CAFE SOCIETY

BobbyDorfmanWoody Allen's latest disappointment is pure pastiche, a film supposedly set "in the late 30s," but which actually takes place in the mind of someone who has long since ceased to care about anything except his own ability to ride his own reputation to the very end.

Rant by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner

How many more Woody Allen films will I have to watch before I die? Since he seems determined to churn out a new one each year, my heart sinks. Perhaps Woody Allen will even outlast me. He appears to have endless resources and resolve

It should be a good thing that he eventually realized he could no longer case himself as himself and began lining up surrogates, but whatever the name of the "character" these men play, they are always and endlessly Woody, with all the same mannerisms that were once so endearing. < insert BIG SIGH here >

And so, add Jesse Eisenberg to the list as Bobby Dorfman, Jewish boy from the Bronx who achieves all his dreams and yet still feel cheated by life < insert BIG SIGH here >

ShiksaGoddess

Top Photo: Jesse Eisenberg as "Bobby Dorfman."

Bottom Photo: Eisenberg with Blake Lively as this year's "Shiksa Goddess." In Cafe Society, the name of this perennial Woody trope is "Veronica."

Q: Does Cafe Society pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Are you kidding? Even asking that question in this context is a bad joke 🙁

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THE WITNESS

KittyRememberedFifty-two years after the murder of Kitty Genovese comes a documentary that plays out like a TV movie. Kitty's youngest brother is a Colombo-esque presence as he gently prods people who might provide clues to what really happened. Missing is any appreciation for context therefore any sense of why this murder might have triggered these emotions at that time. For those who don't know much about Kitty Genovese, this is certainly a good introduction... as long as you realize this documentary opens more questions than it answers.

Photo: Family photo of Kitty provided by the filmmakers.

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THE KIND WORDS (2015)

InMarseillesOnly after Yona is dead does her daughter Dorona begin to learn about the secrets of her lifetime.

Israeli filmmaker Shemi Zarin's new film (the fourth to be released in the USA) continues his brilliant run of domestic dramas "laden with happiness and tears."

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED (JLH: 4.5.5)

WithAbba

Top Photo: Dorona, her two brothers, and her estranged husband head to France for clues about Yona's past as a girl in Algeria.

Clockwise from left: Dorona (Rotem Zissman-Cohen), Ricki (Tsahi Halevi), her brothers Shai (Assaf Ben-Shimon) and Netanel (Roy Assaf).

Bottom Photo: Dorona with her father (Sasson Gabai).

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Strand Releasing

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TIKKUN (2015)

OutAboutAn ascetic Haredi student living with his parents in Jerusalem devotes himself to ritual, until God Himself literally strikes him down in a freak accident.

The Hebrew word "Tikkun" means improvement or rectification. Jewish Americans usually combine it to create "Tikkun Olam" (repair the word) as an injunction for social justice. But in this case, the filmmaker's theme is "transgression," as if we didn't already know that our world needs to be improved, rectified, and repaired.

Maybe I missed something, but I doubt it. The cinematography is beautiful but the story is empty. (JLH: 2.5/5)

Review by FF2 Media Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner

When is an "art house film" just too damn "arty" for its own good?

Even though it has won a slew of film festival awards in a surprising number of places (not just Jerusalem, but also Romania, Singapore, Spain, Stockholm and Switzerland), for me, Avishai Sivan's new film Tikkun goes too far.

It is a great deal more interesting to discuss Tikkun than to actually watch it. And  I suspect some people--especially men--will convince themselves that they liked it in order to congratulating themselves for actually sitting through it from beginning to end.

Sivan's narrative hangs on a slim thread: "Haim-Aaron" (Aharon Traitel) is a Haredi student on the cusp of maturity. Devoted to ritual, he spends almost every waking hour at the Yeshiva. He barely eats, rarely drinks, and sleeps so little that he is totally alone at odd hours when the rest of the world is elsewhere. Is this devotion or an attempt to flee from maturity and the inevitable responsibilities of adulthood?

One day, hurrying back to the Jerusalem apartment in which he still lives with his parents and younger siblings, Haim-Aaron passes a young woman on a narrow street in Mea Sharim (one of Israel's oldest and most insular neighborhoods). The sight of her triggers lustful thoughts that most young men his age would consider normal, but for Haim-Aaron this physical imperative is just one more need he is determined to suppress.

