Friday, July 27, 2012

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 6

5 more shows on Wednesday, including lots of shorts, so here we go:

First up was the shorts program The Best of Tel Aviv University. Student films from Israel's oldest and largest film school. Here's the lineup:
TASNIM: Coffee, Bedouins, a stubborn girl, a father, and the prospect of a second wife.
BARBIE BLUES: A dead critter in the pool, a helpful neighbor, and one thing leads to another...
STUDIO VAROUJ: The last days of a famed Jerusalem photo studio. Would've been a good companion piece to LIFE IN STILLS, too.
AUDITION: Coffee, and an Arab actor auditioning for a female Israeli director. The audition maybe goes one step too far...
STITCHES: The stitches are from a recent c-section (with complications,) as a young lesbian couple enters into motherhood.

The next show was a longish short followed by a shortish feature. MY NEIGHBORHOOD is the story of an Arab-Israeli neighborhood in East Jerusalem where the families who have been there for decades (if not generations) are faced with eviction based on a court ruling and an unjust law (in a nutshell, if settler groups can produce a deed--ranging back to the days of the Ottoman Empire--to the property showing it belonged to a Jewish family at one time, the law says it's Jewish land. Arabs with similar deeds have no standing under the law.) It's also the story of the conscientious Jews who protest to stop the evictions (for now the evictions have stopped due to public pressure, but the families are still living under the threat of eviction at any time.) For more information, visit Just Vision.

That was the lead in to the feature AMEER GOT HIS GUN. In Israel, military service at age 18 in mandatory, with a few exceptions. There are the normal medical exceptions, of course. And Arab Israeli citizens don't have to serve, because they might be a security threat. Nevertheless, every year about 20 Arab Israelis volunteer for military service, and this narrative documentary follows one--Ameer Abu Ria. He comes from a long line of military men, and wants to continue the tradition. The movie follows him through boot camp and his first assignment as a border policeman. Of course, he gets it from both side. Arabs calling him a traitor, Jews not trusting him. Some pretty tense conversations with his fellow soldiers (more than once you here something along the lines of 'Wipe them all out...except for Ameer and his family.' It's even followed by a 'just don't breed too much, like you people do. Two or three children are enough.') He does earn quite a bit of respect when it turns out he's good at his job and catches a guy trying to sneak a knife across the border. Catching a knife is kind of a feather in the cap of a border policeman. And it's a nice moment of respect from his peers. But mostly, the movie is about the difficult position of an Arab in the Israeli military, and the uniquely strong character it takes to deal with that.

Next up was another short and feature pairing. The short, SEVEN MINUTES IN THE WARSAW GHETTO was one of the most amazing pieces of art I've ever seen. It's a stop-motion animated piece about a child living in the ghetto, searching for food. And it's based on a true story. I don't want to give away the ending, but I will say the entire audience gasped at it. And just a bit of technical information about it--the eyes on the puppets were real human eyes digitally added to the puppets (who otherwise were very  obviously and intentionally shown to be puppets--even showing the joints in the puppets.) Director Johan Oettinger (from Denmark, and he was big enough to dwarf program director Jay Rosenblatt on stage) talked about the interesting challenges and opportunities of directing eye-only actors.

Well, that was the lead-in to ROMAN POLANSKI: A FILM MEMOIR. Polanski is one of the most interesting filmmakers with one of the most controversial private lives in the world today. The film was mostly shot as a conversation during his house arrest in Switzerland between himself and his friend and producer Andrew Braunsberg. It's an interesting look at his life and juxtaposes scenes from his movies very well to show how often he's being autobiographical. Especially in THE PIANIST, in which many scenes are based on his memories as a child surviving the Holocaust (his mother wasn't so lucky.) With that, and his very pregnant wife Sharon Tate murdered by the Manson family, you realize the reason for his exile from the U.S. might not even make the list of top 5 most dramatic moments of his life. But I have to talk about it, because that's what makes him controversial to this day, and it's the biggest weakness of the film. In 1977 Polanski was arrested for multiple counts relating to sex with a minor. Now, Polanski did strike a plea deal to plead guilty to unlawful sex with a minor in exchange for a lighter sentence. Problem was, the sentence became a moving target. And ultimately (according to the interview,) it was only when the judge was threatening him with an indefinite amount of jail time (basically he gets out when the judge finally decides to let him out...which I didn't even know was legal) followed by deportation that he decided to skip the country. Well...fair enough, but this is the problem with being interviewed by a friend (along with the fact that Andrew often finished Roman's answers.) There's no attempt to tell the judge's side of the story, or how his rulings might make sense. Judging from this movie, the judge was simply madly bent on punishing Polanski despite what everyone else asked for. And more importantly, it doesn't go at all into what he did to the girl. It just leaves you with "unlawful sex with a minor." Well, does "minor" mean a 17 year old (when the age of consent in California is 18) or younger? (A: she was 13.) Was the sex "unlawful" just because she was under age but still consensual? (A: he allegedly drugged her and then violated every hole, each time with her saying, "no.") And even with the victim now saying to just let it go...well, this is still what makes me so conflicted about the man. Perhaps if he had done his time legally (I'm not going to argue that he hasn't been punished) and it was officially cleared off the books, we could move on. And maybe the judge made the process unbearable and he was rational to run away. But ultimately it's his fault that this is still hanging over him, and is the forefront of any conversation about him.

