Sunday, January 27, 2008

NYJFF’s Q&A Session with Joseph Cedar, director of the Oscar-Nominated Beaufort

While receiving much critical attention and praise, Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort was acclaimed by The Jerusalem Post as “Israel’s first great war movie” as well as recently nominated for the “Best Foreign Language Film” Oscar. This stunning film is set during the final days of the last outpost that Israel held in southern Lebanon before the army’s withdrawal in 2000. While hiding from Hezbollah missiles, the lieutenant and his troops reflect on their relationship to this outpost and the soldiers that have served there since 1982.

Director Joseph Cedar (left) and Aviva Weintraub, Director of the NYJFF and Associate Curator of the The Jewish Museum.

After the festival’s screening of the film, director Joseph Cedar (Time of Favor, Campfire) answered questions from the audience.

How did you get involved with the project? It started out as a newspaper article by Ron Leshem, which consisted of a monologue from an officer who was on the outpost a year before Israel pulled out. It was a phenomenal article—very dry, very detailed, very unaware of how tragic the story that he was telling actually was. I met with Ron, who was then military correspondent for Yedioth, and we decided to turn the article into a film. As I was working on another film, his research turned into a novel (which is now published in America). So these two separate works are based on the same historical events: The novel is much wider in scope with a slightly different emphasis, while the film is narrower in scope and makes different artistic choices.

Did you film any part of this in Lebanon? We shot the film on a mountain called Kalat Namrud in Northern Israel, right at the triangle of borders between Syria, Lebanon and Israel. I have some nostalgia for Lebanon and—especially after so intensively working on this story—would have wanted to be back on the original mountain, but not enough to take any risks. It’s a film: Everything is artificial, everything was made for the camera. There were certain things that needed to be authentic, but I also like the idea that it’s all bluff in that everything was made for the camera.

Did you serve in Lebanon as you mentioned your nostalgia for there? I think anyone who spent time on this mountain (this is actually a sentence from the book) “has sad memories of fantastic times”. There’s a line in the film where the soldiers are standing on a cliff, looking at the view and feeling like something has changed. I’m intimately familiar with that sense of being in a place that somehow has become part of you, but then starting to see that place differently. There’s a relationship between the soldiers and the mountain that they’re asked to give their lives for—I think that’s actually the main relationship in the film.

A scene from Beaufort.

What was the budget for the film and how did you raise the funds? The answer to that depends on who you ask. The budget was around two and a half million dollars, which is very low for a war film anywhere outside of Israel, but relatively high for an Israeli film. We received about 30% of that from government funds, another 30% from TV stations and the rest through private film investors.

What was the reaction to the film when it opened in Israel? A lot of people went to see it and I think that some of them liked it. It was very high profile in Israel when it was released last March. It came after the previous summer’s war in Lebanon, which, to my mind, interfered with our publicity plans but turned it into something that felt relevant. I always thought that I was telling a story which wasn’t specific in terms of time or even location: I thought it was a story that could take place anywhere, anytime. But the context of the previous summer’s war turned it into something that was grounded in a more particular historical event.

Could you discuss this film in the context of your other films to date? From film to film, I try to correct my mistakes. There are regrets concerning one film that I try to fix in the next film, which takes me through a whole new series of regrets. This film contained a lot of lessons that I wanted to correct from my previous film. Shooting in one location gave us flexibility that turned out to be very creative: For the first time in my short career, I felt creative on set. We were still investigating the story while we were shooting. It wasn’t all there at the screenplay level. That felt very good to me. Beaufort is not as tightly structured as my previous films. I don’t know if that’s the direction in which I’m going to continue but I like that aspect of this one.

What happened to Beaufort
The military part was blown up on May 24, 2000. Since then, although there’s a Hezbollah flag on the ruins of the Crusader fortress, it has turned into a tourist site. If you go online and look for Beaufort, you can see photographs or videos of tourists who have gone up there. Although I’m not sure I can support this with facts, I heard that in the last war, Beaufort was purposely avoided. There was an order from very high up to not go near that mountain again which I think is really amazing: It was the first target, the most important strategic spot, when Israel first went into Lebanon in ‘82 and it really evolved from a being symbol of victory or power into being a symbol of stupidity. And the last thing anyone wanted was an Israeli flag on that mountain again.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

An Interview with Brooklyn Filmmaker Jason Hutt, Director of Orthodox Stance

Orthodox Stance is remarkable documentary which profiles 25-year old Ukrainian immigrant Dmitriy Salita, a prizefighter and observant Orthodox Jew. Only in America could Salita live out such a contradiction as we see him order kosher food in Las Vegas, insist on fighting only after sundown on Saturdays, study Torah and enter the boxing ring with a cheering audience of Orthodox Jews (some proclaiming him the greatest Jewish fighter since Samson). Further celebrating seeming incongruities, Orthodox Stance also documents the American multi-cultural solidarity that surrounds the boxing ring. Even Hassidic Reggae sensation Matisyahu, himself an epitome of cultural fusion, shows up to sing as Salita makes his way to the ring for his triumphant fight at Manhattan’s Hammerstein ballroom.

Click here to go to the film's website.

From top to bottom: Boxer Dmitriy Salita in the gym; Middle: Dmitriy Salita with manager and advisor, Israel Liberow (left) and trainer Jimmy O' Pharrow (right); Jason Hutt with Matisyahu at the NYJFF closing night screening of Orthodox Stance; Musician Regina Spektor with Dmitriy Salita at the NYJFF closing night screening of Orthodox Stance.