Haim-Aaron's father is a shochet. In fact, the first scene in Tikkun is a close-up of the slaughtering of a cow in the prescribed way in extreme close-up and complete detail. This man who spends his days in a torrent of blood and guts  gets no name of his own. In the credits, he is simply identified as "Haim-Aaron’s Father" (Khalifa Natour). Oddly, the only person in the cast who gets a name is Haim-Aaron's brother "Yanke" (Gur Sheinberg). Otherwise his mother is "Haim-Aaron’s Mother" (Riki Blich), and everyone else is identified by his or her role in the plot (e.g., "Yeshiva Colleague," "Young Female Driver," etc). AtHome

Back in the apartment, Haim-Aaron teaches Yanke how to brush his teeth, and after putting Yanke to bed, he takes a shower. This moment of intimacy and genuine human connection between two brothers is followed by a literal bolt from the blue. Haim-Aaron hits his head on the rim of the tub, where his parents find him, unconscious and close to death.

These scenes in the bathroom--from the point at which Haim-Aaron and Yanke are brushing their teeth to the point at which Haim-Aaron’s Father is dragging his son from the tub while Haim-Aaron’s Mother desperately calls for emergency assistance--are the last linear moments in Tikkun. The next hour is a blur of silent images and weird metaphors.

Despite the obvious Jewish references, I could find no actual Jewish feeling in Tikkun. This man--Haim-Aaron--who speaks mostly in Hebrew (but sometimes in Yiddish at home), could be any Fundamentalist from any ethnic group who uses religious purity as an excuse to separate himself from activities of daily living (most especially those that require a female partner).

In the end, the "Young Female Driver" is slaughtered much the same as the cows (who are presumably females too), and then the camera follows Haim-Aaron's fingers as he slowly probes the once secret orifices of her body.

It felt like a test. A filmmaker lusting for fame had chosen "transgression" as his theme, then dared the audience to walk out midway, already disgusted but still thinking they had "missed something."

I am a good student. I stayed in my seat and watched it all. But I did not applaud.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (6/14/16) FF2 Media

StudyHouse

Top Photo: After he recovers from his accident, "Haim-Aaron" (Aharon Traitel) wanders the streets from dusk until dawn.

Middle Photo: Haim-Aaron at home with one of his unnamed sisters.

Bottom Photo: Haim-Aaron alone in the Study House.

Photo Credits: Kino Lorber (USA)/United King Films (Israel)

JLH Note: I have converted these jpgs from black & white to sepia to make them easier to see online. The entire film is in black & white, which is presumably a key part of its metaphorical intent from the director's POV.

Q: Does Tikkun (2015) pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Absolutely not. The cows have more verbal ability than any of the women in this film 🙁

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DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID (2015)

DoorwayDirector Benoît Jacquot's new adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s novel (co-written Hélène Zimmer) is likely the most faithful to date, but that doesn't make it much fun to watch. Although Mirbeau's fin de siècle concerns are highly applicable to today's economic inequality and the global disarray in the wake of the Great Recession, Jacquot and Zimmer fail to achieve their aims. Their Célestine (Léa Seydoux) is too light, their Joseph (Vincent Lindon) is too dark, and none of the details are sufficiently coherent. (JLH: 3/5)

Review by FF2 Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner

I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting when I went to see Diary of a Chambermaid for the first time, but I am quite sure I was not expecting such a dark, brutal, and overtly anti-Semitic film.

From the posters and trailers, Diary of a Chambermaid appears to be a gorgeously produced film from France, and that is exactly what it is... on the outside. What a shock then that actually watching it--at least if you go in as unprepared as I was the first time--is a bit like biting into a sinfully rich chocolate truffle only to find yourself chewing worms.

Diary of a Chambermaid--released in France in 2015, but just opening now in the USA--is the fourth cinematic adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s novel Le Journal d'une femme de chambre (originally published in French in 1900).

The narrator is a woman named "Célestine" (Léa Seydoux) who is already in mid-career when we first meet her. In this new 2015 version, director Benoît Jacquot and his co-writer Hélène Zimmer begin at an upscale employment agency in Paris. Célestine, dressed to the nines, climbs a tall, narrow staircase, and after blowing air kisses to the other women in the waiting room (all of whom seem to know her), she enters the private office of the woman who holds power over her next placement. This woman never gets a name. In the credits, she is "La Placeuse" (Dominique Reymond), but with deference and respect, Célestine humbly calls her "Madame."

