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Other Israel Film Fest '13: Truth & Friction

The Fading Valley

The 7th Annual Other Israel Film Festival well showcased its strongest offerings yet for dramatic insight into the ethnic and religious diversity of Israel’s population, where over 20% are Arab.  The statistics – and the interactions—get considerably more complex, and rife for cinematic exploration in documentaries and fiction features, when also included are the areas Israel has controlled since 1967, with an increasing sense of uneasy permanence as negotiations drag on.  The films, with accompanying discussions, screened in New York City from November 14 – 21, mostly at the JCC in Manhattan, with selections continuing to stream for a national audience, including highlights from previous years’ festivals.  The best films, thanks to committed directors and participants, reveal an involving range of perspectives: from cautious optimism, to the realistic difficulties of living with diversity, to a depressing frankness, and, finally, sinking into pessimisms for the future.

The Difficulties of Diversity - Non-Fiction Friction

The Garden of Eden is a strikingly beautiful and unusually illuminating look at how even a shared, relaxing oasis, the crowded Gan HaShlosha National Park (a.k.a the Sahne) in the Lower Galilee, is no vacation from conflicting differences in Israel.  In wandering with a cinema verité camera past faces and bodies (whether covered or bared has cultural significance), the same physical space is shown to have different resonances for different people, with different codes of behavior, different memories, and different interactions.

Seen in its New York premiere, director Ran Tal’s film creatively accomplishes the subtle juxtaposition of two cinematic tracks-- what we see contrasts with the poignant voices who add layers of different interpretations, like the witnesses heard over his earlier retrospective documentary Children of the SunDaniel Kedem’s exquisite cinematography immerses us in a year in the life of the park like a stage setting, around the seasons, day through night, open to the public or when employees have to themselves the spring-fed natural grotto that is over 80 degrees (F) year-round.  Formal activities espied include day-time gender-restricted swimming periods and at night Christian youth welcoming Jesus, and, informally, teen boys ogling bikini-clad girls, while a determined Lubavitcher recruiter urges BBQ’ers to pray.  Fully encloaked Arab mothers wistfully watch over their not-yet-restricted young daughters.  But the free-flowing, sometimes confessional, monologues, followed by brief identifying shots of the haunted interviewees, add another dimension.  As touching and deep as each of their personal currents flow, most relevant to the Festival’s themes are two men’s memories of their experiences– a man from Nazareth sadly recalls meeting there his long-time love, a Russian woman who his family made him give up – “An Arab and a Jew can’t make it in this place”-- and the proud pioneer kibbutznik who chortles over how they diverted the spring for the popular waterfall that flows over basalt rocks they took in 1956 from the ruined houses of Palestinian villages.

It’s Better to Jump reveals indigenous Palestinians’ bitter view of an historic urban area tourists to Israel don’t usually get to see, and can be seen in its theatrical run after the New York premiere at the festival.  As a UNESCO-designated World Heritage site, the Old City of Akka, or Acre, an ancient port on the northern Mediterranean coast, has been absorbing waves of political and cultural conquerors, covered in the opening, from the Israelites to the Assyrians in the 9th century BCE, Phoenicians and Persian rule between the 6th - 4th centuries BCE, under the Egyptian, Romans, Byzantium and Arab empires until the Crusaders declared it their capital for four hundred years, on and off, through the 12th century, building an imposing fortress (that I’ve visited).  The mid-18th century Ottoman urban renewal with fortifications and palaces that dominate the skyline set the stage for this documentary’s repeating visual theme of boys, again and again, bounding off the 40-foot-tall, foot-thick seawall now rapidly encroached by post-1948 Israeli gentrification that may be even more racially, politically, ideologically, and economically charged than in old cities elsewhere.  (Hal Asby’s acerbic The Landlord comes to mind of a comparably changing Brooklyn in the 1970’s.)  By the end, the beauty of the stunning cinematography (long time American documentarians Gina Angelone and Patrick Alexander Stewart were joined by Palestinian-born co-director Mouna Stewart) is an ironic counter-point to a detailed litany of resentments against the lack of other education, economic, and, particularly, affordable housing opportunities as vented by earnest interviewees whose families have lived there for over a hundred years -- artists, musicians, teachers, historians, guide, fisherman, businesspeople, boxer, and actors, including Makram Khoury, of Inheritance, who once nearly drowned as one of those jumping boys.  There’s confusing archival footage interjected from other cities, including Haifa and Gaza, to predict a dark dystopian future for native Palestinians, whether Christian or Muslim, but the didactic negativity is leavened a bit by a light-hearted debate on humus as their national symbol.  

