claims to his neighbor that he retired from the village ceremony of his own volition. He gets not very good news about his cardiovascular system from his doctor, but pretends to Maya that he got a clean bill of health. He calls on his wife at inopportune times, even committing the unheard of offense of interrupting one of her therapy sessions (which we, through the camera eye, more intimately invade). He slaps a neighbor's son when he confronts a group of teenagers listening to loud music around an evening fire. When Maya suggests he is having a crisis and needs some therapy, he tells her "You know I don't believe in that stuff!" Even around his faithful German Shepherd Tsia he makes serious trouble, endangering the dog's life and harshly punishing her for a mistake he allowed to happen. (Tsia did not give informed consent before being spanked for a fictitious offense.)

    Gerner is macho in his own way, because even though these things are everyday, it's somehow obvious that he's making them happen for the film. This is homely humor somewhat in the TV series vein (and in the living room, a big flat screen is always on, apparently), not a matter of delicate observation, of life subtly caught on the wing. Sometimes it seems as if disaster or the threat of it take the place of emotion or beauty in this feature debut. Gerner has made friends with the god of small things but not yet become an intimate companion.

    Africa, 82 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 9, 2019, showing also at San Sebastián, Calgary, Haifa, Thessalonik, Hamburg and Singapore and has received some awards and nominations, all in 2019. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (Jul. 22-Aug. 1, 2021).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-22-2021 at 01:50 AM.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    200 METERS ٢٠٠ متر (Ameen Nayfeh 2020)

    AMEEN NAYFEH: 200 METERS (2020)



    You can't get there from here

    As first-time director Nayfeh's title makes clear, this is about what dominates the lives of Palestinians living in the West Bank: the wall of separation. The simple plot is about how difficult this makes life. Sometimes this is like a thriller, sometimes a road picture, sometimes it seems just too tedious or complicated but all too true. The screenplay is nearly derailed by a partly too obvious, partly too mysterious, subplot of a German woman. But in the main role of Mustafah, the deeply talented, extremely soulful Palestinian actor Ali Suliman is a triumph.

    Mustafah lives 200 meters from his wife Salwah (Lana Zreik) and their two kids, across the wall. They can see each other and they signal back and forth with lights in the evening, talking on their cell phones. This make-do is because his principles won't permit him to apply for full laissez-passer and Israeli residence that her residence and employment (at two jobs) in Israel migt allow him to get. What he can earn is not enough for her to give up her Israeli employment and move back with him, as he would like. He works lately for Abu Nidal (Gassan Abbas) on construction jobs with temporary permits. This has just expired when he gets the news that his son has been seriously injured in a car accident and is in hospital. To get there he decides to smuggle himself in, at an exorbitant rate of 250 shekels (76 dollars), and it will take hours. This is just about as trustworthy as a coyote to get a Mexican into the US, except the travel is mostly by van or in the trunk of a car.

    In the van Mustafah encounters a sneering attitude from the smuggler and a motley crew including an ill prepared kid called Rami (Mahmoud Abu Eita) who thinks he wants to find work but has no preparation or connections. Rami becomes sort of Mustafah's baby. Also notable is Anne (Anna Unterberger), the German woman, with a film camera. She is with Kifah, dressed up for a wedding and misled about Anne's identity and purpose. The Variety reviewer found Anne a "parody of the German tourist in Palestine." Indeed her taking a lot of random film on a risky journey without evident pro credentials may fill that bill, but her identity isn't what it seems and certainly not what Kifah thinks. Do we have to have a foreigner to draw so much undue attention?

    It gets hard, it gets complicated, and it gets dangerous. And it ends more or less happily, all of which perhaps is necessary. As often happens what counts is that Nayfeh takes us to the world of the Palestinian and as mentioned all is saved by the many-layered performance of Ali Suliman. His family scenes, drenched in love, carry over the long sequence of pointlessly difficult crossing of this little messed-up strip of land. It was remarkable to watch this film right after Oren Gerner's Africa about an Israeli family living in a village that seems not to have a problem in the world.

