Monday, November 12, 2018

DOC NYC Spotlight: Exit

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 8th-15th.

Directed by Karen Winther
Festival Screenings

Technological advances and other modernizations have made it so that many of the tasks that used to take a good amount of time can be done instantaneously and with minimal effort. While this is often perceived as leading to millennials and other current generations being lazy, it has also given birth to an entirely new energy, one that inspires youth to become invested in causes with their energy, determined to create change and make their voices heard. This can be a positive thing, but immersion in certain interests can also be incredibly dangerous since nothing is more motivating than a belief system.

Director Karen Winther used to be an active member of a violent right-wing organization, and getting through that time and back to a healthier lifestyle and worldview has prompted her to find others with similar experiences of being in very deep and then finally getting out to the other side. Through interviews with several people from the United States, Germany, and Denmark, Winther looks at what motivates people to join extremist movements, both on the left and on the right, and how the fear and hate that they feel can be channeled into something much more productive once the hold on them has been broken and they are ready to leave that life behind.

The notion of escaping a pervasive ideology has been explored in a number of documentaries, often dealing with stringent religious groups or cults. As mass shootings in the United States become all too frequent and political conversations are laced with inciting rhetoric, this documentary feels especially timely. The stories told by these reformed extremists are disturbing, as they reflect back upon the violence they used and the vitriolic feelings they expressed regularly towards anyone who didn’t fit their idea of normal. While they now do what they can to educate others on the wrongness of their past, there’s a sense that it’s far too late for them, as they’ve done many things that they regret and can never hope to make up for, even with acts of love and inspiration.

Locating those who were able to make a break with the various movements that had a firm hold over their followers is a difficult enough task, and those willing to talk about what they did to others is an even more limited pool. Yet Winther succeeds at finding just a few subjects who help to illustrate the recruitment tactics used to compel people to join and then to stay, examining the role of gender and community in it as well. The strongest takeaway is that extremism in its many forms remains a threat to society all over the world, with this film as a great step in the right direction, highlighting its dangers and its potency to an audience that might hopefully include those who don’t believe it exists.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD and Netflix. I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below. I’m trying a new format this week – let me know if you like it!

Now Playing in Theatres

As I've been immersed in screening selections for both the Other Israel Film Festival and DOC NYC, there's plenty playing in regular cinemas too. The two movies I can recommend most highly I saw at SXSW and Sundance, respectively. The New Romantic is a lovely, engaging film with Jessica Barden at its center, and Jason Mantzoukas anchors the hilarious road trip buddy comedy The Long Dumb Road. It’s gotten mostly mixed reviews, but I really liked Bohemian Rhapsody and think it’s well worth seeing and experiencing. In a Relationship, which played at Tribeca earlier this year, is also a great choice. Boy Erased is an unsettling dramatization of a true story about gay conversion therapy, not quite as strong as “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” but still worthwhile. El Angel provides a compelling portrait of a notorious killer and also serves as Argentina’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film. Sarah Jessica Parker is the best reason to see Here and Now, which was called “Blue Night” back when I saw it at Tribeca. The Front Runner is decent but not nearly as involving as anything related to present-day elections. A Private War doesn’t quite do justice to its journalist subject Marie Colvin, but it has its moments. Despite the involvement of Julianne Nicholson and the usually dependable Alessandro Nivola, Weightless never really goes anywhere.

New to DVD

One of my favorite movies at the Sundance Film Festival this past year was Never Goin’ Back, billed as a stoner comedy but really much more than that. It features great lead performances from its female stars and is genuinely enjoyable. It’s hard not to like this year’s Israeli submission for Best Foreign Film, The Cakemaker. Likely Oscar contender BlacKkKlansman is worth watching and definitely has a valid perspective to offer, even if’s not my favorite Spike Lee film. Unless you’re a Pablo Escobar fanatic, it’s not necessary to watch Loving Pablo over “Narcos.”

