Not everyone has Zack Galifianakis renting an apartment for them, or Renee Zellweger paying to furnish it. But then again, not everyone is Mimi.
Mimi is an 88-year-old woman who, until very recently, lived in a laundromat on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, Calif. She is the subject of a film being made by Israeli actor and director Yaniv Rokah. Now entering post-production thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, “Queen Mimi” tells the story of how this feisty octogenarian, who was once a San Fernando Valley housewife, ended up living on the streets of Los Angeles for almost a decade before taking up permanent residence at Fox Laundry 18 years ago.
“When I first came to L.A. seven years ago, I would be heading every morning to work at Caffe Luxxe on Santa Monica Avenue. It was 5 a.m. and the street would be dark and empty, but I would always notice Mimi waking up in the laundromat,” Rokah recalled in a phone conversation with The Arty Semite.
“I started talking to her, and we became friends. She is such an interesting person, and I decided I’d better capture this before she’s no longer with us.”
It’s hard not to notice that many of the prizewinners at the 2013 Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival focus on women, be they pole dancers, supermarket cashiers or pioneers in pre-state Israel. Not all of DocAviv’s nods went to films about females, but the trend is hard to ignore.
The Best Israeli Film Award went to “Pole, Dancer and a Movie,” a film by Isri Halpern about Neta Lee Levy, the founder of Israel’s first pole dancing studio. Special Jury Mention went to “Super Women,” a documentary by Yael Kipper and Ronen Zaretsky chronicling the lives of five women who all work the same shift at an Israeli supermarket. Avigail Sperber won the Best Cinematography Award for the film.
“Women/Pioneers,” a film about the young women who came to the Land of Israel to be pioneers and develop a model for “the new woman,” received the Best Research Award. “Handa Handa 4” got a Special Jury Mention for the story it tells about a young couple of Bukharan descent that refuse to follow the conventional marriage traditions of their community.
The Best Editing Award went not to a film about women, but rather to one about children. “Dancing in Jaffa,” a film by Hilla Medalia that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, follows ballroom dancing expert Pierre Dulaine as he returns to his native Jaffa to implement a social development program with Palestinian and Jewish children similar to the ones he has run in New York and other North American cities.
Only in New York could a troupe of Jewish and Dominican kids team up with a Broadway legend on a musical production about a Latin dictator’s rescue of Jews during the Holocaust.
But it’s a true story. And a new documentary called “Sosua: Make a Better World” chronicles the collaboration of 20 prickly teens in Washington Heights with stage giant Elizabeth Swados on a play about the unlikeliest of subjects: The 1938 rescue of 800 German Jews by Dominican strongman Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. Sosua was the Dominican town where the refugees eventually settled.
For Sosua co-director Renee Silverman, the film’s setup mirrors real-life challenges in Washington Heights, the uptown neighborhood where the kids live and where she herself settled in 2008. “I live on Bennett Avenue, which is 60% Jewish and 40% gentrified,” she told The Arty Semite. “On the other side of Broadway lives the largest population of Dominicans outside the Dominican Republic. And we rarely interact.”
But by the end of the film — with self-evident symbolism — the kids are singing in unison. “It’s a tremendous story,” she said. The Forward caught up with Silverman in Manhattan, where she works as a freelance producer for the German television network ARD.
Michael Kaminer: The film draws out the contradiction between Rafael Trujillo’s rescue of Jews and the murder of thousands of Haitians under his rule. Did most of the kids you worked with consider him a hero or a villain?
Ricky Jay is a polymath of the dark arts. A master of sleight-of-hand and considered by some to be one of the greatest magician living today, he is also a historian of magic, a collector of rare books, a lecturer, a film and television actor, and a co-creator of the firm Deceptive Practices, which supplies “arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis” to film, TV and theatrical companies by using magic and illusions to solve production challenges.
Finally, he is the subject of a fascinating new documentary, “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay,” which opened in New York on April 17.
A combination of extraordinary archival performance footage and a series of lengthy interviews with Jay, it reveals a man who was introduced to magic by his grandfather, then left home at 16 and was taken under the wings of some of the greatest magicians of the time.