    200 Meters, 95 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 3, 2020 in Giornate degli Autori; at Venice it won the BNL People's Choice Award, and later 15 other awards and several nominations. It showed at Reykjavik, London, El Gouna (Egypt), also at at least a dozen international festivals into 2021 including Seattle and Moscow. It was screened for this review as the Centerpiece film of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (July 22-Aug. 1, 2021).

    In-person screening at the Castro Theatre, Saturday, July 24, 11:00 a.m.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-22-2021 at 01:54 AM.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area



    The powerful pro-Israel lobby and its move to the right

    The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC /ˈeɪpæk/ AY-pak), is a lobbying group that advocates pro-Israel policies to the Congress and Executive Branch of the United States. Those who follow American politics know that it has long been the most powerful lobby in Washington. So why a documentary? What's new here? Mainly, that AIPAC, having grown rich and strong in its sixty-year history, has lately drifted toward the extreme right and the extreme Christian faction. The Israeli filmmaker Mor Loushy presents this case through interviews with former AIPAC CEO's and officials, and also delves into their broad disaffection with the lobby and the way it works and their increasing self-distancing from the policies of Israel. (In an interview, Loushy has pointed out that Israelis are largely ignorant of AIPAC, so almost this whole film will be news to them.)

    This film represents another in a strong group of recent Israeli documentaries using retired officials for exposés. Dror Moreh's The Gatekeepers (2012) used former security officials to expose Israel's failed policies. Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's[ The Law in These Parts (2011) dealt with the country's double legal standards for Jews and Palestinians. Yotam Feldman's The Lab (2012) described Israel's huge arms industry. Recently Moreh made The Human Factor (2019), again using surviving participants to expose the failure of Israeli-Arab "peacekeeping" efforts and the US's unfruitful role in them. Mor Loushy previously made 2015's Censored Voices, of doubters of the 1967 victory.

    This may not be as searching a film as some of those (neither wasThe Human Factor). It probably shouldn't be a revelation that anti-war lobbyists started AIPAC, or that the organization was very small when it started in 1960. A lot has happened in America since then: the whole country has shifted to the right and a few mega-wealthy people have come to dominate. But we need to look at the whole idea of a powerful lobby in Congress, at what AIPAC supports and how it supports it.

    A turning point for AIPAC, we learn, came in 1985 with the defeat of anti-Israel Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman from Illinois Charles Percy by the AIPAC-funded pro-Israel candidate Paul Simon. This put the fear of AIPAC in the hearts of congressmen. Reagan's presidency also was pivotal, strengthening AIPAC and support of Israel, and starting AIPAC's shift toward the right.

    Former AIPAC executives Tom Dine, AIPACC CEO 1980-93; M.J. Rosenberg, his executive assistant 1980-86; and Steven J. Rosen, AIPAC director of foreign policy 1982-2005 explain how they were pushed out for being moderate and supporting Palestinian moderates and for being in favor of peace. Tom Dine started out as a Peace Corps volunteer and aide to Ted Kennedy. The film makes clear these were different people and a different AIPAC.

    M.J. Rosenberg makes a blunt statement: "AIPAC's role is to defend Israel when it's wrong." Keith Weissman, AIPAC senior analyst 1993-2005, ruefully says of the lobby's "absolute support" of Israel, "I guess that only goes for when the Likud is in power." Howard Kohr, AIPAC's CEO since 1996, is okay with that. A Republican and conservative, Kohr is a "war" and "threat" lobbyist. That position works best: it's only when Israel is seen as in danger that the public donates to the lobby. Ideal for this setup is belligerent right-wing Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who makes sure Israel stays on a war footing and does not hesitate to dictate to US presidents.

    "A great piece of theater," one of the others says of the annual AIPAC policy conference. Here, many congressmen attend - because lots of money from donors, "hundreds of thousands of dollars," the lobby "donates" to congressmen in return for support for its policies promised to AIPAC in meetings in rented hotbox rooms.