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

Alfonso Cuaron may well win his second Oscar for Best Director this year for “Roma,” but I still find Children of Men, a fantastic sci-fi film that didn’t go home with any Oscars, to be his strongest. A film that did net its director an Oscar bid that same year, United 93, is also now available, and it’s the ultimate definition of a respectful recreation of an incredibly tragic event in American history. I can also highly recommend Cloverfield and Equals, a handheld monster movie and intellectual dystopian film, respectively. A number of well-known Oscar winners can now be streamed, including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Good Will Hunting, The English Patient, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, listed in descending order of affinity from me. Both Sixteen Candles and Sex and the City: The Movie have their fans, and subscribers should know what they’re in for with either of those. Finally, enjoy the appetizing and entertaining Julie and Julia and skip the dreary and aimless Sea of Trees.

DOC NYC Spotlight: Afterward

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 8th-15th.

Directed by Ofra Bloch
Festival Screenings

Every documentary filmmaker has a reason for doing what they do, whether it’s a particular experience that compelled them to research something or a more general worldview that inspired them to share their stories. In creating a film for public consumption, the responsibility of a filmmaker is to portray whatever injustice they perceive while providing an appropriate context for those that may not have any prior experience with the subject matter. Evidently, someone must convey their own beliefs and perspective, but it’s likely that a large portion of their audience may confront their chosen topic for the first and potentially only time through their work.

Ofra Bloch is a psychoanalyst living in New York who returns to her native country of Israel to research the effects of trauma and how it can be passed down through generations. As she examines the nature of Israel’s relationship to its occupied citizens, she breaks down the connection of the Holocaust to the Palestinian experience. She interviews ex-Nazis and other non-Jewish Germans to understand how the history of the Holocaust shaped them, and speaks to a number of Palestinians who describe their subjugated lives and how they believe that any attempt to discuss the occupation with Israelis results in an immediate shutdown of the conversation by referencing the fact that the Holocaust happened as a justification for any present-day actions.

This film would actually have been a perfect fit for the recently-concluded Other Israel Film Festival because of its highlighting of the Palestinian narrative despite being made by an Israeli Jewish filmmaker. As a documentary at this festival tagged with “Jewish” and “Human Rights” as themes, it’s a bit more problematic. It emphasizes the suppression of Palestinians, and while giving Israelis the opportunity to defend their status might be seen as enabling the perpetrators, the only Israeli given any sort of voice is Bloch herself, who admits that she didn’t feel comfortable speaking up in defense of those who have experienced terror and loss at the hands of self-described Palestinian resistance fighters, who insist repeatedly that the term “violence” should not be used in reference to what they do. She has clearly become disillusioned with how her country operates, as many within Israel and in the Jewish diaspora have, but her scope of focus seems narrow and incomplete.

This subject matter is obviously of particular interest to this reviewer, who has attempted not to let his personal feelings get in the way of an honest and objective critique. This film bears some similarities to “Spiral,” which saw some connection between Israeli settlement activity and a resurgence in anti-Semitism in the world, the latter of which this film address very minimally. Most troublingly, Bloch interviews Palestinians who say that every conversation about their oppression is shut down by Israelis because they cite the Holocaust but then includes no one who went through the Holocaust either personally or ancestrally. By neglecting to feature interviews with any Israelis or Holocaust survivors, Bloch is endorsing just the opposite, saying that any argument made in defense of Israeli behavior is illegitimate. Showcasing the underrepresented in this case creates a dangerously limited perspective that, used as an education tool for what is happening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as presented by a liberal Israeli, hardly does justice to anyone involved.


Friday, November 9, 2018

DOC NYC Spotlight: The Candidates

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 8th-15th.

The Candidates
Directed by Alexandra Stergiou and Lexi Henigman
Festival Screenings

The 2016 presidential election is going to be remembered by everyone in America and so many worldwide for being such an incredible rollercoaster with multiple shocking moments that culminated in the surprise election of Donald Trump in defiance of considerable data and polling suggesting that Hillary Clinton was sure to triumph. Even in just the past two years, it has influenced many films and television shows, and that trend is only going to continue in the wake of historic voter turnout for this past week’s midterm elections. Much of those projects are far from optimistic, and it’s refreshing to see one film that uses it as an entirely positive base.

