There are no easy answers when it comes to creating and sustaining healthcare systems that are both effective and affordable. In his new television documentary, “Dockside to Bedside: 100 Years of Herzl,” filmmaker Ezra Soiferman provides a window on to one system that seems, for the most part, to be doing a good job on both fronts. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly worth taking a look at.
It’s in Montreal, Canada and it’s called the Goldman Herzl Family Practice Center. People just call it Herzl, or the Herzl, for short.
Before beginning work on the film, Soiferman, a lifelong Montrealer, had heard of Herzl, but was unaware of its history or of its comprehensive nature. “I knew Herzl as a well-regarded breastfeeding program, but I had no idea that it was actually an entire cradle-to-grave family and preventive medicine system,” Soiferman told The Arty Semite.
Brought on board to make the film by producer Christos Sourligas, Soiferman discovered how Herzl grew from a two-bed dockside dispensary opened in 1912 by the city’s Jewish community. It provided free medical care to poor immigrants, both Jews and others. One of North America’s first free medical clinics, it still mainly serves Montreal’s immigrant population, only now costs are paid by the province of Quebec’s universal medicare system.
Moriah Films is a division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and is responsible for a dozen documentaries of Jewish interest. Filmmaker Richard Trank has been with Moriah from the beginning, a journey that included an Academy Award in 1997 for “The Long Way Home,” about Holocaust Survivors rebuilding their lives and the State of Israel.
Of all his productions, his latest, “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers,” was probably the easiest. It seems all he had to do was point a couple of cameras and say “Action.”
Those cameras were pointed at Yehuda Avner, author of the book on which the film is based and a long-time Israeli government official. He is also a heck of a raconteur.
Avner was born in Manchester, England, immigrated to Israel in 1947, and eventually took on a number of public relations and English speech writing roles for five Prime Ministers. He also served as an ambassador to England, Ireland and Australia.
“The Prime Ministers” is the first of two films based on his 715-page book of the same name. “Pioneers” covers Avner’s work with Levi Eshkol and Gold Meir, and with Yitzhak Rabin when Rabin was Israel’s U.S. Ambassador.
The second, “Soldiers and Peacemakers,” is scheduled for release in the spring; it covers Avner’s work with Rabin as prime minister as well as with Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres.
The documentary is less biographical than anecdotal. The average viewer will learn a lot; students of Israeli history, already familiar with much of what “The Pioneers” contains, will still pick up a nugget or two and find the documentary a worthwhile and pleasant experience.
National Geographic Entertainment’s cinematographically beautiful new 3D IMAX movie “Jerusalem” is closer to the heavenly Jerusalem than to the earthly one. But even devoid of contemporary political context, the film provides an informative and visually stunning introduction to the Old City of Jerusalem and its fundamental importance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
For those unfamiliar with the Holy City, “Jerusalem” is a concise, clear and captivating primer. And for those of us who regularly follow the conflict-fueled news from the Israeli capital, it temporarily zooms us out and away from the daily grind, reminding us of why Jerusalem is and always has been considered by so many to be the center of the earth.
The different quarters of the Old City are introduced and represented by three young women: Revital Zacharie, a Jew; Farah Amouri, a Muslim; and Nadia Tadros, a Christian. Each woman shares a bit about her life, her family’s history in Jerusalem, and her religion’s enduring connection to the place. The filmmakers bolster the women’s personal narratives with scenes of the rituals and festivities of Passover, Easter and Ramadan as they are practiced in the Old City.
We are living through a golden age of documentary film. Surely “The Square,” a riveting account of the Arab Spring as it played out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square between 2011 and 2013, argues in favor of such optimism. In something under two hours, director Jehane Noujaim’s film — which recently screened at the New York Film Festival — offers an intellectually and emotionally rich view of the philosophies and passions that moved ordinary Egyptian citizens to throw themselves into their country’s historical moment with an extraordinary level of commitment.
Noujaim, an Egyptian-American and Harvard graduate with a solid professional portfolio in documentary filmmaking, wends her way around and through the massive street demonstrations that made Cairo’s central traffic circle and public square the locus of protest, first against the 30-year tyrannical rule of Hosni Mubarak, and then against his democratically-elected replacement, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, whose one-year tenure was judged a betrayal of the democratic spirit which fed the popular street revolution in the first place.
