Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Boston Jewish Film Festival

November 7–19, 2018
Full program and schedule at Bostonjfilm.org

The Interpreter, dir. Martin Šulík, Massachusetts premiere

In this film, two older men go on a road trip to learn about their mutual but polar-opposite past. They are Slovak Holocaust survivor Ali Ungár (Jirí Menzel) and Georg Graubner (Peter Simonischek), son of the Austrian Nazi who murdered Ali’s family. Besides war atrocities, character barriers separate the men—Georg’s blasé, irresponsible lifestyle and Ali’s hatred for the enemy. But over the course of the trip’s painful discoveries, the men find unexpected openings for compassion, personal growth, and resolution. The film shows how hands-on education about human barbarity has the power to transform a person’s inherited attitudes. Two universals overarch the movie: the psychic pain of boys without fathers and the question Georg asks: Is it easier to be the son of a murderer or the son of a victim?

Chasing Portraits, documentary
Directed by Elizabeth Rynecki
Massachusetts premiere, The Museum of Fine Arts, followed by a conversation with the director

Tears accompany nearly every heartfelt moment in Elizabeth Rynecki’s documentary about her family, Chasing Portraits. She grew up in California, deeply affected by her father Alex Rynecki’s Holocaust experience and her great-grandfather Moshe Rynecki’s murder by the Nazis, as well as Moshe’s legacy as a painter of Poland’s lost Jewish culture—scenes of working people, weddings, rabbis, and other community traditions. These paintings hung on the walls of her Bay Area home and her grandparents’ home in Northern California.
In 1939, Elizabeth’s father was three when his parents and grandmother (Moshe’s wife) obtained Catholic identities in order to live outside the Warsaw ghetto, which allowed them to survive the Holocaust. But Moshe chose to remain with his fellow Jews locked in the ghetto and died at the Majdanek concentration camp.
Out of Moshe’s oeuvre of some 800 paintings bundled and hidden for safety as the war approached, only 120 were recovered by Moshe’s wife after the war. Haunted by these paintings that surrounded her, and the family history embedded in them that her father was unable to talk about, Elizabeth grew up wanting to find out more about Moshe, his art, and the fate of his lost paintings.
When Elizabeth’s grandfather George Rynecki died, she read his typed memoir, which encouraged her to actively seek answers about her great-grandfather Moshe. Chasing Portraits follows Elizabeth’s quest in Poland, Israel, Canada, and the United States. She gives talks that soon spread the word about her mission to find Moshe’s lost art; she meets museum curators and private collectors; and she wrestles with the moral issue of rightful ownership of stolen art. With pain, she talks about her choices: whether to accept the situation as it is, with meaningful, personal, and valuable family property now in the hands of strangers and institutions, or suing for restitution. Her film involves us in the emotions inherent in the situation of lost family art (stolen art) that has resulted from war and mass murder. An Israeli lawyer advises her: Some of those people purchased the artwork having no idea about its provenance, so unless you have evidence, they bought the art in good faith.
We know, though, and the expert also knows, that in reality those local people, however rural or ignorant, knew about Jewish property and possessions being sold from hand to hand. The art wasn’t purchased or traded innocently; farmers, flea markets, collectors, and museums could easily see that the images focused on Jewish life that had just been annihilated.
Elizabeth’s journey involves this painful acceptance of loss and powerlessness to reclaim, but she also experiences moments of redemption when beautiful encounters occur, such as her visit to collector Edward Napiorkowski who willingly gives her his painting by Moshe. The museums, though, are not letting go of their treasures. Moshe’s work is steeped in Jewish heritage and history. In the end, Elizabeth focuses on the greatest legacy her great-grandfather’s work has brought her: a closer and cherished relationship with her father. Chasing Portraits is a model for anyone seeking permanence of a relative’s legacy.

The Hero (de Held), written and directed by Menno Meyjes
Based on the novel De Held by Jessica Durlacher

