Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
While the excellent winner of the Ophir (Israel’s Oscars) for Best Picture, Sundance Film Festival entry Fill the Void, didn’t make the cut for the Best Foreign Film category, the Oscar nominee list still features an impressive slate from Israel. In fact, it’s doubly represented in the Best Documentary Feature race, by The Gatekeepers, from Israeli Dror Moreh, and 5 Broken Cameras from Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi. These two films have been selected as the crowning achievements of nonfiction filmmaking, and it doesn’t provide anything close to a positive view of Israel.
The Gatekeepers has been widely praised as a groundbreaking exposé which brings to light the unexpected opinions of the six living former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s Secret Service. All of Moreh’s interview subjects express a sincere lack of confidence in the attitude the Israeli government has held and currently holds towards the Palestinian people. When I spoke with Moreh, he said that this is an important film for the world to see, to comprehend that Israelis can be critical of their government’s policies. Yet it is an enormously destructive and dangerous film, one which provides no context for its preconceived notions. An op-ed in the Jerusalem Post breaks down the way in which Moreh’s film completely ignores the prevalence of terrorism. During our conversation, Moreh admitted that the Palestinians are also to blame for the lack of progress in the Middle East, yet his film irresponsibly fails to include anything to support that belief.
5 Broken Cameras, on the other hand, provides a narrow frame of focus, as Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat has five cameras destroyed while attempting to document the activities of Israeli settlers and the army’s response to the activism prompted by it. The context of the film is less problematic, but its message is equally troubling. Burnat creates his film to showcase his mission as akin to that of an oppressed people fighting up against its militant rulers, comparable to recent documentary subjects like Burma VJ (Burma), The Square (Egypt), and This Is Not a Film (Iran). Burnat’s story is disturbing most for the unfortunate trajectory of events that befalls him, which include the death of one of his good friends and a serious injury he sustains that leads to exorbitant medical bills. Regardless of the legitimacy of his cause, Burnat repeatedly defies explicit warnings to stop filming and uses the concept of nonviolent resistance as a catch-all defense for his revolutionary behavior. At one point in the film, Burnat’s wife asks her son how he felt when he came face-to-face with Israeli soldiers, repeatedly and belligerently suggesting that he must have been scared, a sentiment he eventually echoes after several moments of silence. It’s no surprise that achieving both peace and civility is difficult within a culture in which hatred is propagated for the other from a young age.
Both The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras are understandably tough films to watch for those passionate about Israel, wherever on the spectrum viewers may fall. As films, the former is manipulative in the construction of its argument, while the latter clearly stems more from a clear and visible personal passion that aligns with the filmmaker’s own life and pursuits. Taken together as two-fifths of the best in nonfiction film in 2012, it offers a worryingly negative perception of Israel that may be all too prevalent in Hollywood.
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January 21, 2013 | 12:52 pm
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
It’s a phrase that immediately recalls the grand exodus of the Jewish people, and a song often sung during Passover seders. Let My People Go is also the title of a new film now playing in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal, Laemmle’s Playhouse, and Laemmle’s Town Center. This very entertaining movie is the story of Reuben (Nicolas Maury), a French-born gay Jew living in Finland whose life takes a crazy turn, which forces him to move him to spend time with his predictably loud and eccentric family. It’s a traditional Jewish comedy with a few important twists.
Reuben is not a religious man. He tells his mother that he dates goys specifically so that she won’t have them on holidays, and is sheepish about embracing his heritage upon his return to France. In a telling early scene, Reuben catches sight of The Ten Commandments playing on a television while he is in the airport, and he can’t escape the influx of Judaism into his life as his nephew prepares to chant the Mah Nishtanah at the Seder. Reuben even goes to consult his rabbi about how to detach himself from the Jewish people, and is told that even if he converts, he’ll still be seen as Jewish, pointing to Alfred Dreyfus as an example. Reuben’s family life is complicated, as his father wants to introduce him to his mistress of twenty years, and his sister’s wife has no qualms about outwardly expressing to the entire family that he believes that Israel was founded strictly as a way to get back at the Nazis.
Reuben’s mother, though she is French, should be instantly recognizable to American audiences as the typical Jewish mother. Rachel is first seen surrounded by a picture of Golda Meir and dancing at an exercise class to Hava Nagila next to a woman wearing an “I Heart Jerusalem” t-shirt. There is an imagined scene featuring a commercial in which Rachel advertises a “Jewish spray” that she can easily spray on her argumentative son-in-law to make him become Jewish. As portrayed by Carmen Maura, a frequent collaborator of director Pedro Almodovar, Rachel is the kind of character who can instantly remind anyone who grew up in a Jewish home of childhood.
The portrayal of overbearing, culturally identifiable mothers is not limited to those of a Jewish nature. Reuben’s Finnish boyfriend Teemu also has a strong-willed matriarch, who comes to see him after Teemu has kicked Reuben out and is having difficulty accepting his absence. When Teemu speaks derogatorily about prostitutes, his mother chastises him, telling him that prostitution is a career just like anything else. Let My People Go can be seen as an equal-opportunity offender, poking fun at Judaism, the French, Finland, and the idea of being gay. Reuben is a man who eternally finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, hopeless to control the life around him, and the audience gets a front-row seat to his light-hearted misery.
