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Fall Films: Identity crises, controversy, conflict, creativity and chicanery

by Iris Mann, Contributing Writer

September 10, 2012 | 3:54 pm

Mehdi Dehbi in “The Other Son.”

Mehdi Dehbi in “The Other Son.”

A careful search has uncovered a small treasure trove of unusual and provocative films slated for release this fall.

Two of these focus on the crisis of identity experienced by unsuspecting young men who suddenly discover they have Jewish roots.

In “The Other Son,” by French-Jewish filmmaker Lorraine Lévy, 18-year-old Joseph (Jules Sitruk) is about to begin his service in the Israeli military.  The boy has grown up as the child of a French-Jewish doctor (Emmanuelle Devos) and an Israeli army commander (Pascal Elbé).  Then, a DNA test given during his medical exam reveals that the people who raised him are not his birth parents.

Furthermore, his real parents are Palestinians (Khalifa Natour and Areen Omari) who have been raising the Jewish couple’s son, whom they named Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi), as their own.  It seems the two boys were accidentally switched at birth during the Gulf War when they were both evacuated from the same clinic. 

According to Lévy there is historical precedent for her theme.

“During the 1991 war,” she explained, “Scud missiles rained down on Israel, and maternity hospitals were evacuated with such haste that some children were not returned to the correct parents. I found poignant testimony from young men and young women who know that they are not the biological child of their parents. In ‘The Other Son,’ the fiction is a bit more daring.

“This enabled me to explore in greater depth the questions of otherness and of difference. Who is the Other?  How can we, by not recognizing the Other, deny our own selves? The most important line in the film is perhaps the one in which, looking at himself in the mirror, Yacine tells Joseph that they are both the children of Abraham.”

Although the politics of the region hover over the proceedings, Lévy, who lost many family members in concentration camps, said she has no thesis to defend and that she wanted to make a film of hope, not a partisan film.

In that vein, Lévy had a totally integrated company. One of her co-writers is Jewish, the other is not. One third of the crew was French, one third Israeli and one third Palestinian, including people from the West Bank.

“The crew quickly united around the film,” she said. “In addition, when we would encounter problems on the Palestinian side, the Palestinians on the crew went to plead our cause. When we ran into difficulties on the Israeli side, it was the Israelis from the crew who leapt to our defense.”

Asked if she really believed that her hopeful conclusion is possible, Lévy replied, “I wanted a film that is an outstretched hand. And if they tell me I am utopian, too bad.  I think with emotion and respect of Martin Luther King, and, I, too, ‘I have a dream.’ ”

“The Other Son” opens Oct. 26 in Los Angeles.

Bill Skarsgård in “Simon and the Oaks.”

Bill Skarsgård in “Simon and the Oaks.”

Another young man unexpectedly discovers his Jewish roots in the film “Simon and the Oaks,” based on a best-selling Swedish novel.  In the story, which begins during WWII, Simon (Jonatan S. Wächter as a youth and Bill Skarsgård as an adult) is being raised in a small Swedish village by loving, working-class parents, Karin (Helen Sjöholm) and Erik (Stefan Gödicke). The scholarly, sensitive boy insists on going to an elite school, and though his parents are afraid he will become conceited and alienated from them, they relent.

At the school, Simon befriends Isak (Karl Martin Eriksson as the youngster and Karl Linnertorp as the adult), a Jewish student whose family has managed to escape from Nazi Germany and who now is the target of anti-Semitic slurs by their schoolmates.

The boy’s father, Ruben (Jan Josef Leifers), is a well-to-do bookseller, and Simon becomes enthralled by his books, music and art collection. At the same time, Isak takes readily to helping Erik, who makes boats, and comes to stay at Simon’s home to escape increasing Nazi presence in the town.

As Simon grows up he learns that he was adopted and that his real father was a Jewish musician. He distances himself from the couple that raised him, becoming closer to Ruben and a life of cultural pursuits.

Director Lisa Ohlin said she was drawn to the book because, when she was a teen, she learned that her mother was Jewish and had fled from Berlin to New York in 1939, as the Nazis were taking power. Ohlin’s mother never talked about that part of her life.   

Her parents separated, and her father returned to his native Sweden. Her mother died when Ohlin was 5. She and her brother then went to Sweden to live with their father, who never mentioned their mother.

“My father decided to not talk about our earlier life,” Ohlin recalled, “and so I, as children do, did my best to adapt to the new country, and quickly banished my past.”

The director returned to the United States at age 17 and met members of her mother’s family, who told her about her mom’s past.  

At its core, the director explained, “Simon and the Oaks” is a coming-of-age story about the need to find out who you are. 