Subtitles move swiftly at the beginning of this contemporary film set in Holland with Dutch-speaking characters. Sara Silverstein, her husband Jacob, and their teenage children Mich and Tess leave their lives in L.A. to return to Sara’s parents’ home in Holland for a long-term stay. They rent a house near Sara’s parents, for living under the same roof as her difficult father Herman—who survived Auschwitz as a child—would be impossible. As a young woman, Sara had to get away from him, but now, in mid-life, homesickness has brought her back.
The Hero is a thriller with a step-by-step plot and a few moments of Hitchcockian suspense. Juxtaposed to Sara is Anton Raaymakers, whose grandfather was the Nazi sergeant who sent the Silversteins to Auschwitz. As a boy, Anton suffered unforgivable humiliation when Herman rejected his father’s apology for his own Nazi father’s cruelty. Sara witnessed the rejection in the background and several times met Anton’s eyes—a social and ethical barrier forever separating them. As a result of this traumatic scene for Anton, he grew up to become a psychopath seeking revenge on the Silversteins.
In addition to the thriller component, the film offers an in-depth portrait of a woman—Sara—whose behavior is at times realistic and at other times unbelievable. Her educated, well-to-do background, as well as her twenty years in L.A.’s trendy, cosmopolitan milieu, makes it hard to believe that she would hide Anton’s terrifying assaults. But her voice-over tells us: “If you don’t tell, it didn’t happen.”
There are other moments in the film when the viewer’s “willing suspension of disbelief” also wavers—No, Sara would not go to a proven psychopath’s house all alone at night to attempt vigilante justice. However, the serpentine plot, which overall is a good one, needs such scenes to arrive at its denouement. While Hitchcock succeeds at carrying us along with full, terrified belief, The Hero has several iffy moments: How did Herman regain his family’s upper-class home after WWII—the home Sara grew up in as early as the 1960s—when World War II property restitution happened decades later? How did the family pistol Herman tried to use on Sergeant Raaymakers back in 1942 manage to survive in Herman’s hands? Why would Herman hire his enemy Anton to build his enclosed porch that then intentionally leaks? And what was that upsetting business call Herman had at the beginning of the movie that never connected afterward to the plot?
The movie explores several interesting themes, including Herman’s way of dealing with his horrific war experience as a twelve year old. He imagines a different story for his family from what really happened, and we see this story, and later the truth, in intercut, black-and-white flashbacks that work well. Then, the age-old story of feuding families and generational vendettas gives the film depth. Herman takes revenge on the Raaymakers for murdering his family; Anton must pay back Herman for humiliating the Raaymakers and for contributing to his father’s subsequent suicide; Sara attempts to take revenge on Anton for his crimes; another member of her family has no reservations about taking that action. The revenge and vendettas lead to final thinking points in the movie: how Sara’s extreme adoration of her son Mich has to be reconciled with who he decides to be, rather than who she wants him to be; and how killing always leads to more killing. This is a great tangle of a movie.

Cast: Sara Silverstein–Monic Hendrickx; Anton Raaymakers–Daan Schuurmans; Herman Silverstein–Hans Croiset; Jacob Edelman–Fedja van Huêt; Mich Edelman–Thijs Boermans

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Boston Palestine Film Festival (BPFF)

Co-presented with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
October 19–28, 2018

Beginning with opening night’s Reports on Sarah and Saleem (dir. Muayad Alayan), which includes an after party with filmgoers, directors, organizers, music, and dancing, this year’s Boston Palestine Film Festival offers an amazing range of award-winning films on the pressing subject of human rights. For the full program visit bostonpalestinefilmfest.org.

