Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The hit Israeli TV drama “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War,” now available at mako.co.il) proved prescient—and controversial—recently as Gilad Shalit returned to Israel in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners after five years in a Hamas dungeon. “Hatufim,” which inspired Showtime’s popular thriller, “Homeland,” premiered last year with unprecedented ratings – and scenes that could have doubled for Shalit’s homecoming.
In “Hatufim’s” beautifully shot and directed pilot, POWs Uri and Nimrod look shell shocked as the media pounces and cheering crowds wave banners celebrating their return after a massive prisoner exchange. Created by Gideon Raff (who also is an executive producer on “Homeland”), the series goes on to document the former captives’ struggle to reintegrate into their families and into society while battling post traumatic stress disorder and other psychological trauma. “In one episode, our POWs walk in the street and suddenly see demonstrations against their release because the price is too high,” Raff said. “Right under the celebration of Gilad Shalit’s return, we [also] see the price.”
“Hatufim” has earned both praise and ire from reporters and ex-POWs, but has been an unabashed hit with Israeli audiences; some have regaled Raff for bringing to light a previously taboo subject, while others claim the show “scored ratings by taking advantage of the country’s anguish over captive soldier Gilad Shalit,” the Associated Press said in an article reprinted in The Guardian.
When I interviewed Raff several days before Shalit’s Oct. 18 release, the writer-director strongly denied accusations that the show in any way exploits real-life events. “The script was not based on Shalit or anyone else in particular; it is from my mind,” he said. “I never wanted the series to reflect Gilad Shalit, because he is not a fictionalized character. Gilad Shalit was certainly in our prayers, but not in our story.” “Hatufim,” he added, was informed by meticulous research on POWs in general, and “We very carefully dealt with the issue with the utmost sensitivity and respect.” When the show premiered, the Shalits issued a statement reminding people that Gilad is not a fictional character. “But I have never heard any objections from the Shalit family, and every POW who has gotten in touch with me loves the show and feels his story is finally being told,” Raff said.
The Israeli-born Raff, 39, got the idea for “Hatufim” a couple of years ago while he was living in Los Angeles, where he had attended the American Film Institute (in the directing program), worked for director Doug Liman and himself directed the English-language films “The Killing Floor” and “Train.” After nine years in L.A., Raff hoped to move back to Israel with a TV series, and came up with “Hatufim” when he realized “There had been no series that dealt with POWs, ever. Even when the subject arose in newspapers or books, it always focused on the trauma of captivity or the obsession with bringing our boys home, not how they [fare] the day after their return. There are about 1,500 POWs who did come back, but we know very little about their lives after captivity.”
As to criticisms that the timing was inappropriate, Raff said: “I don’t think there is a good time, ever, in Israel to deal with this subject. Before Gilad Shalit, there was Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, and before that Ron Arad,” he said, referring to other searing POW cases. “It’s a pressing issue, and a national trauma, which is why it has to be discussed. In the United States, ‘The Hurt Locker’ won the Oscar with a very hard, emotional movie about the Iraq war, which was still happening. That’s why we have to keep talking about these things. It’s so weird an argument, to wait until something doesn’t happen anymore in order to deal with it.”
Anticipating flak for tackling such a taboo subject when soldiers, including Shalit, remained imprisoned, Raff intensely studied the psychological aftermath of captivity, which, he said, applies as much to POWs held in Vietnam as in the Gaza Strip. He read materials such as Zahava Stroud’s doctoral thesis from Tel Aviv University, which in the early 1980s “helped change how the IDF processes POWs,” Raff said.
He said he also interviewed 10 Israeli ex-prisoners, including Hezi Shai, who was imprisoned for three years after being captured in Lebanon by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Although Shai reportedly has not publicly revealed the extent of his ordeal, “he was very cooperative in our reseach and even came to the set,” Raff said.
Shai was on hand when Raff shot the excruciating scene in which Uri and Nimrod are finally reunited with their families at
Ben Gurion airport: Uri (Ishai Golan), the milder and meeker of the two, looks broken, anxious, like a hunted animal; while Nimrod (Yoram Toledano) stares with haunted, pained intensity at his relatives, who are now essentially a group of strangers. Rather than rushing to embrace each other, the POWs and their families simply stare at each other for what seems like an eternity – until Uri’s elderly father, now in a wheelchair, cries, “Why are you standing there like a nitwit? Come here!” “Aba,” Uri murmurs, as the father and son embrace.
“Hezi watched take after take of that scene and it was so emotional,” Raff recalled. “He said that was how it [really] was: the silence, the not knowing how to act, and not knowing who it is in front of you.”
The fictional Uri learns that his mother died while he was in captivity (“She waited as long as she could,” his father says) and confirms that his fiancée (played by Mili Avital) is now married to his brother. Nimrod, meanwhile, wants to drive home from the airport and ignores his wife when she chides that his driver’s license has expired. Nimrod soon chafes under the constrictions of family life and the watchful eyes of his wife, who in his absence has headed the family and become a media star in her own right—on behalf of POWs. The scene in which Nimrod attempts to fill out a job application is heartbreaking: College degrees? None. Work experience: None.
