With the recent coinage of the term “pinkwashing,” presumably an “unofficial” official policy whereby the Israeli government touts its progressive stance vis-à-vis gay and lesbian rights as a way to deflect criticism of the Occupation, one entry into the sixth annual Other Israel Film Festival took on new urgency earlier this month. But the documentary “The Invisible Men,” while hardly a wholesale indictment of the Occupation, offers a balanced but equally troubling spectacle. While Israel refuses to “legalize” Palestinian gays who enter the country fleeing persecution in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian families, adhering to religious and cultural norms, and Palestinian police, enforcing those norms, think nothing of abusing their own children and subjecting them to emotional, psychological, and physical torture. Thus the dilemma for young Palestinian homosexuals: survive illegally in Israel under threat of expulsion or legally in the territories under threat of death?
This Hobson’s choice is made painfully clear in “The Invisible Men.” Personal testimonies from three Arab men — two living undocumented in Tel Aviv and one under Palestinian jurisdiction — force us to wonder what sort of world compels people to live at the boundary of madness and suicide, renunciation and helplessness, self-denial and abjection.
Director Yariv Mozer and writer Adam Rosner home in on Louie, 33, who has been living illegally in Tel Aviv for 10 years. A skilled manual laborer — we see him repainting an apartment with such care that the owner extends her compliments — Louie’s position has nevertheless become untenable. He is repeatedly picked up by the authorities and sent back to the territories where it is impossible for him to live. His sexuality is known and rejected by his family; his father has even threatened his life with a knife at the young man’s throat. Scarred by that violent encounter, and as much or more by the rape he endured at age 8 by an older boy, Louie finds his way back to Jaffa, living under the radar and wearing a Star of David around his neck in hopes of warding off the police.
Watching “La Rafle,” which dramatizes the painful episode of French police rounding up 13,000 Parisian Jews, including 4,000 children, in July 1942, is difficult enough given its grave subject matter without also having to consider questions of artistic merit.
With the help of thousands of French police working from immigrant registration records, Vichy leader Philippe Pétain and his subordinates packed up foreign Jews and their children for deportation with barely a second thought. The captives were first shunted to Paris’s Vélodrome d’Hiver racing stadium. Within days the place become rank; little food or water was available, human waste blocked up the plumbing, and medical needs threatened adults and children alike. Afterward, these Jews were interned at a bare-bones French transit camp in Beaune-la-Rolande before their final exit from French soil.
Written and directed by Rose Bosch, whose Jewish husband lived in the Butte Montmartre neighborhood where the film’s main characters reside, “La Rafle” is a skillful reconstruction of time and place based on substantial historical research and interviews with survivors. Concentrating on several working-class Ashkenazi families, Bosch sets the stage by presenting vignettes of daily Jewish life under Occupation. Increasing social and professional restrictions isolate the Jews within their enclave. Non-Jewish neighbors rise to the occasion, or not, depending on personal prejudices or temperament. From the vantage point of three lively, sometimes mischievous Jewish boys — 11-year-old Jo Weismann, his friend Simon Zygler and Simon’s 5-year-old brother Nono — the audience shares an innocent worldview knowing that a cynical adult world awaits to rob them of their futures.
The Nazi era and the Holocaust are such monumental subjects that any documentary filmmaker dealing with them is bound to feel daunted by the challenge. At the same time, we would be foolish to think that even the most serious moviegoer is breathlessly waiting for the next cinematic inquiry into Hitler’s perverse universe.
All the more reason to pay attention to a film which finds its way into this period through the experience of a single person — in this case, an extraordinary musician. The documentary “Orchestra of Exiles” implicitly proposes that through the drama of one life the larger moral landscape can be illuminated. Yet if Branislaw Huberman had only been one of the 20th century’s great violinists, I’m not at all sure Josh Aaronson would have made a film as humane and inspiring as this one.
Here is the story of a child prodigy from Poland, born in 1882, prodded by an ambitious father to assure the family’s fortunes, and who became a savior and visionary in the service of his Jewish brethren. That Huberman may well have been a more flawed human being than the film has time to capture hardly diminishes Aaronson’s accomplishment as screenwriter and director.
Aaronson has done something difficult in his documentary, integrating dramatic sequences from Huberman’s life into archival newsreel footage, historical photographs and talking head interviews. These scenes are played by actors who appear as characters in the violinist’s life. Several actors, including two children, play Huberman at different stages, while others embody historical figures well known to us. These sequences are impressed with period detail, humanize the main characters, and are never played for histrionics.
In feature films the deaf have made for exotic yet sympathetic characters. From Jane Wyman as the saintly eponymous innocent in “Johnny Belinda” (1948) to Marlee Matlin’s Oscar-winning turn as a self-possessed, sexually confidant woman in “Children of a Lesser God” (1986), their portrayal measures our society’s slow acknowledgment that the deaf are, well, people. It is hard from this distance to fathom that Helen Keller was once a figure of worldwide fame, but the Broadway play and film, “The Miracle Worker,” enshrines her in our memory as a wild child brought to personal enlightenment through the ministrations of her similarly “afflicted” teacher, Annie Sullivan.
