â€œTrece Anosâ€ a seven minute Sundance short by Topaz Adizes was shot entirely in Cuba. The film is about a young man who returns home to his family in Cuba for the first time in thirteen years. He has not seen his mother or siblings, since his father place him on a raft and floated him to the U.S. What starts out as a pleasant reunion lunch become an example of the emotional divide that has grown as a result of his residence in New York and America. Adizes, the son of an Israeli father, speaks four languages, including Hebrew (albeit with a slight French-like accent).One of my favorite films at the festival was a short documentary about an actor that everyone knows, but whose name no one recalls. In â€œI Knew It Was You,â€ filmmaker Richard Shepard recalls the life of actor John Cazale, who appeared in just five films, the five greatest of the 1970’s, all of which were nominated for Oscars: 40 in all. You and I know Cazale better as Fredo in â€œThe Godfatherâ€ and “The Godfather II.” The documentary’s title is taken from the line. â€œI know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.â€œ He also appeared in â€œDog Day Afternoon,â€ â€œThe Conversation,â€ and â€œThe Deer Hunter.â€ In all the films, he made his co-stars shine and he inspired them to immerse themselves in their roles. Engaged to marry Meryl Streep, Cazale died of lung cancer at age 42, in 1978, after finishing â€œThe Deer Hunter.â€ Actually, his co-stars raised the funds to bond him during his performance; ptherwise, the producers would not have cast an ill actor in the role. This film is produced by one of Cazale’s biggest fans, Miami-born filmmaker, music video director, and noted Hollywood lothario, Brett Ratner, who attended school in Israel.
“The Messenger,” which is directed by Oren Moverman and premiered at Sundance, has an Israeli connection. Moverman was born and raised in Israel and moved to the US after his army service. The film stars Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster as two soldiers affected and scarred by their service, and currently working as towards redemption as â€œmessengersâ€ who must inform the next of kin of soldiers that their loved ones have been killed in action. No matter how noble their tasks, Moverman, at the premiere, said the roles of these soldiers are among the toughest jobs in the army and likened them to â€œtwo angels of death.â€ The film is not about the casualties, but the people who must continue living their lives after a loved one is killed in action.
Moverman took on the directorial duties of the film after Ben Affleck bowed out as the potential director. Alessandro Camon developed the idea for the story in response to the lack of information on the messengers who bring the consequences of the war to the families of soldiers. Moverman said the script was a way to deal with his own â€œmilitary experience demonâ€ from Israel. Audience members who watch closely will notice that one of the families that are notified of a husbandâ€˜s death in Iraq, the Cohen family, display a large mezuzah on their front door.
Sundance also premiered two films with Palestinian themes.â€œAmreeka,â€ is the feature debut of director/writer Cherien Dabis. It is a warm story about a Palestinian family’s journey to post 9/11 Illinois. Muna Farah, is a divorced, Palestinian, single parent who is struggling to remain optimistic and make a new life for herself and her teenage son, Fadi, in Illinois.
The film begins with checkpoints, first Israeli ones, and next, an American one. In one of the memorable scenes, an American immigration officer asks Muna her name, and nationality. When he queries about â€œOccupation?,â€ Muna misunderstands him and replies, â€œYes, occupied for forty years,â€ rather than that her former occupation was in a bank. With humor, nostalgia, sadness, and authenticity, Dabis creates an absorbing story of immigration and struggle. Muna takes a job at White Castle, while Fadi must confront racism in his high school, being called â€œOsama,â€ and being taunted as a possible teenage terrorist. Muna’s brother in law, a physician, begins to lose patients, as they fear his identity as an Arab American.
The film stars Palestinian actress Nisreen Faour as Muna, and Melkar Muallem as Fadi. It also co-stars Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) as Munaâ€˜s sassy niece, and Joseph Ziegler plays Mr. Novatski, a compassionate high school principal. It was filmed for six days in Ramallah and Bethlehem, and the rest of the shoot was in Manitoba and Illinois.
â€œAmreekaâ€ is a film which is very close to the director’s experiences. The film was inspired by an aunt who moved to America in 1987. Cherien grew up with Palestinian/Jordanian parents who had immigrated to Omaha and then to Ohio. She would spend Summers in Jordan where she felt that she wasn’t Arab enough for the Arabs, yet not American enough for her Ohio neighbors.
After her first two screenings, each with standing ovations, Cherien related how she was born in Celina, Ohio, the daughter of a pediatrician, Dr. Nazih Dabis, who was a local hero due to the lives he had saved. Yet during the Gulf War, he lost patients, and even as the father of five daughters, he was rumored to have a son who was fighting against coalition forces in Iraq.
I asked Dabis why she decided to make the character of the school principal Jewish. Mainly she needed a fellow divorcee who could relate to Muna on the same level, be sympathetic, and draw out her charm and the love for her son; and his Jewish heritage was parallel to the story of immigration and displacement.
â€œPomegranates and Myrrhâ€ opens near an olive grove, east of Jerusalem, on the day of Zaid and Kamar’s wedding, Zaid and his family travel to Jerusalem to a church for the ceremony. Along the way they must pass Israeli checkpoints. This is the first feature by writer/director, Najwa Najjar, and it includes long shots of the barrier wall, reinforcing to keen observers the â€œsituation.â€ Kamar is a free spirited dancer filled with joy, and Zaid runs his family’s olive oil business. Their honeymoon bliss is interrupted when the Israeli Army attacks their grove one evening, and confiscates their land after a report is filed that a stone was throne at a patrol from the grove. Zaid is arrested and placed in administrative detention at Ofer Prison near Ramallah after he is accused of threatening a soldier during a scuffle in the grove.Kamar, living with her in-laws at the grove, wants to be a supportive and dutiful wife to her imprisoned husband, but doesn’t want to give up her dancing. The family hires an Israeli lawyer to appeal for Zaid’s release and try to retrieve their land in the middle of the olive harvest, their sole source of income. The grove is surrounded by barbed wire and a handful of Jewish settlers arrive and erect a flag and tent and squat on the property; an overweight settler cocks his gun when Kamar walks by to retrieve a fragrant olive branch. Later, Kamar’s residence is vandalized and covered in Stars of David. During this, a new dance choreographer, Kais, arrives from Lebanon and takes a forbidden interest in the lovely, married Kamar. Kais, is the son of a Palestinian fighter, and, at age ten, was a witness to the massacres by the supporters of Bashir Gemayal in 1982. He lives for the moment and is without hope. By leasing the fairgrounds and teaching the dance troupe new steps, he is a symbol of the changing society and new, liberal dance forms. He oversteps his authority and garners the wrath of Yusef, who has run the troupe for decades and wants to stay with the strictures of classical Palestinian folk dance norms. Lea Tsemel, an international known Israeli human right lawyer plays the role of the blunt, realistic, Israeli attorney in the film, fighting the land confiscation and incarceration. The dances are performed by the El Founon Dance Troupe.
The film addresses the life of a modern-day Palestinian woman making her way between expectations of modern opportunities. The drawback is that the film shows Israeli soldiers and prison guards as single dimensional, shouting, roughnecks. A shouting match between an staccato speaking Israeli soldier and Umm Habib, a cafÃ© owner wearing her best dress, feels contrived, but delivers the idea that continued occupation drives residents to rebel in unusual ways.