Category Archives: Jewish and Gay— Movies

“FLAWLESS” (“HANESHEF”)— Three Teens

“FLAWLESS” (“HANESHEF”)

Three Teens

Amos Lassen

“Flawless” is the story of three teenagers from Jerusalem who sell their kidneys to pay for cosmetic surgery and prom dresses. As a secret uncovers they realize nothing is as it seems. Tal Granit and Sharon Maimon co-directed. The film has been nominated for 12 Ophir Awards (Israel’s Oscar) and among them is a nomination for best actress. Stav Strashko is a 25-year-old trans actress who landed that nomination.

Strashko, who has made her name in recent years as a top international model, has scored another first as she is the first trans nominee in Israel. “I always saw myself in women’s roles.” “I’m proud to be the first trans [nominee] — it’s a milestone,” she said. Strashko grew up as a boy who identified as girl and this prepared her for a career in acting. “My whole life I played something that I wasn’t.”

In the film, she plays Eden, a transgender teen desperate to raise money for a breast enlargement operation ahead of the prom.“Strashko, who was born Stanislav in Ukraine, was discovered by a modeling agency after leaving her home in Tel Aviv at the age of 16, at first taking on androgynous roles and later modeling as a woman, including a campaign opposite musician Joe Jonas for Diesel.” In Israel, Strashko came to public attention when she took part in the “Big Brother VIP” TV show. She has since become a prominent figure in the LGBT community.

 

“RED COW” (“PARA ADUMA”)— Coming-of-Age Sexually, Religiously and Politically in Israel

“Red Cow” (“Para Aduma”)

Coming-of-Age Sexually, Religiously and Politically in Israel

Amos Lassen

“Red Cow is a coming-of-age film that takes place in Israel during the days leading up to the assassination of Rabin. Benny is a 16-year-old girl who was orphaned from mother at birth. She is the only child of Yehoshua, a religious, right wing extremist and she is at that critical juncture when she is forming her sexual, religious and political awareness. The film is set on one of Israel’s orthodox Jewish settlement where Benny has sexual awakening and ideological unraveling. This is a sensitive and assured first feature from Tsivia Barkai Yacov who also wrote the screenplay. We see a community that is rarely explored on screen. The film shows the difficulties of being a young woman in a devout patriarchal system. We also are taken into the complexity of burgeoning female desire and a complicated queer romance.

I can assure you that based upon my own experiences as an orthodox gay Jew that the film is disarmingly authentic. We have a female-centric window into the Middle East filled with intimate insights into a girl defying societal expectations. Benny’s (Avigail Kovari) outsider status is sealed from the outset, her androgynous name and blazing red hair stand out in her settlement home of Silwan in East Jerusalem. An introduction explains the significance of the feature’s title and its links to the Torah, so that we are aware of the importance of Benny’s task of caring for a newborn pure-red calf. We see the potential parallels between the girl and the animal in her care. Although Benny and her extremist father Yehoshua (Gal Toren) might not realize it at first, both are beacons of change.

According to his beliefs, Yehoshua is convinced that salvation is now imminent. When Benny searches for her own faith beyond strict religious instructional classes with the community’s other women and generally assisting her father, she finds it in a burning desire for newcomer to the settlement, Yael (Moran Rosenblatt). A fast friendship soon becomes nervous clandestine flirting, and then passionate secret trysts. The forbidden tenor of their romance is omnipresent throughout. She tells Yael even before things become physical that she is surprised by the intensity of her feelings..

It’s with naturalism and nuance that director Yacov who herself is a native of an orthodox Jewish settlement herself, conveys the teen’s emotional state. She experiences deeply-felt urges that threaten to overtake her entire life while also clashing with the teachings she’s increasingly beginning to abandon thus placing her in a precarious position should the affair be discovered. Benny’s growing distance from Yehoshua and everything he represents is also handled with subtlety— as a relationship fracturing with each passing moment, but with slow and ragged cuts. The film moves between the use of walls, fences and shadows to stress the boundaries surrounding Benny and these mirror her restless fervor.

Kovari gives a performance of internalized turmoil, and uncontainable longing. Her chemistry with Toren is palpable, their glances say everything their characters can’t.

