Casually clad in a black tee shirt and jeans over his stocky 59-year-old frame, Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis radiates a warm friendliness. He responds to questions with rapid-fire musings that rise above the din of the lunchtime crowd at a popular Manhattan restaurant, in nearly unaccented American English.
What brought him together with The Arty Semite is his latest film, “Zaytoun,” opening in New York on September 20, to be followed by a national release. With “Zaytoun,” Riklis returns to the Arab-Israeli issues that mark his best-known works, including “The Syrian Bride” and “Lemon Tree.” “Zaytoun” is the tale of an Israeli fighter pilot, shot down and captured by Palestinians in Beirut on the eve of the 1982 Lebanon war, and who forms an unlikely alliance with a remarkable adolescent boy from the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila.
Riklis began our conversation by explaining how the story developed from the draft of a screenplay by a Palestinian-American electrical engineer, Nader Rizq, who had labored for years on this first script. It reached him through Fred Ritzenberg (who became one of his producers), but Riklis had initially rejected it out of fatigue with Israeli-Arab themes.
Ralph Seliger: So it was a screenplay to begin with.
Eran Riklis: Yes, and not at my own initiative, which is quite rare. But at some point we decided we could work together on the next draft. Writing a screenplay is like adopting a child; at some point it becomes your own, through a process of discovery. The script was fully written by Nader Rizq. I, as always, was involved in shaping the drafts that evolved once I joined the project.
Is any part of it factual?
“Lore,” short for Hannelore and the title of a new film opening February 8, is the name of a strong-willed and idealistic teenager who tries to lead her four young siblings to safety through the war-ravaged and dangerous landscape of a German nation defeated in 1945. Her physical trek triggers an inner journey for this impressionable young person on the edge of adulthood. We gradually see her shed the Nazi faith she grew up with, and recoil against the hatefulness of the people around her.
After rousing them in the night and setting incriminating files on fire, the children’s uniformed father transports the family in an army truck to a farm in the countryside, and leaves them, ostensibly to return to the front. His crimes are left to the viewer’s imagination, but after Germany’s defeat becomes official, the distraught chain-smoking mother packs her bag and instructs Lore — played by Saskia Rosendahl, a striking young actress — to take the family’s remaining money and jewelry and to get the children to “Omi” (grandma), near Hamburg. She then dons a smart blue outfit and proceeds on foot to surrender to the American occupation authorities.
Along the way, Thomas, a fellow refugee, falls in with Lore and her siblings. He acts like a deus ex machina, getting them through savage territory as they journey from Bavaria to Omi’s house on Germany’s northern seacoast. There’s an element of mystery to this character: Is he really the Jewish survivor he claims to be?
Last year, in a nearly empty screening room, I saw what became an Academy Award finalist in the documentary category, “5 Broken Cameras.” I then interviewed filmmaker Guy Davidi about his background and his work on the film for The Arty Semite.
Recently I had another email conversation with Davidi, discussing how he’s faring with his film in the limelight, the nature of his collaboration with his Palestinian co-director Emad Burnat, and whether he knew if his colleague (a novice in the trade) would pursue filmmaking in the future.
When asked his view of the other Israeli-produced film nominated for best documentary, “The Gatekeepers,” he was reluctant to say much, citing an Academy rule prohibiting him from commenting on a fellow nominee. He responded mainly about his experience as a nominee with his Palestinian partner, but began with the political impact of the other work:
”The Gatekeepers” has put an end to the claim that Ehud Barak conveyed that there is no Palestinian partner; for me [this] is the most important achievement of the film and [on] the political discourse in Israel.
There’s a conceit among movie critics to be, well, critical. And “The Other Son,” a French film by director Lorraine Levy opening in the U.S. October 26, has its flaws. But it needs to be said upfront that, although it does not seem particularly realistic, the movie does a nice job on its own terms.
The story’s premise involves a baby mix-up at a Haifa hospital during the Iraqi missile attacks on Israel during the Gulf War of 1991. When Joseph (played by Jules Sitruk), grows up and is about to be inducted into the military, it’s found that his blood type is incompatible with his parents’. When a follow-up investigation concludes that he was born as the son of West Bank Palestinians, to a mother who happened to be in Haifa at the time, his enlistment is cancelled.