The overriding message that comes through the documentaries, shorts, and features in this year’s Palestine Film Festival is the power of “nationality.” The films delve into the psychology of nationhood and the nearly insurmountable plight of displaced people who essentially don’t “exist” if they aren’t citizens of an extant nation. Many live for generations in refugee camps devoid of average employment opportunities and basic social services.
Another nugget in this program is the film art of the shorts in particular. It’s mind-boggling to experience a complete statement, a perfect story, in five to twenty-five minutes through a visual medium. The shorts don’t rely on dialogue but on interior emotions conveyed by the protagonists’ faces, enhanced by the creative film techniques and sound.
The “Shorts II” series screens October 28 and focuses on the immigrant experience. Again, it’s the emotions of the central characters in these six films that tell a gripping, usually unfathomable story for American audiences, or those who aren’t recent immigrants themselves. In only 14 tension-filled minutes, we absorb the young woman Salam (Hana Chamoun), a Syrian immigrant in New York, earning a living as a Lyft driver. With only a few lines of dialogue, we understand that she lives with her brother Rashad’s family but her fiancé Musel is stuck in Syria and is now in the hospital with serious head wounds as a result of the war. Much of the movie involves a Lyft ride with Salam’s opposite: a young, blond American woman named Audrey who has little worry about money but serious problems in her relationship. During the course of the women’s entire night’s drive—Upstate and back—they bond, but only as sympathetic women, for their deeper feelings are “too complicated,” they say, to share. They mean “too painful” for words. Audrey returns to her dreary love life while Salam overflows with joy when she receives a call from Musel—alive! We understand like never before the value of a human life. (Actress Hana Chamoun attends the MFA screening of Salam on October 28.)
All of the festival’s shorts drive home the meaning of families and of missing or losing a loved one. In Rupture (dir. Yassmina Karajah), we spend a few hours (18-minutes film time) with teenage siblings, Salim and Leila, newly arrived Syrians to a peaceful, middle-class Vancouver suburb. Wearing a headset, Salim listens to an English pronunciation lesson. In another room, his younger sister’s headset plays music, their faces showing their different personalities: he’s ultra-serious and she’s lively. Salim overhears his mother on the phone in the kitchen. She’s hysterical over the news that her eldest child Hany has been shot and is in the hospital: “We should never have left him there! He’s my son! Send us a photo of him! I want my boy!” The trauma rocks through the house, through Salim’s stunned face, and through us, the audience.
The rest of the day goes on with Salim in a distracted state that tells all when he looks at Hany’s photo on his phone. What is it like to get the news that your older brother has been shot because of a senseless war and may be dying too far away to reach, to see, to hold the hand of? Or your son? Salim and Leila’s faces show us what it’s like. We don’t need, and don’t receive, much dialogue—it’s not necessary. Watching these children, we experience how the most painful emotions are always wordless. The only consolation, which barely touches the grief, is the physical and psychological presence of another family member, in this case brother and sister.
Catherine Prowse and Hannah Quinn’s Laymun tells an entire world in five animated minutes. Colors in this war-torn village are muted, life sucked out of them. Surviving townsfolk huddle together while a soundtrack drops bombs. A woman delivers the only living green thing to a neighbor’s doorstep—a lemon tree seedling. It feels as if the home has just experienced a death and the plant pays community respect. Lemon trees also symbolize healing: the cleansing and restoring of the mind, body, and spirit.
With a shift to guitar music we are in the woman’s greenhouse where she cultivates lots of lemon seedlings as if to propagate life and goodness to serve as a counterforce to the violence and destruction. She looks at a picture of herself with a man, presumably lost to her in the war. A bomb shatters the greenhouse. The next day, the villagers are on a bus being evacuated. The woman takes a last surviving lemon from her bag and gives it to a young girl. It glows like the girl’s smile and symbolizes hope for the girl’s future. In a mostly brown movie, the bright yellow lemon is a seedling for the life that inhumanity has nearly obliterated.
These are just a few of the visually and intellectually outstanding short films screening at the festival. The longer documentary Soufra (dir. Thomas Morgan) is a triumphal story about enterprising women in Beirut’s Bourj el-Barjneh refugee camp. Johny Karam’s photography of fresh food preparation, laughing cooks’ faces, and abundant, sizzling and succulent Middle Eastern cuisine brings color, vivacity, and the good things in life to a movie about families devoid of hope for viable employment and a future for their kids.
Palestinian Mariam Shaar was born in the camp, which began in 1948. Her childhood dreams for a good education and fulfilling career ended when she had to drop out of school to support the family. In the film, she wants to do something about the camp’s dire situation. She tells us that in Lebanon, doors to refugees have always remained open, but once settled in a camp, there’s almost no chance of upward mobility. Laws prevent renting housing outside the camp, and generally those without a “nationality,” such as Palestinians, face employment and social restrictions. Their situation feels synonymous with nonexistence.
Mariam starts Soufra, a high-quality catering business run by women that ultimately succeeds outside the camp’s boundaries, promising hope for some families for the future, and also setting a precedent for more entrepreneurial initiatives that contribute to Lebanon’s economy and ethnic integration. The legal road to Mariam’s goal is arduous, and the film travels with each of her steps to achievement—registering a business, getting licenses and work permits, and buying a food truck. Throughout the movie, Alexander Seaver’s music is light, gentle, and hopeful, and embodies the unwavering strength of the working women. Over the months, the project offers them more than financial stability; it changes their lives and how they feel about themselves: “You realize your worth,” one of the cooks says. “What we’re doing benefits ourselves, not just our families. We learn something new every day. We get out, meet people, see different places. Women can do anything, especially in these times.” The women’s men are glad for the help that contributes to a better home life. “And she’s happy, she likes her crew,” one husband says. The women come from different backgrounds—Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese—and learn about each other’s food, traditions, and personal lives. It’s a warm and supportive “women-for-women” enclave. One cook informs us: “I tell my daughters not to rely on anyone.”
Soufra means a big fancy table with a variety of delicious foods.