Your film provides a very interesting portrait of the ethnic diversity within the boxing world. What is it about the sport that creates this kind of environment? Boxing is the sport of the immigrant class. Whether it was a hundred years ago with Irish, Jews and Italians or today with Hispanics, Africans, and people from the Caribbean, boxing has always been a sport of the underclass and it continues to be. So the people that you find in the boxing gym are always going to be ethnically diverse (at least in New York City). The trainers are also going to be diverse in terms of their ethnicity and background. The boxing gym is kind of a great leveler in that talent and dedication are all that counts. It’s a total meritocracy and there’s no real discrimination. Even if you’re not a talented boxer, if you’re dedicated, you’ll keep coming back to the gym and you’ll be respected for that. Boxing has its own codes and they are really based upon very simple things.
In the film, we see a lot of camaraderie among boxers? While making this film, did you see more camaraderie than competitiveness? Well there’s both. Here’s the thing that people don’t understand about boxing: ninety to ninety-five percent of boxing is solo work. Only rarely is the boxer in the ring with another person. The rounds of sparring and the rounds in the ring are really a fraction compared to the time they put in to physical training, physical conditioning, running, hitting the various bags in the gym and doing padwork with a trainer. So much of boxing is self-discipline and working on yourself. Second of all, when you’re in a gym environment, everyone is working hard and watching the other boxers work hard. Seeing the other boxers as they work motivates one to work harder. I think that the camaraderie grows out of that because every boxer knows how hard it is to be successful. The physical, mental and emotional demands that a boxer has to put up with—as well as the self-discipline they have to go through for years and years—definitely breeds camaraderie. A great sociologist, Loic Wacquant, compares boxing to religion. He feels that the discipline and codes that are involved in religion are perfectly comparable to the codes in boxing. So I think the camaraderie comes out of that shared lifestyle and shared dedication and discipline. In the film, we see Dmitriy beat a guy in Puerto Rico who comes into the locker room after the fight to congratulate him and they just talk. People have this real misconception that the boxers hate each other. Boxers have more respect for one another than any fan has for any of the boxers in the ring. They know what the other one went through. That’s why you’ll see that, after they fight each other, a lot of boxers become very good friends because there is complete respect for one another. I feel that the competition is different within boxing than in any other sport.
It also seems like there’s inter-ethnic respect within the boxing world. I’m thinking of the moment when Dmitriy speaks in Spanish to the Hispanic audience in Puerto Rico. I think that scene is really interesting and pivotal. At the beginning of Dmitriy’s career, all his fights were in Las Vegas or California or, as in this scene, Puerto Rico. He says in the speech, “This is my fifth Latin Fury card” which means this is the fifth time that Dmitriy is fighting in this boxing event of mostly Hispanic fighters, an event that is being marketed to a Hispanic audience. So, for the first time now, Dmitriy decides that he’s going to deliver his speech in Spanish which, to me, is really fascinating because it’s obviously a sign of growth and savviness. He is thinking, if I’m going to fight in front of a Hispanic audience than I’m going to try and reach out to them. And when he delivers his speech, the audience, which is all press, goes crazy and really applauds him. He doesn’t have to deliver his speech in Spanish but he’s winning them over through his charm. At that moment, Dmitriy is adjusting and adapting to his place in the boxing world. In boxing, you fight in front of your home audience. But Dmitriy, during that scene, is an up and coming fighter so he isn’t getting the opportunity to fight in front of his own audience. And that’s the trajectory and path of Dmitriy in the film: In terms of his boxing life, he’s a sort of exiled character who finally has his homecoming in the matches at Brighton Beach and then in Manhattan.
How much access did you have in following Dmitriy? In the beginning, I would come to the gym and just stay out of the way. I noticed that when a news crew comes to a gym, the first thing they do is ask to turn the radio off. But the radio is the heartbeat and pulse of the gym. Whether they are jumping rope or shadow boxing or whatever, every single boxer in that gym is working to the beat and the grooves from the music on the radio. You can see that rhythm when boxers box. But every news channel or documentary crew that comes in to the gym asks to turn the radio off. I never once asked anyone to turn the radio off or turn it down which was kind of the first thing I did in order to gain trust and access. I was coming in there as a guest (not even as a guest, just an observer) to watch Dmitriy, the other boxers and the culture that goes on in the gym. So I did my best to just stay out of their way, and over time, I was able to gain more and more access. Before Dmitriy’s first few fights, I didn’t go into the locker room. But over time, as he, his trainers, his manager and promoter grew to trust me, I was granted access to the locker room. (But to this day, Dmitriy still doesn’t want anyone such as press in his locker room before the fight because of the distraction.) Also, there were certain things in his personal life that he didn’t want to be in the film and I respected that. But in terms of what was important to the film, I felt that I had pretty good access to everything.
Could you talk about your experience shooting the fights? I only shot two of the fights that are in the film: The one at Brighton Beach and the one at the Hammerstein Ballroom. I only shot the actual fights when there wasn’t a television network filming them: When there’s a TV crew, they won’t let you. But my producer Michel Negroponte suggested that, when there’s a television crew shooting, I should film the trainers in the corners and the fans. In shooting the corners and the fans, you get a perspective that you don’t usually see when watching a fight on HBO or ESPN or Showtime where the cameras remain on the boxers in the ring, as the action is so fast. During TV broadcasts of football and baseball, on the other hand, there is time to cut to the fans because the play stops. So actually, watching the trainers during the rounds and the fans is really exciting and I think this creates a greater experience for an audience.
I particularly love seeing the enthusiastic Jewish fans in the ringside audience. This film is not a chronicle of Dmitriy’s fighting career but rather a chronicle of how Dmitriy Salita carved out a place for himself as an observant Jew in professional boxing. The film starts off in Las Vegas with Dmitriy fighting in front of mostly Hispanic audiences—we see a Mariachi band performing in the lobby of the Mandelay Bay hotel. And by the end of the film, you see Matisyahu singing Dmitriy to the ring as well as a ringside audience of Orthodox Jews with big beards and yarmulkes. Over the course of the film, the boxing audience surrounding Dmitriy Salita becomes his own. And the film ends when this has been achieved.
Do you think that for Jews, the appeal of someone like Dmitriy Salita today is similar to the appeal of boxers like Barney Ross and Benny Leonard in the 1920s and 1930s?
There’s always a need for cultural ethnic heroes, that’s just a given. And when you’re an immigrant, there’s an even greater need. And so the reason there were tons of Jewish boxers and dozens of Jewish world champions in the twenties and thirties was because there were so many Jewish immigrants. Since there weren’t economic opportunities for them and since they were getting into turf wars on the streets of New York and Philadelphia and Chicago, these kids had to be tough. And when some rose in the boxing ranks and won world titles, then the other Jews could look at their champions and say, yeah he’s tough and he’s one of us. (The same thing went for the Irish and the Italians at the time.) It’s great for people to see one of their countrymen succeed at a high level in a sport that they love.

I think Dmitriy has a much different audience today than those boxers had sixty or seventy years ago. Boxing was then the biggest sport in the world: There was boxing, there was baseball and there was horseracing. But today, baseball, boxing and horseracing are not the three most popular sports—football and basketball are much more popular, I think. So I feel that Dmitriy’s popularity remains to be seen. But clearly, he’s very popular in the Orthodox Jewish community because, of course, he’s an observant Jew. A lot of the boxers in the olden days came from religious families. Dmitriy, on the other hand, didn’t grow up religious at all but decided that he was going to be observant while being a professional boxer. I think that’s won him the respect of a tremendous amount of observant and Orthodox Jews because they’re looking at this guy and not only seeing a professional boxer but someone who’s just like them in that he’s a believer. Also, of course, there are the Russian fans and these are new immigrants. And then, if you go a step further, you have the Russian Jewish fans. Just because Jews came over 130 or 140 years ago en mass doesn’t mean that this latest wave of Jewish migration from the former Soviet Union wasn’t major. And so that’s why you get someone like Dmitriy Salita. He’s a total throwback to that era: It’s just that it's different populations that are supporting him at this point. Whether he crosses over to mainstream Jewish audiences will be determined by the fact that boxing isn’t nearly as popular today as it was then. Back then, if you had a Jewish boxer, everyone knew and everybody cared, but today, that’s just not the case.

Friday, January 18, 2008

An Interview with Producer Elinor Kowarsky

(Top) Poster of A Hebrew Lesson; (Bottom) A scene from
9 Star Hotel; (Right) Producer Elinor Kowarsky and NYJFF blogger Stuart Hands.

Producer Elinor Kowarsky discusses
A Hebrew Lesson--which played at this year’s festival--as well as her recent film 9 Star Hotel, a very touching portrait of two Palestinian laborers who cross into Israel illegally to seek employment.

