Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In June 1965, during the most violent days of the civil rights movement, 21-year-old Paul Saltzman drove from Toronto to Mississippi to become a freedom fighter with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Just a year before, Klansmen from Neshoba County, Miss., had assassinated the young activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and the year before that, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was shot to death outside his Mississippi home.
Within hours of arriving in the Delta, Saltzman — a Canadian Jew whose uncles were prominent union activists in the 1930s — was arrested while participating in a peaceful protest and jailed for 10 days. And several weeks after his release, he found himself on the wrong side of a Klansman’s fist while trying to attend a meeting of the White Citizens Council at the Leflore County courthouse in Greenwood.
Saltzman was about halfway up the front walk when Byron “Delay” De La Beckwith Jr. — a Klansman whose father was later convicted of murdering Evers — surrounded him with a group of three friends. “Hey, buddy, where do you think you’re going?” he asked Saltzman.
“I got really frightened; I must have been radiating fear,” Saltzman, now 69, recalls in his documentary “The Last White Knight: Is Reconciliation Possible?” which revolves around his conversations with De La Beckwith four decades after their altercation and will screen at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on June 4 and 5.
The next thing he knew, there was a blur and De La Beckwith suddenly hit his temple, hard. “I went down on one knee, and as soon as I hit the ground I was running,” he says in the documentary. All sound stopped, and I could hear the sound of my heart pounding … but within five seconds I was across the lawn … and I knew I was safe.”
Even so, Saltzman continued working to help register blacks to vote for about two months — even after De La Beckwith was acquitted of charges of assaulting him.
Saltzman went on to take pictures of the Beatles while studying meditation with the band in an ashram in Rishikesh, India, in the late 1960s and eventually founded what would become the third-largest TV and film production company in Canada.
By 1992, he had left the business to focus on becoming a single parent (his former wife is the acclaimed Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta) and to publish books of his Beatles photographs.
He had no intention of making another movie when he received a telephone call in 2006 from a Jackson Clarion-Ledger reporter who wanted to interview a former civil rights worker. The call got Saltzman wondering about how Mississippi had changed over the years, as well as what had happened to De La Beckwith. He telephoned the Klansman, who agreed to get together with him.
In an interview with the Journal from his retirement home, De La Beckwith said he wanted to meet with Saltzman because, while unrepentant about “popping” him, he was curious about what had befallen his old nemesis.
And so, the two men reunited in front of the courthouse where their violent confrontation had occurred 43 years earlier; the scene was tense, as De La Beckwith grabbed Saltzman’s arm as if to prevent the Jewish Canadian from hitting him. Even so, the air soon cleared, and Saltzman went on to speak with De La Beckwith for many hours over the next five years, often with cameras rolling. Their frank but genial conversations became the centerpiece of “The Last White Knight.”
In the film, De La Beckwith exudes Southern charm, even as he describes joining the Klan at 14, participating in the burning of churches, throwing Molotov cocktails and shooting out the windows of cars to deter civil rights workers. Of the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, he says, “They got what they deserved.”
And yet, De La Beckwith also insists that he has mellowed, that he no longer participates in violent activities and that he has even supported black political candidates. When he suggests that Jews control world finances, Saltzman’s calm and respectful correction actually changes his mind, on camera.
In between these conversations, the documentary also captures reminiscences of actor Morgan Freeman, who was born in and now lives in Mississippi, as well as those of the singer and activist Harry Belafonte, who recounts how he and Sidney Poitier were once chased (and their car rammed) by Klansmen. A retired Jewish businessman describes how his community formed an armed guard after the bombing of their synagogue and their rabbi’s home, and three current Klan leaders spout racist ideology while refusing to remove their hoods.
But the heart of the film is the peaceful reconciliation between Saltzman and De La Beckwith, who politely agree to disagree about their differences.
“Delay opened up to me because I wasn’t there to judge him,” Saltzman said in an interview from his home outside Toronto. “I wasn’t there to change him or to make him wrong. I was there to try to understand who he was and how he thought back then and now, as one human being to another.”
Some media reviewers and at least one film festival programmer have criticized Saltzman for “going easy” on De La Beckwith or providing a platform for his racist views. But Saltzman said those critics are missing the point: “The purpose of the film is not to give Delay a platform, but to explore nonviolent communication. I’m a great admirer of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. And I’m really excited that the film brings up for viewers their own prejudices, attitudes and beliefs.”
Saltzman’s family has endured its own share of violent prejudice. In 1923, his grandfather was shot to death in front of Saltzman’s then-8-year-old mother during a pogrom in their Ukrainian village; thereafter, the girl, her family and Jewish neighbors were lined up in front of a firing squad before Bolsheviks raced to their rescue.
Saltzman said that it was his parents’ instruction to “do unto others” that, in part, spurred his own activism; during his return to the south, Saltzman spent his life savings of $1.5 million to make not only “The Last White Knight” but also another documentary, “Prom Night in Mississippi,” chronicling the first desegregated prom ever held at a high school in Charleston, Miss.
