Wednesday, October 25, 2017

In Between

Directed by Maysaloun Hamoud 
Featured at the 29th Annual Boston Jewish Film Festival
For showtimes visit


In Between, directed by Maysaloun Hamoud, continues the dialogue about the equality of women. The movie begins with an older woman waxing a young female leg and sharing advice: “Don’t raise your voice, men don’t like women who raise their voices. Remember to always say a kind word, and cook him good food. Don’t forget to put on perfume and to keep your body smooth so that he desires you.”
Music then explodes and we’re at a wild, co-ed, bachelorette party in Tel Aviv with drinking, drugs, and dancing—the central characters’ regular singles backdrop. Beautiful Laila (Mouna Hawa) with long curly locks and a cigarette always in hand, appears bored with this dating scene. Back home the next day, she and her housemate Salma (Sana Jammelieh ) meet an unexpected visitor, Noar (Shaden Kanboura), who’s come to stay with them until she can find her own apartment. Noar explains that her cousin Rafif—Laila and Salma’s absent roommate—said it would be all right. These few opening scenes set the stage for a look at the experience of young Palestinian-Israeli women in today’s urbane Tel Aviv. Laila’s a non-religious feminist lawyer, Salma’s a fringe DJ from a Christian family, and Noar’s a senior at the university and wears full Islamic garb.
Through each of the women’s stories related to their love lives, the film explores male domination, male attitudes toward women, and male abuses when their authority is crossed. Although the film focuses on experiences in today’s diverse Palestinian-Israeli culture, the treatment of Laila, Salma, and Noar is universal. The take-away, as the three women process the denouements of their relationships, is sad, to both them and to us: Men (or most), from lovers to fathers, just don’t get it, they can’t see it, so they can’t change. As if cemented into their behavioral genes, the men in the film (with parallels in other cultures) believe they are right about their entitlement to dominate—to tell women how to dress modestly, to not smoke, to stay at home with the kids—or to abuse them if the women resist. Women in the audience of this important movie freeze at moments when Laila, Salma, or Noar stand up for themselves to their men. We freeze fearing a physical blow, a bashing silencer instead of meaningful conversation. How do men in the audience feel during these tense, cowering moments? Undoubtedly the same. Then why can’t recognition of the problem on the screen translate to real-life consciousness about equality?
We witness one atrocious punishment against Noar by her fiancé Wissam (and compliments to Henry Andrawas for playing such a horrid role). The camera and audio focus intently on Wissam’s zipper going back up after he’s committed his brute crime of authority, and this focus makes the audience think how a man’s “instrument of lovemaking” also serves as a violent weapon. The three women helping each other through their relationship traumas give the audience another universal: women support, comfort, and work for each other and always have, and this community based on gender solidarity is the basis for their strength—their stamina, wisdom, friendship, and bedrock role in all societies. These qualities, so deep in women, contrast to the male strength of body and physical force. Thus the movie honors women but cannot say there will ever be changes in their relationships with men.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The 90-Minute War

Directed by Eyal Halfon
Boston Premiere
Featured at the 29th Annual Boston Jewish Film Festival
For showtimes visit


