The Arty Semite

10 Movies for International Holocaust Remembrance Day

By Curt Schleier

It seems more than a little disturbing to talk about the Holocaust and good movies in one sentence, but the former has certainly inspired many of the latter. In fact, there is an embarrassment of riches. This is a good thing, because any effort to educate the world about the horrors of genocide is important.

There are so many choices that any list of Holocaust-related films will be incomplete. To leave some room for less-known movies, some obvious choices have purposely been left out. Among them, “The Diary of Anne Frank” (there are so many productions of the movie and play to name it here seems redundant) and “Life is Beautiful” (a little too light in its approach for my taste).

Here are those who made the list, starting with:

1. Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg)

This is not only the best Holocaust film, but among the best movies I’ve ever seen. Images of the little girl in the red coat still haunt me. Nowhere have I seen the precarious nature of life better portrayed than in the scene where camp commander Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) randomly uses prisoners for target practice. John Williams’ score, played by Itzhak Perlman, is appropriately affective. Simply put: there is not a comma out of place anywhere.

I spoke to Spielberg at the time of the film’s release. He told me the rights to the book it was based on, Thomas Keneally’s “Schindler’s Ark,” had been purchased for him years earlier, but he did not feel he was mature enough to handle its emotional intensity. When he decided to make the film, he refused his normal fee. He said it would be “blood money.” All his earnings were used to fund the Spielberg Foundation, now the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education.

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Argentina’s Very Jewish Oscar Nominee

By Diego Melamed

(JTA) — If Damian Szifron’s “Wild Tales” (“Relatos Salvajes” in Spanish) wins an Academy Award on February 22 — it was nominated last week for Best Foreign Film — it will be Argentina’s third Oscar and the first for a film directed by an Argentine Jew.

The film, which combines humor, suspense and violence, consists of six independent segments, many featuring Jewish characters and details taken from Szifron’s life. The final segment revolves around a Jewish wedding, complete with klezmer music.

The film screened in prominent festivals, included Cannes, and, even before getting the Oscar nomination, broke Argentine box-office records, with more than 3.5 million tickets sold. The movie will be screened at the upcoming Sundance festival and will be released in the United States on Feb. 20. Szifron’s film career started in 2003, with “El Fondo del Mar” (“The Bottom of the Sea”), which starred the Jewish Uruguayan actor Daniel Hendler. Szifron’s second film, “Tiempo de Valientes” (“Time of the Courageous”) is about a Jewish psychologist, Mariano Silverstein.

Szifron, 39, had already established himself as a popular TV writer/director before entering the film world. His series, “Los Simuladores” (“The Pretenders”) in 2002 won the Argentine equivalent of the Emmy, the Martin Fierro award for Best TV Series. And broadcasters in Chile, Spain, Mexico and Russia bought the rights to make their own versions of it.

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'I Think You're Totally Wrong' Goes to Hollywood

By Philip Eil

Photo courtesy Rabbit Bandini Productions

Capital punishment. Bungee jumping. Cormac McCarthy. Waterboarding. Jackson Pollock. “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Abortion. Rupert Murdoch. The Seattle Mariners. The war in Iraq. The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” Disneyland. Balding.

These are just few of the subjects David Shields and Caleb Powell cover in their new book, “I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel.” Or, rather, it’s what they covered in 2011 when the two friends — Shields, a bestselling author of 16 books who teaches at the University of Washington, and Powell, a world-traveler-turned-stay-at-home dad who has published stories in a few literary magazines — headed to a cabin in the mountains of Washington State to verbally joust for four days.

The transcript of those conversations is the basis for the book — and the inspiration for a James Franco-directed film, starring Shields and Powell, scheduled for release later this year. “We can’t faux-argue like Siskel and Ebert,” Powell says as they discuss ground rules. “It’s staged, but it can’t be fake.”

“It’s an ancient form,” Shields says later. “Two white guys bullshitting… you can go all the way back to Plato’s dialogues with Socrates.”

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WATCH: Susan Sontag's Panned and Banned Israel Documentary

By Liam Hoare

In October and November 1973, during and shortly after the Yom Kippur War, Susan Sontag travelled to Israel to make a documentary film entitled “Promised Lands.” The movie constituted a mere coda in the recent HBO documentary about her life and work, “Regarding Susan Sontag”, which as Gabe Friedman noted in his review “leaves out a detailed discussion of her work.” Since “Promised Lands” is the principle testament by which Sontag’s view of Israel can be judged, it warrants re-watching.

