Some interesting films we may have missed at some recent festivals.
The UK Jewish Film Fest showed 80 films over 16 days in 5 cities. Lazlo Nemes’ SON OF SAUL (Also seen in Boston JFF) Holocaust film took the top prize at the festival. The jury included director Nik Powell, filmmaker Mike Newell, actress Kerry Fox, actor Jason Isaacs, producer Michael Kuhn, and actress Sarah Solemani.The CEO of the film festival, Michael Etherton, said: “Our commitment to supporting new creative talent has been at the heart of this year’s festival. We were thrilled that the jury recognized the extraordinary achievement of the winner, as well as giving a much deserved special commendation for the funny, profound and warm-hearted Israeli feature The Farewell Party.” ETherton, a grad of Oxford – Balliol, also produces the annual Geneva International Jewish Film Festival and programmed last year’s Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival.
CLOSER TO THE MOON. Directed by Nae Caranfil. Starring Allan Corduner, Harry Lloyd, Anton Lesser, Christian McKay and Joe Armstrong. A wonderfully inventive and fast-paced comic heist movie starring Mark Strong and Vera Farmiga, based on the true story of a group of Jewish friends and former Resistance members who set out to rob a bank. Set in Communist Romania in 1958, as a tide of anti-Semitism see Jews demoted or dismissed from their posts, the friends decide to retaliate by staging a breathtaking robbery, designed to look like a movie shoot. Full of charm and intriguing plot twists, with winning performances from a talented cast of familiar British actors.
FIRE BIRDS. Directed by Amir Wolf. Starring. Gila Almagor, Oded Toemi, Mali Levy, Mariam Zohar, Amnon Wolf. Winner of an Israeli Academy Award in 2015 and nominated for nine others, Amir Wolf’s electrifying directorial debut is an intelligent and pacey thriller with screen-stealing performances from Israeli stars Gila Almagor and Mali Levi. After the body of an elderly man is discovered in a river with a mysterious tattoo, a young police detective is persuaded to take on the case. Cleverly entwining past and present, this is an intriguing and engrossing film that keeps you guessing until the final moment. (Imagine This Thing Alive)
DOUGH. Directed by John Goldschmidt. Starring Jonathan Pryce, Pauline Collins, Ian Hart. An old Jewish baker’s failing business gets an unexpected boost when his young African (Darfur) Muslim apprentice, also a cannabis dealer, drops a load of dope in the dough. Suddenly the customers can’t get enough of his bread. Starring a host of British film and theatre luminaries, led by Jonathan Pryce, Pauline Collins, and Ian Hart. The screening was held in honor of British Jewish screenwriter Jez Freedman who sadly passed away earlier in the year.
SEPTEMBER OF SHIRAZ. Directed by Wayne Blair. Starring Salma Hayek, Adrien Brody, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Alon Aboutboul. Academy Award winner Adrien Brody and Salma Hayek lead this stunning adaptation of Dalia Sofer’s critically acclaimed novel. Amidst the turmoil of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Isaac (Brody), a secular Jew, is brutally interrogated on baseless charges of being an Israeli spy. Against the rising tide of fear, Isaac’s wife Farnez (Hayek) strives for his release and to escape the stranglehold of repression. A gripping drama and a profound look at ordinary lives crushed under the march of history.
THE OUTRAGEOUS SOPHIE TUCKER. Directed by William Gazecki. Bringing to life the story of one of the 20th century’s most celebrated performers: Sophie Tucker. “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas” was born to Orthodox Jewish parents and, through a combination of talent, attitude, and a genius for self-promotion, became the world’s biggest female star by the late 1920s. Featuring interviews with Tony Bennett and Carol Channing, this is a loving tribute to Tucker’s astonishing career, an irrepressible trailblazer who set a world-shaking precedent for today’s female superstars.
