THE OUTRAGEOUS SOPHIE TUCKER

YoungSophieDelightful documentary about Sophie Tucker, another whip-smart Jewish girl who made good in Die Goldene Medina--the golden country--of 20th Century America. (JLH: 4/5)

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Kudos to internet entrepreneurs Lloyd & Susan Ecker for turning their retirement years into a three-way love affair with Sophie Tucker!

Starting small after selling their babytobee.com company in 2006, the Eckers are now developing a Sophie Tucker franchise to include books, CDs, and DVDs, all aimed at building hype for a Broadway musical that will obliterate memories of Tucker's lifetime rival Fanny Brice (so memorably played on stage and screen by Funny Girl Barbra Streisand).

The Eckers' documentary film The Outrageous Sophie Tucker--which is now reaching art house theatres even while it continues its festival run--is pure delight.

Since this doc is just part of their overall franchise, I am going to assume that the Eckers chose William Gazecki to direct. I do not know this for a fact. But however Gazecki came to this project, he has certainly made the most of it.

From the audience POV, part of the joy of watching The Outrageous Sophie Tucker is sharing the Eckers' infectious enthusiasm for their subject. But the other part is marveling at Gazecki's technique as he seamlessly melds old photos. Some are black and while, some are colorized, and some are animated, but combined with actual footage from old films and television shows, Sophie Tucker comes alive onscreen. She is no mere relic of the past; she is a vivacious presence in the here and now. SophieCD

But beyond her considerable artistic skills as a singer and performer, the Eckers show Tucker to have been a supremely successful businesswomen... and here lies the Jewish part of the story. Tucker seems to have understood early on that she was "a product" rather than "a person," and this ability to live her life in the third person (so to speak) seems to have insulated her from the heartbreak of romances and marriages, and even motherhood.

From the very beginning of her career, this enormous personality with her super-sized frame documented everything she did. So now there are now 400--four hundred--400 scrapbooks carefully preserved in archives at the New York Public Library and Brandeis University. Gazecki rightly focuses on transforming this great wealth of visual material from two to three dimensions, even if that means there is little attempt to put it all in context. For example, anyone who has seen photographs of the great Blues singers--recently dramatized in the HBO BioPic Bessie about Bessie Smith--knows that Tucker did not invent her flamboyant outfits single-handed.

What is unique about Tucker, however, is her longevity, and that does seem to be a result of her extraordinarily prescient ability to build a one-on-one bond with her fan base. Everywhere she went, she not only took photos, she also collected contact information. And so, before opening in a new city, she would write stacks of hand-written, individually-stamped notes: "Come see me in Miami!" Who could resist such a personal summons? SophieJudy

She was also known as someone who mentored novice performers like Judy Garland and stood up for established performers like Josephine Baker. Thus by representing herself as "a mother hen," Tucker defused tensions and disarmed potential "Eve Harrington" figures who might have tried to bring her low. The Empress of Tuckerville had no time for cat fights!

The juxtaposition of her bawdy lyrics and her maternal behavior no doubt kept everyone guessing:

Those slender waisted Mamas they make me laugh

My goodness, men like to see a little fore and aft...

I've noticed one thing girls, you can store it in your dome.

All the married men who run after me have skinny wives at home...

I don't want to lose weight

The boys tell me I'm great

And my sweetheart loves me just the way I am...

Well, if you say so, Sophie! She was so successful that no one would ever dare laugh at her, and it was--and still is--tons of fun to laugh with her!

© Jan Lisa Huttner FF2 Media (7/27/15)

RedHotMamas

Photos courtesy of http://sophietucker.com/

Lyrics for I Don't Want to Get Thin by Jack Yellin & Milton Ager (1929)

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PHOENIX

RubbleBerlin 1945. A woman returns from Auschwitz with only one goal: Find her husband. Despite being told that he was the one who betrayed her hiding place to the Nazis--she is Jewish, he is not--she still loves him.

To say I hated Phoenix--a film as subtle as its title--would be an understatement. (JLH: 2/5)

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Phoenix is a strange and unsettling film, a German take on the Holocaust genre filtered through the conventions of American Film Noir.

In the opening moments, a woman--her head completely wrapped in bandages--is driven across a border in the dark of night. When they arrive at a checkpoint, the young Yank on guard duty insists that she reveal herself... and then draws back in horror when she does.

The driver of the car, a dark-haired stoic named "Lene" (Nina Kunzendorf), brings the woman to a clinic in Berlin for reconstructive surgery. The surgeon asks his patient what she wants to look like when he is done. He tells her that most people, knowing they will never look quite like they once did, prefer to look a bit different. But the woman--who has now been give the name "Nelly Lenz" (Nina Hoss)--is adamant, insisting that she wants the surgeon to make her look exactly the same.

While Nelly is recovering, Lene is making plans. Somehow Lene manages to secure two emigration certificates for Palestine, not to mention lots of ready cash. Once Nelly is released from the clinic, Lene brings her back to a nice hotel complete with a wardrobe of attractive new clothes, and presents her with their fait accompli future. Maybe Lene is surprised that Nelly has no interest in the floor plans for their new apartment in Haifa, but from the audience POV it is totally predictable. Nelly has already told Lene--and us--that all she cares about is finding her husband "Johnny."

Nelly wants Johnny even after Lene tells her that Johnny--who is not Jewish--was the one who betrayed her and sent the Nazis to her hiding place. Nelly wants Johnny even after Lene tells her that Johnny has already staked his claim to her family's Swiss bank accounts. Nelly wants Johnny even after Lene gives her big speech about how they are the only ones left, so they are obligated to honor their dead by bringing all the family assets to Palestine to help ensure that the surviving Jewish remnant will finally be safe in their own state. (Remember, this is 1945, before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.)

