Category Archives: Israel

In Search of Israeli Cuisine

IN SEARCH OF ISRAELI CUISINE – http://wp.me/p4zjMq-4KF

Gaetano Kazuo Maida is a media professional and strategic planner. He was a founding director of the Buddhist quarterly Tricycle, and producer/director of several films including Peace Is Every Step, a film profile of Vietnamese Zen teacher/activist Thich Nhat Hanh, narrated by Ben Kingsley. He is currently executive director of the nonprofit Buddhist Film Foundation and Tea Arts Institute.

A Film Unfinished

A Film Unfinished (2010) (Hebrew title: שתיקת הארכיון Shtikat haArkhion) is a documentary about an unfinished Nazi film shot in the Warsaw ghetto in May, 1942, two months before its inhabitants were shipped to Treblinka to be murdered. While an edited version of the film (titled, Das Ghetto) has been known since it was discovered at the end of the war, in 1998 East German archivists found an additional reel of outtakes.

Israeli director Yael Hersonski uses the newly discovered 30 minutes of film along with interviews with survivors of the ghetto and one of the cameramen who worked on the fim to make sense of the original footage and to raise questions about film as evidence.  Where the original Nazi film appeared to show wealthy Jews ignoring beggars and stepping over dead bodies to enter restaurants and clubs, the outtakes show them being forced to participate in staged meals in a fake restaurant for the purpose of the propaganda film.  Starving Jews stare at the cameras while a cringing young woman is forced to pose with a beggar.

The filmmaker has done a sensitive job of showing us the power of the editor to shape the image we see on the screen, and to influence our understanding of that image.  The Nazi film footage creates a certain picture of Jewish life in the ghetto.  But we see the outtakes, and we watch survivors as they screen the film and react to it. Their reactions provide both a blunt commentary on the Nazi film itself (“We would have eaten a flower!”)  and a sense of the emotions that the actors in the film were forced to cover up.

There was a controversy about the marketing of this film.  It was given an R rating by the MPAA over the protests of the distributor.  It is not as graphic as some of the film footage on display at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, and the distributor felt that it did not merit the R. Parents considering watching the film with children should be aware that it contains images of starving people, of brutal behavior, and of dead bodies.

Commentary

Watching this documentary, I was struck by the difference between an image on film and reality.  It is said that “a picture is worth a thousand words” but this documentary makes clear that we have to be critical when we look at images.  When we see a film, we often feel as if we have been witness to something real, when in fact we have merely been invited to witness the dream of the filmmaker about an event.

Jewish tradition is very suspicious of images, and cautious even about the evidence given by a single eye-witness. In that tradition, Hersonski has assembled several different witnesses to testify:  several survivors, and the cameraman Willy Wist.  Hersonski is herself a witness at a remove:  her grandmother was a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto.

This is a powerful film that provides insight into many different aspects of the Holocaust.  It also raises important questions about the manipulation of perception.

Questions for Discussion

  • The Nazis intended Das Ghetto to be a propaganda film.  What was the message they were trying to convey?
  • According to An Unfinished Film, what did the Nazis do to create a film with that message?  What had to be cut out of the raw footage? What else had to be done to manipulate the image?
  • What is the difference between a documentary and a propaganda film?  How can a critical viewer tell one from the other?
  • Did this documentary leave you with any unanswered questions?

Walk on Water

Walk on Water (2004) [Hebrew title: Lalehket al HaMayim] is an Israeli film by director Eytan Fox, set in the midst of the Second Intifada, in 2002.  A crack Mossad hitman, Eyal, (Lior Ashkenazi) returns from a successful hit against a Hamas operative to find that his wife has committed suicide.  His handler, Menachem (Gideon Shemer) believes that he is more upset than he claims to be, and gives him an “easier” assignment, hunting down an aging Nazi by pretending to be a tour guide for his young grandson, Axel (Knut Berger).  Supposedly the old man is dead, but Menachem has come to believe that he was smuggled away from justice after the war, and he is still alive.

Eyal becomes more involved than he intends with the young man and with his sister, Pia, who has been living for years on a kibbutz in the Israeli countryside.  Before all is said and done, the film wrangles with the aftermath of the Holocaust, its connections to current events in Israel, Israeli-Palestinian relations, terrorism, and homophobia.  It is a tall order, and a complicated film. To Fox’s credit, it is mostly successful in its attempt to tackle such challenging material:  it was nominated not only for nine awards in 2004 by the Israeli Film Academy, winning three, but also nominated in 2006 for the much-coveted Cesar Award (France) for Best Foreign Film.

Commentary

Much has been written about the connections between the trauma of the Holocaust and the present-day responses of Israelis to security threats.  This film focuses on these tensions within one man, who has a fierce love of his own country and yet who is growing sick of killing.   It is also a testament to the power of relationship to transform lives.

The film also does an excellent job of capturing the feeling in Israel during the Second Intifada.  It was a very strange mixture of normal life going forward, regularly punctuated by horrific bombings.

Questions for Discussion

1.  Why does Menachem send Eyal after the old Nazi?

2.  What do you think of the ethics of Eyal pretending to be a tour guide to get close to Pia and Axel to find out about their grandfather?

3.  Should the Nazi have had a trial, or is it just simply to assassinate him? Should Eyal have followed orders?  What do you think about Axel’s action?

4.  In the opening of the film, Eyal kills without a second thought, after smiling at the child of the man he is about to kill.  In Berlin, he twice has the opportunity to kill and does not.  What happened to change him?

5.  What did you think about Eyal’s attitude and behavior in the incident of the coat?  Why did he behave as he did?  Was he wrong or right?  Why?