Madame is in a bit of a pickle. She knows Célestine has already left numerous placements under questionable circumstances, but she also knows Célestine is pretty, saucy, and knows how to handle men, all of which make her a valuable commodity. Perhaps with a cooling off period in the countryside, Célestine will sort herself out?  Célestine pleads with Madame, promising obedience with her eyes, and somewhat despite her better judgment, Madame agrees to send her to her next post. Joseph

After a journey by train that is of indeterminate duration, Célestine is met at the station by a workman named "Joseph" (Vincent Lindon). He places her trunk in a rough, horse-drawn cart then proceeds to bounce her along country roads until they finally arrive at the chateau of  Madame and Monsieur Lanlaire.

Madame Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet) is a petty tyrant with prized possessions all of which must be dusted and arranged just so. Monsieur Lanlaire (Hervé Pierre) is a lecherous boor who clearly has no money of his own. But with nowhere else to be and no other way to make a living, Célestine is determined to make a go of it.

One of my chief complaints about Diary of a Chambermaid is the filmmakers' complete lack of concern about space and time. Where is this place and how long is Célestine there? I have now watched Diary of a Chambermaid twice, and I still have no idea. Scenes are choppy and episodic, with poor continuity. Suddenly Célestine has a flashback set in some other time and place, but even though the backstory details are illuminating in themselves, they pull Célestine away from the conversations in which she is currently engaged, and she never gets back to them.

The filmmakers are equally lacksidasical about money. Célestine dresses for church in improbably luxurious outfits--full ensembles complete with large hats--that she could never have fit into the trunk Joseph brought from the train station. And how on earth did she pay for them on the salary of a domestic? And yet, household staff at Chez Lanlaire seems to consist of three. Just Célestine, Joseph, and a plump cook named "Marianne" (Mélodie Valemberg), no one else to clean the rooms or tend the gardens. Not likely!

Frustrated by my first encounter, I went back to the earlier films to learn more about Mirbeau's intentions. The first adaptation was released in Russian in 1916. No luck getting a hold of that. But the second version released by Jean Renoir in English in 1946 and the third version released by Louis Bunuel in French in 1964 were both mine for viewing at the click of a mouse. However, although most of the names are the same, these three films--1946, 1964, and 2015--are all completely different in tone and there are remarkably few convergent plot points. Furthermore, both Renoir and Bunuel managed to construct surprisingly happy endings in which Célestine triumphs.

At that point, I went back to see the Jacquot/Zimmer version on a big screen once again, and although I saw nothing new in Célestine, I was mesmerized by Vincent Lindon's slow burn as Joseph. Consumed by hate for everyone on the "higher rungs" of the social ladder, Joseph embodies the rage of so many voters all across the world in the wake of the Great Recession. If he were alive today and living in the USA, I am sure Joseph would be voting for Donald Trump.

If Jacquot and Zimmer had had the courage of their convictions, they would have devoted more screen time to Joseph. From my POV, the attempt to camouflage their intentions by wrapping their anti-heroine in improbably beautiful costumes and other eye-candy accoutrement is cheating. Whatever the flaws of their films--both of which are now quite dated and not really worth the effort--at least Renoir and Bunuel were honest about their own commercial goals. But regardless of how much more "faithful" their own screenplay may be, by failing its audience, Jacquot and Zimmer have failed Octave Mirbeau too.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (6/13/16) FF2 Media

SundayWear

Top & Bottom Photos: Léa Seydoux as “Célestine.”

Middle Photo: Vincent Lindon as "Joseph."

Photo Credits: Carole Bethuel/Photos courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

Q #1: Does pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Absolutely!

Beginning with the very first scene, Jacquot and Zimmer make it clear that Célestine's relationships with women are at least as import as her relationships with men. In fact, it may be exhaustion with being the slave of other women that finally drives her into Joseph's arms.

Q #2: Where does this story take place?

Although Célestine is on her way to Cherbourg at the end, most of the story takes place somewhere in "the countryside." I don't recall any specific place names, however, for what it's worth, the location used for Chez Lanlaire is the Château des Grands-Ambésis in Le Mesnil-Saint-Denis (slightly south west of Versailles).

