Category Archives: Film

“FRINGES”— Three Jewish styles of Contemporary Jewish identity

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“FRINGES”

Three Jewish styles of Contemporary Jewish identity

Amos Lassen

 In “Fringes” we meet the founders and participants of the secular yeshivah in Jerusalem, Jewish farmers in rural Virginia and a Bratslav like rabbi and his wife in Montreal (who plan to make aliyah to Israel). We get to know and like the people in the film, all of whom represented non-mainstream positive attempts at creating a meaningful, contemporary, religious or spiritual Jewish identity.

Pablo Elliott who is a Jewish organic farmer who lives in rural Virginia realizes that sometimes his family’s Judaism looks as if “we’re making it up as we go along.” He further says that they do but that celebrations of Shabbat and community are full of sincerity and devotion. What he and his family are doing he explains is creating a live and that this has always gone on in Judaism. People like Pablo and his wife, and the others featured in the film, are living full, joyous and meaningful Jewish lives yet they are different from what many of us know what being Jewish is all about.

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Director Paula Weiman-Kelman says that her aim with this film was to show real life and not a reality television version of it. She gives us, in the beginning of the film, an image of three strands of challah being braided into one bread and this, we can say, is the theme of the film—three stories coming together to make a larger whole with each story having its own sweetness, desires and ideas of holiness.

The different segments of the film are framed by Jewish texts, usually brief quotes from traditional sources (plus some non-traditional sources), and the camera shifts between the goings on of two couples and a trio of friends working to build the Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem. In addition to Pablo and his wife Esther, the other couple — Rabbi Leibush and Dena Hundert run Montreal’s Ghetto Shul, a cultural center, café and synagogue that all share one building. The people that we meet here are not involved with joining established institutions but making their own and expanding the “sukkat shalom” of the Jewish religion. While there are no ready answers about what they are doing and how they are doing it, there are lots of questions. These people have chosen to live Jewish lives and this choice provides a beautiful backdrop for sustaining a religion that keeps up with the modern age. The choices that they make are interesting and unexpected and we return here to the eternal question of not what is a Jew rather how some Jews live serious Jewish lives. The usual markers of secular/religious or Reform/Conservative/Orthodox etc. are not relevant here.

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We meet Esther Mandelbaum who was born in the former Soviet Union and who came to the U.S. when she was 10-years-old. She doesn’t remember the exact moment when she was told she was a Jew, but she always felt proud. For her, life was always on the fringes, whether she was a Jew in the Soviet Union, as an immigrant in America, and now as a Jewish farmer in Virginia. Her husband Pablo converted to Judaism before they got married, and she, whose Jewishness comes from her father, also formally converted. They’re an inspiring couple whose Judaism infuses everything they do. Not only are they very involved in their local (but not close-by) Jewish community; they are also connected to the larger Jewish food movement and the national organization, Hazon. They cook Shabbat meals with the produce they grow on Stony Lonesome Organic Farm, and they share what they reap with local people who buy shares, as part of Community Sponsored Agriculture cooperative. Some viewers might find it strange that after lighting Shabbat candles, Mandelbaum then lights the stove. Nonetheless, her passion for observance is seen in this simple act.

The young Israelis who organize the Secular Yeshiva reflect young people today who are at the point where they are wondering what they want out of life, and want to figure out how to connect the spiritual moments with their own traditions. Even as they declare themselves secular, they say God is part of their lives. They study together in the style of a traditional yeshiva, adding a modern and secular twist. Viewers see them doing the physical work of building, painting, filling bookcases, learning, dancing and singing. Nir Amit who is one of the founders says, “Human beings are more complex than simply Jewish or secular or religious. It’s not either or; it’s also this and this. Sometimes I’m all of them, even if it’s contradictory.”

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One of the special treats of the film is that each story features music—Pablo is a musician; the yeshiva students are joined by Israeli singer Berry Sakharof, and Rabbi Leibush Hundert is a jazz saxophonist. Dena Hundert has returned to Judaism and covers her hair. She wants a kind of life that is different from the way she grew up and this is what she is creating in her own home. Her husband, the rabbi, is a follower of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and says that if he cannot find his own community, he creates one. As the Hunderts build their lives in Montreal, Israel is a pull and eventually they make plans to close the shul and make aliyah.