Don’t miss this film! The humor and the performances that execute this saga are razor-sharp, imaginative, and nothing short of hilarious. Based on a book by Itay Meirson, The 90-Minute War begins with a serious broadcast by journalist Michael Greenspan: “The leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Territories will finally resolve the longest running conflict in modern history through a soccer match. The game will decide who gets to stay in the Holy Land and who has to go off looking for a new homeland.”
Not one cinematic opportunity is lost as the two sides make their way toward the match. The football chairmen—played by Moshe Igvy for Israel and Norman Issa for Palestine—stab, jab, and poke each other over every issue in their peoples’ historic disagreements. Igvy and Issa shared the Best Actor award at Haifa’s 2016 Film Festival and without doubt will bring some audiences back to revel in their performances again. Even though their roles steal the show, other memorable “types” support them.
The film is told as a documentary of the historic game, and many of the hilarious moments result from the filmmaking itself—what the characters say to the unseen camera and interviewer. A polished, chiseled FIFA leader helps negotiate the terms of the game, including who will referee, as both sides reject every nominee—Germany is out of the question for obvious reasons and England as well. For the laid-back, cigar-smoking Israeli chairman, even Sweden and Norway are out of the question: “They’re always against us.” Both chairmen rely on antacids as they sit across from each other during these difficult meetings.
The game will be held in Portugal as the people there don’t know anything about the Middle East conflict. Leiria’s stadium manager Mr. Gomes studies an atlas to find Gaza as tells his wife: “We’re the perfect place for the Camp David of soccer.” “What?” she answers, mystified. Gomes helps resolve the referee stalemate by suggesting his cousin Carlito, “who’s never even heard of the place,” and both sides agree to the choice.
Many problems emerge: Israel’s coach is a famous German goalie, Mr. Müller, which leads to anxiety at Israeli headquarters: “Can we really have a German leading our team in a match that decides the future of the Jewish people?” Several times, Israeli checkpoint soldiers harass the Palestinian team’s bus en route to practice destinations. Another obstacle comes up when one of Israel’s best players, Iyad Zuamut—an Israeli of Palestinian descent—can’t decide which side he should play on. This leads to FIFA setting new nationality rules for the game—players must live in the country they play for, for at least two weeks of the year.
Besides the documentary’s camera igniting moments of hilarity, Michael Greenspan returns at regular intervals to report on the teams’ progress. His deadpan delivery at politically loaded locations contains propaganda from both sides. Standing in a Palestinian tunnel with everyday smuggling going on behind him, he tells us how these tunnels bring fuel, medicine, American cigarettes, plasma screens, and fast food to the Palestinians. And on this particular day, they’re bringing Germany’s soccer star Ahmad Hany to play for the Palestinians. We witness Hany’s arrival through the dark, low-ceilinged channel.
Not only superlative characters and fast-paced humor define the quality of this movie. Amazing music and cinematography, by Ran Shem-Tov and Daniel Kedem, respectively, burst upon the screen and through the sound system between every scene, revving up the atmosphere in the manner of sports and politics, but in a subtly satirical way.
As the day of the game approaches and both chairmen realize the tremendous burden they carry for their people, a perfect moment occurs. The neutral Portuguese stadium manager, Gomes, invites both chairmen for a drink on the eve of the game. Unexpectedly the adversaries share a lovely, personal time together at the bar, passing around pictures of their children and grandchildren. Afterward, the filmmakers interview each chairman in his hotel bedroom. The Israeli chief admits how much he enjoyed the evening—“It’s always like that,” he says wistfully, “one on one we get along fine.” When it’s his turn, the Palestinian chief says: “I’m really sad. There should have been another solution.” After all the laughter we’ve enjoyed over the two sides’ conflict, these last touching moments give the movie a meaning beyond simple mockumentary.
Early in the film, the camera shoots a sports bar near the Leiria stadium, capturing the drinkers’ raunchy conversation about the upcoming game. The camera returns to this low-life bar after the game is over—as an epilogue. The characters’ shouting disgust for the game show us the irrelevance of which side won—a particularly incisive conclusion to the longest running conflict in modern history.



Directed by Ferenc Török
Featured at the 29th Annual Boston Jewish Film Festival
For showtimes visit

