Leavened Trauma, From Bondage to Freedom

This week Jews around the world will sit down to the Passover seder and “relive” the exodus from Egypt, eating unleavened matzah in commemeration of the quick exit from bonadage which left them no time to allow their bread to rise. One of the other commandements of the seder is to think of oneself as having experienced personally the journey from the bondage of slavery to life as a freeman. In the modern age it is difficult to imagine that experience. In Pizza in Auschwitz, Danny Hanoch, a Holocaust survivor, as a freeman returns to the site of his bondage, the Birkenau death camp where he enjoys the leavened luxury of pizza in the bunk where he was once a slave.

15 Years of Trauma

15 years ago today, on Passover eve, as Israelis were sitting down to the Passover seder in the Park Hotel in Netanya, a suicide terrorist bomb exploded killing 30 and wounding another 140. This was the deadliest attack of the Second Intifada, and following it Israel declared a state of emergency and a massive call up of reservists, leading to Operation Defensive Shield. Eight days after the reserve call up, 13 officers and soldiers of the Nachshon Battalion were killed in one of the deadliest days for the IDF since the end of First Lebanon War. In Jenin, War Diary, filmmaker Gil Mezuman, himself one of the soldiers of the battalion and a part of the fighting, chronicles the aftermath of this attack his comrades in arms experienced.

Terrorism in London

This week was not the first nor the last time that terrorism has struck London. From attacks by the IRA to the Underground bombings of July, 2005, the capital of the United Kingdom has seen it’s fair share of terrorism. It has also not been immune to the impact of Middle Eastern politics. In 1978 Yulie Cohen, an El Al flight attendant, was wounded in a Palestinian attack on her and fellow crewmemebers while getting off a bus at a London hotel. More than two decades later she attempts reconcilliation with her attacker. She documents her journey in the film, My Terrorist.

Winding – A River of Change

There is a certain romance to the allure of floating down a river. From Mark Twain’s love affair with the Mississippi to Bogie and Bacall in the African Queen, we have always found escape in the flowing, meandering paths of the iconic waters of history; the above mentioned Mississippi, the Amazon, the Nile and the biblically famous Jordan. Though the Jordan is possibly the most famous of the rivers found in the Holy Land, it may come as a surprise how many others flow through the ancient landscapes. The Yarkon for one, the second largest river in Israel, is found through what is now central Israel, Tel Aviv and its environs, a highly, densely populated region that contains much of modern Israel’s urbanity.

The film “Winding”, like the paths of the rivers, takes us on the winding, twisting and changing paths of the Yarkon River from the days of the first Zionist pioneers to more recent times. It is a journey that follows the change and growth in the region and its effects on the river itself, in many ways paralleling the social changes in Israel itself. Charting the early days of Jewish construction along its banks, we are told the story of how it became one of the symbols of resurging Jewish nationhood and the endless optimism that was bound up in reclaiming the land. However, there was an environmental cost to this development in the land of milk and honey. Through a combination of urban growth projects in the 1950s, including the opening of the Reading Power Station near its mouth, and the Yarkon-Negev water pipeline (as part of the national water carrier, designated with pumping the waters of the Yarkon south to the parched desert regions of the Negev), the river’s state deteriorated. It grew so bad, that to the modern resident of Tel Aviv, the thought of entering its waters was not taken lightly. In fact, as documented in the film, at the 1997 Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv, Four participants lost their lives when a bridge they were crossing collapsed into the Yarkon. It wasn’t the collapse that eventually killed them, but because of the highly polluted waters, they contracted a rare and deadly fungus that was the cause of their deaths.

Mimicking the Yarkon’s pathways, the film utilizes a narrative structure eschewing traditional “talking heads”. The story of the Yarkon’s history is related in an intertwining narrative of those interviewed for the film. Their recollections are presented without any preamble or introduction to the figures behind the stories. It is the collective memory of those who grew up along the banks of the river, who witnessed the decline from a lush, thriving environment into an environmental disaster and its subsequent (and ongoing) restoration and revival. As we float amongst their stories, we are treated to footage of the river itself, both archival images from the early days and more recent filming of the depleted, murky river of today.

The myth of the early “halutzim”, or Zionist pioneers, was that they were reclaiming the land. However as time would tell, many of these projects ironically caused more ecological damage (for instance draining the Hula Valley). In “Winding” we are treated to the history and impact of these projects on the Yarkon. The way in which it relates the modern history of the Yarkon River echoes the byways of the river itself and parallels the growth of the state of Israel. In combining the anonymous voices of all the story tellers it becomes a tale of Israeli society as a whole, one that it behooves us to heed.