Upon its initial release in 1974, “Promised Lands” was panned by The New York Times. Israel’s “situation is just too factually complex to be treated as a tone poem,” Nora Sayre wrote, arguing that “the viewer almost has to function as an editor, since the selection of the footage is so haphazard.” The movie “won’t increase your understanding of Israel. Perhaps the latter should have been a book instead of a film,” the review concludes rather sniffily.

This judgment is fair in some senses. It is certainly true that “Promised Lands” won’t increase anyone’s factual understanding either of Israel itself or the wider conflict with its Arab neighbors. But it is not Sontag’s ambition to provide context and explanation for the Yom Kippur War. Rather, as Leon Wieseltier observed, “there are endless shots of desert (read: Nature) and corpses (read: History), and a host of cute juxtapositions of the old and the new which look like El Al’s TV commercials and which add nothing to our understanding of the situation.”

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A Holocaust Survivor's Confounding Choices

By Ronen Shnidman

When filmmaker Yael Reuveny sought backing in Israel and in Germany to make “Farewell, Herr Schwarz,” film people would ask her, why make another Holocaust film after so many have been made?

“The answer,” Reuveny told the Forward, “is that the movie is not about them [Holocaust survivors], it’s about now. It’s about who we are and how the Holocaust influenced who we are and what we want to be.”

“Farewell, Herr Schwarz” — which won the Best Documentary prize at last year’s Haifa International Film Festival, and premieres in New York January 9 — is an unusual Holocaust documentary. The film avoids the sweeping group characterizations seen in Hollywood Holocaust dramas like “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist.” Instead, it captures the real complexities and difficult choices made by two individuals caught in turbulent times, and the impact of those choices on their descendants. Directed by Reuveny, a graduate of Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, “Farewell, Herr Schwarz” casts a spotlight on the families of two deceased Holocaust survivors, brother and sister Feivke and Michla Schwarz, who reacted to the horrors of the war in very different ways.

Feivke and Michla, Reuveny’s great-uncle and maternal grandmother, were the only members of their family to survive the Holocaust, and were supposed to reunite at the train station in Lodz after the war. For reasons that are never entirely clear, they never met again. But when Feivke’s son Uwe sought to reconnect with Michla, for some reason she rebuffed him.

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Looking at Ramat Gan From the Inside Out

By Anne Joseph

In a career that has spanned over 40 years, veteran Israeli filmmaker Ram Loevy has produced some of Israel’s most prominent and challenging television documentaries and features. Renowned for raising social and political issues, Loevy has addressed subjects such as class conflict, torture, the prison system and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His 1986 award winning drama, “Lehem,” (“Bread”) exposed the problems of unemployed, working-class Mizrahi Jews living on the country’s periphery. In 1993, Loevy received the prestigious Israel Prize in Communication, Radio and TV in recognition of his achievements. He is also Professor Emeritus at Tel Aviv University.

Yet Loevy’s latest documentary, “Let’s Assume, For a Moment, That God Exists,” is somewhat of a departure for him. Here, he has turned his camera’s attention to Ramat Gan in an attempt to provide “a collage of the place.” It is an affectionate, if slightly unconventional portrait of everyday life in the neighborhood in which he lives and it is, by his own admission, “a strange film… which has a strange name, which jumps from one item to another.”

Loevy — in London last month for the film’s screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival — explains that he made “Let’s Assume” because he had “come to an age [Loevy is 74] where you are questioning all your principles.” For him, this meant his artistic, filmic principles. This is no issue driven documentary, more a fly-on-the-wall observation where not much happens.

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10 Womance Movies To Watch on Christmas

By Curt Schleier

When Susanna Fogel and Joni Lefkowitz decided to write “Life Partners,” they used Nicole Holofcener’s “Walking and Talking” as their model. The 1996 indie is about two close friends, played by Anne Heche and Catherine Keener, and how their relationship changes as one is about to get married and the other struggles with single life in New York City.

