I don’t want to be snarky, but, I get irritated when the elite film festivals find items to screen and celebrate that I find off-putting and controversial for the sake of controversy. I don’t mean that every Holocaust film has to be Life Is Beautiful, The Life Ahead (Madame Rosa), and Schindler’s List, but films on Holocaust frauds don’t give me any cheer.
This week, the 2021 Sundance International Film Festival will open, but virtually, and offer seven days of premieres, events, and artist talks… online… from January 28 through February 3.
Among the anticipated films is MISHA AND THE WOLVES. Director Sam Hobkinson explores the story of Misha Deonseca’s memoir of escaping the Nazis and living with wolves as a feral child until World War II ended. In reality, the author and book were deemed fraudulent a decade after publication.
In Hobkinson’s film, reenactments, interviews, and archival footage are blended to tell a story of what is truth and what is deception; whom does one trust, and why do people promote deceptions. What happens when the victim is the perpetrator?
In the late 1990s, Misha Denoseca gave a talk on a Holocaust Remembrance Day event at a New England synagogue about how her parents were taken by the Nazis and how she left the Belgian Catholic family that was hiding her and lived with wolves in the forest. As an eight year old, according to her story, she walked from Belgium to the Ukraine, dropped by the Warsaw Ghetto a couple times, and returned back, thus surviving the war. At one point she stabbed a Nazi rapist to death.
A small publisher heard about her story and published her memoir, which, from the start, was accused of being an impossible story by some Holocaust experts. Disney optioned the story and then shelved it after the controversies. It has been reported that Misha was born to a Catholic family, her parents were arrested by Nazis since they were working for the resistance, her father was executed, and, as a child, she began to believe she was Jewish, perhaps to shield herself from the disdain of her Belgian Catholic family who scapegoated her as the daughter of resistance traitors.
You can watch the film on January 31 or FEBRUARY 2 HERE
You can also join the JEWISH FILM INSTITUTE (the group that produces the SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL, annually) on JANUARY 31, 2021 for their CINEGOGUE / DIALOGUE: SUNDANCE INSTITUTE SENIOR PROGRAMMER HARRY VAUGHN IN CONVERSATION WITH DIRECTOR SAM HOBKINSON OF “MISHA AND THE WOLVES”
You can also join the JEWISH FILM INSTITUTE on JANUARY 29, 2021 for their panel of leading female Jewish non-fiction filmmakers as they discuss the role of Jewish values, identity, culture, and feminism, as drivers and subjects for their groundbreaking documentary films. The panel features Nancy Buirski (A Crime on the Bayou), Judith Helfand (Love & Stuff), Roberta Grossman (Who Will Write Our History), Amy Ziering (On The Record), Jennifer Fox (The Tale), and is moderated by Caroline Libresco (Sundance Institute, The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs).
OTHER FILMS OF NOTE:
AT THE READY: Documentary. Students at Horizon High School in El Paso, Texas, just ten miles from the US/MEXICO border crossing, have a unique after class activity. The criminal justice club schedules fake drug raids and active-shooter takedowns. Students role play border patrol agents, police officers, and customs enforcement staff. The film follows Mexican American students Kassy and Cesar and recent graduate Cristina as they navigate the complications inherent in their chosen career path and discover their choices may clash with the values and people they hold closest. Director – Maisie Crow of Marfa, Texas. Producers: Hillary Pierce, Maisie Crow, Abbie Perrault. Executive Producers: Tony Hsieh, Roberto Grande, Mimi Pham, Bryn Mooser, Justin Lacob, Fred Grinstein, Steve Golin, Max Kabat, Kathryn Everett, Davis Guggenheim, Jonathan Silberberg, Nicole Stott
CAPTAINS OF ZAATARI: Documentary. Fawzi and Mahmoud are obsessed with soccer (football). They live in Zaatari, the world’s largest camp for Syrian refugees, located in Jordan. With uncertain legal status and an interrupted education, their prospects are limited. On the local soccer pitch, however, they can imagine a brighter future as professional athletes, a path to escaping the camp and providing for their families. When scouts from a world-renowned Qatari sports academy visit Zaatari, Fawzi and Mahmoud believe they might be able to realize their dreams—if given the opportunity. Egyptian film director Ali El Arabi crafts an intimate portrait of friendship and of enduring hope in the face of the most challenging odds. See a trailer HERE/ from Ambient Light Films in Cairo aka Za’ATARI CAPTAINS
PHILLY D.A.: Documentary. Civil rights attorney Larry Krasner called out policies that caused Philadelphia to become one of the major cities in America with the most incarcerations. Over three decades, he sued police officers more than 75 times, accusing them of perpetuating corruption and brutality. But in 2017, he ran for the office of district attorney. Why sue when you can reform the system from the inside? Can he win and reform it? Directors Ted Passon and Yoni Brook rigorously bring to life the people impacted and incensed by the failings of the system, as well as those fighting to maintain the status quo. Tracking an election with shocking turns and a first term full of unprecedented moves, Passon and Brook smartly keep Krasner as their fulcrum. But after establishing a truly radical platform, Philly D.A. asks, can this controversial figure actually implement meaningful change? The Sundance Film Festival will showcase the first two episodes of this docuseries. You may recall YONI BROOK from his earlier film, MENASHE, which was shot in an ultra Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Producers: Ted Passon, Yoni Brook, Nicole Salazar, Josh Penn, Michael Gottwald.
RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT. Documentary. Talented, energetic, and full of joy, Rita Moreno has been dazzling audiences for over 70 years. Whether showcased on television, film, or stage, her artistry transcends singing, dancing, and acting, as she continuously reinvents herself and pushes creative limits. Moreno is a pioneer and one of the most authentic performers of our time, and she has the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) status to prove it. With intimate access to her subject, director Mariem Pérez Riera created a loving cinematic journey that details the life of a groundbreaking artist who truly embodies the American Dream. From her early years in Puerto Rico to her childhood as an immigrant in New York City to the racial bias she faced in the studio system, Moreno consistently broke down barriers, overcoming sexism and identity discrimination with pure integrity. Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It is both a revelatory portrait and a celebration of a magnetic, intriguing woman whose courage is an inspiration to all. Executive Producers: Norman Lear, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Michael Kantor, Regina K. Scully, Lyn Davis Lear.
SABAYA. Documentary. In August 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Daesh) attacked the ancestral homeland of the Yazidis, one of the oldest ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq. Among many atrocities Daesh committed was the abduction of thousands of women and girls, who were passed on as sex slaves (sabaya) among the jihadists. Five years after the attack, filmmaker Hogir Hirori takes us on an eye-opening journey that follows a group of volunteers from the Yazidi Home Center on their mission to save the women and children held by Daesh in the Al-Hol camp. Led by Mahmud and Ziyad, these men and women volunteers tirelessly coordinate searches, infiltrate the camp, and plan rescue operations to bring back Yazidi victims. The ones they manage to free are traumatized and ashamed, fearing rejection by their community and families. The process of reinstating some sense of normalcy in their lives is only now beginning. Sabaya is a visceral, often petrifying journey that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
TRY HARDER! Documentary. Like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, at Lowell High School, the top public high school in San Francisco, the seniors are stressed out. As they prepare for the emotionally draining college application process, students are keenly aware of the intense competition for the few open spots in their dream colleges. They scrutinize how every element of their application, from their classes to their extracurricular activities to their racial identities, might be read by admission officers. At Lowell—where cool kids are nerds, nearly everyone has an amazing talent, and the majority of the student body is Asian American—the things that usually make a person stand out can feel not good enough, even commonplace. With humor and heart, director Debbie Lum takes us to the reality of the American college application process and the intersection of class, race, and educational opportunity as experienced by high school seniors living through it. Try Harder! is a portrait of young adults in the most diverse American generation ever as they navigate a quintessential rite of passage and make it their own.
THE AFFECTED: (Norway) a 13 minute short. Minutes before takeoff, a situation occurs, preventing an airplane from departing. In an attempt to prevent the deportation of one passenger, another passenger refuses to sit down—forcing the pilot to take a political stand. Director: Rikke Gregersen
WHEN WE WERE BULLIES (USA/Germany) a 36 minute short. A mind-boggling “coincidence” leads the filmmaker to track down his fifth grade class—and fifth grade teacher—to examine their memory of and complicity in a bullying incident 50 years ago. Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt is an internationally recognized filmmaker who has completed more than 30 films. His work explores our emotional and psychological cores. Rosenblatt is a recipient of a Guggenheim, USA Artists, and Rockefeller Fellowship. Featuring Richard J. Silberg, Mark Athitakis, Wendy Newman, Bobbe Bromberg, and P.S. 194 Classmates. http://www.jayrosenblattfilms.com