Tel Aviv on Fire (2018)

FYI: This film was released in 2018 in France, Israel, and parts of Europe. It is now in theaters here in the U.S. Have you ever been a fan of a soap opera? Would you like to see a (fresh/light) take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is a certain level of camp (incl. melodrama) OK w/ you? Then this comedy (co-written/directed by Sameh Zoabi- a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts) is worth a watch. It’s light and fluffy at first glance, but there is the weight of history, occupation, and everyday struggles underneath.

Salam (Kais Nashif- Palestinian-German actor seen in AmericanEast) is suddenly promoted to scriptwriter on a historically-based soap opera developed by his uncle Bassam (Nadim Sawalha- veteran British Jordanian actor/father of actress Julia Sawalha)- Tel Aviv on Fire. During a time of war in 1967, Manal (AKA Rachel) is a Palestinian spy trying to get secrets from the Israeli army. She is in a love triangle w/ two very different men- Marwan (a poetic Muslim freedom fighter) and Yehuda (a straight-laced Jewish general). Tala (Lubna Azabal from Rock the Casbah) is the lead- egotistical, glamorous, and very successful (based in France). She gives her opinions on the script, explaining that at her level, she won’t act if the dialogue is bad.

Salam (very anxious about his job) tries to find inspiration for his character- Yehuda. He is a former bartender and not gifted at writing, as Salam’s ex-girlfriend Mariam (a doctor) reminds him when they run into each other. One morning, Salam is pulled over at a checkpoint between Jerusalem (where the TV studio is located) and Ramallah (where he lives w/ his elderly mother). He meets Assi, an arrogant captain of the guard whose wife (along w/ many Israeli Jewish women) loves the show. Assi’s wife is sure that Rachel will end up w/ Marwan (her favorite character), not the boring Yehuda.

Assi (who is both funny and potentially dangerous) has opinions, incl, on how the season should end- a wedding between Rachel and Yehuda (his favorite character). Assi objects to the way Yehuda has been characterized so far- he doesn’t speak like a real military man. At first, Salam is bemused by these suggestions, then relies on Assi for dialogue. Salam also analyzes his failed relationship w/ Mariam, putting some of her words into scripts. Yehuda becomes a more authentic and sensitive character. Can a mere TV show unite two divided peoples (audiences)?

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Photograph (2019) starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui & Sanya Malhotra

[1] …if you appreciate ambiguity, the film leaves a lot to imagination and interpretation, which has its own charm. The open-ended climax in particular is cleverly done. It makes you ponder and crave for more.

[2] This movie is about the budding romantic relationship between characters of two completely different backgrounds and the director is successful in capturing the nervousness, the newness and the hesitance of a growing relationship.

[3] Photograph is a film that thrives on silences, and it is beautiful to acknowledge how, at times, they overcompensate for the absence of words.

[4] The detailing was insane in this one. The screenplay really allowed me to learn so much about the world and its characters in an organic way.

[5] If you talk about the pace of the film my defence would be it is just like old & matured wine which do not give you kick in first sip but you have to feel it, give it time to grab you very slowly. If you respect it then it will give you magical moments which will be with you for very long time. The best part of the movie is its simplicity in terms of storyline & acting. Characters are written/played so well, so imagine them to be someone next door to you.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

This a movie for the anti-Bollywood (don’t be shy) crowd! Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui; he also co-starred in Ritesh Batra’s first film- The Lunchbox) is a serious-minded, middle-aged Muslim man (originally from Uttar Pradesh) struggling to get by in Mumbai. He lives w/ 4 roomies/pals and works as a photographer at the (popular tourist spot) Gateway of India. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra, one of the grown-up daughters in Dangal starring Aamir Khan) is an introverted student in her early 20s working toward her C.A. (Chartered Accountant) certification. She is from a strict Hindu, middle-class Gujrati family that wants her to achieve and marry a successful young man (perhaps one going abroad to the US).

