The Arty Semite

Cannes Diary #5: Prizes and Farewells

By A.J. Goldmann

Getty Images

After 10 cinema-soaked days, the International Jury, headed by Jane Campion, dished out the prizes of the 67th Cannes Film Festival.

There were no multiple winners in a year when there were clearly not enough awards to go around. In fact, some have taken issue with the jury’s decision to award the Jury Prize to both Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy” and Jean-Luc Godard’s 3D “Adieu au Langage.” Splitting the prize between the youngest and oldest directors in competition (Dolan is 25; Godard is 83), the jury was rectifying a long-standing oversight (Godard has never won a prize before at Cannes) and endorsing the work of a passionate and original new director. You would think that Dolan would be deeply honored to keep company with Godard, but apparently his tears onstage accepting the award masked his fury at not getting the Palme d’Or (the film that gets the Palme can’t score a win in an other category).

Russian filmmaker Alexei Serebriakov’s “Leviathan,” one of the final films to screen in competition, was something of a surprise winner for the screenplay award. A modern retelling of the Book of Job, it is a grim tale of government corruption and religious hypocrisy that is all the timelier in light of recent events in the expanding republic of Putinistan.

It came as little surprise when Timothy Spall was announced as Best Actor for his astonishing work in Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner.” That Spall beat out Steve Carell –the other critical favorite — made sense in light of the directing award, which went to Bennett Miller, who became the first Jewish director to win the prize since Julian Schnabel in 2007 for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” His “Foxcatcher,” which was one of the stronger competition entries this year, is already being mentioned as a contender for next year’s Oscars. Julianne Moore, the Best Actress-winner for her Norma Desmond turn in David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars,” was the only winner aside from Godard — who didn’t even bother showing up for his screening or press conference last week — not on hand to accept.

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Cannes Diary #4: Strong Women On Screen

By A.J. Goldmann

Of the themes to emerge during this year’s Cannes Film Festival — incest, dogs, neglected children — uncommonly strong women have been the most pervasive. This seems appropriate in a year where the jury is presided over by Jane Campion, the only woman to win a Palme d’Or in the history of the festival. As the festival opened, Campion accused the film industry of “inherent sexism.” Thierry Fremeux, who runs the festival, has by way of a rebuttal pointed out that one-fifth of the films in the official selection are by female directors, including two in competition.

But beyond films from the likes of Asia Argento, Alice Rohrwacher and Naomi Kawase, a surprising number of films this year are literally anchored by their tough, often-complex female protagonists. This holds true for Ronit Elkabetz as an Israeli woman fighting for a divorce in a rabbinical court in “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” as well as Marion Cotillard as a working-class mother struggling to keep her job in “Two Days, One Night,” and Bérénice Bejo as an aid-worker trying to convince the UN of the humanitarian crisis in Chechnya during the Second Chechen War. By way of contrast, there haven’t been many memorable male characters or performances on offer — Timothy Spall and Steve Carell being notable exceptions.

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Cannes Diary #3: Cronenberg, Carell and the Infamous Strauss-Kahn

By A.J. Goldmann

There was a lot of buzz — and not necessarily the good kind of buzz — surrounding bad-boy director Abel Ferrera’s “Welcome to New York,” his fictionalized account of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, which was screened on Saturday for press and market ahead of its VOD-only release in France (a theatrical rollout is planned for America later in the year). I was busy seeing the enigmatic and dreamy Italian competition entry “Le Meraviglie” (“The Wonders”) by Alice Rohrwacher during the screening and wild after-party, which reportedly vied with the film for obscenity and grotesquery. In the wake of the film’s release, Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer said that the former International Monetary Fund chief planned to sue Ferrara for defamation. (DSK is reportedly “heartbroken and terrified” and refuses to see the film.)