Mariam concludes the film with her persevering and positive energy: “We hope for a better life in the future. I hope refugees stop being associated with security threats. Terrorism has no nationality. There is the good and the bad everywhere. I hope that the children, who are the pillars of the future, live a healthy life, to be beneficial to others.”
May Mariam’s initiative and success speak to the whole world.

Friday, September 28, 2018

I Am Not a Witch

Directed by Rungana Nyoni
Featured at the First Annual Boston Womens Film Festival
at the Museum of Fine Arts
September 29 and October 3–31, 2018

Zambian-born director Rungano Nyoni has made an unusual film that combines a real-life tragedy for some women on the planet—enslavement as purported “witches”—with a fantastical fairy tale about a nine-year-old orphan who’s declared a witch for staring catatonically at villagers. The worn-out, field-working women of the witch encampment welcome their new member and name her Shula (Margaret Mulubwa). Shula quickly becomes the mascot witch of Tembo (John Tembo), the village’s highest official under a nasty “royal highness,” who looks and acts like the story’s true witch. The well-fed Tembo, whose luxurious, gated kingdom is surrounded by everyone else’s poverty, has a sexy wife, or concubine, who was once a witch-slave but gained a modicum of freedom through her attachment to the “worldly wise” Tembo. Thus, we have the perfect set-up and characters for a children’s tale: wicked queen, greedy henchman, enslaved women doing back-breaking work for the lords, and a little girl caught in the nightmare and needing a way out.
The fairy tale is full of scenery, costumes, and imagination. The witches wear harnesses with long billowing ribbons that attach to giant spools on the truck that delivers them to the fields. They can roam only as far as their ribbons unwind, and when it’s time to return to their encampment, exhausted, they’re spooled in.
The spool of thread symbol obviously relates to women’s sphere, which is the second, serious layer of the movie. Real witch encampments exist in Ghana, and Nyoni researched them for her movie. Innocent women accused of witchcraft are housed in primitive camps, in part to protect them from superstitious villagers who would otherwise harm or kill them. In the movie, with its satirical Disney-like story, the witches wearing face paint are trucked to a tourist location, parked behind a fence, and forced to leer and act crazy for Western tourists with cameras, who marvel at these human specimen as if they’re exotic animals in a zoo.
As Shula’s brief odyssey with the witches unfolds, episodes of random accusation and justice take place. Shula, Tembo’s pet-witch, dresses in ceremonial witch regalia in order to identify the man in a row of suspects who has stolen someone’s valuables. With a few comic twists on Tembo’s part, Shula points to the criminal. Justice is thus laughable, based on superstition and a witch’s special nose. In this fairy tale, and in some real-life communities, witches are believed, and though they are kept separately and in cruel conditions because they aren’t “human,” their magical powers are vital to the community’s safety.
For imagination, cinematography, and a taste of African folklore, I Am Not a Witch sustains attention. The incorporation of piercing classical music clashes with the primitive setting and style of story, although it’s likely intentional for this very reason. However, another choice of soundtrack might have had stronger impact. Much praise goes to Nyoni’s creative approach to the theme of women’s treatment. Shula, captured and condemned, begins her village life with the choice of becoming a witch or a goat (a goat that will be eaten), and her story ends with the same bad choices. Nice statement and luckily mostly a fairy tale.  #

On Her Shoulders, directed by Sundance award-winner Alexandria Bombach, plays in the Women’s Festival on September 30. It is a must-see documentary for feeling the emotional devastation of genocide. Twenty-three-year-old Nadia Murad’s story of surviving ISIL’s murder and exile of her Yazidi people of the Sinjar region in northern Iraq in 2014, and the abduction of Yazidi women to sell in slave markets, turns this mostly neglected “foreign news story” into a first-hand, personally experienced tragedy. Nadia, traumatized by terror, torture, rape, and family grief, still finds inner strength to speak publicly and continuously for international action to stop ISIL and to help restore a future for the hundreds of thousands of Yazidis now living in refugee camps.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Oslo Diaries

Directed by Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan (2018)
Featured in the Boston Jewish Film Festival’s Summer Cinemateque

