Monthly Archives: April 2016

“COLLIDING DREAMS”— Another Look at a Complicated History of Zionism

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“Colliding Dreams”

Another Look at a Complicated History of Zionism

Amos Lassen

I received a review screener of “Colliding Dreams” about three months ago with a note that this was a controversial view of Zionism and as I watched the film that thought stayed on my mind. For me, it was not controversial and actually mirrored many of my own views but then I had spent many years building the land when I lived on my kibbutz in the Jordan Valley and was surrounded by the early ideals that had been set forth by many who were part of the founding of the State of Israel. My own thoughts came from my idea of building a nation and this is what propelled my moving to Israel before she had reached her sixteenth birthday.

coll1aOren Rudavsky and Joseph Dorman capture my feelings in this new documentary and also present multiple viewpoints on it. What we really see here are perspectives on Zionism. In actuality we see two main yet different kinds of Zionism—the whole land versus a land for the Jews. Having been a product of Young Judaea, I had some thoughts of my own on how I felt about Israel and I often still find myself at odds with many others.

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I grew up believing that Theodore Herzl was the Zionist superman and what he had to say became a guiding force in my life. When the Six Day War broke out in Israel, I had no problem serving in the army and being sent into combat because I believed it was my duty to protect our land regardless the cost. I find this interesting in that I avoided the American draft because I felt that war was immoral and here I was in a country that had to fight to stay alive. We really believed back then that peace would come to Israel if we could show her military strength and the one thing that really loomed over everything else was the idea that peace was indeed coming.

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In the film we see Jews and Arabs living, working and even celebrating together in the early 20th-century Palestine. Not everyone thought that peace would come and so we had dissenters in our own ranks. I quickly learned that our beliefs come from our educations and we never really agree on anything about Israel. Many of us believe what we want to believe and see what we want things to be. I grew up in America where peace was a way of life but living in Israel, I also learned that war can also be a way of life.

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We get no resolution in the film. The film throws down a challenge and asks us to think about our prejudices and that is not an easy task. It was only after seeing the film “Censored Voices” that some of my opinions changed. We must all realize that each of us has a part to play if Israel is to continue to exist and while many of us may not be happy about what is now going on in Israel, we need to really look into our minds and reach a conclusion on what we can each do the make sure that our nation continues does not disappear.

“FINDING PHONG”— Trans in Vietnam

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“FINDING PHONG”

Trans in Vietnam

Amos Lassen

Phong was the youngest of six children and he grew up in a small town in the center of Vietnam. From the time he was a young boy, Phong felt like he was a girl in a boy’s body. When he moved to Hanoi to attend university at age 20, Phong discovered that he was not the only one in the world with the same kinds of feelings and it became his dream to ‘find himself’. The movie centers on Phong’s struggle during these years and we see excerpts from his intimate video journal, and from his family, friends and doctors who have to deal with the his determination to become a complete girl.

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The film opens on New Year’s Eve in Vietnam and couples all around Anh Phong are happy and celebratory. Phong, however is crying inside. Phong has always had delicate features and now in her mid-20’s, has a job at the state puppet theater and dreaming of the day she can travel to Thailand for sex-change surgery. As I watched the film, I gained better understanding and acceptance of feeling to be one gender yet having a body that is another. In the beginning we see that Phong was sad and depressed as she describes her embarrassing “secret” and tries to convince her 70-something mother of the rightness of her path. The grandmother seems to struggle mightily with the situation because she loves Phong yet says “What was my sin to have such a child?” Phong tells us that her mother believes transsexuals are “whores,” but that there is so much more they can do with their lives. She urges Phong to change his mind but she is determined to be female.

We see and hear Phong speaking candidly as she openly discusses her journey — with her sympathetic hairdresser, workplace colleagues, quizzical siblings, and, on a medical trip to Thailand, with everyone from streetwalkers to medical personnel who help Phong prepare herself for feminine sexual intercourse.

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The story is told in a mixture of Phong’s own video diaries and footage shot by the two cameraman/co-directors, Tran Phuong Thao and Swann Dubus. It is powerful and frank. Phong is naive about some of the aspects of the transitioning process and doesn’t hide that from us at all. When she makes an initial trip to Thailand to discuss the possibility of surgery, she actually seems somewhat startled about some of the aspects that she learns about for the first time. Nonetheless, Phong is committed  to the whole process as she knows once her body is that of a female, she will finally be happy. Naturally, her parents are opposed to this and his mother openly says how she feels. Phong shows her determination is answering her. Phong’s siblings are supportive to the point of actually accompanying Phong back to Thailand to actually undergo the surgery, but even so the elder brother confesses that he is having a real problem dealing with what is happening. Despite their uncertainty in how they felt about Phong they support and love her regardless.