At Townsend Harris High School in Queens, New York, the senior class is putting on a mock election to mirror the timing of the actual presidential election. Misbah, who is Muslim, is selected to play Hillary Clinton, and Daniel is chosen to be Donald Trump, despite arguments that the classmate chosen to play Pence looks a lot more like the real candidate. Other students are also portraying Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, paying close attention to what’s happening with the election so that they can show what democracy might look like by learning the candidates’ positions and then trying to win over the student population.

This simulation boasts extraordinarily productive educational components, particularly for those actively engaged in the experiment. Daniel notes towards the beginning of the film that he has taken on a more conservative outlook in his own life, and that he has an uphill battle to convince the mostly liberal students at his school that Trump is best for the country. He notes that it’s often more difficult to get his points across as Trump, but it does give him a louder soapbox on which to stand. Misbah laughs that she is now referred to in the hallways as Hillary and wonders whether the positions she has gotten to know so well do in fact represent her own beliefs, either in part or in full. Raya, cast as Stein, acknowledges that she isn’t given the same support from the administration as the top two candidates, mirroring the minimal role third-party candidates usually play in presidential elections.

Having teenagers get into an election more than most adult voters before they’re able to cast a ballot is a wondrous idea that most on any side of the aisle should support. There are moments of immaturity, of course, as can be expected from high schoolers, but mostly what’s portrayed is an impressive devotion to the project, and an immersion of interest from all at this school, or at the very least appropriately disengaged and apathetic as many Americans are. This film is fun and inspiring, and it’s truly a delight to see how these excited youth deal with real-world issues that those with much more life experience are hopeless to be able to explain.


Thursday, November 8, 2018

Movie with Abe: El Angel

El Angel
Directed by Luis Ortega
Released November 9, 2018

The term “serial killer” encompasses a number of definitions. There are stories throughout history of those who took many lives, following a ritual pattern that made victims easy to identify and attribute to their particular brand of execution. Some, like Jack the Ripper, were never caught, while others, like Son of Sam, were apprehended and continue to serve prison terms to this day. The motivations for killing sprees vary greatly, with some describing voices telling them to do harm and others simply doing it for the fun of it. And then there are those for whom killing is merely a side effect of their primary activities.

Seventeen-year-old Carlos (Lorenzo Ferro), better known as Carlitos, loves stealing things, taking small or large items from empty homes or wherever he finds them. When he meets Ramón (Chino Darín), he begins planning his crimes ahead of time, working also with Ramón’s father, José (Daniel Fanego), who appreciates Carlitos’ talent but worries about his unpredictability and his penchant for doing whatever he feels like it in the moment. When things go awry, Carlitos has no problem pulling the trigger without a moment’s hesitation, resulting in a number of deaths that eventually catch up with Carlitos as he uses his childlike appearance to his advantage at every turn.

This film, which serves as Argentina’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film, chronicles one of the most notorious real-life cases in the country’s history. It presents its events literally and without much preface, introducing Carlitos as a teenager who doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him and who sees the world through his own eyes, locking on to activities and prizes that appeal to him without much concern for any collateral damage. He ups his game to impress Ramón, but that still doesn’t mean he’s going to give any thought to what might happen if he gets caught since he’s having so much fun on the ride.

Much of this film’s success hinges on Ferro’s performance, since Carlitos is mostly silent, looking around at things that catch his eye and wondering what he might do to obtain them. It’s a formidable, understated turn, one that portrays him as someone merely searching for excitement, never bothering to consider any other path than the one he’s on. This film is fully driven by its plot, and its robbery scenes in particular sparkle with an unpredictable energy. The story is pretty incredible on its own, and this film does a great job of bringing it to the screen.


Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Movie with Abe: Weightless

Directed by Jaron Albertin
Released November 9, 2018

Being a parent doesn’t come with a manual, and unlike many other big life decisions, it doesn’t necessarily require the same legwork or research, nor proof of competency. There are couples who talk out the optics of having children and plan heavily ahead of time, while others may not be in a committed relationship or may be surprised by the news that they are expecting. As soon as the baby arrives, parents must step into that role, and for some that moment may come later on in a child’s life due to unforeseen circumstances, which can present the same challenges and realities: that someone in just not ready or equipped to be a parent.