Jay spoke to The Arty Semite about discovering magic, his mentors and the Jewish influence on magic and magicians.
Curt Schleier: In the film, you mention that you wanted the magician Al Flosso to perform at your bar mitzvah, and your parents arranged that as a surprise. That seems like a big deal, yet you didn’t seem to get along with your parents. You called it “the only kind thing I remember.”
A talk at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on April 14 will recall Jewish movie greats — like Sulochana, Pramila, and Nadira.
They were towering stars of Bollywood, the century-old Mumbai-centered film industry that still cranks out 800 films a year, more than double the output of the U.S. And Danny Ben-Moshe, a research fellow at Deakin University in Australia, has spent six years piecing together their fascinating and largely forgotten stories for “Shalom Bollywood,” a documentary set for release later this year. The film “tells of the 2,000-year-old Indian Jewish community and its formative place in the Indian film industry,” according to its web site.
Peppering his presentation with rare film clips, Ben-Moshe will “tell the tale of how I stumbled on the story, how it unfolded, and the trials and tribulations of trying to make [the film].” He corresponded by email with The Arty Semite before boarding a plane for Toronto.
Michael Kaminer: How did you get into this subject, and what compelled you to make a movie about it?
Danny Ben-Moshe: An Indian student of mine gave me an obituary of Nadira, the last of the great Jewish Bollywood actors to pass away. I knew there were Indian Jews but had no idea there was such a prominent Jewish on screen star. I went to India to do some research to see if there was enough material to make a film about Nadira but I found out she was the tip of the iceberg.
Poet, publisher and bookstore maven Lawrence Ferlinghetti is, at 94, arguably the most popular living versifier, or at least author of the single most popular book of poetry — the million-selling “A Coney Island of the Mind” (1957). It’s a distinction he carries lightly in Christopher Felver’s new documentary “Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder.” The poet is rebelliously cheerful (in historic footage) while Allen Ginsberg is dour, accepting awards with surprise rather than vanity, buoyantly living his rebel life to the end.
Blame it on San Francisco, which properly occupies an oversize role in this charming film. Born in Yonkers as the son of an Italian father and a Sephardic mother, Ferlinghetti made it all the way to genteel Westchester the hard way.
When his father died six months after he was born and his mother was confined to an asylum, the boy was taken to France to live for his first years, until his aunt got a job in Bronxville and brought him there to grow up and go to school. Then came the University of North Carolina, where he began writing regularly (covering sports events for the school paper), then the Navy and back to France. And then, most decisively, to San Francisco. The bohemian city was waiting for him as he was for the city.
“No Place on Earth” is an amazing story of survival, a testament to the human spirit and, on Yom Hashoah, another reminder that we must never forget.
In 1993, spelunker Christopher Nicola discovered some man-made artifacts while exploring caves in western Ukraine. Only these weren’t the remains of some ancient civilization, but remnants from five Jewish families who hid underground for 18 months during World War II.
The experiences of those families equal the drama of the most harrowing adventure movies. After they were discovered in their first cave some were killed while others bribed their way to freedom and moved to a second cave. Brave souls from the group had to leave the safety of underground to scrounge for food. A few former neighbors were helpful; others sealed a cave entrance when they discovered it — with 38 people inside.
Conditions were horrible. The caves were dark and bone-chillingly cold, even in summer. Supplies frequently ran low. Food disappeared, and fights broke out. But through it all, thanks to some internal time clock, the group kept the Jewish holidays.
It was interesting timing. While Sandberg’s book sparked debate across the nation about working mothers in white-collar settings, Weissman’s film highlighted the very different challenges of struggling female indie musicians trying to raise families.
“Rock N Roll Mamas,” which was screened March 7 at the Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival, follows three women of different ages, backgrounds and family situations. They are all trying to make their livings as rock musicians, and they all pay a price for staying true to their art while raising children. But it seems as though they may not perceive the costs of their decisions as well as the film’s viewers do.