TO LIFE!. Directed by Jean-Jacques Zilbermann. Starring Julie Depardieu, Johanna ter Steege, Suzanne Clement. Inspired by his mother and her friendships, director Jean-Jacques Zilbermann shapes a captivating drama of three Auschwitz survivors reuniting in post-war France. As Hélène rebuilds her life, she reunites with fellow Auschwitz survivors Lily and Rose. Despite their shared grief and sorrow, each refuses to sacrifice their happiness to the past. Set amidst the panoramic vibrancy of the 1960s and featuring immaculately compelling performances, Zilbermann paints a soaring depiction of three women and their unyielding courage against the darkest tragedies.
HILL START / Zinuk BaAlia. Directed by Oren Shtern. Stars Romi Aboulafia, Shlomo Bar-Aba, Rotem Zisman Cohen. A box-office comic sensation in Israel about a bourgeois Jerusalem family who bring new meaning to the word dysfunctional. Plastic surgeon Micha wants an ordinary life. But when he causes a car accident that leaves his wife in a coma, things unravel around him. Micha’s son is marrying a Mizrahi detective. His anti-social single daughter is obsessed with an Arab actor. And Micha decides to retake his driving test… with a beautiful driving and yoga instructor.
HOTLINE. Directed by Silvina Landsmann. A co-production of Israel and France. sraeli-Argentinian director Silvina Landsmann plunges us into the sparse downtown offices of the Hotline centre, where a dozen employees – nearly all of them women – assist new migrants from Eritrea, Sudan, Ghana and other African hotspots. With an estimated 60,000 new immigrants currently living in Israel in 2015, the viewer is asked to consider the democratic responsibility of Israel, and the implications of the changing state of the nation.
ORTHODOX. Directed by David Leon. Starring Stephen Graham, Rebecca Callard. London’s criminal underbelly and Haredi Jewish community collide in this compelling debut feature from British director David Leon. Ben is a struggling kosher butcher by day and a successful backstreet boxer by night, but his luck is running out. Money becomes increasingly scarce, forcing him to resort to desperate and dangerous measures. Outstanding, nuanced performances from Stephen Graham (Ben) and Rebecca Callard (his wife) are at the heart of this disturbingly bleak portrait of disintegrating urban lives.
Among the documentaries at DOC NYC 2015 in Manhattan were:
ALL RISE. Directed by Jay Shapiro and Jeffrey Saunders. The United Nations’ International Court of Justice resolves international disputes through dialogue rather than warfare. Modeled on the ICJ, the JESSUP (Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition) is a prestigious simulated court competition that offers a sneak peek at the international leaders of the future. ALL RISE profiles seven passionate international law students, representing Jamaica, India, Palestine, Russia, Israel, Uganda and Singapore, as they overcome personal challenges and put idealism into practice to face the challenge of the rigorous competition at the dramatic world championships.
P.S. JERUSALEM. Directed by Danae Elon. Filmmaker Danae Elon grew up in Jerusalem as the daughter of writer Amos Elon, then relocated to New York City. In this film, she chronicles what happens when she and her husband Philip, a French-Algerian Jew who never lived in Israel, move their family to Jerusalem. Shot over three years, the film captures how the city’s tensions become internalized within the family, exposing divisions between past and present, hope and reality. It was sponsored by NATION magazine, so you sort of know what the political theme will be.
MIRIAM: HOME DELIVERY. This doc offers an inside look at what some consider to be the world’s second-oldest profession: midwifery. As a homebirth midwife, Miriam Schwarzchild, an unaffiliated Jew, performs a service once commonplace, but now increasingly rare as the process of childbirth firmly moved to a hospital setting. Juliet Jordan immerses viewers in Miriam’s mission, driving along with her across NYC as she assists expectant mothers, from her clients among the Orthodox Jewish community to the dramatic home birth that falls during the Hurricane Sandy blackout.
CAN WE TAKE A JOKE? In the age of social media, outrage has become commonplace. While individuals have always found something to be offended by, their ability to organize a groundswell of opposition to – and public censure of – their offender has never been more powerful. Can We Take A Joke? offers a thought-provoking and wry exploration of outrage culture through the lens of stand-up comedy, with notables like Gilbert Gottfried, Lisa Lampanelli and Adam Carolla detailing its stifling impact on everyone’s free speech and the exchange of ideas.