Both Uri and Nimrod bear horrific physical scars of torture, but their emotional scars become front and center in the show. Since captives have no control over their lives, Raff said, they can chafe under any kind of perceived constraint. “They tend to have trouble holding down jobs and marriages can collapse,” he said. “Moreover, they feel shame that terrorists who may kill again have been released on their [behalf]—and the media doesn’t let them forget it. It’s an intolerable burden. They don’t feel they are returning heroes, but instead feel broken and ashamed that they gave information under torture. There is also a survivor’s guilt that they made it while some of their buddies didn’t.”
The POWs in “Hatufim” flinch at sudden noises; they gain comfort from sleeping on the floor or sitting in the corner of a darkened room, against the wall, as they did in captivity. The flashback scenes of torture are even more brutal than those shown in “Homeland:” We see prisoners’ bloodied bodies hanging from the ceiling, screaming as they are beaten or contorting in response to electric shocks.
While “Homeland” is more of a thriller exploring the American psyche upon the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, “Hatufim” is more a domestic drama of life after captivity. (Even so, suspense does emerge when it turns out that a third soldier caught with Uri and Nimrod, who reportedly died in captivity, may not be dead after all.)
“Hatufim” is the latest and perhaps the most successful Israeli series to be adapted for American TV. Raff actually sold his idea to producers here even before he started writing “Hatufim;” in a way, this all worked through Jewish geography. Raff’s agent, Rick Rosen, also represents Howard Gordon, the executive producer of “24,” the thriller that starred Kiefer Sutherland as superpatriot counter terrorist maverick Jack Bauer. Gordon was so enthused by Raff’s idea that – the day “24” wrapped—he began working on “Homeland with his “24” colleague, Alex Gansa. Meanwhile, “Hatufim” was picked up by Keshet Broadcasting (also a client of Rosen’s), the company behind “BiTipul,” which became the acclaimed HBO series, “In Treatment,” starring Gabriel Byrne.
“Homeland,” which recently debuted to excellent reviews, stars Claire Danes as a rogue CIA officer with bipolar disorder who believes returning POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) may in fact have been “turned” into a terrorist during eights years in Afghanistan.
After viewing four episodes each of “Hatufim” and “Homeland” (which has also been picked up for a second season) I can say both are mesmerizing dramas exploring concerns unique to the countries in which they air. “Homeland” asks questions such as, whom do we really need to fear after the death of Osama bin Laden, and what is the price paid by those who continue to spy on our behalf?
“Hatufim” is high drama for a nation in which POWs are a continuing national tragedy; as an American Jew with many relatives in Israel, I can vouch that the beautifully scripted series resonates in an especially personal way. “When Israelis watch this show, it’s like a collective emotional experience,” Raff said. “It’s not an easy show for them to watch. Because Israel is such a small country, whenever soldiers are killed or fall captive, every Israeli feels that we’re all in mourning. The radio plays sad songs; nobody continues with mundane life.”
“Hatufim’s” second season will premiere on Israel’s Channel 2 in December; the first season is available in Hebrew online at mako.co.il, Raff said, adding that Kesehet is planning a DVD release of both seasons, with English subtitles, after season two completes its Israeli run.
Raff emphasized that Shalit will not become a character on the show; nor did he create the series for political reasons. “It would have been presumptuous to think that I’d do a series to help rescue Gilad Shalit,” he said. When I asked Raff if he was concerned about what Shalit might think of the series, he said, “That would be like asking a Holocaust survivor what they think of ‘The Pianist’…. I don’t know whether he will watch the show, but I do wish that one day it will be relevant for him, because it is about former POWs.”
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October 26, 2011 | 4:16 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
I’m sitting across from Max Maven at a tiny table in the parlor at the Magic Castle, and Maven – a legend in the magic world – is reading my mind. I’m staring at his third eye as he’s preparing to intuit exactly what I’ve drawn on a card tucked into a tiny envelope, sealed with tape and hidden inside a purse.
“I generally don’t use the word, ‘mentalist,’ to describe myself,” he had told me earlier in our conversation in advance of his one man-show, “Max Maven Thinking in Person: An Evening of Knowing and Not Knowing,” which will take place at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 28. “If pushed, I’ll say that I’m a theatrical mind reader. Often I will define myself as an artist who uses mystery as his medium.”
I experienced a sample of that mystery as Maven, donned in his signature goatee, all-black attire and a widow’s peak carved far into his forehead – instructed me to draw a picture on the back of a card (he wasn’t looking, having turned his back), which was, in turn, taped shut and placed in one of three purses that I mixed about on the table.
After eight minutes and sundry dramatic flourishes, Maven brandished a purple marker and, with broad strokes, sketched the exact image that I had drawn: a sailboat floating above a “sea” depicted by three wavy lines. “Deep waters,” he intoned, in a mellifluous baritone.