A Jerusalem Tale

A Jerusalem Tale is a story about Lazer Hirsch and his wife Baila. They are an orthodox, older couple, emigrated from America to Israel. They live a humble life inside the quarters of Jerusalem.

One day Lazer takes American tourists for a guided tour in Jerusalem. He shows them around and points out a Breslov Hassidic neighborhood. He tells them how “they believe they should always be happy, no matter what, even if you don’t have anything!”
Just a few seconds later their car crashes. From then on a series of misfortunes start to unfold and soon Lazer and Baila get sucked up into a quicksand of misery.

Why did these things happen one after the other?

There seems to be an important link put between happiness and straight out bad luck. How do these Breslav Hassidim stay happy in any condition?
Rebbe Nachman, the founder of the Breslav movement, said something quite extraordinary on his deathbed: “There is no such thing as despair at all.”

Wait. What?

Rebbe Nachman was 38 years old when he died of Tuberculosis. What could he have possibly meant by saying these words? He must have been in immense pain at that time. Why then?
A Jerusalem Tale is a sweet and touching film that explores these questions beautifully and comes to a moving conclusion.
Set during the Hanukkah days, the festival of miracles, the couple prays for a miracle to happen. Though sometimes miracles come in strange disguises… 🙂

 

Barriers – Archetypes of Stereotypes

In many ways, I’d like to say that “Barriers” exemplifies the best of Israeli cinema.

The production values are top notch, the acting is well done and the story itself is built on the seemingly insoluble conflict with the Palestinians. If there is one weak point then, perhaps it is in the characterizations.

The story is one that plays out every day across the crossing points between Israel and the Palestinian territories. An army checkpoint, manned by two soldiers and their officer, is officially closed. It is up to the young men manning it to maintain order in spite of the immense pressures to follow their orders. This is complicated when an ambulance arrives to cross the closed checkpoint and further complicated by the presence of women associated with an Israeli group tasked with documenting on video the goings on at the checkpoints. Of course, being a film, there are twists to each of these plot points that build to the shocking end.

It is in the nuance of its characters that “Barriers” shows its weakness. While each of the various soldiers might seem to be similar in their Israeliness, in actuality each represents an archetype bordering on stereotype. We have the Ashkenazi (Jews of European background) officer who speaks fluent Arabic, a symbol of the liberal “westernized” establishment. Who in spite of the tremendous tasked placed upon him, still preaches coexistence. With him is a soldier of Mizrachi origin (Jews of N. African and Eastern background), depicted as giving no quarter to the Palestinians trapped on the other side of the checkpoint. The third is the new immigrant, not entirely sure of what is going on, with his head in the clouds as it may be, manning the raised observation post and singing about being “above in the sky”. While these are valid archetypes, it only serves to point out the lack of definition of the Palestinians waiting to cross the checkpoint. They are depicted as a single uniform unit, even the ambulance driver is part of the same mass.

However, the case can be made that this story could not be told other than with these archetypes. The conflict is so fraught with tension and preconceived notions, that only by deconstructing the players to their base roles can some semblance of understanding possibly be achieved.

It is in this light that the ending can be made sense of. But I will leave that up to the viewer to decide for themselves.

 

The Last Witness – The Banality of Evil Up Close

Hitler’s bodyguard tells his story.

In many ways, it’s not surprising at all that WWII and the Holocaust, still so many years later provide us with fodder for films.

The enormous scope of the war and its impact on virtually every aspect of the world ensures that new stories will consistently find their way to our screens. However, the nature of the stories changes with time. There is a trend these days of showing the everyday nature of Hitler and the Nazi apparatus or as philosopher Hanna Arendt so succinctly put it, “the banality of evil”. This trend is no better personified than by Rochus Misch in “The Last Witness”.

After being wounded at the front, he is reassigned to Hitler’s “escort detail”, what today we’d call his bodyguards. While he acknowledges the fickle nature of his boss, his recollections are much more benign than the general image of evil that Hitler and the Nazis encompass in the world today. It’s not that wasn’t anything bad about him, it’s that he was, in simple terms, just this guy he worked for.