LeMesnilSaintDenis

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EVA HESSE (2016)

Eva Hesse at the opening reception for “Eccentric AbstractionFilmmaker Marcie Begleiter has turned artist Eva Hesse's tragically short life into something luminous. For every year she was alive, Begleiter shows Hesse as an indefatigable woman with unforgettable incandescence. (JLH: 4/5)

Review for JUF News by FF2 Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner

On paper, artist Eva Hesse’s biography reads like a 20th century nightmare cooked up by a Jewish screenwriter.

Hesse was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1936. In 1938, when she was not quite three years old, her parents sent her on a Kindertransport to the Netherlands in the care of her older sister Helen. Her parents arrived six months later, and the family fled first to England and then to America. However, even though she was safe in New York, her mother was deeply disoriented. After learning the details of the loss of her entire family in the Holocaust, she killed herself in 1946.

The grieving girl -- barely 10 years old at the time -- threw herself into the art world, studying first at the New York School of Industrial Art, then Pratt Institute, then Cooper Union, and finally Yale University (where she received a BA in 1959). After a slow start and a bad marriage, she rose like a meteor, but crashed when she was diagnosed with cancer in 1969. Eva Hesse died in May 1970 at the age of 34.

And yet, on screen, filmmaker Marcie Begleiter has turned this bleak life into something luminous. For every year she was alive, Begleiter shows Eva Hesse as an indefatigable woman with unforgettable incandescence. Eva Hesse in Textile Factory Studio, Kettwig Germany 1964. Photo

The challenge of all films about visual art is to present three-dimensional work on a flat two-dimensional screen. All too often, therefore, whether they are documentaries or features, these films do better at depicting the life of the artist than capturing the physicality of the art. The artist goes here, there, and to the other place; the artist paints this and sculpts that, then frets about how to present it in a gallery. Most of the time, the work itself gets lost in voiceover narration and background music. We learn a lot about the making of the work, but we are left without a feel for its aesthetic impact.

What raises Eva Hesse above a conventional bio-doc is Begleiter’s careful attention to context. True, we cannot walk around Hesse’s installations and see them from all sides, but we can sense how different they look from the Minimalist masterpieces of her time. In a work such “Eccentric Abstraction” (1966), we can see how Hesse teased the most successful artists of her time -- all of whom were male -- with tendrils of fiberglass that seductively tickled the edges of their rigid grids.

In the end, after actress Selma Blair has read pages and pages from Hesse’s diaries as well as extensive excerpts from her letters to family and friends, and after all the experts have said their say, what remains is not the tragic life but the vibrant work. In my mind, I can picture her laughing as she plays chess with the grim reaper and he realizes he has lost.

In this way, Eva Hesse reminds me of Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, the film I reviewed last January. In the 21st century, we can clearly see how the Holocaust gave birth to an explosion of Jewish energy in the second half of the 20th century that has enriched the world in every domain of human endeavor. So, add Eva Hesse’s name to that growing list of all those to be remembered and treasured for ever after.

Read more about the life of Eva Hesse HERE on Wikipedia.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (6/10/16) for JUF News

Eva Hesse in 1968. Photo by Herman Landshoff. Eva Hesse. A film

Chicago Shout-Out: Marcie Begleiter's new BioDoc Eva Hesse opens Friday June 10 at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State and Randolph.

Producer Karen Shapiro will be present for audience discussion at all shows on Friday (6/10/16) and Saturday (6/11/16). Click HERE for times & tix.

Top Photo: Eva Hesse at the opening reception for “Eccentric Abstraction” in 1966. Photo Norman Goldman.

Middle Photo: Eva Hesse in Textile Factory Studio, Kettwig Germany 1964. Photographer unknown.

Bottom Photo: Eva Hesse in 1968. Photo by Herman Landshoff.

Photo Credits: From Eva Hesse, a film by Marcie Begleiter. Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films. (JLH Note: I took the liberty of converting the middle photo & the bottom photo from black & while to sepia so they would show better online.)