The routine is only a glimpse of the spectacle Maven presents onstage; his show is “a magic act woven into slivers of metaphysics,” the L.A. Weekly said; a “category defying mind-reading show that veers into conceptual art,” as The New York Times put it.
In “Thinking in Person,” Maven veers from haughty to self-deprecating to formidably erudite, exhibiting a lacerating – some have said, “serpent-like”—wit. His persona makes him appear larger than life, even though in his own words, “I’m not a tall man.” The show features ESP card tricks, drawings guessed even after Maven has been blindfolded with his eyes taped shut; Maven has even been known to guess the serial number of a dollar bill presented by the audience.
“I do what you loosely refer to as mind readings, and I also do the reverse: what I sometimes refer to as mind-writing, in which I steer a person’s behavior in ways they initially may not realize,” Maven told me of his show. “But intermixed, I do monologues, talking about people and historical moments that have had some impact on me.” He’ll demonstrate the stylized poses of Kabuki theater; refer to critic Alexander Woollcott of the Algonquin Round Table, or the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos. “Things that seem very far apart gradually fit together in a way that suddenly makes sense—and that’s another example of how the show attempts to make people look at things in a slightly different way.”
Can Maven actually read minds? “I sometimes liken my work to professional wrestling,” he said. “The audience knows some of it is real, some is fake, and they’re not entirely sure where to put the mark. What I’m doing is, [similarly] somewhere in the middle.
“I don’t claim any psychic abilities; to me, the word, ‘psychic’ is one step from claiming that aliens secretly control the government,” he said. “On the other hand, if I were to say that everything I do is a magic trick in the sense of slight of hand, or mirrors, or whatever else you associate with the term, that wouldn’t be accurate, either. I build upon psychological principles and a lot of experience with people, and it’s all theatrically embellished. At a given moment, my work might involve the use of nonverbal cues in both directions, plus some psychological management and maybe a sneaky bit or two ….It’s pretty busy in here when I’m working,” he said, tapping his head.
CAMERA WORK AND EDITING BY JAY FIRESTONE, WEB AND MULTI-MEDIA DIRECTOR
Now in his early 60s, Maven has been performing at the Magic Castle since 1977; walking with him through its ornate, Victorian-style halls, he paused by posters of Chung Ling Soo – actually an American from Scotland who performed in in the guise of a Chinese magician in the early 20th century. In 1910, Chung Ling Soo was one of five or six headliners among 31 magicians working variety clubs in London – all the others were Jewish.
Maven discovered this arcane fact while researching a lecture on Jews in magic he gave at the Skirball as an auxiliary program of its “Houdini” exhibition; some 30 percent of artists in the field between 1900-2000 were Jewish, he approximated. “The reason that magic has drawn Jews in particular is that it is such an intellectual style of show business,” Maven told me. “If you examine the noteworthy names, there are concepts involved; it’s not just about the flashy spectacle. With very few exceptions, Jewish magicians are talking magicians. There are styles of magic where the performer doesn’t talk at all – they’re called dumb acts. Some of the greatest magicians of all time chose that form, but the number of Jews who have chosen silence is relatively small.”
Maven himself (born Philip Goldstein, which he describes as “the Jewish equivalent of John Smith”) grew up in a Jewish home filled with books and with people who read them. His mother studied Chinese art; his father, an astrophysicist, taught at Brandeis University and was treated “like royalty” by relatives who revered him for his advanced degrees.
Older relatives taught Maven his first card tricks when he was 7; the boy was hooked. “One of the prevalent reasons that children get into magic is that it’s a coping mechanism,” he said. “My family lived in a particular suburb of Boston that was almost entirely WASP; all the other kids went to Sunday school, but I didn’t. I was this sort of strange, relatively swarthy little runt who didn’t quite fit in.
“If a child is bullied, and suddenly you can make a quarter disappear and the other kids are baffled, suddenly you have leverage, and the power imbalance shifts,” he said. “Of course, people who continue on in magic realize that it’s much more than power or leverage; it’s an art form that has as much depth as any other art form.”
Maven devoured books and magazines on all forms of magic and although he floundered for a while and was rather “vagabondish,” as a young adult, in the 1970s, he decided to turn his love for the field into a career. “It occurred to me that if my work was exploring fantasy, mystery, strange things, in a sense exploring dreams, then I ought to start with my own,” he explained of developing his “look.” “From an early age, I had been upset that I wasn’t born with a widow’s peak; Peter Cushing had one and I didn’t.” Maven convinced a hairdresser to shave one into his hairline: “When I think back on how radical my appearance was at that time, it’s a wonder that I wasn’t beaten to a pulp,” he said.
He chose the stage name, Max Maven, in part, because “maven” means “expert” in Yiddish, but can also refer, sarcastically, to a know-it-all.
Shifting back to the present, the magician emphasized that while he is now known as a mind reader, he does not call himself a mentalist—despite the term’s new popularity since the premiere of the CBS hit, “The Mentalist,” starring Simon Baker.