Joseph’s father, Alon (Pascal Elbé), is an army colonel while his mother, Orith (charmingly played by Emmanuelle Devos), is a physician who approves inquiring further into the mystery of Joseph’s biological parentage.
“Tears of Gaza,” a Norwegian documentary about the Gaza Strip under assault during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead of December 2008 and January 2009, is presented in Arabic with English subtitles. It may be characterized as “truthful propaganda.” There’s no reason to doubt most of what you see, but the film makes no apology for showing only one side.
The press notes indicate that the Norwegian director, Vibeke Løkkeberg, and her producer were prohibited by Israel and Egypt from entering Gaza. They recruited Gaza Palestinians to provide footage and find the speaking subjects:
Using Internet and phone… Løkkeberg… explained [to the Gaza production crew] that the film would not be [about] the politics of the war. Instead it would be a feature documentary that would begin by focusing on [the] daily life of people living in Gaza during the bombardment…. Løkkeberg wrote down questions they would ask…. Løkkeberg wanted her film shot so that the audience would identify with the children.
She succeeds: Yahya, a 12 year-old boy, and 11-year-old Rasmia happen to be lovely kids with atypically fair hair and eyes. Amira, 14, is a dignified young woman who wears a traditional headscarf. Their stories are compelling.
When emailing and skyping with Guy Davidi, the 33-year old Israeli co-director of “5 Broken Cameras,” opening May 30 in New York at the Film Forum, one encounters a sophisticated — albeit imperfect — speaker of English, with a vaguely British accent. His views, however, are always sharp: “My belief is that the construction of the wall has little to do with [the] security of Israel,” he said, because “there are still many settlers and settlements [on] the ‘Palestinian side’ of the wall. The choice to locate it within the occupied territories allows [Israel] to confiscate new Palestinian lands which makes any talk [of a] 2 state solution less and less relevant.”
Davidi first came to the West Bank village of Bil’in from his native Tel Aviv in 2005, as an “Indymedia” activist. Bil’in has been engaged in a non-violent struggle against Israel’s security barrier, which encroaches on its property, as do a number of Jewish settlements. Davidi spent several months there making his first full-length film, “Interrupted Streams” (2006). His current work documents life in Bil’in through 2010, when Israel’s supreme court ordered part of the security barrier to be removed from village land.
Courtesy of Corinth Releasing
As told in the German feature film “Berlin 36,” opening in New York September 16 and Los Angeles September 23, Gretel Bergmann, Germany’s greatest female high jumper at the time of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was very much “out” as a Jew, and she suffered the consequences. But a competitor, Marie Ketteler, who figured prominently in the story, was in the closet sexually.
There are immediate hints in the movie that there’s something amiss about this 17-year-old, who is flat chested and affirms to her doctor that she’s not yet had a period. Eventually, it becomes clear that she is really a he. A 2009 article in Der Spiegel indicated that Ketteler was actually Dora Ratjens, whose gender was misidentified upon birth because of ambiguous genitalia, and who was brought up as a girl.
Courtesy of Music Box Films
In a remarkable feat for a man who was not considered good looking, Serge Gainsbourg was celebrated as much for his loves as for his art. He began life in Paris as Lucien Ginsburg, the son of Jewish refugees from the 1917 Russian Revolution. Like his parents, he survived the Holocaust in hiding.
The artful and fast-paced French biopic, “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life,” starring Eric Elmosnino, depicts Gainsbourg’s success as a pop musician and his romantic liaisons with the movie superstar Brigitte Bardot and other women. He was married four times, including to the English actress and singer, Jane Birkin, who is the mother of the best known of his four children, the actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg. It is a bizarre curiosity that his last wife — an actress, singer and model known by the stage name of Bambou — is the granddaughter of Friedrich Paulus, the German field marshal who surrendered at Stalingrad.