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WEINER (2016)

GayPrideParadeThat Anthony Weiner should have been brought low by something as petty as a sexting scandal is a national tragedy. And yet, this documentary arrives in theatres at the perfect time, just as we are at the midst of a Presidential contest that is already consumed by “reality show” antics. Let the buyer beware! (JLH: 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner. Posted in JUF Online on 5/27/16 (All Updates Mine)

Anthony Weiner is back! Three years after his campaign for Mayor of New York City degenerated into a ludicrous tabloid scandal, Weiner is suddenly everywhere again. But this time he has no independent ability to shape the story. He is an object of scrutiny rather than an agent of change, and his public demise—brilliantly captured in the award-winning new documentary Weiner—is a tawdry tale of our times.

A Brief Refresher: Anthony Weiner is the Brooklyn-born son of a Jewish lawyer named Mort Weiner and a high-school math teacher named Frances Finkelstein Weiner. The second of three brothers, Anthony majored in Political Science in college, and after graduation, he started working for his mentor Chuck Schumer (who was the Congressman from Brooklyn at the time).

After three years in Schumer’s Washington, DC office, Weiner moved back to Brooklyn so he could build his own base in local politics. He worked for Schumer for another three years, and then ran for New York City Council. By age twenty-seven, Weiner had climbed the first rung, entering the record books as the youngest councilman in New York City history. In 1998, when Schumer moved up to the Senate, Weiner replaced him in the House of Representatives where he quickly established himself as one of the tigers of the Democratic Party’s Progressive wing.

In 2010, Weiner married Huma Abedin who had started her own political life in college as a White House intern assigned to then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. Abedin and Clinton clicked, and Abedin followed Clinton back to New York when Clinton ran for the Senate in 2000. Abedin then worked for Clinton when she was a Senator, served as Chief of Staff when she ran for President in 2008, and became a key part of her team when Clinton was Secretary of State. Bill Clinton personally officiated at the Abedin/Weiner wedding. They were a golden couple with unlimited potential.

And then…

Weiner (the documentary) begins with a rueful Anthony Weiner reflecting on his failed bid for City Hall. He appears to be alone in a small room, speaking personally to co-director Josh Kriegman. Perhaps there are other crew members in the room, but even so this interview is extraordinarily intimate. Kriegman worked for Weiner before making the leap into filmmaking, and their prior relationship no doubt helps to explain his “upfront and personal” access. (According to LinkedIn, Kriegman served as Weiner’s Senior Aide from 2004 to 2005, and was Chief of Staff in his District Office from 2005 to 2006.)

But Weiner has achieved its acclaim as a film because of the way Kriegman and his co-director Elyse Steinberg use their footage, leaping back and forth in time, seamlessly melding historical clips with footage from the campaign trail, while repeatedly returning to that culminating interview. Every time Anthony Weiner appears in close-up, wearing a blue shirt, grey sweater vest, and navy jacket, Kriegman and Steinberg have looped the audience back, yet again, to that claustrophobic room in which sits a man whose hopes and dreams have been dashed. HotLights

The essence of the personal tragedy lies in the contrast between the forlorn private citizen of 2015 versus the fiery orator fighting for 9-11 First Responders in 2010, and the ebullient politician—whipping crowds into frenzy during the Israel Day Parade in May, the Gay Pride Parade in June, and the West Indian Day Parade in August—during his run for Mayor in 2013.

Weiner’s promise was great. His sin was small. And yet, the details were so titillating that even longtime, highly-placed media friends like Bill Maher, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Jon Stewart could not resist the feeding frenzy.

I am sure they convinced themselves that attacking Weiner was proof of their political impartiality, but watching them ridicule Weiner on television is a particularly painful reminder of how real people look when transformed into tasty snacks fed to a voracious media monster.

In one scene, someone points out that Weiner was never even in the same room as his willing “victims.” So it is ludicrous to compare him to actual perpetrators like Bill Cosby, Dennis Hastert, and Roman Polansky, not to mention Woody Allen (who, regardless of his relationship with his daughter Dylan was known to have had sex with underage girls). And I say this as someone who thinks Bill Clinton should have resigned in 1998 because Monica Lewinsky was an employee at the time of their affair (even though I never believed the impeachment trial itself was anything more than a witch hunt).

That Anthony Weiner should have been brought low by something as petty as a sexting scandal is a national tragedy. When Kriegman and Steinberg decided to make this film, they had no idea how the race for mayor of New York would unfold. And yet, it arrives in theatres at the perfect time, just as we are at the midst of a Presidential contest that is already consumed by the “reality show” antics of Donald Trump.

