Tag Archives: Documentary

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.

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American Jerusalem

Levi Strauss & Co. offices before 1906

Levi Strauss & Co. offices before 1906

American Jerusalem (2013) tells the story of the first 66 years of Jewish settlement in Northern California, specifically in San Francisco.

Commentary: The Jewish community is unique in Jewish history, in that nowhere else in the Diaspora were Jews in the majority during the early settlement period of a city. The Jewish community developed differently as a result of this, without the need to buttress itself against anti-Semitism until a much later period. Jewish families were “society” in early San Francisco, and they did not eat or live separately from their gentile neighbors. Even today, Jews in San Francisco have a curious mix of firm Jewish identity with a low rate of synagogue and other Jewish institutional affiliation. While some outsiders look at the demographics and say, “Wow, Judaism is in trouble in San Francisco,” in fact the Jewish community there is vibrant and diverse. It was influential in shaping the past of the city and continues to be engaged with San Francisco’s future.

The filmmakers were extremely selective in their choices, which may leave some old San Franciscan families wondering, “What about my ancestors?” but I think the choices allow viewers to appreciate the forest without losing their way in the trees. Certainly American Jerusalem is a tantalizing springboard from which one can launch into deeper reading (Fred Rosenbaum’s book, Cosmopolitans, a Social and Cultural History of the Jews at the San Francisco Bay Area would be a great next step.)

Questions for Discussion:

1. Where are your Jewish roots? Do you have any connection with the Jewish community in San Francisco?

2. What are the roots of your current Jewish community? Who settled there, and when? Where did they immigrate from?

3. What circumstances contributed to the Jewish community of San Francisco being different from other American Jewish communities?

4. From this film, in what ways do you see the San Francisco Jewish community as distinct from your own Jewish community?

5. What questions did this film bring up for you?

Image: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 FoundSF.org

Casino Jack (and the United States of Money)

I’ve never written a post about two films at once before, but today I am writing about two films that cry out for that treatment.  Casino Jack (feature film, 2010) and Casino Jack and the United States of Money (documentary, 2010) cover much the same territory, and each of them is incomplete.  Together, however, they offer a disgusting but nevertheless fascinating trip into the world of Washington politics and the career of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  Abramoff was a former College Republican who dabbled in screenwriting and movie production until he discovered the calling that would make him infamous:  he became a Washington lobbyist.  In 2004 the Senate Indian Affairs Committee began to investigate his dealings on behalf of several American Indian tribes and casinos, and a sordid tale involving gambling, tribes, offshore sweatshops, lots and lots of money, murder, the Mob, and figures close to the Bush White House unravelled before the horrified members of Congress, many of whom had benefitted from Abramoff’s largesse.

Convicted in 2008 of trading meals, pricey gifts, and travel in exchange for political favors, Jack Abramoff made yet another trade in exchange for a prison sentence of only four years:  he agreed to cooperate with a massive bribery investigation of lawmakers, their staff, and figures in the Bush Administration.  Ultimately 21 people either plead guilty or were convicted in the subsequent trials.

The documentary, written and produced by Alex Gibney, is a meticulous account of l’affaire Abramoff, including interviews with all the players in that drama.  It lacks only one essential thing for real understanding:  Abramoff himself refused to be interviewed. His motives, and his reflections after the fact remain a question.  We are left to wonder why a person who initially had high ideals and remarkable gifts of persuasion chose to invest his gifts in a con.

The feature film, made at the same time as the documentary, looks precisely at that question:  what possessed the man?  It was directed by George Hickenlooper  a filmmaker whose greatest credits were his documentaries (he won an Emmy in 1992 for Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse about the making of Apocalypse Now.)  Casino Jack sometimes has the feel of a documentary, especially in scenes like the Senate hearing, in which Kevin Spacey‘s performance  as Abramoff is intercut with real footage of the Senate hearing and the real John McCain.  However, in that scene, the film seques into a dream sequence in which Abramoff confronts the members of the panel with their own misdeeds (in the real hearing, he plead the fifth again and again and again.)

The weakness of the feature is that it attempts to stuff the voluminous details of a complicated political episode into 108 minutes of entertainment film.  Critics didn’t like it, and neither did the public, so the film appeared at the box office and faded from view almost immediately.  That’s a shame, really, because the story itself is an important one.

Commentary

The feature film left me with the impression that Abramoff did what he did because he got caught up in the game of finding ways to persuade people to give him their money.  He may also have been looking for validation of his own worth in money and in the respect or fear of important men.  Spacey’s performance gave me an impression of a vain, silly man who was good at intimidating others and impressing himself, but who was at heart an empty shell.

Abramoff justified his actions with his philanthropy, and his Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. His view of himself as a virtuous man completely blinded him to his despicable acts. An interview since his release from prison in 2010 suggests that perhaps he now understands that studying Torah does not make up for a failure to live Torah.

One key to his side into criminal behavior is mentioned in the documentary:  during his years with the College Republicans, there was a belief that since they were on the side of right, any behavior on its behalf was therefore right.  “Politics is war,” and the winners would write history.  Abramoff was rewarded as a young man for winning at all costs, and so it never occurred to him to ask uncomfortable questions later, when “winning” had become defined by his bank account.

Taken together, these films provide a deeply disturbing picture of Washington.  They are also a description of how a well-meaning, idealistic man could go so horribly wrong.


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?

Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh

Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh is an engaging portrait of a gifted young woman who sacrificed everything for her people.  It’s hard to believe that this is the first documentary about her life. It’s almost harder to believe that Hollywood hasn’t made any kind of film about the life of Hannah Senesh, given its mixture of drama and pathos.

Senesh was a poet and diarist, a young Zionist who immigrated to Palestine in the 1930’s, only to return home to Hungary in 1944 as a Haganah volunteer to the British Royal Air Force. She and her small group parachuted into Europe, hoping to assist stranded British airmen and the Jews of Hungary. Their timing was terrible: days after they arrived at the Hungarian border, Germany occupied the country. Senesh was captured by Hungarian police and turned over to the Gestapo, who tortured and executed her in November of 1944.

In a twist that was certainly stranger than fiction, Hannah’s mother was imprisoned with her in Budapest for a time.  The Gestapo was determined to force Hannah to give them radio codes that would allow them to send misinformation to the partisans and to the British.  They arrested Mrs. Senesh and threatened to torture her to get her daughter to talk.  Amazingly, Mrs. Senesh managed to survive the war (nearly all of Hungarian Jewry was murdered) and she appears in the film.

Synagogue-goers in the U.S. may be familiar with Senesh’s poem, Eli, Eli [My God, My God] set to a melody by David Zahavi.

Filmmaker Roberta Grossman waves together photographs, interviews, archival footage and dramatic reenactments to tell Hannah’s story.  Scholars give just enough historical background for the viewer to understand exactly what this young woman was up against.

Commentary

The experience of Hungarian Jews was different from that of most of the Jews of Europe, in that as an ally to Germany, Hungary was not under the control of the Nazis until late in the war.  Suddenly, in 1944, all of Hungary’s Jews were rounded up and sent to the death camps:  in the space of a few months, most of the community was destroyed.  Part of the power of this film is that it gives a very good picture of middle class Jewish Hungarian life before the war, as well as the darkest days of 1944.

It also conveys a particular kind of Zionist story, the story of a young Hungarian woman who immigrates to Palestine out of passion for the Jewish people and the Zionist project.  Had she not become a parachutist, Senesh would likely be a retired farmer in Israel, telling stories about her life on Kibbutz Sdot Yam.

This film is gentle enough for middle-schoolers to watch, but retains an emotional punch.  The mother-daughter relationship is presented with remarkably little sentimentality.  I got the sense of two strong Jewish women who, under extreme pressure, found they were stronger than they knew.

This is an excellent film for learning about Zionism and about the Holocaust. Large events in history are much more comprehensible when we view them through the lens of a particular life.  Hannah Senesh’s life is such a lens, and more.

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

If you are too young for Medicare, chances are you have never heard of Gertrude Berg.  In Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (2009), director Aviva Kempner sets out to right that wrong.  In her day, before Lucy, before Oprah, she was Lucy and Oprah rolled together with a Tony award as a cherry on top.  She originated a hit radio show, wrote and acted in it all through the Great Depression, and after WWII, carried the show to TV for many more seasons of success.  She invented the TV sitcom as we know it today in the form of The Goldbergs, which ran on television from 1949 – 1955 after almost 20 years on radio.  She won the first Emmy for Actress in a TV Comedy, and later in her life, she won a Tony as an actress on Broadway.

And we have never heard of this woman?

Commentary

I had a good time watching this documentary, and I am happy that it is available on DVD and from Neflix.  However, it is a shame that Aviva Kempner did not dig deeper into her subject matter, because there’s another film underneath, a much more powerful and important film.

Some of the best parts of the film delve into the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Hollywood Blacklist that ended the career of Mrs. Berg’s co-star, Philip Loeb.  I wish that Ms. Kempner had devoted  the same degree of attention and passion to the question that underlies the entire story:  why has Gertrude Berg been so nearly completely forgotten?  We remember many film stars, all the way back to the silent era, and the stars of many a forgettable TV comedy that lasts a season or two:  why not this Jewish woman who made such a mark in mid-century America?

I would also be interested in knowing more about the reactions to her program outside New York and Los Angeles.  In those days, anti-Semitism was rife in the United States, and yet this hit program was unabashedly Jewish.  The only hint of this was a comment by actor Ed Asner, who comments that the Goldbergs were “too Jewish” to feel comfortable for him, as a young Jewish boy growing up in the Midwest.  How did Christian viewers perceive the program, and how did it affect their view of Jews?

The film also gives short shrift to Mrs. Berg’s home life, and how life might have been for a married woman who was working such long hours in those days.  Her children were born in 1922 and 1926, and her radio show first aired in 1929.  How did she do it?  What was the real Berg family like?  Kempner assures us that her marriage to Berg was a love match, and little is said about the children, but I could not help but think that there was a much more interesting story somewhere under the glossy exterior.

So yes, it is a fascinating film, but it left me wanting more.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Do you remember The Goldbergs?  If so, what memories does it bring up for you?
  2. When you watch the clips of The Goldbergs in the film, how do you feel about the way those characters were portrayed?  Would you like to see re-runs?
  3. What do you know about the Hollywood Blacklist?  How many Jews were on it?
  4. I Love Lucy appeared on TV the year before the The Goldbergs was cancelled.  Do you have any theories about why Lucille Ball is remembered and Gertrude Berg is not?
  5. Can you imagine a re-make of The Goldbergs on TV today?  Who would you cast?  Where would it be set?

Related Material from around the Net

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.