It’s not just the banality of it as Arendt says, but what this film shows us is how Misch revels in his notoriety as the last witness to the Nazi leader. He will talk to anyone who asks, answer all phone calls, open the door and invite everyone information a talk. This is tempered by interviews with his daughter who opposes his viewpoint. However, the power of the witness can be seen in his housekeeper, who questions what she was taught in school about the war based on Misch’s recollections. In a similar manner to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, as someone who lived the history, he has a kind of truth to his words. Only it’s a different perspective on the historical truth.

The Electric Mind – I think, Therefore I am

Along with outer space and the ocean’s surface, the human mind remains perhaps the last frontier left to explore. For eons, humanity has debated and discussed what makes us human, where our “soul”, that essence of what makes us human, lies.

In the mind perhaps? As Descartes so famously put it, “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think therefore I am), our ability to compute and rationalize the world leads us to believe that who we reside in our brains. But how to empirically quantify what is effectively unquantifiable? After all, the human brain is physically a bunch of gray mush, and our thoughts cannot be seen like the blood pumping through our hearts, or air through our lungs. But rather it’s a collection of electronic impulses of the neurons firing that is what we can measure.

In “The Electric Mind”, we explore the frontier of the brain via electric shock therapies. While it might seem the thing of mad scientists in mental institutes in schlocky B-movies, these therapies are a real and viable treatment for a number of mental issues. That isn’t to say they are not without controversy. The film serves to introduce us to doctors using them in real ways to help their patients. They explain the methods and statistics of the therapy. We follow patients as they undergo treatment, one in particular we follow through a series of 20 shock treatments. The science is clinical, the machines are direct and modern. It is a far cry from the pop cultural image we have of Electroshock Therapy. This is a real and viable method of treating certain brain issues. At least according to the doctors in the movie. Whether it truly is, is up to the viewer to decide after weighing the evidence presented.

The Edge of the Possible – Creation of an Icon

A man has always had a fascination with large building projects. The drive to build can be found as early as the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, which was most likely an ancient Babylonian Ziggurat.

Other ancient structures such as the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Wall of China have stood the test of time, while more “recent” projects such as the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower have become icons in their own right. But all these projects are in the past, and while we may have documentation of the stories behind some of a more recent one, it would be fascinating to see the story of any of them as told by those who were involved. In “The Edge of the Possible” we are awarded such a story, of no less an iconic landmark building as The Sydney Opera House.

Like all large projects of this nature, the process was riddled with politics and problems. At the very beginning, the decision was made to break ground before the design was finalized. The design itself was fraught with serious technical difficulties, to the effect that there was a serious possibility that it couldn’t be rendered into a reality. There were charges of xenophobia by Jorn Utzon, the Danish-born architect who had won the design contest. But that wasn’t to say that it was all problems. There was serious political power backing the building project. The solution to those technical issues led to the development of a whole new theory of architecture. And Utzon’s design was finally realized for the genius that it was.

“The Edge of the Possible” documents this process, with all of its ups and downs. Using archival footage of the actual building, along with broadcasts from the time documenting the developments and progress, and adding interviews of several of the major players involved we are given a rare insight into the building of one of the most iconic buildings of the 20th century, and quite possibly of history.

The Hangman – Tied to Israeli History

There is a common theme in war films, that says that young men, forced to kill, as soldiers are emotionally damaged by the experience. That it irrevocably changes them for the worst. While reality may challenge that assertion, there is no doubt that being trained for violence, and the subsequent killing does affect the human psyche.

However, there is a certain comfort in knowing that you are committing the act along with your comrades in arms. Even more so in modern warfare when you may not even see the enemy. But what happens when a single person is responsible for the direct death of another human being? Even one who has been charged with war crimes, and crimes against humanity. What happens when the killing is certainly justified, but you know that you are directly responsible for taking another human’s life?

In the 1960s, the Israeli government brought Adolph Eichman, one of the Nazi architects of the “Final Solution”, to trial. This proved a turning point in the understanding of the Holocaust in the eyes of the Israeli public. It also brought a simple prison guard named Shalom Nagar to the forefront of history as the man responsible for ending Eichman’s life. An Israeli of Yemenite background, (fearing possible assassination, Eichman’s guard detail was comprised of Israelis of N. African and Middle Eastern background), he was the one chosen to put an end to Eichmann’s life. Now he lives as a ritual slaughterer. Along the way, it seems that he somehow found himself at the of many important moments in Israeli history.