Joel (Alessandro Nivola) works in waste management, transporting and organizing trash. He goes for drinks with his work colleagues, and carries on a romantic relationship with a local doctor, Janeece (Julianne Nicholson). Otherwise, he lives a mostly solitary life, perceived by many as a strange loner. His quiet, uneventful life is upended when he receives a call that he must now take responsibility for his son, Will (Eli Haley), a ten-year-old boy he’s never met. Though he is told by social workers that Will is better off in foster care, Joel seems intent on maintaining his attachment to the son he really doesn’t know.

Both Joel and Will express similar detachments from social life, with Joel choosing to isolate himself and Will experiencing a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that keeps his sentences short and infrequent. He opens up only to one girl from his quiet neighborhood, while other kids torment him by taunting his weight and lack of social skills. Janeece serves as the sole element who supports them both, seeing Will for the scared boy he is and Joel for his positive attributes and silent charm. Those relationships are endearing, and they create the strongest points of a meandering film without a real center.

Nivola delivers a muted performance that can’t possibly compare to his far more resounding and meditative turn in “Disobedience” earlier this year. He’s a talented actor but not used to much effect. Nicholson, on the other hand, is typically wonderful, and she is the only real saving grace of the film. Its title might apply to the feeling that either Joel or Will have as they experience the world, but it’s an unfinished idea, one that doesn’t particularly go anywhere. This is a miserable, depressing film that doesn’t appear to have a point, exploring this family unit’s lives without achieving any sort of realization either for them or the audience.


Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Movie with Abe: The Front Runner

The Front Runner
Directed by Jason Reitman
Released November 6, 2018

The way that news is both reported and consumed has changed drastically over the years. The notion of getting a newspaper with a breaking headline or watching a live news report being the primary way of digesting information is something that just doesn’t exist in the same way anymore. While there is still a lifespan of any story that may eventually die and fade out of the public eye, the idea of a news cycle has changed completely. The manner in which news is released and disseminated has had exponential effects on much of society.

After a solid effort in the 1984 election, Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) announces his intention to run for president in 1988. Polling far ahead of other candidates, Hart enjoys very positive press and a great relationship with the journalists that travel with his campaign. When a journalist receives a tip that the married Hart may be having an affair, everything becomes about a potential moral stain on this extraordinarily likeable candidate, which threatens to derail his campaign and distract from all that he hopes to accomplish.

It’s astonishing to think that, only a decade after this, the president would confess to having an affair in office and finish out his term, and nearly twenty years after that, numerous accusations of extramarital activity and a damning released audio recording of heinous language about women wouldn’t deter the latest candidate from being elected to that office. There should be many comparisons made between this film and last year’s “The Post,” depicting an era in which journalism looked completely different but in which civility was recognizable and paramount.

This film manages to paint Hart as a man so driven by his desire to change the country that he wasn’t prepared to let anything get in the way of that message. The actions that killed his campaign may not be commendable, but his steadfast belief in private life being kept private is something so far lost in today’s era that stands as a firm recommender of Hart’s character. This presentation of his story is at times fast-paced, as if it was written by Aaron Sorkin, and at others feels like it’s not headed anywhere fast. Jackman is a fitting choice to play Hart, passionate until the end, and the standouts of the crowded supporting cast are Molly Ephraim, as Hart’s lone female senior campaign worker, and J.K. Simmons as his campaign manager. For those who don’t know this story, it may be interesting, but there’s little about this film that feels transformative or urgent, which proves disappointing considering the timing of its release on Election Day.


Monday, November 5, 2018

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Unsettling

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 12th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 1st-8th, 2018.

Directed by Iris Zaki
Festival Information

Settlements are among the most controversial elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli development and communities built on land considered to be part of the Palestinian Territories is widely considered to be an obstacle to peace, but there’s no simple solution. Many of those communities have existed for decades, and a simple retreat, like the Gaza disengagement in 2005, does not lead to any more accord and can produce more problematic issues subsequently. The majority of settlers are painted as right-wing and nationalistic, but there’s more to the story there too.