Let the buyer beware!

Weiner opens in Metro Chicago on May 27, 2016 at the Music Box Theatre on Southport and the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park.

For times and tickets at the Music Box, visit http://www.musicboxtheatre.com/

For times and tickets at the Landmark, visit: https://www.landmarktheatres.com/chicago/renaissance-place-cinema

For additional links and photos, read the Weiner post on my Penny Blog.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (5/26/15) FF2 Media

WithHuma

Top Photo: Anthony Weiner marches in the Gay Pride Parade (June 2013).

Middle Photo: Anthony Weiner surrounded by press piranhas (July 2013).

Bottom Photo: Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin at a press conference (July 2013).

Photo Credits: edgelinefilms.com

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RABIN IN HIS OWN WORDS

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 3.08.48 PMTold using personal letters, interview footage, and home videos, Rabin, In His Own Words explores the life of Yithak Rabin in a semi-autobiographical fashion. Director Erez Laufer, creates a feeling for the audience that Rabin himself is recounting his life, allowing a rare glimpse into the man behind the legendary figure.  (EML: 3.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

Leaving the theater, I overhear a woman tell her friend in a nostalgic, wistful way, “they don’t make people like that anymore.” She is, of course, referring to the Israeli titan, Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated at a peace rally by a discontented Jewish Israeli in 1995 while serving his second term as Israeli Prime Minister. The woman’s sentiment seems to be shared by director Erez Laufer of Rabin, In His Own Words.

Set chronologically, Rabin, In His Own Words opens with Rabin’s modest, working class beginnings. He discusses his strict upbringing, his activist mother and father often being absentee type parents. Raised amongst laborers, Rabin had no political or military aspirations. Rather, Rabin planned on becoming a farmer and was offered the opportunity to study water engineering in the United States upon completion of high school. However, with the outbreak of World War II, Rabin decided to stay in Israel and began his military career.

Rabin rose through the military swiftly and by the 1960s was the Chief of Staff for the IDF. His role in the Israeli military weighed heavily on him as he sought to reconcile his desire for a peaceful existence with Israel’s neighbors and his charge to serve and protect Israeli citizens. It is this conflict that permeates into his later political life and informs his future decision making.

Following his position in the IDF, he served as the Israeli ambassador to the US. In an interesting exchange between then US President Nixon and Rabin, Nixon seeks advice from Rabin regarding the Vietnam War. Rabin’s response is simple: what does victory look like? Nixon’s answer, however, is less concrete. For Nixon, victory is ridding the Vietcong of its will to fight, squashing the very hunger that causes them to take up arms and rebel. Rabin is quick in his response: it cannot be done. His answer is poignant, speaking not simply to the war that Nixon is currently engaged in, but relating back to the issues Rabin will face as Prime Minister.

In this exchange, Rabin reveals his reasoning behind peace negotiations, his willingness to recognize the PLO, his desire to try and find a compromise. For Rabin, the path to peace is not brute force because force cannot stamp out a people’s desire for nationhood, for recognition. Rather, Rabin’s journey for peace is paved through understanding, recognizing the humanity of the “enemy” and acknowledging their struggle as valid. From this exchange with Nixon, though completely unrelated to the Middle Eastern conflict, Rabin explains his philosophy for peace, the philosophy that informed his Prime Ministership and the philosophy that led to his assassination.

Though Laufer does a brilliant job of allowing Rabin’s voice to be the main script, this leads to moments of confusion for those less familiar with Israeli history and politics. Since major events are often just announced by a title card and not given context, it leaves the under educated audience member with a desire to press pause and reach for their phone so that they can learn about the event before learning how it affected Rabin’s journey.

Still, Laufer does achieve the creation of a portrait of Rabin as a true hero who, despite those that opposed him, truly believed that his way was the only possible path for peace. Towards the end of the film, Laufer focuses on Rabin’s response to the Israeli populus that called him a traitor, that sought his death as retribution for his decision to negotiate with the PLO, which they felt directly resulted in increased terrorist attacks in Israel in 1994 and 1995. Even in the face of these threats, Rabin remains absolute in his resolve that recognizing the PLO and the Oslo Accords were the necessary steps towards genuinely seeking Middle Eastern peace.