Wandering around in the American Sector one night, Nelly sees "Johnny" (Ronald Zehrfeld) wiping tables in a garishly-lit bar called Phoenix (Yup, Phoenix. Like the mythical bird who "obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor.") But no one at Phoenix knows anyone named "Johnny" because he now goes by the name "Johannes." They say: "Johnny? There is no one here named Johnny." No one thinks to say: "Johnny? Do you mean Johannes?"

Much to Lene's dismay, Nelly continues to haunt Phoenix until Johnny/Johannes finally notices her. But--BIG PLOT TWIST--Johnny/Johannes doesn't recognize Nelly! Is it because the surgeon failed to make Nelly look exactly the same? Is it because Nelly still has bloodshot eyes and a puffy nose from her surgery? Is it because it's dark, so Johnny/Johannes doesn't get a good look at Nelly? Even when she calls him Johnny, Johnny/Johannes remains oblivious!

What will happen in the film's second half? Lene has already told Nelly that Johnny wants her family's money. Johnny, for his part, may not recognize Nelly as Nelly, but he certainly sees a resemblance. So he tells this mysterious stranger that he will coach her to impersonate Nelly, and once they have Nelly's family money, he will give her some of it. Oy!

Before I get really snarky, it's time to fess up (although it should be so obvious by now that I ought not need to say it): I hated Phoenix. From my POV, Phoenix is all style and no substance. Worse yet, it doesn't just trivialize the trauma of Holocaust survivors, it insults Jews who tried to do good by making Aliyah after World War II, while perpetuating the noxious troupe that all Jews have hidden money.

Nina Hoss--filmmaker Christian Petzold's muse and the lead actress in his most recent films--basically does what she's told as "Nelly," without evidence of much inner spark. On the other hand, Nina Kunzendorf, playing "Lene," does the little she is allowed to do quite well. I only wish Petzold and Farocki had shown some respect for her arc (see below). Ronald Zehrfeld, however, is on fire in Phoenix. His final scenes as "Johnny" are so electric that he might well have made a believer out of me, but alas, I had already checked out. (I call it "The Feh Meter." When a plot is so preposterous that I find myself muttering "Feh!" under my breath, then I'm beyond recall.)

Many low budget films succeed in creating rich worlds, but Phoenix feels done on the cheap. As a director Petzold underpopulates his sets, and fails to create any bustle in his cityscape. As a screenwriter, the screenplay Petzold wrote with Harun Farocki (now deceased) is full of improbabilities and loop holes, and the constant references to other films --like Cabaret and Vertigo--are annoying rather than illuminating.

Conclusion: This is a film for film buffs. Everyone else--especially Members of the Tribe--should steer clear!

© Jan Lisa Huttner FF2 Media (7/27/15)

AtPhoenix

Top Photo: Nina Hoss as "Nelly Lenz" picks her way through the rubble of what was once her home in Berlin.

Middle Photo: Nelly finds her non-Jewish husband "Johnny" (Ronald Zehrfeld) working at a bar called Phoenix in Berlin's Post-War American Sector.

Bottom Photo: Nina Kunzendorf as "Lene" having dinner with Nelly at the hotel.

Photo Credit: Christian Schulz - © 2015 Sundance Selects

ScreenToScreenTzivi

Phoenix is "loosely based" on a novel by French crime writer Hubert Monteilhet which was made into a 1965 film called Return from the Ashes by J. Lee Thompson (a director of mainstream hits like The Guns of Navarrone) and Julius J. Epstein (a screenwriter best-known for Casablanca).

I haven't read the novel, and I haven't seen the 1965 film. But here is a plot summary from IMDb which indicates how far Phoenix has diverged from Return from the Ashes:

"A chess champion (Maximilian Schell) sees his wife (Ingrid Thulin) dragged off to apparent death at Dachau. After the war, he remarries (to Samantha Eggar). Then his former wife reappears. His solution: kill both of them...."

Divergence isn't necessarily a bad thing, and Return from the Ashes doesn't seem to deserve much fealty. But when Petzold and Farocki decided to do this "remake," I wish they had given more thought to the fact what might have been acceptable in 1965 (when very little was known about the Holocaust) just isn't appropriate in 2015 (when we know so much more). Just sayin'...

TziviRants

And at this point, any attempt at "objectivity" is over and I'm ready to rant: Why do filmmakers keep bumping off female Holocaust survivors?!?

In the novel Sarah's Key, Sarah dies in a car accident. In the film adaptation of the same name, Sarah deliberately commits suicide by driving her car into a truck... Why?

In Ida, Aunt Wanda throws herself out of a window, going splat on the pavement below... Why??

And now, in Phoenix, Lene shoots herself... Why???

When I ask questions about these "plot points," people tell me--always very solemnly--that sometimes Holocaust survivors kill themselves... as if I didn't know that sad fact already.

So yes, OK: Some Holocaust survivors have killed themselves, although the statistical number is pretty small. But that answer is also beside the point: Even if a large proportion of Holocaust survivors have killed themselves, that fact would not explain why these specific Holocaust survivors killed themselves, when nothing we know about them indicates that this is likely.

In Lene's case, she had a well-articulated plan, so why didn't she follow it? By what right do Petzold and Farocki just bump her off with no explanation?!? Judging from a scroll through some of my colleagues reviews, I am the only person who has mentioned Lene's death... and that fact makes me even more furious!!!

