Posts Tagged ‘UK Jewish Film Festival’


Dir: Claude Lanzmann; France, Austria

2013; 218 min Documentary

The title of the film was given, tongue in cheek, by its main protagonist: Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein (1905-1989), who was the third  and only surviving “Jewish Elder” “of the Nazi concentration camp Terezin (Theresienstadt). Nothing can compare with the role of a “Jewish Elder”, a position invented by the Nazis in camps and ghettos to divide the Jews by making the Elders do much of their dirty work.

The Elders were permanently in conflict with the German authority and their own people. They tried to rescue as many as possible but this was only possible if they achieved the quota for the transports to the death camps. For every Jew they could save, at least for the time being, they had to help sending thousands to gas chambers. They were mistrusted by their own and despised by the Germans. And most of them went to the gas chambers themselves.

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Lanzmann interviewed Murmelstein (as part of SHOAH) in 1975 in Rome, were he lived – and died in 1989 – in exile. Now age 88, Lanzmann decided, that Murmelstein’s story should be told at length in a separate film, like the uprising in “SOBIBOR 14.10.43” (2001).

Benjamin Murmelstein was born in Lemberg/Poland in 1905. He became Great Rabbiner of Vienna, and, after the ‘Anschluss’ of Austria, he became, as a member of the Jewish Council in Vienna, very familiar with a certain Adolf Eichmann, who was then in charge of Jewish Emigration on behalf of the SS. Murmelstein rejects Hannah Arendt’s thesis, that Eichmann was just a banal administrator – on the contrary, according to Murmelstein, Eichmann was very violent, he often threatened Jews with his revolver, and on “Kristallnacht” 1938 in Vienna he supervised the destruction of the main Synagogue in Vienna. Furthermore, he made a small fortune, selling Exit-Visas to Jews – which turned out to be useless.

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Murmelstein was sent to Terezin in 1942, just after the city had been cleared of their Czech inhabitants. Terezin was meant as a Ghetto for the elderly, many German Jews “bought” their places in this “retirement” town from the Nazi authorities, paying with their savings. It turned out to be a death camp like all the others: over 33 000 Jews, mostly elderly, died there, apart from the 88, 000 deported to the Gas chambers.

That nearly 17 000 survived was mainly due to Murmelstein, who became the third “Elder” in 1944. His two predecessors, Edelstein and Eppstein were dead: Edelstein was sent to Auschwitz with his family (after he was put in the most terrible of moral dilemma, when the Germans ordered him to find a hangman in the Ghetto, or be hanged himself), Eppstein was shot because he crossed a forbidden road on a bicycle ‘trying to escape’, whilst following an order by the Germans. When typhus broke out in late 1944, Murmelstein organised a successful action, top stop the epidemic. After the war, Murmelstein was put on trail for collaboration, but found non-guilty. He emigrated to Rome, where he lived for the rest of his life, shunned by his own people and the state of Israel, where his testament in the Eichmann trial was simply ignored.

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Lanzmann has not lost any of his vigour, we see him getting up the steep stairs in the surviving buildings in Terezin, which were simply made to exhaust the elderly. And, like in SHOAH, one cannot begin to understand, how this now seemingly peaceful little town was once a slaughterhouse. The footage from the Nazi propaganda film known as “THE FUHRER GIVES A VILLAGE TO THE JEWS” shows Terezin as an idyllic place – and again the Nazis coersed another Jew to participate in this “document” for the Red Cross: Kurt Gerron, director of many films in Babelsberg, shot some of the footage, but he was sent to die in Auschwitz with his family, long before the film was finished.  Lanzmann set against these falsifications the drawings of talented prisoner artists of the reality in Terezin, most of them died together with the other prominent musicians and academics from all over Europe.

This is still a necessary reminder of the holocaust, even more when one remembers the fate of Anton Burger, the second commandant of Terezin, who was sentenced to death in absentia and but died of old age in 1991 in Germany, helped by the authorities with a new identity.

Andre  Simonoviescz




The Green Prince (2014) | UK Jewish Film Festival

Dir.: Nadav Schirman

Documentary with Mosab Hassan Yousef, Gonen Ben Yitzhak

UK/USA/Israel/Germany 2014; 101 min.

Nadav Schirman, has already proved that he can fuse personal and political into a traumatic expose of tortured souls with his portrait of the wife and daughter of Carlos the Jackal: In the Dark Room”. In THE GREEN PRINCE, he has outdone himself with a story of Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of the “Hamas” founder and co-leader Sheik Hassan Yousef, who turned against his father’s organisation to become a spy for the Israeli security agency Shin Bet.