This eye-opening film by Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan tells the story of Israel and the PLO’s peace negotiations in Norway during the early to late 1990s. It integrates historic footage, film actors reenacting the talks, and recent interviews with the real-life participants, such as Israel’s then foreign minister Shimon Peres and the PLO’s chief negotiator Abu Ala. The interviewees’ passion for their experience hammering out acceptable terms of peace is palpable, as is their current sadness for the accords’ ultimate failure. The film’s structure also includes voice-over readings from the politicians’ diaries, adding a thoughtful, personal touch to the documentary.
The story of the Oslo accords involves the complicated history of Israel vs. the Palestinians—seen differently from each side—which many Americans will need to follow-up on after seeing this movie. But the history isn’t essential to gaining the filmmakers’ two main points about the experience of the accords. First, when rounds of negotiations take place between countries that are archenemies, it is individuals, not nations, who interact during those countless days of talks. A strange, inarticulate “humanization” of the mutual hatred takes place, as the participants slowly learn about each others’ families and personal lives. Nevertheless, as one interviewee reflects, “It’s impossible to translate this humanization to the public.” And so, the several stages of the Oslo peace agreements meet with virulent controversy from conservatives on both sides, with more violence breaking out, including the Hebron mosque massacre and Rabin’s assassination.
The movie makers’ second emphasis is the effect of Netanyahu’s intolerant political platform that precludes any chance of peace during his leadership. The film’s footage of his vitriolic speeches over the years portrays him as a demagogue. The audience, having experienced the “human side” of the talks, feels sickened at his destructive force. Like the negotiators, we have come through the years of talks believing both sides of the conflict can achieve better understanding and coexistence in the future.
The Oslo Diaries is moving. It shows us—again, through our own involvement in the talks—how hatred can slowly dissolve through rounds of communication between mutually trusting, respecting people. But, if politicians not involved in the “humanizing, peace-seeking component” deliver thundering speeches to the contrary that sway the less-informed public, then nothing toward neighborly peace can be achieved. The movie makes you wonder: What if Netanyahu had participated in the years of talks?
           The film more or less ends with Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish extremist and Netanyahu spewing from the podium anti-Palestinian slogans. The audience leaves the theater feeling the defeat, as well as the sad truth that diametric forces are always present in societies, ensuring that wars and violence will never end. Who will watch this movie? It’s doubtful those who could benefit from its message about the power of negotiations for world peace. In the meantime, generations keep passing.

Memoir of War (La Douleur)

Directed by Emmanuel Finkiel (2017)
Featured in the Boston Jewish Film Festival’s Summer Cinemateque

This beautifully wrought adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s war memoir, with Mélanie Thierry playing Duras, explores the human mind when waiting day after day, month after month, year after year, for news of a family member deported to a Nazi concentration camp. When the war ends, the waiting goes on, as trains bring back survivors but never the loved one.
This debilitating state of waiting happens to the protagonist Marguerite, who waits for her husband Robert, arrested for his resistance activities. It also happens to Mrs. Katz, boarding with Marguerite, who waits for her handicapped daughter, even after she learns the Nazis sadistically eliminated “cripples.”
Marguerite keeps a diary of her mental state while waiting for Robert, and her surreal feelings, verging on madness and spoken in voice-over, parallel the camera’s imagery, which blurs with illusion, delusion, and hallucination. The background music becomes cacophonous, and we the audience physically experience the mind’s demise into disconnection to the living world, as a result of unmitigated waiting and fear. The film’s crowning achievement is how the camera, sound, and scripting mirror the person’s interior world when severed from reality and relationships. The long silences with just Marguerite’s face on the screen (always smoking in deep reflection), convey the depth of her psychic pain, which includes fear for her own life. Many observations about the war and anti-Semitism intersperse the film, as well as a plot involving a French cop working for the Germans, but the film’s poetic essence is its study of human emotions.
One small criticism: the film’s ending comes as a jolt and lacks clarity, particularly when Marguerite’s earlier, delirious vision of a newborn baby reemerges as a truth in the final scene and without adequate explanation. Additionally, when Marguerite tells Robert (who barely survives Dachau) that “I want a divorce, I want Dionys baby, nothing has changed in two years,” more confusion arises. All through the movie Marguerite’s been waiting for Robert’s return—it’s the entire study of the movie—although we do wonder at times about her relationship to Dionys, a fellow resistance worker. So, to hear her say she wants a divorce and Dionys baby, and nothing has changed in two years, suggests that before Robert was dragged off to Dachau, Marguerite wanted a divorce in order to be with Dionys. This muddled ending doesn’t quite fit the story we’ve been so deeply a part of—waiting with Marguerite for her beloved Robert to survive the war. It may be that Duras’s memoir sheds light on these last details.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

12 Days

Directed by Raymond Depardon (2017)
At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Annual French Film Festival, July 13 & 14