Filmmaker Iris Zaki moves from Tel Aviv to Tekoa, a settlement in the West Bank. Arriving and proudly describing herself as “left-wing,” Zaki seeks to understand the perspective of those living in Tekoa and how they see the situation in the country. While some initially balk at her presence and the notion of having a camera around, a number of residents are more than willing to talk. As they express their feelings about why they are there and how they relate to the Arab population surrounding them, Zaki presses them on whether there are truly considering the way their disenfranchised neighbors live and how it contrasts greatly with their happy existence.

What Zaki manages to do here is, in one way, remarkable. Announcing herself unapologetically as a leftist and challenging those she interviews with charges of occupation and apartheid, she has conversations with those completely on the opposite end of the political spectrum. They may get passionate, but at no time are they disrespectful, which says something in our current society. For Americans watching, this should be particularly heartwarming, given just how aggressively party divides have made it so that people who don’t agree also don’t talk to each other.

Zaki probes some interesting questions and inarguably gets interesting results. Those she speaks to don’t hold back, and even wrestle audibly with exactly how they feel and what parts of their narratives are contradictory. This film runs just an hour and ten minutes, and given the intriguing nature of what just a few residents share, there’s evidently a much bigger project here. Zaki presses those she speaks to for solutions, but she doesn’t seem to have many of her own, merely an interest in ensuring that people don’t simply accept their realities. Her most compelling conversation comes with a young woman who survived a stabbing attack and, as a result, realized that a more understanding and pluralistic approach to Israeli-Palestinian relations is necessary. Such optimistic ideas of coexistence are inspiring, and films like this one, which fittingly closes the Other Israel Film Festival, are great conversations starters.


Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: In Her Footsteps

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 12th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 1st-8th, 2018.

In Her Footsteps
Directed by Ranu Abu Fraiha
Festival Information

Home can mean everything to members of a community. It’s a place in which the ways of life can be preserved, without outsiders or interruption, mostly immune to modernization and other reforms. The comfort that it brings its most devoted residents can be just as strong a force to drive those who aren’t eager to live within it away. The liberties and opportunities gained by leaving a tight-knit community may be great, but with them comes a price. If one place doesn’t feel entirely right, trying somewhere new may prove to be just as dissatisfying or disheartening, offering its own challenges along with the benefits.

Rana Abu Fraiha interviews her parents to learn their story about fleeing from their Bedouin village in the middle of the night to start a new life in Omer, a very nearby Jewish town in Israel. When her mother’s breast cancer spreads and gets her thinking about her impending death, she shares her desire to be buried in Omer. Dealing with a Muslim burial in a Jewish cemetery proves to be a new question for the town, and as Ranu waits to hear back on whether it will be allowed, she focuses in on her family and how where they lived has shaped who they are.

Video footage of Ranu’s parents’ wedding day serves as a frequent reminder of another time before the family relocated to Omer. As they discuss their hopes and wishes for the future, Rana and her siblings contemplate what their identity really is. They don’t feel authentically Arab because they have lived side-by-side with Jews for all of their lives, yet, as becomes especially clear when the question of what happens after death comes up, they can’t fit in with their surrounding community even though they speak Hebrew and engage regularly with their neighbors.

This film represents a fitting and enlightening exploration of what belonging means when someone doesn’t match a particular mold. It’s not a question of Israelis against Palestinians or anyone feeling that their land and their country have been taken from them. Instead, it’s about existing on the periphery without fully acknowledging it until a simple matter that everyone must deal with becomes incontrovertibly complicated and impossible to negotiate. It’s also an affecting story about loss and inevitability, one that is, to a degree, universally relatable and all the more poignant due to the surrounding circumstances.


Sunday, November 4, 2018

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Foreign Land

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 12th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 1st-8th, 2018.

Foreign Land
Directed by Shlomi Eldar
Festival Information

Not every Israeli filmmaker can claim to be able to understand what Palestinians endure as marginalized members of Israeli society, and few have proven how much they care by devoting so much time and energy to showcasing the experiences of those who are disenfranchised and underrepresented. After covering the Palestinian Authority and the Gaza Strip as a news reporter for years, Shlomi Eldar made his directorial debut in 2010 with “Precious Life,” a moving documentary about a Palestinian woman trying to save the life of her four-month-old child. His follow-up is expectedly layered, tackling another complicated instance of identity.