“The Last White Knight” will screen on June 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills and on June 5 at 7:30 p.m. at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino. Following the screening will be a Q-and-A session with Saltzman as well as Los Angeles Urban League President Nolan V. Rollins and Anti-Defamation League Regional Board Chair Seth M. Gerber, moderated by Naomi Pfefferman. For tickets and information about the festival, visit http://lajfilmfest.org or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/e/385222.
5.22.13 at 12:36 pm | In June 1965, during the most violent days of the. . .
5.15.13 at 2:00 pm | A British journalist recalls how she once sat. . .
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4.18.13 at 12:34 pm | In the most searing sequence in Tadeusz. . .
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May 15, 2013 | 2:00 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
A British journalist recalls how she once sat down at a cafe with the legendary magician, author, historian, actor and, perhaps, the greatest sleight-of-hand artist on the planet in the documentary “Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.”
On that sweltering afternoon, Jay was at first grumpy after the long drive to the restaurant, but he turned into a brilliant raconteur as he began to describe one of his heroes — 19th century illusionist Max Malini, who once borrowed a woman’s hat, placed a silver dollar underneath it, then lifted the hat to reveal that the coin had transformed into an enormous chunk of ice. And at that moment, the journalist recounts, Jay lifted his menu with a flourish to reveal his own 1-foot-square block of ice, which materialized as if out of thin air. The journalist was so astounded by “this supreme piece of artistry,” she says, that she “burst into tears.”
“Deceptive Practices,” by filmmakers Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein, unfolds like a magical mystery tour of Jay’s professional art and artifice. On camera, he transforms a paper moth into a real insect, flings a card at 90 miles per hour to pierce the skin of a watermelon and dazzles audiences with his specialty — astonishing card tricks — with maneuvers so virtuosic they defy the imagination.
But don’t expect the documentary to explain just what Jay has up his sleeves. The secretive artist reveals nothing about how he accomplishes his feats, nor does he speak much about personal matters, except to say that his parents didn’t “get” his obsession with magic. In fact, the only kind memory he has of them is the time they hired the acclaimed Al Flosso, aka The Coney Island Fakir, to perform at his bar mitzvah.
Born Ricky Potash in Brooklyn, Jay does wax at length about his late grandfather, the accountant Max Katz, a distinguished amateur magician and cryptographer who introduced Ricky to magic via lessons with genius illusionists like Slydini and The Great Cardini. In archival footage, we see 7-year-old Ricky turn a guinea pig into a pigeon on a local television show; by 14, he was performing as Tricky Ricky, complete with penciled-in sideburns, making a cane waft through the air.
After Katz died when Ricky was 17, Jay left home to seek his fortune as a professional magician, working carnivals and performing at the New York nightclub Electric Circus before landing gigs on “The Dinah Shore Show” and “The Tonight Show.” In Hollywood, he studied with his primary mentors, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, who made him practice the same maneuver “14,000 times in a row,” Jay says.
The magician also speaks about how he learned the routines of historical performers, such as the 28-inch-tall Matthias Buchinger, an 18th century magician who awed spectators (and fathered 14 children) despite having neither arms nor legs; about his scholarly books on arcane subjects, including cannon-ball catchers, hoaxers, living skeletons and acid drinkers; as well as his collection of obscure manuscripts and antique dice. In between, he performs card tricks for audiences of his one-man shows as well as for the filmmakers, who capture his illusions in extreme close-up.
During a conference call from New York, Bernstein and Edelstein admitted to studying those tricks in slow-motion in the editing room, but said they still have no idea how Jay effortlessly transforms one card into another.
Convincing the reclusive magician to appear in their documentary was akin to a magic trick in itself. The process began about 15 years ago, when Bernstein became mesmerized with Jay after reading his 1986 book, “Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women: Unique, Eccentric and Amazing Entertainers — Stone Eaters, Mind Readers, Poison Resisters, Daredevils, Singing Mice, etc., etc., etc., etc.”
Bernstein said she grew even more “enchanted” with Jay while viewing his 1993 one-man show, “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants,” in a small theater in Manhattan: “It was his ability to bring you into a rather obscure, eccentric world — and just the fact that it was this sophisticated, New York audience and people were gasping,” she recalled.
Bernstein teamed up with Edelstein to pitch the documentary to Jay’s manager, who politely rebuffed their request; finally they arranged to meet Jay through journalist Mark Singer, who wrote an exhaustive profile of Jay for The New Yorker in 1993.
“It was nerve-racking,” Bernstein said of their first meeting with the magician, in a Japanese restaurant near The New Yorker’s offices.
“Ricky can be intimidating, even though he was very open and honest with us,” Edelstein added.
Jay almost immediately told the filmmakers that the BBC had just done a documentary on him, and that it had been a nightmare, so why would he want to do another film?
“Ricky’s life is all about keeping secrets, while a filmmaker wants to reveal secrets, so our agendas naturally clashed,” Edelstein said.
Singer helped convince Jay to participate, and the filmmakers also promised to focus the movie on Jay’s mentors. There were other (albeit implied) conditions, too: The filmmakers intuited that they should not press Jay on private matters, nor pressure him to perform on cue, which was “key,” Bernstein said.