There are plenty of other female buddy movies that are funny, sad and even suspenseful. Here are just a few:

1. Thelma & Louise (1991, Ridley Scott)

The man who gave us “Exodus: God and Kings” and Callie Khouri, the screenwriter behind the TV show “Nashville,” combined forces here for a top notch film about two women who decide to take a two-day vacation from their hum-drum lives. Thelma (Geena Davis) is married to an abusive control freak and Louise (Susan Sarandon), is a waitress. Things go from bad to worse, including a near-rape, a murder, a robbery, an exploding oil tanker and a cop taken prisoner. But on the plus side, they find empowerment. You probably know the ending. If you don’t, watch this movie.


2. 9 to 5 (1980, Colin Higgins)

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A 'Third Wheel' With a Twist

By Curt Schleier

Two’s company. Three’s a crowd.

That aphorism is at the center of Susanna Fogel’s debut as a movie-hyphenate. She both co-wrote (with Joni Lefkowitz) and directed “Life Partners,” which opened this month to much critical praise.

The movie is about two women, Paige (Gillian Jacobs) and Sasha (Leighton Meester), co-dependent friends since childhood, and what happens to their relationship when one falls in love. Cinema buffs may see similarities to the 1996 indie “Walking and Talking” (which inspired Fogel and Lefkowitz), but there is a key difference.

Here Sasha is gay. In many ways the relationship between these two women mirrors the one between Fogel and Lefkowitz, almost. In the film, Paige meets Tim (Adam Brody), a dermatologist who momentarily disrupts the ladies’ relationship. In real life it was Lefkowitz who found love and Fogel who was on the outside looking in.

She spoke to the Forward about finding success as a writer and being a neurotic Jew.

Curt Schleier: How did the two of you meet?

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8 Biblical Movies To Watch Instead of 'Exodus'

By Curt Schleier

It isn’t as though the Lord said, “Go out and make motion pictures of my stories.” And yet, that seems to be what’s happening.

Both the Old and New Testaments have provided source material for dozens upon dozens of films, some better — and some more controversial — than others. Here are 8 of the best, from “The Bible” to “The Bible.”

1. The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966, John Huston)

A retelling of the first 22 chapters of Genesis, from creation to Abraham and Isaac, “The Bible” was supposed to be the first in a series of biblical films, but despite the numerous awards it received and its financial success, there were no sequels.

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Never Too Old to Dance

By Curt Schleier

The banging you hear in the background? That’s the drumbeat for an Oscar nomination for Gena Rowlands. Rowlands stars in “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” a movie about the impact an elderly south Florida widow and a much younger gay dance instructor have on each other’s lives.

Rowlands plays Lilly Harrison, the former wife of a conservative Southern Baptist minister. Cheyenne Jackson is Michael Minetti, a former Broadway hoofer reduced to teaching old ladies to dance.

The film is based on a play by Richard Alfieri and is directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman, who also directed the original stage productions in New York and Los Angeles.

Seidelman, who is also an Emmy-wining television director, spoke to the Forward about how he switches from one medium to another, his famous Yiddish uncle, and being held captive in a Lebanese refugee camp.

Curt Schleier: You are a multi-hyphenate director, working in TV, theater and film. Is it easy to switch between various media?

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9 Palestinian Films Everyone Should See

By Anne Joseph

What constitutes a Palestinian film is a matter of huge debate. Some argue it is determined by the identity of the filmmaker, or by the film’s narrative. Others suggest it is production-led, and therefore depends on the financial institutions or individuals that back it.

Palestinian national cinema is a relatively young cinema, and it is unique in that it exists in the absence of statehood. This issue has led to controversy, as the Academy Award nominated film, “Divine Intervention” (see below) demonstrates. Here are 9 Palestinian films that can help you get up to speed on the best of the still-young tradition.

1. Wedding in Galilee (Michel Khleifi, 1987)

This was the first major Palestinian feature film made by an “insider,” and helped demonstrate the possibility of a Palestinian national cinema.

Despite being under curfew, a Palestinian mayor wants to celebrate his son’s wedding with a traditional ceremony. The Israeli military governor who rules the Palestinian village initially refuses, as he fears a political demonstration. Eventually he permits the celebration on condition he be allowed to attend.

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Can a Palestinian Movie Take Israeli Money?

By Anne Joseph

“The war against Gaza finished and the war against me finished,” said Suha Arraf, referring to the controversy that had taken place during the summer over her directorial debut film, “Villa Touma.”