Yet only since the deaf assumed their own political power in the last few decades, starting with the demand in 1988 for a deaf president to lead Gallaudet University — the most prominent American school of higher education for the deaf — have we begun to understand deafness not only as a minority physical status, but as a cultural one as well.
“Deaf Jam,” a 70-minute documentary screening May 10 at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, focuses on a teenage Israeli immigrant, Aneta Brodski, and a cohort of her high school friends at the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens. Split roughly into two sections, the film tells the tale of how these young people navigate their way into the hearing world’s lively hip-hop scene of spoken word poetry jams by using American Sign Language (ASL) in its most expressive, even theatrical dimensions. Later, as Aneta’s friends at Lexington leave to pursue higher education elsewhere, the film homes in on Aneta, who joins forces with a hearing poetry slammer, Tahani, a student at Columbia University. As luck would have it, Tahani is of Palestinian heritage. The two young women form an affectionate partnership, Muslim and Jew, where collaboration between spoken and “pictorial” sign language creates a hybrid that can bridge the deaf and hearing worlds.
While making “Free Men” (“Les hommes libres”), a subtle examination of an Algerian émigré living in Paris at the outset of the Nazi Occupation, it must have been tempting to pump up the emotional volume. Had the movie been made by Hollywood, Younes, a young man selling goods on the black market, would have been played by a sexy under-30 hunk, the tangential romance with a mysterious woman would have been front and center, and Younes’s conversion from a self-sufficient but apolitical layabout into a man committed to saving lives at the risk of his own would have been pushed as high-key melodramatic heroism. The moral quandaries would have been italicized and the young Jewish children at risk would have tugged at our heartstrings in a manner more sentimental than thought provoking.
But Moroccan-born director Ismaël Ferroukhi and his co-screenwriter, Alain-Michel Blanc (with the historical advice of Benjamin Stora), fashioned instead an intimate tale of growing moral and political self-awareness against a backdrop that, at least for some, will prove surprising. Too few of us are familiar with instances of Jews saved by Muslims. Today’s Middle Eastern politics make such stories important, the better for Jews and Arabs to appreciate a shared past and, in the Sephardi context, shared cultures and communities that have effectively been banished from public remembrance.
I imagine a movie that is even-handed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will enrage people at the extremes. If so, the French produced film “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea,” screening January 22 and 23 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, could create a battle royale among American Jews, even though its provocations are measured.
With its tight structure and frequent use of voiceover, it’s not surprising that the film is adapted from a literary source. But I would not have guessed that author Valerie Zanetti — who also co-wrote the film script with director Thierry Binisti — intended her original novel as a work of young adult fiction. While its main characters — an Israeli teenager of French origin named Tal and a young Gazan named Naim — come perilously close to stock figures, they gain in complexity as their predicaments with family, friends and social environments gather texture and nuance. Yet the story never descends into a predictable tale of love across boundaries of ethnicity, religion and class. Rather, it builds as an epistolary friendship set within a political context.
Even Chekhov thought he was writing comedies, but the bracing first feature by writer and director Katia Lewkowicz, “Bachelor Days Are Over,” billed as a comedy in the current New York Jewish Film Festival, would serve audience expectations better if it had been given an English title closer to its original French one: “Pourquoi tu pleures?” (“Why are you crying?“). The film is a rueful portrait of Arnaud (nicknamed Cui-Cui), a man-child passing several errant days before his wedding in a state of existential angst after he beds a gal he meets at his bachelor party night-on-the-town, and begins to question his choice of bride, Anna, who has done a short-lived disappearing act of her own.
In scenes that have the sweet-sour perfume of “The Hangover” mixed with Federico Fellini’s “I Vitelloni,” Cui-Cui goes drinking and carousing with his buddies, plans a reception with the input of his manic older sister, and roams aimlessly through his last free days. He meets his fiancee’s extended non-French speaking family, touches base with his needy yet still beautiful widowed mother, and deals with a real estate agent who interrupts his most recent sexcapade with an unscheduled visit. Then his apartment floods. The chaos of his daily life, familial demands, and memories of a father who first abandoned the family and then died, all send the sober (if not necessarily sensible) Arnaud into a state of paralysis.
And now, a different kind of Jewish film festival. “In the Beginning Was a School…,” a two-part documentary celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, has its American premiere March 13 at the New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival. Traditional in its visual presentation — talking heads intercut with archival footage, animation, video montage, and old black and white clips of maps that look like out-takes from Casablanca — this television production tells a story little known on these shores, even if legendary among the francophone Sephardic diaspora. Its director, Josy Eisenberg, is a prominent figure in France, known as host — for over 40 years! — of a television program on Jewish life, history, and culture, and as the co-screenwriter of the 1970s cult film comedy, “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob.”
The Alliance, or AIU, was founded by six French Jewish eminences in 1860 on the heels of the Mortara Affair, which saw a six-year-old Jewish child in Bologna, Italy forcibly taken from his parents by the Church, on the rationale that Edgardo’s secret baptism by his nurse made him a Catholic. The Affair prompted international controversy; it also encouraged communitarian solidarity among assimilated French Jews.