Courtesy of Corinth Films
The Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia began with the annexation of the largely German-speaking Sudetenland in October 1938. Most people are unaware of the aftermath of the occupation, in which Czech people took revenge on their German-speaking neighbors. This story is explored in a German-Czech-Austrian feature film titled “Habermann,” opening August 5 at New York’s Quad Cinema and being screened at the JCC in Manhattan from August 7 to 11.
The film tells the fact-based story of a wealthy mill owner and the scion of an old German family, August Habermann (Mark Waschke). He is apolitical and initially naïve about the Nazis, but he believes in dealing fairly with his neighbors and employees, whether they are Czech or German. The woman he marries in 1937 is a Czech, as is his best friend, a forester who is married in turn to a German.
Still, August’s orphaned young brother, Hans, enthusiastically supports the Nazis, as do many (if not most) Sudeten Germans. Hans is an exemplary member of the Hitler Youth movement and eagerly volunteers to join the Wehrmacht to fight the Soviet Union.
Courtesy of Music Box Films
In “The Names of Love,” being released in the U.S. June 24, 24-year-old actress Sara Forestier plays Baya, a free-spirited idealist who literally enacts the 1960s slogan, “Make love, not war.” She is passionate to a fault in supporting the French left, lending her attractive body to the cause by converting right-wingers with sex rather than argumentation. For her performance — in at least one sequence she is hilarious in her nakedness — Forestier won a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar.
In keeping with its French title, “Le nom de gens” (“The name of people”), the names of the major characters matter. Baya’s family name is Arabic (Benmahmoud), whereas the male lead (played by Jacques Gamblin) bears the white-bread French moniker Arthur Martin.
Courtesy of Music Box Films
Reputed to be the most expensive Dutch-language film ever made, “Bride Flight,” a sensual melodrama with something of a Jewish theme thrown in, debuts commercially in the United States on June 10.
The film recounts the experiences of four Dutch expatriates who meet on a KLM airliner in 1953, wending their way to New Zealand on a flight that wins a trans-continental race with several other airlines. Over the ensuing 50 years, these passengers’ lives continue to intersect in unexpected ways.
Three of them are young brides planning to settle in their new country with proper Dutch husbands. The fourth is Frank, who is immigrating to New Zealand to become a wine maker. The actor who plays him as a young man, Waldemar Torenstra, is physically reminiscent of the 1950s movie icon James Dean, but even better looking (in old age the character is portrayed by Rutger Hauer). As you might imagine, Frank gets romantically entangled with no fewer than two of the women.
In this age of conflicts in and with the Islamic world, it’s heartening to see a fact-based film about religious amity, even one that’s set during a sectarian civil war in an Arab country. The French-language production “Of Gods and Men” follows a group of French monks in Algeria who are threatened by Islamic extremists during the Algerian civil war in the 1990s. After winning the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2010, the film is being released commercially in the U.S. on February 25.
The film’s star, Lambert Wilson (alongside the ever-stately Michael Lonsdale), is a veteran actor in both his native French and in English. His talents as a singer stand him in good stead as Brother Christian, the head monk in a Trappist monastery. The authentic prayers the actors intone are but one of the film’s charms.
Aside from a title inspired by Psalm 82, the Jewish connection is slight: A visiting monk brings “The Chosen” as a gift requested by Christian. The screenwriter, Etienne Comar, confirmed in an e-mail that this was Chaim Potok’s novel, but he could not recall if the gift was factual or an invention.
If Jews are the people of the magazine, there is now one fewer in the tribe. Meretz USA has pulled the plug on Israel Horizons, a voice of left-wing Zionism for more than a half-century.
The final issue of the 58-year-old quarterly rolls off the presses this month. The periodical had already been limping along, publishing only one issue in 2010. Meretz USA, a nonprofit organization working to create partnerships between dovish Americans who support Israel and their counterparts within the State of Israel, has now issued the final issue in 2011.
“The journal was a source of pride,” said Ralph Seliger, who was editor from 1991 to 1995, and again from 2003 to the present. “It really was my calling.” Circulation hovered between 1000 and 2000 readers, and was funded by Meretz USA with additional donations from subscribers.