Click here to read the Q&A from the opening night screening of A Hebrew Lesson.

What has been the response in Israel to your film, 9 Star Hotel? It is doing very well. It played at the Jerusalem Film Festival where it won the Wolgin Award. It had screenings at the Cinematheques around Israel: In Tel Aviv, it played for over four months. It got great reviews: For a long time, it was rated fourth out of all the feature films and documentaries. But it hasn’t aired on Israeli television yet so we only know the opinions of the cinemagoers, not the larger public. It did cause a lot of debate but not within great masses as so far it has had only small distribution… It will probably air on TV in a few months as the film is still relatively new.
Do you keep in touch with the two protagonists in 9 Star Hotel, Ahmed and Muhammad? What was their response to the film? They are very happy with it. They travelled with the film when we brought it to IDVA [The International Documentary Film Festival in the Netherlands]. They were very eager from the beginning to do the film because they wanted to tell their story. For them, it was a chance to bring home to their village the story of their lives on the hills, as the women, the mothers, the family didn’t really know the conditions and where they stayed. Also, the film helped Muhammad because, initially, the girl he was in love with didn’t want to marry him as he’s a simple worker and she comes from a Jordanian family which is better off. But then he came to Jordan with the film’s poster. They then decided that he could marry her because now he’s a movie star. Ahmed is already married. But overall, the film did not provide any tremendous change for them though it did help them financially because we are giving them all the prize money that the film is winning.
I love the opening shot of 9 Star Hotel where we see these two figures at night running over the hills. It so effectively introduces the film. The idea for the film actually came from that image. When director [Ido Haar] saw the men running across the highway and disappearing into the forest, he was moved to find out this story. This visual was very strong in his mind when he did the film. Visually, I think the intimate camera is the strongest feature of the film because it allows the viewer to be very close with the protagonists—it is as though you are with them on the mountain and around the fire. We used a cinematographer at the beginning but we thought the protagonists felt awkward when there was another person filming. It was better for them when it was only Ido filming.
During the Q&A after the opening night screening of A Hebrew Lesson, you discussed your sense of responsibility toward the people who appear in the film. I found this rather refreshing as many documentary filmmakers place more importance on “what’s good for the film” rather than the lives—in particular, the privacy—of the people in their film.
There are very different types of documentaries. When we do a political investigative documentary where there is something we need to expose—such as in the film we did about the incident at Joseph’s Tomb—we will use every means to expose it. But in a film like The Hebrew Lesson, where we follow people who share their personal lives, there’s no need to exploit them to the point where they would not be happy with the end result. When people are willing to open their lives and their hearts and share their stories, I always promise myself that they must be happy with the result because nothing is more important in this case. In this film, which is about identity and love, there’s no reason why somebody should be overexposed.
There are some very effective moments in the film where you cut away from the action before possible sensationalistic moments of yelling or crying or arguing. I think decisions like this help make A Hebrew Lesson a better film. This film is not about peaking into their lives. This leaves the viewer with a more active role. We are not feeding the audience every emotion. They are supposed to have their own thoughts and feelings through their identification with the characters. I think it is more thought-provoking this way.
At the Q&A for A Hebrew Lesson you also mentioned that there was a casting process where you chose your protagonists and placed them all in one class. What was your reason for doing this? How do audiences respond when you tell them about this casting process?
The casting process allowed us to follow the different stories. It is not as though we changed any of their lives’ realities (except for, of course, the effect that the camera has on reality). Every documentary has casting: Every documentary chooses their protagonists. And like in any documentary, we chose our protagonists after extensive research. What’s different with this film is that we put them all together in the same class. But some of them would probably be together anyway, maybe with a different teacher. I think people are surprised when they see the film: They think, “Wow, there are so many interesting stories in one classroom.” But I believe that every Hebrew class in Tel Aviv is full of such interesting stories because all the students have just recently immigrated for some reason: Something is going on in their lives that made them decide to make a move. This is a time in every immigrant’s life—it doesn’t matter if it’s in Israel or in any other country—which is full of drama and full of change. But we were looking for a variety of stories and people who were willing to share their stories. When we first came up with the idea for the film, we did a small test: We went to an Ulpan [Hebrew immersion class] with a camera. We interrupted each student for two minutes and asked them to tell their story. Every story was amazing. (I remember that one of the students was the wife of the Peruvian ambassador.) After that, we felt confident about this project. Because everybody there is in a very dramatic point in their lives, the Ulpan is a casting heaven.
Could you talk a little about the history of your company, Eden Productions? It was founded in 1989 by my mother who was initially a journalist. She started out making films about art. In the past nine years, we have produced television programs and various types of documentaries. We’re a small company in that we take on very few projects each year, usually ones dealing social or political issues. Doing fewer projects allows us to be much more involved in the making of the films. Apart from the fundraising, distribution and marketing, we’re also involved with a lot of the creative aspects of production. We work very closely with the director, we’re present on most shooting days, we develop ideas with the directors. So it’s a small family company with a very strong creative side.
Could you talk about the project you are working on now with director David Ofek, 1 Legend? We’re actually finishing it now. The film tells the story of a foreign worker from Romania who comes to Israel. Through his story we’re trying to deal with the subject of the Law of Return. We’re also trying to stretch the documentary format as we have the people in the film recreate scenes from their past, playing themselves at different moments of their lives.
You have made some films that are critical of Israel. How have audiences at Jewish film festivals responded to these films?
Usually, they are very disapproving of films that criticize Israel or show anything about Israel which is not pretty. Of course, when we show films like Checkpoint and even 9 Star Hotel, people say that, by showing these films outside of Israel, we are arousing anti-Semitism because they are exposing something that would obviously turn people against Israel. And I think there is this confusion that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism. I think it’s very important to show the reality of life in Israel in all its complexity. So for me it’s very important to screen Checkpoint and 9 Star Hotel outside of Israel.
Do you get much of this attitude in Israel? It’s different in Israel. In Israel, it’s an inner political discussion. Some people have this political opinion, some have that opinion. But nobody would say, “Why are you exposing this?” Though, in Israel, they do ask why we are screening these films outside of the country. They think that because the world likes to hate Israel, our films are successful outside of the country because we are playing into their hands. They say that if you show the soldier at the checkpoint, you will win the film festival at IDVA because the audience wants to see the soldier at the checkpoint. There will always be people that don’t want these stories shown: They want everybody to think that everything is perfect in Israel. But of course, you cannot hide these stories. Hiding is never good in any situation. So I believe the more people are aware of the reality, the more they are able to think about the situations, the solutions, and they are able to have a real opinion…For instance, there’s the debate concerning the separation wall: Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? Will it help? Or will just cover what will eventually erupt, as you are not giving the people behind that wall the means of providing for themselves, you are not developing their economy, you are suffocating them? The more you reveal the complexity of the situation and show the people that are behind this wall, the more you’re able to have a real debate. You cannot seal up the wall and think that we have solved the problem. There are people behind that wall and we always need to look. I think the aim of documentaries is to turn the camera into different corners and to make the audience look.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Film critic J. Hoberman on Carl Dreyer's Love One Another

A Scene from Carl Dreyer's Love One Another (1922)

J. Hoberman and Aviva Weintraub, Director of the NYJFF and Associate Curator of the The Jewish Museum.

J. Hoberman's mother, Dorothy.

Aviva Weintraub with musical accompaniest Ben Model.

