Fair Fight – It’s a Dog Eat Anything World

Loyalty is an admirable quality in a person. However, we are frequently asked to split our loyalties, and as often as not, those splits can sometimes be for conflicting parties. A child of divorce, the work/family divide, or something as simple as two sets of friends. Sometimes, it’s not even a human being. As they say, a dog is a man’s best friend. And in “Fair Fight”, a man is a dog’s best friend too.

A young man has a dog. In their neighborhood, there is a gang boss who runs dogfights and not coincidentally is owed a not inconsiderable sum by the young man’s brother. We learn that this is not the first time he’s had to bail out his brother. It seems the only way out for the brother is to enter his dog into the ring. And here his loyalties are divided. His brother is obviously a chronic gambler, and even if he manages to clear his brother’s debt, who’s to say he won’t run it up again? And this time there will be nothing to get him out. At the same time, his dog is his best friend amidst the turmoil in his life. He is effectively placed in a kind of Sophie’s Choice, neither outcome will lead to anything good.

The film makes good use of some geometrical visuals to highlight the young man’s torn loyalties. And while, for obvious reasons, it does not show actual dog fighting, it gets the points across within the limitations of its production values.

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Tofu – A Boy and His Dog

There is a lot going on in “Tofu”. A young boy is attached to a puppy (named “Tofu”) that his father tells him he has to get rid of. This same boy is named after his uncle who was killed in a war. The day they choose to take the puppy to the pound happens to be Memorial Day, when they are on the way to a ceremony commemorating the same uncle. Along the way they make several stops, including at the grandmother’s home. If there is one thing this movie doesn’t lack, it’s plot lines. Perhaps it would have been better served by focusing the disparate leads into a more coherent through line, but that is neither here nor there. This is the movie that is.

However this movie is part of a long tradition of films where children bond with animals. The young boy does not say much, he is largely in his own world. A world of headphones and his dog. With the emotional weight of being named after a family member who died in service to his country, an overbearing father, and a seemingly indifferent older brother, it is little wonder that he retreats into his own world. Tofu, the dog, doesn’t demand anything of his owner that he isn’t willing to give. It remains to be seen if he will ultimately be able to part with his one beacon of stability.

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Brown Blue – Reach for the Skies

There is something exhilaratingly free about the open skies. From the biblical story of Babel to the Greek gods living on the heights of Mt. Olympus, from the early days of flight to the modern space race, humankind has always strived to be Icarus (well, before he flew too close to the sun) winging his way to the heavens. The flip side is that by nature we are trapped on the ground by gravity, and it takes a phenomenal amount of work to achieve flight. That work requires a crew. And to be one of that crew, always sending others aloft, while secretly desirous of joining them, can be a frustrating existence.

That is the situation the main character of “Brown-Blue” finds herself in. She works as part of the ground crew for air balloons, staying on the ground as she regularly sends other into the skies. At first she seems content with this, but quickly it becomes clear that just as humanity was attracted to the heavens, so is she. But it’s not really the answer.
The air balloons are only a metaphor for her life. She is stuck in an endless circle of drudgery, and every time she attempts to leave it, the gravity of her situation pulls her back in. It’s not that it’s at all bad a life, it’s just not the life she would like. So it is left to her to find the answer, will she remain forever a member of the ground crew, or will she take wings like Icarus and soar to the heavens?

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35 Acres – Focal Point of a Conflict

There is a saying that Israel is the center of the world, Jerusalem the center of Israel, and the Temple Mount the center of Jerusalem. Looking at ancient maps this is not so difficult to comprehend, in many, Jerusalem lies as a fulcrum point between Asia, Africa and Europe. For hundreds of years multiple forces have contested over the region, coming and going. And for even longer, for nearly 2000 years Jews have prayed facing Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. It has been a central component to the Jewish faith, as the closing words of the Passover Seder state: “Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem”. This refers not to the vibrant city that modern Jerusalem is, but a rebuilt temple. Except, like the land itself, there is a competing voice for the same territory.