Rather than letting the gunshot be the end of the film, Laufer chooses to show Rabin at the rally, shaking hands with the public, unafraid of what may happen. Rabin’s death is relayed to the audience simply as words across the screen. Born March 1, 1922. Murdered November 5, 1995. The choice of murdered, not assassinated, feels like a rare moment of clear director bias, aimed at ensuring the audience leaves with a specific message and perhaps even a new charge: Rabin’s death was for nothing if we don’t continue to strive for peace.

© Eliana M. Levenson FF2 Media (5/31/16)Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 3.08.40 PM

Top Photo: Movie Poster for Rabin, In His Own Words

Bottom Photo: Rabin in his role as politician, reading a document

Photo Credits: Menemsha Films

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DOUGH

DancingDoughA struggling Jewish baker tries to keep his family business afloat and hires a young African Muslim boy, whose pot-dealing side business starts causing bakery sales to skyrocket.  Against this backdrop, a moving story about releasing prejudices and accepting differences is created through the collaboration of filmmakers and actors. (EML: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

“Nat” (Jonathan Pryce) is a Jewish baker, struggling to keep his small family-owned bakery in operation amidst the introduction of a larger, commercial kosher bakery to the community. When his apprentice quits unexpectedly to join the better paying commercial operation, Nat is left to run the bakery all on his own as he attempts to find a replacement. “Joanna” (Pauline Collins), a widow and benefactor of the bakery, shows clear interest in helping Nat, both professionally and personally, but Nat is too wrapped up in his own life to notice. Still distraught over the death of his wife two years earlier, Nat is blind to Joanna’s need for companionship as well.

Meanwhile, the teenage “Ayyash” (Jerome Holder), flees a nightclub with two of his friends, losing his pants and cellphone in the process. As an African Muslim immigrant, Ayyash and his mother are living in poverty, waiting for his father’s arrival. Ayyash wants to do whatever it takes to escape his situation, and has made connections with a pot dealer but needs a cover job before the dealer will let him into the business. When Ayyash’s mother tries his cellphone and the police answer instead, it is the last straw. She drags Ayyash to Nat’s bakery, where she works as the cleaning lady, and demands that he take the apprentice job. Neither Nat nor Ayyash are thrilled by the idea, both harboring prejudices about the other as a Jew and a Muslim, but Nat has no other options and Ayyash needs a cover job anyway.


The two begin working together, demonstrating a fair number of religious similarities, such as morning prayer, though neither wants to admit it. With his new job, Ayyash doesn’t have enough free time to dDough-770x433eal, so one of his friends suggests that he should deal out of the bakery. Ayyash does, at first just adding baggies of pot with regular orders, but eventually adding the cannabis directly into the dough.

Suddenly, sales start to soar, and Nat takes Ayyash under his wing, assuming that Ayyash must be a gifted baker to be bringing in so much new business. Despite prejudices in the Jewish community, Nat even allows Ayyash and his mother to move in with him when the two are kicked out of their home.

But, can the bakery continue to thrive under these auspicious circumstances, or will it all come burning down?

Dough is at its core a story of colliding worlds, demonstrating the differences and similarities between old and young, Jews and Muslims, natives and immigrants. Director John Goldschmidt interweaves the two narratives masterfully, crosscutting between their similar religious rituals, their shared poverty, their mutual desire for connection and belonging. Co-writers, Jez Freeman and Jonathan Benson create well rounded, realistic characters, giving fresh life to this somewhat trivial and silly overarching plot.

Though the backdrop of pot-dealing from a bakery doesn’t seem like the setup for a heartfelt drama, the filmmakers achieve depth of emotion and a powerful message about letting go of our prejudices. In a climate in which Judaism and Islam are perceived as uncompromising and diametrically opposed, Dough is able to demonstrate, through strong character work and smart storytelling, how similar the two faiths are, without making it feel like it’s lecturing you. Both men use their religion to help them through hard times and both faiths are shown to be positive influences on their lives, allowing them to be better people.

© Eliana M. Levenson FF2 Media (4/29/16)DoughCouple

Top Photo: Nat finally lets go and is able to enjoy a dance with Joanna.

Middle Photo: Nat teaches Ayyash how to roll challah dough.

Bottom Photo: Joanna shows her interest in Nat on one of his many tea visits, though Nat seems oblivious to her intentions.