This year, the New York Jewish Film Festival showed Carl Dreyer’s Love One Another (1922). This very rare silent film is a protest against anti-Semitism as it depicts Jewish life confronted by a Russian pogrom. During last Sunday’s screening of the film, audiences were treated to a newly restored print from the Danish Film Institute and live piano accompaniment by Ben Model.

Below is the introduction by author J. Hoberman that preceded the screening as well as the Q&A that followed.

Love One Another is by one of the greatest film artists of the twentieth century, Carl Dreyer. His best known film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), is one of the culminating films of silent cinema. He went on to make the great film Vampyr (1932), one of the strangest movies ever made. Day of Wrath (1943), dealing with witchcraft in Scandinavia, was probably his greatest hit. At that point he started to make movies about once a decade. His last two films, Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964), are both films of fantastic, uncompromising austerity. But Love One Another is not one of those.

The film’s German title translates to “The Stigmatized”. It is from Dreyer’s early period. He began making movies during the teens in Denmark, which had an extremely potent film industry at this point. Love One Another was the first film he made outside of Denmark. It was produced in 1921 for a small German studio located in Berlin, which evidently went bankrupt after this film was made.

The film was shot in the countryside around Berlin but was still a kind of Danish project. It was based on a novel by Aage Madelung
, a Danish novelist who spent a considerable amount of time in Russia and, in fact, was married to a Russian Jew. She wrote some travelogues and then this massive novel, which serves as the basis for this film. She actually reported on the Kishinev pogrom which figures in the movie as well.

The movie has certain similarities to other popular fiction such as The Yellow Passport, which was filmed in many versions, and Sholom Aleichem’s 1907 novel which was known usually as Mabl (The Deluge). Incidentally, both of these novels were filmed around the same time as Love One Another. Madelung'
s book had an international reputation. It was translated into Yiddish at one point under the title In a Groysn Tuml (In a Great Upheaval) that sounds as though was it chosen to echo the Sholom Aleichem title.

The story’s premise is typical of the writing about East European Jews not written by East European Jews. Hannah-Liebe, grows up in a Ukrainian shtetl and is, in some ways, alienated from the life around her. Her brother has gone off to St. Petersburg where he is a lawyer. To live there, he has had to convert. Hannah-Liebe is meanwhile sent to a Russian school in the village where she has problems, although she does make lifelong relationships with two classmates: one grows up to be a revolutionary agitator and the other, an anti-Semitic agitator. She eventually goes to St. Petersburg where she is reunited with her brother but when the revolution of 1905 breaks out, they have to go back to the shtetl.

The cast was largely made up of Russian émigrés who had come to Germany following the Revolution. Some of them were members of Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater, including Richard Boleslawski—the best known of them—who plays the anti-Semitic agitator. He wound up in Hollywood where he directed films such as The Painted Veil (1934) and Les Miserables (1935). So there was a certain authenticity that came from having all these Russians in the cast. As a matter of fact, a number of these Russian émigrés (some of them Jewish) worked on the décor and contributed to the large crowd scenes.

Dreyer was politically conservative so he sympathized with the Russian émigrés. One could look at the film as being more about what the Russian émigrés suffered in the early years of the Revolution rather than about what the Jews suffered under the Czar.

Dreyer complained that he had to simplify a very complicated novel to make this movie which accounts for some things that may seem schematic, particularly in the nature of the characters. There is a lot that happens in the film: It is really a kind of epic. But the performances can be terrific and the handling of the large dramatic scenes, which is not something that one necessarily associates with Dreyer’s later work, is done very skillfully.

Were there any other films that showed Jews as victims or were they mainly shown as perpetrators?
There were a fair amount of movies—though not an enormous amount—made in the late teens and early twenties in Western Europe that had, what one could call, Jewish themes. In other words, they showed Jewish characters whose lives reflect the situation of Jews in the Russian empire. But these films tended to be made from the outside and so, to some degree, they were sympathetic while, to some degree, they were insensitive. I would say that Love One Another is one of the more sympathetic films. There was a whole series of films that were made a bit later in the Soviet Union and in Poland which were done largely by Jewish filmmakers and had a somewhat different attitude toward the material.

Could you comment on the historical events that we see in the film, such as the proclamation from the Czar, the revolution of 1905, etc.?
There was a failed revolution in 1905 and one of the ways in which the Czarist regime defended itself was by stirring up popular discontent against the Jewish population, by scapegoating Jews. I mentioned the Kishinev pogrom in 1903 but there was another one in 1905 in the same town which coincided with this failed revolution. To that extent, I think the movie is, in some ways, reportage.

What kind of reception did the movie get when it came out?
It’s hard to tell as it was made for a very small company which went out of business after this one movie. So it wasn’t widely distributed. As far as I know, it was never shown in the United States or the U.K because the print we saw today was the first one with English intertitles. On the other hand, it was distributed well enough to have been shown in France, as this was the movie that began to establish Dreyer’s international reputation.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

An Interview with Noah Stollman, Screenwriter of Someone to Run With

(Above) Bar Belfer as Tamar in Someone to Run With; (Below) Noah Stollman at the Walter Reade Theater

Based on the popular Israeli novel by David Grossman, Someone to Run With is set on the streets of Jerusalem as Assaf, a shy 17 year-old boy, tracks down the owner of a lost dog. He eventually stumbles into an underworld where lives a Fagin-like hustler that runs a home for street kid musicians.

You can visit the film's website by clicking here.

In this interview, screenwriter Noah Stollman discusses the process of adapting the novel as well as his experience studying film during the early years of The Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem.