Whilst they gave him the glamorous code name ‘Green Prince’, his life becomes a hell of torn allegiances, a schizoid existence. For Mosab, born in 1978 in Palestinian Ramallah, Hamas was much more than an organisation: “it was a family business”, since the Israelis imprisoned his father for many years, leaving Mosab, the oldest of five children, to look after his siblings. It therefore came as no surprise that 17 year-old Yousef was arrested and imprisoned by the Israeli security forces himself, for smuggling weapons. In jail, he witnessed the brutal regime of Hamas, when suspected traitors were tortured by having plastic burned on their skins. It made him re-asses his loyalties to the political goals of his father, but not to the man: he became a Shin Bet agent, trying to stop the suicide bombings of Hamas, as well as keeping his father alive. Finally, he decided that an Israeli jail was the safest place for the Sheik, since the Israelis were killing Hamas operatives, on suspicion of terrorism. For ten years Mosab’s life was literally in the hands of his Shin Bet counterpart Gonen Ben IItzak, his ”handler”. The two men forged a fragile relationship, which became stronger, until after Mosab’s burnout and flight to the USA, when their relationship became much more personal.

Schirman interviews both men in medium/close up shots, concentrating on their body language. But their reflections are always underpinned by archive footage, surveillance footage and reconstructions of their various meetings. THE GREEN PRINCE is a rarity in its fly-on-the-wall ‘Spy-like’ approach of allowing the audience to follow the two men. In this way, we witness the brutality of the fighting from both sides: there are obviously rights and wrongs on both sides off the fence, but the only coherent conclusion is that the fighting and slaughter must stop. Palestinian is occupied by Israel, but a Hamas regime would be even more violent than the occupation.

It is a miracle that Mosab has survived the last ten years, permanently living in two worlds: the spy who saved his family, knowing very well that he is now seen by them as a traitor. This young man has lived his entire life with the daily threat of death, practically living in hiding with the knowledge that any chance meeting could give him away: Mosab Hassan Yousef has paid a high price for his conscience. THE GREEN PRINCE is his story: the son torn between two fathers. AS




UK Jewish Film Festival | 6-23 November 2014

The UK Jewish Festival is back with another nationwide feast of film (Leeds, Nottingham, Manchester and Glasgow): this year is the biggest festival yet with 67 features and 28 shorts showcasing life and all its guts and glory throughout the diaspora.

The festival kicks off with the UK premiere of French thriller THE ART DEALER, a modern-day detective story set in Paris, where a young woman uncovers a web of deceit and betrayal surrounding her family’s fortune. Follow a selection of this year’s films here.

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Dancing Arabs (2014) | UK Jewish Film Festival

Dir.: Eran Riklis; Cast: Tawfeek Barhom, Yael Abecassis, Michael Moshonov; Israel/ France/Germany 2014, 105 min.

Israeli-born director Eran Riklis tries very hard to be impartial in this portrait of Israeli Arabs. After all, they represent a fifth of the whole population. Everywhere, anti-Arab slogans daub the walls and Israeli youth bully these second class citizens, quite apart from the widespread stop-and-search tactics of the police who spring out of the woodwork with surprisingly regularity.

Gifted teenager Eyad (Barhom), leaves his family in Palestine to study at a prestigious boarding school in Jerusalem. His family expects him to make up for his father, who went to university in Israel, but was arrested, imprisoned but never charged for terrorist activities. He is now working as a fruit picker and expects Eyad to ‘avenge’ him. Eyad’s Hebrew is weak, and he is teased (and worse) by his classmates. As part of the university programme, all the students have to do “social activities”, Eyad’s ‘case’ being Jonathan (Moshonov), a Jewish boy of his own age, who is suffering from muscular dystrophy and becomes Eyads only friend. Until that is, he meets Naomi, a Jewish girl from his college. The two fall for each other, and Eyad starts to forget a little about his roots. To make some money he uses Jonathan’s Jewish identity card so he can qualify as a waiter; Arabs work in the kitchens. When Jonathan’s mother finds out, she surprisingly encourages him. With Naomi, the dying Jonathan and his mother being closest to him, Eyad will have to make a decision about his identity, and his future.

DANCING ARABS takes its title from the saying, “that Arabs have to dance at two weddings”, meaning that they have to obey their religion and the rules of their family lives; but, if they want to succeed in Israeli society, they have to hide their roots, at least in public life. This leads to a schizophrenic state of mind, Eyad being a good example. Not only does he want to succeed for himself, he also carries the burden of his family’s expectations. But once away from his family’s influences, he soon discovers that love and friendship with Israelis can be a normal way of life. This film works best when exploring the relationship between Eyad and Jonathan, two outsiders, whose relationship is governed by equality. Eyad’s affair with Naomi on the other hand is less convincing, whilst his relationship with Edna, Jonathan’s mother, is very subtle – somehow replacing that of his own mother.