Photo Credits: Menemsha Films

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VITA ACTIVA

Ada Ushpiz’s brilliant new documentary Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt is an audacious attempt to completely reframe the legacy of Hannah Arendt.

Hannah Arendt is best-known today for Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, her coverage of the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Arendt was in Jerusalem on April 11, 1961 (the day the trial began) because she had arranged to cover it for The New Yorker magazine. The result was a highly controversial series of articles in The New Yorker,which were later republished in book form by Viking Press in 1963.

One result of this close association between the names Hannah Arendt and Adolph Eichmann is that we are inclined to think of Arendt now as a "Holocaust survivor." But as Ushpiz makes clear, Arendt was already safe in America by 1941, long before the infamous Wannsee Conference (on January 20, 1942) during which those at the table—including Eichmann—planned the details of what they hoped would be "the final solution" to the "Jewish problem."

In fact, Arendt learned about the true horrors of the Holocaust second and third hand (like most Americans did). So even though it is probably unconscious, we are wrong to make the assumption that the course of either her life or her work were directly determined by the Holocaust.

To the contrary, what Ushpiz shows is that the formative experience of Arendt’s own life was not annihilation, but exile and displacement, what Arendt herself called "statelessness." No doubt Ushpiz, who is Israeli, felt this acutely when she began to do her research for this film five years ago. But surely even she is somewhat dismayed to see how au courant this makes Arendt’s work. As new waves of refugees settle in camps all around the borders of Israel and flood ever further into Europe, perhaps Arendt’s work is even more relevant today—in 2016—than ever before. 

The centerpiece of Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt is a long interview she did on German television in 1964. As abhorrent as much of the content is, listen carefully and her conclusions about Adolph Eichmann are chillingly prescient. "I really thought Adolph Eichmann was a clown and I laughed out loud when I read the transcript..." He was "intelligent but dumb…" "Evil is thought-defying. Clichés are its comfort."

Wrapped around this interview are a birth-to-death biography with excerpts from her mother Martha’s diary ("Hannah turned four in October… She has an intellectual side to her, loves books."), followed by extensive quotes from many letters read by actress Alison Darcy.

(Hannah Arendt was a prodigious letter-writer who maintained innumerable relationships with many people across the twin distances of miles and years.)

There are also long passages from several of her books, most especially The Origins of Totalitarianism (published in English by Schocken Books in 1951).

"The Rights of Man, after all, had been defined as ‘inalienable’ because they were supposed to be independent of all governments; but it turned out that the moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them…

With the emergence of the minorities of Eastern and Southern Europe and with the stateless people driven into Central and Western Europe, a complete new element of disintegration was introduced into post-WWI Europe. Denationalization became a powerful weapon of totalitarian politics... Those whom the persecutor had singled out as scum of the earth—Jews, Trotskyites, etc.—were received as scum of the earth everywhere."

This is what Hannah Arendt knew firsthand, and articulating the condition of statelessness—as well as its dire legal, moral and political consequences—is her true legacy.

Almost a half century after her death in 1975 (at the age of 69), it is still difficult to stick a label on her. Was Arendt a philosopher? Was she a political theorist? Was she a public intellectual? Ushpiz includes some interviews with prominent talking heads in Israel and the USA to debate all of this, but the fact is Arendt is difficult to label precisely because she refused to be labeled.

As Ushpiz makes clear in the course of her film, Arendt was committed to a life spent in essential dialogue with herself, so she defined herself more through the act of thinking in itself than in the results of any particular thoughts articulated at any specific points in time. This makes Ushpiz’s film dense and draining, but I urge you to stick with it. Ushpiz certainly convinced me, thereby making my own emotional investment in this difficult subject matter well worth the effort.

In the Q and A I attended the night Vita Activaopened at the Film Forum in Manhattan, Ushpiz said: "Thinking independently, and deeply, and provocatively… is the only way to fight our conditioned state."

Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt is currently playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State and Randolph. For times and tickets, visit their website.

For more photos from Vita Activa as well as more quotes from the April 6, 2016 Q and A at the Film Forum, visit my blog.

Read my review of Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta's 2012 BioPic)

Photos: Hannah Arendt, subject of Ada Ushpiz’s documentary Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt. Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films. Note that I have converted photos from black & white to sepia to make them easier to see online.

Posted on 4/25/16 on JUF Online.

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