Oded Davidoff (the director of Someone to Run With) has described you as “a Jerusalemite who lives in New York”. Where are you from? Can you talk a bit about your relationship to Israel, and more specifically, Jerusalem? I was born in New Jersey. When I was three, I moved to Jerusalem with my family. I grew up and lived there until 1995, when my wife and I came back to New York. We’ve been living here ever since. But because I went to film school in Jerusalem, most of my friends and colleagues are all working in the Israeli film industry. There were several projects in Israel that I started to get rolling before I moved back to the States. So while I was trying to break into the film scene here, I was constantly working on projects for Israeli film and TV and Someone to Run With is one of them.
How did you meet director Oded Davidoff? Oded and I went to film school together. We were friends throughout film school. He is a very talented director and was recruited right out of film school: Practically the day after we graduated, he was directing commercials for Israeli TV.
How did you and Oded get involved with adapting David Grossman’s novel, Someone to Run With? People really loved David Grossman’s book. The novel was very popular in Israel when it came out [in 2000]. It hit a nerve, not only with the young adult demographic, but with pretty much all demographics. People knew the book very intimately. It was a hot property and the rights were bought up immediately. Oded and I were approached to adapt it into a mini-series. It was initially intended as a four-part mini-series for cable TV and we wrote it as such. We didn’t have the film rights because David Grossman, who is a wonderful, warm and generous person, had sold the rights for TV and for film separately. The film rights were owned by producer Andrew Braunsberg, who wanted to make an English-language film version. But once we had our four-part mini-series, Andrew came and saw it and his feeling was this was the definitive version. And so we were very happy when Andrew and producing partner Philippa Kowarsky came on board and enabled us to edit the series into a feature film which could get more international distribution, go to film festivals and be screened in theaters. From a little over three hours, we cut it down to two, but were still able to retain the story, its characters and, I believe, its essence.
The city of Jerusalem plays a significant role in the film. To you, what distinguishes Jerusalem from other Israeli cities and how does it work as a character in the film? First of all, Jerusalem is a very unique city that means a lot to so many people on many different levels. It’s the center of all three major religions. Historically, it goes back thousands of years. It’s the focal point for Israel, for Arabs and Christians. It has that spiritual quality that, I think, anyone in the world can identify with. But, on the other hand, growing up there, as Oded and I did, it is just like any other town. It also has its seedier elements and its darker sides. We wanted to throw all of those elements into the mix and show this very spiritual place on one hand that could also be a very dangerous place. It can be a cold and bewildering place for teenagers to grow up in. Jerusalem also has a kind of provincial, almost small town feel. Growing up there in the seventies, it felt very provincial and sheltered. And we wanted to present these young street musicians as almost trapped with their horizons limited. It’s as if Pesach’s home for the gifted, in which these kids are imprisoned, is their version of Jerusalem which they can’t really get out of except through great struggle and through their music.
In an earlier interview, you identified the film as a coming-of-age story. In connection to this, it is interesting that we never see the actual parents. We only see the surrogate parental figures of Rhino and Leah. That was something which was very strong in the book. The parents are just not present for these kids in the story. In the novel, there are a lot of references to the parents: It’s much more grounded in reality. You understand where the parents are: You know that the parents are busy, they’re away. For the film, we wanted to emphasize this and take it even further so that, for these kids, the parents are just not an option. For Tamar, you realize that her parents may have turned a blind eye to her brother’s drug use as they just didn’t know how to deal with it. Assaf’s parents’ are out of the country as many Israelis often are. We just wanted to drive home the fact that these kids are completely on their own and need to solve their problems by their own devices.
I wonder if you could talk about the songs that the kids perform in the film. Are they well known songs in Israel? Originally, when I wrote the script, I just threw in a bunch of songs I liked that I imagined the kids would be singing on the street: Radiohead and other songs that I could imagine acoustic versions of. But Oded really felt that the music should be Israeli. Some of them are popular Israeli songs but most are old time folk songs that are practically in the Israeli collective unconscious: Most Israelis really know these songs—every word of them—without really knowing that they know them. They are folk songs from the early days of the country and harken back to a more innocent time. The music kind of strikes a chord. It’s interesting seeing the film with Israelis. They start singing the songs along with the characters in the film. It’s almost like a toned-down Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Could you talk a bit about the script you wrote for the upcoming Paul Schrader film, Adam Resurrected? That’s a project based on a classic Israeli novel by Yoram Kaniuk, a brilliant writer and a man of great talent and irony. The story is set in a psychiatric hospital in the Negev desert in Israel during the Sixties. And it’s the story of a former circus and stage performer in Berlin during the 40’s. He survives the Nazi camps by being the dog of the commandant— he literally lives on all fours to the amusement of the Nazi commandant, which is revealed flashback. In the present we see him as a tortured inmate in a very unique psychiatric hospital for camp survivors. The book addresses, with an amazing mix of dark humor and imagination, themes of survivor guilt, the madness of the war and its psychological repercussions.In this institute, the protagonist, Adam, meets a young child who is trapped in the persona of a dog and the two heal each other over the course of the film. Paul Schrader describes the story as being about “a man who was once a dog who meets a dog who was once a boy”. I was hired to adapt it by producer Ehud Bleiberg who had been dreaming about making the film for years. It’s an amazing book and hopefully will be an amazing film. I was very lucky to have it fall into my hands. It’s now being edited and is due for release in 2008.

Could you talk about your experience as a film student at the Sam Spiegel School in Jerusalem? Oded and I were part of the school’s second graduating class. When we started, the building itself was still under construction and the classrooms were basically raw spaces. But there was something very exciting and dynamic about the school which was brand new at the time. Teachers were actual filmmakers. Renen Schorr, the director of the school—and still is, to this day—is a pillar of the Israeli filmmaking industry. He put together this very practical-minded film school where all we did was make films. We were editing, shooting and working on all aspects of film. We also watched so many films. We were at the school day and night—in the editing rooms, in the labs, in the classrooms. We got a lasting foundation and a love of film from that place. For all of us, it was a brand new experience. It’s not like today where you come to film school after having shot your own short films or videos. None of us really knew much about it I had been studying graphic design and fine arts. Others came right out of the army. Students came from Tel Aviv as well as from all over Israel to be in this environment where there was a feeling of something new and exciting happening. To this day, I am still very close with the people I met there.
How was Israeli film of the past regarded in this new film school environment? Renen was a journalist as well as a filmmaker, a film theorist and a very deep thinking guy. He had a sound understanding and knowledge of Israeli film history. However, what he chose to impart on the students was more of the American mode of filmmaking. We also saw film noir, Hitchcock, French films…everything. It’s not that we didn’t see a lot of Israeli films—we saw many films from all different eras of Israeli filmmaking. But I think he believed that Israeli film needed a shift toward a more western style of filmmaking. He believed in the grand motto of make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry. He wasn’t interested in having us go out and make films that were like the old Israeli ones which focused on national history. The films he wanted us to make—and that he geared the whole school toward—were, of course, personal films but also films that could have a wider international appeal. He really pushed us to consider filmmaking from an almost Hollywood perspective. Some of the students rebelled, some had more of a leaning toward European films. But there was something very exciting about the films we were being taught to make at the school. We felt we were part of an experiment in Israeli filmmaking.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

An Interview with Ilana Trachtman, director of Praying with Lior

(Above) Lior Liebling as seen in the documentary Praying with Lior. (Right) Ilana Trachtman

Playing on Tuesday at The Jewish Museum is a very compassionate and moving documentary about Lior Liebling, a boy with down syndrome and an ability to pray with abandon.