Eldar is very much a main character in his own nonfiction story, explaining his own move to the United States following many years as a liberal Israeli journalist. His film focuses on Arab TV star Ghassan Abbas and his role in a play about called “I Shall Not Hate,” based on Palestinian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish, born in Gaza and employed at an Israeli hospital, who lost his daughters when they were killed in their home by Israeli fire during the Gaza war. The continued striving for peace by Abuelaish and by Ghassan in his promotion of the play come into conflict with the permanent sense of being an outsider and a foreigner that they feel.

As a Jew from Israel living in America and focusing on highlighting the incredible attitudes of these Palestinian men calling for peace despite what they’ve experienced, Eldar is himself unsure about his own place in the world. Heavy snow is shown falling in his backyard during the winter, something that he would never experience in Israel, and there are still so many things that feel different about where he is and how far away he is from the places that are so important for him personally and professionally for him to need to showcase.

Abbas is a charismatic personality, one who isn’t afraid to speak his mind. He has no problem refusing to bow when a right-wing mayor attends his performance, and he discusses how hard it is to relate to Abuelaish, since his first thought is that any man who lost family members in such a way should hate those responsible rather than argue that there must be a path to peace. It’s not clear how wide an audience will see this film, but it being made and being showcased at the Other Israel Film Festival is a fantastic start, ensuring that at least some people who need to see this will understand that even those who have experienced true pain unnecessarily see that more disagreement and violence is not the answer.


Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Death of a Poetess

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 12th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 1st-8th, 2018.

Death of a Poetess
Directed by Dana Goldberg and Efrat Mishori
Festival Information

One of the primary reasons that the Other Israel Film Festival exists is to showcase the fact that there is more than one type of person living in Israel. The complexities of a Jewish state and a native Palestinian population, much of which was displaced during its creation, make Israel especially poignant as a place for this kind of focus, but it’s true in so many areas that where someone comes from can greatly affect how they go through the world. Two people walking through the same streets may have extraordinarily disparate experiences based on little more than the color of their skin or the identifiable nature of their accent.

Two narratives simultaneously play out in this film, happening at different times with separate main characters. Yasmin (Samira Saraya) is an Arab nurse from Jaffa who is being interrogated by the police for her alleged role in a crime. As she insists that she is innocent, she is repeatedly told that she isn’t being honest. Lenny (Evgenia Dodina) is an Israeli scholar from Tel Aviv trying hard to get the clothing she was promised at a shop. The two stories converge as more details of what comes after Lenny’s day and before Yasmin’s become clear and they meet at a bar.

Both Yasmin and Lenny’s journeys are portrayed in black and white, which helps to add a starkness to the ordeal that Yasmin goes through and a monotony to Lenny’s mindless but important errands. Framing them opposite each other highlights the true gap in treatment that exists between people of different cultures and economic classes, with judgments made even before anything is done or said based simply on appearance and nationality. The emphasis that Yasmin’s interrogators place on her evident dishonesty particularly stings since she must go out of her way to prove, repeatedly, that she has done nothing wrong when someone else who didn’t look or sound like her wouldn’t need to say anything in order to avoid suspicion.

The strongest part of this film is the selection of the two actresses who play Yasmin and Lenny. Saraya delivers an emotional performance as a woman well aware of what she’s had to do her entire life to defend her identity pushed past her breaking point with every new insult. Dodina, a six-time Ophir Israel Academy Award nominee with recent performances in “Virgins” and “One Week and a Day,” commands her scenes with a sense of having already experienced plenty in the world and hardly interested in a new perspective. This film has a powerful message, one that shines through even as its seventy-seven-minute runtime occasionally feels long.


Saturday, November 3, 2018

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: The Optimists

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 12th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 1st-8th, 2018.