“I also wanted to bring forth the book’s brilliant description of the war,” Ohlin added,  “the everyday fear, the growing anti-Semitism. …”  

As she learned about the treatment of Jews in Sweden during the war, Ohlin found that, “On one hand, Sweden and Switzerland, separately, proposed that Jews should have special passports in order to stop the rising numbers of refugees. Thus the ‘J passports’ were issued to all Jews in Germany, and Sweden could send people back to a probable death. 

“In schools, there was a growing anti-Semitism, with parents telling their children not to play with their Jewish classmates any more.”

On the other hand, “Many Swedish soldiers at the border helped Jewish families fleeing from Norway, opposing their officers and risking their own lives. Hundreds of Swedish families opened their homes to refugees from Norway, Denmark and Germany.” 

“Simon and the Oaks” will be released Oct. 19.

Ann Boccuti with  her father, Bob, in  “Somewhere Between.”

Ann Boccuti with her father, Bob, in “Somewhere Between.” Photo courtesy of Linda Goldstein Knowlton

An identity crisis of a different sort is depicted in Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s documentary, “Somewhere Between,” which deals with the adoption of Chinese girls by American families. Knowlton made the film after she and her husband adopted a Chinese baby they named Ruby, who is now 7.

“Adoption was always a part of the conversation my husband and I had about ways to create our family,” Knowlton said. “We very much feel that we are citizens of the world, so we explored all possible options in both the U.S. and globally; we felt a connection to China, and we appreciated the process of their program.”

Because of China’s One-Child Policy, many children are left in orphanages. Most of these are girls, since, in that culture, they are less desirable than boys. Knowlton spent three years filming four teenaged Chinese girls who had been adopted by Americans, all of whom have turned out to be high achievers.  She intended the documentary to examine such themes as identity, family and belonging.

Knowlton’s background contains a strong Jewish influence. She attended a Hebrew day school from kindergarten through seventh grade, as well as  Habonim Camp Tavor — Habonim being an international, progressive, Zionist youth movement founded in 1935.  In addition, she worked on a kibbutz in Israel that is associated with the Habonim movement. 

“I was raised to feel the importance of community and tikkun olam,” Knowlton said. “I don’t know that those ideas directly influenced our decision to adopt, but I know they do play a strong role in how we raise our daughter and live our lives.”

“Somewhere Between” will be released Sept. 14.

“Tears of Gaza”

“Tears of Gaza”

Controversy has erupted in certain quarters over the documentary “Tears of Gaza,” which details the 2008-09 Israeli bombing of Gaza — the campaign known as Operation Cast Lead — from the viewpoint of the Palestinians residents. There are shocking scenes of bombs exploding and excruciating images of dead or wounded men, women and children.  The film has been shown at festivals around the world, including the Jerusalem Film Festival, and won several awards.

Norwegian director Vibeke Løkkeberg was not allowed by either the Israelis or the Egyptians to enter Gaza and managed to interview only one of the three psychologically or physically damaged children she features in her film. However, she said all the questions posed in the film were written by her.

“I used writers and directors who are very professional and who work internationally. I sent them a script and asked them, ‘Can you please go to this family and just film their everyday life, how they survive in their house, how the woman cooks, what the children say about how it is to lose a father, when they go to the grave and when they go to the beach?’ ”

She continued, “I had to work with this production company in Gaza, and I said I would like to see if you can give me bombing during the night, general bombing, phosphorus bombing. That was the way I had to do it. But it had to be smuggled out, because this is not something that would make the aggressor happy.”

The film has made numerous members of the worldwide Jewish community very unhappy, to the point of outrage. In an article headlined “The Antisemitism to Come,” available at the Huffington Post blog, French writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy comments about the film’s omissions.

 “Has one the right to show images, dreadful like all images of war, without mentioning one word about the ideology of the masters of Gaza, their responsibility in triggering these operations, as well as their style of fighting — by obliging parents, for example, to turn their children into human shields?”

And J.J. Surbeck, executive director of Training and Education About the Middle East (TEAM), wrote in the San Diego Jewish World of what he calls “decontextualization.” The “film doesn’t say anything about the reasons for which Operation Cast Lead was launched in the first place. 9,000 rockets over Israel? As far as this production was concerned it never happened. Dozens of Israeli children killed or maimed during the second intifada? In the filmmakers’ view, they don’t count.”

“In this case,” Løkkeberg maintained, “400 children were killed by airplanes with phosphorus and bombs. They were not using all these weapons towards Israeli children. They have not used F-16s; they have not used bombs, because they are a lot more primitive. So I cannot compare what happened in Cast Lead and what happened with some rockets that some idiots are sending.”

Løkkeberg insisted that her only aim was to give a name and a face to people she feels are anonymous and stigmatized as terrorists, and that “Tears of Gaza” is an antiwar, not an anti-Israeli, film.