Weissman started working on “Rock N Roll Mamas,” her third film, in 2003. A New York-native with an Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia College in Chicago who was living Portland, she became interested in the lives of indie musician moms after reading an article on the topic. “I saw a real similarity between them and me, as I was a freelance filmmaker and a new mom at the time. It resonated for me — all the juggling and hard work and the low pay.”
For Philip Roth’s upcoming 80th birthday on March 19, New York magazine assembled a “Literary Caucus” to assess the career of a writer that some love, others hate, but everybody who knows anything about literature respects. While Roth himself had no hand in the piece, the 28 men and five women who weighed in on Roth’s life, times and books were more than enough to add fuel to an already fiery conversation. It didn’t help that n+1 co-founder Keith Gessen answered the question, “Is Roth a misogynist?” with: “If you hate women, why would you want to spend all your time thinking about f*cking them?”
The piece sent readers and writers into a tizzy, prompting discussions on everything from the gender imbalance of the “caucus” to Gessen’s answer, and on the decades-old discussion about Roth himself. What people failed to mention is that while Roth and his work have been stirring up controversy since the 1950s, this conversation was something totally different — Philip Roth was able to enrage people by proxy. He did nothing but serve as a starting point for several different debates. It is a testament to Roth that in his eighth decade he doesn’t even need to write anything and can still cause trouble.
On March 29, PBS will be airing “Philip Roth: Unmasked,” as part of its American Masters series. The documentary debuts March 13 in New York on the big screen at Film Forum, and will no doubt spark more discussion about Roth and his work. But this time it will be about things Roth actually says, rather than what a bunch of writers he influenced have to say about him.
When Kings Point in Delray Beach, Fla., opened in 1972, it wasn’t the Promised Land, though many thought it was close. For a $1,500 down payment, refugees from New York exchanged cold winters, drugs and crime for a gated community filled with their peers.
First-time director Sari Gilman’s late grandmother was a resident for a while, sparking a five-year long project. The result is “Kings Point,” a documentary short that was nominated for an Oscar and that premieres March 11 on HBO (with subsequent play dates throughout the month).
I should confess that like Sari, I have a familial relationship with the facility. My in-laws moved there in the mid-1970s and lived first in Saxony J (a one bedroom unit) and then Monaco C (two bedrooms). My family spent many overcrowded vacations there.
But the facility was great. There were indoor and outdoor pools, activities, card games and mah-jongg. There weren’t enough hours in the day for residents to do everything. Or so it seemed. But then time happened. Spouses and friends died, and loneliness set in.
“Kings Point” focuses on several seniors who ruminate about aging. They don’t come across as happy or sad, but resigned to their fate in a Peggy Lee “Is This All There Is?” kind of way.
John Milius is a Hollywood Legend. He’s the screenwriter responsible for “Dirty Harry,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Conan the Barbarian,” and has produced films by Robert Zemeckis, Paul Schrader and Steven Spielberg. He’s also a self-described “Zen anarchist” who claims to have been blacklisted for his right-wing politics.
Most infamously, Milius is the real-life inspiration for Walter Sobchak, the gun-toting Vietnam vet in the Coen Brothers’ cult hit “The Big Lebowski,” which just celebrated its 15th anniversary. Like Sobchak, Milius is Jewish (though some have refused to believe it), and recently narrated the documentary “Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Grey,” about Jewish combatants in the Civil War.
Now Milius is the subject of a documentary (titled “Milius”) by Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson, premiering March 9 at the South by Southwest Film Festival and featuring interviews with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Francis Ford Coppola, among others. For those of us who can’t make it down to Texas, here’s a sneak peek:
Collbran, Colo., is the kind of all-American town conservatives point to when they talk about how great America is. The town doesn’t even have a policeman, for goodness sakes. It has a marshal. How much more all-American, Wyatt Earp can you get?
But as Bob Wilson, pastor of the local Plateau Valley Assembly of God, notes, his town is “close knit, caring yet almost desperate.” In fact, all of Colorado is desperate; the state is ranked number one in child poverty.
Wilson and several other town residents are at the center of “A Place at the Table,” a searing and sober indictment of a nation that allows its children to go to bed hungry. The documentary opens in major markets and video on demand March 1.