dancing in jaffaTwo school-based documentaries, each filmed over a year, frankly demonstrate how difficult it is to find a common space, and even language, for Israeli Arabs and Jews to learn together.  Dancing in Jaffa opens like a corny version of Mad Hot Ballroom in Israel, with the gimmick to pair up Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab children in the mixed, but pretty much segregated neighborhood of Jaffa, adjacent to Tel Aviv, a place seen recently in tense features like the Oscar-nominated Ajami.  Yes, it’s the same “Dancing Classrooms” program, and the work of its founder, Pierre Dulaine, to bring the confidence, self-esteem, discipline, etiquette, and, most of all, respect, of ballroom dancing to urban schools that has already gotten the Antonio Banderas inspiring bio-pic treatment in Take the Lead.  But Jaffa is where Dulaine’s family home was that he hasn’t seen since he fled as a child in 1948. 

Director Hilla Medalia captures in verité style the unique difficulties he faces here -- how he is warned away from his old house, how the Muslim community has gotten more overtly religious than when his Palestinian mother married his Irish father so that any male/female touching is a sensitive issue; the clashing rituals around Israeli Independence Day/Palestinian Nakba Day of the Catastrophe; and school after school refusing to participate as they spew prejudices.  Just when all looks as hopeless as peace in the Middle East, he calls in his championship partner of more than three decades, the elegant Yvonne Marceau, and the magic they demonstrate in dancing together seems to spread Fred Astaire-and-Ginger-Rogers fairy dust over everyone.  From there, the usual trope of cute-kids-in-competition is emotionally heightened as students, parents, and teachers dance through political violence-caused family traumas and the cultural differences to begin to see each other as individuals with commonalities, even friends, and blossom through the rehearsals and shared applause.  An impossible dream comes true!

dovescryWouldn’t it be a no-brainer for Israeli children to learn Arabic?  Turns out it’s not so easy, as seen in the U.S. premiere of Dove’s Cry, a sensitive consciousness-raiser on the obstacles.  In a suburban Tel Aviv middle school, Israeli Arab Hadeel (her name is the sound a dove makes) enthusiastically embarks on a teaching experiment, and finds she literally embodies a foreign culture, religion, and political perspective that the parents and students are surprisingly ignorant of, including the well-meaning principal awkwardly blundering through miscommunications, even as she admirably opens up her school to the camera.  On a roller coaster of gratifying ups and tearful downs, the refreshingly honest Hadeel is discomfited by the school year kick-off with a shofar-blowing, at the celebration of Israeli Independence and Memorial Days accompanied by the national anthem, the constant curiosity about her very colorful and stylish head scarves, the surprise at her Israeli citizenship, let alone when an unruly student curses her as “You stinking Arab!”  Dedicating the film to her late mother who taught Arabic, persistent director Ganit Ilouz also follows Hadeel back to her family near Haifa, who are mostly supportive of her independence – as long as the 28-year-old gets married by spring and they agree to find her a husband who is willing to let her keep working this draining, challenging job, she reports, “as long as I don’t neglect our home”.  She happily introduces her affectionate students to her holidays, symbols, cuisine, customs (such as henna hand painting), and songs, only to feel crushed when an arts and crafts project to make a mosque diorama raises parents’ ire and she is patronizingly admonished to just stick to the language – but can she do that and still be true to herself and her students?