“The Square” follows the lives of six relatively young Egyptians who each take up the revolutionary banner in those first protests calling for Mubarak’s ouster. Noujaim is more than lucky in her choice of subjects. Pride of place goes to Ahmed Hassan, a mid-20s charmer of working-class background who throws his body into the fray, and uses his native intelligence and big heart to argue at top volume until he’s hoarse. He represents revolutionary fervor at its best: committed to social justice for his compatriots, even the Islamists of the Brotherhood of whose religious zeal he is wary. Ahmed is also committed to the crucial notion of individual conscience, which must sustain a civil society if it is to endure.
“I was never one of those happy cripples,” is the way Jerome Felder described himself.
Why would he be? He was just 6 years old when he contracted polio. And in a sad irony fit for a blues song, the young Brooklynite caught the virus at a country summer camp he’d been sent to specifically to avoid the disease.
It’s no wonder that Felder was attracted to the Joe Turner songs of pain and suffering he heard on the radio. It’s no surprise, too, that the teenager started hanging out at blues clubs.
What is a little shocking is that when they asked this white Jewish kid on crutches what he was doing there, he had the chutzpah to say he was a blues singer. And he was. Except for the name, of course. So he changed it, to Doc Pomus.
As filmmaker Peter Miller points out in his documentary, “A.K.A. Doc Pomus,” Felder ultimately went on to write the songs that became the soundtrack for many of our lives: “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” “A Teenager in Love,” “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.”
Pop song writing in the ‘50s was centered on the famous Brill Building in Manhattan, the ground zero of the music publishing business. In the world of Brill Building writers — Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Howie Greenfield and Neil Sedaka, Barry Mann and Cyntha Weil, among others — Pomus and his partners were the sun around which other planets revolved.
Miller spoke to The Arty Semite about how he came to make this film, his background in Jewish-themed documentaries, and how marriage changed his level of observance.
Curt Schleier: You’re only 51. Were you familiar with Pomus-era music?
At first, Jerry Wexler (1917–2008) was bupkes. But eventually he became the king of the music biz and even coined the phrase, “rhythm and blues.” In the 1960s, he wanted in on the “Muscle Shoals Sound,” which was named for a small town in Alabama where hit records were coming out of Rick Hall’s FAME Studios.
The documentary “Muscle Shoals,” in theaters September 27, tells the story of this tiny recording studio that launched so many hit records. The film features Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, Jimmy Cliff, Clarence Carter, Etta James, Alicia Keys and Bono, but the most fascinating segments are of Jerry Wexler. These scenes are intercut with Rick Hall’s riveting tale about one night spent with Wexler himself. Hall sat down with The Arty Semite to tell the tale.
Dorri Olds: How did you first meet Jerry Wexler?
Rick Hall: Jerry Wexler was the biggest record company guru in the world. I started FAME here, in a little bitty town of a thousand people and the studio was a cinder block building sitting in the middle of a cotton patch. Jerry told me to call him if I ever had a hit to record. I called him and played him our recording of Percy Sledge singing “When a Man Loves a Woman.” And Jerry said okay. My stock went sky high with Wexler after this single went number one worldwide. Jerry called one day and said, “Can I bring Wilson Pickett down and make some records?” which we did.
How were things with Wilson Pickett?
To paraphrase a famous fundraising slogan, a mind is a terrible thing to watch wasting away.
But that’s what filmmaker Alan Berliner does in his moving and lovingly motivated documentary, “First Cousin Once Removed,” premiering on HBO September 23.
Berliner’s subject is his cousin, Edwin Honig (1919-2011), the noted poet, translator and teacher, who spent the last years of his life suffering from memory loss and Alzheimer’s.
Berliner filmed Honig five or six times a year over the last five years of his life and his decline is heartbreaking. Towards the end, he doesn’t recognize images of his younger self, his mother or his children.
But in the midst of his decay he occasionally becomes lucid, spouting poetic phrases both playful and profound. When Berliner asks if it is okay to film him Honig replies: “Mirror, mirror on the wall; you can be camera and I will be all.” At another point in the movie, he comments on the trees outside his apartment, “Leaves very still. But in the stillness there is movement. A moving painting.”
Berliner spoke to The Arty Semite about his relationship with his cousin, the difficulty of watching his deterioration and his propensity to make very personal documentaries.
Curt Schleier: How close to Edwin were you?