Let My People Go is a creative and inventive look at Jewish community and the healing power of holidays, an over-the-top adventure framed within a Jewish context. Antics which must be seen to be described lead to a chaotic but heartwarming Passover-night resolution, which gives some satisfaction to the film’s many discontent characters, including Reuben. It also possesses a surprising romantic streak, something that transcends religion or nationality. Though it might perhaps be more appropriate to screen this title in two months right around Passover time, it’s an enjoyable comedy that helps to enliven a January movie season that is typically devoid of quality so soon after all the Oscar films.
January 14, 2013 | 12:12 pm
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
Last Thursday, the Oscar nominations were announced. There were plenty of surprises, most notably the snubs of Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director. Many of the films I discussed in last week’s post, “The Role of Religion at the Golden Globes,” have also been recognized. The Rabbi’s Cat had no luck cracking the Best Animated Feature field, but there is still some Judaism to be found among the nominees. One filmmaker with Jewish roots, Benh Zeitlin, who was profiled in a piece by the Journal’s Naomi Pfefferman, found himself nominated for his first film alongside a veteran Jewish director, Steven Spielberg. Perhaps more interesting, however, is the Jewish content that populates several of the nominated films in two different categories.
The Best Documentary category is full of hard-hitting films with various focuses. How to Survive a Plague addresses AIDS, The Invisible War exposes sexual assault in the military, and Searching for Sugar Man examines the life of a famed musician. What’s considerably less expected is that the remaining two films in the category address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a major way. 5 Broken Cameras comes from Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat and filmmaker Guy Davidi, and follows a Palestinian family’s life in the West Bank. The Gatekeepers, from director Dror Moreh, presents candid interviews with six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israeli’s secret service. Both films address the difficulties of achieving piece between Israelis and Palestinians, broaching the topic from a liberal angle. Both films are sure to cause controversy, and it’s intriguing to see them nominated in the same race. 5 Broken Cameras arrives on DVD tomorrow and is currently available to watch free on Hulu. The Gatekeepers opens in LA theaters on February 1st.
The other place that Judaism shows up among this year’s nominees is in the film The Sessions. This wonderful movie tells the true story of Mark O’Brien, a writer who lives his life in an iron lung after being paralyzed by polio as a child. O’Brien, portrayed by John Hawkes, who missed out on an Oscar nomination after earning Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild mentions, consults his priest, Father Brendan, played by William H. Macy, to discuss the possibility of having sex for the first time. Father Brendan is an unusual but extremely compelling religious figure, struggling with his own concepts of sex outside marriage in this special case. Yet the film gets infinitely more interesting when Oscar nominee Helen Hunt first graces the screen, as sex therapist Cheryl Cohen-Greene. When Mark refers to her as a prostitute, she quickly differentiates what she does as something entirely unique. When she and Mark start to bond, Cheryl reveals that, as her last name might indicate, her husband is Jewish, and she is in the process of converting. One memorable scene in the film shows Cheryl at a mikvah, explaining to the religious woman there that she is not uncomfortable being naked. Cohen-Greene is in fact a real person and an author herself, and did go through the conversion process. The fact that the film shows this mikvah scene and attributes positive religious values to a character type not typically imbued with such qualities is terrific, and it’s refreshing to see such a fascinating portrait of Judaism in a film where the protagonist belongs to another religion.
It’s unlikely that, come Oscar night, Hunt will be able to defeat Anne Hathaway for the Best Supporting Actress prize, but it’s easily feasible that either of the two documentaries mentioned above could win that award. In the coming weeks, I’ll provide an in-depth look at each of them, and stay tuned for other awards-related happenings!
December 24, 2012 | 10:28 am
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
Since the next two months will undoubtedly be all about the Oscars, let’s take a moment to recognize the Jewish characters to be found among those nominee lists that reward television too. The two major awards bodies that also serve as Oscar predictors are the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), which gives out the Golden Globes.
The Screen Actors Guild unveiled its choices for the best of 2012 on Wednesday, December 12th. This awards body is notable because it hands out precious few trophies, and is very deliberate about its categories. For film, four major acting categories and an ensemble award are doled out, with five nominees apiece. For TV, there is one male category and one female category for each genre – comedy, drama, and miniseries/TV movie – as well as two ensemble prizes, one for comedy and one for drama.
Among the casts SAG nominated, there are four shows with a handful of distinguished Jewish characters among them. Boardwalk Empire depicts a number of Jewish gangsters in the 1920s and Mad Men had its new signature Jewish copywriter used by his employers to help make their client Manischewitz feel more comfortable. On The Big Bang Theory, Simon Helberg’s Howard Wolowitz can’t escape his Jewishness – or his Jewish mother – while Glee’s portrayal of its Jewish high school students leaves much to be desired: Puck’s family incomprehensibly screens Schindler’s List every year on Simchat Torah, and Rachel always talks only about what she wants for Christmas despite her obvious, and much-discussed, Jewish roots.