Even so, Edelstein recalled, “Molly and I worried quite a bit in the early years that we weren’t going to get close enough to make something that would work as a narrative film. Especially in the age of ‘Oprah’ and confessional television, viewers expect people to open up about their personal life at the drop of a hat, but Ricky is not among those people.”
Over the years, however, the magician did agree to perform illusions for the filmmakers, only occasionally checking the camera’s position before filming commenced to ensure that no secrets would be revealed. And the famously cranky Jay eventually allowed Bernstein and Edelstein to tape his one-man shows in New York and at The Old Vic in London. He also provided archival materials, as well as access to his friends Steve Martin and David Mamet, the latter of whom has directed Jay’s shows, frequently cast the magician in his films, most notably “House of Cards,” and served as best man at his wedding in 2002.
Of Jay’s reserved persona, Edelstein theorized, “Ricky is a vulnerable person and he’s protecting himself, like many people who have boundaries or are defensive. But he could get very emotional at times while talking to us about his mentors.”
Jay does provide one moment of insight early in the film: “Cards are like living, breathing human beings, I suppose, because they give you real pleasure,” he says. “You sit in a room [practicing] with them 10 to 15 hours a day, and they become your friends, particularly for very lonely people.”
“Deceptive Practices” opens in Los Angeles on May 17.
May 1, 2013 | 11:20 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“I don’t think I’m in any way a sociopath,” said Ariel Vromen, the Israeli-born filmmaker behind “The Iceman,” inspired by the true story of one of America’s most notorious mob hitmen, Richard Kuklinski, who died in prison in 2006.
Yet Vromen remembers watching an HBO documentary about Kuklinski in 2007 and feeling a kind of empathy, even a connection, to the 6-foot-5, 300-pound killer who claimed to have whacked at least 100 men between the 1960s and the 1980s, all while maintaining his double life as a devoted family man in suburban New Jersey.
“The weirdest emotion I had was that I actually liked the guy,” the gregarious director said recently, shaking his head while smoking a Marlboro Light on a terrace at the Four Seasons hotel. “On the one hand, he spoke of his murders as if he were talking about eating a burger, and on the other, he had tears in his eyes when he talked about losing his family. I related in a very strange, if remote, way to the duality of his experience, even though it was so extreme.”
Vromen, 40, traces his empathy to his service in an Israeli air force rescue unit in the 1990s. He served as a paramedic also trained in anti-terror combat, as well as parachuting and scuba diving, in order to evacuate both Israeli and enemy soldiers on battlefields from Lebanon to Gaza.
“We’d be playing backgammon or watching a comedy in the unit’s lounge, and in seven minutes I would be on a chopper, and 45 minutes later I had to deal with chopped-up bodies and wounded people while under constant enemy fire,” he said. “I was so young in that situation; it’s as if I were building a kind of a split personality.”
Vromen succumbed to the pressure of one 1993 mission in Lebanon, where a bomb eviscerated Golani Brigade soldiers and gunfire was rampant. “Two of my friends were killed right in front of me,” he said. “It took me months to go back into the service, because I had a kind of [stress-related] reaction where I would be throwing up or else laughing all the time. So all this is one reason I had that odd response to the dichotomy that is Richard Kuklinski.”
To make the film, Vromen immersed himself in research on the hitman, studying biographies, police reports and court documents as well as watching interviews with Kuklinski’s wife and daughters — who insisted they knew nothing about his true profession until his arrest in 1986.
“The Iceman” begins as Kuklinski (Michael Shannon of “Boardwalk Empire” and the upcoming “The Man of Steel”) shyly romances his wife-to-be, Deborah (Winona Ryder). She’s a naïve Catholic teenager who believes his lie that he works as an editor of Disney films when he’s actually dubbing pornography.
As the couple starts their family, Kuklinski gets promoted to hitman by mobster Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), and later teams up with the freelance killer “Mr. Freezy” (Chris Evans of “The Avengers”), so nicknamed because he uses his ice cream truck as a cover for his crimes. Mr. Freezy promptly teaches Kuklinski to use cyanide as an almost undetectable murder weapon and to store the corpses in his truck before dismembering them and scattering the body parts around the East Coast.
David Schwimmer is cast against his “Friends” type as a wannabe Jewish gangster who worries that his surname of Rosenthal is too Jewish for his Italian-American colleagues, and James Franco has a cameo as one of Kuklinski’s victims who fervently prays to God while begging for his life.
Vromen said Kuklinski grew up with a violent, alcoholic father, but the filmmaker played down that aspect of his subject’s life so as not to suggest that abuse necessarily leads to murder. He also eschewed glorifying the killing sequences in the film, preferring nondescript locations and long lenses that often capture the action “through elements in the foreground, so the audience feels more like a spectator than a participant,” he said. “I tried not to make the murders exciting, but more matter-of-fact, because Kuklinski just regarded them as a job.”
