Jewish Journal

Indies Focus on Holocaust, Middle East

by Iris Mann, Contributing Writer

Posted on May. 20, 2009 at 5:31 pm

Brad Pitt as Aldo Raine in “Inglourious Basterds.” <small>Photo by Francois Duhamel</small>

Brad Pitt as Aldo Raine in “Inglourious Basterds.” Photo by Francois Duhamel

Aside from the usual blockbusters, aimed mainly at the young set on vacation from school, summer 2009 also will offer some meaningful film fare for discerning audiences. Movie critic Emanuel Levy, a professor in the UCLA film department, refers to this trend as “counter-programming.”

“Almost every week during the summer,” he said, “the boutique studios and smaller distribution arms of the larger companies release lower budget films. It’s hard to classify them by genre, but they appeal to the more mature, educated and intelligent crowd that likes independent cinema and wants a respite from the noisy blockbusters that are all about special effects.”

This summer’s counter-programming includes Holocaust-related themes, the Jewish American experience and Middle East stories that may well interest Jewish audiences.

With “Inglourious Basterds,” filmmaker Quentin Tarantino makes his first foray into the horrors of the Nazi era. Scheduled for an Aug. 21 release, the film has not yet been widely screened, but advance buzz indicates Tarantino may well have outdone himself, if he hasn’t missed the mark. The scenario has three main story lines. On a farm in German-occupied France, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) witnesses her family’s execution at the hands of a Nazi colonel (Christoph Waltz). She manages to escape and lands in Paris, where she takes on a new identity and runs a movie theater.

In a different part of Europe, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) puts together an elite unit of Jewish soldiers whose mission it is to exact retribution by killing specific enemy targets. The Nazis dub these soldiers “The Basterds.” The third plot line introduces a German actress who is also an undercover agent (Diane Kruger) and who joins with the Basterds in a scheme to eliminate the leaders of the Third Reich. As the press notes put it, “Fates converge under a cinema marquee, where Shosanna is poised to carry out a revenge plan of her own.”

Levy feels that, although some aspects of the film could place it in the independent category, the involvement of Tarantino and Pitt lands it somewhere between a huge-budget undertaking and a truly small indie.

But there’s no denying the independent status of Boaz Yakin’s “Death in Love,” slated to open in Los Angeles theaters on July 31, a film that provides a more abstract treatment of the Holocaust.

A survivor (Jacqueline Bisset) is haunted by the passionate love affair she conducted with a Nazi doctor while she was in a concentration camp. Her longing for that lost love has a devastating effect on her two grown sons, whom she alternately devours and rejects. The older son (Josh Lucas) is a con artist who works at a phony modeling agency and is obsessed with sex, yet unable to bond with a woman. His younger brother (Lukas Haas) is a talented musician, but terrified of the outside world.

Writer-director Yakin says that even though he seems to be focusing on the Holocaust and its aftermath, he is really exploring more universal issues.

“This film is about cycles of pain and frustration and how we’re affected as individuals by things that happened before we were born, even if we have no knowledge of them,” said Yakin, whose own mother lost most of her family in the Holocaust. “I don’t think that’s necessarily a Jewish theme, even though I use Jewish iconography to tell the story.”

The filmmaker also uses Jewish symbols to examine the love-hate relationship he feels every persecuted group has with its persecutors. Just as the mother in the film lusts after death in the form of her Nazi lover, Yakin believes Jews have a complicated psychosexual connection to the Holocaust.

“On the one hand, we hate it, and we talk about it as the worst thing possible, and it was. But, on the other hand, we love it, because on some horrible level it’s an orgasmic culmination of our sadomasochistic relationship with the outside world that has lasted for thousands of years, and now we’re dealing with the fallout. Even though we hate it and decry it, we’re obsessed with it. We don’t let it go, and we define ourselves by it,” he said.

If these sentiments are sure to inflame some audiences, Yakin doesn’t worry about it. “I think there’s a place for this,” he said, “and if it’s controversial, so be it. I don’t like being yelled at or having people pissed off at me, but I also have a more complex view of the world, and, if I feel impelled to express that, then I will.”

Other filmmakers are impelled to explore the quintessentially American Jewish experience.

Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee tackles “Taking Woodstock,” based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, a gay, Jewish interior designer living in Greenwich Village, who inadvertently helped bring the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival to fruition. Although the film is not yet being screened, the trailer provided by Focus Features indicates that this Aug. 14 release takes a broadly comedic look at events leading up to that “happening.”

The year is 1969. Tiber moves to upstate New York to help his parents save their broken-down motel in the Catskills, a resort area popular among Jewish vacationers, from being foreclosed on by the bank. When a nearby town yanks the permit for a hippie music festival, Tiber contacts the producer, hoping to get some business for the motel. The Woodstock staff moves in, and some half-million people line the route to the event site at a neighboring farm, as Tiber and his family become part of an occasion that would permanently change American culture.

On a very different note, American culture was also changed under far more pressing circumstances when AIDS first invaded the gay male community in the early 1980s. Filmmaker Daryl Wein’s documentary, “Sex Positive,” coming out June 19, chronicles the progression of the epidemic and the campaign of former S&M hustler Richard Berkowitz, in conjunction with fellow activists Dr. Joseph Sonnabend and the late musician Michael Callen, to promote safe sex. Berkowitz, in particular, was excoriated by some members of the gay community who feared a homophobic backlash and refused to believe that promiscuity, drug use and unprotected sex contributed to the spread of the disease.

