The Arty Semite

Josef Mengele in Patagonia

By Allen Ellenzweig

It seems apt that a renowned figure of evil — the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, the so-called “Angel of Death,” notorious for his cold-blooded “selections” at Auschwitz — should inspire a film whose mood is at once mysterious and sinister, yet whose visual style is strangely poetic, perhaps even terrifyingly beautiful.

In the space of 93 carefully calibrated minutes, Argentine director Lucía Puenzo fashions a fictionalized account of the “missing” 6 months in Mengele’s Argentinean sojourn, roughly from the time of Adolf Eichmann’s capture in Buenos Aires by Mossad agents to Mengele’s later reappearance in Paraguay. Using what historical evidence there is, “The German Doctor” — based upon an earlier novel of Puenzo’s called “Wakolda” — imagines the Nazi physician living in plain sight as José Mengele, experimenting with cattle genetics and befriending a local family who are starting a new life managing a resort hotel in the remote, and remotely scenic, Patagonian town of Bariloche.

The father, Enzo, is a sympathetic but gruffly silent figure who is proud of his three children, especially his middle girl, Lilith, an observant undersized child who at 12 looks 10. She was born prematurely. Yet she is drawn to the handsome and enigmatic German doctor, and he equally to her in a series of casual encounters just barely suggesting a queasy pedophilia. The mother, Eva, is of German background and shares the doctor’s language and even, perhaps, his cultural sensibility; by the German doctor’s formal and correct bearing, he permits Eva, now on her fourth pregnancy, to believe in his medical skills, and his recommendations for young Lillith to undergo a series of growth injections that he will administer. Lilith, the object of persistent schoolyard taunts, sees the doctor’s remedy as the promise of a more normal life. Yet Enzo does not see the need for a risky procedure on his beloved daughter. He argues against it, telling Lilith that each child is unique and valuable as she is; there is nothing wrong with her. He forbids his wife to allow the German doctor to treat the girl.

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The Most Boring Job in the Army

By Anna Goldenberg

Movies about the army are usually about fighting, sacrifice, a tense atmosphere and people in uniform plotting war strategies. “Zero Motivation,” the first feature film by Israeli director Talya Lavie, shows a different aspect of military life: Set in an army base in the Israeli desert in 2004, it tells the story of a group of girls who spend their compulsory military service doing office work. Far removed from the frontlines and decision-making, Zohar (Dana Ivgy), her best friend Daffi (Nelly Tagar) and the other girls have time to worry about issues such as breaking the Minesweeper record on all of the office’s computers, dating male fellow soldiers and engaging in petty power struggles with their officer Rama (Shani Klein).

One day, a new arrival puts the friendship between potty-mouthed Zohar and fragile Daffi on trial, and events take a turn toward the turbulent.

The coming-of-age-tragicomedy had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 17, and will be released in Israeli cinemas in June. Director Lavie, who was born in 1978 in Petah Tikvah, Israel, first studied animation at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design before attending the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, both in Jerusalem. She won several international awards for her thesis short film, “The Substitute,” which is also about young female soldiers in office jobs.

Like the characters in her film, Lavie was stationed in the desert during her army service. It was the contrast between the beauty of the desert and the aesthetics of the army that served as an inspiration for the movie, she told the Forward. She also talked about how her film reflects changes in gender-segregation in the army, and how hard it was to balance comical and tragic aspects of the movie.

Anna Goldenberg: How much of this movie is based on your own experience?

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A Holocaust Movie Without a Soul

By Curt Schleier

“Walking With the Enemy” has brave Jews standing up to the Nazi death machine. It has helpless Jews loaded onto cattle cars. It has good Germans unwilling to participate in the eradication of a people. It has both Hungarian anti-Semites and Hungarian nuns who sheltered the oppressed. In short it has everything a good Holocaust film should have — except soul.

The film tries to do too much. Because it wants to be fair to everyone on both sides of every issue, it lacks the emotional connection a more focused approach might have.

It also lacks context. Hungary may not have been the place where the most Jews were murdered, but it is where they were killed with the greatest Nazi efficiency in the shortest amount of time: About 400,000 liquidated within a couple of months.

And while some of this is hinted at, it is never explained, diminishing the movie’s impact.

Hungary was an Axis ally during much of the war. This was good for Jews, because it meant Nazi troops were not stationed there and the country’s regent, Miklos Horthy (a woefully under utilized Sir Ben Kingsley), was able to protect his people from the worst of the German race laws.

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New Spielberg Film About Jewish Boy Seized by Church

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Director Steven Spielberg has several new projects in the works, including a film about the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.