Ferenc Török’s 1945 takes place in a backward Hungarian village at the end of World War II, when liberating Russian soldiers are present. Based on Gábor T. Szántó’s short story “Homecoming” and filmed in black and white with striking authentically, 1945 focuses on human morality and behavior. Two categories of people are juxtaposed to strengthen this study: the poor, undereducated rural community led by their abhorrent town clerk István, and two silent Jewish strangers who arrive by train to the town. The Jewish father and son, clad formally in black, hire a cart at the train station to transport their two sealed trunks to an unspecified destination. They choose to walk behind the cart, and the camera comes back to them often, reiterating their silent, dignified trek along the dirt road that leads to town. In contrast, the villagers who await them are already in a panic—which Jews are they and what have they come for? Knowing nothing about the strangers—other than the stationmaster’s fast-spreading rumor that their trunks contain perfume—the villagers jump to the conclusion that their own futures are at stake. They obsess about their fate because of their individual and collective guilt about what happened to their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust. Their guilt dictates that only their role in the Jewsdeportation can explain the visitors’ arrival.
The townfolks’ commotion and generally nasty relationships to each other contrast to the silent walkers, with the cinematography of the two worlds also in contrast: the empty natural landscape versus the village hubbub where everybody knows everybody else’s business, including everyone’s wartime betrayals and illegal possession of Jewish property. The film takes as its subject how human guilt cannot be suppressed, but rather with the slightest provocation erupts defensively, often with more lies, and causes destruction of various sorts. Some of the guilty parties have remorse, others not, but either way, their guilt ignites havoc and dire consequences.
The quiet pilgrims on foot see and hear nothing of this village chaos as they pass through the town en route to their destination. Their straight carriage conveys dignity and honor, in contrast to their counterparts staring at them through windows, or racing about to burn evidence of their treachery or to hide wrongly inherited valuables. The returning Jews have no need to communicate to the villagers, other than to hire a cart for their trunks. The villagers are invisible to them; they don’t exist as moral beings. Even István’s offered handshake is proof of their hypocrisy.
Finally, the villagers’ panic comes to breaking point, and led by István they go to the Jews who have reached their destination and humbly ask what they have come for. The villagers’ guilt and their fate must have answers.
What they then learn, whether or not the truth sinks into their unenlightened heads, is that the father and son have come for something far deeper than the material possessions the villagers are so distraught about. The villagers didn’t care about the Jews in the early 1940s and they don’t care now—their anxiety is about their own safety and comfort—at the expense of children and families, their own neighbors and friends, whom they helped to murder.
At heart a parable—though the lesson is lost on the villagers, which is a lesson in itself—1945 treats audiences to fine cinematography by Elemér Ragályi and villager roles well-acted by Péter Rudolf as István, Dóra Sztarenki Kisrózsi as his wife, and József Szarvas as Mr. Kustár. Iván Angelus and Marcell Nagy play the Sámuels, father and son.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Stitching Palestine

Directed by Carol Mansour
Featured at the Boston Palestine Film Festival
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, October 29, 2017
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Stitching Palestine, directed by Carol Mansour, is a cinematic weaving that complements its “embroidery” subject: between each of the film’s twelve interviews with Palestinian women, the camera focuses on hands skillfully stitching colorful thread into a mesh backing. Arabic music accompanies these transitions, as do maps showing the numerous places each family moved to when forced out of Palestine in 1948—Lebanon, Gaza, England, Canada, the United States—a trail of moves. Displacement is a major theme of the film.
Richly embroidered thobes—traditional Palestinian garments—enter into every story, for they represent Palestinian heritage and cultural preservation. Families left everything behind in 1948, believing they would return in a matter of weeks. Now, several generations later, embroidery has come to embody the additional symbol of Palestinian resistance. As Malak al-Husseini Abdelrahim tells us: “We don’t have our country anymore but we have our embroidery. It’s become a nationalist issue . . . it’s about national belonging.” Her words are echoed later—“Embroidery is migratory, it’s like a refugee. There’s the notion of refugehood attached to it.” The movie shows us through each of the stories how embroidery has become synonymous with Palestinian identity— currently endangered.
The “12 Windows of Palestine” project—an initiative to create a mural reflecting the embroidery styles of Palestine’s twelve regions—augments the movie, as twelve women share their personal “tapestries.” For Huda al-Imam, the tilework of her father’s Jerusalem home always reminded her of embroidery—“embroidered with a paintbrush instead of a needle,” she says. When she discovered that the tiles were being discarded by the new Jewish owners, she salvaged them and created portions of her own flooring with their designs.
Words like apartheid, colonialism, occupation, prisoner, and ethnic cleansing come up in the discussions, with family evidence given. Anger is freely expressed by some of the women and restrained under a socially correct veneer by others.
Nazmiyeh Salem, who produces museum-quality pieces, is the third generation of a family that has lived in a refugee camp—“Embroidery flows in my blood,” she says. She and others describe how women today, and historically, have gathered to embroider and chat—it’s part of their female heritage and pride. Psychologist Leila Atshan adds to this, describing how the intricately connected patterns in each weaving contain the depth of their creator’s female experience. They show “the woman who has been able to persist and do so artistically and with femininity.”
Salma al-Yassir describes how, not knowing Palestine herself, she feels that she lives on “borrowed memory”—that of her grandfather and parents, their continuous stories of the homeland. Again, the sense of displacement pervades her life. Where does she belong?
The movie opens and closes with a poetic voiceover— bookends to the documentary—while colorful threads and stages of the embroidery process take place. The voice, the lines, weave with these visually changing “embroidery moments,” music in the background. The opening lines state dispassionately the current era’s sad truths:

With every stitch, she hides a story, a thought, a sigh.
Inside each of us, inside the map of Palestine,
our stories were like threads
that separate then come together
recounted and then hidden,
when faced with the “knot of occupation.”
A knot that rearranged all the threads,
scattering them in all directions.
A single life was now assigned two threads:
one thread that is real, another that could have been.
The stories transcended Palestine.
Their threads dispersed, seeking refuge or exile.
Those women who remained in their homeland
were accused of nonexistence.
It was said to them: You are not here.
They responded: We are not a lie inside a plot,
we are here.
And wherever we are
we narrate our stories in detail,
embroidering them on the face of our earth.
Some are privileged, others bearing life in a camp.
First, second, third generation.
Accents and cities, classes and cultures differ.
They are very different from one another
but all meet at one turning point
where all threads meet: the before and the after,
before 1948, and after it.
At that turning point,
Palestine was transformed.
It became a homeland the size of a planet.

A Magical Substance Flows into Me

Directed by Jumana Manna
Oct 21, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Music in an historically contested region that means “home” to numerous ancient ethnicities defines Jumana Manna’s documentary, A Magical Substance Flows into Me. The film’s overarching structure follows the work of Robert Lachmann, a German-Jewish ethnomusicologist who emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s and made archival recordings of local music—Kurdish, Moroccan, Samaritan, Bedouin, and more. A voice-over narrator reads from Lachmann’s journal about his research, with archival images accompanying the descriptions. Lachmann tells us how he’s new to the country but hopes to share its Arab music through his love for it and his knowledge of its history. He’s found that the locals are dissatisfied with their musical traditions and seek something new, but he believes they should be encouraged in their pure, unspoiled sound. He also comments that these communities live together but as separate cultures, and thus Jerusalem is best suited for the archive he intends to build. As part of his work, he creates Oriental Music for the Palestine Broadcasting Service, believing such a program “can provide a neutral background that’s needed to enable both parties to collaborate.”
For the program, Lachmann invited the various communities to perform and we hear clips of their songs. Manna films some of the communities for a current portrayal of the music. These intercutting scenes take place in the musicians’ kitchens, living rooms, or terraces, emphasizing the music’s homey roots, its local focus. The musicians of today talk about their culture and in some cases the region’s ethnic complexities. They then perform a song.
The documentary’s shortcoming is its omission of adequate guidance for the viewer. Most of the time we don’t know for sure who we’re listening to, in order to clearly understand the speaker’s particular ethnic background and contribution. Identifying subtitles would greatly improve the film’s coherence, but this information appears at the very end of the movie in the form of end credits—too late for the audience to match up with the speakers. It may have been Manna’s intent to omit such identification as a way to make a statement about the historic blending of the region, but for the film’s strength, the lack causes the viewer to continually grope for context.
Nevertheless, Magical Substance’s effort to capture the roots of Arab music, its many community expressions and the world of its descendants, opens doors to another region so distant from our own and brings us closer.