“I can just tell you, when it comes to Israel, I was brought up with Anne Frank. I was brought up collecting for trees and sending to Israel from the time I was a child. I am completely on your side about the Holocaust; everything is terrible, but this has nothing to do with Israel. It has to do with some children in Gaza.”

“Tears of Gaza” begins screening in L.A. theaters Sept. 21.

Guillaume Canet and Laetitia Casta in “War of the Buttons.”

Guillaume Canet and Laetitia Casta in “War of the Buttons.”

The conflict between two rival gangs of children in a small French village during World War II is depicted in “War of the Buttons.” The victors of each skirmish cut off all the buttons worn by the losers; hence the title.

Director Christophe Barratier, who co-wrote the screenplay, said it is based on a 1912 novel.

“ ‘The War of the Buttons,’ written in 1912 by Louis Pergaud, is a classic of French literature, one of the few books who gave children the main role, like you have in the U.S. with ‘Tom Sawyer’ or ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ The main theme of the book at the end of the day is: Where or when is the point when you leave your childhood to become an adult? And that’s, of course, still true and significant for contemporary people.”

Barratier added that when he updated the story to the time of World War II, he was trying to construct a parallel between the children’s battles and the larger war taking place between countries.

“There are the brave, the cowardly, the ones who reject conflict, the ones who are going so far they forget their human nature and the ones who are like ‘rats,’ meaning they denounce a Jewish child.”

The introduction of a Jewish girl (Ilona Bachelier) is another departure from the novel. This character is brought to the town from Paris by her godmother (Laetitia Casta), the village dressmaker, to keep her safe from the Nazis. Although some collaborators pose a threat to the girl, most of the townspeople come to her defense.

“My grandmother was telling me that kind of story,” Barratier explained. “She was living in a very small village lost in the mountains near Lyon. The postman was taking care of one hidden Jewish girl and everything was OK for two years. But in July, 1944, one man had a fight with the postman.  The day after, for payback, the guy went to the Kommandantur, and everybody was arrested — the postman and his family and, of course, the poor Jewish girl. No one came back.”

“The War of the Buttons” will be in theaters Sept. 21.

 

Henry Jaglom has transferred his play, “Just 45 Minutes From Broadway,” about a quirky family of performers living in upstate New York, to the screen. He views the work as his tribute to the creative world of theater people.

“My intention in making this film,” Jaglom said, “was to make a love poem to actors — their bravery, their courage and the difficulties and rewards of the lives they have chosen.” 

The father (Jack Heller) is a former Yiddish theater actor who has transitioned to the English-speaking stage. His younger daughter (Tanna Frederick) loves the acting life, but her older sister (Julie Davis) hates the bohemian lifestyle and brings her “civilian” fiancé (Judd Nelson) home to meet the family. Twists, turns, and unexpected revelations follow.

The movie’s opening date is Oct. 3. (A more extensive interview with Jaglom by Naomi Pfefferman can be found on The Ticket blog at jewishjournal.com.)

Susan Sarandon in “Arbitrage.”  Photo by Myles Aronowitz/Roadside Attractions

Susan Sarandon in “Arbitrage.”  Photo by Myles Aronowitz/Roadside Attractions

Finally, dirty dealings in the world of high finance form the subject of “Arbitrage,” which marks the feature directorial debut of Nicholas Jarecki, who also wrote the screenplay.

The story focuses on hedge-fund billionaire Robert Miller (Richard Gere), who has fraudulently lost his clients’ money in an investment scheme that imploded and is desperately trying to sell his company before the deception is uncovered.

Jarecki’s background has given him a certain familiarity with his subject. Both his parents are commodities traders, and he has run several computer companies.

In creating his main character, Jarecki said he did not want to depict a Madoff-type man.

“It is really meant to be an attempt to explore the conflicted humanity of a Wall Street man in over his head.

“What appealed to me was to try to look at a man who had once been a good man but had become corrupted. His ego had gotten away from him; he’d read, maybe, one too many of his own press releases, and so his moral judgment had been subdued.”

Miller’s moral crisis is heightened when he gets into a deadly car crash with his mistress and attempts to hide his involvement in the accident. 

For Jarecki, the film asks the question, “Will you give up the power that you love to hang onto your last shred of humanity?”

The filmmaker, who was not brought up in any particular religion, is the son of a mother raised as a Catholic, and a Jewish father whose own mother drove him through a Nazi barrier in a dramatic escape from the Holocaust.

“I think both of them have a very healthy questioning of the status quo,” Jarecki said.  “What I was taught is to work hard and never get too comfortable, because you don’t know what’s around the corner, and I think that’s probably a theme present in this film.  We don’t know where life is going to take us or what type of calamities can befall. Robert Miller says in the park to his daughter, ‘It’s like a plane crash.  It just happens.’  It’s the first time I’ve really thought about why I wrote that.”

“Arbitrage” will be released Sept. 14. 

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