Diverse young Israelis also meet up on the soccer field (a.k.a. football pitch). Green Dreams, in a U.S. premiere, is director Levi Zini’s transplanted homage to Steve James’s classic 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams.  Here the teens (and their painfully obsessed parents and mentors) have excruciatingly unrealistic hopes for making it, against very long odds, onto a major league soccer team in Israel or Europe as their self-sacrificing ticket out of poverty.  Yisrael, son of Ethiopian immigrants, has lived at an ORT-supported boarding school almost since his mother died when he was little, and Mahdi’s hard-working Israeli Arab family is from the Lower Galilee valley, like World Cup hero Abas Suan featured in After the Cup: Sons of Sakhnin.  Both of them seem to be so much at the high-pressure mercy of ambitious, ruthless coaches and recruiters who see dollar signs not real boys that this up-close-and-personal profile is heartbreaking to watch.

Sitting (or Farming or Scrounging) in Limbo

Several perceptive documentaries are close-up looks at individuals impacted by living in perpetual limbo since their property was annexed or divided by Israel since 1967, areas that have been neglected in most media attention, and are almost unbearably hopeless.  
Around divided Jerusalem, The Lesson is a series of many surprisingly engaging driving lessons the middle-aged Egyptian-born Layla takes all with a patient Palestinian instructor, in this U.S. premiere.  Director Anat Zuria, who rode around that city to capture how it felt for ultra-Orthodox women to sit in the back of a Black Bus, gradually draws this Muslim woman out to confess her very convoluted life story of abuse and the fears that have kept her away from her house on the other side of Israel’s security wall which can now only be reached by car – a divide that will soon keep away her daughter who is marrying an Israeli Jew.  As very particular and idiosyncratic as her extended family relationships are, the frustrations at how Middle East politics have complicated her life are palpable.

On the Golan Heights,Apples of Golan takes us into the hard-scrabble daily life in Majdal Shams, one of the five primarily Druze villages still managing to survive as circumscribed between Israel, Syria, and the fences, mines and U.N. peacekeepers along the border.  Holding on to a nostalgic Syrian identity, the proud farmers insist the seeds are distinctively Syrian.  Their limited options to cross into Damascus have been seen before –through marriage like in the fiction feature Syrian Bride and college education in the 2011 Festival selection Shout.  But in this U.S. premiere, Irish documentarians Jill Beardsworth and Keith Walsh follow, over five years, how those stuck home live in an ongoing twilight zone where ID cards label their nationality as “undefined”.  Kids learn Hebrew in school, but the community rejects a man who intermarried.  A grandfather recites a sadly frozen in 1967 allegiance to the Syrian president in denial of the raging revolution, and it isn’t clear at first if a mother is waiting for a son’s release from prison in Israel or Syria.  What is unambiguous is that only golden apples can regularly cross the border people can’t (under internationally controlled trade procedures), but their orchards are under insidious attack by competition with Israeli civilians and military for water and acreage.

The Fading Valley, in its U.S. premiere, further investigates the drip, drip, drip of this agricultural and livestock crisis in more detail, into the Jordan Valley.  Director Irit Gal relentlessly follows shepherds along the drying up trail (despite soldiers’ efforts to block her camera) to devastatingly uncover how the increasing desertification of previously sustainable Palestinian land is caused by deliberate redirection of water to blooming kibbutzim and settlements. 

goodgarbageThe evaporation of their way of life is depressing enough – until you see how things can get even worse in the New York premiere Good Garbage directed by Shosh Shlam and Ada Ushpiz.  Two Oscar-nominated documentaries saluted the dignity of hard-working recyclers picking through city dumps, in Waste Land about Rio de Janeiro and Recycled Life about Guatemala City.  But the emphasis here is on the depressingly politically-caused irony of Palestinian families aggressively gleaning the Hebron Hills garbage dump in the occupied West Bank that is full of the modern detritus of the Israeli settlements that displaced them.  Taken together, these hard-to-watch but valuable documentaries are a harvest of shame for Israel.

"Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley"

Time hasn't done its proper work. America's first female comedian has been plum forgotten. But now the story of Jackie "Moms" Mabley is being rescued from the ash heap of history, and last century's vangard entertainer may yet claim her rightful place in this century. Leading the rescue squad is Whoopi Goldberg, with her debut documentary Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley. 

"She was the first to do what she did and she's gotten no recognition for it at all," Goldberg told Film Festival Traveler at New York's Apollo Theater, where the film was recently screened. "People don't remember her. So this is my reminder."

