The Arty Semite

Aaron Swartz Story Comes to Sundance

By Piya Sinha-Roy

(Reuters) — A year after Internet activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide, a new documentary brings to light the young computer prodigy’s earnest battle to bring online freedom of access to information for everyone.

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday and director Brian Knappenberger was joined by Swartz’s father Robert and two brothers, Noah and Ben, all of whom received a standing ovation.

“It’s unbelievably hard for us, but Aaron is dead, there’s nothing we can do about that,” Swartz’s father told the audience, saying he hoped the film would raise awareness of Aaron’s activism and encourage others to fight on his behalf.

Swartz died aged 26 in his Brooklyn, New York apartment on January 11, 2013, after facing felony charges brought by a federal grand jury that included theft, wire fraud and computer fraud.

The federal indictment said Swartz, a fellow at Harvard University, had downloaded millions of articles and journals from digital archive JSTOR through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology servers. Swartz, who pleaded not guilty to all counts, faced 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted.

In the film, which is a contender in Sundance’s U.S. documentary competition, Knappenberger focuses on Swartz’s intellect and growing political ambitions, with interviews that shed insight into his personality from Swartz’s family, friends and colleagues.

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Zach Braff and 'Alaskan Mohel Chic'

By Jana Banin

Getty Images

(JTA) — “Wish I Was Here,” Zach Braff’s Kickstarter-funded film, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Saturday night. Fans eagerly awaiting the “Garden State” follow up—especially the 46,520 who helped pay for it to be made—will be glad to know it was warmly received. The screening ended with a standing ovation, certain critics had nice things to say, and most importantly, the movie was ultimately bought by Focus Features.

Also notable: It sounds pretty Jew-y. In “Wish I Was Here,” Braff makes his directorial debut and stars as Aiden Bloom, a struggling actor living in suburban LA with his wife (Kate Hudson) and their two kids. Aiden is forced to pull the children from Jewish day school after his dad, played Mandy Patinkin, announces he is suffering from cancer and will no longer be able to pay tuition. Unwilling to send them to the local public school, Aiden decides to home school. This new role leads Aiden on a spiritual journey, complete with a visit to a rabbi.

Braff, who wrote the script with his brother Adam, explains that the pair drew inspiration from their childhood. “It was kind of a combination of both of our lives,” he said, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “We did have a very strong conservative/Orthodox upbringing … Themes are in there around our shared experiences but it’s mostly fiction.”

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Jewish Winners at Sundance

By Renee Ghert-Zand

We called it! Both feature-length films premiering at Sundance we wrote about last week have won awards at the prestigious film festival.

First-time director Jill Soloway won the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition for her film, “Afternoon Delight,” about what happens when a frustrated Jewish housewife living in the hip Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles hires a stripper to be her child’s nanny.

Soloway, who is an Emmy-nominated television writer, told the Forward how important it was for her to try her hand at directing. “I could have remained a well respected writer who didn’t get anything of my own made,” she said. “But I stopped waiting for directing opportunities to come my way, and I built that reality myself.”

The “Afternoon Delight” production team is doubly proud, with Kathryn Hahn, who plays the film’s protagonist, Rachel, putting in one of the 10 best performances at Sundance, according to New York Magazine.

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An Inconvenient Economic Truth

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Courtesy Sundance Film Festival

“Inequality For All,” a new documentary film premiering this week at the Sundance Film Festival does for economic inequality what “An Inconvenient Truth” did for climate change.

While “An Inconvenient Truth” had Al Gore expounding on the causes and effects of global warming, this new movie has former labor secretary and current UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich explaining the global economic forces affecting our lives and arguing that widening income inequality is a great — if not, the greatest — threat to our economy and democracy.

Sebastian Dungan, one of the producers of “Inequality For All,” has no problem with the comparison between the two films. In fact, he told The Arty Semite in a recent phone interview that the climate change game-changer served as an inspiration for him, his producing partner Jen Chaiken and the film’s director, Jacob Kornbluth. “’An Inconvenient Truth’ has a polar bear, and our film has middle class families,” Dungan said.

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Watching Etgar Keret at Sundance

By Renee Ghert-Zand

YANAI YECHIEL

With so many great films premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this week, it’s impossible to focus on them all. But it would be shame to miss “What Do We Have In Our Pockets,” a whimsical, endearing animated four-minute short by Los Angeles-based filmmaker Goran Dukic and based on a short story by Israeli writer Etgar Keret.

“What Do We Have In Our Pockets,” is from Keret’s “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door” collection, published in English translation in 2012. It’s about how the inordinately large number of items a young man carries around in his pockets leads to a love story. “Be prepared,” is basically the narrator’s motto and the take-away lesson. It’s also a fun testament to the virtues of clutter.

The actors are director-screenwriter Azazel Jacobs and Diaz Jacobs, and the visual style is part hipster, part children’s “I Spy” books. See for yourself:

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Salvation at the Strip Club

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Courtesy Jill Soloway

“I could have remained a well respected writer who didn’t get anything of my own made,” said Jill Soloway, the Emmy-nominated writer behind successful television shows like HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and Showtime’s “United States of Tara.” “But I stopped waiting for directing opportunities to come my way, and I built that reality myself.”

