FOUR LGBT FILMS AT THIS YEAR’S (2020) BOSTON JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL
The 2020 Boston Film Festival will virtually screen four LGBT films. Each of these is reviewed elsewhere at reviewsbyamoslassen.com
FOUR LGBT FILMS AT THIS YEAR’S (2020) BOSTON JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL
The 2020 Boston Film Festival will virtually screen four LGBT films. Each of these is reviewed elsewhere at reviewsbyamoslassen.com
“Tahara” begins as a narrative of two best friends Carrie Lowstein (Madeline Grey DeFreece) and Hannah Rosen (Rachel Sennott) as they are in the midst of adolescent self-discovery. Director Olivia Peace explores the coming together of female friendships, sexual identity and rejection through the polarity of these two characters. “Tahara” looks at each defining moment through the demise of the girl’s friendship. Set over the course of one day and during a classmate’s funeral, what Carrie wanted to believe was a bond is turns out to be Hannah’s manipulation as a tool for her own gain.It takes place in the synagogue during a funeral and grief class held after, the characters’ grief for the loss of Samantha Goldstein to suicide, the film examines the “real” issues in their life. The funeral is simply a location for the teenagers to carry out their sexual agendas and use the tragedy as a platform for their moral campaign.
Carrie is frustrated with Hannah’s insistent pursuit of one out of the two guys in their grief class (the second guy being completely high on pot brownies the whole time) during what is supposed to be a time of reflection. Carrie and Hannah end up on a couch in the Synagogue’s bathroom where Hannah brags about her sexual resume and Carrie shares her minor experiences. So that she can validate her own skills, Hannah pressures Carrie into kissing her as “practice.” Hannah’s intention is self-serving, but the moment engulfs Carrie, and we learn that who was once her childhood friend is and has always been her quest through her as a black, Jewish and queer teen.
Hannah is quite sneaky when it comes to catching any and all opportunity to seduce her male suitor. When identifying Carrie’s feelings and her crush’s coincidental interest in Carrie, Hannah sets a trap in the Synagogue’s library to bring about a three-way. Hannah wields Carrie’s affection and loyalty to finally hook up with the mildly attractive dunce she had been after this whole time. This ended in a love triangle of rejection with each of them leaving hurt and confused but most of all, Carrie feels the consequences.
“Tahara” looks at the potential of toxicity in friendships that take place early in life and favors the idea of disconnecting from these bonds no matter the time invested in Carrie’s childhood. The film sheds light on the imbalanced sense of self-identity both teenagers and adults face, and the role that those closest to them have in changing things.
Coming of age so often feels inauthentic, especially when it’s stylized. Here, the teenagers talk like teenagers — they don’t always agree, they tease one another lovingly, and they examine their own insecurities. They complain about how their school tries to make them confront grief, and they lash out about their feelings. They’re young and they’re still finding out more about themselves, and Hannah doesn’t even want to approach how she feels, even if Carrie has confronted her.
Here is the queer Jewish experience boldly expressed at a young age. The film’s title refers to a Jewish ritual act of purifying the body after death. Not only is this discussed in a classroom scene, but the death of a classmate is what purifies the relationship to the simplest shared feelings for the two girls. “Tahara” is completely about the girls and not the power structures surrounding them. They question their faith and how it tells them to grieve, but as a setting and not as a conflict.
Taylor, Benjamin. “Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth”, Penguin Books, 2020.
A Portrait of a Friendship and Philip Roth
In “Here We Are, writer Benjamin Taylor shares about his long, intimate friendship with novelist Philip Roth (1933-2018). Roth was already considered as one of America’s most esteemed living novelists when Taylor, a founding faculty member of the New School’s Graduate School of Writing, met him in the mid-1990s. Roth’s past had already been through two miserable marriages, many past lovers, and debilitating health concerns. Roth was “irascible and mercurial” but he was also very real and very candid.