Special to the Boston City Paper by Joseph Spilsbury

This beautifully captured documentary film by Raymond Depardon was truly sad to watch. I felt a deep empathic emptiness, a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, like how I imagine the patients must feel as they take their turns sitting before the judge, again and again, accompanied by lawyers, and getting shut down each time. Not one is released, and many have been locked up for months or years. I felt more striking sadness watching this film than I do on a daily basis working as a therapist at an inpatient psychiatric hospital. Having worked at one of the only remaining Massachusetts state hospitals for one year, as well as two private acute inpatient psychiatric hospitals since, there is much to compare between how things are dealt with clinically and legally.
For one, the patients in the film are locked up for 12 days (that is a long initial time frame) before they even have the right to see a judge and present their case; and as the film portrays, they seemingly are always kept for further evaluation and treatment. The judge already knows the verdict, though still asks the patients, and their lawyers, for their thoughts, before deliberating the conclusions that the psychiatrists have already made beforehand. In the film, not one patient is released during this court-like process. The torment is palpable.
Here in Boston, and in the State of Massachusetts, almost all patients are brought to inpatient hospitals on a Section 12, which can be done by a police officer, social worker, or psychiatrist. This section implies that the person is a danger to themselves or others: that they have likely attempted suicide, had an overdose, threatened to take their life to a family member, or maybe discussed the idea or a plan with a therapist; or simply stated it at the wrong time and place, oftentimes under the influence. A Section 12 is basically one of two things, suicidal ideation or homicidal ideation, and it is usually in the hands of the police to make the judgement call and get the person to an ER for a clinical evaluation.
Under a Section 12, once a person gets to the psychiatric hospital, they have three days (one quarter of the length of time shown in the French hospital in the film) before they have to sign a “conditional voluntary,” stating they will work with the treatment team, comply with medications, go to group therapy, and meet with their social worker to figure out a plan for discharge. This can be an extremely complicated process, and messy. The majority of patients retaliate against treatment and sign a “three-day notice,” because they do not want to be kept locked up; they often want to leave immediately. The patients have the option to “rescind” their three-day notice and sign the conditional voluntary; but if they don’t, then the psychiatrist is bound by law to take them to a court commitment hearing, which if they lose (oftentimes the case), they are legally bound to the hospital for up to six months—and if they don’t get discharged before that allotted time, they are sent to a state hospital.
12 days is a long time to wait before hearing any judgment on an individual’s case. The average total length of stay at my hospital is about two weeks. Some come in and out in a few days or a week, some a few more weeks, and occasionally we have a treatment-resistant person who ends up living in our walls for months on end. In the three years I have worked at my current hospital, I have seen only three patients stay the entire six months and get transferred to a state hospital.
With the demographic I work with, racially and ethnically diverse, though a generally low socio-economic status, many people come from very complex traumatic backgrounds, have experienced physical and sexual abuse from a young age, grew up in gangs or with violence on the streets, and in many cases, have significant criminal backgrounds. Though we are not a licensed “dual diagnosis” unit, still 80–90 percent of all patients I encounter are addicts, and many are poly-substance abusers. A decent percentage are homeless, with no roof over their heads on the outside, with nowhere to go, which makes the job of the social workers challenging.
We try to set up a safe discharge plan and get them out of the hospital as soon as they are stable and can care for themselves. This is the ideal, but it is not sustainable. Mental illness is chronic, and unless individuals are aware and in full acceptance of their condition, they will likely be noncompliant with treatment as soon as they are released. We try our best from a multidisciplinary team approach, with the medications and the therapy; and the social workers often set up further “step-down” treatment options, at various types of outpatient programs, clinics, and rehabilitation centers, in which the patients can attend groups and have structure during the day, continue with their medication regiment, but be free in the evenings. Sadly, too often, we can’t get an outpatient program to accept a patient, or vice-versa (the patient won’t comply, or quits after a few days), and many people unfortunately go straight to homeless shelters; basically back where they came from.
In more than three years at one hospital, I have seen countless faces return—three, four, five times, in some cases more, and that is just on my unit, one of six. Sometimes these individuals walk out the door and are back in a few days or weeks. I look into every patient’s record that I work with, and some have had 40, 50, 60 “episodes,” or inpatient stays, just at my hospital alone. We call it the “revolving door.” These patients are “in the system” for life. They are even sometimes referred to as “professional patients.”
So, while the legality and structure of the hospital care in the United States, or in Massachusetts, is different from France’s system, it is not necessarily better or worse. We try our best to get patients stable, so they can leave, but the support system and safety net is not systemically strong enough yet, and it often feels hopeless and helpless in the same way the film portrayed patients being locked up.
One noticeable difference, from a humanitarian perspective, was the sterility of the hospital in the French documentary—almost as if no life existed between the walls and behind closed doors. It looked and felt like a prison, a holding cell. Where were the patients? Where were the groups? The treatment? The doctors? Or is it just a holding cell? At my hospital, it is a bustling ecosystem, with 24 patients on a single unit, sometimes 6, 8, or 10 attending each of my four therapy groups per day. They go downstairs as a unit for three meals a day (unless unit restricted), and they go outside to the courtyard as a group twice a day. We have music therapy, art therapy, occupational therapy, and activity groups, as well as a front day-room with a kitchen, and a back day-room, and two TVs (turned off during group therapy), and a sensory room, and a quiet room. Not that this presents a “normal” or “free life” for them, but in contrast, the film portrayed no life inside the walls of the Edouard Herriott Hospital. It was slightly disturbing. I’ll say it again, it gave me a feeling of deep emptiness, a striking sadness, that these poor patients have nothing to live for and keep getting shot down every single time they go before the judge. It’s like a sadistic joke by the end of the film. At least in my experience working inpatient, I have seen many (even if a small percentage) beat the psychiatrist in their court commitment hearings. I am sometimes secretly rooting for them, even though I am on the same treatment team as the doctor. Sometimes the system inevitably feels sick.