Maven also answered the question, “Is everyone’s mind readable?” “I can usually work with just about anyone,” he said, “although it’s a bit tough when you’ve got a drunk: Because they’re not organized, they’re not predictable. I’ve also had situations where someone doesn’t want me to succeed; sometimes I can handle that …by using their contrary attitude as part of my method.”
In his show, Maven tells a story about a critic who complained to Picasso that his canvases weren’t realistic. The critic showed Picasso a photograph of his wife as an example of realism: This is precisely, exactly what she looks like,” the critic said, to which Picasso observed, “She’s very small.”
Maven hopes to open viewers’ eyes to mysteries of all shapes and sizes. “You can live a life without mystery, but I don’t think it’s a life worth living,” he said.
For tickets to “Max Maven Thinking in Person: An Evening of Knowing and Not Knowing,” call (562) 467-8818 or visit www.cerritoscenter.com. The show is not suitable for children younger than 12. Below are excerpts from his show:
October 22, 2011 | 6:34 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
I was walking out of a screening of the cheeky new animated film, “Puss in Boots,” starring Antonio Banderas as the titular bad kitty, at Grauman’s Mann Chinese 6 Theatres when a splattering of fake blood on the cinema’s glass doors, gaunt skeletal figures and assorted skulls caught my eye. This was the setup for the eleventh annual Screamfest Horror Film Festival, the largest horror fest in the United States (at the Chinese 6 through Oct. 23), which for the first time is including a slasher flick from Israel, titled “Kalevet,” or “Rabies.” The movie screens Oct. 22, 6 p.m. and is billed as the first slasher film ever from the Jewish state.
Since the Israeli film industry in general is making waves at Cannes and other fesitvals around the world, it’s not so surprising that its first genre movie made it to Screamfest—dubbed the “Sundance of horror”—which has hosted filmmakers such as Wes Craven, Sam Raimi and Eli Roth (of the “Hostel” films, who also played the bat-smashing Bear Jew in Quentin Tarantino’s Holocaust-tinged fantasy “Inglourious Basterds”). According to festival founder Rachel Belofsky, Screamfest also discovered and premiered 2007’s “Paranornal Activity”—the brainchild of Israeli-born American director Oren Peli—now a monstrously successful franchise (the most recent installment having been the box office phenonemom “Paranormal Activity 3”) .
Screamfest’s brochure describes “Rabies” thusly: “A brother and sister in their 20s run away from home after their dark secret is discovered. They find temporary refuge in a deserted nature reserve. When the sister falls into a hunting trap, set by a psychotic killer, the brother sets out in a race against time to rescue her.”
I haven’t seen ”Rabies” – nor have I seen any horror films from Israel (save for those that deal with the real-life horror of war)—but the movie caught my eye in part because it stars one of Israel’s famous leading men, Lior Ashkenazi, who also stars in Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote,” Israel’s best foreign film submission for the 84th Academy Awards.
Since “Rabies” premiered at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, critics have lauded the curveballs it lobs viewers expecting the typical genre flick.
Popcornaddiction.com describes it as “Opening with a scene indicative of your average torture-porn – a bloodied woman trapped and later drugged by a deranged killer, harbouring a grudge against dogs – [but] the rug is quickly pulled from beneath your feet as the filmmakers take an inspired wrong turn into largely unexplored territory. We meet the usual hapless teens, the obligatory bumbling police officers (Ashkenazi and Danny Geva) and a forest ranger husband and wife, yet not once do your undoubtedly informed predictions come to pass….. Like an earnest “Scream,” a softly-spoken “The Cottage” or a ruthlessly efficient “Severence,” “Rabies” is less a horror than it is a gore-soaked comedy.”
While the actual disease, rabies, does not make an appearance in the film, by Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales, Dreadcentral.com notes, “Sexual deviancy, knives, guns, landmines, and the looming threat of serial murder invade the landscape and the minds of the characters…showing that the title acts as more of a metaphor for our rabid tendencies as humans instead of actual infectious disease driving us to lunacy.”
Los Angelenos can next see Ashkenazi in “Footnote” at the AFI Fest 2011, which runs from Nov. 3-10 (“Footnote” screens on Nov. 6). Ashkanazi—a former paratrooper—plays a role quite different from the deviant cop he portrays in “Rabies.” “Footnote” – which won best screenplay at the 2011 Cannes film festival – tells of a father (Shlomo Bar Aba) and son (Ashkenaki) who engage in a power struggle as they teach in the Talmud department of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Footnote” is the fourth film by Cedar, who also directed 2007’s Oscar-nominee “Beaufort.”
October 19, 2011 | 4:04 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Producer and writer Howard Gordon’s TV shows have reflected uncannily the American psyche since the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.
“24,” the Fox drama he helped mold into the Emmy-winning thriller about terrorist-busting super patriot Jack Bauer, premiered just weeks after Sept. 11 and became a testosterone-amped fantasy retort to al-Qaeda. Ten years later, Gordon’s acclaimed new Showtime series, “Homeland,” created with Alex Gansa and based on the Israeli drama “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”) debuted not long after the assassination of Osama bin Laden. And the fourth episode of this series about a returning POW will air just days after the release scheduled for Oct. 18 of Israeli captive Gilad Shalit.