Taylor captures the essence of Roth’s charmingly enigmatic humor and complex behavior perfectly. He shares his memories of their friendship, writing about their quiet, often amusing moments together. Unfortunately, Taylor tells us that “A lot of conversation got squirreled away.” Taylor quotes Roth throughout and he was there for Roth throughout his declining years. This book is his poignant reflection on his experience with Roth and what their friendship has meant to them both. What is really fascinating is Taylor’s statement, “I can’t be the first gay man to have been an older straight man’s mainstay.” He goes on to say that Roth was searching for a “beautiful young woman to see to him as Jane Eyre looked after old Mr. Rochester.” Instead he got Taylor and they became very strongly attached to each other. They loved each other but they were not lovers. Taylor describes their relationship as was “a conversation neither could have done without.”
As we have come to expect from Benjamin Taylor, this is a beautifully written book that is both a portrait of Roth and a meditation on friendship and loss. Philip Roth’s place in the canon is secure, but what is less clear is what the man himself was like. Through Benjamin Taylor’s memoir, we see Roth as a mortal man, experiencing the joys and sorrows of aging, reflecting on his own writing, and doing something we all love to do: passing the time in the company of his closest friend. Taylor presents us with a glorious ode to friendship and shows how it can brighten everything we do.
Roth encouraged Taylor to write this book and gave him “explicit instructions not to sugarcoat anything and not to publish it until after his death.” Taylor’s memoir will be the definitive account of Philip Roth. It is almost as if Taylor has resurrected Roth ad I was shocked as my opinion of Roth that I had was very, very different from the Roth presented here. Yes, Roth was rancorous and tender, funny and sweet.
Like that friendship, this account is loyal and kind and very funny. The laughter turns into tears as we near the end. Taylor revives Roth’s presence while at the same time gives us a study of two very different men coming together because of a shared set of obsessions and mutual comforts.
Overcoming Abuse in Israel
In Yolande Zauberman’s “M”, egregious abuse is exposed and explored. The film tells the harrowing story of Menahem Lang, a gregarious thirtysomething Israeli singer and actor who grew up in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Bnei Brak, just east of Tel Aviv, where he was raped systematically as a child by multiple religious elders. In his 20s, Lang confronted one of his abusers, and managed to secure an on-camera confession which was subsequently broadcast on national television. But he remained haunted by his past experiences, and convinced that sexual abuse in the community was still widespread. In the film he returns to Bnei Brak in search of further closure.
Shot almost entirely at night, a striking number of scenes take place inside cars, and it’s all set to a heavy, jazz-inflected score. As damaged as Lang clearly is, he’s motivated by a desire to heal his blighted, pathologically secretive community.
Many of the city’s older and more devout inhabitants would clearly like Lang to keep quiet or go away. Lang’s own parents prove completely inept at offering their son the support he so clearly needs. But other encounters take less predictable turns. During his time back home, Lang strikes up a friendship with a 19-year-old who was abused by his older brothers. After sharing their darkest secrets, the younger man feels he can open up about the fact that he believes he may be gay but is also completely clueless about sex. The subsequent exchange, in which Lang attempts to bring him up to speed, is both heartwarming and laugh-out-loud funny. Director Zauberman strikes a clever balance here, giving us a formally inventive film which is angry but also empathetic, and which leaves the viewer with a sense that recovery from even the most appalling trauma is possible.
Zauberman sets out on a particularly dark journey to uncover a widespread, albeit absolutely unreported in the public, issue in the reticent community of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The documentary opens at night in Tel Aviv where Lang demonstrates why he has become a renowned performer of liturgical chants in a religious community. In the next scene we see Menahem discussing his preference for transsexuals with Miss Trans Israel, despite claiming to be of heterosexual orientation.
Lang left the Jewish religion, used his beautiful voice as an actor, and gained notoriety, as well as infamy in certain religious circles, for exposing his childhood abuser and getting his confession on camera. He was not the only rapist; Lang was not even eight years old at that time. And he was not the only victim.