“DISOBEDIENCE”— A Complicated Relationship

“Disobedience”

A Complicated Relationship

Amos Lassen

Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio’s “Disobedience” is set in London’s Orthodox Jewish community and depicts the complicated relationship between two women born into this world, whose paths in life have deviated after an earlier affair. What makes this so brilliant a film is how Lelio manages to sidestep overly familiar discussions on sexuality and religious prejudice in order to examine the very nature of freewill when it comes to accepting a love frowned upon by a belief system. It’s a film that is equally romantic and philosophical and I am quite sure that “Disobedience” will be on many ten bests lists for 2018.

It has been adapted from Naomi Alderman’s controversial and gorgeous 2006 novel of the same name. It follows Ronit Kruschka (Rachel Weisz) the estranged daughter of a beloved rabbi who has long since fled to New York to pursue a career as a photographer. Upon hearing about the sudden death of her father, she returns to the London community where she grew up to pay her respects, and finds herself to be something of a ghost. While she is welcomed with open arms and shown kindness, yet her existence as her father’s only child has been eliminated from her father’s newspaper obituary, and a renewed social tension has emerged due to the nature of a previous affair with Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams).

Esti is now married to her father’s apprentice Rabbi, Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola) who lets her stay in their upper middle class home. Since they last saw each other, Esti has become a pillar of the local community and teaches English literature at a local girl’s school. The only thing setting her back from true happiness is that she is incapable of feeling physical attraction to men and knowing that confessing otherwise could jeopardize her devout faith. This becomes even more complicated when she slowly rekindles the relationship she had with Ronit year’s prior.

The film deals with the numerous factors in a person’s life that can stop them accepting their true identity and how that struggle intensifies following the death of a loved one. Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams perfectly communicate the frailty that comes with seeing a former flame following the aftermath of a sudden end to the relationship, and the separate anxieties the two share about the developing nature of their romance.

In the opening scene, a rabbi, Rav Kruschka (Anton Lesser), delivers a sermon at a North London synagogue about angels and beasts, free will, and choosing the tangled lives we live. His tone is doctrinaire, poisonous even, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the frail-looking man drops dead on the spot. Meanwhile in New York, his daughter, Ronit, is putting his words into action. She is a photographer and is in session when she receives a phone call one alerting her to her father’s death, after which she’s seen impassively skating around an ice rink, with a time-out for a random hookup with a man inside a bathroom stall.

We’ll learn why she turned her back on the Orthodox world she was born into yet her personhood will remain foreign to us. Everyone in “Disobedience” is representative and every scene is declarative. With the help of her old lover, Esti, Ronit goes to her father’s home to gather some belongings. Seeing an old radio, Ronit turns it on and we hear a song whose lyrics completely speak to the situation of the two women: “You make me feel like I am home again/Whenever I’m alone with you/You make me feel like I am whole again.”

It is here that Ronit and Esti find themselves alone for the first time in many years. They finally talk about their romantic past in a single long take, and it’s some kind of masterstroke how the tension of their reminiscences and flirtations in tune with the audience’s wondering when the shot will dare to cut away.

At first glance, Esti seems to be an obsequious adherent to orthodoxy. When she passionately kisses Dovid, we understand that this is compensatory and to show that the past with Ronit is indeed the past.. But then she plays with Dovid’s beard, and subtly communicates the sense of the genuine love that exits between this husband and wife—an impression that’s confirmed when Esti later repeats the gesture with Ronit. But theirs is a different kind of love, and we finally get a sense of what that is when the two women are alone and trysting in a hotel room and Ronit casually sends a stream of her saliva into Esti’s mouth.

Director Lelio understands that the community at the center of the film is rooted in old-school tradition, but as it’s physically rooted in a cultural capital of the world, no one here is a stranger to gays and lesbians, and so the reactions to Ronit and Esti’s rekindled love affair never rises to hysterics. Ronit is asked at one point why she isn’t married and response is understood as a matter of course. In fact, in the subtlest of glances exchanged between the women of this community, one senses a certain respect for Ronit having broken away from tradition to find her own path through life. Esti, on the other hand, may have the courage to admit to Ronit that she’s only attracted to women, but she isn’t so brave to stand by her when they’re caught kissing by some friends and her survival instinct kicks in and she bolts from the scene. The film is less about the subjugation of the self to the group than the courage to embrace uncertainty by breaking out of the world one has been born into. And the triumph of the film is the grace and gracefulness of the performances and style.