    Rosen and Weissman turn out to have been scapegoated by AIPAC and its right-wing leader Kohr after they became threatened with arrest and imprisonment via an FBI sting operation. Rosen says they targeted him for what he had been doing all along, talking about foreign affairs at the Pentagon and passing on information to his boss. But someone had started to think AIPAC was interfering too much.

    The last quarter of the film is taken up with the craziness of recent years. AIPAC's and Israel's pro-war leaning came to the fore when President Obama negotiated a nuclear treaty with Iran, and Bibi had the effrontery to fly to Washington and address Congress, bypassing the President. Enter Trump: Trump was an easy stooge of Netanyahu as he was of Putin, the film says. He moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, an act greeted elatedly by Netanyahu, and sent Pence to the Christian right represented by John Hagee and the Christian evangelicals who care not about Jews, who they think will be swallowed up on judgment day, but about Israel, where the saved will go. Hence CUFI, the Christian fund for Israel, which the Israelis value - even though the Christian right may well be antisemitic. (The film indicates that Israel's Jews supported Trump, America's Jews, not.)

    The new AIPEC president from 2018, Mort Fridman, is shown giving a speech thanking Trump for his pro-Israel gestures: breaking with the Iran treaty, moving to Jerusalem, and (with a big grin) approving settlement of the Golan Heights. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is called antisemitic for stating the unwelcome truth that congressmen support Israel because they get money from AIPAC to do so. Rosenberg emphatically affirms that opposing AIPAC or Israel is not "antisemitic."

    Finally, in the film's last ten minutes, two young former AIPAC 'soldiers' at last mention Palestinians and the Occupation, and their realization that their support of the lobby, and through it the Israeli government, had been hurting people. This film, which may lack revelations for a person who knows the subject, may likewise lead to the beginnings of a late awakening for some who have been unquestioning in their support of Israel - or its lobby in America. But this is a film that tends to get lost in the details. Loushy might have hinted at the outset that those old film clips she shows of healthy young Jews among the orange trees were propaganda that from the start masked some ugly truths. But she does show that with J Street, with young activists, with some Democrats in Congress, opposition to Israeli policies and to AIPAC has now become more open and stronger than ever before.

    Kings of Capitol Hill/HaLobby, 90 mins., debuted Dec. 2020 at Tel Aviv ((Docaviv). It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (Jul. 22-Aug. 1, 2021) available nationwide. Suggested Viewing Time Saturday July 31, 2021, 5:00 p.m.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-23-2021 at 01:54 AM.

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    BLUE BOX (Michal Weits 2021)



    Great-granddaughter explores ugly family legacy. "Looking the nakba dead in the eye", Haaretz.

    Using a simple mix of footage of herself doing research, interviews with her numerous immediate relatives, and rich archival footage plus a revealing voiceover of running quotes gleaned from her great-grandfather's estimated 5,000 pages of diaries from early in the last century into the late sixties, Michal Weits explains the important role of her esteemed forebear, an early Jewish emigrant to Palestine from Russia (1908), one of the country's founding fathers active in turning Palestine into the State of Israel by cunningly, forcibly, removing the Arab Palestinian population so Jews could take over the land. Yosef Weits, her great-grandfather, is known to young Israelis as the father of Israel's forestation, especially a tree-covered territory near Jerusalem. But she finds he has a part in a "darker" history as "the architect of transfer."

    The "blue boxes" of the title , made like solid metal piggy banks, were a symbol of the "Jewish Fund" that raised money to buy land in Palestine. It was Palestine then. The filmmaker is the great-granddaughter of a founding father of the State of Israel, the Jewish state of six million Jews who now reign over six million imprisoned and occupied Arab Palestinians. The Hebrew-language slogan, so often cited as justification and mentioned here, was "A land without a people for a people without land." This is a lie. Among her visual aids Michal Weits uses some maps with population figures. "1910 Palestine. Jews 80.000 Arabs 650.000." Then "1933 Palestine. Jews 175.000 Arabs 800.000." These dates and figures, Arabs to Jews, punctuate the film up to the present. Never did the Jews who emigrated to Palestine find a "land without a people."