You can visit the film's website by clicking

How did you meet Lior? I went to a Rosh Hashanah retreat—a sort of hippie-dippie spiritual retreat—in upstate New York because I had had enough of traditional services and could not relate to the liturgy. And at the retreat’s morning Rosh Hashanah service, I was still bored: I was restless, I was counting the pages, I was thinking of what they were going to be serving at the vegetarian lunch. And Lior was behind me. He was singing in this off-key voice. He was totally focused, reciting in English and Hebrew— doing all of it without any of his enthusiasm wavering. I was just fascinated by the phenomenon of him. First of all, I had never seen anyone like Lior pray before. Second of all, I thought that if I’m supposedly the one who's not disabled, and he’s supposedly the one who is disabled and intellectually compromised, how come he can do what I can’t do? So actually, I was feeling envy. And the mystery of him attracted me. I then heard that he was having a bar mitzvah and I thought that somebody should really make a movie about this.
When you started making the film, Lior’s bar mitzvah was approaching. So you had to fundraise and shoot simultaneously. Could you talk a little bit about the process of looking for funding? I was totally naïve. I had been working in TV for fourteen years but I had never made an independent film before and I didn’t imagine that it was so different. I met Lior in October, started shooting in January and his bar mitzvah was in May. I had no idea how I was going to pay for it. But I just knew it wasn’t an option to say, “oh we can’t shoot today because we have no money”. It was chaotic in that I was just learning how to fundraise, learning how to ask people for money and how to write grant applications. One of my dearest friends who is like a mentor said, “oh sweetie, if you’re making your first independent film, why don’t you look at a topic that’s more commercial rather than the Bar Mitzvah of a kid with Down syndrome?” This was a challenge: How do I get people to give me money for something that sounds like an afterschool special?
While making the film, were you at all worried about it being too sentimental? Yes. First of all, in our society, there’s this fetishizing of kids with Down syndrome. It makes me really uncomfortable. There’s even a calendar that you could buy called “Angels of God” where every month has a different kid with Down syndrome. Luckily, Lior’s family isn’t sentimental. They have this highly developed sense of black humor which made me love them and made it okay to be irreverent. In terms of not sentimentalizing, I would say the biggest place that I struggled was with the music. I actually tried three different composers before I found Andy Statman. I worked with composers who were extremely talented, were very experienced and were the best. But because they didn’t necessarily have a klezmer vocabulary like Andy did, what they were writing was too sweet and I just didn’t want to go near it. The music was finished literally at the fourteenth hour.
Could you talk about the process of getting permission from the synagogue to film the bar mitzvah? I let the family do the negotiating for me. And I don’t know if I could have filmed the bar mitzvah at all—or certainly not in the same way—if it wasn’t for this particular Reconstructionist community. I didn’t know that much about Reconstructionism but they have this really strong principle of values-based decision-making. They sit down as a group, weigh competing values and decide which value wins in the situation. There was the bar mitzvah committee, the ritual committee, the spirituality committee... All these committees met and the decision came down to keeping the Sabbath and not videotaping versus tikkun olam and improving the world. Ultimately they decided that, in this particular case, the good that they thought the movie could do—in terms of showing people how a community can be inclusive— outweighed violating the Sabbath this one time. So they made this one-time-only exception for me. But it was still sensitive: We actually had a whole area where people could sit if they didn’t want to be filmed. And every camera angle was approved by a rabbi who looked through the lens. We also had seven cameras shooting the bar mitzvah: one camera was allowed to move, one had to stay stationary, another had to be mounted…
Could you talk a little bit about your Jewish upbringing? I grew up in a family that is unconventionally reform. We belonged to a really reform synagogue because it was where my mother was the associate principal. We had Shabbat dinner. My mother had made Aliyah in the Sixties with this incredible Zionistic tie. So it was very Jewish without being necessarily observant.
One of the things that really impressed me about the film is that, on one hand, it is about a very special kid. On the other hand, it also addresses very abstract issues such as what it feels like to pray and what it’s like to feel a connection to God. How close do you think you came in terms of capturing the experience of praying? That was something I thought about a lot. How do you capture the experience of prayer which is, by definition, inexplicable and unknowable? I think I was most successful in trying to capture the community’s praying with Lior. Because half of what is going on is this circulating, buzzing love that everyone has for each other. There’s this energy that people feed off of Lior and that he is feeding back to them. And that exists very much in community and it happens to be a very physical experience—dancing, singing, crying, praying. So it’s hard not to get caught up in that. One thing that I do notice happening at film screenings and film festivals—but that I didn’t really think about when I was making the movie—is that, in watching the film together, the audience becomes part of Lior’s community and starts to mirror the way the community is acting on screen. They become really involved in Lior’s bar mitzvah, they really care about him. They are very eager to laugh with him. And I think the audience experiences this when they watch the movie in a full house. It is echoing, on some level, the experience of praying with Lior.
What do you think goes on when Lior is praying? What role did his mother [a rabbi who died of breast cancer when Lior was young] play in developing this love of praying? I think that his mother helped create these really early memories of loving to pray. She helped put it there in this really positive, enthusiastic way. I think, at this point though, this early impulse to pray has really transmuted. When I was shooting the movie, she had died seven years earlier. I think that she had planted a seed which kept growing. It was something that felt good, something that he could do, something that he could do well. All those positive associations with praying started with her.
So much of what the audience knows about Lior’s mother comes from the film’s use of home movies. At what point in the production process did this footage become part of the film? When I started making the film, all I knew was that Lior could pray like nobody’s business. I didn’t know anything about him as a person. Basically, I didn’t know anything that would have made this worthy of a film, really: I didn’t know that the siblings were articulate. I didn’t know the story of the community. And I certainly didn’t know there was a mother who had died and that there was home movie footage of her. It was only after I was working on it a little bit that the family gave me a whole bunch of VHS-C tapes (this was an old form of VHS where you need a special case to play it). Like with most families, these were messy home videos that, most of the time, the kids had shot of each other. I was shocked by all that footage of her. Sometimes when you’re working on a movie, you have your thesis. But you don’t necessarily know that it is true. So finding this footage helped affirm my hunches concerning the family and the way they had developed. At the same time though, it was really difficult working with that footage. I was really uncomfortable for a long time in terms of how to use it and how much to use. I didn’t want to exploit it in any way. And I was protective of Lior’s stepmother and of the family’s grief. So it was a long time before I really embraced the fact that I needed to address the mother in a significant way. I initially didn’t intend to. Also, the reason that a lot of that footage does exist is that she was in a program for mothers with breast cancer where they gave them video cameras so that the mothers could tape the kids and the kids could tape the mother. And without that program, I wouldn’t have most of that footage.
What gave you the courage to address the mother in a more significant way? I really wanted to tip toe around his mother’s death and the family’s grief. I also wanted to hit harder on Lior’s spirituality. But as I started showing cuts of the film to people, they were telling me that I shouldn’t hit the spirituality really hard because a lot of people don’t have any and it’s therefore hard to care. And then people asked me why I wasn’t dealing with the loss of the mother which, they pointed out, was the elephant in the room. So I got bolder. But it was hard: I questioned every cut—especially with the mom—to make sure there was nothing exploitive about it.
In the film, the father comments that the bar mitzvah is rather bittersweet because it will probably be the highlight of Lior’s life. Do you share that opinion? I did. I was worried about that. I still have a relationship with Lior and know that it’s not true. And that was a big reason why I shot the epilogue as opposed to just letting the movie end with the bar mitzvah. I think the bar mitzvah is a highlight—maybe even more so than for other kids—but Lior himself is not depressed. He does not feel like his golden years are behind him. He’s a happy guy. And he’s doing really well in high school. I’m quite sure that Lior will still have major achievements to come. I’m sure he’ll get married. I have no idea what’s going to come from Lior but it’s always something amazing. I’m not worried and I don’t think his family is so worried anymore either.
What led you to do an outreach campaign with the film? I always do a lot of research when I make a documentary. When I started making this film, I didn’t know how unusual Lior was: Are all people with down syndrome like Lior? So I started doing research by talking to people. As I talked to more and more people in the faith community, I learned that the situation is so embarrassingly bad. There’s so much heartbreak: People who feel a connection to a faith community often don’t feel accepted: There’s not a place for them to go, their kids don’t feel accepted. Often, parents will say after seeing the film, “gosh, I wish we had a community like that”. Or non-Jewish people will say, “you Jews are so good at this”. And that’s not true: This community in the film is really good at this, this family is really good at this. I guess this appealed to my sense of righteous indignation, especially because I have always been proud to be part of communities that championed marginalized individuals: Jews march for women’s rights, gay rights, immigrant rights, Darfur. But there is a huge population of people with disabilities: it’s supposedly fifty-four million Americans which has to be two million Jews, and where are these people? They’re not in our synagogues and so the hypocrisy of it struck me as well as the fact that it’s among us: it’s our neighbors and one day, probably us too. Another reason this struck me is that we’re all missing out. In another community, Lior might not be in that position. I certainly grew up missing out on praying with Lior. Most people miss out on praying with the Liors of the world.