The Optimists
Directed by Eliezer Yaari
Festival Information

If there’s one thing that’s truly lacking in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East, and here at home in America, it’s optimism. The sense that so much has happened which simply can’t be reversed and that politics have become too divisive and isolating is shared by people on opposing sides of issues, with a middle ground seeming like an impossibility because working together in pursuit of a compromise that could, to some degree, please all is no longer anyone’s first priority. This film seeks to combat that notion by showcasing a small subset that does believe a happy ending is possible.

Mandy Patinkin introduces and narrates the film, which primarily looks at the roots of Kibbutz Ketura, which was founded by members of the Young Judaea youth group decades ago. As its history is explored, there is an eye to the future, with the ambitious goal of creating an Arab kibbutz that can coexist alongside it. The proposal is met with mixed responses, and one of its most passionate supporters is Dr. Tariq Abu Hammad, a Palestinian chemist whose daily commute into Israel proved to be too stressful and unpredictable. The work of the Arava Institute, which strives to unite those living within Israel and its border countries, also comes into sharp focus as one potential sign of hope from a deeply conflicted region.

Having Patinkin explain much of what is shown in the film helps to give this film an affirming context, utilizing a popular American actor well-known for his immersion in Judaism as the mouthpiece for this effort to do away with cultural labels that encourage division and to think productively about to come together and truly work for peace. If nothing else, those interviewed in the film are honest, with certain residents of the kibbutz expressing fear about not knowing who their neighbors would be and others telling stories of artificial obstacles that threatened to destroy friendships and relationships only when explicitly revealed long after an initial meeting.

Running just fifty-four minutes, this film is evidently merely a starting point in the conversation. It acknowledges that in its inability to find or even propose a specific solution that could actually work, but it manages to cover a handful of different facets. Some, such as a glimpse of the Women of the Wall, a women’s prayer group that meets monthly at the Western Wall to hold egalitarian services not typically allowed at the site, feel tangential and unexplored, but hopefully this film can be exactly what it wants to be: a way to get people talking and to continue this work.


Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Megiddo

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 12th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 1st-8th, 2018.

Directed by Itzik Lerner
Festival Information

Going inside a prison with a video camera is always an opportunity to tell a story and to expose the way that its unwilling residents are being treated. While they are incarcerated for crimes they have committed, there is still a basic human dignity that must be preserved, with the hope that those who are released emerge rehabilitated and eager to contribute positively to society. That concept is much more complicated in Israel, where many are imprisoned for involvement in activities against their occupiers, and being confined to a space that is not their own and guarded by the very people they detest creates an altogether different sentiment.

Megiddo is a high-security prison in Israel which includes a number of Palestinian prisoners from different factions, including Hamas and Fatah. They introduce themselves and note their charges to the camera, with many instances of lengthy sentences for crimes including shooting at soldiers and setting off bombs that resulted in no injuries and no casualties, or something more general like involvement in terrorist activities. In their present situation, they still advocate for themselves, electing spokesmen to ensure humane treatment and to combat disciplinary measures that seek to punish everyone for one inmate’s infraction.

One of the focuses of this film is to highlight the discrepancy afforded to those affiliated with Fatah and with Hamas, which in addition to being a political party is also widely regarded as a terrorist organization. Some of the film’s most powerful moments come when a prisoner scheduled for release after his third term in jail talks to a guard, who tells him that any man who gets sent to jail three times is likely to be back for a fourth, since it obviously means that he values his ideology over his family. Though there’s little mention of any sort of remorse or reformed attitudes, there is a strong emphasis on the prisoners as family men who yearn for the day that they might be reunited with their loved ones.

The level of access granted to these filmmakers is incredible, and it definitely presents an eye-opening look into what life in this prison is like. What the documentarians fail to do, perhaps purposely, is to take a side in what it is that they’re documenting. The prisoners mostly express dissatisfaction with some of their conditions despite appearing relatively comfortable, and there’s a sense that protest is almost mandatory as a way of life, which then elicits surprise from the prisoners when repercussions ensue. It’s the kind of film that should definitely be shown at a festival such as the Other Israel Film Festival, but it’s more of a conversation starter than a fully-realized finished product.


Friday, November 2, 2018

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Working Woman

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 12th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 1st-8th, 2018.