At the Venice Film Festival, the Haifa-based Palestinian-Israeli filmmaker and screenwriter had categorized her film as Palestinian — not an issue per se — but the fact that a significant portion of the film’s production budget had come from Israeli public funds made it a matter for debate.

Arraf’s decision provoked considerable dispute among members of the Israeli film industry as well as from Limor Livnat, Israel’s Minister of Culture.

Although Arraf had put in her own money and additional investment had come from Germany, other Israeli state institutions, including Mifal HaPayis (Israel’s national lottery) and the Ministry of Economy, had also provided funds.

In November, an Israeli Economy Ministry committee ruled that she would have to return the funding she had received from the ministry.

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8 Best (and Worst) Mel Brooks Movies

By Michael Kaminer

Melvin James Kaminsky is finally getting the tribute he deserves.

A monthlong retrospective at the Bell Lightbox, home of the Toronto International Film Festival, is honoring the director better known as Mel Brooks.

“It’s Good to Be the King” salutes the 88-year-old’s “triumphant bad taste and transcendently-awful-cum-pricelessly-hilarious jokery,” according to program notes.

Though Brooks hasn’t directed a film since 1995’s “Dracula: Dead and Loving It,” he’s hardly been taking it easy; this year alone, he’s voiced characters in animated hits like “Dora the Explorer” and “Mr. Peabody and Sherman.”
But for many fans, Brooks’s 1960s and ‘70s will always represent the heyday of his work.

With that in mind, and to celebrate “It’s Good to Be the King,” here is our ranking of Mel Brooks movies, going from worst to best.

8. Spaceballs (1987)

“May the Schwartz be with you”? Not funny. A diminutive sage called “Yogurt”? Less funny. John Candy as “Barf”? Sad, actually. This drove home the feeling Brooks the director had run out of gas.

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'Zero Motivation' and 7 IDF Movies You Should See

By Curt Schleier

“Zero Motivation,” which won the best narrative feature award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, is an IDF version of “M* A* S* H.” Apparently, not everyone in the Israeli military is a gung-ho paratrooper. They also serve who push pencils around in boring circles.

In this film, two women stationed at a military base are in danger of dying — of boredom. They work in the personnel office and spend their days playing computer games and occasionally teaching a newcomer how to shred papers.

The movie, which opens in New York December 3, is hilarious and also a bit worrisome. It is also just one in a long line of films centered on the IDF. Here are 7 more all Israeli film buffs will want to see.

1. Beaufort (Joseph Cedar, 2007)

This critically acclaimed film is about an IDF unit stationed at Beaufort, a Crusader fort in southern Lebanon around the time of the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. A coming-of-age story, the movie shows the absurdities of war through the eyes of the young men fighting it.

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The Yiddish Path to Acting Fame and Fortune

By Jordan Kutzik

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here

Like all actors attempting to break into the notoriously difficult profession, Michael Levi Harris is seeking to stand out. Luckily, Harris has a talent that is almost unique: he has an exceptional knack for languages. Not only can Harris speak many tongues but he also has a rare aptitude for accents and can, with a little practice, perfectly mimic the sounds of languages that he doesn’t know.

Harris’s linguistic skills are highlighted in the new short film “The Hyperglot,” a romantic comedy in which the main character, Jake, a talented polyglot played by Harris, tries to locate a woman with whom he has instantly fallen in love after seeing her on the subway.

Because she left behind a book in Maltese, Jake begins to learn the rare language in case he ever meets her again. While Jake looks for the pretty Maltese woman, he stumbles into a series of comical incidents in which he has the opportunity to speak many languages. By the end of the film Harris’s character speaks Arabic, Icelandic, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Russian, Norwegian, both American and British sign-language and finally, Yiddish. Watching Jake, the audience soon learns that although the hyperglot can speak at least 11 languages, he can’t properly flirt with girls in any of them.

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Why David Broza Still Has Hope for Peace

By Curt Schleier

Courtesy David Broza

David Broza is likely Israel’s most famous singer-songwriter. With a throaty Leonard Cohen sound and earthy Bruce Springsteen lyrics, Broza has recorded platinum albums and toured the world to great acclaim.

He is also among the nation’s most recognized peace advocates, a fact that fueled his most recent activities — an album, “East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem” (S-Curve Records), and an accompanying documentary of the same name.

The film recently aired at the Other Israel Film Festival in New York, and at the ABC Foundation Conference in Miami. It is essentially a making-of-the-album film, but also focuses on Broza’s efforts to use music to bridge the gap between Israelis and Arabs.