In a rare glance behind the curtain of an enclosed religious community that shuns media attention, “M” uncovers shocking behavioral patterns that became normalized over the course of years. Several generations testify to the deeply-rooted sexual abuse in numerous distressing personal accounts and point towards intrinsic pathology.
Zauberman combines journalistic investigation and intriguing storytelling to give us a gripping exposé on rampant sexual abuse, and the touching personal story of Menahem Lang and how childhood abuse changed his life and his stance toward religion and how he finds more uncomfortable answers.
This is disturbing to see but Lang’s candidness and bravery to speak out and lay bare his experiences, his struggles with his own demons and a lack of understanding among family members are amazing. His charisma and credibility draws other victims with similar stories into his orbit, uncovering identical patterns.
The power of the film is in its accessibility. The perfectly-chosen protagonist’s willingness to be painfully frank about what happened to him and how it turned around his private life and his initial expression of attraction to transsexuals has a heartbreaking explanation.
Lang is completely charming. He is open and willing to probe the darker recesses of his soul by recalling the traumatizing experiences. He does not avoid less favorable and least expected circumstances as why he did not defend himself more furiously against the unwanted physical advances. His testimony and the circumstances he describes have great social relevance, although not exclusive to the community of Orthodox Jews. The catalysts have nothing to do with religion and Zauberman´s film brings forth eye-opening discoveries.
The director delivers wonderful storytelling. She manages to incorporate entertaining moments courtesy of Lang in carefully-timed, light flourishes of humor.
Lang becomes the confessor, the teacher and eventually the bearer of the light, even though he himself acknowledges the damage that cannot be undone. He remains dedicated to preventing the abuse and calling other victims out to not suffer in silence.
Headed for Heartbreak
Israeli director Yuval Hadadi’s feature film debut “15 Years” is the compelling story of an outwardly successful gay couple in Tel Aviv who seem to have all that makes for a good life but who are nevertheless destined for heartbreak. Yet while the film is about a gay couple, it is actually about life— the choices and mistakes that we make, how we live and how we learn to either accept ourselves or not.
Yoav (Oded Leopold) and Dan (Udi Persi) are at home celebrating their 15th Anniversary with their closest friends. Yoav seems disturbed when the conversation turns to swapping stories about other couples’ newly acquired babies. He becomes even more upset when he learns that his best gal pal Alma (Ruti Asarsai) is also pregnant and that people assume that he is the donor.
Yoav does not like children and this is probably because of his own unhappy childhood. He will not go to visit his elderly father who is dying in nursing home. Yoav sees himself as an alpha male and usually nothing bothers him. He is used to controlling simply everything. When one of his major architect projects gets in trouble along wth the failure of his relationship at home, he is pushed over the edge even though we see this coming.
Yoav’s partner Dan is a community lawyer who sees that Yoav is unravelling and wants no help. The film looks at the characters accepting their sexuality and is also about the difficulties of adjusting as couple in contemporary life. What the two men face is not unlike what many couples have to deal with and not just because they are a gay couple.
Each of the three actors gives a fine performance and this is probably because the script develops the characters so well. Yuval Hadadi has made a film of which he can be proud.
I lived in Israel for many years and those years were very crucial to the acceptance of the LGBTQ community there. Even though Yoav and Dan have to deal with important issues, I was fascinated to see how far the gay community has come. But then again, I would not say that this is a gay film—it is a human film and all of us will find something to identify with. While watching Yoav, Dan and Alma attempt to find ways to deal with what they were facing, I was reminded of my own relationship when I lived in Israel. While we did not have to deal with the idea of having children, the pressures of society did not help us to establish a firm basis for a “marriage”. Like Yoav and Dan, we, after many years, decided to go our separate ways. The love we shared is still there but we are just not able to share it in ways that we wanted to.
