Unfortunately due to poor planning, I did not make it to the Boston Jewish Film Festival this year (its 26th edition), but I did score some tickets to the NYC DOC fest and Manhattan’s OTHER ISRAEL festival of films and panels.

Some of the highlights from Boston were (39 films from 14 counties):

Ester Amrami’s debut film, “Anywhere Else” stars Neta Riskin as Noa, a graduate student in her thirties who is living with her boyfriend Joerg (Golo Euler) in rainy Berlin. Joerg (with an umlaut) is a musician. Noa is frustrated when her thesis on the topic of untranslatable words is rejected (note… obviously the film will play off words that are culturally untranslatable) and she decamps for Israel. Her grandmother Henja (Hana Rieber) falls ill. She mostly speaks Yiddish but know many languages. Noa remains in Israel to help her grandmother, and Joerg suddenly arrives, just in time for memorial day, when the nation remembers those killed by in WWII. Discomfort and dislocation commence.

Boston was the venue for the U.S. premiere of “Orange People” which was directed by the Israeli actress Hanna Azoulay Hasfari. The film sumptuous focuses on three generations of women in a Moroccan Jewish family. Zohara (Rita Shukrun)lives with a pet peacock in Yafo. She is a psychic who can to fall asleep on command. She is famous for her recipe for orange-colored couscous. Her daughter Simone (Esty Yerushalmi) can also fall asleep on command, but for her, it can be a curse and not a blessing. She manages a restaurant in Tel Aviv. Fanny (Hasfari) – Simone’s estranged sister arrives and mother-daughter and sister-sister tensions and anger puff up like a couscous.

“Magic Men” is the latest feature from the directors of Mabul, A Matter of Size, and Strangers. A 78-year-old Greek-born atheist (Makram Khouri) and restaurant owner and his estranged Hasidic rapper son, Yehuda (Zohar Strauss), travel from Israel to Greece to accept an award but to also search for a magician who saved the father’s life during World War II. Avraham is also a magician. Their Adriatic road trip erupts in constant bickering but also has moments of affection, humor, and good will, as father and son reconnect during their adventure. Yehuda’s rabbi has told him that only if he repairs the relationship with his father will he be able to bear a son. Makram Khouri won an Ophir Award for Best Actor. It is directed by Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor. Also features a young prostitute (Ariane Labed) who might help Yehuda make some magic, too.

In addition to screening ABOVE AND BEYOND (see the other posting), The BJFF screened TOUCHDOWN ISRAEL, a documentary by Paul Hirschberger. It follows the American football teams in Israel, an eleven-team league of amateurs, who play on soccer fields. The players and coaches represent a cross-section of Israeli society, including Arabs, Christians, and religious settlers; their shared passion creates unexpected friendships.

We missed Anita Diamant, the author of “The Red Tent,” who was present to introduce the screening of Joan Micklin Silver’s 1975 drama “Hester Street,” which earned actress Carol Kane an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

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The 8th annual OTHER ISRAEL FILM FESTIVAL screened several films that strives to foster social awareness and cultural understanding about Israel and its various communities and minority populations and issues, specifically the Arab citizens of Israel, who make up twenty percent of the nation’s population.

Among its films were:

TRANSIT. Directed by Hana Espia. This Israel/Philippines co-production is uniquely in English, Tagalog, and Hebrew, and was filmed in under two weeks in locations around Tel Aviv’s Old Central Bus Station. Transit explores the intersecting and rarely told stories of Filipino workers – both legal and those who have overstayed their work visas – in Tel Aviv. In the story, many workers are threatened with deportation of their children. The film (which I had thought was going to be a documentary when I arrived at the screening) is an examination of what it means to be a family and what it means to be a stranger within one’s home and in a foreign land. It was The Philippines’ official entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. The plot revolves around a Filipina who legally works in Israel, and the daughter that she had with an estranged Israeli man. her daughter only speaks Hebrew and doesn’t even know how to cook adobo. She cares for the four year son of another guest worker who has custody of the boy he had with another Filipina who is now married to an Israeli man. The Hebrw-speaking, Bereshit-studying, pre-schooler, if discovered, will be deported back to Manila. Remarkably, rather than hire Israeli-Filipino’s for the film, Ms. Espia had Filipino actors and actresses memorize their lines in Hebrew, rehearsed in Manila, and flew to Israel for the shoot. It is edited in a reverse chronology with rashomon-like perspectives.