The film is refreshingly unabashed by its enthusiasm. "There's something about her that knocked me out as a kid," muses Goldberg on camera. Yet far from a mere valentine, Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley also considers civil-rights history, the obstacles dogging women comics and Mabley's own ruffled past as a rape survivor.

The funny lady with the ratty housefrock and frumpy hat had a leg up to speak truth to power. Dubbed "Mr. Moms behind the scenes, she bent gender and wielded a virile force that ironically gave her a career advantage," the movie argues. Offstage there was something kingly about "the original queen of comedy," though her public persona was strictly straight.

Mabley's nervy allure takes Goldberg across issues of race, class and sexuality fueling her idol's five-decade career. With such routines as, "Mary had a little lamb -- wasn't the doctor surprised?!" Mabley's standup act brought a gleeful twang to risqué domestic material that few other entertainers of any ethnicity dared to touch. "Me and Nehru got in a big argument..." samples a more political sort of monologue which she increasingly braved. "It was about changing stuff," Goldberg remarked on the red carpet.

momscartoonBorn in the North Carolina mountains in 1897, Mabley hit black vaudeville's “chitlin’ circuit” during the segregated 1920s and crossed over to broader white audiences in the 1960s. By 1961 her star had sufficiently risen that she could vault the chasm from The Apollo in Harlem to Carnegie Hall on 57th Street. Mabley's 1967 appearance on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” opens the documentary, which also features clips of her on such mainstream fare as “The Ed Sullivan Show” of 1969; “The Bill Cosby Show” of 1970; and the 1974 film Amazing Grace -- one year before her death at the age of 81.

Hands down, the most affecting scene in Goldberg's documentary shows Mabley singing “Abraham, Martin and John” on the variety show “Playboy After Dark.” As a personal friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. and as a guest at JFK's White House, Mabley was "crying for her nation and for her children" in this soulful lament that in turn jerks audience tears. Also on the televised set at the Playboy Mansion was Sammy Davis Jr., who comments that "Moms" was a "mom to every young performer." It's a sentiment that resonates with Goldberg, per her comment at the film's afterparty at Sylvia's. Before sitting down to savor the downhome spread, she noted her debt to the provocateuse who showed that a career in engagé comedy might be possible for her.

Yet the gag ceiling still exists, especially for women of color. How else to explain that the Oscar, Tony, Emmy,whoopi Grammy and Golden Globe lauriate has never hosted “Saturday Night Live”? And not for lack of trying, shared Tom Leonardis, who for nearly two decades has headed up Goldberg’s production company Whoop Inc. (and who executive produced the documentary).

Other celebrants at the Harlem event included Rain Pryor, Kathy Griffin, Dick Cavett, Jerry Stiller and “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” producer George Schlatter. Together with the likes of Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers and Eddie Murphy -- who reveals that he ripped off Mabley's act for his character in The Nutty Professor -- they also serve as talking heads about Mabley and the hampered African-American beginnings in show business. Rounding out the film are audio recordings transcribed in jaunty animation as well as newly found archival stills and rediscovered performance footage.

Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley premieres November 18 on HBO. It began life as a stage piece. Said Goldberg, "Once I realized people didn't know about her, I decided to make a documentary. Silly me!"

"The Book Thief" Snatches Inspiration from the Novel

The elevator pitch for The Book Thief isn't exactly grabby: the story takes place in Nazi Germany; it's narrated by Death; and almost everyone gets killed in the end. Yet both the bestselling novel and its screen adaptation have that certain ich weiss nicht that keeps people coming back for more.

For director Brian Percival (Downton Abbey), the uncommon choice of narrator was one of the main elements that drew him to the project, as he recently told a press gathering in New York. "It's the key to the whole story because that's what gives us a perspective on humanity," he said. Percival recalled telling the book's author, Markus Zusak, that he "didn't feel quite so scared about death" as he had before encountering The Book Thief.

To convey Death's "comforting" nature, Percival cast an actor (Robert Allam) with an "empathic, warm, velvety nature to his voice that makes you think that, well, when my does time comes it mightn't be so bad if a guy like that's looking after me."

While Death hovers over, at the core of the drama is tweenaged Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse). Liesel's coming of age begins with the loss of her brother, who dies before her eyes, and of her destitute mother, who has relinquished her offspring to a working-class family in a fictional Bavarian town.