“MY BIG GAY JEWISH CONVERSION”
A Personal Journey
Simon is a gay Catholic man from the West of who has never truly felt accepted by his own church. This was a problem that Matthew, his Jewish boyfriend from North London, had never had to face. Simon considered converting to Judaism and he started with a trip to the local Rabbi where they talked about issues like circumcision, among other things. Simon wanted to get to Judaism’s homeland: Israel and so he jumped on a plane to Tel Aviv, ‘the gayest city on Earth’, where he met gay people from all walks of life, including gay soldiers in the IDF. Then he went to Jerusalem, where the story here was very different. Extreme views towards homosexuality are everywhere and Simon felt this at an uncomfortably close proximity. Then, he had to make a decision that would change his life forever.
Simon’s religion didn’t seem relevant to his lifestyle until he met his Jewish boyfriend Matthew, whose synagogue allows same-sex marriage. Simon therefore goes on a personal journey as a gay man to discover if he could convert to Judaism, and whether it was worth sacrificing his Catholic upbringing. He started by talking to a variety of people, including other gay Jewish men and a Rabbi, before going to Israel. (I find this extremely interesting in that so many gay people leave religion rather than embrace it).
As Simon delves deeper, he faces big doubts especially in Jerusalem where he is faced with more conservative and hostile views. Finally Simon visits one of the holiest sites in Christianity, where Jesus Christ was believed to have been resurrected and there he met a trainee Catholic Priest, to question his own faith. He realized that if he became Jewish, he would have to. give up the Catholic core belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God and he wonders if he could do so.
While the title “My Big Gay Jewish Conversion” (produced by BBC One) sounds playful, we see the serious question of whether there is a place in modern mainstream religion for gay people.
Simon’s local rabbi in London was happy to marry Simon and Matthew and didn’t appeared too concerned about the explicit interdiction in Jewish sacred text against gay sex (which he more or less brushed off as the spiritual equivalent of a parking infraction). The main sticking point was that Simon would have to be circumcised.
In Jerusalem, Simon was confronted by hardliners who told him to his face that his orientation was an “abomination”. One scholar described homosexuality as a lifestyle choice and recommended that Simon have his doctor prescribe pills to fix the problem. He became so upset that he decided not to convert.
The documentary fails to adequately explore the Catholic faith in which Simon had been steeped growing up in Ireland. Had he always been religious? Was his moral code tested when he realized he was gay? I wanted the film to explore these issues. A little more background would have put his theological problems into context. Simon says he still looks back on his younger years “with fondness”, but became disillusioned when he realized being gay meant he could never marry in the eyes of God. This changed when he met Jewish boyfriend Matthew and found that Judaism offered an answer Catholicism could not, but that would mean becoming Jewish and renouncing his former beliefs including that Jesus is the son of God.
Simon’s aim in making the film is to help other gay people struggling to reconcile religion and sexuality. “They are afraid to be who they are because of their religious background and afraid they may be shunned from their communities if they act on their sexual impulses.”
We see that there is much to gain from converting to Judaism, including being allowed to marry in the eyes of God. But there are sections of the community that would never accept his lifestyle and he would have to turn his back on the core religious beliefs he has known all his life. We see that these sacrifices were simply too great for Atkins to take the next step.
“I WAS NOT BORN A MISTAKE”
Meet Yiscah Smith
·Yiscah Smith was living as an ultra-Orthodox married man with six children and deep ties in the community before coming out as a gay man and leaving Israel. Once she was back in the United States, Yiscah come out as trans, underwent gender transition and took her current name. It took twenty years for Yiscah to return to Israel, where she became a religious educator and spiritual mentor. The film shows her incredible journey to self-acceptance, compassion, and, finally, to her home in Israel. It alternates between past and present, where she helps clients on their own paths of awareness and self-discovery.
Richie, Alexandra. “Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising”, Picador Paperback, 2019.