    One family member (she is interviewing mainly the male members of her family, her father and four uncles) says great-granddad Yosuf didn't "dislike" Arabs. (That can be questioned, and makes no difference.) But Zionist ideals meant a land whose majority was Jewish. This came down to the idea that there could be no Arabs. Therefore, the Arabs had to be eliminated, by any means necessary. Indeed, from the POV of the early Jewish settlers, what else could they do?

    Well, the answer has to be that you can't buy a country for yourself. It's not like countries have been established by "proper" means normally. But there is no way to justify Weits' activities in acquiring land. The aim was to get it by purchase. The first source were the "effendis," landowning Palestinians who lived in Lebanon, Syria, or other countries, who were willing to sell their land in Palestine, and sometimes said they didn't care if the occupants were kicked off it. Other times land was acquired from poor farmers who didn't know what was happening. Weits sometimes expressed in his journal guilt at removing "Arabs" from swaths of land. Though Yosuf is clearly a sensitive and perceptive man, this seems somewhat of the order of the tears of Lewis Carroll's Walrus while eating the oysters.

    The matter was simple, as Yosuf Weits saw it: "If the Arabs depart, the land will be vast and spacious. If the Arabs remain, the land will be impoverished and cramped." Look at this, and you will understand United Nations Resolution 3379, that Zionism is a form of racism. Weits was an ardent Zionist. There is no way one can express these thoughts and not be having racist thoughts, which can also be simply not seeing the "other" as equally human with oneself. "We cannot leave a single village," he want on, "not one tribe."

    World War II filled Yosuf with "anguish." But the film breezes through to the thousands of Jewish refugees who came to Palestine as a result, the Partition, and the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948. Egypt immediately attacked. This appears to directly lead to mustering of a male-female Israeli army, thence to attacks on Arab villages, the flight of Arabs from them. The use of archival and stock news footage here as throughout provides a rapid and adept Israeli history.

    New map, new figures: "1948 The State of Israel. Jews 650,000. Arabs 156,000." Weits notes that approximately 750,000 Arabs were forced to flee from their villages. But 156,000 managed to remain. The 750,000 refugees scatter just beyond the borders.

    Much later, after the 1967 war, Weits withdrew from his more extreme views about "transfer" of Arab populations and was not ready to sanction the seizing of Arab lands in that conflict. But then, he was head of the "Transfer Committee," whose main focus may have been to insure the Palestinians could not return to their villages and towns. Yosef records "no remorse" at viewing the ruined villages. He wrote to Ben Gurion that the empty villages must be filled with Jews so Arabs could not return to them. This is in the way of UN Resolution 194, the right of return.

    Yosuf's heading of the forestation project gave him satisfaction. Growth, greenery, improvement of the land. But it was also changing the land from how it was before the Arabs fled, covering over the ruins of the villages. Michal notes that growing up, she had ignored these ruined villages, imagining they were ancient, not from 70-odd years ago.

    The State of Israel wound up seizing all the fled-from land and selling it, a massive real estate deal of dubious legality. The 750,000 refugees remained in many camps scattered all around outside Israel. No Arab country would take them, fearing to do so would imply Israel was legitimate. Yosuf saw the danger of this. Michal's uncles recognize this is an ugly fact. Her father expresses his rejection of her film project. He thinks she is judging unfairly from her distant perspective and says he will not cooperate.

    Now we are at "1966. Jews 2.434.000. Arabs 406.000." Then comes the June war and the great Israeli victory over Egypt. Yosuf sees through the general euphoria, that the West Banks and Gaza will be a terrible problem, because this time, the Palestinians did not flee, they remained, a million of them. Amid the joy of victory, he was depressed by the burden that would linger on for generations. As it has.