Repression is a major theme Esti and Ronit have always had a special relationship, and they rekindle a love that becomes more than just friendship. But, of course, this community, and Esti’s marital status, can never allow it.

“HAPPINESS ADJACENT”— A Romance

“Happiness Adjacent”

A Romance

Amos Lassen

Since I saw and reviewed Rob Williams’ first feature film some ten years and nine movies ago, I realized that we had a new director who was going to make quality gay themed films and from the moment that I hear that he has a new project underway, I begin pestering him about a screener. I have never been disappointed by the quality and originality of his work. As I could expect, Rob Williams brings us yet another wonderful gay-themed film with “Happiness Adjacent”. This one is actually kind of special for me in that we meet a gay Jewish guy as the main character. For those of you who are not aware, I have personally made it my goal to collect all books and films that deal with the gay Jewish experience so that my younger gay Jewish brothers and sisters will know where to go to find material and it is a pleasure to add this to the canon.

“Happiness Adjacent” is about explores the romance between Hank, a nice gay Jewish boy traveling alone on a tropical cruise, and Kurt, a bisexual man vacationing with his wife, Kate. When we first meet Hank Eisenberg, he comes across as something of a whiner and a “nebbish” (ask your Jewish friends what this means). However as the movie progresses, he becomes quite endearing. While he was not looking for a relationship, he is immediately drawn to Kurt and the two men form an intense friendship connection. They are open with each other about their sexualities— by this I mean that Hank comes out as gay and Kurt as a married man. Hank has his own issues with his past failed relationships and he begins to wonder if Kurt is secretly looking for a bit of action since it seems that his marriage has become quite boring. The two men do sexually come together and it is left to us to determine if what they have is just a vacation fling a chance for both men to find true happiness.

When the film began, as I said, I found Hank to be quite irritating in that he was harping on this being his dream vacation that he looked forward to taking with his best friend Brian who cancelled at the last minute (thus giving Hank a change to use the concept of Jewish guilt to make him seem less than a likeable character). Hank and Brian had compiled a to-do list for his cruise adventure (go to a Mexican beach, be a Pirate, get laid, get over ‘him’, and make a new friend) and now Hank would have to do this alone. I really wanted to scream at him to get a grip and enjoy himself but he realized his predicament and on his own (and after an imagined session with his therapist, a Dr. Mandelbaum), he did so himself and from that moment he became the kind of a guy I want to be friendly with. (director Williams does quite well with the Yiddish terms and Jewish feelings expressed here).

Hank meets Kurt on the very first days of the cruise and the fact that he is a good looking redhead and the very opposite of Hank’s dark Jewish countenance makes for an interesting aspect of their soon to be kindled relationship. But then there’s Kate, Kurt’s wife. At first Hank and Kurt hang out on the ship while Kate deals with her seasickness. But then, after a drunken night, Kurt shows up at Hank’s cabin and they’re off. While Kate is still suffering mal de mer, Hank and Kurt hit the beach and visit a pirate ship. After Kate realizes what’s been going on between her husband and Hank… You will just have to see the film (and enjoy every minute) to find out what happens.

Williams shot the entire film on location on the iPhone 6S Plus and the cinematography is excellent. My only complaint and it is not really a complaint is that old line about being able to sere Hank’s religion through the noticeable outline in his bathing suit outline is a bit old. We can always depend on Rob Williams to provide us with quality filmmaking as he once again proves here. (Is it not ironic that the very next morning I was in a study group with several other people and one was named Eisenberg and another was named Mandlebaum).

“THE STRANGEST STRANGER”— Jewish, Gay and in Japan

“THE STRANGEST STRANGER”

Jewish, Gay and in Japan

Amos Lassen

In Haruki Murakami’s novel ‘Kafka on the Beach’, we meet a mysterious man who calls himself Johnnie Walker. Is he modeled on Joni Waka, a Jewish man living in Tokyo, or is it the other way round? The charismatic and talkative Waka is a true chameleon and a self-proclaimed outsider, a “mythomaniac”, a homosexual and the natural center of every party. He claims to come from an age-old Jewish lineage.