In “Invisibles” by director Mushon Salmona, Ra’ed is a newly discharged soldier from the Israeli Army. He returns to an unrecognized village in the Negev desert, and he is determined to save his family’s failing herd of sheep, which are about to be sold. He plans to live off the herd by starting a roadside Bedouin hospitality restaurant. While minding the herd, he meets Nofar, the Jewish girlfriend of his cousin, Sleiman, a petty thief ostracized by their family. When Sleiman’s chaotic life endangers Ra’ed’s dream and Nofar’s father discovers their relationship, the three embark on what is intended to be Sleiman’s last big job, during which Sleiman is accidentally killed, leaving Ra’ed and Nofar alone in the desert night, facing their destiny. Although the Haifa International Film Festival wrote that the world premiere was this month in Haifa… it was really at the Other Israel Fest in Manhattan.

The highlight was a new documentary profiling the late, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, titled “Write Down, I Am an Arab,” directed by the Arab-Israeli Ibtisam Mara’ana Menuchin. The main focus is Darwish’s failed relationship with Tamar Ben Ami, a Jewish woman (although none of his relationships or marriages worked out), and perhaps his sublimation of personal desire for political images.

In “Sweets,” a farce directed by Joseph Pitchhadze, Sallah (Makram J Khoury) is an Arab Christian entrepreneur who is taking market share away from his Israeli competitor, Klausner (Shmuel Vilozny). Klausner has assassins on his staff. Surprise… Sallah is funded by the son of a Nazi war criminal, and Sallah’s associate is a romantic Jew who sings Hebrew versions of the Russian songs of Sallah’s Communist youth. Sallah hopes to sweeten the lives of the children in the Arab sector by opening a new chain of candy stores. Klausner controls the Israeli candy market and resents Sallah for another business move – cornering the market on Turkish coffee. Klausner sees this new initiative as a real threat, not only in a business sense but also culturally and politically, an attack on Zionism itself.
Under the guise of a business struggle the story reveals moral dilemmas and cultural differences. Sallah’s Russian wife, his French brother-in-law, his German partner and the French lover of the German partner manifest the fact that the struggle does not take place in a vacuum but in a complex multinational reality.

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The NYC DOC fest is celebrating its fifth birthday and is now the largest documentary festival in the United States with over 100 films as well as industry panels and master classes.

Films of Jewish interest this November were:

ABOVE AND BEYOND beyond Nancy Spielberg and Roberta Grossman, about the plan to found the Israeli Air Force in 1948 and the American and other volunteer pilots who broke the American blockade and flew for Israel. Above and Beyond recounts this hidden chapter of history, interviewing pilots and making skillful use of special effects by Industrial Light & Magic. The creation of Israel’s air force proved crucial in the ‘48 war and has had reverberations up to the present day.

THE AGE OF LOVE by Steven Loring reports from an unprecedented speed-dating event for seniors over the age of seventy. Thirty brave souls register — widows and widowers, longtime divorcees and the lovelorn — each willing to endure an anxiety-inducing, but mercifully brief, series of setups in their search for companionship in their golden years. Candidly confronting feelings of insecurity, loneliness and anticipation, Steven Loring’s film demonstrates the universality of love and desire, regardless of age.

The Age of Love – Official Trailer from Steven Loring on Vimeo.

In David Iverson’s CAPTURING GRACE, the doc – recognizing that music and rhythmic activity can help those suffering from Parkinson’s disease achieve greater control of their mobility – shows two dancers (David Leventhal) from New York’s Mark Morris Dance Group as they lead a workshop teaching dance and movement to a group of Parkinsonians. As the tenacious participants joyously regain a sense of bodily freedom, they rehearse for a public performance that celebrates the transformative power of art and community to upend expectations and provide hope.

When Housing Works gay activist David Thorpe got dumped by his boyfriend, he felt vulnerable and blamed his gay sounding voice. In his doc, DO I SOUND GAY?, he explores why some men sound gay and why some gay men shun other gay men who “sound gay.” Sound like a narcissistic exploration that is like a therapy session on digital video? Probably right. Produced by Howard Gertler, Thorpe embarks his journey of self-discovery and enlists coaches, linguists, friends, family, total strangers and gay celebrities (Tim Gunn, Dan Savage, David Sedaris, George Takei, Margaret Cho). He gets a little celluloid closet-y with Liberace, Charles Nelson Riley, the evil gay sounding Disney characters, and Paul Lynde, and his friends in NYC, South Carolina, and Fire Island try to convince him that if he is gay, dresses gay, dates gay, works for a gay group, socializes with gay friends, perhaps he should embrace sounding gay.