Lively cinematography offers panoramic shots of Jerusalem, intercut with newsreel images,showing the brutal war between Israel and the Arab world. Barhom is very convincing, and Moshonov plays out all the desperation of his ever shortening life. Riklis tries hard to be impartial, but in doing so, he sometimes has to resort to sentimentality. Still, DANCING ARABS is a worthy stab at reconciliation, even though the reality is much too grim for even such a small attempt at compromise – proven by the cancellation of the Open Air performance of this film in Jerusalem for security reasons. AS

LFF 9.10. 20.45 MAYFAIR, 12.10. 12.00 VUE5

Self-Made (2014) | UK Jewish Film Festival 2014

Dir.: Shira Geffen  Cast: Sarah Adler, Samira Saraya

Israel 2014, 91 min.

Director Shira Geffen won the ‘Palme d’Or’ in 2007 in Cannes for Jellyfish. Here she uses absurdist comedy to deliver another provocative comment on the Israeli/Palestine conflict. In Jerusalem a conceptual artist is thrown out of bed with a bang. We naturally suspect a bomb attack, but the answer is much more simple: Mihal is the victim of a collapsing bed, leaving her with a bruise on the head and a rapidly diminishing memory. She forgets her husband’s trip to Stockholm and an interview with a German TV crew. Having ordered a new bed at an IKEA-clone shop, Mihal, complaining (wrongly) about a missing screw for the bed, inadvertently causes Arab teenager Nadine (Samira Saraya) to lose her job in charge of packing screws at the furniture store.

Meanwhile Nadine is fighting for her right to wear jeans and pink earphones, whilst her traditional family simply wants to marry her off. Since Mihal is a VIP, she not only gets a new bed, but some freebies in compensation – one of them being a playpen, which is ironic, since she’s had her uterus removed and made into a purse for a an exhibition at Venice Biennale. In the confusion that follows the two girls swop roles and assume each other’s identity and when Mihal tries to cross the border she gets arrested at the checkpoint between Israel and Palestine. Here the narrative descends into a ridiculous farce where anything can happen: Mihal is mistaken for Nadine, and after the identity switchover, Mihal is fitted out as a living bomb to cause havoc in Israel, whilst Nadine has to face the irate German TV crew. And so confusion reigns in a region where Arabs have to queue for hours at checkpoints between the two countries, just to do a day’s work in Israel.

Geffen delivers and clever and convincing drama full of contradiction, acerbic humour and convincing performances from Adler and Saraya. Mihal’s frustration in trying to assemble her ‘IKEA’ bed will strike a sympathetic cord with audiences everywhere in this is a well-craafted sociopolitical story from the much troubled Middle East. AS

LFF: 9.10. 18.15 Covent Garden, 12.10. 20.45 Cine Lumiere, 13.10. 15.15 NFT1

Villa Touma (2014) | UK Jewish Film Festival 2014


Dir.: Suha Araf

Cast: Maria Zreik, Nisreen Faour, Ula Tabari, Cherien Dabis

Drama Israel 2014, 88 min.

So many stories from Ramallah Palastine deal with conflict and war, it’s refreshing to see a female-focused drama about the Christian community. VILLA TOUMA, is the feature debut of writer/director Suha Araf, and although it was produced mainly with Israeli money (and a female Israeli crew), is a technically a Palestinian film, running under a stateless flag. Set after the war of 1967, it explores the rather old-fashioned world of three aristocratic Christian sisters, who take their orphaned niece Badia (Zreik) into their house of gloom, as an act of generosity and altruism.

Badia, the niece of one of the sisters and a Muslim woman, has spent her life in a catholic orphanage, but even this harsh environment has not prepared her for the loveless and cloistered life with the three sisters, ruled with an iron fist by the oldest, Juliette (Faour). Even worse is Violette (Tabari), a spiteful spinster (whose elderly husband died before the marriage was consummated), who hates Badia because of her youth. Only the youngest, Violette (Dabis) has any humanity, and tries to support Badia as much as possible. After vainly trying to marry Badia off to one of the very few Christian suitors of the rapidly declining upper-class Christians in Palestine, the girl meets an Arab musician and gets pregnant after a secret one-night stand in the garden of the villa. Badia’s pregnancy isolates her even more from the sisters, who feel threatened not only by her fecundity but also by her ability to attract a member of the opposite sex behind their backs, and when she suddenly gives birth, disaster strikes.