The HFPA, which announced its picks on Thursday, December 13th, managed to honor more individual TV Jews. No ensemble awards exist, and actors are recognized not by gender but by lead or supporting status. Lead stars in drama series, comedy series, and miniseries/TV movies get their own categories, while all supporting actors or supporting actresses from any of those mediums get lumped into one race. What that means for this year is one particularly diverse representation of television Judaism, in the Best Supporting Actor field. Ed Harris’ John McCain and Eric Stonestreet’s Modern Family member are joined by standout players from three very different shows. Danny Huston plays Jewish mobster Ben “The Butcher” Diamond on Starz’s otherwise entirely missable Magic City, the emblem of brutality and power. Max Greenfield is the hilarious Schmidt on New Girl, a well-dressed ladies’ man with frequent stories about his Jewish upbringing and, most recently, his recollection of a directive from Rabbi Shmuley not to tell the other kids that Santa wasn’t real. And finally there’s Mandy Patinkin, who netted his first nomination after being snubbed last year, as Saul Berenson, the distinctly Jewish senior CIA agent who serves as mentor to loose cannon and series protagonist Carrie on Homeland. Saul most recently recited the Mourner’s Kaddish, for the second time in the show’s history, in the season finale after a deadly terrorist attack claimed many lives. Putting Diamond, Schmidt, and Saul in the same race makes for quite a competition, and it’s nice to see such strong, if not entirely pure, representations of Jews in contention for recognition this year.
The Golden Globes air on January 13th, and the SAG Awards are on January 27th. In the coming weeks, I’ll be taking a look at the film nominees from both organizations as the Oscar nominations approach, on January 10th. But fear not, as new shows premiere in late winter and early spring, it’s more than likely that fresh Jewish characters will grace television screens once again.
December 17, 2012 | 2:16 pm
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
It’s no secret that there are Jews all over Hollywood. Both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, it’s hard to find a film or TV show that doesn’t have a Jew involved in some capacity. Jews win Oscars, Emmys, and other awards all the time. This blog will focus on those instances where Judaism seeps into those projects, tracking awards contenders with an eye on Jewish themes.
Oscar season is already underway. To prepare for this year’s race, let’s start with a quick overview of what kind of Jewish movies usually grab Oscar voters’ attention. There are three major categories: Holocaust movies, films about anti-Semitism, and, most recently, films from Israel.
Over the past sixty-five years, many films have been made about the Holocaust. The Diary of Anne Frank was a Best Picture nominee in 1959, and Nazis appeared in 1965 Best Picture winner The Sound of Music and 1972 nominee Cabaret, among others. In the past twenty-five years, noted Jewish filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Roman Polanski have had great success with Schindler’s List, which won seven Oscars, and The Pianist, which won three, respectively. Lesser known directors have also done well, with movies like Life is Beautifuland The Reader taking home acting trophies and netting Best Picture nominations. Foreign films like Germany’s Downfall and Austria’s The Counterfeiters have shown up in the Best Foreign Film race.Inglourious Basterds is an entirely different story, but its Oscar appeal was still high. Not all Holocaust movies are Oscar draws, however, as exemplified by three 2008 films, Defiance, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, andGood, only one of which netted a nomination (for music).
Anti-Semitism as an Oscar-friendly topic dates back to 1947, when Gregory Peck’s reporter pretended to be Jewish to expose discrimination in Best Picture winner Gentleman’s Agreement. Anti-Semitism was front-and-center in sports in 1981 winner Chariots of Fire and 1994 nominee Quiz Show. The 1972 Munich massacre was chronicled both in 2000 Best Documentary winner One Day in September and 2005 Best Picture nomineeMunich.
Israel officially ranks as the most-nominated country in the Best Foreign Film category never to win. The sixth most-nominated nation overall has earned ten Oscar nominations, four of which have come in the last five years. Most of those films are only tangentially Jewish, merely incorporating aspects of the culture. Beaufortand Waltz with Bashir were about soldiers, Ajami about Israeli-Palestinian relations, and Footnote about a family of intellectuals. Israel’s first nominee in this category, 1964’s Sallah Shabati, chronicled Jewish emigration to the newly founded state of Israel, accurately echoing the times. Films explicitly about Jewish themes in Israel are still made, but they don’t tend to be Oscar winners.
Additionally, Woody Allen and Barbara Streisand get their own category of lighter entertainment that Oscar voters seems to like, with Annie Hall and Funny Girl serving as their best respective successes. Arguably one of the most Jewish films ever made, Fiddler on the Roof, did exceptionally well in 1971, earning eight nominations, including Best Picture, and taking home three trophies. There are other exceptions, but, generally speaking, these are the best ways to win Oscar voters over for Jewish films.
A number of Oscar precursors have already announced their picks for the best in cinema this year. Next time, we’ll take a look at how Jewish themes are shaping up to play into the Oscar race this year.