One final note, just in fairness to the film. The overly friendly tone would be inappropriate if it was supposed to be a hard-hitting interview. But Andrew reveals right away that he's Roman's friend, and describes the project as sitting down for a conversation. Roman even reveals that he's never had much time for himself and that he is treating his house arrest as a "monastic retreat." And that in itself was very interesting.

Next up was a feature narrative about young people on opposite sides of the Israel/Palestine wall learning to understand a bit more about each other. Like the spotlight feature THE OTHER SON, the feature A BOTTLE IN THE GAZA SEA is a French-Israeli production, and stars Mahmoud Shalabi (who played Yacine's older brother Bilal in THE OTHER SON.) He plays Naim, who is living in Gaza and finds a bottle with a message in it on the beach. It's from an Israeli girl who recently moved with her family from France. Her name is Tal and she recently witnessed a suicide bombing and wanted to ask anyone in Gaza how someone could do such a thing. Naive question, to be sure, and Naim's original response (she provides an e-mail address) is bitter and sarcastic. But she keeps on, and eventually they become something of pen pals (or e-pen pals? I'm showing my age with that term, aren't I?) Anyway, there relationship starts pretty tense, and even after they are on friendly terms, there's still difficulty with their situation. There's a bit when Hamas soldiers suspect Naim is an informant, and he has to stay quiet for a while (although they start e-mailing in French and he claims she's his French teacher.) The moments when there are bombings on either side and the e-mail with worry for each other are pretty nice. Ultimately, it's a story of people who are geographically close (Jerusalem and Gaza are 73 km away) but separated by much much more and trying to break down that separation. And without giving too much away, the ending expertly underlines that.

And finally, we ended the night with Henry Jaglom's paean to actors, actresses, and the families with the strength to not disown them. JUST 45 MINUTES FROM BROADWAY is an adaptation of his play of the same name (complete with curtain effects) about a family of actors--descendants of the Yiddish stage--and their Passover weekend in their secluded wooded home. The elder daughter Betsy (Julie Davis)--the only one to reject the life of an actress and embrace "civilian" life--brings home her fiancee (Judd Nelson, the only member of the cast who wasn't in the original play.) And, of course, everyone has to be incredibly dramatic around him. In fact, melodramatic is a better word, and to the point where it's often kind of annoying (but I assume that's kind of the point. Or at least it's the point for certain audience members.) And no one is more melodramatic than the younger sister and appropriately named Pandora (frequent Jaglom collaborator Tanna Frederick.) I won't get into the plot details, but needless to say everyone creates the necessary drama they need to feel...I guess "right" if not comfortable. And the point (underlined both by a monologue and by the structure of a play-within-a-film-based-on-the-play) is that the line between real life and acting is blurry to say the least. After all, if someone gives you sad news about their life that doesn't affect you directly, do you express sadness because you're really sad or because social convention teaches you to act sad in that moment?

Oh, and as an aside, I normally don't say too much about this, but it was shot on digital video and it was interesting how the aesthetics of digital vs. film worked well. It gave it more of an immediacy that worked well with it's origins as a play. It was like a play with very realistic production values (so you don't actually see the stage, just the house, trees, etc.) and this was the performance they decided to videotape for posterity.

Both Henry Jaglom and Tanna Frederick were there for a Q&A afterwards. The most interesting parts were:
1. Henry Jaglom admitted that most actors and actresses he knows come from "civilian" families and they're the only dramatic ones. So he wrote it from the idea of reversing that dynamic.
2. Tanna Frederick revealed that she considered her role (and all her roles in Jaglom's films) as a way of her playing Henry--or at least Henry's inner girl. He had never heard this before.

Total Running Time: 481 minutes
My Total Minutes: 293,933

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