Memo to Filmmakers: Female characters are not just plot points, so stop these gratuitous murders now :-(

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THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT

ZimbardoThe Stanford Prison Experiment is set at Stanford University in August of 1971. While most of his colleagues and their students are away for the summer, Professor Philip Zimbardo (perfectly played by actor Billy Crudup) turns a floor of offices into a mock prison. He then hires twenty-four Stanford students--all male--to populate his prison. Twelve will be guards, twelve will be prisoners, and members of his team--who will spend most of their time watching and taping in a separate research room--will serve as occasional officials as needed (e.g., members of the Parole Board). Zimbardo, of course, will be the Warden.

On the face of it, The Stanford Prison Experiment has nothing to do with Jews, and yet the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment--which really happened--are so important to how we understand the Holocaust and how we understand the role of ordinary Israeli soldiers asked to serve in the West Bank (including the border check points) that I feel it is one of the most important Jewish-themed films I have seen so far in 2015.

All in all, this was a highly compelling reenactment--so much so that I began feeling like one of the prisoners who was desperate to flee--but director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and screenwriter by Tim Talbott should have included a few moments of context. Since we never know what Professor Zimbardo expected to find in his study, we don't really understand why he found the results so surprising.

All Nazis were inherently evil. IDF soldiers are good boys who are only doing what they have to do to protect their country. Rather than looking at ourselves as citizens who vote in our own self-interest,  we invoke the "bad apples theory" whenever abhorrent consequences ensure. Good people don't murder. Good people don't torture. Good people don't abuse their authority.

But as The Stanford Prison Experiment shows, people are not born "good" and "bad." Most often, circumstances--in this case the literal flip of a coin--determine which of us become victims, which of us become perpetrators, and which of us become bystanders. It is critically important that we all acknowledge this. (JLH: 4.5/5)

© Jan Lisa Huttner Ff2 Media (7/27/15)

Mealtime

Top Photo: Billy Crudup as Philip Zimbardo.

Bottom Photo: Mealtime at Stanford Prison.

Photo Credits: Steve Dietl/IFC Films

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AMY (Asif Kapadia)

IMG_0406A moving and emotional documentary by Asif Kapadia about exceptionally talented jazz singer Amy Winehouse. The film follows her music and struggles, as her rise to fame ultimately becomes too much to handle. (JEP 3.5/5)

Review by Contributing Editor Jessica E. Perry

Directed by Asif Kapadia, Amy is artfully constructed using home video footage, photos, and television appearance footage, to weave the tragic story of Amy Winehouse's beginnings in the world of music through her tragic passing in 2011. Foregoing the standard talking heads format Amy includes interviews by prominent members of Winehouse's life as voice overs laid over both video and still photos.

The film opens with home footage of Amy celebrating with a small group of friends as she sings "Happy Birthday." One by one their voices begin to drop out, as her voice overpowers them all. In that moment Amy was all smiles and light, a young beautiful girl with so much life ahead of her. The film was sprinkled with moments like these, contrasted with footage and interviews from the dark times that had so much effect on her short life.

Amy Winehouse was undoubtably an incredible talent, but she never wanted fame. Only a few minutes into the film, her words rocked you. She expressed the feeling that she could not handle fame if she ever had it, that she would go mad. Sitting in the audience, you feel for her, because Amy is a film you know the ending to before you even enter the theater.

Through video footage and interviews Kapadia walks the audience through Amy's rise to fame and her much too soon passing; bringing us with her through times of happiness and great sadness. The ultimate takeaway is that for Amy, it was all about the music. Recording albums and singing jazz for small audiences was all that she wanted, and nothing more. But what everyone else around her wanted was very different.

Moments of this contrast were peppered throughout. At 15, Amy told her mother that she would eat her fill and throw it all back up to stay thin, and her mother brushed it off as a phase that would pass. Her father left the family when she was young, and took actions to capitalize financially on Amy's fame even when all she wanted was for the cameras to go away. Her team all but forced her to continue touring when she insisted she did not want to go, resulting in self -sabotage and getting booed off the stage. Blake--first her boyfriend then to become her husband--introduced her to hard drugs, and he himself could be called a drug to her as well.

In all honesty, Amy was a confusing viewing experience for me. I was fully engaged and moved the entire time, but was simultaneously checking the clock. The film felt extremely long, but leaving the theater, it was a story and film I was grateful to have experienced.

What the film director, Asif Kapadia, delivered was honest, and it was touching. Yes, the still photos sometimes stayed on the screen a little too long, and it was slightly confusing following the who's who with voiceover interviews instead of face-to-face as is customary. But see Amy for yourself, whether in theaters or later when it is released on DVD; it is a powerful story not to be missed.

© Jessica E. Perry FF2 Media (7/20/15)

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Top Photo: Amy’s reaction when she hears Tony Bennett call her name announcing that she’s won the Grammy for Record of the Year.

Bottom Photo: Young, pre-fame Amy with her two close, and always supportive, girlfriends.

Photo Credits: A24

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CJFF ’15

Congratulations to my friend David Chack for successfully shepherding the second annual Chicago Jewish Film Festival team. Below is my post for the JUF. This was the first post of mine--in almost 5 years--that hit the top position in the JUF's list of "Most Popular Articles," so I call this a win/win/win/win/win for the CJFF & the JUF, for David & for me, and--most important--Chicago's Jewish Community. Yasher Koach to All!

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The second annual Chicago Jewish Film Festival opens tomorrow (6/20/15) at the Century/CineArts (in Evanston). Screenings run all week at Century/CineArts and three additional venues: Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center (in Skokie), and Landmark’s Century Cinema and the Victory Gardens Theatre (both in Lincoln Park).

Just like last year’s inaugural program, the 2015 CJFF offers a diverse and well-curated selection of narrative features and documentaries. Some of them have already played in local art houses and some are completely new to Metro Chicago. No matter! The schedule contains good options for everyone, and just because a film of interest already came and went once, that doesn’t mean you should not jump at a new chance to see it on another go around.