After a long, party-studded weekend on the Croisette, David Cronenberg’s celebrity satire “Maps to the Stars” debuted in competition. With an all-star cast (Julianne Moore, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson), the Canadian auteur’s first film shot in L.A. works best when savaging Hollywood culture, name-dropping (“Harvey’s producing and you know Harvey. Harvey is Harvey,” is one of the gems in Bruce Wagner’s screenplay), and mocking the lifestyles of the rich and weird. But the film is so busy making fun of child stars, personal shoppers, the vanity of aging actresses — shades of Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” — and quack New Age therapists that it doesn’t bother to stop and think what it’s all about. There is also a central incest drama to the film, which creates an accidental resonance with Keren Yedaya’s “That Lovely Girl,” which was profiled in an earlier festival post.

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Why Jewish Film Festivals Are So Important

By Olivia Antsis

Thirty-four years ago, in two American cities on opposite coasts, a group of visionaries developed what would one day become one of the most powerful vehicles for connecting Diaspora Jews to their culture: the Jewish film festival.

With numerous scholarly works and studies devoted to dissecting the state of modern Jewry in America, the increasing popularity of Jewish film festivals has made one fact abundantly clear: Jews crave a meaningful connection to their roots. With over 100 Jewish Film Festivals in existence today, Jews all over the world flock to theaters anticipating an authentic connection to their heritage. For some Jews, participation in their local Jewish Film Festival is the only way in which they feel Jewish.

Does such a statement justify the prevailing attitude among Jewish leaders and professionals that the fabric of our once vibrant and engaged Jewish community is in danger of unraveling? While widely debated studies like the 2013 Pew survey of American Jewry points to a steady decline in religious identification and a significant rise in interfaith marriage, what do these statistics actually say about today’s Jewish community except that it is continually changing, evolving, and presenting new challenges?

As a Jewish professional working in the Jewish world, I have observed many of my colleagues grow disheartened by the possibility that the progress we have made in preserving Jewish culture is in danger of being compromised. My trepidation is that too much credence is being given to the results of quantitative surveys and not enough consideration is being paid to programs that are already working to establish a vibrant Jewish community.

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Cannes Diary #1: 'Mr. Turner' and Israeli Incest

By A.J. Goldmann

Amid clear sunny skies and swaying palm trees, the competition of the Cannes Film Festival opened on a strong note with British auteur Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” about the great painter J.M.W. Turner. Leigh is one of the six Jewish directors who have films in the official competition section of the festival (others include the Canadian surrealist David Cronenberg and “The Artist”’s Michel Hazanavicius, whom we hope to profile later in the festival).

A beautifully sensitive period piece constructed with substance and subtlety, “Mr. Turner” is Leigh’s fourth venture to make it to the Croisette (his family drama “Secrets and Lies” won the “Palme d’Or,” the festival’s top prize, in 1996). It succeeds where main other biopics of painters have failed, both as an incisive character portrait and an engaging and finely wrought piece of filmmaking.

Thanks to brilliant cinematography and lighting, “Mr. Turner” achieves truly painterly effects. Much credit for the film’s success is due to Timothy Spall — one of Leigh’s regular actors — an absolutely overwhelming presence in the title role. Far from a hagiography, the film delivers a warts-and-all-portrait of the artist as an old man and Spall plays him with both sensitivity and oafishness.

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From the Nursing Home to Jerusalem

By Curt Schleier

David Gaynes’ documentary, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” answers the old question of whether the glass is half empty or half full. At the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Fairfield, Conn., where the film was shot, both are the same.

Gaynes brought his camera to the nursing home, where the average age is 91, as some residents were preparing to tour Israel. The unavoidable first impression of their lives is depressing: the glass is less than half full.

The facility itself seems modern and clean. The staff seems helpful and caring. But still it is a waiting room for the funeral home, and there’s no way to pretty that up.

One of several residents we meet is Selma Rosenblatt, 93. She is bent over so far by osteoporosis that she can’t lift her head high enough to see in front of her. Recently, she says, a fellow resident died during a meal in the dining room, calling it “a wonderful way to go.”