The magnitude of the problem is staggering. Fifty million Americans are food insecure and 17 million of those are children. Of all industrialized countries, the U.S. ranks last in terms of the number of people who are food insecure.
Filmmakers Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson interview the usual suspects, like the heads of various end hunger groups. More effective, though, is the desperation that comes from the single mom in Philadelphia and the fifth grader in Collbran, who struggles “a lot [in school] and most of the time it’s because my stomach is hurting.”
The filmmakers spoke to The Arty Semite about how the film came about, misconceptions about hunger and the role of tikkun olam.
Curt Schleier: How did you become aware of this problem?
HBO has released a trailer for its upcoming Phil Spector biopic, about the legendary record producer and convicted murderer. The film, written and directed by David Mamet, stars Al Pacino as Spector and Helen Mirren as his defense attorney. Based on the trailer, though, the main attraction seems to be the many phases of Spector’s hair. Take a look:
Last year, in a nearly empty screening room, I saw what became an Academy Award finalist in the documentary category, “5 Broken Cameras.” I then interviewed filmmaker Guy Davidi about his background and his work on the film for The Arty Semite.
Recently I had another email conversation with Davidi, discussing how he’s faring with his film in the limelight, the nature of his collaboration with his Palestinian co-director Emad Burnat, and whether he knew if his colleague (a novice in the trade) would pursue filmmaking in the future.
When asked his view of the other Israeli-produced film nominated for best documentary, “The Gatekeepers,” he was reluctant to say much, citing an Academy rule prohibiting him from commenting on a fellow nominee. He responded mainly about his experience as a nominee with his Palestinian partner, but began with the political impact of the other work:
”The Gatekeepers” has put an end to the claim that Ehud Barak conveyed that there is no Palestinian partner; for me [this] is the most important achievement of the film and [on] the political discourse in Israel.
This morning brought a first for the Israeli film industry. Two of the five Oscar nods for the Best Documentary went to Israeli films the “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers,” both movies that deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — but from opposing views.
The praise, particularly for “The Gatekeepers,” is the latest in a string of accolades. Last weekend, it was named the best nonfiction film of 2012 by the National Society of Film Critics in the United States.
Filmmaker Dror Moreh’s film derives less from its subject matter — Israeli political and military history — than from the director’s unprecedented access to his subjects, all of whom have served as chiefs of Israel’s secret police, known in Hebrew as Shabak and in English as Shin Bet.
This fall, the Forward’s Sheerly Avni sat down with Moreh to discuss his inspiration and the conflict.
Tall and dark-haired, 51-year-old Moreh stands with the consciously straight posture of a man accustomed to carrying heavy equipment (he began his career as a cameraman). He met with the Forward’s Sheerly Avni for coffee in Telluride, in a cafe directly across the street from the theater at which he had just received a standing ovation, and explained why his joy over the film’s enthusiastic reception continues to take a back seat to fears for his country’s future.
Sheerly Avni: What inspired you to make this film?
Dror Moreh: Like many Israelis, I feel very bleak about our current situation. I have family and children in Israel, and I am terrified. So I wanted to make a film that would ask hard questions about where we are headed. I wanted this to be a movie that no one could argue with, where no one could say, “These people don’t know what they are talking about,” or it’s “their bias,” or, “It’s just one opinion.” So I knew that I needed not just one former chief of the Shin Bet, but all of them. Every single man would need to agree to speak with me.
Stephen Fry has one of those faces you likely recognize but don’t know why. Did he live in the old neighborhood? Did you go to school with him? Or, as is the case, is he someone almost famous?
Fry was a Golden Globe nominee for playing the title role in the 1998 film, “Wilde.” He’s also appeared in “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” and has a role in next year’s Hobbit movie, “The Desolation of Smaug.” But the actor/writer is best known in his native England.
Fry is at the center of a documentary, “Wagner & Me,” opening December 7 in New York and in several other major cities in coming weeks. Fry is a Wagner enthusiast. He claims he was 11 or 12 when he heard his music “on my father’s gramophone. It released forces in me. No music has done it like Wagner’s.”