Soloway spoke to The Arty Semite as she prepared to attend the premiere of her first feature film, “Afternoon Delight,” at the Sundance Film Festival, where it is part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Soloway wrote and directed the dark comedy, about Rachel, a 30-something-year-old Jewish woman in the affluent Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, who responds to her ennui by visiting a strip club and impulsively hiring a sex worker to be her child’s nanny. The film stars Kathryn Hahn (as Rachel), Juno Temple (as McKenna, the stripper), Josh Radnor and Jane Lynch.

“The housewife thinks she’s saving someone, but she ends up being saved,” Soloway revealed. She said her aim was to take the viewer on a “stomach-dropping roller coaster of emotions” with this “pretty dirty, kind of shocking, and very funny” film.

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Friday Film: Perils of Youth

By Abra Cohen

What started out as a second year film project at Tel Aviv University turned into a screening at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. “Barbie Blues,” one of four Israeli films at Sundance, was included in the festival’s new Short Films Program this year. First time filmmaker, Adi Kutner, 25, produced the film in three days of shooting in a Tel Aviv suburb on a budget of only $800.

“Barbie Blues,” is a coming-of-age film about a bored teenager, Mika (played by Meyrav Feldman), who finds a mysterious dead bird floating in her backyard pool. The plot focuses on her interaction with a much older neighbor, Gershon. Dvir Benedek, who plays Gershon in the film, is a household name in Israel, best known for his role as Steve Carell’s character in “HaMisrad,” the Israeli version of “The Office.”

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This Week in Forward Arts and Culture

By Ezra Glinter

  • Gabrielle Birkner watches Yossi Madmoni’s “Restoration,” the only Israeli selection at the Sundance Film Festival.

  • Pianist András Schiff talks to the Forward about growing anti-Semitism in his native Hungary.

  • Gordon Haber reflects on integration and re-segregation in his native Los Angeles.

  • Eileen Reynolds goes to see Yoav Gal’s biblically inspired space-age video opera “Mosheh.”

  • David Biale reads through the new crop of second-generation Holocaust memoirs.

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Out and About: Israeli Winners at Sundance; Ian McEwan Defends Jerusalem Prize Acceptance

By Ezra Glinter

Israeli filmmaker Talya Lavie, whose ‘Zero Motivation’ won the Mahindra Global Filmmaking Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
  • Two Israeli films, “Restoration” by Yossi Madmony and “Zero Motivation” by Talya Lavie, picked up prizes at Sundance.

  • The Egyptian Museum was hit by looters, but it could have been worse.

  • Israeli filmmakers have received death threats over their film on the Gaza war.

  • Ian McEwan has defended his decision to accept the Jerusalem Prize, telling his critics, “I’m for finding out for myself, and for dialogue, engagement, and looking of ways in which literature, especially fiction, with its impulse to enter other minds, can reach across political divides.”

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Friday Film: Q&A With Sundance Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Filmmaker, Internet pioneer and Webby Awards founder Tiffany Shlain believes that “when you speak your truth, you speak the universal.” This seems to be the case, given the buzz surrounding her new, partially autobiographical film, which premiered January 21 at the Sundance Film Festival.

Best known among American Jews for ““The Tribe,” a 2006 short film that explores American Jewish identity through the history of the Barbie doll, Shlain, 40, was in Park City, Utah for the first public screenings of her first feature length documentary, “Connected: An Autoblogography About Love, Death and Technology.” The film, which explores concepts of interconnectedness and interdependence, is part visual collage and part tribute to her late father, surgeon and author Dr. Leonard Shlain. Shlain’s short film “Yelp,” a riff on Allen Ginsberg’s classic 1956 poem “Howl,” was also selected for Sundance this year. Shlain took time out of her schedule to talk to The Arty Semite about her methods and goals as a filmmaker.

Renee Ghert-Zand: Your film is titled “Connected: An Autoblogography About Love, Death and Technology,” but you had originally planned to call it “Connected: A Declaration of Interdependence.” Why did you change it?

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Friday Film: For Battered Women, Justice Is a Long Time Coming

By Schuyler Velasco

Joshua Safran, Deborah Peagler and Nadia Costa in ‘Crime After Crime.’

There are upwards of 180,000 women incarcerated in U.S prisons today. Of those, an estimated 80% are victims of rape, assault, incest, and other forms of sexual and domestic violence. Considering what a closeted problem this sort of abuse is in many communities, it wouldn’t be shocking if the true percentage were actually higher. Responding to that overwhelming statistic, California passed a law in 2002 to allow the reopening of cases of convicted domestic abuse victims, with the circumstances of their suffering allowable as evidence. The California law was the first, and is still the only, one of its kind in the United States.

Thus the jumping-off point for “Crime After Crime,” the surprisingly intimate documentary from director Yoav Potash, screening January 23 to 29 at the Sundance Film Festival and on January 27 at the New York Jewish Film Festival. The film follows the case of Deborah Peagler, an inmate serving a life sentence for conspiracy to murder her boyfriend in 1983.

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Holocaust Filmmaker Responds to R Rating

By Ezra Glinter

Yael Hersonski at the Sundance Festival in January, 2010.

In May 1942, around three months before some 300,000 Jews were sent from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, Nazi filmmakers shot 62 minutes of propaganda footage intended to illustrate the inhumanity of their victims. Staged scenes showed rich Jews living in luxurious indifference to the poverty and death around them, purportedly demonstrating their callousness, even toward their own people.

Chances are you’ve seen this footage, though not in its entirety. One of the only film documents to emerge from the Holocaust, bits and pieces of it have been used in nearly every Holocaust documentary ever made. But only recently has a filmmaker undertaken to examine the footage as a whole, as well as the circumstances in which it was produced.

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