Juna Wein, 89, says “it’s kind of dull for me here.”

Regine Arouette, 87, is Flemish and was a hidden child during the war. Her son and his family are in Belgium. “Sometimes I feel so lonely,” she says.

But, unexpectedly, despite the wheelchairs and walkers, Parkinson arms and other assorted ailments, the residents’ buoyant spirits begin to shine through.

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The Jew Who Fell in Love With Wagner

By Judy Maltz

(Haaretz) — The music of German composer Richard Wagner was never played in his parents’ home: Too many bad associations with Hitler and the Nazis, explains filmmaker Hilan Warshaw.

So it wasn’t until he began playing violin in a New York City youth orchestra that Warshaw was first introduced to the work of the notoriously anti-Semitic 19th-century German opera composer. And rather embarrassingly, he found himself smitten.

“I just loved the music. But, at the same time, it was something that my conscious mind told me was anathema,” he recalls.

Over the years, Warshaw – whose family lost many relatives during the Holocaust – developed what he describes as a “push-pull relationship” with Hitler’s favorite composer. And it made him curious about the other Jews in Wagner’s life.

So curious, in fact, that he decided to devote the past several years to making a film on the subject. The fruit of that effort, “Wagner’s Jews,” is playing in Tel Aviv at the Docaviv festival, Israel’s premier event for documentary film.

Produced, directed and written by Warshaw, the feature-length film focuses on the Jews who were some of Wagner’s closest associates, among them the gifted young pianist Carl Tausig, who was almost like a son to him; the conductor Hermann Levi, who happened to be the son of a rabbi; and the pianist Joseph Rubinstein, who lived in Wagner’s home for many years and killed himself when the composer died.

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Switched Identities in Israeli Film at Cannes

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Moviegoers who were moved by the surrealism and symbolism in Shira Geffen’s 2007 film “Jellyfish” (Meduzot in Hebrew) will be pleased to know that her equally fantastical new film, “Self Made,” debuts at Critics Week at the Cannes Film Festival this month.

“Self Made” tells the story of two women — one Israeli and one Palestinian — who become trapped within one another’s worlds and find themselves living on the opposite side of the security fence from the one they usually live on. Michal (Sarah Adler), a famous Israeli artist in Jerusalem, falls off her bed one morning and loses her memory. She complains to the furniture company that made her bed, leading to the dismissal of Palestinian factory worker Nadine (Samira Saraya). Later, the two women fatefully meet at a border checkpoint, where, due to a soldier’s error, Michal is sent to a Palestinian refugee camp and Nadine to Michal’s home in Jerusalem.

“The swap leads them to discover their hidden desires, inaccessible in their previous lives,” states the film’s promotional material.

Geffen recently explained to Variety why it took her five years to make “Self Made” despite the success of her previous film (“Jellyfish” won the Camera d’Or and was an official selection at several festivals including the Toronto International Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival).

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To Somalia and Back Again

By Curt Schleier

Michael Maren has lived an Indiana Jones kind of life: Peace Corps volunteer, war correspondent from Africa, kidnap victim of a Somali warlord, author, and now filmmaker.

However, anyone expecting a hard-hitting documentary exposing the troubles of foreign aid (the subject of his book, “The Road to Hell”) is in for a surprise. In fact, if his film, “A Short History of Decay,” exposes anything, it is the frailty of life and the importance of family.

Nathan Fisher (Bryan Greenberg) is a blocked Brooklyn writer in a blocked relationship who heads to Florida when his father Bob (Harris Yulin) has a stroke and his mom Sandy (Linda Lavin), is suffering from early signs of Alzheimer’s.

Maren, 58, spoke to The Forward about why he went to Africa, why he left, and the genesis of the film.

Curt Schleier: You joined the Peace Corps and taught in rural Kenya after you graduated from college in the late 1970s. What prompted that?