Jonathan Holiff had a tough time growing up. His father was occasionally physically and always emotionally abusive. “If there was a definition of emotionally abusive in the dictionary there’d be a picture of my father next to it,” Holiff says. He quickly adds, though, “You have to put it into the context of the times.”
His father, Saul, is the subject of Jonathan’s documentary, “My Father and the Man in Black,” opening in New York and Los Angeles September 6. The Man in Black is of course country music singer Johnny Cash. Saul was associated with the superstar for 17 years, and for 13 of those as his manager.
The film starts with Saul’s suicide. Eight months later, Jonathan’s mom gives him the key to his father’s storage locker. There the younger Holiff discovers a treasure trove of material, including 60 hours of an audio diary his father recorded as well as phone calls with Cash that Saul secretly recorded, which became the main resource for the movie.
Holiff spoke to The Arty Semite about the “cathartic experience” of making the film, how the combination of Johnny and Saul was “greater than the sum of its parts” and the anti-Semitic comments by June Carter Cash that caused the rupture in their agreement.
Curt Schleier: Did you like your father?
Jonathan Holiff: I certainly didn’t like him until after he died. I had an unprecedented opportunity not many children get to know one’s father before and after he died. The audio diary and phone calls allowed me to identify with him, with his business, with his family. And suddenly what for me as a child was a two-dimensional authority figure became a richer, more complex person, albeit a tragic one.
“The Romeows” is not a misspelled attempt to re-write Shakespeare. Nor does it have anything to do with cats. It is, in fact, a gentle, heart-warming film about the enduring friendship of a group of guys, members of the same Brooklyn College house plan (class of ’59). The title stands for “retired older men eating out Wednesdays.”
The group meets weekly for dinners that are part reminiscence, part philosophy and part therapy. Director Robert Sarnoff started to film them on a regular basis in 2008, as their 50th class reunion approached, and then shot them again in 2012.
There is something poignant about how they maintain their relationships (and still laugh at each other’s jokes) so many years after they first met. Clearly, the nourishment they get from these sessions fills their souls as well as their bellies.
In individual interviews and during their meals, they talk about everything from their mortality to the legacies they’ve left their children.
“The Romeows” will resonate with anyone who lived through that era, particularly New Yorkers who attended any of the tuition-free city colleges, all top ranked academically and important steps into the middle class and beyond for immigrants and their children.
Quoted in the production notes, Sarnoff said the audience attending an early screening reacted positively to the film, “but many questions led me to believe there was some confusion. Clarification was necessary.”
Just because Rush Limbaugh says it’s raining doesn’t mean it’s a sunny day.
Admittedly, his assertion that Camp Kinderland — a summer camp in the Berkshires — is a hotbed of Communist indoctrination doesn’t have much traction in 2013. But consider the camp’s backdrop for sports, music, drama, and arts and crafts. The theater is dubbed The Paul Robeson Playhouse and the athletic center is known as the Roberto Clemente Sports Shack. Bunks bear such iconic names as Harriet Tubman, Joe Hill, Hannah Senesh, and Anne Frank.
In “Commie Camp,” filmmaker Katie Halper, who attended Camp Kinderland, revisits the old stomping grounds to document what it’s like today and to illustrate just what a nitwit Rush Limbaugh is. The problem is that she sometimes proves his point.
Founded in Tolland, Mass., in 1923 by secular Jewish socialists and communists, Camp Kinderland offered a summer respite to the children of poor and working class Jewish immigrants. It was unabashedly leftist and continues to be, though the tone has softened and the issues evolved. Environmentalism, marriage equality, and reproductive rights are among the hot topics today.
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
Late one evening, unable to sleep, I was channel surfing when I happened on a documentary about Hudson River bricks. Lest you think, as I did at first, that the subject would put me to sleep in no time at all, I found myself utterly engrossed — and wide awake.
The documentary, “Hudson River Brick Makers,” looks at an industry that once animated the Hudson River Valley, gainfully employing thousands of workers, many of them immigrants, and transforming any number of sleepy river towns into lively commercial centers. Who knew?
But that wasn’t the only revelation in store. What made the history of the Hudson River brick industry especially fascinating was that its products were destined for New York City. As it turned out, the rise and fall of the Hudson River Valley was tied up with the literal rise of the Empire City, whose face was lined with bricks. When, as a result of changing tastes and the advent of new technologies, the demand for this building material faded, so, too, did the fortunes of its manufacturers, distributors and everyone else involved in its creation and circulation.
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.