The POW at the center of “Homeland” is Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), who is rescued after eight years of captivity in Afghanistan, hailed as a national hero and trotted out by the military as a poster boy for the war on terror, even as his flashbacks of horrific torture reveal his instability. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is the rogue CIA officer who suspects Brody may have been “turned into” a terrorist agent, and who utilizes illegal means to plant video cameras in his home and even to spy on the awkward sex he attempts with his wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin).
For these transgressions, Carrie, who herself is hiding a secret — she suffers from bipolar disorder — is confronted by her mentor, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), a Jewish character whose talmudic observations often serve as the conscience of the show.
“Homeland” is the latest American production to be adapted from Israeli television, which has become a go-to place for Hollywood producers looking for material — the most successful example thus far having been HBO’s psychotherapy drama “In Treatment,” based on Israel’s “BeTipul.”
While the first season of “In Treatment” was translated almost verbatim from its Israeli counterpart, “Homeland” — also from Keshet Broadcasting — required much more transformation. “In Israel, the issue of POWs is in everyone’s consciousness; Galid Shalit has been at the front and center of a national tragedy,” the 50-year-old Gordon said. “So, in ‘Hatufim,’ the homecoming of two longtime captives launches a domestic drama that becomes the heart of the show.”
For audiences in the United States, however, where the immediate threat of al-Qaeda has appeared to recede, a psychological thriller seemed a better approach. Gordon and Gansa added a female CIA officer to the mix and created a cat-and-mouse game between the flawed agent and the former captive. “We posited that the returning soldier had possibly turned into a terrorist and had been sent back here as the tip of the spear of a major attack on U.S. soil,” Gordon said.
The premise allowed “Homeland” to explore the murkier moral questions lurking upon the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. “While ’24’ was born in the wake of 9/11 and represents a kind of national wish-fulfillment, ‘Homeland’ picks up the story at a time when the nation has experienced a kind of collective amnesia and the fear factor is not nearly as acute,” Gordon said. “So we have Carrie, the CIA officer who is holding almost obsessively onto that fear. For that, she is marginalized and an outcast, rather than regarded as a national hero like Jack Bauer.”
Gordon said he intends for the series to ask, but not answer, questions such as: “What do we have to be afraid of now, and how far do we go to protect ourselves? If we’re invading the rights of others, who gets to tell us who we are allowed to watch, and what are the emotional and psychological costs to the people who invade our privacy?”
“24” was denounced by some critics as Islamophobic and accused of validating the Bush administration’s policies regarding torture. Gordon denies both charges, pointing out that the fictional Bauer grew increasingly introspective following news headlines of abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
Thus far, the Muslim characters introduced in “Homeland” have not been savory, but Gordon said the series will introduce a Muslim CIA agent in order to offer a balanced perspective. Then there is the chilling sequence that reveals Brody converted to Islam during his captivity and is praying in secret in his garage. “It’s designed to scare us, because of our own prejudices,” Gordon said. “It forces you to ask yourself: ‘Does the fact that Brody now practices Islam mean that he is now a terrorist?’
“I would caution people to take a beat and wait to watch the story play out, as it did on ’24,’ and then once the dust settles will be a good time to talk,” he said.
Gordon began working on “Homeland” the same day that “24” wrapped, having been captivated by the premise since his agent introduced him to “Hatufim.” The popular Israeli series — which is available in Hebrew online and will premiere its second season in December — is the brainchild of Gideon Raff, an Israeli graduate of the American Film Institute who directed the English-language films “The Killing Floor” and “Train” before returning to Israel with “Prisoners of War.”
“There had never been an Israeli series, ever, that dealt with what happened to POWs after their release,” said the 39-year-old Raff, who is also an executive producer on “Homeland.” “Even when the subject arose in newspapers or books, it always focused on the trauma of captivity or the obsession with bringing our boys home, not how they [fare] the day after their return. There are about 1,500 POWs who did come back, but we know very little about their lives after captivity.”
Anticipating flak for tackling such a taboo subject when soldiers, including Shalit, remained imprisoned, Raff meticulously researched the psychological aftermath of captivity, which, he said, applies as much to POWs held in Vietnam as in the Gaza Strip. He said he interviewed 10 Israeli ex-prisoners, including Hezi Shai, who was imprisoned for three years after being ambushed during the first Lebanon War.
“Hatufim” incorporates what Raff learned from his research; the ex-POWs in both shows display an inability to bond with family members, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as a need to sit on a floor in the dark in order to feel safe, or sleep on the floor, as they did in captivity. In “Hatufim,” the former captives must deal with the additional problem of searing guilt — knowing that thousands of terrorists who may go on to commit other atrocities have been released in exchange for their own freedom.
While some reviewers saw “Hatufim” as exploiting POWs’ pain for entertainment purposes, Raff disagrees, insisting, “We dealt with the subject with the utmost respect.