I feel fairly sure that if we met any of these three groups outside the lens of the film, we would be astonished at how they seemingly cope so well seesawing between tradition and a much wider world perspective on sex, lettuce and rock and roll. We will probably wonder how Leibish with his black beard, payot and ultra-Orthodox garb can run a music club with men and women mingling freely? How do Pablo and Esther live a satisfying traditional Jewish life so many miles from the nearest shul, and when they don’t sell their produce on Shabbat (the main market day for local organic farms)? What is a secular yeshiva whose study hall is populated with stacks of thick Talmuds were men and women study holy writings together? The film shows us the people here as part of the mosaic of modern Jewish life and that there are vibrant Jewish communities where pluralism and tolerance are the norm.

“PROTOCOLS OF ZION”— The Rise of the New Anti-Semitism

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“Protocols of Zion”

The Rise of the New  Anti-Semitism

Amos Lassen

After the terror attacks of September 11, there was a resurgence of anti-Semitism in America. It seems that some felt that the Jews were responsible for the terrorism. Once again these feelings were fed by the repeatedly debunked book libel, “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and its disguised adaptations. Director Marc Levin goes on a journey to interview the promoters of this kind of hate in all its forms

Levin investigates slander in “Protocols of Zion”, a documentary that looks into the origins and contemporary influences of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” which was written in late-19th century Russia and later championed by Hitler. The book—condemned in the film as “the oldest recorded bigotry in history”—is a fancifully hateful tome that purports to be the transcribed minutes of a secret meeting between Jewish leaders in which they discuss their plans for world domination. Preposterous beyond belief, the volume (available at Wal-Mart, no less) nonetheless continues to be an international bestseller, a fact that Levin came to realize when he met an Egyptian cab driver in Manhattan who cited the book as proof that Jews had known about the World Trade Center attacks beforehand (and thus had successfully evacuated all other Jews from the buildings before they collapsed). Levin is a Jew whose ancestors faced severe prejudice after emigrating to the U.S. in the 1930s and he was motivated by this chance encounter to record his personal cinematic examination of anti-Semitism’s various strands, from the disgusting idiocy that he heard on the sidewalks adjacent to Ground Zero (highlighted by a man who slams not only Jewish NYC Mayor Bloomberg, but also “Jewliani” as well), to the cheesy Middle East TV-movies based on the original “Protocols” that depicts Christian children being murdered so their blood can be used for matzoh production, to the violent opinions of Palestinians living in America. By making his own on-the-scene inquiry the film’s unifying thread, Levin brings a personal intimacy to his subject even as it becomes clear that the multifaceted issue is just too unwieldy for a 93-minute documentary to properly handle. Furthermore, his clear-sighted arguments somewhat suffer from a profusion of scenes in which the director argues with random street-side strangers (some uninformed or just plain insane) about their outrageous beliefs. The film powerfully conveys the despicably fictitious ways in which scapegoats are manufactured, and the method by which irrational blame-games fuel mass intolerance. 

Levin uses himself as a character ala Michael Moore and he further personalizes the documentary by having his elderly father tag along. Levin is fearless in challenging a wide assortment of street corner agitators, newspaper editors, Nazi sympathizers, and talk-radio callers. Levin usually tries to speak from the left, but the more he invokes the power of a multinational, capitalist global system, the more his anti-Semites hear the word Jew. The filmmaker is utterly dumbfounded when it is explained to him that as Rupert Murdoch is a media mogul, he is necessarily Jewish.

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The film amply demonstrates that, as with any sort of racial-nationalist paranoia, anti-Semitism has very little to do with actual Jews and everything to do with imagined ones.

There is one sequence when Levin travels to Hollywood, trying to gather prominent Hollywood Jews for a round-table discussion of anti-Semitism and the film “The Passion Of The Christ”. Levin’s film has a noble aim: He wants to explore the enduring popularity of “The Protocol Of The Elders Of Zion”, a seminal, transparently fictitious anti-Semitic document ostensibly recording the minutes of a meeting of Jews plotting world domination, and its relationship with the conspiracy theory that Jews and/or Israel were somehow responsible for 9/11.

Intriguingly, Levin sees that there are powerful forces controlling the world semi-covertly and that they’re powerful multinational corporations and tycoons like Rupert Murdoch, not scheming Jews. Levin tries to spark a dialogue about the nature of anti-Semitism, and he succeeds in sparking a dialogue, but the agitated emotions and hot air on both sides add disappointingly little to the debate. Sometimes the best of intentions just aren’t enough.