Vromen grew up as a cinephile in Tel Aviv, avidly watching movies by directors like Fellini, Bergman and Scorsese while making his own short films with his 8 mm camera. His parents’ view of his hobby was “to get rid of it,” he recalled; they preferred he become a lawyer. And so, Vromen skipped what he calls “the usual Israeli post-army crazy backpacking trip” to study law at the University of Kent in England. But he became disillusioned with the law after earning his degree at age 29 and returned to his first love, attending film classes at New York University and the Los Angeles Film School. In the 2000s, he directed his first two features, the psychological thrillers “Rx” and “Danika,” starring Marisa Tomei.
Vromen’s Israeli connections proved crucial in making “The Iceman.” For financing, he turned to producer Ehud Bleiberg (“The Band’s Visit”), who had considered hiring Vromen to direct his 2008 Holocaust-themed film, “Adam Resurrected,” until they both agreed that he was too inexperienced at the time to tackle a drama revolving around the Shoah. Israelis on “The Iceman’s” team include the editor Danny Rafic and composer Haim Mazar.
Vromen said his Israeli chutzpah came in handy when casting woes and rival projects threatened “The Iceman,” one of them from Paramount and a more recent attempt financed by Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi, of all people. “We felt we had lost the game until the Arab Spring started in Libya and they killed Gadhafi and President Obama froze his assets,” said Vromen, who spent the downtime making a documentary about emerging Israeli mentalist Lior Suchard for Israeli television.
“Then we were clear to go.”
Shannon — whose performance Time magazine noted as Oscar-worthy —praised Vromen’s tenacity in sticking with the film. “He just didn’t give up,” Shannon said. “Even when time and resources were tight, he never buckled.”
“The Iceman” hits theaters on May 3.
April 30, 2013 | 4:57 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Bar Paly is the new hot export from Israel.
Previously we’ve heard all about Bar Refaeli, the flaxen-haired Sports Illustrated cover girl who romanced Leonardo DiCaprio.
Now Israel has raised yet another Bar – supermodel, that is -- with Paly, whose sultry figure recently graced a Maxim magazine shoot, and who plays Mark Wahlberg’s belle in “Pain & Gain,” the new testosterone-fest from Michael Bay. In the action flick, the tall, tanned Paly portrays Sorina, a Romanian immigrant and wannabe actress turned stripper who gets mixed up in a kidnapping and extortion scheme with a bunch of steroid-amped bodybuilders (Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. “The Rock” co-stars).
Like her character, Paly has had dreams of stardom in America. On Twitter, the hottie describes herself this way: “I go by Bar. I’m Israeli. A model. An actress. A crafter. A small town girl with big dreams. Israel-Los Angeles.”
Actually Paly originally hails from Russia, having moved to Israel when she was 7. Raised in Tel Aviv, she started modeling at 17 to support her acting habit (“I’m an actress first,” she told Aritzia). Eventually she moved to L.A., where gigs followed on “How I Met Your Mother,” “The Starter Wife,” the 2008 horror film “The Ruins and Roman Coppola’s “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III – until her big break with “Pain & Gain.”
Paly endured a bit of her own pain (and gain!) to take on the role of Sorina; the waif-like actress had to put on 20 pounds to convincingly play the stripper – complicated by the fact that she was burning myriad extra calories with all that pole-dancing practice. Her solution: Paly dutifully chowed down on plenty of burgers and fries, as well as 5,000 calorie shakes that tasted, well, like “chocolate flavored concrete,” she told the Daily Mail.
Next up, you can catch Paly in “NonStop,” an action pic set aboard a besieged airplane, starring Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore, which will hit theaters in 2014.
In the meantime, Paly’s been making the media rounds, with an especially hilarious introduction recently on KTLA: When the spotlight turned on the gorgeous Paly, the anchors greeted her with a cheerful “Shalom, Your Hotness!”
April 26, 2013 | 11:25 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Michael Shannon was shy and soft-spoken during a recent interview at the Four Seasons hotel, keeping his intense blue eyes studiously focused on the floor. It was hard to juxtapose this retiring fellow with the disturbed souls and tough guys he has played on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and in films like “Take Shelter” and 2008’s “Revolutionary Road,” for which he earned an Oscar nomination.
Shannon will portray Superman’s nemesis, the villainous General Zod, in Zack Snyder’s highly-anticipated “The Man of Steel,” opening June 14. And in Ariel Vromen’s “The Iceman,” opening May 3, he’s the stone-cold mob hitman Richard Kuklinski – based on the real-life notorious contract killer who had a soft spot for his family. (Kuklinski's preferred murder technique: pretending to cough or sneeze on victims while actually spraying them with cyanide.)
Vromen, who grew up in Tel Aviv and did his IDF service in a dangerous rescue unit of the air force, said Shannon oozes menace on-camera. “Michael portrays the dark side of human nature so convincingly,” the filmmaker said in a separate interview at the Four Seasons. “He’s perfection in the dark and he’s also very funny. But I had never seen him actually portray warmth, so I just kept reminding him of his daughter, and he went into that space very easily.
Here’s what Shannon had to say about Vromen and “The Iceman:”
Q: When Ariel first approached you about the film several years ago, you said, “Good luck making the movie with me in the lead.” At the time, you thought you weren’t a big enough name to play the main character.