    This film, with its truths of the "nakba," the Arab tragedy that the State of Israel became, is also a remarkably powerful expression of the viewpoint of a young Israeli exploring the past - in dialogue with her ancestor whose monumental and deeply revealing journal she records and pays tribute to here. A remarkable film.

    Blue Box, 79 mins., debuted at Toronto Apr. 29, 2021 (Hot Docs), also shown at Tel Aviv (Docaviv) Jul. 4, 2021. It was screened for this review as part of the 2021 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (Jul. 22-Aug. 1).

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-24-2021 at 02:35 AM.

  11. #11
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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    NOT GOING QUIETLY (Nicholas Bruckman 2021)



    An activist inspired by stark adversity

    In 2020 Ady Barkan was named one of Time's 100 most influential people in the world.He is a political activist, with a difference. When he was diagnosed with ALS IN 2018 at the age of 32, he continued his work, focusing on promotion of universal health care for all in the United States. This film follows Ady's campaigning as he teams up with another activist he met, Liz Jaff, forming the Be a Hero PAC and traveling back and forth across the country with a team "bird-dogging" politicians. He could confront them with the fact that cutting health care funding would remove tha care that was keeping him alive. The courage and spirit Ady shows in pursuing this campaign as he becomes weaker and gradually loses the power of speech are incredible.

    The story is impressive but sometimes hard to watch, if you have not closely followed someone rapidly deteriorating step by step from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neurone disease (MND) or Lou Gehrig's disease. Most victims of the disease later in life live only three or four years. We know the British English theoretical physicist and cosmologist lasted over fifty years, but that was unique (and a doctor tells Ady every case is different. We observe Ady losing his ability to speak and starting to speak with a computerized eye-controlled speech generator. He gives a speech to a congressional committee about the Medicare for All proposal this way, a moment that begins the film. Later he has a tracheostomy when he begins having difficulty breathing - a decisive step he put off for obvious reasons, but one that may allow for prolonged life.

    Various activists and helpers figure in the film. Besides Ady and Liz, most important are Ady's wife Rachel and their little boy Carl, whose selflessness and charm already echo his remarkable father's. Ady and Rachel make the difficult decision to have another child, and Carl gets a sister. Ady is present with wheelchair and computer speech to greet the new arrival.

    One of the last things to grow weak in Ady is his big smile. And though the computer voice makes it hard to convey emotion, as he notes, he is a man with great humor and spunk. He needs it - especially when the month after his diagnosis, Trump is elected. But When the going gets tough, the tough get going and with the Trump threat to cut Medicare and other safety-net funds, Ady was inspired to go on the road. It's at the airport going to work on Senator Jeff Flake, a swing vote, that he meets Liz. She films him confronting Flake and on other occasions and was skillful at using the footage to galvanize social media. The Flake meeting led to the founding of Be A Hero, whose first campaign targeted the 2018 midterm elections.

    This campaign via RV with Liz and other activists, with Rachel and Carl staying at home in Santa Barbara where she teaches, was debilitating for Ady, and he has to be bathed by friends and helpers; all this effort may even be advancing the disease.

    The fight in DC to stop ratification of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice has a striking temporary victory. It loses in the end but Ady has become known enough to get the ears of Democratic presidential candidates.

    Hard to watch though it is at times, Not Going Quietly is surprisingly upbeat. It depicts the enduring power of the human spirit. Ayi knows that his days are numbered, but he is determined to do work he and those around him can be proud of, and he succeeds. There is inspiration in this.

    Not Going Quietly 96 mins. debuted at Austin (S/SW) Mar. 1, 2021, playing also at half a dozen mostly US festivals including Cleveland, Tribeca and Provincetown. It was screened for this review as part of the 2021 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (Jul. 22-Aug. 1; "Take Action Spotlight). Suggested viewing time Thurs., Jul. 22,
    12:00 a.m.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-24-2021 at 11:30 PM.


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