There are more than a few moments in the film when we fear for Marc Levin’s life. Levin stands toe-to-toe with his ideological enemies, but he also remains lucid and calm enough to converse rationally with frenzied street preachers, enraged Islamists and neo-Nazi skinheads. With this admirable cool, Levin probes further into the minds of hateful ignoramuses than most any of us would be comfortable to go. The resulting product, while often fascinating, isn’t pretty.

After watching this documentary we ask ourselves whether anti-Semitism is really as rampant as the film infers. There are countless fringe ideologies in America that have enough practitioners to fill a 90-minute documentary, but Levin does not do enough to demonstrate how rampant or deep-rooted the problem may actually be. Still, with a long, global history of discrimination against Jews, and the rising influence of Islamic extremism around the world, this film may well be a warning that needs heeding.

On the DVD there are a couple of deleted scenes, which mostly consist of excised interviews. There is also a Q and A session that Levin participated in with an audience after one of the film’s screenings. Levin is an arresting speaker, and he draws you in while expounding on his interactions with outspoken bigots and sharing his thoughts on possible solutions to Anti-Semitism’s rising threat. For anyone with concerns or interests in the subject matter, this film is not going to be comforting, but, as Levin implores his film’s audience, it may inspire you to counter the hate and ignorance by doing good.

“WHITE RABBIT”— Bullying

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“White Rabbit”

Bullying

Amos Lassen

Harlon Mackey (Nick Krause) has had tormenting visions ever since his father, an alcoholic (Sam Trammell) forced him to kill an innocent rabbit while hunting as a boy. Now that Harlon is a bullied high school teen, his undiagnosed mental illness is getting worse. He hear voices, and his imagination encourages him to do violent things. But then he meets Julie (Britt Robertson), a rebellious young girl, moves to town and befriends Harlon. However, when she betrays him, the rabbit along with other imaginary comic book characters taunt him into committing one final act of revenge. The line between reality and Harlon’s imagination begin to grow cloudy.

The film deals with a relevant topic—it seems whenever we listen to the news there is a story about bullying and how it caused someone to snap. While this is a strong film about a delicate subject, it provides a way for us to talk about the subject and its terrible effects.

Harlon has one friend in the whole world, Steve (Ryan Lee), and his only two pleasures are shooting at targets with his rifle and losing himself in comic books. When something goes wrong with Julie, he is pushed him over the edge, leading him to do the unthinkable. The movie carefully looks at the nature vs. nurture debate. We are with Harlon as he sets out on his journey of self-discovery, where the outcome is as shocking as it is inevitable. We try to understand just how it got to what it did.

Nick Krause is excellent as Harlon and with a character like this he could have been easily overplayed but Krause keeps it all in check. His main job seems to involve us as we are to make a decision as to who he is and Krause does not lead us one way or the other—he keeps everything neutral. We watch him change from a quiet kid into a nightmare. He won the Best Actor award at the Boston Film Festival for his portrayal of Harlon (with Best Supporting Actor going to Sam Trammell and Best Supporting Actress to Britt Robertson).

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Darrell is a character we can occasionally sympathize with but his early and poor judgment makes us want to blame him for all that Harlon had to suffer. But it is here that any more information about the plot would ruin anyone’s viewing experience. This is one of those films that lend itself to thinking, “What if”?

When we are first introduced to Harlon, we meet a young boy who doesn’t really have the best father figure in Darrell (Sam Trammell). Darrell is the type who would call his own son a pussy, amongst other terms. But thankfully Harlon has best friend Steve (Ryan Lee), and eventually has something going on with Julie (Britt Robertson). But as circumstances lead to both leaving his side, and the comics Harlon loves being taken away by his dad, all means of relief leave. Thus making it seem only the voice of the White Rabbit (Todd Mclaren) can talk Harlon out of doing something drastic.

What really makes this a must-see is the way it builds to the end. We can easily understand why it ends the way it does because we have been with it as things happen. *Spoiler alert*. We see how everything adds up so the finale is not surprising although it is devastating.