The concept was simple. Broza rented time at the Sabreen studio in East Jerusalem, a center of the Palestinian music scene. He gave himself eight days and eight nights to record 13 tracks heavy on a peace motif. On each he is complemented by a number of Israeli and Palestinian musicians and singers, including Mira Awad. To add a bit of American flavor he brought in Steve Greenberg and Steve Earle to produce.

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6 Movies About Ex-Orthodox Jews Everyone Should See

By Anne Joseph

In contemporary cinema the representation of Jews is not so unusual. However, ex-Orthodox Jewish characters are portrayed far less often. Nonetheless, their role is significant and in some cases, iconic. (See my recent piece about Anna Wexler and Nadja Oertelt’s documentary ‘Unorthodox’ for one of the most recent examples.) Here are six of the best.

1. The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927)

Famous for being the first film with synchronized dialogue, this classic talkie stars Al Jolson as Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a cantor who defies the traditions of his Orthodox parents because of his desire to pursue a career as a jazz singer. Following punishment by his father, Jakie runs away from home, but many years later his professional success comes into direct conflict with his religious and family responsibilities.

The film was remade twice — in 1952 (directed by Michael Curtiz) and again in 1980 (directed by Richard Fleischer and Sidney J. Furie), the latter starring Neil Diamond and Lawrence Olivier.

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Orthodox in Israel, Secular in Kathmandu

By Anne Joseph


Courtesy Anna Wexler

At 8 years old, Anna Wexler wanted to be a great Torah scholar. At 12 she started to question her faith, and by 16 she was an atheist. It was at this point that Wexler decided to break away from her Modern Orthodox, New Jersey upbringing, to live a life with no rules and no limits.

Gravitating towards others like her, she says they went “pretty wild.’” But during their gap year, a significant change occurred. While she was travelling in Kathmandu, her rebellious friends had “flipped out” in Israel. Having gone to yeshiva, they had become religious, and exchanged their former lifestyle for one of modest dress and Torah study. It led Wexler to question why, and forms the subject of her debut documentary, “Unorthodox.”

The film has had several successful U.S. film festival screenings, including at the Boston Jewish Film Festival and DOC NYC. It will receive its U.K. premiere later this month during the U.K. Jewish Film Festival.

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Maggie Gyllenhaal's Top 8 Roles

By Curt Schleier

It’s no surprise that the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” boasts Maggie Gyllenhaal in the role of Anna. She is a strong, intelligent activist and actor, a key player in this drama about marital love and infidelity. It’s the type of character Gyllenhaal regularly and successfully inhabits.

For the young actress, who recently discovered her birth name is Margalit (Hebrew for Pearl), it adds another star performance in her ever-expanding galaxy. Here are some others:

1. The Honourable Woman

Gyllenhaal played British business executive Ness Stein in this eight-part mini-series that aired originally on the BBC and last summer on the Sundance Channel. Stein, who is Jewish, works hard to build bridges of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but as soon becomes clear in this spy thriller, it is a complex and difficult task. But the series and Gullenhaal’s performance won raves, with The New York Times saying she played “a principled but conflicted woman whose quicksilver personality alters from hour to hour and flashback to flash-forward.”

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Filming the Wives of Bali

By Dorri Olds

Courtesy of Elemental Productions

Filmmaker Robert Lemelson’s “Bitter Honey” is a documentary about polygamy and violence towards women in Bali, Indonesia. Lemelson filmed three families — three husbands, 17 wives and 20 children — over a seven-year period. Many were tricked into being co-wives and are psychologically manipulated and physically abused by their unfaithful and often cruel husbands once they are married. Feeling trapped for economic and cultural reasons, they remain with their husbands despite their grim conditions. It is fascinating and heartbreaking to watch them open up to Lemelson about their ongoing plight: their fear and sadness.

Lemelson, 53, has been making documentary films in Indonesia for two decades. The New Jersey native is also a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, with a specialty in Southeast Asian studies, psychological anthropology and transcultural psychiatry. He was a Fulbright scholar in Indonesia and holds a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in anthropology from University of Califaronia, Los Angeles.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with him in New York City, at the Clinton Global Initiative, with which he has been involved for the last 5 years.

Dorri Olds: How did a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey end up in Indonesia?

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