In “35 Acres” we hear those voices. We follow a group of religious Jews as they ascend to the Temple Mount, where today lies the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim mosque. This in itself is a contentious act even within Judaism, as there are varying religious opinions as to whether Jews are allowed to tread on such holy ground. However this group is comprised of Jews who see it as their duty to continue Jewish presence on the mountain top. Except the Temple Mount is under the control of the Wakf, which sees any form of Jewish prayer, however symbolic, as a threat to its hegemony.

The situation is as complex as it sounds. There are no easy answers. It is like the above mentioned saying, these 35 acres of the Temple Mount, lying in the center of Jerusalem, in the center of the world, are the linchpin to everything.

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Inside Envelopes

Artistic collaboration is always a complicated endeavor. The desire to realize one’s vision, that creative push is difficult even in the best of situations, the struggle with one’s own inner voices of criticism, always wondering if this is good enough, can it be tweaked just once more to make it just that much better. To do so in collaboration with another is to bring that voice alive, to take it out of your head and vocalize it in another body, one with its own desires, reasoning and logic that at times is at odds with your own. Now add into that already potentially combustible situation a sibling collaboration, and everything is suddenly turned up exponentially.

“Envelopes” is the name of a dance concert featuring two sets of siblings, Israeli dancers, Keren and Reut Levi, and British musicians, (and identical twins), Tom and Alex Parkinson. The concept of the show is to celebrate the kinship ties of blood, music and dance. “Inside Envelopes” takes us into the creative process as these two family groups put together the production.

The three ‘envelopes’, i.e. sections of the show, that we get a look inside of, correspond to the relationships within the group. While the two different sets of siblings is obvious, less so is Karen and Tom. At one point they were in a romantic relationship as well, but as that didn’t work out they maintained a professional one. This just adds fuel to the collaborative fire. Keren is a demanding choreographer, and she expects no less from her partners.

The relationship between Keren and Reut is complicated. With a 12 year age difference, they might have each been only children. By the time Reut came along, Keren was already deeply involved with dance and not really home and as an adult Keren lives in Amsterdam. The “Envelopes” project is a chance for the two of them to, not so much reconnect, as connect in the first place. It is fitting then that their dance has the two connected by a rope, pushing and pulling between them.

Tom and Alex’s “Envelope” is to have the two of them playing music in tandem. While their history is not as complicated as the Levi sisters, they do not often get a chance to play music together these days. For them it is a reconnection. That isn’t to mean that their process is any less complicated than that of the sisters. There may not be a physical rope connecting them, but the emotional one is no less strong. The push and pull to find the correct beat, to open their envelope and read what is inside.

The film understandably pays less attention to the third “Envelope”, that of Keren and Tom, as it doesn’t pack quite the emotional baggage as that of siblings. In fact it isn’t until deep into the film that their former relationship is brought up, though it comes as no surprise. It also serves as the catalyst for one of the blowups that threaten the project. Keren’s assertiveness isn’t only on the dance floor. Or more accurately, her controlling nature, which serves her well as a choreographer and dancer is not conducive to successful personal relationships, whether romantic or familial.

One other thing of interest in the film, is that while Tom and Alex are identical, which understandably makes it difficult to determine who is who, Keren and Reut, in spite of the large age difference between them, bear a striking resemblance to one another. This is accentuated in the “Envelopes” production as they are dressed alike.

Inside Envelopes” is a frank look at the creative process, further complicated by the bonds of sibling-hood.
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Magia Russica

There is something compelling to the animated image that allows it to transcend cultures and becomes timeless. Perhaps it lies in the ability to disregard the natural laws of the world when needed, anthropomorphizing otherwise inanimate objects or the freedom to move without regard to physics or biology. Or maybe it’s just the magic of the moving image. Think of the joy of introducing your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews to the antics of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, the nostalgia of Disney films, and the cleverness of the more recent players in the field. In fact the longest running American prime time TV show, The Simpsons, is animated. And yet, all these are largely western products. As any animation aficionado knows there is a thriving scene in Japan, major studios in the UK, and in fact all around the world unique forms of animation can be found. These diverse studios all offer something different than the sanitized American product, something that can only come from that culture. The former Soviet Union was one of them.