Joseph Spilsbury is a clinical mental health counselor and music therapist and works as a group therapist at an inpatient psychiatric hospital. He is a multi-instrumentalist and composer, as well as the co-founder and guitarist of the local Boston band, Miele (Mielemusic.com). He is on the board of the Massachusetts Music Therapy Alliance (MMTA).

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Beauty and the Dogs

Directed by Kaouther Ben Hania

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, June 15–17
New films from Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, and Algeria
Visit mfa.org for the schedule 

Beauty and the Dogs takes us through one hellish night of a young rape victim, Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani). Her odyssey—a living nightmare—floors us not only with her reality, but also with what we ourselves ignore when such heinous actions don’t touch our lives personally. Set in Tunisia’s criminal justice system, the film’s message pertains to the world, for everywhere on earth police forces, courts, and governments can’t be relied on to uphold right from wrong. We witness in Beauty and the Dogs a pandemic societal sickness: the dishonesty, bullying, intimidation, violence, and trauma inflicted on anyone who can’t “afford justice.” Hypocrisy, chicanery, and inhumanity rule the law.
Bright, fun-loving Mariam organizes a dance at her college in Tunis. Her prim, high-collared dress for the party tears, so her friend Naila lends her a low-cut, satin-blue, slinky dress that Mariam reluctantly puts on, as she’s a fairly abiding Muslim woman. The two friends leave the changing room and enter the low-lit, music-filled party, with men and women dancing and flirting. Mariam immediately notices an attractive man, Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli), who also notices her.
Beauty and the Dogs is based on a true story published as a novel in 2013, titled Guilty of Having Been Raped. Following the format of a book, the film develops in chapters, starting with the party, and with subsequent episodes moving through a nightmarish maze of Tunis’s private and public hospitals and its police stations, as Mariam tries to press charges for her rape. Instead of being helped by doctors and police, she’s turned away because those people who could (and should) help her fear for their own safety, or, in the case of the police, they’re criminal and will find reasons to arrest Mariam rather than their cohorts. It’s the verisimilitude of Mariam’s terrifying odyssey that penetrates the viewer with the reality of our world’s morality. The movie’s title suggests “beauty” stands for life and “dogs” for human beings.
Youssef, Mariam’s new boyfriend, whom the police handcuff in order to rape her, faces the same brutality as Mariam, making the movie not solely about a Muslim woman’s plight, but about people in general—the regular people and the minorities who face treachery and ridicule when they seek justice. An elder policeman at the station, Chedly, witnesses repeatedly his younger colleagues’ transgressions and ultimately stands up for right over wrong, again, showing us that not all men are the vile creatures we’re treated to in this movie—and they are very, very bad. Kudus to the actors taking on such depraved roles.
Mariam, though helped initially by Youssef until he’s carted off to jail on false charges, faces an unimaginable ordeal after just being raped. Her face and mechanical way of walking show her trauma. It’s hard to imagine how she carries on after each door closes on her, leaving her alone with the demons chasing her down. Ever onward she stumbles, insisting she’ll bring the perpetrators to trial.
The most powerful scene in Mariam’s odyssey is when she decides to call her father. She realizes that in order to press charges her story will go public and her family will find out about her “disgrace.” Mustering once more remarkable courage, this young college student calls her father and asks him to please come to the station as fast as possible, “because these people are frightening me.”
The insanity of the night finally ends, and Mariam steps out of the station into daylight, a seemingly more rational world. But the air is heavy, clouded, unresolved. Her difficult future lies ahead—the work, the sacrifice of life, to prove how justice is synonymous with bad guys, crooks, corruption. Her story has deeply penetrated us. Do we get up, go home, and forget this movie, or do we remember it and take action?