VILLA TOUMA is not a perfect film, it feels rather airless and stagey, but it carries its heart-breaking story with brilliant acting and a bijou aesthetic: the villa is really more of a mausoleum than anything else: the sisters have buried themselves in time, pretending not to have witnessed any change in society. Furthermore, their attitude towards Arabs, in the specific case their caretaker, who is treated like a second-rate citizen, resembles very much the position of the Israeli. Their poverty is obvious, but they try to pretend a glorious life style to the outside world, particularly when entertaining suitors for Badia – ignoring the fact, that nobody falls for their charade. Admittedly the semitic races in the Middle East do still engage in matchmaking of this sort (Jordan and Syria are no different). But these cloistered sisters live in denial, and are only too happy to devour each other out of self-hate. Badia is their victim, and welcomed only as such. On the few occasions, the sisters go out into the world, they seemed lost, without the aggression they vent against each other and Badia, and we see them for what they really are: left behind relics of a long bygone era.

The Camera pans through the house, picking up objects of the past, and treating the sisters alike: inhuman, they are part of the furniture. Badia stands no chance against these immovable objects; only once, when dancing with Violette, is she allowed to move like a young person. The claustrophobic atmosphere gobbles her up. VILLA TOUMA is a nightmarish vision, in which the three sisters try to vanish into a glorified past, alienating themselves from the real life outside. AS



Mr Kaplan (2014) | UK Jewish Film Festival 2014

Dir.: Alvaro Brechner; Cast: Hector Noguera, Nestor Guzzini, Rolf Becker

Uruguay/Spain/Spain 2014, 98 min.

Uruguayan filmmaker, Alvaro Brechner is perhaps best known for his multi-award winning comedy: Bad Day to Go Fishing. His second feature Mr Kaplan is Uruguay’s official submission to next year’s Academy Awards. It centres on an emigrant Jew from Europe. At 76, he’s living out his late-life crisis in a small seaside town in Uruguay, very similar to the one in Pablo Stoll’s Whisky (2004). Jacob (Noguera) has lost interest in his family, particularly his two sons who bore him with their quarrels (one a total conformist, the other an equally convinced outsider) and he often fights with his wife Rebecca (Nidia Telles), who tries to keep his diet under control. Then, one day he discovers the beach-bar owner is German, old enough to have been a Nazi, and overnight Jacob enlists the help of portly ex-cop Contreras (Guzzini), to mount a ‘war-crime’ case against him. Jacob, seeing himself in the news as a self-styled heir to the Eichmann hunters, succeeds against all odds with his companion playing Sancho Pansa to his Don Quixote.

But after having captured their prey, they find out why “the German” is running away: he is a Jew, having served in a concentration camp as a “Kapo”, meaning he was selected by the Nazis to do some of their dirty work for them. To refuse this appointment, would have meant immediate death for any inmate. The ex-Kapo, tired of running away from hunters and himself, decides to take his own life and in an extraordinary twist of fate finds salvation.

A small film with its heart in the right place where all the characters (apart from Rebecca) appear to be more or less lost; struggling for an identity, running from the past, and ultimately themselves. Jacob, bored with his bourgeois life-style, suddenly decides to become a hero at the wrong time of his life. Whilst the consequences of his actions could have been much harsher, when he finally finds himself back in the midst of his family, he looks grumpier than before, not at all relieved to be alive.

MR KAPLAN has a some fine performances, a bone-dry take on life, a vibrant camera capturing the action from interesting angles and a stringent script, which makes the audience root for Jacob because he is such a lovable anti-hero. AS


The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2014) | UK Jewish Film Festival 2014

Dir.: Brian Knappenberger; Documentary; USA 2014, 105 min.

This is the story of a genius who fell foul of the state machine: Aaron Swartz committed suicide aged twenty six in January 2013, after being harassed by the Justice departments on account of the “Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFaAA)” of 1986 (!), which is obviously out of date and totally open to interpretations. Apparently House Member Zoe Lofgren (D-Cal.) introduced the Repudiation of the Act as “Aaron’s Law” in 2013.

Knappenberger’s documentary is bookended by home movies of little Aaron, who taught himself to read at the age of three: after enjoying “Paddingon Bear” we see him dancing joyfully. By the age of 14 he was working at the “World Wide Web Consortium”, helping to develop the ‘RSS’ standard. But it was not only the technical side which interested Swartz. Because of his theoretical involvement, he was very aware of the possibilities of misuse – and censorship. When “Reddit”, the independent site he had help to set up, was sold to Conde Nast Publications in 2006, Swartz did only last a few months, he was aware of the power of corporations – and the politicians which were in their pay. In 2008 he co-founded “Watchdog”, a site who kept tabs on the elected members of Congress. In the same year he authored a paper with Shireen Barday, looking at thousand of law review articles written by law professors, who had been paid by industry to write their ‘opinions’. And to cap a busy year, he “liberated” 20 million of pages of “PACER”, the archive of court records – using a small window, when the government allowed free access – usually the public had to pay eight cent per page.