“It would have been presumptuous on my part to think that I’d do a series to help rescue Gilad Shalit,” Raff added. “But I do wish that one day the show will be relevant for him.”
“Homeland” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime.
October 18, 2011 | 2:31 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Hofesh Shechter has become one of the top new names in the world of dance since relocating from Israel to England a decade ago. But while the star choreographer insists his work is apolitical, his experience of the realities of life in Israel can’t help but emerge in the mix.
His first full-length piece, “Political Mother,” which makes its United States premiere at Royce Hall on Oct. 19 and 20, examines tensions between the state and society as a samurai commits ritual hara kiri, a dictator shouts guttural commands and drone-like figures slave.
The clash between group dynamics and the individual is a theme the 35-year-old Shechter has returned to time and again since moving to London in the aftermath of September 11. His visceral “In Your Rooms,” tinged by his fraught experience in the Israeli military, earned high marks for its exploration of group dynamics versus the individual; in 2006’s “Uprising,” seven men emerge from the shadows to bombard viewers with furious energy, bonding and sparring, making up and falling out.
The rock ‘n’ roll tinged score for “Political Mother” – which features ten dancers and eight musicians—is composed by Shechter himself; his movement style has a “kind of urban-guerrilla edginess…[that] can catch you off guard in ways that are bound to disorient conventional expectations,” The Independent opined. “There is nothing complacent to be seen here.”
Recently, I caught up with Shechter by phone in Melbourne, Australia, where his company was touring with “Political Mother,” to discuss his artistic journey from Israel to London and why he so resolutely avoids politics in his work.
Here are excerpts from our conversation:
NPM: Growing up in Israel, did the art of Israeli folk dance have anything to do with your choice of career?
HF: It had everything to do with my getting into dancing. We had folk dance lessons in school since I was 6 or 7; I was a very shy kid and didn’t think I had a future in dance in any way. But my teacher was very enthusiastic about my ability, and that was the reason I joined a youth company in Jerusalem. Later, I attended the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. But my decision to pursue this happened totally through folk dancing.
NPM: You danced in the junior company of Israel’s most prominent troupe, Batsheva, while doing your compulsory military service. How did that work?
HF: The country recognizes that if an artist completely stops his work for three years, his career could be ruined. So I was able to get an excellence in dance status where I was allowed to dance in Batsheva in the mornings, and in the evenings I would work in a military office.
NPM: You’ve described your military experience as traumatic.
HF: My service wasn’t extreme in any military way; it was just a feeling that you are being raised in a country that is absolutely democratic and free, but there is a rule that when you turn 18 you must enter this other institution inside the democratic one where you must do absolutely everything you are told. This concept was so hard for me to grasp: How is this possible? It was just that the system suddenly took over my life and defined whether or not I could dance. That fear was always there and it was scary, especially at a point where you are just discovering who you are in the world.
NPM: In one interview, you described war virtually “coming in through the window” in Israel after the attacks on the World Trade Center – one reason you decided to relocate to England in 2002.
HF: Israel is a very rich place emotionally, but it is also a very small, intense place, and there was a constant sort of political noise. The feeling I got is that I was not blooming artistically, for whatever reason – it might have been my own weakness. I was curious about Europe, and I found a quiet corner where I felt I could have perspective on all these emotions and experiences. Suddenly, I could express myself and create.
NPM: Does your work reflect any of these experiences?
HF: My work is not political, but it definitely deals with the effects of politics on the individual; the emotional experience of people living under big and powerfully oiled systems.
NPM: So your dance “Uprising” does not refer to the Intifadah?
HF: It’s a work that is non-specific to world events. I was seeing very similar things happening around the world: a feeling of uprising or claiming what you think is yours; something that bubbles up inside of us, whether it’s taking place in Israel, Germany or America. It was also interesting for me to create choreography that deals with order and chaos. But again, the work is about energy and emotions, not politics.
NPM: Yet you’re now touring with a piece called “Political Mother.”
HF: People are always asking me if my work is political, so it amused me to include the word, “political” in one of my works. The title is also a clue that sets the state of mind for the [piece.] The words “political” and “mother” are weirdly conflicting, but there is also a strong connection between them—a sense of servitude implied in both words. In politics, we are trained to serve a system, and while we think of motherhood as referring to someone who cares for us, we are also obliged to obey.
The idea was to create a sense of different worlds that will flash in front of us and flicker from one reality to another; and to find an emotional tension between the existence of these realities in the timing of the piece.
NPM: How did you create the choreography?
HF: When you’re talking about servitude, for example, you want to find a kind of movement and a quality of body language that one might have if you lived inside that energy. When you’re dealing with characters who represent the [most oppressed] levels of society, there is a sort of weakness, an emptiness, an exploration of movement that is difficult or hollow.
NPM: The piece starts and ends, literally, with a knife in the gut.
HF: Often I try to start from the most extreme thing relating to themes I’m exploring. If I’m examining how far an individual can go to serve a system, one can’t go much farther than deleting oneself. It’s this amazing sense of our own nature. Of course the survival instinct is very powerful, but it’s possible to override that instinct with a concept – an idea I find fascinating.