We see Phong’s transition and transformation and we see a sad and lonely boy become a confident and immensely happy young woman who finds purpose and hope for the very first time in her life. She gives in life and we sense that now she will be able and willing to overcome any  obstacles she faces.

“FROM THIS DAY FORWARD”— Growing Up with a Transgender Father

from this day forward

“From This Day Forward”

Growing Up with a Transgender Father

Amos Lassen

When director Sharon Shattuck was a middle school student when her father came out as transgender. To say the least, her father’s transition to female was difficult for her straight-identified mother to accept, but her parents remained married. As Sharon approaches her own wedding day, she returned home to Michigan to ask her parents how their love survived against all odds.

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This new documentary, explores her experience with her father’s transition and in “From this Day Forward”, she shares the compassionate story of her parents’ ongoing marriage after her dad’s transition and her mother’s continued heterosexual identification and the impact it had on her childhood and her own recent wedding. 

We see one-on-one interviews with Shattuck’s father, now called Trisha, and her mother, Marcia, as they look back at Trisha’s decision to come out as transgender to her daughter while she was still a student. The documentary features candid home videos from Shattuck’s childhood and times before Trisha’s transition to female and the tender moments of affection between Shattuck’s parents, who are both living their lives as women. Footage from Shattuck’s own wedding is juxtaposed with her recollection of a conversation she had with her father during middle school when he told her that he hoped she would let him wear a dress to her wedding when she got married.

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Trisha shares that there were times in her life that she wanted to die because of what she carried around as baggage. The documentary explores the struggles and the growth Trisha and her family have experienced since she transitioned from living as a man to living as a woman when Sharon was still a child. It is the family’s growth that defines the film and this is an unconventional, but very real, love story.

Sharon felt she had to make the film as a means of answering questions still lingering from her childhood. She had a hard time with the transition and shares that when she was younger, she had rejected her father and a lot of the past is unresolved. She felt that she had to as the questions that she could not ask back then. Now as an adult, she is able to embrace her transgender parent and this is what becomes the storyline of the film.

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From the beginning of the film, Trisha is a delightful and endearing character. She is open about her struggles with gender expression and most of the time she is funny, playful, and adventurous. However, Marcia points out that Tricia is a woman and she married a man. Their marriage has thus been challenging and almost ended more than once. It was their love for each other has withstood the challenge. Trisha’s inner being is the attraction and it has always been there.

Trisha admits that her experience is different from what people may expect. Trisha has never really embraced either side of her being. There are moments where she identifies more as a man, although she spends the majority of her life living as a woman.

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We get a very intimate look at the life of a transgender father that we may not find anywhere else and this makes this a film to see.

“GERMANS & JEWS”— The Relationship

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“GERMANS & JEWS”

The Relationship

Amos Lassen

Tal Recanati (an American Jew) and Janina Quint (a non-Jewish German) are two friends who began to look at the nature of the complicated relationship between Germans and Jews in today’s modern world. Recanati is an American Jew while Quint is a German gentile who finds a way to reconciliation even after the way Jews were treated in Germany for so many years. Germany has undergone transformation since the time of the Nazis. Quite basically, the film is an exploration of the complicated relationship between Germans and Jews in postwar Germany and the country’s transformation as a society. It is uncomfortable and provocative, unexpected and enlightening. But we see that in dealing with denial and acceptance, reconciliation emerges.

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I have always found it strange that the fastest growing Jewish population in Europe today is in Berlin and Germany. Germany is considered one of the most democratic societies in the world and is assuming the position of moral leader of Europe as they bring in hundreds of thousands of refugees. Try to think what would have happened if this had been the situation in 1945.

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The film takes place around a dinner table in today’s Germany. The purpose of the meeting is for two friends to discuss their relationship that is highly sensitive. The narrative then explores the post-war years—from victims to perpetrators to defenders of human rights and democracy. We see that Germans have made sincere and valiant efforts to face the past and to learn from it. After all, Germany has become a country that has built many memorials to the atrocities that she committed.