The narrative features are 24 Days, The Dove Flyer, Friends from France, Mr. Kaplan, and Nora’s Will, plus the short feature Moses on the Mesa.

The documentaries include Compass Cabaret 55, Havana Curveball, Invitation to Dance, Kabbalah Me, Little White Lie, Night Will Fall, Sammy: The Journey, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, The Return, The Sturgeon Queens, and Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem.

Full Disclose: I have personally seen all of the features, but only about half of the documentaries. That said, my own picks are Friends from France (Top Feature) and Little White Lie (Top Doc). WithViktor

Friends from France returns us to the days when the former Soviet Union really was an “evil empire,” and Jewish intellectuals were under constant surveillance. Two cousins from Paris travel to Moscow posing as newlyweds. “Carol” (Soko), a dedicated activist, has memorized the names of a list of Refuseniks. Every evening, they excuse themselves from their tour group and pretend to canoodle, but they are actual making contact.

Jerome (Jeremie Lippmann) calls name after name on Carol’s list, announcing himself each time as “your friend from France.” Then off they go to a clandestine meet-up. This is an unforgettable film about dignity and the human spirit that will make you proud to be Jewish, even more proud than you probably are already.

Little White Lie is a stunning film that I first saw last October at the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Months later, when I saw it on the CJFF ’15 schedule, I knew I would recommend it, but I frankly had no idea how relevant it would suddenly be.

A young girl named Lacey Schwartz grows up in a comfortable and supportive Jewish family in Woodstock, NY. Everyone knows her and loves her, and when she expresses vague anxieties about her curly hair and her skin color, they tell her not to worry. There are Sicilian ancestors in the family tree and she looks just like them… But when she begins classes at a new high school which is much larger and far more integrated than her primary school, all the African-American girls instantly recognize Lacey as African-American, and eventually her mother, Peggy, must reveal the truth about her own life and therefore about Lacey’s life too. BatMitzvahCloseUp

After a week of debate ad nauseam about Rachel Dolezal, the woman from Spokane who passed as African-American even though the parents who raised her were clearly white, you might think Little White Lie is the last thing you want to see, but that would be a mistake. Whoever her father is, Lacey Schwartz is a member of the mishpokhe, and the Jewish community needs to acknowledge her and what her life story tells us about ourselves as Jewish Americans.

Click here for more on Friends from France.

Click here for more on Little White Lie.

Click here for CNN’s story Who is Rachel Dolezal?

For complete details on times and tickets, click here to visit the CJFF15 website.

Posted by JUF on 6/22/2015.

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BONUS POST: Read this excellent new article by Kelly Whitehead about issues addressed by Lacey Schwartz in Little White Lie. Kelly and her mother Emily Whitehead are my fellow congregants at Temple Beth Emeth in Brooklyn.

15July02KellyCLIP

"Lacey Schwartz, a Jewish filmmaker and outreach strategist, did not learn about her black identity until she was a teenager. In June, the CLIP Interns were fortunate enough to meet Lacey and discuss her accomplishments as a Jewish professional in a diverse setting. Lacey shared her story, the focus of the documentary “Little White Lie,” and I immediately felt connected. Unlike Lacey, I always knew the origins of my biracial appearance.  Growing up, I knew I did not look like the other students of my Temple’s religious school in Brooklyn, or like my friends from my Jewish sleep away camp, URJ Camp Harlam.  While Lacey constantly questioned her appearance, I usually accepted my difference as a unique quality and conversation starter..."

Click HERE to read Kelly's article. Shout-Out to Kelly: Yasher Koach to you too!

CLIP is a program of the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU.

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IT SHOULDA BEEN YOU

It Shoulda Been You Brooks Atkinson TheatreI am so wrapped up in seeing new films since my move to Brooklyn that I rarely get the chance--or even have the desire--to do much else. But a visit from our friends Mary Lou & George was just the excuse I needed to check an item off my Bucket List...

I live by a set of principles that I call "Jan's Laws of Life." In this case, for all the years I lived in Chicago, one applicable law was: "There is too much for any self-respecting workaholic to do in Chicago, so why be in New York where you'll miss even more?!?"

HaHaHa! So, Nu: Who knew the future? Right? Of course right!

But anyway, much as I was determined not to miss whatever I was--in fact--missing in NYC, I did allow myself to admit that I would have dearly loved to have seen two Tony Award-winning performances for myself: Bebe Newirth as "Velma" in Chicago and Tyne Daly as "Mama Rose" in Gypsy. Owning both cast albums--as though I do--just isn't enough...

And so, when I read about Tyne Daly playing a Jewish Mother (!) in It Shoulda Been You, I thought "I really ought to go..." And when Mary Lou wrote to say she and George were on their way, I said: "Game on!" LikeNice

Now just so you know, there is a big curve in the middle of It Shoulda Been You to which the whole cast responds: "I didn't see that coming!" I will not be the one to give it away, but I will say that it does make It Shoulda Been You very hard to "review." So certain critics sound more lukewarm in their reviews than they should.

Don't be dissuaded. This is a delightful show and all four of us had a great time, not just me and Mary Lou but also our guys--George and Richard--too. I give It Shoulda Been You my highest praise: "I laughed! I cried! I had a great time!"

The whole cast is terrific and the production values are first rate. Special shout-out to costume designer William Ivey Long for creating the perfect palette: Jew Blue accented by Hot Pink! (Have I died and gone to heaven?!?)