A Great Revolt Ending in A Great Crime
Alexandra Richie in “Warsaw 1994: Hitler, Himmler and the Warsaw Uprising shares the complete and untold story of how one of history’s bravest revolts ended in one of its greatest crimes. In 1943, the Nazis liquidated Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto. Then just a year later, they threatened to complete the destruction of the city and the deportation of its remaining residents. This was the end of a “sophisticated and cosmopolitan community a thousand years old was facing its final days”. But then opportunity struck. Soviet soldiers turned back the Nazi invasion of Russia and began pressing west and the underground Polish Home Army decided to act. Taking advantage of German unpreparedness and disarray because of the seeking to forestall the absorption of their country into the Soviet empire, they chose to liberate the city of Warsaw for themselves.
For more than sixty days, the Polish fighters took over large parts of the city and held off the most brutal German forces. But in the end, their efforts were doomed. Totally scorned by Stalin and unable to win significant support from the Western Allies, the Polish Home Army had to face the full fury of Hitler, Himmler, and the SS. What followed was one of the most brutal episodes of history’s most brutal war. Richie gives us the tragedy in grear detail based upon primary sources. We read of the terrible experiences of those who fought and died in the uprising and perished in it. I was often moved to tears and unsettled by what I read and I have read a great deal about the War and the treatment of citizens.
Richie’s recounts many unpublished stories and the survivors’ testimonies included make this the definitive study of the uprising. For those who are well learned and interested in the subject of the Warsaw Uprising, this book provides a great deal of new information in English for the first time.
“Fiction Flirts With Reality”
In “Douze Points”, the Islamic State plans for a French contestant to carry out a spectacular terror attack on the air. Mossad agents do their best to foil it. This is a crazy Israeli film on Eurovision in Israel.
Rasoul Abu-Marzuk and Tarik Jihad were childhood best friends who grew up together in the Muslim quarter of Paris until Tarik decided to come out of the closet at the age of 15. It was at that moment that Rasoul turned his back on his best friend and Tarik was excommunicated from his community.
10 years later Tarik is now TJ, a proud, gay singer that has left his past behind and lives like there is no tomorrow, fulfilling his dream to represent France in Europe’s biggest song contest. Rasoul has taken a different path. He followed his extremist, Islamic father, Abbas, and is now part of an ISIS terror cell in Paris. ISIS decides that the 2019 Europe song contest, set to take place in Israel, is a great opportunity for their biggest terror attack ever!!! They plan to plant one of their operatives into the French delegation at the contest in order to set off an explosion under the stage during the final performance of the event.
The ISIS cell will make sure that TJ represents France at the European song contest and that one of their members will be under-cover, acting as TJ’s boyfriend. What TJ doesn’t know is that ISIS is planning to carry out the lethal attack, and that his “boyfriend” is none other than Rasoul.
The Israeli Mossad does know about the planned attack and they put their toughest, most experienced team into the contest in order to prevent a major catastrophe.
“Latter Day Jew”
Conversion is no matter in Judaism yet as serious at it is, we can still laugh about it as we see here. Comedian H. Alan Scott shows us just that. You might have seen Scott on Ellen and The Jimmy Kimmel but here he gets personal. You see, Scott was raised Mormon and he decided to take a religious journey that ended in a bar mitzvah. Here is his very funny journey, front and center in this personal documentary that includes his standup and chats with prominent Jewish comedians as well as clips from famous onscreen conversions (“Sex and the City”, “Family Guy”) and even a trip to Israel for Tel Aviv Pride and blowing a shofar. It is hilarious to see him, a 30-year-old man training for his bar mitzvah with a room of 12-year-olds and this is one of the best scenes of the film although all of the scenes that challenge his conversion are great.
We find ourselves with these questions: “What does it mean for his relationship with his Mormon family in Missouri? How did his scare with cancer impact his religious journey? How does his gay identity intersect with his religion and does the Mormon stance on LGBTQ issues impact others leaving the faith?”
We might not get the answers but we do get a fascinating film that is filled with great humor.