A: It’s very tricky to get even the smallest amount of money for films nowadays, so I didn’t know if he’d be able to secure the funds he needed to make the picture with me in the lead. I suggested maybe I could play a supporting role.
Q: What drew you to the project?
A: I think that Ariel and I had a very similar attachment to the material, which was the double life that Kuklinski led; the contrast of the rage he expressed by what he did for a living but also this tenderness that he managed to have that inspired him to have a wife and a family and a home. I think we were both fascinated by how that contradiction could exist in a person.
Q: Do you think your character is evil?
A: I think he did horrid things, but I see my job as being to try to understand what would lead someone to do the things that he did, so that’s what I attempted to do. I think his abusive childhood played a huge part in it, and I think he had a very low opinion of himself, ultimately. In interviews, he would say of his murders, “I didn’t know how to do anything else. I wasn’t good at school, I didn’t have a lot of prospects. Basically the one thing that I had was this rage, and I found a way to turn it into a job.”
Q: One scene that stands out is the one where James Franco plays a victim who is praying to God to save his life, while Kuklinski taunts him that God apparently isn’t listening.
A: That scene was very significant for me because I think it was a very significant event in Kuklinski’s life. It’s a story he tells in an interview he did for HBO, where the interviewer asked him if he regretted any of his killings. He described the time that he told this guy to pray to God, and he afterwards always felt that that was not cool, that he actually doubted himself in retrospect for killing the guy. Which was rare for him; he didn’t do that very often. So I knew it was a very important scene in that regard.
Q: In the scene, Kuklinski seems very sure of himself.
A: I think for people like Kuklinski, a lot of the conflict is very internal; it’s inside of them, and not for public consumption.
Q: How would you describe working with Ariel Vromen?
A: Ariel is very tenacious; he doesn’t give up, and he’s a great leader. This was a very difficult shoot; we didn’t have a lot of time or money, but he never buckled. He’s able to make great decisions on his feet and to inspire the crew and keep things moving. The fact that he was able to make the movie in the amount of time we had and with such limited resources is really a testament to how strong his will was to complete the film.
Q: What would you like audiences to come away with?
A: I think the film is valuable, if not necessarily a primer on Kuklinskis’ life, at least as a parable about the notion of having a double life – and how that ultimately isn’t a very good idea.
April 18, 2013 | 12:34 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In the most searing sequence in Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s “Our Class” — a controversial play about Polish-Jewish relations now at the Atwater Village Theatre through at least May 5 — actors playing Polish nationalists lift chairs symbolizing their Jewish neighbors and mime the bludgeoning of bodies in a rural barn during the Holocaust. A Jewish character named Dora, carrying her infant son, then steps atop the chairs as she recounts how she and the rest of the town’s Jews were subsequently forced into the barn as the doors were locked, the structure set ablaze and all the victims burned alive.
The sequence is underplayed, but horrific.
“The most severe and extreme moments of the play had to be written and indeed performed with as light a touch as possible, because you can’t match the hideous events that are happening,” said Ryan Craig, the British dramatist who adapted the Polish-language play into English for its world premiere at the National Theatre in London in 2009.
The first Polish drama to be given the country’s prestigious Nike Literary Award, “Our Class” was inspired by a real pogrom that took place in Jedwabne, Poland, on July 10, 1941 — as well as similar massacres in neighboring villages — when the Catholic half of the town murdered the entire population of 1,600 Jewish residents.
The play was largely inspired by Jan T. Gross’ controversial 2002 book “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland,” which asserts that the atrocities were committed not by the German occupiers as previously believed, but by the Polish villagers with little or no encouragement from the Nazis. The book prompted an official apology by then-Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski as well as angry retorts that the book — and later the play — exaggerates the degree of Polish complicity and suggests that all Poles are anti-Semitic, requiring a collective mea culpa.
Craig begs to differ: “The play is based on thorough historical research, so if you think there’s demonization going on, you need to speak to the historians rather than the playwright,” he said in an interview from London. “But the playwright is not attempting to demonize the Poles, and I certainly worked very hard not to demonize anyone. I wanted to make sure that all the characters were fully rounded, and while some of them are victims, all of them are flawed in one way or another.”
“Our Class” revolves around 10 diverse members of a kindergarten class who appear first as innocents and playmates. Through successive Soviet and Nazi occupations, however, they are prompted to become victims or perpetrators — and sometimes both — in events that span from 1925 to the present.
For example, Zygmunt, a fierce Polish nationalist, commits some of the worst atrocities in the play, but during the Soviet regime is viciously tortured by Menachem, a Jewish survivor-turned-Russian secret service officer. The Catholic Zocha refuses to assist victims of the pogrom, except for Menachem, whom she hides in her hayloft because she is in love with him; Wladek, an alcoholic peasant, spews anti-Semitic slurs even as he shelters Rachelka, who is pressured to convert to Catholicism in order to marry him and who resents their union; and Menachem, the victim-turned-perpetrator, abandons his wife and baby to their fate in the barn while romancing Zocha in her hayloft.
“Our Class’s” director locally, Matthew McCray, who is also the artistic director of Son of Semele, the ensemble performing the Los Angeles production, said he doesn’t perceive “Our Class” as a traditional Holocaust play.