CITY OF GOLD. Directed by Laura Gabbert. City of Gold profiles Pulitzer Prize- winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold and his relationship to Los Angeles. In writing about food, Gold also covers the city’s thriving immigrant culture. He devotes the same passion to small family-run ethnic restaurants that other critics give to haute cuisine. The film includes appearances by New York food writers Robert Sietsema and Calvin Trillin, as well as esteemed chefs who are fans of Gold.
CLAUDE LANZMANN: SPECTRES OF THE SHOAH. Directed by Adam Benzine. In 1973, French journalist Claude Lanzmann set out to make a documentary about the Holocaust. After twelve long years, he finally released the nearly ten-hour-long SHOAH to critical acclaim. For the first time, the 89-year-old auteur reflects on the challenges he faced to realize his vision. Adam Benzine combines fascinating unused footage from the film with candid thoughts from Lanzmann to reveal the impact of this seminal project on his life.
FROM THIS DAY FORWARD. On the eve of her own wedding, filmmaker Sharon Shattuck seeks to understand the relationship between her parents in this revealing portrait of an unorthodox family. When she was in middle school, Shattuck’s father came out as transgender, taking the name Trisha, yet remained married to the filmmaker’s straight-identified mother, Marcia. a Chicago physician. With sensitivity and affection, From This Day Forward explores Trisha’s transformation, its repercussions on her family and the complexity and resilience of love and marriage.
GAYBY BABY. Gus is obsessed with wrestling, perhaps disturbingly so. Ebony is nervous about nailing her audition to a performing arts school. Matt, raised with religion, is flirting with atheism. Graham has to contend with his difficulties reading and a family move to Fiji. They’re all very different preteens, but they have one thing in common – they have same- sex parents. Maya Newell’s beautifully composed film reveals both the challenges of same-sex parenting and the refreshing commonalities shared by every family.
KING GEORGES. Directed by Erika Frankel. How many Jewish couples got engaged at this eminent restaurant. After more than four decades, America’s finest French restaurant, Philadelphia’s Le Bec Fin, is struggling to keep up with changing tastes. Its tempestuous chef/owner Georges Perrier remains ambivalent: should he sell the restaurant and finally retire, or partner with his talented protégé, Nicholas Elmi (an eventual Top Chef winner), in an attempt to reinvigorate its faded glory King Georges offers an intimate portrait of a passionate culinary artist facing the inevitability of change.
LEFT ON PURPOSE. Left on Purpose began as a (Jewish Grey Gardens) portrait of the life of Mayer Vishner, an antiwar Yippie activist. Vishner, as a teen, had a letter published in The New York Times that equated homework to slavery. He was a lifelong activist and writer. In the midst of filming, the aging radical informs the film’s director Justin Schein that, having had his fill of solitude and depression and daily pain, he intends instead to make the film project an existential project about his death – and he wants his suicide with Seconol captured on camera. Forced to break down the barrier between filmmaker and subject, Schein struggles with the ethics of intervening in the literal life-or-death story unfolding before his eyes
THE LOST ARCADE. Chinatown Fair opened as a penny arcade on Manhattan’s Mott Street in 1944 – in Chinatown. Over the decades, the dimly lit gathering place, known for its tic-tac-toe playing chicken, became an institution, surviving turf wars between rival gangs, changing tastes and the explosive growth of home gaming systems like Xbox and Playstation that shuttered most other arcades in the city. But as the neighborhood gentrified, this haven for a diverse, unlikely community faced its strongest challenge, inspiring its biggest devotees to next-level greatness.
SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION. Directed by Ethan Hawke. Seymour Bernstein is a hidden treasure of New York City. He gave up a promising career as a concert pianist to teach music, leaving an indelible influence on his students. Among his admirers is Ethan Hawke, the versatile actor/director/writer, who allows us to experience Seymour’s gift for storytelling as he circles the question of why make art?” Whether aficionados or newcomers to the world of classical music, viewers have much to gain from this introduction
SPEED SISTERS. Directed by Amber Fares. Produced by Jessica Devaney, Avi Goldstein. Demolishing stereotypes while avoiding wrecking their cars, the Speed Sisters are the Middle East’s first all-female race-car team. Demonstrating high-octane talent, and the marketing savvy to draw attention to their camera-friendly lineup, this diverse, engaging group competes in Palestine’s makeshift motor sports circuit across the West Bank, overcoming checkpoints and restrictive societal expectations to become role models for a new generation of young Arab women in the process.