6.  What changes Eyal’s attitude about Axel’s homosexuality?

7.  At the end of the film, is Eyal still working for Mossad?  Why do you think so, or why not?

Ushpizin

200px-UshpizinUshpizin (2004) is a holiday story of faith and human foibles.  The production of the film involved an unusual partnership of ultra-Orthodox and secular filmmakers, making it an Israeli cinematic milestone.  It is a story about an impoverished couple in the Breslov Haredi community  in Jerusalem, who do not have even the money to celebrate Sukkot:  no sukkah, no money for food, no money even to pay their rent.  They take to heart Rabbi Nachman‘s saying that difficulties are a test of faith, so when things become difficult, they pray.

Abruptly, their fortunes change:  an abandoned sukkah becomes available, money arrives unexpectedly in an envelope under the door, and the husband spends a large amount of the money on a beautiful etrog (citron) which is a requirement for the holiday.  The more beautiful etrogim, he believes, make the conception of a child more likely.  Then, when all seems perfect, the ushpizin, the visitors, arrive.

Commentary

This film offers a rare visit inside the ultra-Orthodox world of the Breslov Haredim.  Critics point out that it is also a very uncritical look at that community, but there is something to be said for seeing people first on their own terms.  The story is worthy of Rabbi Nachman himself, revolving around the Jewish value of hospitality and the power of prayer.

The main character in the film, Moshe, (played by Shuli Rand) is a ba’al teshuva, a former secular Jew who has made a commitment to strict observance.  When his old life comes to visit, he is both tempted by the memories and horrified by the reality. His wife, Mali, (played by Michal Bat Sheva Rand) is determined to pass the test of heaven.  One of the more subtle aspects of the film is its examination of the delicate balances in a marriage:  how the couple support one another, and how they can also be thrown off balance by one another.

Questions

How far need one go to observe the mitzvah of hospitality?

Moshe learns that he should have asked more questions about the sukkah, yet the source of the money under the door is never questioned.  How are the two different, or are they different?

Mali is furious when she finds out where the visitors are from, and that Moshe accepted them anyway, trusting them to be alone with her.  Were you worried for Mali?  Do you think the visitors were truly dangerous?

Does God send tests?  Why?

Waltz with Bashir

BashirWaltz with Bashir (2008) is a powerful animated documentary about an Israeli veteran’s memories of the 1982 Lebanon War.   It is a highly personable and original work by filmmaker Ari Folman, who was a 19 year old infantry soldier in the war.  In a conversation with a friend, Ari realizes that he has little or no memory of his service in the war.  Then, the next night, he has a flashback of the war, but it makes no sense.  This sends him on a quest to remember what he did in the war and to come to terms with whatever it was.  The film is powerful and difficult to watch, much more realistic about the horrors and mundanities of war than a Hollywood film.  The animation gives the whole story a “fever dream” feel — just as Ari has trouble telling what is real, so does the viewer.  Also, by portraying the most horrible memories in animated drawings, they are made (barely) watchable.  The only live footage in the film comes at the end of the film; it is film from the BBC of the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila camps after the massacre there.

When Folman was asked why he made the film, he replied that in most Hollywood war films, people get the idea that either war is grand, or that war is horrible but the people fighting in them are heroes.  He said that if one adolescent would see the film and understand that he did not want to be anyone in that film, he had succeeded.

Commentary

One of the most amazing things about this film is that not only was it made in Israel by the man in the story, it received support from The New Israeli Foundation for Cinema & T.V. and the Israel Film Fund.   The film is a scathing indictment of  Israeli leadership during the war, and it says a great deal about freedom of speech in Israel that it was made and released in theaters there and abroad.

Some critics have said that it does not go far enough in taking responsibility for the massacre at Sabra and Shatila.  My own feeling is that it is one soldier’s memories of his own participation in the war, terrible memories that he pursued with courage, and that it does not pretend to be anything more than one private’s point of view.

This movie is not for little children; it earns its R rating both for sex and for violence.

The Band’s Visit

postervisitIn The Band’s Visit (2007) the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrives at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel for a concert at a cultural center in Petach Tikva.  No one is there to meet them; the arrangements they expect have not been made.  A pronunciation mistake when asking for the bus lands them in the obscure town of Beit Hatikva. Stranded there, they seek assistance from a coffee shop owner, who finds them lodging for the night. The film follows the individual band members’ attempts to be good guests, as they interact with Israelis who have their own troubles.  It is a quiet little film that engages with issues of hope and despair, youth and aging, love and loneliness.

The dialogue in the film is largely in English, since that is the language the band members and the Israelis have in common.  There is also some dialogue in Arabic and Hebrew, with subtitles.

The Band’s Visit won 8 awards out of 13 nominations for Israeli Film Academy Awards, including Best Film of 2007.  It won three awards at Cannes, as well as many other international awards.  It was nominated as the Israeli entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008, but was disqualified because so much of the dialogue is in English.

Commentary

Too often Americans, including American Jews, think of the Middle East in terms of stereotypes:  Chalutzim [Israeli pioneers] who are valiant and larger-than-life, Israeli soldiers, Arab terrorists, or Arab victims.  The Band’s Visit portrays a group of ordinary Israelis and ordinary Egyptian musicians, all of whom are wonderfully human.  This is a gentle film full  of insight into the human situation.

By the way, while Petach Tikva is a real place (and a very interesting one — check the wikipedia link!) the town of Beit HaTikva in the film is fictional.  Its name is ironic: it means “House of Hope.”

Other Voices

For a different Jewish take on this film, check out the review at chizfilm.net.