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Prince and the Dybbuk (2017) and The Dybbuk (1937)

The National Center for Jewish Film's 21st Annual Film Festival, May 2–13, 2018
The Prince and the Dybbuk (2017), dir. Piotr Rosolowski and Elwira Niewiera
The Dybbuk (1937), dir. Michał Waszyński
May 6, 2:00 and 4:00, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

These two films—the first a documentary related to the second, which is based on Yiddish theater—screen back to back and should be seen together if possible.

Waszyński, 1930
The Prince and the Dybbuk (2017) and The Dybbuk (1937) are chock-full of complexities that might take more than one viewing of each to fully appreciate. Shot in black-and-white, The Dybbuk surely ranks among film classics, partly for its Yiddish theater legacy. It also embodies a dimension related to the personal life of its director, “Prince” Michał Waszyński (1904–1965), that would not be known were it not for the The Prince and the Dybbuk interpreting the material.
Waszyński, an aristocratic and admired filmmaker from his young adulthood until his death, hid his shtetl and yeshiva beginnings in Kovel, Ukraine, not only from the world but also from himself, as those early memories bore too much pain. The haunting images we’re shown from both his past life in Kovel and his post–World War II life in Italy involve his repressed homosexuality that may have prompted  his early flight to Warsaw and then Berlin, as well as his conversion to Catholicism and his name change from Moshe Waks to Michał Waszyński.
Later, memories of the Holocaust and murder of his family and friends increasingly break through Waszyński’s efforts to forget, leading to intolerable psychic pain, made worse by his inability to share his story with others, not even with his adopted family in Rome, the Dickmanns. However, one does wonder if just after the war he might have revealed his past to the older, humanitarian Italian countess, Dolores Tarantini, who helped him, married him, and promptly died, leaving him her fortune and palace in Rome.
The Prince and the Dybbuk uses traditional documentary techniques to piece together Waszyński’s life, but it also takes off creatively for many of its segments, integrating archival film footage of shtetl life, which complement voice-over memories from Waszyński’s diary. A particularly painful scene shows the Kovel synagogue today, first from the outside and then within, where the central cavity under the square dome has become a clothing factory. A Kovel survivor tells us how the Germans locked the town’s Jews, including the Waks family, in the synagogue. There, waiting to be killed, they wrote last messages on the walls. Archival stills show us individual faces—faces that could easily be your own family members’ faces no matter what your religious background. These captive faces are trying to make sense of being imminently killed. Voice-overs simultaneously speak the lines we assume were written on the synagogue walls. It’s a difficult moment in the film—incomprehensible pending murder—and yet, its reality is exactly what Waszyński couldn’t erase from his memory.
The documentary links Waszyński’s obsession with his film The Dybbuk to his own life, and integrates a mystical cemetery scene from the film. Waszyński’s diary toward the end of his life reveals how he’s tormented by a dybbuk who has possessed him. The film interprets this spirit as a yeshiva student Waszyński might have loved, forcing his flight from Kovel, his change of identity, and his inconsolable grief over the Nazi genocide.

Lili Liliana and Leon Liebgold in The Dybbuk, 1937

One of the documentary’s most shocking scenes is of the Battle of Monte Cassino, which Anders’ Polish army fought with the Allies. Waszyński was the troop’s filmmaker and recorded the cataclysmic bombing, its towering clouds of smoke, and the ancient monastery’s destruction. The army went on to liberate Rome, where Waszyński’s life and career came to settle.
Even without the insights and enrichments of Rosolowski and Niewiera’s documentary, Waszyński’s The Dybbuk stands alone as a film classic. Besides capturing with beauty and perfection a lost culture—Eastern Europe’s shtetl life and yeshiva study—it also preserves traditional Yiddish theater and folklore or mythology. The film is based on S. Ansky’s 1914 play of the same name. Its structure resembles Greek drama, and its story is a parable. The sets, action, acting, and cultural atmosphere filled with religious music all contribute to an outcome of extraordinary film art that shares an aesthetic with Orson Welles.

Etching by Ephraim Moses Lillien (1874–1925). In Jewish mythology, a dybbuk is the evil spirit of a dead person that possesses another person. In The Dybbuk, a young shtetl woman is possessed by the spirit of the man she was to marry but her father rejected.