“The Swedish artist Magnus Bärtås met Waka 20 years ago, and has since been fascinated by how this professional oddball has cultivated his entire life story as fiction. Joni Waka ignores all social norms – and there are a few of these in Japan – and sees himself as a ‘henna gaijin’, the strangest among strangers. He has a self-image that launches him into many confrontations and adventures, and he insists on living it out every single moment of his life. Rumor has it that there is something about the African man whom Waka once seduced in Daqar.”

Waka claims that he is the only Jew left in Japan descending from the old Jewish families in the country. Confronted with a social pressure, he seems to ignore dominating norms and moral, and at the same time using his outside position, as a henna gaijin (the “strangest stranger”) as a space of freedom to stage his life and create an everyday comedy.

This is a mesmerizing documentary with more questions than answers, not just about Waka, but also the very nature of truth.

“THE RABBI”— Unspoken Desires

“The Rabbi”

Unspoken Desires

Amos Lassen

Israel has produced excellent LGBT cinema in the last 15 years but while many aspects of life in Israel have been explored, including its politics, the country’s fraught relationship with its neighbors and military conscription, it isn’t often we see Judaism in a gay drama. Uriya Hertz’s  short film “The Rabbi” introduces us to Michael (Gur Yaari), a charismatic and much-admired Rabbi at a Jerusalem Yeshiva. A revealing confession by Gadi, his favorite student, shakes the rabbi’s familiar and secure world.

Michael finds that he must confront his own sublimated desires. This subtle, understated drama is more about those things which go unsaid than full-blown arguments. A dinner scene, where Gadi joins the Rabbi’s family for supper, fizzes with pent-up energy and emotion.

“Paternal Rites”— A Contemporary Jewish American Family

 

“Paternal Rites”

A Contemporary Jewish American Family

Amos Lassen

Jules Rosskam’s documentary is a “first-person essay on film that examines the aftereffects of physical and sexual abuse in a contemporary Jewish American family, with the filmmaker’s queer and transgender identity at its core”. Filmmaker Rosskam and his partner, Alex, retrace a 1974 road trip taken by Rosskam’s parents and combine photographs, audio recordings, home movies, live action “to evoke the psychoanalytic journey of memory retrieval and trauma recovery”.

This is also a film about the nature of trauma and memory itself: the ways in which trauma works uncannily; the function of speech and narrative in the process of decryption; and the role of film and filmmaking in the practice of healing. In the fall of 2013 filmmaker Jules Rosskam and his partner, Alex, set out to retrace a road trip that Rosskam’s parents, Marilyn and Skip, completed in the fall of 1974 (just prior to his birth and their transition to both suburbia and parenthood. We hear audio diaries that Marilyn and Skip kept during the course of their four-month journey and sees photographs and travelogue footage recorded on Super 8 that is barely perceptible, grainy. Their route included Boston, Mobile, Savannah, Chicago, Portland, Vancouver. 

As we watch, we hear present-day audio interviews between Rosskam and his mother, father, partner, and therapist. The faces of speaking subjects are never seen. Rosskam tries to make sense of conflicting narratives of his childhood, and to find forgiveness for the man who did not protect him. As the director searched for a story about his father, he is confronted with the truth about his brother causing a surprising and shocking conclusion. 

We see images of the American landscape, which tend to haunt the viewer with their banality, and with the layering of still images over live-action footage. There is also the white screen upon which colorful animations are used to “evoke the psychoanalytic process of memory’s retrieval and trauma’s repair.”  

What is really implicit throughout is the filmmaker’s queer and transgender subjectivity, which comes to the surface of the screen when the viewer sees fragments of home movies of his childhood that are amazing in their unremarkable nature and hears audio recordings of contemporary conversations between Rosskam and Alex, who functions as Rosskam’s partner in life as well as in this project. What we really see is how film is able to take us to places we would not ordinarily go.

 

“DEAR FREDDY”— A Heroic Gay Jewish Sportsman Who Ended Up in Auschwitz

“DEAR FREDDY”

A Heroic Gay Jewish Sportsman Who Ended Up in Auschwitz

Amos Lassen

Rubi Gat’s powerful documentary, “Dear Freddy” tells the life of Freddy Hirsch who was born in Germany but lived in Prague before World War II as an openly gay male.