Wein, who first met Berkowitz at a Passover seder in 2006, uses archival footage that contains fleeting, but graphic, images of sexual encounters among gay men, including group sex and bondage, alongside interviews with gay activists, some of whom are HIV positive. Berkowitz, whose book “Stayin’ Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex” had a profound influence on the film’s straight director, is now living with HIV/AIDS, alone and on disability.

This is a somber story that is not for everyone, but it does open a window into a culture unfamiliar to the general audience, and it paints a vivid portrait of persistence in promoting a revolutionary idea against virulent opposition.

We move from a subject that looks death in the face to what first-time filmmaker Megumi Sasaki calls “a celebration of life,” in her documentary “Herb & Dorothy” (in theaters July 10). This is the story of Herb Vogel, a retired postal worker, and his wife, Dorothy, a former librarian, who amassed one of the most important collections of contemporary art in history on their very modest incomes. During the late 1960s, the couple began collecting works by artists unknown at the time. Their criteria were that the pieces had to be affordable and had to fit into their small one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, which, over time, became filled from top-to-bottom and wall-to-wall with artworks. The two lived on Dorothy’s salary and used Herb’s earnings for acquisitions.

After some 30 years, Herb and Dorothy had accumulated more than 4,000 pieces. Many of the artists represented in their collection, including Robert and Sylvia Mangold, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Richard Tuttle, Pat Steir and Robert Barry, among numerous others, became world-renowned, so that the Vogels’ collection ultimately became worth millions of dollars. In 1992, Herb and Dorothy donated most of the works they owned to the National Gallery of Art, and other museums across the country. They still live in their tiny apartment and continue to acquire new art.

Sasaki spent four years shooting interviews with the Vogels and some of the artists they patronized. Her documentary also incorporates images of selected artworks together with archival photos and videos. “This film is about the power of passion, love and dedication,” she said. “It is also about having access. I came to realize that one doesn’t have to be wealthy or to have graduated from art school to appreciate and to collect art.

“I hope my film speaks to people who may just be trying to survive from day to day. Your job may be boring, and you may not have much money, but, if you allow yourself to follow your passions, life can still be exciting and fulfilling.”

That notion might not be so true for a woman living in the Middle East, where life can also be oppressive and dangerous, as revealed in “The Stoning of Soraya M.” Director Cyrus Nowrasteh brings to light a practice he says was commonplace in Old Testament times and still exists in such countries as Iran, Nigeria, Sudan and, until recently, Afghanistan. His film’s heroine is an Iranian woman named Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo, Oscar nominee for best supporting actress in “House of Sand and Fog”), who defies her entire village and bears witness by telling a stranded war correspondent from France that her niece, Soraya (Mozhan Marnò), has just been buried to the waist in the town square and stoned to death by the entire community after being convicted on morals charges by an all-male tribunal.

These events actually took place in 1986 and were documented in an international bestseller by journalist Freidoune Sahebjam (Jim Caviezel), which became the inspiration for the film. Upon further investigation, Sahebjam learned that Soraya’s husband, Ali (Navid Nagahban), intent on marrying a 14-year-old girl, had fabricated the charges with help from the local mullah, a former criminal who was actually a false cleric. Others were coerced or blackmailed into testifying against Soraya.

Nowrasteh finds many themes emerging from this tale, including the topic of women’s subjugation in certain cultures, and the dangers of mob rule.

“I think mob rule can occur anywhere,” he observed. “There weren’t a lot of Nazis who stepped up and objected to the Jews being gassed in the camps. I would say mob rule took over in L.A. during the riots. People just get swept up in a certain form of righteousness or the smell of violence and retribution in the air, and they figure, ‘OK, he’s doing it, he’s doing, and he’s doing it. It must be all right. Let’s join in.’ “

“The Stoning of Soraya M.” will open on June 26.

Traditional religious restrictions clash with the kind of modern freedoms enjoyed in Afghanistan during the 1980s, before the rise of the Taliban, through the catalyst of an “American Idol” clone called “Afghan Star,” a TV competition currently watched by millions throughout that country. Havana Marking’s documentary about the controversial program follows four finalists, two of them women, as they compete for a $5,000 prize by wooing the votes of viewers, who send in their selections by mobile phone.

Marking portrays the democratizing influence of pop culture in Afghanistan, where the Mujahideen consider music sacrilegious and the Taliban forbid it entirely, by depicting contestants from various ethnic groups that are usually hostile to one another coming together on equal footing to sing in public. The presence of three women in the initial rounds is particularly radical in this male-dominated culture based on a tribal elder system.

However, the limits of freedom are exposed when one of the women, after being eliminated from the contest, sings her last song and performs some minor dancing movements. Since dancing is forbidden under Sharia law, even the more progressive young male contestants are scandalized, and there is talk of her life being in danger. The other female finalist also endures death threats.

But, despite increased government pressure, the program continues to air, and the movie “Afghan Star,” opens in Los Angeles on July 24.

Finally, the conflict in Iraq provides the setting for a riveting film that delves into the addictive nature of war. “The Hurt Locker” depicts an elite Army squad staffed by volunteer technicians who disarm the innumerable incendiary devices continuously planted on roadsides by Iraqi insurgents. The film centers on three squad members as they routinely risk their lives to save Americans and Iraqis. The pivotal character, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), is a master at dismantling bombs, but disdains procedure and seems to get high on taking unnecessary risks, bringing him into conflict with other team members. 

Screenwriter Mark Boal was embedded with one such squad in 2004 and based his script on that experience. Although the film is fictional, director Kathryn Bigelow imbues it with the quality of a documentary and gives viewers the sense that they are right on the ground with the men, in the midst of the explosions and the terror.

Look for this one on June 26, and enjoy your summer at the movies.

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