“KADDISH FOR A FRIEND”— Reconciliation and Forgiveness

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“Kaddish for a Friend”

Reconciliation and Forgiveness

Amos Lassen

Ali is fourteen years old and grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp where he learned at an early age to hate Jews. He moved to Berlin with his family where they hoped to find a new life and he really wanted to be accepted by his Jewish-hating fellow Arab youths in the public housing project where they live. In a test to prove himself, Ali breaks into the apartment of his neighbor Alexander, an elderly Russian Jewish war veteran. But Ali’s “friends” follow him into the apartment and vandalize it. When Alexander unexpectedly returns home, he recognizes only Ali and reports him to the police. To avoid being sentenced and deported, Ali is forced to seek out the trust and forgiveness of his enemy. This is a moving story of reconciliation and forgiveness that transcends the clichéd relationship of a boy and an older man and crosses deep ethnic and religious divisions between Jews and Arabs. It is the film debut of director Leo Khasin and is a poignant, dramatically charged and wryly funny film about tolerance, guilt, forgiveness and healing.

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The film was inspired by a true story and stars Neil Belakhdar who is quite a find as the Palestinian teenager Ali Messalam. He’s bright and gets good grades at school, but has inherited a dislike and distrust of Jews from his bigoted father. It opens with the Palestinian family moving into a seedy apartment in a public housing block in Berlin’s working class Kreuzberg quarter. Living upstairs is Alexander Zamskoy (Ryszard Ronczewski), an elderly, feisty Russian Jew who has lived in Germany for 30 years. Ali is goaded on by his cousin and several thug friends from the neighborhood, and they break into the old man’s apartment while he’s at a Jewish war veterans association meeting and vandalize his apartment and spray painting ‘Jew = Nazi” on one wall.

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On his return Zamskoy sees Ali feeing from his apartment and calls the police who interrogate Ali and charge him with burglary and incitement to racial hatred. Ali is warned that if he is convicted, he could be deported so he informs his pregnant mother. She chooses not to tell her husband (Neil Malik Abdullah), a rough and insensitive guy and forces Ali to apologize to Alexander and to offer to repair and repaint his apartment. The old man is initially is reluctant to accept either gesture but relents as he fears he may be forced by well-meaning social services officers to vacate his flat and move into an aged care home.

The relationship between Ali and Alexander at first is one of resentment on both sides. Ali tells him that trashing his flat was ‘nothing personal,” and this prompts Alexander to ask in bewilderment, ‘What did the Jews do to you to make you think the way you do?” Ali answers, ‘Stole our land,” and this is, of course, referring to Palestine.

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The performances by the two leads are excellent. Belakhdar, a thin boy is fully believable as a young man who learns to set aside ingrained prejudice. Ali’s exchanges with Alexander are sharply written and a confrontation with his father heightens the dramatic impact.

Eighty-one year old Ronczewski deftly handles his character’s transformation and is especially touching in scenes when Alexander makes a regular pilgrimage to a cemetery where he tends to his wife’s grave and to speak tenderly to her. He also grieves the loss of his son years ago. The Kaddish of the title is a Jewish prayer for the dead, is a potent symbol. Director Khasin never lets excessive sentimentality overwhelm the engrossing narrative.

 

 

“THE STRANGE LITTLE CAT”— In the Kitchen

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“The Strange Little Cat” (“Das merkwürdige Kätzchen”)

In the Kitchen

Amos Lassen

 Siblings Karin and Simon have come to visit their parents and their little sister Clara. That evening, other relatives will be joining them for dinner. When we meet everyone they all; seem to be quite ordinary; they speak about regular things as they sit and “schmooze”. We see people who live in a world of coming and going and who do all manner of doings, each movement leading to the next, one word following another. Yet we see silent gazes and anecdotes about experiences. The people act oddly; their dialogues are direct and unemotional. Even the pets and the material surroundings play a part. Some objects seem alive as if by magic. Commonplace actions and familiar items appear absurd and eerie in this narrative cosmos. So what could Ramon Zürcher have to tell us about ordinary people doing ordinary things? Just wait a few minutes.