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Portraits of Holocaust Heroism

By Curt Schleier

The title characters of filmmaker Michael King’s inspirational documentary, “The Rescuers,” are a dozen people, mostly diplomats, who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

In many cases, they defied their own government’s specific instructions in order to arrange exit visas for families otherwise headed for extermination. Some of these stories are already reasonably well known.

There was Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish first secretary in Budapest, who mysteriously disappeared after the Soviets drove the Nazis out of Hungary; Carl Lutz, the Swiss vice counsel in Budapest, featured character in the recent film, “Walking With the Enemy”; and Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul in Lithuania credited with saving as many as 3,000 people.

Others are less familiar — at least to me — and, in some cases, unexpected. Selahattin Ulkumen, the Muslim Turkish consul in Rhodes, and Angelo Rotta, the Catholic Bishop in Budapest, helped save thousands. None is as surprising as Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a Nazi Party member and a German attache in Copenhagen. He arranged for Sweden to take in the city’s Jews, saving 7,200 lives.

It isn’t all about numbers, however. One of the rescuers was Princess Alice of Greece, great granddaughter of Queen Victoria and grandmother of Prince Charles, who hid a Jewish family in her Athens palace.

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How Shabbat Dinner Can Save America

By Curt Schleier

In the film “Fed Up,” opening May 9, the untenable reality pours down like a mid-summer rain:

  • In the United States, more people die from obesity than starvation.

  • 87% of food items on supermarket shelves have added sugars.

  • Teenagers are having gastric bypass surgery.

We’ve become a corpulent nation, which is not news to anyone who has spent a day at the beach and seen 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds overflow their bathing suits.

The documentary, from filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig, is executive produced by Laurie David, a social activist who served similar duties on the global climate change documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” She’s also the co-author with Kirstin Uhrenholdt of two cookbooks: “The Family Dinner,” about the importance of families eating together, and out last month, “The Family Cooks,” which includes over 100 easy-to-prepare recipes for healthy family meals.

David spoke to the Forward about how she came to the documentary, what she thinks it will accomplish, and how her Shabbat meals honor the homemade food ethic.

Curt Schleier: How did you get involved in this project?

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Polish Drama in Black and White

By Allen Ellenzweig

Shot in rich black and white, “Ida” is a quiet, deliberately paced study of the end of innocence for a young Polish woman, Anna, raised an orphan in a convent. It is the early 1960s. On the verge of taking her vows, the Mother Superior tells Anna that her only living relative, an aunt, wants to see her. This is posed to the young novitiate as a task she must take up before renouncing the outside world. Anna leaves on the necessary journey, her hair modestly covered with her novice’s hooding.

So begins Pavel Pawlikowski’s sober, sometimes poetic and atmospheric inquiry into the weight of history upon a single life. For Anna discovers through her aunt Wanda that her parents were Jews in hiding during the Second World War. Together, Anna — named Ida at birth — and Wanda go seeking the truth of her parents’ fate in a bleak, out-of-the-way village, where, through Wanda’s brisk, no-nonsense queries of the locals, the two women discover a barebones farmhouse where Ida’s parents were hidden. Meeting with the present owners, a wary couple raising a small child, and the man’s father who is on his deathbed in hospital, “Ida” and Wanda are led to the grim truth of her parents’ fate.

While this strand of the story leads to an outcome predictable in its tragic dimensions, the film’s other equally pressing concern is the uncertain fate of its main protagonists — “Ida” and her aunt Wanda. A darkly attractive and worldly woman in her 40s, Wanda yields to the innocent, reserved Anna no particular tenderness or kindness. If anything, she is determined to show herself unadorned: vaguely promiscuous, cynical, world-weary, and probably an alcoholic. After the war, she became a successful prosecutor for Poland’s Communist regime, capable of administering rough justice in line with the Party’s ideological needs. Now she must live with herself — meaning with her survivor’s guilt, and with the knowledge of her own moral failings.

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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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