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We hear from Jews living in Germany, some who arrived after the war; others who were born and raised in post-war Germany; and still others who immigrated from Russia and Israel. According to estimates, there are close to 250,000 Jews living in Germany. Many of these are Israelis who have come to seek a more profitable life and the new German Jews become the seismograph of the society. The Jews are Historians, theologians, journalists, academics, businessmen, artists, and musicians and they all have something to say about dealing with the idea of German guilt, Holocaust fatigue, and anti-Semitism. It is an untold story, of Germans and Jews, inextricably linked through their memory of the Holocaust. There is a great deal to be learned here and while this might not be an easy film to watch for many, it is important and certainly leads to provocative discussions ands new ideas.

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Trailers are not yet available.

“PARCHED”— Frank Conversations about Gender and Sexuality

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“Parched”

Frank Conversations about Gender and Sexuality

Amos Lassen

Leena Yadav’s “Parched”, a new film by Leena Yadav, looks at the unquestioned acceptance of patriarchy in India. In 2012, Yadav was in some remote villages in the Indian district Kutch. As she traveled she spoke to women and some of those conversaions were very frank in nature and they spoke about gender and sexuality.

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In 2012, a film maker from Mumbai found herself in some of Kutch’s remotest villages. In the course of her travels, she struck friendships with many women. “Often, our conversations would turn into surprisingly frank discussions on gender and sexuality. Looking back at those stories, she realized that they were universal especially those about how women sell their bodies to survive, survive in abusive relationships, or live in the shadow of past relationships. A result of those conversations is the film “Parched” that Yadav wrote, directed and co-produced.

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Parched is a multi-layered story of three women — a young widow Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee); her vivacious best friend, Lajjo (Radhika Apte), who is trying unsuccessfully to have a baby with her abusive husband; and the erotic dancer Bijli (Surveen Chawla). Their unquestioning acceptance of patriarchy wavers when Rani has to find a bride for her 15-year-old son and this brings the three to question a world in which their sexuality is both despised and coveted. They realize that are looking for more than they have as women. While the film explores their oppression and repressed lives, it also takes a light-hearted look at the interactions of the three women, and “celebrates the small joys that even the most oppressed women enjoy in female company.”

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“Parched” is a contemporary morality tale that critiques the often harsh treatment of women in the absence of egalitarian social norms. Yadav’s concerns about discrimination and violence against women are evident in nearly every scene of the film. Each of the principal characters undergoes self-actualization in defiance of prevailing patriarchal norms. We get three committed performances that demonstrate the full spectrum of transformation from enabler to disrupter. The supporting cast consists of many nonprofessional performers in this drama about female subjugation and liberation that plays first like a horror story that turns into almost a fantasy. We see India’s misogyny through the fictional tale of women in the small town of Gujarat. It’s in this patriarchal milieu that Yadav pinpoints the various ways in which institutional and personal prejudices keep people enslaved and gives the viewer a look at gender inequality.

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“Parched” shows how intolerance sets in and the difficulty of breaking free of its regardless of various methods of escape.

“AMATEUR NIGHT AT CITY HALL: THE STORY OF FRANK L. RIZZO— From Cop to Mayor

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“Amateur Night At City Hall: The Story Of Frank L. Rizzo”

From Cop to Mayor

Amos Lassen

The meteoric rise of Frank L. Rizzo rose from a cop on the beat to law and order police commissioner to controversial mayor. We first began hearing about Francis Lazarro “Frank” Rizzo when he was a tough, headline-grabbing Philadelphia cop-on-the-beat in the 1960s. His personality led to a 4-year stint as a crusading law-and-order police commissioner and then 8 years as Philadelphia’s most polarizing mayor of modern times. Many of white working class citizens of Philadelphia saw Rizzo as their protector-in-chief in a threatening urban environment, minority citizens, liberal and wealthy whites, civil libertarians, and others saw Rizzo as an authoritarian and bully who created a climate of fear and repression throughout the city. 

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This film was shot throughout 1977 and was released in early 1978 and in it we see the key events from Rizzo’s colorful and controversial career and we get something of an attempt to analyze causes and effects of his actions. Although the film was originally released before Rizzo’s controversial assault on radical group MOVE, it chronicles attacks he ordered on Black Panthers and on young people idling in Rittenhouse Square. We see his failed polygraph test, and his routinely tough talk (“I’m gonna make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.” 