Like many other artistic fields, the Soviet socialist government sponsored the art form, and in 1936 the Soyuzmultfilm studio came into existence. The film “Magia Russica” delves into the history of the studio, interviewing several of its key players, from the early years to its eventual breakup with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and screening a choice selection of films the studio put out. Like other arts supported by the government, it was subjected to censorship, however as animation had the “stigma” of being an art form for children its impact was less and the studio managed to produce quite revolutionary films for its time and place. With budgets from the government, and access to movie theatres across the USSR, it managed to create a uniquely Russian form of animation, (not to mention drawing on the wealth of Russian literature and folktales). In fact the infamous Marxist dialectic is at play in director Roman Kachanov’s films, he was known for finding the sad notes in happy scenes, and a smile in sad scenes.

The title of the movie, “Magia Russica” is Latin for Russian magic. Similar to what was mentioned above, when soon to be legendary director Fyodor Khitruk first saw the films of Walt Disney he was blown away. He could not fathom how such pictures could come from a human hand and mind. To him it had to be a kind of magic. Khitruk eventually created his own magic in a version of the classic Winnie the Pooh, which held its own against the Disney version when the creators of the two met. In fact, even though he didn’t use the original drawings, he stayed true to the text, often bringing out aspects of the characters not found in the Disney version.

Besides Khitruk, one other notable director interviewed is Yuri Norstein. Norstetin came on board in the later days of Soyuzmultfilm, though he still managed to direct what is arguably one of the greatest works of animation, “Tale of Tales”. The film was awarded the title “The best Animation film of all times and nations” in the Arts Olympics at Los Angeles in 1983. At the time of filming, he was still active, along with other veterans of the studio, and we are treated to view their current work. While state support has disappeared, and with it the strict censorship, the freedom to create freely comes at a price, namely the automatic state financial support. But the animators continue on, harnessing the “Magia Russica”.

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Sound of Turture

Life is not a fairy tale. Well, maybe it is, but not the happy ending kind. More like the original stories the Brothers Grimm collected. The kind where the dark and dangerous lurk around every corner, where Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their toes to fit the glass slipper, Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf and Hansel and Gretel aren’t saved but rather cooked by the witch. We try to protect ourselves and loved ones from this dark reality, to think that the stories are just legends of a bygone time, and enjoy the happy ending version, but the world can be a cruel place.

In “Sound of Torture” the dark and dangerous fairy tales reign. Eritrean refugees, seeking their own happy ending, make their way through Sudan and Egypt to the Israeli border. If they are lucky they are able to cross, ostensibly to a better life. The unlucky ones are kidnapped in the Sinai and held captive until their loved ones pay a hefty ransom in the realms of tens of thousands of dollars. And even that does not guarantee freedom, they still need to cross the border, but are just as likely to be sent back to their home country. The time in captivity is no picnic either, there they are shackled, beaten, starved, and raped. However the true torture, the most painful sound, is the phone calls from the captives to their loved ones.

In a cruel twist of fate, the kidnappers give their captives cell phones so they can contact their family to raise the funds for their release. They hear first-hand what the captives are going through, often in real time as they talk. This psychological torture is far more effective than being held incommunicado. To know every day what they are going through, to be in communication but unable to do anything about the situation but attempt to raise the funds in any way possible.

The film centers on Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean journalist living in Sweden and the story of two women held captive. Meron broadcasts calls from the captives on her weekly radio program and attempts to communicate with the kidnappers. Her show has become an important focal point for both the captives and their families. In the film she travels to Tel Aviv to meet first hand with the people she has helped and later to Sinai to try and find out more information on the hostages. Ironically, in Sinai she drives right by the presumed prison camp, but is helpless to do anything. There is also a bittersweet reunion with one of the first captives she helped release. The emotional strain causes her to lapse into what is clearly a PTSD flashback. Meron’s joy at the meeting is tempered by the pain this woman has gone through. This same sentiment runs through all of her meetings with the refugees. Each story of failure weighs on her, and the price of each success no less.

What is the answer? A discussion among the refugees to consider not paying must be unanimous, otherwise it has no teeth. Unspoken is the reality that more likely than not the kidnappers will just kill them all and try again. They are trapped in an international no man’s land without legal status. Returning home to the oppressive military dictatorship is as dangerous as the trek through the Sinai, perhaps even more so. In Israel their status is murky, and part of a larger political and social debate. There really is no happy ending to this story. One can only hope that the scars will one day fade and the victims, both the captives and their loved ones, will no longer be able to hear the “Sound of Torture”.