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In its opening minutes, an orange tabby paws at a door, opening its mouth to meow. Zürcher matches the shot with an off-screen sound cue of a family’s youngest daughter, Clara (Mia Kasalo), screeching in tune with a kitchen appliance. It’s a disarming effect. At first we think the kitty has the voice of a wailing child—strange, indeed—only to realize that Zürcher is cuing us to his next scene, as he simultaneously collapses and expands the space of the smallish family apartment in which the bulk of the film, excluding some anecdotal flashbacks, unfolds. Yet even though the film takes place in the single setting of the kitchen, it begins to feel roomy thus not like a claustrophobic place and it sets the tone for what is to follow. The film is one of overlapping sound design, careful camera shots and controlled minimalism. We soon see that the film is not about cat slinking in and out of the frame, but a “magic bottle” that recurs throughout—a glass container which, when filled with just the right amount of water, appears to wobble continually inside of a kitchen pot. As the characters joke, quarrel, and chat, director Zürcher pays particular attention to the tiny details of their environment: a loose screw rattling inside a washing machine, a grocery list, a moth flitting about from room to room, and of course, that cat.

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We watch the family reveal bits about themselves through digressive stories and we see that most movies offer us a chance to look at multiple meanings of our lives as we deal with the typical occurrences of the day. Every once in while we see a special film that awakens our senses, stimulates our minds, and awes us with a magical and momentous appreciation of everyday spirituality.

The mother (Jenny Shily) floats around the space, sometimes giving orders, other times escaping to look out the window. Her smart and sensitive daughter Clara (Mia Kasalo) has the irritating habit of yelling loudly whenever a kitchen appliance goes off. We hear the screeching of a cat, the barking of a dog, the clanging of a washing machine, the shutting of a door, the grinding of the garbage disposal, and the whirl of a blender. Most amazing of all is the “magic bottle” on the stove that spins around speaking its own improvisational story. The father (Matthias Dittmer) arrives in the kitchen and asks Clara to spell milk and salad. Mother gives her some bits and pieces to feed the sparrows only to find out that Clara has stopped this act of charity. Karin (Anjorka Strechel), the older daughter, asks, “Is Clara crazy?” and Mother replies, “Yes.” Then Karin adds, “The cat is crazy, too.” Then we see the orange tabby clawing at a shut door and meowing. She also comes into the cramped kitchen and manages to jump up on the table and knock a glass to the floor. The cat, we realize, is living in its own little world just like all the family members who surround her.

Mother may or may not be having an affair with her sister’s husband who shows up to fix the washing machine. She tells Karin about an unsettling incident at the movie theater where a man put his foot over hers. She waited for him to remove it but he didn’t. She tried to concentrate on the screen but found herself focused on his foot on top of hers. Finally, he removed it and she felt a great sense of liberation. What is important about this conversation is that we get an idea that the mother has sexual desires that are not being taken care of by her husband. The other conversations really have no depth but this one seems to.

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Others arrive including Clara and Karin’s brother, grandma, and a quiet teenager. The movements are dance like as various characters squeeze by each other putting away the dishes, getting a cup of tea, stepping aside to let another pass. I can see how some may find this to be a detailed portrait of the obstacles to spirituality put up by the daily distractions of unimportant chat, time-consuming and boring chores, and constant noise but there is something else. These obstacles and complications show that the sacred is carried into our hearts and minds by crazy cats, magical bottles on the stove, honest confessions, and cups of tea that bring great pleasure. Sacred does not come in spiritual retreats are weird experiences but it what we do on a daily basis.

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The ensemble cast exudes an easy chemistry, managing to suggest a shared wealth of family in-jokes and anecdotes without ever articulating them. Snappy dialogue is a key ingredient, but movement is crucial, too. These characters dance around each other in their cramped hallway and crowded kitchen, their actions choreographed as much as scripted. At times, we could almost be watching a modern dance piece or art-gallery installation.

There are so many witty touches and sharp little observations here that The Strange Little Cat can be forgiven for ultimately making no dramatic statement. There are no shock revelations, no resolutions, and it reveals almost nothing about its characters. This is excellent minimalist filmmaking par excellence and a delight to watch.

“GOD’S SLAVE”— Ahmed and David

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“God’s Slave” (“Esclavo de Dios”)

Ahmed and David

Amos Lassen

Inspired by true events, “God’s Slave” is the story of Ahmed and David, two extremist characters, one Islamic and the other Jewish, who cross their paths while being in the opposite side of the conflict in the A.M.I.A bombings that took place in 1994 in Buenos Aires.

“God’s Slave” was directed by Joel Novoa and written by Fernando Butazzoni. It is a story that is filled with suspense and it comes from the humanity and understanding that are torn apart when two nations are at war.