For tickets and information, visit www.uclalive.org
October 4, 2011 | 7:17 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Sam Childers, the real-life “Machine Gun Preacher” behind the Marc Forster film now in theaters, chewed his signature toothpick in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, wearing a Harley Davidson shirt, jeans, black steel-toed boots and a handlebar moustache he’s sported since his days as a smack-shooting, bar-fighting, drug-dealing biker.
In his 2009 memoir, “Another Man’s War: The True Story of One Man’s Battle To Save Children in the Sudan,” Childers describes wielding an AK-47 along with his Bible to protect or rescue children – as well as ambushing soldiers from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) “with an AK in my belt and a pistol on each hip.”
LRA guerrillas abduct children from their villages to serve as soldiers or sex slaves, Childers said; they terrorize the children into obedience by disfiguring them with machetes, burning them alive, forcing them to disembowel their mothers, or to perform acts of cannibalism, among other atrocities. “Who knows how many villagers have been killed while people sit around talking about what a big problem all this is,” Childers writes in his memoir. “But when you go out and kill some of the enemy, you’re making progress. You’re speaking the LRA’s language, and suddenly you’ve got their attention. Less talking, and more shooting would bring this whole conflict to an end a lot sooner and save who knows how many lives.”
With Yom Kippur approaching, I wanted to meet with Childers, 47, not only because of the intense concern Jews have had about genocide in the Sudan, but also because I was fascinated by his unorthodox journey toward redemption.
During our interview, he expressed both compassion for the Sudanese war orphans and a tough-as-nails intensity. He described how his religious awakening in 1992 transformed him from a ruthless criminal into a preacher who built his own church in Central City, PA before taking on charitable work in Africa. It was while witnessing indescribable carnage on a mission to the southern Sudan in 1998 that he was inspired to build an orphanage for children victimized by the LRA. And to protect them with plenty of firepower.
His methods have proved controversial – and have been criticized in at least several publications such as Christianity Today, Mother Jones and ForeignPolicy.com, which titled its story, “Machine Gun Menace.” In such articles, aide workers and others have complained about Childers’ violent tactics or suggested that he has exaggerated parts of his story – a charge he has denied. Even so, his work prompts the questio—as The New York Times put it: Can a man of God also be a man of violence?
“I would never stand up to anyone and say anything I’ve ever done was right, so I’m not here to try to say that, OK?” Childers said, bluntly, during our interview. “I believe that everyone’s got to answer for things, and I’ve got a lot to answer for. The Christ I serve would never condone violence; he was not a man of violence.”
But then Childers quotes a passage of the New Testament in which Jesus tells his disciples “the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.”
“Now why do you think he said that?” Childers asked me, with a laser-beam stare. “Do you have children?” he continued. When I replied that my husband and I have a son, he said, “Let’s say a terrorist group is getting ready to cut his lips off. You have a gun with you. What are you going to do?”
When the answer is obvious, Childers emphasized, “I want to get one thing straight with you. I’m not here to convince anybody that that’s right or wrong, so don’t try to take me there.”
I’m not the only one who has encountered both the prickly and the empathetic sides of the Machine Gun Preacher, played in the film by Gerard Butler (“300”). “Sam is a guy who often communicates through conflict,” Jason Keller, the film’s 42-year-old screenwriter, said in a telephone interview. Keller, who visited Africa with Childers and spent several weeks living with the preacher and his family at their home in Central City, PA, added: “At the end of the day, Sam is the same hustler and fighter that he was in the dark years of his life: this intimidating, sometimes violent, driven to a fault guy. It’s the same intense Sam Childers he always was, except now he’s fighting for a purpose. He is a very intense, still crazy guy doing heroic things.”
“Perhaps Sam has, in a sense, swapped his former addiction to violence and alcohol and drugs for an addiction to Africa, but he makes a world of difference there,” Robbie Brenner, one of the film’s producers, said in the film’s production notes.
I asked Childers if there’s a chance he could have substituted the adrenaline rush of drugs and crime for the rush of life as the machine gun preacher in the Sudan—in essence, swapping one addiction for another. “There could be,” he began, “but for me I’m going to say no. The devil doesn’t want you to help people. And now my entire life is about helping people.”
The preacher was protective of his story when Keller first sat down with him almost four years ago. “I was running through the process of how screenwriting works, and after about 15 minutes Sam didn’t say anything; he just stared at me across the table in this busy café,” Keller recalled. “Finally, one of the producers said, ‘Sam, do you have any questions for Jason?’ and Sam basically said, ‘Look, I don’t know you, I’ve never seen any movie that you’ve ever written, and I sure as hell am not going to trust my story to someone like you.’ I was going to storm off and never talk to this guy again, but Sam grabbed my arm, pulled me closer and smiled up at me – he can be a very charismatic guy – and he said, ‘I was just testing you, I wanted to see if you’d piss your pants. You didn’t. Sit down, and let’s talk.’ That went down in history as probably one of the most awkward meetings of my life.”