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Director David Hyde Pierce--beloved "Niles" of Frazier fame--has a light touch, and keeps things moving at a brisk pace, even though there are several emotional scenes on which one could have dwelled just a bit longer. But it is critically important for It Shoulda Been You to be seen in one sitting. A traditional two-act structure with an intermission would puncture the giddy balloon.

HappyCouple

As for Tyne Daly, she didn't get a Tony Award for this performance, but she won my heart nonetheless. And she was rewarded by being asked by David Hyde Pierce to give a "curtain speech" on June 26: Talk about being in the right place at the right time!!!

“At a moment in which the Supreme Court has made a historic decision to extend the right to marry to each and every citizen, the message of love and acceptance at the core of It Shoulda Been You feels particularly resonant,” said producer Daryl Roth. “We are so proud to have been able to share this story, along with love and laughter, and we look forward to spreading it across the country with future productions. We are grateful to our amazing company and our appreciative Broadway audiences.”

L'CHAYIM :-)

© Jan Lisa Huttner FF2 Media (7/3/15)

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Top Photo: Tyne Daly as "Judy Steinberg" with Lisa Howard as her eldest daughter "Jenny."

Middle Photo: Judy and mother-of-the-groom "Georgette Howard" (Harriet Harris) meet up at the Beauty Shop.

Bottom Photo: "Rebecca Steinberg" (Sierra Bogges) and "Brian Howard" (David Burtka) aka "the happy couple."

Photo Credits: Joan Marcus

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PS: The lyrics don't seem to be posted online yet, so I can't find any proof of this for you. But in the comic number "Who"--when Jenny and Marty are describing their years of friendship--Jenny actually sings: "Who played Tzeitel to your Motel?"

Of course--Fiddler Fanatic that I am--I practically fell off my chair. If I didn't know better, I might wonder if I had hallucinated? But nope: Richard swears he heard it too.

So Kudos to Lyricist Brian Hargrove, because in just six words, he tells us volumes about these two characters. The line is a "perfect fit, like a glove" :-)

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A BORROWED IDENTITY

A BORROWED IDENTITYPalestinian prodigy receives a scholarship to attend a prestigious high school in Jerusalem. Consequences are highly specific but also universal.

A Borrowed Identity appears in American theatres in the midst of an acrimonious, contentious, and long overdue conversation about "privilege." Hopefully, many Americans now understand that part of "privilege" is the ability to close your eyes to things you don't want to see.

In the American case, most Caucasian Americans were able to close their eyes to pervasive racism even as incarceration rates grew to crippling proportions in the African-American community. Even after the murder of Trayvon Martin--which occurred in February in 2012--many Caucasian Americans simply refused to believe that African-American males--men and boys--were at such risk that their parents had to start giving them "the Talk" when they were barely teenagers.

Even in the midst of the growing "Black Lives Matter" movement, 12-year old Tamir Rice was still gunned down in a matter of seconds. And so it continued until nine African-Americans were killed in a church in Charleston... while engaged in Bible Study... Only now are most Caucasian Americans finally able to admit that their blindness was a privilege that they had never earned and must firmly renounce.

In Kol Yisrael--in Israel and beyond--Jewish privilege allows us to close our eyes to Palestinian suffering. In the Israeli case, there is an existential crisis that makes our willful blindness understandable. And yet, even if we don't want to see it, can we deny what we know? I don't think so.

I am not a politician or a diplomat, so I have no solutions to offer to any of the "big questions." But I do know that one of the great values of art is an artist's ability to shine light on exactly those issues we try so hard to ignore in our day-to-day lives. We Jews--in particular--have proven ourselves particularly adept at using art to bring the voice of the "outsider" (aka "The Other") to the "insiders" in the mainstream.

In this specific case, I am telling you--my khaverim--that director Eran Riklis and screenwriter Sayed Kashua have made a great work of art. I believe it is of its moment, and I also believe it will live on long after this moment is over. So see it. (JLH: 5/5)

Review by Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner

In the opening moments of Eran Riklis’ translucent new film A Borrowed Identity, we see a young man on a Jerusalem rooftop looking out over the evening skyline. He is utterly alone, smoking, silent.

Flashback to 1982. A boy named “Eyad” (Razi Garareen) floats high above the houses in the Palestinian village of Tira, trying to fix a television antenna. The Israelis have just invaded Lebanon and his father “Salah” (Ali Suliman) wants a clearer picture of the goings on. Salah is hoping this will finally be the beginning of the end of the state of Israel. Surely the Arab armies will mobilize and the Jews will scatter?

Flashback to 1988. Teenage “Eyad” (Tawfeek Barhom) is more than just the apple of his father’s eye, Eyad is also the repository of all of Salah’s hopes and dreams. And so, when Eyad is accepted into a prestigious boarding school in Jerusalem, Salah insists that he go. Eyad will learn from the Jews and turn their teachings against them. Eyad will become Salah’s shield against disappointment and satisfy needs so long deferred.

But Eyad is just a kid, and once he settles into his new school, Eyad wants what most kids want—he wants to fit it. And so begins the process of transformation by which Eyad becomes “Yonatan,” the Jewish man with an Israeli passport who smokes cigarette after cigarette on that Jerusalem rooftop.

Director Eran Riklis is an internationally-known Israeli filmmaker who has made a number of significant films about Palestinian/Israeli relations including Cup Final, Lemon Tree, The Syrian Bride, and Zaytoun. He has won awards from film festivals all around the world, and here in Chicago he was nominated for Golden Hugo awards twice by the Chicago International Film Festival (for The Syrian Bride in 2004 and for Lemon Tree in 2008). Since I have seen all of these films—and several other Riklis films as well—I can say without hesitation that A Borrowed Identity is his “personal best” to date. A BORROWED IDENTITY

This is Riklis’ first collaboration with Sayed Kashua, an Arab-Israeli journalist best-known for his comedy series Arab Labor, for which he received two “Best Script of a Comedy Series” awards from the Israel Television Academy in 2011 and 2012. (Episodes of Arab Labor have appeared regularly on our Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema schedules.) Riklis and Kashua make a terrific team, seamlessly melding the particular and the universal to create a powerful, unforgettable 20th Century narrative.