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Ahmed (Mohammed Al-Khaldi), a devout Muslim in Venezuela lives a seemingly charmed life as a successful doctor with a loving family. But he is burdened with the haunting memory of his principled father (often accused of being a pro-Israeli Muslim) assassinated before his eyes by a masked Israeli agent. Ahmed’s path, then, is clear. He was selected willingly as a sleeper terrorist and now he bides his time and waits for the moment when he’ll be called by Allah to commit a suicide terrorist action. David (Vando Villamil) is a top Mossad agent in Argentina who is waiting to either clean up and/or prevent terrorist acts. He is a devout Jew, similarly haunted by violent actions in his past and though he also has a family that loves him, he is so obsessed with his calling to fight terrorism that he’s growing further and further away from those who care for him. These two men are dominated by past tragedies in their lives and are both on missions to destroy.

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The movie places both on an inevitable collision course, allowing us to get to know and respect both men. This, if anything, is what is responsible for the suspense that keeps us on the edge of our seats. We hope and pray that they’ll find some way of reconciling that which haunts them and in so doing, avoid the inevitable confrontation that could mean death for both of them and possibly many others. To make the movie even more special are what we learn about each man and his inner conflicts that betray their respective personal struggles with the dualities that nag at both of them.

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 We are taken on an excruciating journey with both men and all the more so, as sides and motivations become blurred by their respective obsessions. Both men are, to varying degrees, slaves of God. This places equal weight and emphasis on both characters which better allows us to experience their similarities and differences. We get to fully appreciate how one man allows his devotion to God get in the way of what really allows him to be one with God, while the other is so entrenched in God’s slavery that he’s unable to ascertain the difference between God’s Word and man’s.

When we first start watching or at least for me I had the feeling that I had seen this all before but I was very wrong. A young Muslim’s hatred is sharpened by the tragedy he suffered as a child. The Israeli official’s anti-terrorism efforts stem from an attack he witnessed decades earlier. Each man, driven by vengeance and a devotion to the God he worships, embarks on a mission to end what the other stands for. There’s a good guy, a bad guy, a climactic take down, and a happy ending. But it was not so simple.

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 Director Novoa transforms a seemingly open-and-shut political thriller into a moving and nuanced portrayal of commitment and crusade. Based on true events, “God’s Slave” accepts an even bigger challenge than to create a poignant film. Novoa’s work has a responsibility to the victims and survivors of religious extremist acts around the world. It’s this shouldered reverence that isolates each scene as the moment it represents. Every action, every line, every glance alludes to a past that threatens to repeat itself. Novoa’s awareness of such significance cast his result in an affecting light that eclipsed the setting in which I absorbed it and I became both a terrorist and a victim, as unsure of whose crusade to champion as I was surprised by my conflicting loyalty.

“WAYS TO LIVE FOREVER”— Questions Not Answered

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“Ways to Live Forever”

Questions Not Answered

Amos Lassen

Twelve-year-old Sam (Robbie Kay) yearns for knowledge and he seems to have questions about everything, Because he has been diagnosed with leukemia he wants to know about dying but no one can or wants to give answers to his questions about death. He approaches the fact that he will die with a sense of curiosity—he wants to know more about the disease that is taking his life as well as do as many things that before he has to go. Sam’s mother (Emilia Fox) and father (Ben Chaplin) don’t want him to dwell on it thinking about his illness but Sam wants to know everything about his disease and death.

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Sam and his friend, Felix (Alex Etel), embark on a “scientific investigation” with questions, observations, evidence, reflections, and lists of all the things he wants to do someday — like breaking a world record, flying in a blimp, kissing a girl for the first time, and experiencing what it’s like to be a teenager. To make the most out of the time that remains, he creates a video diary and writes a to-do list of everything that he wants to accomplish before he dies. Felix who is also a cancer patient, helps him in his quest to accomplish each task.

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Director Gustavo Ron unites warmth, wisdom, wit and pure, unadulterated poignancy in this film that is a drama, tragedy, romance, and comedy and fills it with magical realism. It is easy to see how this could have become something of a Lifetime film but it instead is authentic and engaging from the minute it begins. Sam narrates the film as well as anchors it and turns in a moving performance as does Alex Etel. In fact the entire cast is excellent—this is an actor’s film and the cast makes for a great ensemble as well as each provides his own shining moments.

The film plays with the viewer’s emotions and I found myself caught in between laughter and tears throughout the film. We really care about the characters and as the film moves forward, it becomes complex and dark but there is always a sense of balance so that it never becomes maudlin or heavy.