The film’s primary theme is “politics as show business,” and it includes many amateur musical performances from South Philadelphia’s Triangle Tavern. Among the many interviewees are broadcast journalist Andrea Mitchell, local politicians including future Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, and stripper Blaze Starr who discusses her reputed affair with the self-proclaimed family man. (His speech can be called early Donald Trump).

When first released, it won several awards and now it has been transferred to HD and restored. It is a simple movie yet it dazzles the eyes by combining footage of Rizzo as mayor with scenes from performances by amateurs at the Triangle Tavern, a well-known bar in South Philadelphia that was Rizzo’s political and emotional base.

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The film is very professionally put together and tries to relate the man and his “style” to the kind of cheap, third-rate entertainer. It is well-researched and very professionally put together but remains a tongue-in-cheek interpretation-assessment of Rizzo’s career. 

“The Invisible Jewish Budapest: Metropolitan Culture at the Fin de Siècle” by Mary Gluck— What Was Once

the invisible Jewish Budapest

Gluck, Mary. “The Invisible Jewish Budapest: Metropolitan Culture at the Fin de Siècle” (George L. Mosse Series), University of Wisconsin Press, 2016.

What Was Once

Amos Lassen

At the turn of the 19th century, Budapest was a city that was emulated for its cosmopolitan urban culture and nightlife. It was also happened to be the second-largest Jewish city in Europe. Mary Gluck takes us back to the Budapest that was and we visit the coffee houses, music halls, and humor magazines to see the tremendous influence that assimilated Jews had in creating modernist Budapest between 1867 and 1914. We can regard then Budapest as a paradox since much of the Jewish population embraced and promoted a secular, metropolitan culture yet their influence as Jews was both profound and invisible.

I must admit that even though my mother was Hungarian, I have never mush thought about the place from where she came and I do not remember even saying much about it. The culture has been mainly created by secular Jews (which was often the case pre-World Wars.) We see here that Budapest was quite the opposite of how we imagined it might have been. The culture was modernist and not at all like the rest if Hungary which had remained backwards and nationalistic.

“This Is Not My Beautiful Life: A Memoir” by Victoria Fedden— Jailbird Parents and the Loss of a Mind

this is not my beautiful life

Fedden, Victoria. “This Is Not My Beautiful Life: A Memoir”, Picador, 2016.

Jailbird Parents and the Loss of a Mind

Amos Lassen

Victoria Fedden got quite a surprise when federal agents stormed her parents’ home. She was very pregnant and her baby was due soon. On top of that, her parents were named the alleged masterminds of a pump and dump scheme, Now she has to figure out how to raise a child after learning that her parents were criminals. The only hope that she has is that Bradford Cohen, a famous criminal attorney will be able to prove them not guilty.

Fedden lost her parents to the Department of Corrections and she almost lost her mind over everything that transpired. We become immediately aware that that Fedden’s life is never dull. After all, how many people have parents that are criminals?

Here is a story filled with and almost unbelievable events and characters and while it really seems to be impossible, it actually happened. I particularly love that she refers to her parents as big-hearted criminals. Fedden shows that sometimes family ties can be so tight that they strangle the members of the family. Somehow Fedden manages to get touching humanity into her story that grounds it a bit.

I was drawn and already laughing on the first page and continued to laugh all the way through. Not to be missed is the way Fedden describes her pregnancy. Her sarcasm is wonderful and I so badly needed to laugh so this book was a bit of sunshine for me on a very rainy day. We do not get descriptions of such maladies as depression, anxiety, and insecurity like we find here. It is Fedden’s attitude about life that won me over and I have the feeling that I will be reading this again…and….again.

“Spirituality and the State: Managing Nature and Experience in America’s National Parks” by Kerry Mitchell— Connecting to Nature

spirituality and the state

Mitchell, Kerry. “Spirituality and the State: Managing Nature and Experience in America’s National Parks”, NYU Press, 2016.

Connecting to Nature

Amos Lassen

There is something about America’s national parks that makes them inspirational and I think we can probably say that this is true because of the power and beauty we find in them. It is easy to connect to oneself and to nature while in the parks but many of us do not know that it takes a lot of work to make nature appear natural. To maintain the apparently pristine landscapes of our parks, the National Park Service must involve itself in traffic management, landscape design, crowd-diffusing techniques, viewpoint construction, behavioral management, and more just to be able to preserve the “spiritual” experience of the park. This labor is invisible to us.