I say 20th Century because some of the things Eyad was able to do then would probably not be possible now. Security is much tighter since 9/11, and the ubiquity of cyberspace would undoubtedly limit Eyad’s ability to simply disappear when Yonatan goes off to study in Berlin. And yet, who knows? Someone smarter than me—someone as smart as Eyad—will probably find new ways. So still the voice in your head that says “Impossible!” when Eyad gets to the checkpoint, hands over someone else’s I.D. card, and is told to drive on. Eyad “passes”--he gets away with it--as so many others have before him.

And what happens to Salah? We never know, and perhaps Eyad will never know either. That is the high cost of passing from one culture to another. A father makes sacrifices to give his son a better life and all too often that son moves on, ashamed of where he came from, and determined to be accepted for who he really is even before he knows who he will actually become.

The actors ground the narrative arc of A Borrowed Identity, turning all of the characters into highly specific human beings who must be exactly who they are no matter how we see their “Big Picture.”

The scenes set in the village of Tira revolve around Salah and his nemesis “Jamal” (Norman Issa). Salah was the smart one--as well as the handsome one—the one who went to study in Jerusalem but ended up imprisoned for his political activities. Jamal, now the principal of the elementary school, gets his revenge by endlessly taunting Eyad. “Your father is a fruit picker!” “My father is a terrorist!” “Your father is a fruit picker!” “My father is a terrorist!” Whack goes Jamal’s ruler while Eyad chokes back his tears.

On the edges of this drama hover Eyad’s mother “Fahima” (Laëtitia Eïdo) and his grandmother “Aisha” (Marlene Bajali). These women cannot rescue Eyad from his father and the battles he fights on his father’s behalf, but their love cushions him, and Grandmother Aisha finds ways to tell him details that her son Salah will no longer reveal to others.

Once in Jerusalem, Eyad is befriended by “Naomi” (Danielle Kitzis), a classmate who is shocked that Eyad will not even correct the people who are mispronouncing his name. (His name is AY-yad, not ah-YEED.) Naomi teaches Eyad how to make the “P” sound required for proper Hebrew pronunciation (“P-Palestine! P-Palestine! P-Palestine!") and he falls head over heels in love with her.

His other friend is “Edna” (Yael Abeccassis), the mother of a boy with muscular dystrophy (played by Michael Moshonov). By teaching him the whats and wherefores of her life daily life, Edna inadvertently becomes Eyad’s de facto “Jewish Mother.” And then the day comes when they both realize there is no turning back...

As the great American novelist Thomas Wolfe said: “You Can’t Go Home Again.

© Jan Lisa Huttner FF2 Media (6/26/15)

SalahsFamily

Top Photo: "Eyad" as a teenage student (Tawfeek Barhom).

Middle Photo: Young Eyad (Razi Gabareen) with "Principal Jamal" (Norman Issa).

Bottom Photo: Eyad's Family watching TV at home (from left): Marlene Bajali as grandmother "Aisha," Laëtitia Eïdo as mother "Fahima," Tawfeek Barhom as "Eyad" with his two brothers (?), and Ali Suliman as father "Salah."

Photo Credits: Eitan Riklis

Q #1: Does A Borrowed Identity pass the Bechdel Test?

No.

This is a film about men. Women play important roles in the lives of these men, but they never interact with one another.

Q #2: Where is Tira? TiraMap

Tira is north of Jerusalem and very close to Ramallah. It is east of "the Green Line" which marks the pre-67 border of Israel. Does this mean Tira is located in Palestinian "Occupied Territory"...? Does this mean Tira is located in Judea & Samaria = "Greater Israel"...? Not for me to say! This is the point at which I take refuge in the fact that I am only a film critic...

The simple fact is that Tira exists. It is quite literally on the map.PageToScreenTziviOriginalWolfeJacket

“The human mind is a fearful instrument of adaptation, and in nothing is this more clearly shown than in its mysterious powers of resilience, self-protection, and self-healing. Unless an event completely shatters the order of one's life, the mind, if it has youth and health and time enough, accepts the inevitable and gets itself ready for the next happening...” (Thomas Wolfe)

The screenplay that Sayed Kashua wrote for A Borrowed Identity is a bit of a mash-up of two of his earlier novels Dancing Arabs (published in 2002) and Second Person Singular (published in 2010). Many incidents in A Borrowed Identity appear in one of these two novels, and yet the authorial voice is totally different, and there is no one who corresponds to the young man named Eyal who bookends A Borrowed Identity on that Jerusalem balcony.

I didn't know this when I saw A Borrowed Identity for the first time (at a critics screening on 6/11) and I did not know this when I drafted my review (on 6/26), but by the time I saw A Borrowed Identity a second time with my husband Richard on 6/27, I had already downloaded both novels to my Kindle. This is the way I always try to work as a film critic: I always try to see the film first so I can assess it on its own terms, and then--if the spirit moves me--I back-up to assess it as an adaptation &/or a fact-based story...

In this case, I can say without hesitation that the screenplay for A Borrowed Identity is better than either book. Brilliant, compassionate, and uncompromising, this screenplay for A Borrowed Identity is the work of a mature artist. Everyone in A Borrowed Identity is fully human. There are no heroes. There are no villains. There are only people with strengths and weaknesses that are more common to all of us as human beings than the things that divide us. Bravo!