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Thou Shalt Not Dance

Dance has always been intimately intertwined with the sacred. From ancient rites to Sufism, dance has been a way to connect with the divine, in fact in some cultures the dance was a form of religious worship in and of itself. Judaism, with its focus on textual study largely avoided this type of worship. Perhaps it was the loss of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and with it its grand ritual pageantry, or maybe it goes further back into biblical prohibitions on joining the various pagan cults of the ancient Near East. However, with the rise of Hasidism in the 18th century, there was a distinct movement to restore the simple joy of singing and dancing into Jewish practice, though this still was only within the purview of religious practice, the serving of God through joy

As there is no specific prohibition on dance in Judaism, there are two issues that the dancers in the documentary film “Thou Shalt Not Dance” need to contend with to maintain their Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. The first, is quite simply the mixing of the sexes. The characters we meet follow a strict interpretation of Jewish law that forbids touching of the opposite sex outside of matrimony. In most dance schools this would be an unsurpassable barrier. Here it is solved by the simple solution of their dance school being for men only. The other, and more complex issue is the social stigma of dance in the community.

The reality is that both issues stem from the same root. The deep sensuality of modern dance is at odds with those same codes of modesty that prohibit contact. Such matters are better kept private, not pranced about in public, let alone celebrated on the stage. Whether this harkens back to those same pagan rituals that biblical Judaism was constantly fighting against, or a more modern view where the artistic lifestyle conflicts with that of an Orthodox Jew doesn’t matter. The men who seek to express themselves through movement are doing something that goes against the grain in their community. It is interesting to find this attitude still persists these days, as members of the Orthodox community have made inroads into the arts and it is no longer so rare to see a kippa clad artist.

What is perhaps not entirely unique about the dancers featured in the film, is that they are so clearly dancers from their inner soul. Whether it’s about overcoming PTSD or as a method to find deeper meaning in Talmudic study, the moment at which they discovered movement as a form of expression it became a part of them. They are dancers, even if at times they may come across as less than professional. The desire burns in them, to move, to dance. And it is this what drives them to the central event of the film.

As outliers in the Orthodox Jewish world, they put on a show so that their friends and family can see what they have been doing the previous three years. While it would be an 80s movie cliché to say that the continuation of their dance school is dependent on the success of the show, that is not far from the truth. However it is more than that. It is a chance to really be dancers: on the stage in front of an audience, to feel the spotlights and hear the crowd. To determine whether it is a passing whim, or truly a calling. The result of their show will lead to them to face a larger question of how to continue balancing these two seemingly incompatible desires, to follow the strictures of an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle and modern dance. Can one find the balance between the two, or is one relegated to “Thou Shalt Not Dance”?

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More Alive than Dead – Freud Still Affects All of Us Deep Down From His Grave