Word reaches Rafi (via several sources) that his grandmother (who raised him and his siblings) back in their village has stopped taking her meds; she wants him to find a bride ASAP. He meets Miloni at the Gateway one day, takes her picture, but she goes off suddenly w/o paying. Rafi decides to send her photo to his grandma and calls his pretend fiance Noori (after the heroine of a classic Hindi movie). Miloni is soft-spoken and (at first) seems to have no opinions of her own, even when it comes to picking out the color of a new salwar kameez. Then, one night at dinner, her mom explains to her brother-in-law that Miloni used to win awards in grade school for acting.

When his grandma writes that she’s coming to Mumbai for a visit, Rafi goes in search of Miloni (whose photo, luckily, is on billboard ads for her CA program- she’s the top student). After a few attempts, he gets a chance to talk to her; Miloni (surprisingly) agrees to meet his grandmother and play along. It turns out that, despite their looks, backgrounds, and ages, they have much in common! They’re both kind, careful, observant individuals who form a connection. The ending, unlike what most films deliver, is hopeful (yet not conclusive).


JxJ Film Festival: Abe (starring Noah Schnapp)

Abe (Noah Schnapp who plays Will Byers on the popular Netflix show, Stranger Things) is a quiet, sensitive, 12-year-old half-Israeli and half- Palestinian kid living in Brooklyn who loves cooking. He has a food blog, IG account, and many (online) friends who follow his progress in the kitchen. One side of the family prefers to call him “Avraham” (in Hebrew), the other side “Ibrahim” (in Arabic), while his atheist parents call him “Abraham.” But he prefers Abe. A few boys in school are turning 13 y.o. and planning big bashes for their bar mitzvah; Abe admits that he’s curious about the Jewish religion. This is music to his (maternal) grandfather’s (Mark Margolis) ears. Abe also wants to know more re: Islam; he tries fasting for a day (like his paternal grandparents).

Abe’s parents, Rebecca (Dagmara Dominczyk, wife of Patrick Wilson and 1st gen Polish-American) and Amir (Arian Moayed, a Tony nominee of Palestinian heritage) want him to make more (real-life) friends, so suggest he go to a summer cooking camp. It’s too easy for Abe, so he decides to bail w/o consulting his parents. He seeks out an experienced Afro-Brazilian chef, Chico, who specializes in fusion food at local pop ups. At first, Chico is reluctant to let a kid work in his kitchen, but then he sees the passion and potential in Abe. He rides the subway on his own, starts working at Chico’s kitchen, and eventually creates some recipes of his own (combining the ingredients used by both sides of his conflicted family).

This is such a well-made, timely, and unique film; I hope it comes out on a streaming service soon (so can get a wider audience)! Abe is just one representative of the many kids in modern society w/ families from different races, cultures, religions, etc. He’s not sure if he wants to be atheist, like his parents, b/c the traditions of his grandparents appeal to him. His maternal grandmother left a box of family recipes; his mom gives these to Abe. He does some research and discovers that Jews and Palestinians, who have a contentious past, use many of the same ingredients in cooking.

JxJ Film Festival: Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles

The origin story behind one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals, Fiddler on The Roof, and its creative roots in early 1960s New York, when “tradition” was on the wane as gender roles, sexuality, race relations and religion were evolving. -IMDB synopsis

In the early 20th century, Jews and Orthodox Christians live in the little village of Anatevka in the pre-revolutionary Russia (when Czars ruled). The poor milkman Reb Tevye has been married for 25 yrs to Golde and they have five daughters . When the local matchmaker, Yente, arranges the match between his eldest daughter Tzeitel and the old widowed butcher Lazar Wolf, Tevye agrees to the wedding. However, Tzeitel is in love with the poor tailor Motel Kamzoil; they “gave each other a pledge” to someday get married. After seeing the couple so happy, Tevye begins to rethink some of the traditions he assumed would continue…

This was my favorite film (of the six that I saw) of this year’s festival; it’s a funny, educational, and touching doc (featuring Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda, veteran actor Austin Pendelton, cultural critic Fran Lebowitz, and many others influenced by the beloved and timeless musical). The theater was full (or nearly full) during the two showings. Did you know that several of the team who came up with the lyrics, music, dances, etc. are still alive?