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TUVIA VE’SHEVA BENOTAV

ShevaPosterThere is a good reason why Tuvia Vesheva Benotav (the Israeli version of Sholem Aleichem's Tevye stories) is rarely seen. It doesn't deserve to be. Although of great historical interest to Fiddler Fanatics like me, it is objectively awful and best kept apocryphal.

All too often, I sit in a movie theatre and ask myself: "What were they thinking?" But in this case it is perfectly clear. I know exactly what they were thinking. Sad to say, they were thinking this: "How do we cash in on the commercial success of Fiddler on the Roof?"

And so producer/director Menahem Golan and his team made the title of their film Tuvia Vesheva Benotav (which in Hebrew means Tevye and His Seven Daughters) to lure those looking for the "authenticity" that is supposedly lacking in Fiddler on the Roof... Oy :-(

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye famously says he has five daughters--"I have five daughters!"--even though Sholem Aleichem lovers know that Tevye says he has seven daughters in the first of the eight stories that constitute the "novel" Tevye the Dairyman.

My own book Tevye's Daughters: No Laughing Matter deals with this issue--from seven to five--in great detail, so suffice it to say that one can make a case for why five is actually the best number of daughters for Fiddler on the Roof...

But back to Tuvia Vesheva Benotav, I wouldn't mind so much if Golan and his team had actually given the two "extra" daughters something to do. Quite to contrary, in fact is that they are pushed to the edge of the frame and not only not individuated, but actually dressed in identical costumes! The impression is that poor Tevye lives in a house overflowing with estrogen, because all of the daughters in his little house look like teenagers who are all roughly the same age. Maybe no one remembered to tell Sholem Aleichem that Golde actually gave birth to septuplets way back when?!?

But wait, Jan: You are being very strident about all this. What if you are wrong? What if the filmmakers started working on their Tevye long before Fiddler on the Roof arrived on Broadway? YouTubeSR

I promise you I am not wrong. One reason I am so sure is because the person they cast as Tevye--Shmuel Rodensky--is the same person who played Tevye in the Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof when opened in Israel in 1965. He also played Tevye in the German version of Fiddler on the Roof (which is called Anatevka for some reason known only in Germany). Here is Rodensky on YouTube singing "If I Were a Rich Man" auf Deutsch.

Tuvia Vesheva Benotav was supposed to have its world premiere at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, but the 1968 Cannes Film Festival was cancelled because of massive street demonstrations in Paris... And so it goes...

If you want to see it for yourself, here is a French website from which you can download Tuvia Vesheva Benotav, but I honestly do not recommended it. As the author of Tevye's Daughters: No Laughing Matter as well as Diamond Fiddler: Lectures on Fiddler on the Roof (forthcoming), I had to see this film when it hit the 2015 KulturFest NYC schedule. But you don't... not now and not ever!

GermanVersion

Photo Credits???

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CHAGALL-MALEVICH

WeddingA live-action children's storybook from Russia, and a storybook for very young children at that. Directed by Aleksandr Mitta. Screenplay by Mitta in collaboration with Kristina Schneidermann who also co-stars as "Bella Rosenberg Chagall." (JLH: 2/5)

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Aleksandr Mitta's new film Chagall-Malevich is like a live-action children's storybook, and a storybook for very young children at that. So it's a "Good News/Bad News" problem for a film critic. The good news is that it is bright, colorful, and engaging. The bad news is that the narrative is ludicrously simplistic, and the characters never come to life.

Right after the Russian Revolution, painter Marc Chagall returned to his home in Vitebsk, which was then part of the newly formed USSR--Union of Soviet Socialists Republics aka the "Soviet Union"--but is now in a country called Belarus. His intention was to run an art school in the belief that his students should nourish the soul of the Revolution while other comrades worked to nourish its body.

Of course, the school was a dismal failure. By 1920, Chagall was in Moscow, where he painted the famous mural called Music for the State Jewish Chamber Theater--a painting we now know affectionately as "The Fiddler on the Roof"--as well as additional murals, costumes, and sets. By 1922, Chagall had left the USSR forever and was on his way back to Paris. Other than a brief visit near the end of his life, he never returned.

So it is a fascinating story... but mere hints of it are actually in this film. Instead we get cartoonish characters who run hither and yon on a cheap set spouting slogans; revolutionary, counter-revolutionary, they all sound equally ridiculous. Then, every once in a while, the powers-that-be march someone off to a verdant cliff, execute him by firing squad, and throw his body into the sparking river below. Since there's no rhyme or reason to this, maybe they do it to break the monotony?

Chagall's constant companion through-out is "Bella Rosenberg" (Kristina Schneidermann), the beautiful young woman he pines for during the brief opening sequence set in Paris, and who he marries as soon as he returns home. As played by Leonid Bichevin, Marc Chagall is a boyish luftmensch--Yiddish for "airhead"--while Bella is always practical, scolding and nagging like a stereotypical Jewish mother. Yes, their daughter is always with them too, but she's never given a name. (FYI, her name was Ida.)

While Chagall was in Paris, Bella allowed herself to be romanced by a young poet named "Naum" (Semyon Shkalikov). Rejected and dejected, Naum turns to guns, and soon enough he is a Soviet Apparatchik. And so Bella continues to flirt with Naum to take the heat off her husband, all of which is as embarrassing to watch as it is predictable.

Then artist "Kazimir Malevich" (Anatoliy Belyy) appears on the scene, promulgating a doctrine called "Suprematism." This leads to full out combat between Chagall's humanistic iconography--whimsical flying lovers and all that "fuzzy" stuff--versus Malevich's hard-edged slashes of pure color. Students pick sides, fighting each other on the streets, and even whacking each other with birch branches in the bathhouse!

