Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 11

I'm going to pretend that's right and I haven't really lost count.

Two more movies Monday night, back up in Berkeley. First was HEART OF STONE, a film that I was very sorry to miss at Cinequest. It's a definite "real life hero" documentary--that hero being Ron Stone, principal of Weequahic High School in Newark, New Jersey. Weequahic in the 1950's and early 60's was a predominantly Jewish school, and routinely produced great successes, including famous alums Philip Roth (Pulitzer Prize winner), Rabbi Michael Lerner (famed civil rights activist) and Al Attles (NBA star, and no he's not Jewish, but did learn football signals in Yiddish). However, the success stories tended to move to the suburbs, and over the decades Weequahic became an "inner city" school, with loads of gang violence. Enter Ron Stone, a tough but fair principal who earns the students' respect by not lecturing but working with them. When he sees that Crips vs. Bloods battles are deeply entrenched, rather than just having the cops round up all the kids, he starts a conflict resolution program and gets the gangs to declare the school a no-violence zone. He works hard to make sure they see the value of an education, and he partners with the Weequahic Alumni Association to ensure that any student who gets into college will be able to afford it. That Alumni Association is the second half of the story--mostly Jewish alumni reaching out to help their old school 40 years later after witnessing what it's become. It was co-founded by Hal Braff, father of Zach Braff (who came on late in the editing process and became an executive producer. He was also there in Berkeley to briefly introduce the film). While they recite old Jewish school fight songs and reminisce about tailgating with kosher franks, they get personally involved with the school as well. While Stone makes sure the kids know the value of a college education, the Alumni Association is there to make sure they can get it. The film also follows three students--all gang members, all with a history of violence. But also all bright kids who are trying to survive and are good kids if given a chance. If nothing else, this movie shows that gang members aren't monsters, they're regular kids who usually have no dad and a busy or indifferent mom, and so turn to gangs as a form of support structure. Hopefully, this movie and the Weequahic Alumni Association can provide a model for a new, better kind of support. In particular, it's about the Alumni reaching in to support a neighborhood that bears little resemblance to what they remember or what they live now.

After the film, there was a panel discussion with Al Attles, Hal Braff, Rabbi Michael Lerner, and director Beth Kruvant, which was interesting and a passionate call to action.


Then I stuck around for the second movie, the Israeli coming-of-age hit, LOST ISLANDS. Set in the 80's, it's the story of an eccentric tight-knit family. The Levis have 5 sons--the eldest David, teenage twins Ofer and Erev, and two little kids. The story centers mostly on Ofer and Erev (the coming of age story). When they were born, Ofer nearly died, and their mother never lets them forget, doting on Ofer while making Erev fend for himself and help Ofer. This despite the fact that Ofer works out all the time and is easily the stronger brother. But this doesn't really cause problems, it's just a source of comedy. What does cause problems is when Erev and Ofer fall for the same girl, Neta. While she obviously likes Erev more, the twins have a system for sharing everything--whoever calls it first gets it. And Ofer called it first, so that's that. Despite some obvious tension, they go out partying all the time with their wacky friend Boaz (aka Savta, or "Grandma"). But things really get out of hand when their dad Avraham gets into a car accident and is paralyzed. Erev blames himself (and without giving away spoilers, he has reason to). Suddenly the fun, wild days of youth turn into the depression of young adulthood. Ofer becomes the loyal son staying home to take care of his dad. Erev volunteers for the commando unit of the IDF (which used to be Ofer's dream) in a none-too-subtle bid to get himself killed in combat, no matter how ill-equipped he is for the physical rigors of training, much less combat. It's a story of family, love, cheating, and of course, growing up. And it's remarkably funny and has a cool 80's pop soundtrack. It's not hard to see why it was so popular in Israel last year.
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