The problem is that his “passion was shared by Hitler. I’m Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust.”
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.
Russia’s Channel One commissioned “The Crime of Boris Pasternak” from Svetlana Rezvushkina’s Lavr Film Studio, and then — giving no reason — refused to air it upon its completion. Was it because the film wasn’t commercial enough? Or was it because the television station thought it wouldn’t interest young viewers? These are possible answers, but Rezvushkina, a veteran journalist and documentary filmmaker, suspects there may have been political motives behind the government-run channel’s change of heart.
Thanks to the filmmaker’s persistence, the hour-long documentary about the final, and most fascinating, decade-and-a half-of the Russian poet, translator and novelist’s life is now being shown to audiences. It has had several screenings in Moscow (including one at the Jewish community center there), one at a French film festival, and another at the United Nations Association Film Festival in Palo Alto, California in October. It has finally been bought by another Russian television channel, and will be broadcast this month.
“It is important to show this film in Russia,” Rezvushkina said. “We still remember that time, and a time like that could come again.”
Art Spiegelman just wants to be left alone. Or, rather, he would really like it if parts of his career and biography were minimized, and others celebrated more. The central tension, both in the long conversations he had with University of Chicago professor Hillary Chute, the germ and base level of “MetaMaus” (2011), and now in Clara Kuperberg and Joelle Oosterlinck’s new documentary, “The Art of Spiegleman,” is the anxiety of success. Spiegelman is painfully self-aware that he will be forever known (and, often, only known) for the path breaking Maus (1980-1991); fearful that he will become the “Elie Wiesel of comics”; and worries that he cannot seem to escape the autobiographical voice. Somehow, some way, his career turned from the one he imagined and he’s never been able to get the old one back.
“The Art of Spiegelman,” now screening as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, is a medium-length documentary. At 45 minutes, it’s perfect for television. Most of the movie consists of interviews with Spiegelman, though his wife and daughter become increasingly prominent as the movie progresses. There are photographs of Spiegelman’s early years, and archival footage of Spiegelman and his wife printing Raw, the legendary little magazine of what we now call sequential art, but really should just call comics.
Non-Spiegelmans, like the illustrator Charles Burns, make appearances, but they are there to tell personal stories and to contextualize Spiegelman’s life. Learned, bespectacled academics with receding hairlines are sadly absent. This is not a critical documentary devoted to analyzing the contributions Spiegelman made to either his field or the whole of arts and letters, but one that allows him to tell his own story. It is a good, entertaining documentary, though limited by everything just mentioned. Those who already know Spiegelman’s work will wish it cut deeper, while those unfamiliar with his art will only have their interest lightly piqued.
Every frame in Rachel Loube’s “Every Tuesday: A Portrait of the New Yorker Cartoonists,” now screening at the Boston Jewish Film Festival, together with “The Art of Spiegelman,” threatens to dissolve into cliché. There is the premise itself: Every Tuesday, New Yorker cartoonists, young and old, submit their work, and then go for lunch. It is a beautiful, invisible New York tradition, the kind that Gay Talese would have celebrated in luxurious prose, the kind that the media is intent on reminding us no longer exist. The restaurant is appropriately shabby. The food scenes are all set to jazz.
There is no question that if “Every Tuesday” were any longer it would become unbearably familiar and impossible to watch. But at 20 minutes, it’s perfect. The cartoonists come alive in short bursts. Zachary Kanin, a Harvard Lampoon alumnus, is legitimately hilarious. Their very different apartments and workspaces quickly tell us about their different styles and approach to the craft. We watch some cartoonists revise and edit their work on imposing Apple Monitors, and others retrace their cartoons on top of a light box. Some aim for perfection, while others have started to embrace artistic imperfection. Wouldn’t it be better if a rectangle weren’t so rectangular?
“Every Tuesday” is everything you want in a short film: It brings you into a unique world, gives you enough information to make you feel like you understand the key issues, and leaves you absolutely wanting more.
Watch a teaser for ‘Every Tuesday’:
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