Then Leon Trotsky passes by in a train on his way to the Polish Front, signalling that the time for provincial arguments is over. There is to be no individual expression in the midst of war with reactionary forces both at home and abroad. Of course, Bella is frantic, but Marc remains totally calm. He gathers Bella and Ida under his wing... and they literally float away!

Honestly: Regardless of good intentions, 119 minutes of this was painfully difficult to watch. The screenplay by well-known director Aleksandr Mitta and first time screenwriter Kristina Schneidermann (who also stars as Bella) is a joke, and all the actors suffer for it.

But that said, the animated sequences--in which paintings by both Chagall and Malevich literally come to life--are often quite beautiful.

Aleksandr Mitta's name was new to me, but a quick trip to IMDb shows him to be an elderly Jewish gentleman who once had an international career. In 1965, he even won a grand prize in Venice. Why he came back from a decade of presumed retirement to make this film is beyond me. As a Chagall-lover, I wish I could tell you to watch it... but I can't :-(

Exhibit

Top Photo: "Marc Chagall" (Leonid Bichevin) marries "Bella Rosenberg" (Kristina Schneidermann) in Vitesbsk.

Bottom Photo: Marc and Bella attend an exhibit. Chagall's famous painting Over the Town can clearly be seen mounted on the wall in the background.

Photo Credits: INTERCINEMA agency

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FORBIDDEN FILMS

FerdinandMarianDirector Felix Moeller thoughtfully addresses the question of what to do with films made in Germany during the Nazi Era: destroy them, preserve them or just let them rot. (3.5/5)

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Felix Moeller's new documentary Forbidden Films opens in an eerie location which looks like the site of a low budget SciFi film set in an abandoned Concentration Camp. What do all these mysterious little rectangular buildings contain? If we forced open one of their doors, would we find techs in white lab coats holding vials filled with bubbling toxins?

Moeller has taken us to the Federal Film Archive in Hoppegarten, Germany, and when he opens the doors, we see row after row after row of deteriorating nitrate film stock. These reels all contain theatrical films made in Germany during the Nazi Era, films which are considered so incendiary--even now--that many of them can only be seen in special screenings with educators on site to lead mandatory audience discussion sessions after the credits roll.

Moeller's travels around Europe--with a side trip to Israel--to ask scholars and citizen what is to be done with the Hoppegarten residue. Some people argue in favor of preserving these films by transferring them to a more stable medium; some people argue for allowing the nitrate film stock to continue its natural deterioration; some people want all the remnants destroyed as quickly as possible.

In between his interviews and conversations, Moeller shows snippets of some of the films in question. All of Germany's enemies are caricatured for propaganda purposes, not just Jews, but others (especially Brits and Poles). In all cases, Germans are the victims. In all cases, audiences are egged on to moral outrage at the treatment of fellow Germans. The intention here is clear: Germans must do everything possible to rescue their innocent brethren from evil perpetrators. If these "others" suffer, so be it; they have brought the suffering on themselves.

But here's the thing: watching snippet after snippet, it's hard not to think of American films made in the same period which look now just as dated. Don't we flinch now when we see how some mid-20th Century movies portrayed Africans, Japanese, and other members of non-white, non-Christian races and cultures? I know educated African-Americans who cannot watch the original King Kong--now considered a great classic--because of its racist overtones, and even though Lawrence of Arabia has long been my all-time favorite film, there are specific scenes which make me queasy.

My own belief is that sunlight is "the best of disinfectants." Destroying these films (or simply allowing them to deteriorate) robs history of importance evidence of the way things used to be.

A nitrate film vault in the Federal Film Archive in Hoppegarten, Germany. As seen in Forbidden Films, a film by Felix Moeller. Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

Top Photo: Ferdinand Marian as “Joseph Süß Oppenheimer” in Jud Süß, the notoriously anti-Semitic film directed by Veit Harlan which was released in Germany as well as European countries occupied &/or affiliated with the Nazis in 1940. (Found on IMDb)

Bottom Photo: Inside the Federal Film Archive in Hoppegarten, Germany. Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

RealToReelTzivi

If you are interested in this topic, a far better film is Harlan: In the Shadow of Jud Süß, the documentary Moeller released in 2008.

Veit Harlan, the director of Jud Süß ( = Jew Suess in English) died in 1964, insisting until the very end that he was not complicit in any way with the Nazi regime. In his own mind, he was a victim himself, someone who was "just following orders" when he used all his talents and skills in the service of Joseph Goebbels (Hitler's notorious Minister of Propaganda).

But Harlan had a very large family, producing three children with his second wife and two children with his third wife. And most of these children had children and some of these grandchildren now have children of their own. HarlanPoster

Listening to how his family wrestles with Veit Harlan's legacy is fascinating, all he more so because his first wife was Jewish and died in Auschwitz in 1943, and some of his children married Jews whose parents had also been Holocaust victims. And the icing on the Harlan Family Cake is Christiane Harlan--Veit's niece--who became the wife of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (born of Jewish grandparents who had made it to the Bronx well before the cataclysm).

Do you have to see Jud Süß ( = Jew Suess) in order to understand all of this? Not really. Veit Harlan's granddaughter Nele calls it "cheesy and really banal," and that's actually a perfect description. (I saw it at the Film Forum in NYC on 5/16/15 at a special screening held concurrent with the release of Forbidden Films).

So let the sunlight disinfect it, just as Justice Brandeis recommended. Hiding it away only serves to give it dark magical powers that it never earned--and never will earn--as cinema.

Q: Where is Hoppegarten?

Hoppegarten

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