We get to hear from theater greats like Harold Prince (producer), Sheldon Harnick (songwriter), and Calvin Trillin (writer). Several discuss the innovation, as well as the emotional/verbal abuse, of Jerome Robbins (the very talented choreographer). Robbins was a “conflicted Jew” and controversial figure because he revealed names to the HUAC. It turns out that he was a closeted gay man seeking to protect his privacy.

A youthful Norman Jewison (who directed the very popular 1971 movie) is seen directing a scene featuring Tevye (Chaim Topol, an actor from Israel who worked mainly on the London stage). Did you know that Jewison (who worked on many socially-conscious films) isn’t Jewish? Though Tevye is the center of the story, dreaming of being a rich man, talking to God, and trying to be the breadwinner, his three (independent-minded) daughters propel the story forward.

Stage/film actresses from different generations talk re: portraying Tevye’s practical wife (Golda), eldest daughter (Tzeitel), witty middle daughter (Hodel), and the gentle/shy one (Chava). Each daughter has (what we call these days) a love marriage. It was shocking to the family when Chava ran off to marry a Russian (not Jewish) boy; this action had more serious consequences in that time period and community.

The (timeless) themes of Fiddler on the Roof have made the play popular worldwide; we get to see clips from a professional performance in Japan and one from school kids in Brooklyn and Thailand. Non-Jewish creative types, including Gurinder Chada (best known for the British indie hit Bend it Like Beckham), talk about how the tale has influenced their works. Miranda even used the song “To Life” in his wedding reception; he, his father-in-law, and members of the wedding party surprised his wife! The doc wraps up w/ how the plight of (modern) refugees is not unlike Tevye’s family.

JxJ Film Festival: Seder-Masochism

Loosely following a traditional Passover Seder, events from the Book of Exodus are retold by Moses, Aharon, the Angel of Death, Jesus, and the director’s own father. But there’s another side to this story: that of the Goddesses, humanity’s earliest deities. “Seder-Masochism” resurrects the Great Mother in a tragic struggle against the forces of patriarchy. -IMDB synopsis

…filled with tap-dancing Moses, the ten plagues, the visage of God (speaking in the voice of her late father), and swaying, cartwheeling, singing and spiraling Goddesses. Set to popular blues, rock, soul and spirituals, this film is an emotional, searing indictment of violence… -Excerpt from IMDB review

Wow, the world (esp. of creative ppl, or those who follow their work) is SO small! I met this filmmaker, Nina Paley, in NYC at a small Meetup event for the (now archived) blog, Sepia Mutiny. I followed several of that blog’s contributors; she was friends w/ members of this group (consisting of South Asians from around the US and world). Paley’s first animated film was Sita Sings the Blues; it focused partly on her relationship w/ her former husband (who transferred to India for his job) and also on the trials faced by the goddess Sita in the Hindu religion. This film is more closer to home for Paley (a secular Jewish woman); it’s about the Seder meal story, as well as her relationship w/ her (recently deceased) father.

The animation here is much more sophisticated; I’m not sure how to describe this type of graphic art. In the dialogues, there are humorous moments, along w/ very touching ones (giving us a glimpse into the dynamics of the filmmaker’s family). Paley’s father plays the Voice of God; he had an ambivalent relationship to his religion, though was proud to be of Jewish heritage. This film also has a big musical component; I think 3 of the songs she chose were new to me. These songs include spirituals, which are most often attributed to African-Americans. Since Paley believes in “free use,” you can download and view it yourself! Follow this link: https://sedermasochism.com/