The movie will recount the true story of how in 1858 a young Italian Jewish boy was taken from his parents by authorities of the Papal States after a housemaid claimed to have given him an emergency baptism. The incident led to international attention and controversy. Many believe that the kidnapping was instrumental in convincing the public that the Papal States should be conquered, and thus ultimately helped bring about the modern Italian state.

Tony Kushner will write the screenplay as an adaption of the 1998 book, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” by David I. Kertzer. In the past, Kushner collaborated with Spielberg on “Munich” and “Lincoln” — both of which received Oscar nominations.

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Clara Mamet Makes a Movie

By Curt Schleier

“Two-Bit Waltz” is a small independent film about teenage alienation that debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 19. But before you say: “Thank goodness, that’s just what the world needs — another film about teenage angst,” here are a couple of facts you should know.

First, yes, the film has moments best described as bizarre, but there are far more sequences that are funny and revealing. And while it takes a little time to get used to its rhythms, the movie has a remarkably mature sensibility.

Which brings us to fact number two: The first-time filmmaker — writer, director and star — is Clara Mamet, who herself is a 19-year-old teenager. If the name is familiar, it may be because she is a star of the ABC show “Neighbors.” The show is buried in television’s Bermuda Triangle, Friday nights, and is subversively intelligent, which is reason enough for many to predict its momentary cancellation.

Oh, yes. She is also the daughter of playwright David Mamet and English actress Rebecca Pidgeon, and she is the half-sister of Zosia Mamet, who stars in HBO’s “Girls.”

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Jonas Armstrong Plays the Role of a Lifetime

By Dorri Olds

Irish-born British actor Jonas Armstrong stars in “Walking With the Enemy,” a story set in Hungary during the last months of World War II. Inspired by a true story, it tells of a man who used a stolen Nazi uniform to free hundreds of Jews. It’s an action story about love and courage directed by Mark Schmidt from a screenplay by Kenny Golde. Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley also stars.

Armstrong plays the lead, Elek Cohen, a fictional character who was inspired by Hungarian Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum, who was able to steal a uniform from the Arrow Cross, an extreme Hungarian faction responsible for the deportation and death of tens of thousands of Jews.

Just when it seems that the topic of WWII has been exhausted, yet another gripping story comes out about the atrocities of the war and what Jewish people had to do to survive. The Forward’s Dorri Olds sat down for an interview with Jonas Armstrong.

Dorri Olds: How did you prepare for this role?

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Israeli Films Show Nuance at Tribeca Film Fest

By Simi Horwitz

Two films screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival show subtle and nuanced perspectives on Israeli life from a woman’s point of view.

Talya Lavie’s first feature, “Zero Motivation,” screening April 17 – 24, focuses on a unit of female Israeli soldiers at a desert-based human resource center awash in hierarchy, bureaucracy and pointless tasks. Tedium is the defining gestalt as they serve coffee, shred paper, and re-organize closets to fill time. Between chores they play computer games, sometimes with each other, often alone. The girls are isolated and, paradoxically, deeply interconnected. Friendships evolve and disintegrate in the face of betrayal, disappointment and thwarted ambition.

Despite its bleak backdrop the film’s signature is its good humor and light touch. Thanks to fine performances and, especially, Lavie’s subtle script and self-assured direction “Zero Motivation” is a fascinating look at a rarely explored subculture. This movie is both a character-driven work and a briskly paced entertainment.

The film is structured around three different girls and is divided into three sections, “The Substitute,” “The Virgin” and “The Commodore,” with one part flowing into the next and each informing the other two.

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Won Over by Ballroom Dance

By Curt Schleier

Israeli-born director Hilla Medalia didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity to direct “Dancing In Jaffa.” Her initial reaction was, “there are already so many films about Palestinian and Israeli kids being brought together.”

But then she met Pierre.

Ironically, that was my reaction, too: Did we really need another feel-good movie about Arabs and Jews when every day brought more headlines of diminishing prospects for peace?

And then I met Pierre. Cinematically.

Pierre is Pierre Dulaine, an internationally known ballroom dancer whose volunteer work bringing dance to inner city school children was the subject of a 2005 documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom.” The following year, Antonio Banderas played him in a feature film based on his life.

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Richard Shepard on His Dad and 'Dom Hemingway'

By Dorri Olds

For the comedy crime drama, “Dom Hemingway,” Jude Law transformed himself into a vulgar, violent, puffy and unhinged alcoholic fresh out of prison. The film was written and directed by Richard Shepard (“The Matador”) and the cast includes Richard E. Grant (“Dracula”) as Dom’s pal Dickie and Oscar-nominee Demian Bichir (“A Better Life”) as Mr. Fontaine, a Russian mobster that Dom didn’t rat out. Dom feels entitled to a big reward, so after a few excursions to the English pubs to get pissed and have hedonistic times with hookers, Dom sets off to find Fontaine and get what he deserves.