“This is where we get into touchy subjects, because as a non-Jew and non-Pole, I have to tread carefully,” he said. “But in some ways the play is about humanity as a whole; it’s about how people interrelate from different communities.”
Craig, 41, approached the material with his own painful Jewish history. Although one of his grandparents is Irish-Catholic, his paternal great-grandfather came to Britain to escape pogroms near Bialystok, while his mother’s family consists of Sephardic Jews who fled Nazi-occupied Holland for London.
As a boy, Craig recalls, non-Jewish children threw bacon and spouted slurs at him as he walked to Hebrew school in North London. And he was furious with Britain’s own history of pogroms, in particular a massacre in medieval times when the Jews of York were burned alive in a local building.
“For a long time, I was very angry,” he said of British-Jewish history, adding that he even refused to visit a girlfriend in York because of what had happened there.
But Craig worked out those demons by writing plays that explored anti-Semitism, such as “The Glass Room,” which spotlights a Holocaust denier: “By getting inside the minds of [anti-Semites], I was able to learn how these attitudes develop,” he said.
Even though he was initially reluctant to take on another Jewish-themed play when the National approached him about “Our Class,” he soon was drawn to the moral complexity of the material. “I’m not excusing anything that happened in Jedwabne, but I think there’s a sort of cultural victimhood that the Poles went through that led them to become persecutors,” he said.
Craig worked closely with Słobodzianek as he adapted the play several years ago: “He’s the largest human being I’ve ever met; physically, he’s a planet,” Craig recalled. “He looks like [former Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev, and when I first met him he was quite grumpy — he doesn’t speak much English — and he initially was quite dismissive of me and was anxious because the play had never been produced anywhere in the world at that time. It was too controversial still in Poland, where Tadeusz was regarded as a traitor. But he didn’t care about that in the least; he intended the play as a lesson to his own people, as a means of reflecting back to them the darker parts of the Polish experience.”
When McCray took on the West Coast premiere of “Our Class,” he meticulously researched the historical events surrounding the play but also attended a three-hour meeting with the Polish consul general and cultural attaché in Los Angeles.
“They were cautious that I had an agenda to stir the pot, to make people angry by depicting a one-sided opinion of what had happened,” he said. “I think their message was that this happened and it was horrible, but it’s also important to discuss the historical context surrounding it and how we can improve Polish-Jewish relations from here.”
For tickets and information, visit www.sonofsemele.org.
April 18, 2013 | 11:05 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
David S. Goyer, the scribe behind Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” trilogy and the highly anticipated Superman reboot “The Man of Steel,” opening June 14, was sipping English breakfast tea while nursing a cold recent at the Four Seasons Hotel.
The 47-year-old writer was balding, slight in stature and bore a striking resemblance to the actor Stanley Tucci, as The New York Times has noted. But his case of the sniffles didn’t prevent him from speaking, in erudite fashion, about his upcoming Superman flick, which began when he hit a case of writer’s block while working on “The Dark Knight Rises” several years ago.
“I was procrastinating,” said Goyer, who promptly “wasted time” by perusing some Superman comics in his home office – where, by the way, hangs some original art from the “Golem” comic books of the 1970s (Goyer likens the Golem to “the Jewish hulk”). On a lark, Goyer began jotting down some ideas for a new Superman film, which he dished to Nolan the next time they got together. The director was so impressed that he picked up the telephone and called Warner Brothers’ Jeff Robinov, who in turn was so enamored with Goyer’s take on the DC Comics character that he approved the project the very next day.
Superman has been a cultural icon since his Jewish creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, first published his story in Action Comics #1 in 1938, just as the Jews of Europe could have used a superhero of their own. Since then the guy in the cape has been ensconced in the popular culture with myriad tellings and retellings of his story -- from the Christopher Reeves films of the 1970s and ‘80s to Bryan Singer's 2006 “Superman Returns.”
So what’s Goyer’s new spin on the Man of Steel? His emotional vulnerability, the writer said. Here are some further excerpts from our interview, where Goyer discussed his childhood obsession with comics, his work on the blockbuster “Dark Knight” trilogy and of course, “The Man of Steel.”
Q: When did you first get into comic books?
A: We used to take the Amtrak train from our home in Ann Arbor [Michigan] to visit my grandmother in Chicago, and when I was 5 or 6 my mother would buy us comic books in the train station and I’d read them on the way. The first one that really captivated me was “The Incredible Hulk #161.” I related to Bruce Banner who was small and picked on but then he could turn into the hulk!
Q: Were you aware that many of the superhero creators were Jewish?
A: Oh, yeah – I mean Stan Lee was Jewish and Jack Kirby, Joe Simon and Bob Kane and Siegel and Shuster, they were all Jewish, and between the six of them they created easily the top 10 comic book characters out there. As Jews, they were disenfranchised, put upon and oppressed, so the superheroes were a kind of wish fulfillment; also comics were a kind of gutter medium so it was a way to get work in perhaps a medium that was less established and even frowned upon, and wasn’t paid much attention to, but at the same time it offered them a lot of creative latitude.