Liesel comes to the Hubermanns with baggage including the emotional kind and a copy of The Gravedigger's Handbook, which she snatched at her brother's funeral. Her foster father, Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush), helps Leisel with both. His warmth and solicitude allow her to feel at home while his lessons in literacy awaken her passion for the written word. So much so that she filches her second book of the narrative, one being burned in a Nazi book purge. There will be many more purloined volumes before the saga wraps.

The brazen young book thief strikes a victory for the creative act of storytelling as against the fascist crackdown on artistic expression. When Hans and his wife (Emily Watson) hide a young Jew (Ben Schnetzer) in their basement, Liesel's connection with words -- and with their secret houseguest -- significantly deepen. Along the way she and her foster family resist injustice with a range of actions that put their courage to test.

To find their Liesel, the filmmakers searched for seven months across four continents. It was Zusak who suggested the young Nélisse from Monsieur Lazhar. As Percival put it, the actress to play Liesel would "have to appear very vulnerable" but also "be incredibly feisty." Nélisse brought both a tenderness and a "fighting spirit" that stood out from the pack, not to mention a heightened spatial awareness thanks to her advanced training as a gymnist, said Percival. Prepping her for the role meant an immersion in the era.

"I read Anna's Suitcase when I was in sixth grade, but I didn't know a lot about about the Holocaust," said the 13-year-old Québécoise. Among the movies Percival had her watch were Schindler's List, The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Pianist; and she was sent on a tour of Berlin bomb shelters. "I think that my generation...doesn't really know a lot on this period," remarked Nélisse. Now that she has aroused her friends' curiosity about the Holocaust, her hope is that "more people my age are going to know and it's going to be better for the next generations."

For the film's many German participants, recreating Nazi history brought up complex emotions. Singing "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles" ("Germany, Germany over all"), the hallmark stanza of the then national anthem, itself picked a few scabs. The filmmakers had to teach 450 local extras the verses, which had been banned since 1946. "There were people singing that song as best as they could; it's hard to sing it with pride," noted Percival. "The mostly German crew were there with tears in their eyes because it was painful for what their forefathers believed in...some of the shame that they still feel till this day for the terrible things that happened." That the town square was dressed in hundreds of swastikas rendered the exercise all the more powerful, he reported.

Michael Petroni's screenplay distilled World War II information from Zusak's source material. Yet the book itself served as a valuable reference for this period film celebrating books. "We've got a 580-page book, which is a guidebook to the film," said Percival. Right down to the art department, its historical detail and "message about the human spirit" enlightened both crew and talent alike.

Rush described rereading bookmarked sections of the novel on nights before performing relevant scenes. "We all wanted to honor the book," said Rush. "There aren't major substantial changes. It's not like they've rewritten the end for the film or put in another character for some marketing demographic." 

The Fabulous Female Fans of NY Comic Con '13

Call me crazy, but at the 2013 edition of The New York Comic Con (October 10 - 13, at the Jacob Javits Center), I noticed many many more women attending, especially dressed as either renowned female characters or taking their own unique spin on established heroes. Now maybe I was paying more attention to feminine pulchritude I was encountering instead of those stock muscle bound (or just rotund and t-shirt clad) male figures but I really do think I have taken note of something I might have found utterly unbelievable when I started out in science fiction and comics fandom many years ago.

Is it an indication of such cultural shit, a triumph of geek nerd culture, a celebration of the fantastical rather than the testicular. But what was the cause?

Certainly it could be women reading the YA and dystopian fiction proliferating bookstores and providing source material role models that cosplayers and LARPers (for the uninitiated that’s costume players and live action role playing) identify with. But there are also the comic characters from Marvel and DC that have persisted for decades, characters from indie comics, films and so on. Cons all over the world are filled with women who tirelessly create costumes that bring these comic characters to life.

But what astounds me is how these character become the scrim that people step out from behind and transform themselves totally, and at the same time, express their own unique identity and fandom. Even better, women and men are playing out these fantasies without subscribing to conventionally acceptable body types, color, or behavior. Now that might confound some part of the social norms police but that makes these cons a new kind of celebration of this world of infinite niches.

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