The case which brought the justice department on the scene, started in September 2010, when Swartz accessed the MIT network for their academic database “JSTOR”, and after they blocked him, he found a restricted closet and hardwired his laptop to the network, beginning to download huge volumes from the data base. He was accused of four felony accounts, but rejects a plea bargain, which would have meant a year long house arrest without a computer and a felony record. MIT meanwhile was staying “neutral” on the case, even though they know, that if they don’t press for prosecution, the government has no case. On 17.7.2012 bail is set at $100 000. In October of the same year, SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) is introduced in the House, to great acclaim of all side. But after a campaign culminating in the 24-hour blackout of the “Wikepedia” site on January 18/19 2012, the bill is pulled. In December of the same year, Carmen Oritz, US Attorney for the District of Masschusetts, and her deputy, the Assistant US Attorney Stephen Heyman, charge Swartz with more charges felony offences, by now the penalty has risen to 50 years in prison. On the 11.1.2013 the defence files a motion to supress evidence from correspondence between Heyman and the Secret Service. On the same day Swartz takes his own life in Brooklyn, New York.

Most harrowing is the interview with the computer journalist Quinn Norton, Swartz’s partner from 2007 to 2010. She was bludgeoned by the Justice Department for a “proffer”, a judicial term for a forced witness statement. Quinn would have gone to jail, if the Justice Department would have forced her, (as they threatened) to give up her password for her computer, containing her confidential files. She chose to be a witness, and was tricked into giving evidence, that might have been used against Swartz at the trial. Their relationship ended, even though they became friends later.

The material is overwhelming, to say the least, but Knappenberg focuses on the salient facts, keeping up a brisk pace, engaging the viewer in this rollercoaster action documentary. The camera always finds new ways to avoid “talking faces” and the narrative is never dramatized. But a tragedy it is nonetheless and the waste of a life of a genius; damming the government for its complicity. That nobody prosecuted Bill Gates or Steve Jobs for breaking the CFaAA – stands out as a resounding reminder; but then THEY only wanted to make money. AS





Afternoon Delight (2013) DVD

Director: Jill Soloway

Cast: Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple, Josh Radnor, Jane Lynch

USA  99min   Comedy Drama

Very much prescribed viewing for any affluent and intelligent women who give up work to focus on kids, Jill Soloway’s whip-smart feature debut is fearless and refreshingly frank in its expose of what can happen to those that hunger for interest outside the normal routine of family life.


This is Silverlake, an upmarket suburb of LA where creative and vivacious Rachel (Hahn) and successful husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) live in modernist, low-key charm.  Very much part of the local Jewish community of fund-raising wives and workaholic partners, Rachel confesses to her unprofessional analyst (Jane Lynch) “I know I shouldn’t complain, there are women going to fetch water in Darfour and getting raped”. She’s witty, urbane and full of compassion with a loveable tot called Logan.

And it’s very much Kathryn Hahn’s film and her first real chance to dip her toe in a full dramatic lead which she handles with considerable complexity bringing humour and likeability to a woman who, on the face of it, is spoit and bored.  Faced with Jeff’s disinterest in their sex life and a dwindling libido, she decides to spice things up with a visit to the local lap-dancing club on the advice of her close friend Stephanie (Jessica St Clair) who claims it works wonders for her own relationship with husband Bo (Keegan Michael Kee).

Here she bonds with McKenna (Juno Temple), a local sex worker who manages a appealing mix of honesty and coquettish charm, very similar to that of her previous roles.  Juno’s vulnerability brings out the protective side in Rachel and she invites her to be their live-in childminder. Josh Radnor as Jeff, accepts grudgingly, settling for his stock boho Jewish guy with with tousled sex appeal, much like those of Liberal Arts and How I Met Your Mother.

The dialogue is so engaging and spot on you hardly notice a gradual shift in tone from comedy to serious drama as the social dynamic gradually turns dark during an evening with friends.  with coruscating consequences all round. But all is not lost. AFTERNOON DELIGHT may have its detractors but for those who buy into its inventive and edgy appeal and Hahn’s authentic portrayal of female disillusionment, the rewards are plenty. MT

ON DVD MAY 4th 2014


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