We can understand how rare that was. He was a sportsman who promoted sport and remained active even when the Nazis tried to exclude Jews from any sporting facilities. He was also a spokesperson who fearlessly negotiated with the SS at Theresienstadt ghetto, when he was moved to Auschwitz and where he set up a day-care centre for 600 children. Through rare photographs, archive footage and witness testimony, we get an extraordinary story and a celebration of a heroic figure that died fighting for the betterment of others.

“THE PRINCE AND THE DYBBUK”— Hollywood Filmmaker and Human Chameleon

“THE PRINCE AND THE DYBBUK”

Hollywood Filmmaker and Human Chameleon

Amos Lassen

Moshe Walks is a mystery; was he a golden boy of cinema, a fraud or a man who constantly confused illusion with reality? He was the son of a poor Jewish blacksmith from Ukraine yet he died in Italy as Prince Michael Waszynski, Hollywood producer and exiled Polish aristocrat. He made more than 50 films including cinema hits with Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale but only one film was his true obsession and that was “The Dybbuk”. “The Dybbuk” was based on an old Jewish legend and the film about it became the most important and mystical Yiddish film ever made. It was directed by Waszynski shortly before the outbreak of the WWII.

Waszynski had once claimed to be fascinated with the downfall of great nations and he related imagery of pogroms and migration to this. He seemed to have achieved almost everything he could possibly have wished, but something seemed to be stalking him, making him in permanently restless. He kept searching for the lost print of his film “Dybbuk” which held his early memories of the Jewish shtetl and his first love. Obviously he had hidden secrets in this masterpiece of Yiddish cinema.

At some point in our lives all of us want to be something that we are not but we are seldom successful in doing so. Mike Waszyński, however, seemed to manage to do so. He was a Jew, a Pole in Warsaw and finally a Prince in the elite circles of Europe. How was he able top pay the price for that and how did he divest himself of his roots? During the time he lived, he could not have been himself so when reality became unbearable, he began to live inside his own imagination. With the help of cinema he was perfectly successful in doing so. He became a unique filmmaker, who not only created monumental films, but also made his own life a masterpiece of masquerade.

As I stated earlier, he was obsessed with his film. “The Dybbuk” or “‘Between Two Worlds”, that he directed in 1937. The film is based on an old Jewish legend in which a young woman is haunted by the spirit (“dybbuk” in Yiddish) of her first love.” It is one of the most important and mystical Yiddish films ever made, ‘The Dybbuk’ also mirrors Waszyński’s personal life as a restless man with many secrets (including his homosexuality) and untold stories.

“FALSETTOS”— Live from Lincoln Center

“Falsettos”

Live From Lincoln Center

Amos Lassen

William Finn’s “Falsettos” is the story of Marvin who leaves his wife and young son to be with another man named Whizzer. Marvin fantasized that they can all be one happy family but his dream is shattered when he is diagnosed with AIDS. Set in 1992, an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence and it was a time when violence against gay men and lesbian women was rabid in certain precincts. This is a story that touches every one deeply and although it starts out on a happy note, it ends on a very sad one.

The musical was originally produced in separate installments which would eventually make up the first and second acts of the combined show: “March of the Falsettos” at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis when Marvin has left his wife, Trina, for a man, Whizzer. This left Jason, his son, confused and moody. The second act, “Falsettoland”, was originally produced in 1990, and the pall that AIDS had cast over the intervening decade in the background. The characters and their sense of family now face devastating reality.

We sense the weight of the history of the gay community, of New York City, of the American sense of family and individuality as the musical moves forward. The tragedies of the second act hit us hard since we had already fallen in love with the characters in Act 1. When we consider how selfish and neurotic and self-obsessed the characters are, we wonder where this love comes from. Yet there’s a charm to everyone from Trina holding onto her sanity to Marvin and Whizzer’s combative yet deeply sexy chemistry.

The original production won Finn two Tony Awards, for Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical. This production has a wonderful cast that includes two-time Tony winner Christian Borle as Marvin; Stephanie J. Block as Trina; Andrew Rannells as Whizzer; Brandon Uranowitz as Mendel, the shrink who Trina later marries. All four received Tony nominations. Yes, there are many clichés here but we still laugh and cry all the way through.