The Arty Semite caught up with Shepard to talk about working with Law, his dad, and directing episodes of ‘Girls.’

Dorri Olds: Did you and Jude Law work well together?

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Read Darren Aronofsky’s 7th-Grade ‘Noah’ Poem

By Forward Staff

“Noah,” the blockbuster biblical adaptation by Darren Aronofsky, just came out in theaters on March 28, but the story has been on the director’s mind for a long time.

Aronofsky first said he was planning to make a “Noah” movie in 2007. When it didn’t happen right away, he wrote a graphic novel instead with co-screenwriter Ari Handel. But he’s been interested in the biblical tale of the flood since at least 7th grade.

According to Variety, Aronofsky wrote a poem in 7th grade about the story of the flood, with the encouragement of his teacher, Vera Fried, at Mark Twain I.S. 239 in Coney Island. The poem was entered in a student writing contest, and won. Thirty-three years later Aronofsky decided to repay the favor by tracking down Fried in Delray Beach, Florida, and offering her a bit part in the movie. Fried told Variety that “They wouldn’t give him my phone number at the school. His grandma went to a Hadassah meeting in Brooklyn, stood up and said, ‘Does anyone know Vera Fried?’”

Read Aronofsky’s poem after the jump.

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Filmmaker Made Public Humiliation His Muse

By Curt Schleier

Independent filmmakers can face many discouraging obstacles on the road from concept to screen. But Seth Fisher found a way to make sure he would not abandon his first full length feature along the way: his fear of public humiliation.

“As soon as I started writing ‘Blumenthal’ I started a blog called watchmemakeamovie.com,” he said in a telephone interview with the Forward. “Every day I’d post what I did that day. I figured if I was going to announce to the world that I was going to make this movie, I would have to see it through to the end. It would be embarrassing if I stopped.”

That was back in November of 2010. Now, more than three years later, “Blumenthal” opens in New York on March 28. with more cities added in the coming weeks. The movie, already a Jewish film festival darling, is about the family of successful playwright Harold Blumenthal, who dies while laughing at one of his own jokes.

His survivors are a younger and jealous brother, Saul (Mark Blum), Saul’s wife Cheryl (Laila Robins) and his son Ethan (writer/director Fisher). As Saul grapples with his angst, Cheryl deals with aging and Ethan with trying to find the perfect woman.

Fisher spoke to the Forward about where the film came from, why the characters were Jewish, and what Tom Stoppard told him about Jewish characters.

Curt Schleier: I found the film very enjoyable, but I wasn’t entirely sure what you wanted to say. Can you explain?

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Uncovering the Remains of Treblinka

By Curt Schleier

Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls is a British forensic archeologist. Much of her work is with police departments, often literally digging up missing persons — so she’s used to uncovering remains.

Still, what she discovered during her research at the Treblinka death camp was so emotionally wrenching, it forced her to tears. A riveting account of her work there, “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” airs March 29 at 8 pm on the Smithsonian Channel.

Treblinka was actually two camps. Treblinka 1 was supposedly a labor camp. Treblinka 2 was almost certainly the most efficient murder operation in the history of mankind. About 900,000 people fell victim there in a little more than a year. Camp commanders bragged about their efficiency.

But, facing an oncoming Soviet army, the Germans destroyed the buildings, dug up mass graves and burned the bodies, forced local people to spread the ash and planted trees to cover over what had been the camp.

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Growing Up in a Former Synagogue Sanctuary

By Renee Ghert-Zand

For the many people walking through New York’s Lower East Side on any given day, 70 Hester Street is just one of many historic buildings. But for 37-year-old filmmaker Casimir Nozkowski, this former synagogue is home. He grew up in the loft space on the upper two floors, which his artist parents, Thomas Nozkowski and Joyce Robins, used as their studio for 45 years until they were evicted in 2012.

With a sense that 70 Hester Street would likely the suffer the fate of so many other buildings in the old neighbourhood and be torn down to make way for a new, sleek condominium or commercial space, Nozkowski started filming his childhood home in June 2012. His premonition turned out to be correct. Not long after, his parents received notice that the building was being sold and that they, as rental tenants, would have to move out.

“I went in to overdrive when we got the eviction notice,” Nozkowski told the Forward. “I started editing as I was still filming, and finished the film toward the end of 2013.” Fortunately, he completed the documentary in time to submit it for the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, which accepted it for its City Limits: New York Shorts program. In its world premiere, “70 Hester Street” will be screened five times between April 17 and 27.