In 2007 Apple Inc. released the first version of their eponymous iPhone. Over the years subsequent releases of the newer models became cultural events, where consumers would stand outside in lines for hours, if not days, to become one of the very first owners of the latest offering from Apple. It didn’t matter that they had done the very same thing not more than a year or so earlier for the previous model, or that that phone was certainly still a viable device. Those people became consumed by the materialistic desire to own the latest, greatest most up to date device possible. But it goes beyond technology. The desire for branded goods, simply because they carry a name has become a part of the modern world.
This crass commercialism is just one of the myriad ways in which the influence of Freudian thought has penetrated western culture. These days we take for granted the influence of the subconscious on our actions and the deep neurosis of our sexuality (even my use of the words subconscious and neurosis here betrays the unconscious influence of Freud… And again, my use of the word “unconscious”…). In fact it could be said that the success of Freud has outgrown even his attempts at curing his patients of their various psychoses. As the film “More Alive Than Dead” demonstrates, even after his death, Freud still has an influence over us. In some ways, he is still alive.
However, in spite of the enormous influence of Freudian psychoanalysis, there are still those that disagree with him. The film More Alive than Dead introduces us to some of these figures, while mostly academics, they include artists and others. For some of them, their willingness to question the almost godlike status of Freudian psychoanalysis is tantamount to a betrayal of society itself. However, it is refreshing to hear the viewpoints of those who are willing to go as far as calling Freud out as a grandstander. The reality is that the “father of Psychoanalysis” was likely just as neurotic as he made out his patients to be, at least in his desire for the limelight. Even putting aside the argument that the whole thing is a sham, that he exploited his patients for self-promotion, if we take it as proven that Freud is correct in his theories, it wasn’t the proverbial “Eureka” moment. The development of psychoanalysis was a team effort. As the film highlights, it was probably Sigmund Freud who pushed himself forward as the public face. Perhaps he was just harnessing his theories in an early form of public relations using Freudian thought to encourage the promulgation of psychoanalysis as much as himself. And in fact, public relations and advertising today, owe as much to Freud as anyone.
At the time, it was a shocking revelation coming as it did at the tail end of the Victorian age and its extreme codes of morality. To publicly say that our actions are defined by our unconscious sexual desires was scandalous. Could it have just been a cause célèbre that tickled the fancy of the public for its outrageous (at the time) revelations? There must be something to it, otherwise the theories would not have become so prevalent in our times. Psychoanalysis has found its way into virtually every aspect of modern life. Besides the above mentioned commercialist application of “desire”, it has been co-opted as a theory to explain all sorts of things. We see it in every TV show and film where we attempt to understand the reasons behind the characters’ actions (Hitchcock for instance was an early adapter and Freudian thought is all over his films). It is in every ad campaign that uses sexuality to sell the product, and in every cry of conservative morality against such use. It is virtually impossible to avoid Freud in one way or another in the modern age. As the film so succinctly puts it, Freud really is “More Alive than Dead”.

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The Messiah Will Always Come

Somewhere past the halfway mark in “The Messiah Will Always Come”, Hagit utters the titular phrase. Attributing it to her grandfather, renowned Jerusalem intellect Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the sentiment is that no matter what happens, there will still be a messiah. The depth of this statement echoes Hagit’s love/hate relationship with religion and the Land of Israel. The truth of the matter is, that it is less of a love/hate connection, and more of a love/extremely frustrated relationship. It is without a doubt that Hagit’s single minded focus on documenting the settlements in the Occupied Territories comes from a love of the land, a desire to do what she believes is best for the Jewish people. It is in the way she effortlessly quotes the Bible, the sincere belief that the actions of the settlements affect the Jewish soul. And in her own internal dilemma over her personal religious beliefs.

The film itself follows Hagit, an operative of Peace Now, as she travels throughout the West Bank territories documenting additions to Israeli settlements. The Sisyphean task finds her travelling the countryside in her pickup truck, keeping an eye out for changes in existing settlements, new construction or any other signs challenging the status quo. It is a lonely task. The sometimes bleak landscapes she drives through echoes her own seclusion in her chosen task, a solitary warrior on the forefront of an ideological battle.

Coming from a Religious Zionist background, as a young woman she joined other like-minded friends from the same. As these things go, most of the friends moved on while she remained dedicated to the cause. And dedicated she must be.

It’s not clear from the film itself, but one gets the impression that she is a known quantity at some of the settlements. On one than more occasion she is refused entry for unclear reasons. Although, in at least one case she has quite an enlightening conversation with the security officer denying her entry. In this instance, he is a member of one of the few secular settlements. According to the film, only 4% of the settlements are classified as completely secular. To many that is the crux of the matter, the settlements are not a political or security issue, but one of religion. It is religion that drives settlers to live in inhospitable conditions as they reclaim the land for the Jewish people. And in an oblique manner, it is also religion that drives Hagit.

Hagit is not specifically opposed to religion, even though she has effectively stopped practicing the orthodoxy from which she comes. It is rather the high jacking of religious thought to promote an extreme ideology based on religion. In this case there is no room for negotiation, it is a belief in an absolute righteousness that comes from God. There is no arguing with divine right. But that same drive behind the settler movement also drives Hagit. That be seen in the devotion she gives to her cause. In its own way, it is not that much different than those who stand on the other side of her work.

In the end, this is a film about one woman standing up for what she believes. Whether or not you agree with her politics, what we all can agree on is that she will continue her work until the Messiah comes, and the Messiah will always come.

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