I love the way Sam comes up with “Questions Nobody Answers” and ponders each of those profound questions maturely and intelligently, so we actually become more enlightened by the time the film ends. I really did not expect this to be such an uplifting film about-facing death.

Everyone involved, from Sam’s attentive parents to his sensible best friend to his cheerful nurse (Natalia Tena) seems to be incapable of being maudlin. To Sam, the end of life is a mystery he’s compelled to solve.

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Here is a film that deals with a terminal illness in ways that we are not traumatized. There are brief animated sequences that appear when Sam records his video diary. The movie contemplates the grave with witty intelligence. “Ways to Live Forever” has won numerous awards at festivals around the world, including the Jury Prize at the Talinn Black Nights Film Festival, Best Feature Film from the European Children’s Film Association, Audience Award at the Heartland Film Festival, First Jury Prize at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, Best Picture at the Toledo Film Festival (Spain), and Best Picture at the Bordeaux International Festival of Women in Cinema.

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The DVD from Kino Lorber includes: Scenes introduced by director Gustavo Ron, a message from Johns Hopkins University, “Making of” Featurettes, Outtakes and trailer.

 

 

“TRICKED”— The Exploited, the Pimps, the Johns and the Cops

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“Tricked “

The Exploited, the Pimps, the Johns and the Cops

Amos Lassen

“Tricked” is a look at sex trafficking through the eyes of the exploited, the pimps, and the johns. They fuel the business and the cops who fight to stop it. Because of the Internet we now live in a golden age of sex and the sex trade brings in eighty-seven million dollars a day business and it’s growing. To find sexual pleasure today, it is only necessary to click on the computer. This film is an intimate look at human trafficking in America today. In effect, what we are seeing now is modern-day slavery and thousands of victims are trafficked across the country to satisfy America’s $3-billion-a-year sex trafficking industry. 

The film explores the attitudes and mechanisms that allowed such a monstrous institution to flourish. President Barack Obama has publicly denounced the sex trade as “modern slavery” and this documentary is as much an exploration of a whole sordid ecosystem of exploitation as it is a piece of activism.

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In the film, we not only hear from the victims of human trafficking and the law-enforcement officials who work to bring the perpetrators to justice, but we also here from some of the perpetrators themselves: the pimps who ensnare naïve young women into prostitution and the johns who willingly throw money at them. Robert Money a pimp, opens the film by giving us what he considers to be the difference between a prostitute and a whore (the former has sex for money, the latter doesn’t). He further claims that he’s doing a favor for some of these women by showing them love and affection like no one else had done. We then meet Hugh, a middle-aged john who uses the “I’m only human” defense in order to justify his use of women and his lechery. By using characters like these, directors Jane Wells and Joe-Keith Wasson give an unflinching look into the ways sex slavery continues to perpetuate, with pimps preying on the immature naïveté of vulnerable girls regarding matters of sex and love, the wider culture that pushes material wealth by any means necessary as a form of the modern-day American dream, and a legal system that we see as somewhat helpless in combating the root causes of this kind of exploitation.

While trying to make the comprehensive film on the subject and admirably so, the documentary is a but limited. Debbie, a “pimp cup” says that those who are pimps have no other way to make their money—and this revealing statement is one path of investigation on which the film does not go. The very idea that these people think pimping is the only thing they can do to make it rich is a bit ludicrous. What about the larger societal and cultural forces that lead these people to assume the attitudes they do toward sex and money? Even with the depth with which the filmmakers explore the horrors of human trafficking, we still find ourselves thinking that there is a larger story that has not been told.

The U.S. Government defines sex trafficking as an event where commercial sex is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such acts has not attained 18 year of age. The facts that follow this speak for themselves:

  • Sex trafficking in America is a $3 billion dollar a year business involving more than 100,000 children and countless thousands of adults.
  • The average life expectancy of a child after being in prostitution is seven years.
  • One third of teens living on the street will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home.

In this film we see the plight of young women between the ages of 11 and 18 who are forced into prostitution by violent, manipulative, and abusive pimps. We follow the stories of two troubled teenage girls who are unaware of the dangerous situation they are in until they are beaten or raped by the pimps who demand they sell their bodies on the streets under their guidance and orders.