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Some Jews Are Funnier Than Others

By Curt Schleier

A popular form of entertainment is watching comics analyzing comedy — a subject that doesn’t easily lend itself to analysis. Simply: What’s funny is what makes the lady in the third row laugh. You cannot tell her she’s wrong; if she doesn’t laugh it isn’t funny, she does and it is. End of story.

Still, shows like Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” David Steinberg’s “Inside Comedy” on Showtime and the DVD “When Comedy Went To School” (about the Catskills) are all the rage.

I suspect the DVD release of Alan Zweig’s documentary, “When Jews Were Funny” will swiftly put an end to that. Zweig interviews about 25 comics of various ages and levels of success: Howie Mandel, Shecky Greene and the late David Brenner, among others in the top tier, and numerous others I’d never heard of before.

Part of the documentary’s problem is visual. Even under the best of circumstances, a film made up almost entirely of talking heads lacks tempo. It simply moves from one face to another, in this case with each face saying almost the same thing we’ve heard over and over again: Comedy comes from suffering and who has suffered more than Jews?

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Charlotte Gainsbourg on Playing a 'Nymphomaniac'

By Dorri Olds

Charlotte Gainsbourg, 43, is the star of director Lars von Trier’s much-anticipated film, “Nymphomaniac.” She plays Joe, a sex addict, and the film covers 20 years of her unusual life. The Danish director is known for his penchant to shock audiences, but this film is not as sexy as you might guess, nor is sex the main story. Rather, it is a sad tale of a woman bent on self-destruction.

The film boasts an all-star cast including Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Stellan Skarsgård, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, Shia LaBeouf and newcomer Stacy Martin, who plays the younger Joe. The director’s cut is five and a half hours. For theatrical release, the film was edited down to four hours and split into two volumes. Both are deeply disturbing, yet fascinating. It’s a film unlike any you’ve seen before.

In addition to acting, Gainsbourg is a singer and the daughter of English actress Jane Birkin and French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. She is married to the Israeli actor, writer and director Yvan Attal and they have three children together. Her entre into singing was at 12 years old when she sang a duet with her father called “Lemon Incest” — with lyrics that are just as worrisome as the title implies. When she reached adulthood, Gainsbourg released three successful albums and she has appeared in films every year since 1984.

The Forward caught up with Gainsbourg to discuss her upcoming film.

Dorri Olds: What was the most challenging aspect of playing Joe?

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Suit Against 'McMansion' Director Thrown Out

By Curt Schleier

Lauren Greenfield received a best director nod at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her documentary, “The Queen of Versailles.” Now, two years later, she has another victory to her credit, which may ultimately prove more important to her career.

An arbitrator at the Independent Film and Television Alliance ruled that her movie about David and Jackie Siegel was not defamatory. This seems to end Siegel’s effort to punish Greenfield for her film, which centered in large measure on the family’s profligate ways — building a 90,000 square-foot mansion (to replace the 26,000 square-foot home they lived in); spending $1 million a year on clothing, and having a household staff of 19.

It also covered the rise and fall of Westgate Resorts, Siegel’s timeshare empire that funded these extravagances — at least until the 2008 credit crunch.

Siegel charged the film defamed him and his company. His claims were dismissed by a federal court judge, which is how the case ended up in arbitration.

“Having viewed the supposedly egregious portions of the Motion Picture numerous times, [the Arbitrator] simply does not find that any of the content of the Motion Picture was false,” the arbitrator, Roy Rifkin, ruled.

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Filming His Refusenik Father's Doppelganger

By Curt Schleier

Writer/director Arie Posin is standing in the lobby of the Paley Center for Media in midtown Manhattan, not far from the red carpet and a dozen or so photographers. Everyone is waiting for Annette Bening and Ed Harris. The two star in Posin’s “The Face of Love” and have come to New York for a post-screening Q&A with media, friends, family and anyone else who can score a ticket.

“The Face of Love” is the kind of small, independent film that, in the face of competition from Superman and Batman, frequently escapes media attention. But Posin doesn’t escape our fascination.

His parents were refusniks lucky enough to get out of Russia and make it to Israel, where Posin was born. Then there was his uncle, Leon Lerman, the famed Russian Yiddish poet. Moreover, his grandmother is seven generations removed from the Baal Shem Tov. On top of all that, the idea for his movie came from his own mother.

“A few years after my father passed away my mother was at a crosswalk outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when she looked up and saw a man who looked very much like him. She told me: ‘A very funny thing happened to me today. I saw a man walking toward me who was a perfect double for your father.’ I asked her, ‘What did you do?’ She said, ‘I just stopped in the middle of the road. He had a big smile on his face as he walked toward me and it just felt so nice.’”