Working Woman
Directed by Michael Aviad
Festival Information

Something that has come to the forefront of the modern conversation is that sexual harassment is far too prevalent everywhere. The notion that a woman needs to work harder to get ahead is widely accepted as an unfortunate reality, and, as has been exposed within Hollywood and other areas, men use power as a tool to make women feel subservient and as if they have to do things they aren’t comfortable with in order to stay employed. This problem is rampant in America but exists in other places all around the world, in workplaces and environments of all shapes and sizes.

Orna (Liron Ben-Shlush) is trying to support her family and her chef husband (Oshri Cohen) as he works to get his restaurant license. As she begins a job in real estate working for Benny (Menashe Noy), Orna discovers that she has a real talent. Benny commends her performance and also expresses a more personal interest in Orna, one that she immediately rejects. Though she makes her commitment to her husband and family clear, as she continues to enjoy professional successes, Benny asserts his attraction to her more and more, forcing her to decide whether she can continue to excel in this role if it involves accepting such behavior.

There is an intimacy to this film and the portrayal of its three primary characters that makes the topic it deals with all the more impactful. Though there are others who work at the real estate company, Orna spends nearly all of her time with Benny, who sees in her a pretty face at the very least and a cunning operator at best, and seeks to cultivate that at every turn. He is also very aware of the power he holds over her, a dynamic that should be unfortunately familiar to many viewers of this film. His frequent accolades directed towards Orna in the company of others sting even more because of how he abuses his position, and that’s no more evident than in a scene when he brings Oran in to her husband’s restaurant and puts on an uncomfortable show to demonstrate just how much influence he exerts on her.

Ben-Shlush gives a formidable lead performance, imbuing strength and determination in an impossible situation, one that she seems to view at first as manageable before realizing just how Benny, who initially seems like a terrific boss, ignores the abusive nature of his own actions. Noy, who defended a mistreated woman onscreen in “Gett: The Trial of Vivianne Amsalem,” crafts a perfectly horrific offender, one who is charismatic and charming up until the moment that he crosses a line he would never acknowledge exists. Sadly, this film may not really portray an “other” in Israeli or any society, but it does present an effective and unsettling look at something so many people endure and can’t hope to escape.


Thursday, November 1, 2018

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: The Cousin

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 12th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 1st-8th, 2018.

The Cousin
Directed by Tzahi Grad
Festival Information

Groups within society have an inherent distrust for the other, someone outside their community, nationality, religion, or any other possible divider. Normalized expectations of what people from various backgrounds should be doing, namely in regard to professional employment, can also lead to conflict, since an assumption of commitment to work and to a degree of honesty also prejudice people against each other. Among the many complicated facets of both Israeli and Palestinian societies is the work deemed suitable – and attainable – for people based on where they were born and where they live.

Naftali (Tzahi Grad) is an open-minded Israeli man with big goals for peace initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians. When he goes to pick up a handyman recommended by his gardener, he finds the man’s brother, Fahed (Ala Dakka) instead, and has him get started on a renovation project he’s been putting off for a long time. When a local woman is attacked, everyone in Naftali’s village immediately suspects his new Palestinian employee. Naftali may be eager to give him a chance, but he finds that nearly everyone around him, including his wife, is more than ready to believe that a Palestinian is likely to blame for whatever crime occurred in their Israeli village.

This is a perfect film to open the latest round of the Other Israel Film Festival, looking not at a hot-button subject like terrorism or developments but instead the simple interaction of Israelis and Palestinians as part of daily life. This film is billed as a comedy, mainly because it provides a humorous look at the way the most vocal members of the village seek to insert themselves into something that shouldn’t concern them, eager to find a scapegoat in part to make themselves feel more secure about the sanctity and homogeneity of their neighborhood. It’s a great specific instance that can easily be applied broadly to so many different areas and people in the world.

Grad serves as director, writer, and star of this film, playing Naftali as a man living in his own world, hopeful for the future and immune to the realities of those less open to new ideas. Dakka turns in an endearing performance as Fahed, who quickly becomes annoyed with his situation and the fact that he can’t get work done because of the way he’s being treated. This is an entertaining and enlightening experience, one that views serious real-life issues through an inviting comic lens.