The OTHER ISRAEL Fest at Manhattan’s JCC and the NEWFEST in Chelsea both screened:
ORIENTED. a documentary directed by Jake Witzenfeld. The doc tells the story of Khader, Fadi, and Naim, three gay Palestinian friends confronting their national and sexual identities in Tel Aviv. Khader is a Tel Aviv “darling” from a prominent Muslim family living with David, his Jewish Israeli boyfriend who yearns for Berlin; he is a habitue of the local LGBT nightlife scene. Fadi is an ardent Palestinian nationalist consumed with guilt about his love for a Zionist, Israeli soldier. Naim yearns to confront his family with the truth about his sexuality. As an air raid siren blairs during the war with Gaza, they are determined to make a change, and frustrated with balancing their multi-faceted identities, the three best friends form a resistance “video making” movement fighting for gender and national equality. Or at least they think that is what their movement will do. The best parts are the opening, where Khader tells an LGBT meeting how the BBC contacted him to ask about oppression by the Jewish State, but when he said he did not experience it, they asked to speak with someone who was more representative of the story they wished to broadcast; and their trip to a concert in Jordan. The worst, in my opinion, is where they don dresses without explanation. It undermined the thrust of the doc’s theme.
Also unique were
THE VOICE OF PEACE. Directed by Eric Friedler. A radical dreamer and a rebellious visionary, the Israeli peace activist Abie Nathan was the man behind “The Voice of Peace,” a pirate radio station broadcasting from a ship off the coast of Tel Aviv. During the 1970s, the station had more than 20 million enthusiastic listeners from all over the Middle East. This fascinating documentary follows Nathan’s humanitarian work over four decades, combining rarely-seen archival footage with interviews with former Israeli President Shimon Peres, Yoko Ono, Sir Michael Caine, and other world-renowned individuals who believed in Nathan’s vision of a more peaceful Middle East.
TEACHING IGNORANCE. Directed by Tamara Erde. This powerful film follows several Israeli and Palestinian teachers over the course of an academic year. It asks: How do the Palestinian, Israeli Arab, and Israeli Jewish educational systems teach the history of their peoples? By observing teachers, the film shows us their exchanges and confrontations with students as they transmit the values of religion, politics, and nationalism in the classroom. In Teaching Ignorance, educators from all sides of the conflict debate their peoples’ official curriculum, wrestling with is restrictions. This film offers an intimate glimpse into the profound and long-lasting effect that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict transmits to the next generation.
PARTNER WITH THE ENEMY. Directed by the prolific Duki Dror and Chen Shelach. In the midst of the ever-fraught Israeli-Palestinian political landscape, two women–one Israeli and one Palestinian–attempt the seemingly impossible: to build a business together. Fighting against societal and family pressure, anti-normalization currents and a chauvinistic, male-dominated industry, the two combine forces to create a logistics company which helps Palestinian businessmen to navigate the everyday absurdities of Israeli control of the West Bank. But while they help their clients to overcome the obstacles of Israeli occupation, the divisions between them threaten to tear their partnership apart. Can the bond between them overcome the impossible?
Sadly, the following film was cancelled. The producers of Degrade decided to withdraw from the festival due to the “situation.”
DÉGRADÉ Directed by Tarzan & Arab Nasser This was a Cannes Film Festival favorite. It is not a documentary. The film is the story of the lives of a diverse group of women as they visit a beauty salon in the Gaza Strip on a hot summer’s day. A bride-to-be, a pregnant woman, a bitter divorcée, a devout woman, and a pill-popping addict all meet for some leisure time and pampering. But their peace is disrupted when a gang war erupts between Hamas and a local group right in front of the salon. The women are trapped inside, while the heat and their anxiety rises. Dégradé stars Hiam Abbass, Maisa Abdelhadi, and Manal Awad.