We also meet a few arrogant and brazen pimps who are used to earning a lot of money and of escaping convictions or prison terms. Many juries see sex trafficking as a victimless crime.

We can only hope that this film and others like it can help raise public awareness and start conversations that will eventually end this form of modern day slavery.

“RYE COALITION: THE STORY OF THE HARD LUCK FIVE”— An Intimate Documentary

rye coalition

“Rye Coalition: The Story of the Hard Luck 5″

An Intimate Documentary

Amos Lassen

“Rye Coalition” is an intimate documentary that looks at the twenty-year history and rise and fall of a New Jersey band. The band was made up of childhood friends in the basement of one of their homes in the 1990s. All they really wanted to do was to have fun and play music. As their talent and fan base grew, they released albums on independent labels and toured the country for over ten years on bigger and bigger bills: (Mars Volta, Queens of the Stone Age). After gaining momentum from 2002’s On Top LP, engineered by Steve Albini, they were signed to Dreamworks Records and none other than Dave Grohl came on as their producer. Then, it all imploded.

Their first recording was a demo tape (cassette) and they followed that with a tour even before they had their drivers’ licenses. The band eventually signed with an important and big record label and the members were ready to become famous and achieve glory.

rye1

The film uses home movies and we get a look at ten years in the life of the band including moments at home, in the studio and on tour. We hear from those who know the members well. Even though they have been regarded highly by critics and have a large following, this is the first time that someone takes them seriously to make a movie about Rye Coalition. The band members have a “relentless drive” and this is what keeps them going.

What I find so interesting is that I had never heard of this band before but then I was living in the South. I now see what the attraction is. Interesting enough, when the members of the band first got together, they were teens with a love of music but could not play it. They traded tapes at first and then tried making music on their own and began to release cassette tapes and appear in dives and basements. Some people considered them as “emo” musicians but as I listened to some of their early music, it sounded hardcore to me. It was not until the 2000s that they would move in more of a classic rock direction. in the 2000s). In the film which as a lot of concert footage we see that they cut loose while on stage. They crack jokes, set things on fire and run around the stage.

In order to make ends meet and be financially solvent, members of the band worked in liquor stores and drove taxis (among other jobs) while living with family members. Eventually they decided to make the band a full time job and they worked with Steve Albini and Dave Grohl (you will see them in the film), toured with Queens of the Stone Age, and signed to a major label (in addition to Albini and Grohl. Other speakers in the film include Jared Warren from Karp and Big Business, Tim Green from Nation of Ulysses, and Jon Theodore from QOTSA).

And then it all fell apart but instead of giving up the band members came up with a compromise that was somewhere between staying together and breaking up. We see here that the music business isn’t about friendship and love. It isn’t even about music. It is a business.

The film came out to celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary and it is good that young musicians see this film.

“JEFF BECK: A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS”— Beck Through the Sixties

jeff beck a man for all seasons

“Jeff Beck ‘A Man For All Seasons’”

Beck Throughout the 1960s

Amos Lassen

In 1964 when Eric Clapton left the Yardbirds, the band was left searching for their first hit and they needed a replacement. Who they got was a multi-talented, technical and sonic pioneer, Jeff Beck. Beck helped move the band forward and it became on of the most daring groups working and playing in the United Kingdom.

This documentary traces Beck’s music and carreer in the 1986s from his formative influences with the Yardbirds and with Mickie Most as a soloist and thea the first incarnation, albeit radical, of the Jeff Beck Group at which time he played alongside Rod Stewart, vocalist and Ron Wood as second guitarist.

We get many interviews and lots of rare performance and studio footage. I love that those who worked with Back contribute and I suspect this is the most complete portrait of Beck that we will ever have. It always seems more real when we see and hear the person speaking. I doubt we will ever consider Beck to be underrated again after seeing this documentary.

Here are some of the highlights: New interviews with: Yardbirds first manager, Giorgio Gomelsky; the man who took over from Gomelsky, colourful music biz impresario, Simon Napier Bell; Jeff’s fellow Yardbirds, Jim McCarty & Chris Dreja; musical conspirators from the early 70s, Tim Bogert & Max Middleton; the ever shocking Pamela Des Barres (aka Miss Pamela of The GTOs); legendary music press scribes, Charles Shaar Murray & Chris Welch; Beck’s official biographer Martin Power and  Uncut Magazine editor, Nigel Williamson.