Friday, January 11, 2008

An Interview with Noah Harlan, Co-Producer of Tehilim

Above photo: A scene from Tehilim; Bottom photo: Liza Johnson (director, South of Ten) and Noah Harlan with his mom, Elizabeth, at the festival screening of Tehilim.

Selected for competition at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, Raphaël Nadjari’s Tehilim depicts an ordinary Jerusalem family confronted with the father’s mysterious disappearance after a car accident. This perceptive and nuanced film explores how the family members deal with such a sudden and inexplicable loss.

Tehilim is the third film that Harlan has co-produced with Nadjari. In this interview, Harlan discusses Nadjari’s production process, his style as well as some of the themes that the film raises.

What about Raphaël’s style appeals to you?
I think what moves me about Raphy’s work is his resolute neutrality. To my mind, he defiantly rejects taking a position in terms of telling the audience how they should feel. As an audience, this is something that makes us very uncomfortable. But it would be wrong for anyone to hear a comment like this and assume that he hasn’t made decisions. In fact, he’s made incredibly specific decisions but he’s not going to tell you how to feel. You’re going to have to watch the film and engage with it.
A lot of audiences have been frustrated by the film’s ambiguity in explaining the father’s absence. I think what’s important when looking at Tehilim and responding to it is to understand that the film is not about answers. The film is about how each person in the film genuinely responds. In my opinion, the father’s disappearance is, in some ways, almost a totem event because the film is dealing with how one responds to loss, in any of its forms. So Raphy created a world, created this family and then removed one element. He then records how each of these characters respond to it.
I am really struck by the perceptiveness with which Tehilim deals with family dynamics. With the absence of the father, the authority figure disappears. To me at least, the film suggests that this disappearance creates the opportunity for a greater sense of interdependence among the mother and sons. The film is about loss in a number of different ways. The film can be an allegory for what happens when God leaves you. But more generally, it is also about what happens when an authority figure—in whatever form it takes—leaves and how one responds to it. What I think is interesting is that each member of the family—as well as each member of the extended community that we see in the film— has created, in their own mind, their own explanation for what happened and each one takes it in a different way. Some people take the vanishing as something very specific to them and other people treat it as an abstract event. And it obviously forces the son to confront who he is as an individual, not as defined by the rest of the family. And, without giving too much away, he goes through a very specific arc of swinging through an emotional understanding of self—in religious, social, cultural, sexual terms.
I love the opening where the father and son are sitting in on a very abstract torah study lecture. A bit later at the dinner table, when his mother asks her son what was discussed in torah study, we can clearly see that he didn’t really understand the lecture. But he wants to come across like he did so that he could be like his dad. What I love about that opening scene is that we get introduced to this very heady conversation that they are having in this Torah study. And when the son walks outside, the first thing he does is take off his yarmulke and stuffs it in his pocket so that he could go hang out with his friends. And I think this actually sets up one of the underlying tensions that runs through the film: The push-and-pull between the religious and secular influences within that family. And in between is a son who is trying to resolve a relationship with the two different halves—a mother and a father who have two different views of the world. And when that father is gone, the son struggles to keep the memory of the father alive but still be his own person—not a caricature of his father nor a caricature of his father’s beliefs.
Could you talk a bit about the title? “Tehilim” means “psalms”. Psalms is an interesting concept because psalms in Jewish life are things that are used at every moment of transition: at the end of the day, at the end of a life, at a birth. You really use them at moments of turning and at moments of decision and at moments of change. And when the father vanishes, that’s really what it is—it’s a moment of change.
Raphaël uses improvisation when working with his actors. Could you tell me how this process works? Generally speaking, with four of his five films, he has used improvisation. Only his first film, The Shade, had a full written dialogue script. Now, oftentimes when we hear that someone works in improv, there’s the assumption that it’s an amorphous process as if they go out and find the film. But the way Raphy works is that he writes a very specific script. He writes every scene, the intentions of every scene and the actions. Now Raphy is natively French and his family has a lot of influences from a lot of different places. He has also lived and worked in New York for seven years and now he’s lived and worked in Israel for four or five. So I think he felt that he could gain greater truth not by putting words into his actors’ mouths but by creating very accurate and precise situations for them with very specific intentions and allowing them to find the right words to say it. And that would also allow one to avoid idiomatic problems: You don’t have a concern about phrasing and using the wrong language because you are using people that are genuinely of a place. And Raphy mixes professional and non-professional actors. His leads are often professional actors but much of his supporting cast is made up of actual people that he meets and engages with.
With Raphaël’s work, there is such formal precision when it comes to the staging and the cinematography. How does he plan what the camera will do in relation to the improvisation of the actors? Are the shots storyboarded? We have a phenomenal cinematographer named Laurent Brunet.
Laurent has shot all five of Raphy’s films and they have a tremendous collaborative relationship. I think Laurent is brilliant because he has the ability to convey fragility and a raw sense, but with great formal rigor. They compose the shots. The entire film is storyboarded. Again, Raphy knows the whole film in his head. He knows what he wants and then he and Laurent work in the locations. But the film is shot in real locations—not soundstages—so the process is also about working within the confines of the actual environments that we find. But Raphy does have a very clear sense of a shot. So the filmmaking process, aside from the fact that you couldn’t find the lines written somewhere, is very similar to that of other films

does not use a handheld camera, but rather a suspended camera. This is a whole device that the director of photography wears. The film was shot in high definition and the cameras are very heavy so there is a belt and harness system with a pole that comes over the cinematographer’s head. The camera hangs from this. The director of photography is then able to hold the camera. This allows for gentle motion but not that jagged handheld look. That, in my opinion, is part of what provides the intimacy of his films. In Tehilim, it provides a lot of that intimacy because you feel as though you are looking through a particular set of eyes.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Wide Spectrum of Filmmakers and Artists Attend NYJFF Opening Night Reception

Stimuated by the opening night screening of the engrossing Israeli documentary A Hebrew Lesson, the filmmakers, artists and curators attending the evening's reception were in the mood to discuss their responses to the film as well as the projects on which they are currently working. William Phuan, program director of the Asian American International Film Festival, originally from Singapore, identified with the immigrants' struggle to adapt to a new country as depicted in the opening night film: He thought their stories will appeal to a broad global audience. Jean Tsien, film editor on Please Vote for Me and Shut Up and Sing, reflected on the pace of A Hebrew Lesson while comparing it to the cutting in most American films. Filmmaker Danae Elon (Another Road Home, NYJFF 2005) talked about one of her current projects, a romantic comedy about circumcision. Another filmmaker in attendance, Tanaz Eshaghian (Love Iranian-American Style, NYJFF 2006), just completed the online edit on her new film about transgender people in Iran.