At the Beverly Hilton, Childers told me that even when he was in utero, pastors prophesized that he would become a preacher. “By the time I was 18, my mother thought they were all liars,” he joked. “But even when I was running with the worst of them, my Bible was always in my duffle bag along with my sawed-off shotgun.”
By the time Childers was in his early teens, he said, “I was selling drugs to school teachers, and sleeping with school teachers.” He became a junkie and, “because I carried a gun everywhere, bar fights turned into knife fights, which turned into gun fights, he said. Robbing other drug dealers provided some easy (and not so easy) money: One heist began, Childers said, when “I announced our arrival by busting their door in with a baseball bat.”
At one point when Sam and his wife, Lynn, were living in a filthy trailer park in Florida, he said, “I was in a bad bar fight, which turned out to be a shootout, and I almost got killed. That night I told my wife, ‘We’re moving back to Pennsylvania, because someone is going to kill me [if we stay here]. I ain’t got a problem with dying, but I have a problem with what I’m dying for.’”
Immediately after moving back to Central City, PA, Lynn – who had given up stripping several years earlier – began attending a pentecostal (Assemblies of God) church with Childers’ mother. “Lynn pestered me for years about going with her, but even though I was raised in the church, and I knew the right way, I was running from it,” Childers said.
He had, however, given up the harder drugs and was in the process of building a construction business when, one hot night in June 1992, Lynn finally talked him into accompanying her to a revival where the guest evangelist happened to be from South Africa. “I sat in the back row, and wouldn’t go up to the altar,” Childers recalled. “The preacher came back and said to me, ‘What is your problem? The power of God is all over you’—and I broke. I gave my heart to God right there in the back row of that church.
“The next night, they were in revival, so I went back to the church and sat right up front, because all through the day I was just craving what I had felt the night before. I already had made the commitment, so I was ready to go full blast. The preacher started prophesizing over me at the altar, but the more he prophesied, the madder I got.”
Specifically, the pastor predicted that Childers would accompany him to Africa during a time of war, a claim Childers found outlandish. “ I was so angry, I [thought], ‘I’m going to beat the snot out of this guy after church,’” Childers said. “I literally waited for him to come outside and then I started cursing at him, saying, ‘Don’t tell me I’m going to Africa’—and I mean I’m using some choice words and I’m cussing at this preacher. But all he did was smile at me and he said, ‘We’ll see.’
It took six years, but Childers – by then a successful contractor—finally did agree to travel to Africa in 1998 to help with construction in remote villages. He was devastated by the scars of civil war he found in the southern Sudan: “One day we were in the bush – radical Islamists had planted land mines all over the area, like they have in so many other places in the Sudan – and among the mangled corpses, we came across the body of a child,” Childers said. “From the waist down there was nothing; I couldn’t tell if it had been a boy or a girl. The body was a few days old, and you could see that it was starting to decay in the heat. I started to cry; I couldn’t understand how we could allow something like this to happen. And I said, ‘God, I’ll do anything I can to help these people.’
“When I got back home, all I could remember was people starving and going without water,” Childers continued. “Three months later, I remember sitting down at my kitchen table and just crying because there was food on the table; at that time I was making pretty decent money. And I just started selling everything I had to go back to Africa.
“First I started supporting and helping government soldiers from southern Sudan pull land mines out, and I did that for about a year; then I ran a mobile [medical] clinic for more than a year, and then I wanted to start the orphanage.
We had gone riding outside of [the town of] Nimule one day and I just stopped in the middle of nowhere and started walking around. God spoke to me inside my heart and said, ‘This is where I want you to build the children’s home for the war orphans.’”
I asked Childers what it feels like to hear God: “It’s almost like when your conscience speaks to you,” he said, adding, “in my case, I know it’s God because it’s always something I don’t want to do.”
During frequent trips to the Sudan, Childers spent long periods away from Lynn and their young daughter, Paige, and sometimes used all the family’s income on his charities. “I had a car repossessed, I almost lost my home, my marriage, and most everything I owned at one time,” he said. In his book, he describes his angst when Paige (now an adult) asked why he loved the African children more than her.
When I asked Childers about this, however, he said,“I believe you’re asking questions that are irrelevant. I’m just going to say that everything in my life is done because of God. If you can’t accept that, the interview is over.”
I change the subject to how Childers’ memoir differs from the film; one notable change is that the movie leaves out a number of the preacher’s personal experiences of faith. Why not show more of that in the film? “You need to ask whether we intended this movie to be faith-based or for the secular world,” Childers said. “If they would have included all the God [references], it would have made this a Christian movie…I could care less if a Christian person likes the movie; I’m here for the ones who need to know God.”
There is another reason, as well: The message of the film, Childers said, “is that there are still people dying in the Sudan; there are hundreds of thousands of children being killed all over the [country.] In one area of Darfur, 6,000 children are dying each month….So I use my platform to tell the world that this is still going on.”