 

Writer Kerry Mitchell analyzes the way that the state manages spirituality in the parks by the use of techniques that are subtle, sophisticated, unspoken, and powerful techniques. The park officials are aware of the secular ethos that brings about spirituality and have developed strategies that facilitate deep spiritual connections between visitors and the space, Using indirect communication, the design of trails, roads, and vista points, and the management of land, bodies and sense perception, the state gives the visitor ways of experiencing reality that is seen as natural, individual, and authentic. This is one way to naturalize the exercise of authority and the historical, social, and political interests that lie behind it. By doing this, a personal, individual, nature spirituality becomes a public religion that is particularly liberal.

Mitchell has used surveys and interviews with visitors and rangers as well as analyses of park spaces to investigate the production and reception of nature and spirituality in America’s national park system. He gives us a fresh take on the politics of religion in America and provides a “counter-narrative to scholarly celebrations of spirituality that is respectful of his subjects and acknowledges the fact that very few of us, if any, have a clear understanding of why we do what we do”. He denaturalizes the concept of spirituality, and shows that piety is not simply made-up. Rather, piety accomplishes an incredible amount of work in some places where it is necessary to naturalize the nation state and socialize the feelings of individuals. We also read about negative aesthetics or how concealment can be revelatory and “how the vagueness of nature serves to connect a range of individuals by way of a shared humanity that is rather specifically defined”.

I have not spent much time in National Parks in this country so much of this was new to me. I found Mitchell’s analysis of the relationship between state-organized nature and individual spiritual experience fascinating especially how it contributes to the understanding of the secular and the religious. Mitchell pays great attention to the concepts and practices and shows how the ideas and practices of a loosely-defined nature-based spirituality are part of a secular ethos that has become part of the American way of life.

“Fragmented Citizens: The Changing Landscape of Gay and Lesbian Lives” by Stephen Engel— Moving Toward Equality

fragmented citizens

Engel, Stephen. “Fragmented Citizens: The Changing Landscape of Gay and Lesbian Lives”, NYU Press, 2016.

Moving Toward Equality

Amos Lassen

June 2015 was a significant date for the LGBT community with the legalization of the right of same-sex marriage by the Supreme Court and it is seen as a major victory for gay and lesbian rights in this country. Gone are the days that some states allow for same-sex marriage and some do not and today members of the LGBT community enjoy full legal status for their marriages wherever they travel or reside in the country. For many, the ruling means that gay and lesbian citizens are one step closer to full equality with the rest of America.

Stephen M. Engel looks at the present time as regards LGBT rights and shows that we are living in a time of considerable advancement and change—but that there is still much to be done in shaping American institutions to recognize gays and lesbians as full citizens. Using fascinating examples, Engel traces the relationship between gay and lesbian individuals and the government from the late nineteenth century through the present. We see that gays and lesbians are more accurately described as fragmented citizens. Even with the marriage ruling, Engel argues that LGBT Americans still do not have full legal protections against workplace, housing, family, and other kinds of discrimination and that there is still a continuing struggle of the state to control the sexuality of gay and lesbian citizens as they continue to live as fragmented citizens. By understanding that the gays and lesbians are regarded as less than full citizens, we see the resistance of the American government to grant equality even though public opinion has changed.

It was once for the state to identify and control the lives of its gay and lesbian residents and to take care of all of the citizens regarding matters of immigration, labor relations, and even national security. The struggle for gay and lesbian rights, then has affected not only the lives of those seeking equality but also the very nature of American governance itself.  “Fragmented Citizens” is an account, politically and historically of how today’s policies came into being. The idea of fragmented citizenship opens the door for new ways of talking about where the civic status of LGBT people stands.

The LGBT movement becomes a way to focus on American political development and from this we get new ways of looking at what exists. We also can better understand the limits of state recognition and the quest for social justice. We can no longer think of LGBT citizenship as just a way of “vindicating constitutional rights”. Engel says that what we actually have is a fragmented citizen that shows that rights do not operate independently of institutions and time. We must be aware of and attuned to the ways in which public and private institutions often haphazardly, tenuously, unexpectedly and even inconsistently recognize certain features of citizenship while denying others. American LGBT citizenship provides a timely framework from which this argument can be developed.