Q: When you tackled Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, what did you aspire to do that was new and different from previous films?
A: The first thing was that we tried to write about the gadgetry as if it were real; we were rigorous about the storytelling and we would never introduce something and not at least explain how a gadget could exist in the real world -- how the Batmobile or Batman’s cape could work, for example. So everything had to be based on technology that either existed or was on the drawing board, to give it verisimilitude. The other thing is that we didn’t want Batman to appear in the suit for at least 45 minutes into the film, because we wanted to get people so invested in Bruce Wayne that they didn’t care whether or not he was in the suit. So one of the first things I said to Chris is that I was adamant that there be a massive action sequence, almost Indiana Jones-style, involving Bruce Wayne at the beginning of the film, and that is where he escapes from the League of Shadows.
Q: Your take was also more nihilistic than the Tim Burton “Batman” films of the late 1980s.
A: That was our personal take. One of the things that’s interesting for the audience to decide is whether or not Batman actually makes Gotham better – whether it’s a better place after he leaves or not.
Q: You’ve described the relationship between Batman and The Joker in “The Dark Night” as “The Killing Joke.”
A: “The Killing Joke” is a seminal graphic novel by Alan Moore and it was one of our reference points. But also it was the fact that the Joker isn’t in a strange way evil; he’s the Trickster [in mythology of various cultures]; he’s based on Loki, or the Coyote. He exists to shine a mirror back on society, and I’m not saying he doesn’t do horrible things, but the Joker does sometimes do things that are not beneficial to himself, and I’m not even sure that he would kill Batman if he actually got the opportunity.
Q: One of the things that is so creepy about your Joker, as played by Heath Ledger, is that he keeps changing his back-story.
A: That was intentional. I think a lazy convention of modern superhero films is that you start with the origin story of a character and we thought that we would go the opposite direction. We didn’t want people to identify with him; we didn’t want to humanize him, so we thought if he just keeps telling different stories, then you never know who the real guy is, and it just makes him that much more enigmatic.
Q: You’ve said that writing about Superman for “The Man of Steel” was trickier than creating The Dark Knight.
A: He is trickier. The problem is that he’s not human and he has very few physical vulnerabilities, so he’s inherently harder to relate to. So we worked hard to make him relatable, because if audiences can identify with Clark Kent as a person, even though he’s an alien, they’ll be emotionally invested in him. Hopefully they’ll invest in his sense of isolation, because he’s different, even though he’s seemingly invulnerable.
[According to Entertainment Weekly, “The Man of Steel’s” Superman is “more soulful and troubled;” a “hunted, fearful Superman – one who didn’t even identify himself with that grandiose moniker but just wanted to blend in on his new home planet.” Until the Kryptonian tyrant General Zod comes on the scene…]
Q: “The Man of Steel” is less idealistic, you’ve said, than the previous Richard Donner Superman films.
A: There’s nothing wrong with idealism, and our film is a hopeful film, but we live in a different world now. I think if you attempted to recreate the [Donner] films now they would seem anachronistic; the world has moved on, it’s 37 years later, and it’s a much more complicated place.
Q: Are you talking about the current war on terror?
A: Yes, and what was interesting for us in this exercise was, can we tell a story about Superman that will get you to care about him in today’s world?
Q: “The Man of Steel” is also very much a story about a man with two fathers.
A: He’s got his earth father and his Kryptonian father, who are both responsible for instructing his moral compass, and for me the key to the movie was that Superman is half from earth and half from Krypton, and he really needs to decide who he is and which father’s advice to heed, which was my emotional way into the character.
Q: Do you think that superhero stories are still lumped into a genre that doesn’t get much respect?
A: It definitely doesn’t. I do think it’s getting progressively better; in film terms it’s a relatively new genre, and I think eventually you will see a superhero film win best picture [at the Oscars]. But it just goes back to people feeling like you can’t take comic books seriously, that they’re just for kids. There was also a bias against Western movies when they started, and against musicals as well.
But what the superhero genre allows you to do is, they’re sort of like our modern Greek myths; they’re aspirational, like the "Just So" stories. And speaking for my own kids, it’s the easiest way to, in a very primitive way, start to instill morals. At my house we talk about, “Well, Superman wouldn’t do that; he wouldn’t push his little brother.” And it’s very instructional and certainly one of the ways that I got some of my earliest moral teachings. I remember talking about Spiderman and his [perspective] that with great power comes great responsibility, and that made a big impression on me.
April 10, 2013 | 2:38 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The drama opens in a smoky saloon somewhere in a remote corner of Israel. A young stranger, Avram (Dudu Tassa), enters the bar, where he is regarded suspiciously by the tough-looking musicians slinging back shots of arak, a Middle Eastern liquor. Avram has arrived with a message for a certain Josef Tawila (Uri Gavriel), a legendary tar (Persian lute) player who has abandoned music and lived like a recluse since a devastating car accident that killed two of his comrades 20 years earlier.
Turns out Avram’s father, Tawila’s best friend, is terminally ill and wants his former band mate to keep an old promise: to perform a musical piece they wrote together, “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring,” in the cave where they composed it decades ago.