John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s FINDING VIVIAN MAIER tells the story of nanny Vivian Maier who died in 2009 at the age 83. When she died, she left behind more than 100,000 negatives of her street photography—images that she’d scarcely shared with anyone. Acquiring a box of her photos at a storage auction, John Maloof became obsessed and set out to tell her story, teaming with collaborator Charlie Siskel. As New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote, the film delivers “an exciting electric current of discovery.” Maier worked for several Jewish families.

Lacey Schwartz’s LITTLE WHITE LIE is about growing up in an upper-middle-class Jewish household. Lacey Schwartz knew she looked different from the rest of her family, but her darker complexion and curly hair were brushed off as traits inherited from her Sicilian grandfather. When she finally begins to dig deeper, Lacey uncovers unspoken family secrets and willful denial that cuts to the core of her very sense of self, inspiring an intriguing re-evaluation and redefinition of identity. It screened with Danielle Schwartz’s MIRROR IMAGE, about an attempt to establish the provenance of an Israeli family’s heirloom which becomes a debate over language and history. “Jewish Israeli grandparents are challenged by their grandchild to compose an agreed-upon version of the untold story of a large crystal mirror, taken from the Palestinian village of Zarnuqa during the Nakba – the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians by the new Israeli state in the 1948 war.”

AN OPEN SECRET is a documentray on the open secret of child sexual abuse in Hollywood. It had its world premiere at DOC NYC, and it doubts it will be shown elsewhere due to its subject matter and indictments. Every year, thousands of children swarm Hollywood in search of fame, but what they often find under the surface is a deep and disturbing underbelly of manipulation and abuse. An Open Secret, directed by Oscar®-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg (West of Memphis; Deliver Us From Evil), is a sobering look at the lives of children who were exploited and assaulted by some of Hollywood’s most powerful players. It features two Corey’s and others.

Adam Zucker in THE RETURN follows Tusia Dabrowska and three others and asks “How does one claim an identity in a vacuum?” Living in Poland, the four young women learned of their Jewish roots after growing up Catholic. Defining themselves through their difference, they feel like pioneers in a country that was once the epicenter of the Jewish world. But as life takes them away to New York and Israel, their sense of Jewishness, and its relative importance, shifts, as do their views of the potential for a renewed Jewish community in Poland.

In REVERENCE, a 12 minute short doc, Collin Kornfeind writes, “Batman, Homer Simpson, a New York Yankees logo – you’re likely to see any of these logos on the yarmulke of a Jewish boy in modern Jewish communities today.” “Reverence” dissects the meaning and context behind branded kippahs and the concept of faith in a modern world while exploring the societal and religious norms that these garments may challenge, focusing on the notion of “fitting in” and “standing out” within the Reform and Conservative Jewish communities.

I guess my favorite Jewish-oriented film was a student film Olga Lvoff. Olga identifies as half Jewish and half Russian. Her WHEN PEOPLE DIE THEY SING SONGS is about Regina Gluckman and her daughter Sonia. It is a very sensitive examination of family, memory and mortality. Under the watchful eyes of her dutiful daughter Sonia, Regina recalls the Yiddish and French songs of her youth through music therapy sessions following a stroke. But the 93-year-old Holocaust survivor is starting to succumb to dementia. Fearful that their family’s tumultuous history, unspoken for decades, will vanish with Regina, Sonia sets out to recapture their shared experiences through music and photo albums. Mother and daughter become closer, and Regina, who was told to go to a hospice years ago, is still living and now 95. The director was nominated for a Student Academy Awards in 2014. If you wonder why the theme music is a polka, even though Regina and family are Belgian/French/Moroccan, Olga told me that the polka captures Regina’s spirit and adds some happiness to a sometimes somber issue. It screened with accalimed director Lucy Walker’s THE LION’S MOUTH OPENS in which a young Irish-born woman in NYC is about to learn whether she has inherited her father’s incurable, terminal Huntington’s disease, which is like a combination of Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons. This film has been shortlisted for the Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject, and I can tell you that the entire audience figuratively held its breath with the filmmakers as they went into the doctor’s office to get the results of the test.

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