That encounter became the basis for Posin’s film, which opened in New York and Los Angeles March 7 and opens in additional cities in the coming weeks.

Posin spoke to the Forward about how that incident sparked his imagination, his family history and, most important, his mother’s reaction to the film.

Curt Schleier: What was your reaction when your mother told you that story?

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Apartheid's Overlooked Sins — Through a Jewish Lens

By Anna Goldenberg

In the late 1980s, South Africa experienced a period of violence leading up to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and to the abolishment of the apartheid government.

Sara Blecher, granddaughter of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, was in the midst of it, working as a journalist. She later realized that the complex intra-black conflicts, which the white government fomented, were still often neglected in the country’s narrative of its history. This inspired her to direct and produce her first feature film, “Otelo Burning,” which had its digital release January 14. The script is based on an amalgamation of true stories about this time, recorded during workshops with inhabitants of the township Lamontville near Durban, where the story is set.

It starts off like a feel-good coming-of-age story set against the startling beauty of the South African coast: Otelo and New Year are two teenagers growing up in the township in the late 1980s. When they meet Mandla, who is an experienced bodysurfer, they are introduced to this new sport, an activity practiced predominantly by white people.

The boys escape from the erupting violence between the two rivaling black parties in the township, the ANC and Inkatha, by going to the beach and improving on their surfing — until events take a tragic turn.

Blecher, 46, grew up in Johannesburg. She attended high school and college in New York City and returned to her home country afterward. In March she will start shooting her second feature, “Andani and the Mechanic,” the story of a young female entrepreneur dealing with the death of her father and with unspoken love.

Blecher spoke to the Forward’s Anna Goldenberg about what stories dealing with the Holocaust have in common with those about apartheid.

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Palestine's Tragic Oscar Hopeful Tests Identity

By Dan Williams

(Reuters) — The complexities and contradictions of the Middle East conflict come into play in both the real-life production story and fictional plot of “Omar,” Palestine’s contender for a best foreign language film Oscar.

The movie’s director and lead actors are Israeli Arabs who identify as Palestinian. And while it depicts lovers literally walled-off by Israel’s West Bank barrier, and a hero brutalized by Israeli secret police, the $2 million drama was filmed mostly in Nazareth, northern Israel, without hindrance.

“Whatever we wanted, we could shoot. And this is a great attitude. I think they (Israeli authorities) were smart to do that, because every journalist will ask me, ‘How was your shoot?’ and I have no stories to tell,” writer-director Hany Abu-Assad said in a telephone interview.

Such a conciliatory spirit is absent from “Omar,” however — as elusive as actual Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which world powers hope will emerge from peace talks with Israel.

The film looks at the grind of life under Israeli military occupation: A young Palestinian lethally lashes out at the army and is punished with pressure to spy on his own side or end up in prison with no prospects of marrying the woman he loves.

Betrayal, and the mistaken perception of betrayal, follow, with bleak and bloody consequences — a plot which Abu-Assad says was inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy “Othello.”

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'Gimme Shelter' and the Face of Homelessness

By Dorri Olds

On January 21, at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, the Forward caught up with Ronald Krauss, writer and director of “Gimme Shelter,” which opened in theaters January 24. The movie stars Vanessa Hudgens as Apple Bailey, a desperate pregnant teenager who runs away from a cruel drug-addicted mother (Rosario Dawson). Apple tries to connect to her wealthy dad (Brendan Fraser), but things keep looking bleaker until she meets Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones). He introduces her to Kathy DiFiore (Ann Dowd), who runs a shelter.

Dorri Olds

Krauss, 43, has been writing, producing and directing movies since his first short film in 1988, “Puppies for Sale,” which starred Jack Lemmon. The seed for “Gimme Shelter” came when Krauss’s previous movie, “Amexica,” a drama about human trafficking, was screened at the United Nations. There he was introduced to Kathy DiFiore, a woman being honored at the U.N. for her 30-plus years of work with homeless teenage mothers. Krauss arranged to visit one of her shelters and thought he’d found the perfect subject for a documentary. He stayed a year and recorded 200 hours of interviews. “The shelter began to seem like holy ground,” said Krauss, “and the research launched my screenplay.”

Dorri Olds: What inspired the main character, Apple?

Ron Krauss: Exactly four years ago today, I saw a young girl standing outside the shelter. She had no jacket and it was freezing. I brought her inside. Her name was Darlisha Dozier and when I told her there was a bed she hugged me so hard it sent a jolt to my heart.

How did you choose Vanessa Hudgens for Apple?

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