The brooding Tawila eventually agrees to the endeavor, which launches him on a journey to gather the best classical musicians he can find for the concert. The odyssey of this reluctant hero is reminiscent of the protagonists of Akira Kurosawa’s iconic “The Seven Samurai,” which in turn inspired the John Sturges Western “The Magnificent Seven,” according to the film’s director, Benny Toraty, who spoke through a translator in an interview by phone from his home in Tel Aviv.
Toraty’s “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring” — the opening-night film of the 27th annual Israel Film Festival (IFF) — is as much homage to American and spaghetti Westerns as to Persian classical music, a testament to Israel’s burgeoning, sometimes quirky and often-provocative film industry.
The film won four 2012 Ophir (Israeli Oscar) awards and will be the centerpiece of the IFF’s opening-night gala, to be held at the Writers Guild Theater on April 18.
The largest film festival of its kind in the United States, the IFF will showcase more than 30 of the nation’s best new films, including features, documentaries, animation and shorts, all to be screened at Laemmle Theatres in Beverly Hills and Encino. Highlights include “Zaytoun,” the highly anticipated new film by esteemed director Eran Riklis (“Lemon Tree”), and Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void,” winner of the 2012 Ophir for best feature as well as the best actress award for its star, Hadas Yaron, at the last Venice Film Festival (see story, p. 25).
Since its founding 27 years ago by festival executive director Meir Fenigstein, the IFF has grown into a mega-event that has, over the years, screened 800 films for more than 900,000 patrons in several U.S. cities; just how far the festival has come is evidenced by its opening-night lifetime achievement honoree, former Paramount Pictures head Sherry Lansing, who in her decades in the industry has overseen such award-winning movies as “Forrest Gump,” “Braveheart” and “Titanic.” Also feted will be actors Martin Landau (see story, p. 28) and Gavriel, the latter perhaps best known outside Israel for playing the blind doctor who befriends Bruce Wayne in prison in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Toraty, 57, is emerging as an Israeli director to watch. In an hour-long interview, he said he made “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring” in large part to honor his parents, Iranian Jews forced to leave all their belongings behind when they fled their country for Israel in the massive aliyah of the early 1950s. What they brought with them was their love for Persian classical music — melodies played on the kamancheh (Persian fiddle) and oud that frequently wafted through their home in a slum near Tel Aviv. “It was like the Harlem of Israel,” Toraty recalled of his childhood neighborhood.
But as a youth he didn’t warm to his parents’ music: “It was exactly the opposite,” he said. “I was born and raised in Israel, and like many of my classmates, I was almost ashamed to listen to or be involved with the music of my [elders].”
Instead, he found his passion at his neighborhood cinema, where he fell in love, in particular, with Westerns by filmmakers like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Sergio Leone. After studying in the film department at Tel Aviv University, Toraty made his debut feature, “Desperado Square” (2001), to honor his old neighborhood theater, in the vein of Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show.”
Much like “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring,” “Desperado Square” is a saga about fathers and sons and old promises kept: The story spotlights a young man and his brother who struggle to reopen the cinema their father had closed down a quarter century earlier in their impoverished neighborhood.
“The Ballad of the Weeping Spring” is Toraty’s ode to the power of music and, specifically, to his parents’ music, which he rediscovered and fell in love with in recent years while listening to Persian classical singers such as Hassan Sattar. “This music is not so well known in Israel,” he said. “It’s not from North Africa or Iraq, but more from the silk road from Persia crossing into Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and India. I also wanted to explore the lives of musicians who are playing the other Sephardic music that people don’t know and have never heard.”
Actor-musician Dudu Tassa plays Avram, who, we learn, has rejected his father’s Persian classical music, but over the course of the film grows to love the genre; for the film’s score, Toraty said he turned to composer Mark Eliyahu, whose father was an esteemed tar player and musicologist from Dagestan, and who spent two years in Azerbaijan mastering the kamancheh.
Since Toraty also drew inspiration for the film from Western movies and their outlaw protagonists, he conceived the central role for Gavriel, whom he describes as “the No. 1 actor [portraying] gangsters in Israeli cinema.”
“It was very natural for me to take on this character,” Gaviel, who was nominated for an Ophir for his performance, said in an interview from his home near B’nai Brak. And not only because he has been playing outlaws since his breakout performance in the seminal 1982 Mizrahi crime caper “Big Shots.”
“My parents are from Baghdad, and I grew up with their music,” Gavriel said. “My father was a singer who wrote songs and was a specialist in the music of the Egyptian musician Mohammed Abdel Wahab, whom I still listen to this day.”
For Gavriel, playing Tawila was also a means to escape the typecasting that he has encountered throughout his career; he’s still playing gangsters, most recently on the popular Israeli series “HaBorer,” where his character is nicknamed “The Nazi.”
“I was drawn to the longing within this character,” Gavriel said of Tawila. “He had hung up his instrument since the accident, but now the music is calling him, and the [yearning] wells up inside of him.”
For tickets and more information, call (877) 966-5566 or visit IsraelFilmFestival.com.