Four of the filmmakers whose work is being shown in this year's festival: (from l to r) Jason Hutt, director of Orthodox Stance; Elinor Kowarsky, producer of A Hebrew Lesson; Mark Podwal, executive producer of House of Life; Noah Harlan, co-producer of Tehilim. (Photo: John Aquino)

Filmmaker Danae Elon (Another Road Home, NYJFF 2005)

(from l to r) Andrew Ingall, Assistant Curator for The Jewish Museum and NYJFF programmer; Stuart Hands, NYJFF blogger; and Abe Lebovic who appears in this year's Goyta. (Photo: John Aquino)

(from l to r) Rachel Chanoff, Independent Curator and NYJFF programmer; Aviva Weintraub, NYJFF Director and Associate Curator, The Jewish Museum; and Ilana Trachtman, director of this year's Praying with Lior.

The two Avivas: Aviva Weintrab and Aviva Kempner, director of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and the upcoming Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.

(from l to r) Andrew Ingall; William Phuan, program director of Asian American International Film Festival; and Jean Tsien, film editor of Please Vote for Me and Shut Up and Sing.

Levi Okunov, fashion designer and participant in "Off the Wall," the Jewish Museum's open studio project.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

After NYJFF's Opening Night Screening, Producer Elinor Kowarsky Discussed her Film, A Hebrew Lesson, and the Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking

(Above) Elinor Kowarsky and NYJFF Director and Associate Curator for The Jewish Museum, Aviva Weintraub (photo:John Aquino); (Below) A Scene from A Hebrew Lesson.

Last night, the festival opened with the recent Israeli documentary A Hebrew Lesson (2006). The film follows Chin, Dong Dong, Sasha and Marsiol, various newly arrived immigrants to Israel. Their lives intersect in a language immersion class, an intensive and intimate environment that tries to cushion the students’ difficult adaptation to the new foreign culture. Their various stories are seamlessly interwoven in this compassionate documentary that questions Israel’s self-image as it explores the diversity of its inhabitants.

After the screening producer Elinor Kowarky discussed the genesis and aims of the project:

"This film was made with two partners, David Ofek the director, and Ron Rotem the photographer. All three of us had worked together on another project called No. 17. We knew we wanted to work together again and were looking for an idea that would deal with the identity of Israeli society. The idea eventually came from Ron who went to a language school in Denmark. He came back and told us all about the different characters and people he met. He ran through their different stories. So we thought a language school would provide a very good framework to tell a story about Israeli society through the eyes of the new Israelis.

"We started out looking for the teacher. Our film is a documentary but there was a lot of casting involved because we knew we wanted a teacher who would be more than just a classroom teacher. We wanted her to be someone with her own story, someone who would be very much involved in the students’ lives and weave the different stories together. So we met over fifty language teachers until we found Yoela—we were also very touched by her personal story. And she was very much involved in the students’ lives and was like a mother to them.

"Before we started shooting, we met with all the different students that were enrolled in the language school at that time. And we chose our characters and put them all together in the same class with Yoela. That’s how we were able to really follow all the characters over six months.

"It was very important for us to try to have different voices and different faces. We didn’t want to go with the real standard Aliyah stories. We wanted to use the space, the space where you slowly get into the history, get to understand Israel through the language. At the beginning, you’re very much just a newcomer—you don’t know much but as long as you keep on learning the language, you get more and more involved, more and more opinionated … So this was, for us, a great framework to have a look at society."

Did you find it difficult to distance yourself from the subject matter or did you become emotionally involved, an audience member asked.

"The story that I was most involved with was Marisol, the girl who gets pregnant…I helped her along by just being with her throughout the stages and helping her. You don’t see a lot of her crisis in the film because we preferred to leave it out. There were a lot of difficult moments with her boyfriend and his family. We saw much of the other stories. But I think we tried to get the right balance between the film and her life so they would be happy and feel good when they are showing their story. We didn’t want to overexpose them. I’m very happy that she’s going to be married soon. She has a new boyfriend who also has a daughter. They are living in Peru and she is very happy. In making documentaries, we are always very much involved in our characters’ lives. It is not that once the film ends, we stop being in contact. It’s a constant relationship that we maintain. A film is a film and life is life and we try to keep a good balance…We try to make films about people we love. That’s the way we treat them."

Monday, January 7, 2008

Behind the Scenes: An Interview with NYJFF Director and Associate Curator for The Jewish Museum, Aviva Weintraub

How have you seen the festival evolve over the years?
It has really grown in many ways. This year we’re presenting thirty-two films over two and a half weeks. And by comparison, at the festival in 1992, we had eleven films over eight days. In terms of content, the biggest change is that it has grown from a very tightly focused thematic festival where the first few years focused on films from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. And now it is a truly global international festival.
What filmmakers have you seen emerge and grow artistically over the course of the festival’s history? Our opening night film, A Hebrew Lesson, has a team of directors and producers. One of its directors, David Ofek, is someone whose work we’ve shown in the past. We showed a film of his called The Barbecue People that we loved—it was a narrative film. And it’s great to see him continuing with these deep explorations of human relationships. There is another filmmaker we have come back to several times: the Hungarian director Peter Forgacs. This year we’re showing his film Miss Universe 1929. And we’ve shown quite a few of his films over the years. The way he uses found footage and incorporates the narrative seems to get richer and richer.
What made the festival decide to do a tribute to director Axel Corti? We’ve shown some of his films individually over the years here at the museum. Most recently, we showed his film Young Doctor Freud. The response to that was so enthusiastic that it fed my own personal interest in his work—I thought that there might be a broad audience for it. And when I think about how under-recognized he is here, this seemed like a great opportunity to try and show several of his films.
Have there been any other retrospectives of his work? Not that I know of.
With so many strong films coming out of Israel, is it hard balancing the Israeli content with the rest? This year it was particularly hard because, I think, a lot of people have been reading in the press that the most recent films from Israel have been particularly strong. There were a lot of winners in the Cannes Film Festival and there’s quite a lot of buzz about Israeli film. This year we have a larger proportion of Israeli film than in any previous festival year. It’s actually a nice confluence with the fact that 2008 is the sixtieth anniversary of the State of Israel—so we’re going to start celebrating in January.