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The Naked and The Dead

Today, I went to the bank, ate a lot of cheese crackers, and went out to have a guy’s night with Shlomo at the movies. The Wisconsin Film Festival is in town, so we headed over to Hilldale to catch the only Israeli film in this year’s festival: The Farewell Party, a 2014 film directed by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon, starring Ze’ev Revach, Levana Finkelstein, Aliza Rosen, Raffi Tavor, and Ilan Dar.

So long, farewell…

 

The film is a black comedy, dealing with aging and machine-assisted suicide, taking place in a Jerusalem retirement home. At the outset of the film, Yana (Aliza Rosen) calls upon her friend Yechezkel (Ze’ev Revach), a machinist and inventor, for a way to put her husband, Max – who is very old and very ill – out of his misery. A mutual friend, Rafi (Raffi Tavor) introduces Yechezkel to someone who can help: his lover Dr. Daniel (Ilan Dar), a veterinarian who has experience with sedatives and putting animals to sleep. Though initially apprehensive, Dr. Daniel eventually describes to Yechezkel the type of machine he’d need, and Yechezkel sets about to make it, a machine where pressing a button will administer a lethal dose of drugs. Yechezkel’s ladylike but dementia-suffering wife Levana (Levana Finkelstein, in a stunning performance), discovers the plans and almost blows their cover, but eventually acquiesces and becomes the fifth member of this unlikely death squad. Together, they videotape Max soberly acknowledging that this is how he wants to die, and presses the button, killing himself. To trick the nurses, Dr. Daniel briefly hooks up Rafi to Max’s heart monitor while waiting for him to flatline, and then replaces it and leaves with the rest of the group. They think that this is the end, but at Max’s funeral, a man called Dubek approaches Yana, telling her that he knows what happened (though not how) and begs for her to do the same for his ailing wife, Clara. After stalking the group at their retirement home, they acquiesce (all but Levana, who has become too emotionally fragile), and they do the same as they did to Max for Clara, who is in much better shape than they thought but presses the button anyway. Then there’s a weird musical interlude.

Meanwhile, Levana, who is frequently left alone, exhibits even more signs of dementia, doing things like putting her purse in the freezer, leaving the house with cookies burning in the oven, and eating pizza out of a garbage can. Levana and Yechezkel’s daughter, Noa, urges them to place Levana in a home for elderly dementia patients, but Yechezkel shuts her down, stubbornly refusing to see the signs of Levana’s illness until one day when Levana shows up for lunch in the nursing home dining hall completely naked. Upon returning back to her room with Yechezkel and Yana, Levana becomes hysterical, crying that she needs to be put in the home. Yechezkel then hatches a plan, taking Levana down to the nursing home’s greenhouse that night, where Yana, Rafi, and Dr. Daniel are all naked and smoking marijuana. The two join in the fun until they are caught by a security guard and warned by a social worker, who recommends that Levana go into the home for the mentally disabled.

The group unites again (sans Levana, and Yechezkel, who is taking care of her) to head to a kibbutz to use the suicide machine on their 89-year-old friend Zelda. As soon as Zelda presses the button, a fuse blows and the machine dies. Rafi calls Yechezkel to come and fix it, but since he’s promised Noa that he won’t leave Levana alone, he takes her with him to the kibbutz where once again, the machine blows a fuse when Zelda presses the button. Then after a choir sings outside Zelda’s window, she briefly reconsiders her decision before pressing the button a third time, again blowing a fuse.

We then cut to the parking lot, where we learn that the machine didn’t work and Zelda changed her mind anyway. Zelda’s brother runs out to the group in the parking lot, saying that 5000 shekel has gone missing from Zelda’s money, and though the group thinks Levana accidentally took it, Rafi is revealed to having taken it, as well as money from Max and from Clara. A furious Yechezkel wrestles Rafi to the ground, injuring himself in the process.

Soon after, Levana and Yechezkel visit the home that Noa and the social worker suggested, but find it to be a sterile environment where everyone is a vegetable. Levana reveals that this is all too much for her, and she tells Yechezkel she wants to be the machine’s next victim. Yana tells Yechezkel that he should let his wife die in dignity, with the machine. Furious, Yechezkel destroys the machine.

Later, Yechezkel leaves Levana alone for a short time while he goes and discusses what has happened with the other three, returning to discover her in bed, unconscious. The group rushes her to the hospital, where she is revived but reveals that she purposely overdosed in an attempt to kill herself. Yechezkel suddenly sees how much his wife is suffering, and builds a new machine. In the closing scene, the group stands around Levana’s bed as she apologizes to Noa and tells her not to be angry with her father, and that she is deciding herself to die with dignity. The camera then zooms in on her as Yechezkel leans over for a last kiss and her finger presses then button and the film ends.

Shlomo and I had vastly different perspectives on the film. I mean, we saw the same points, but I saw more of the comic elements than he did. I guess I just took the movie at face value. True, the story is incredibly depressing, but the idea of a bunch of old people inventing a machine to kill people, going around and doing it, and getting naked and high along the way kind of made it feel like a screwball comedy for the geriatric. At some points, I was the one doing the dying, dying laughing, that is; Zelda’s three failed attempts at activating the machine and her comments after the room went dark, Levana putting her purse in the freezer, and of course, the naked greenhouse scene, which was actually kind of sweet, knowing that Yechezkel orchestrated it so that his wife would feel less awkward about the whole naked-lunch thing.

As I said earlier, Levana Finkelstein’s portrayal of Levana was absolutely stunning; she really wowed me with her spiral into madness. Ze’ev Revach as protagonist Yechezkel and Aliza Rosen’s tough-as-nails Yana were also fun to watch, and the playful relationship between the two widows (well, one at the beginning of the film and one at the very end) made Levana’s character all the more interesting. In terms of production values, some great camera work and excellent use of color, with whites and hospital-like pastel blues and greens contrasting with the dark shadows that the characters always seemed to be in, as if their wrinkles were intended to be accentuated at every turn.

I don’t have too much criticism for the film, even though I saw what was coming at the end. Oh, and the opening credits went on way too long, as well as the opening bit with Zelda and Yechezkel on the phone. Overall, it had a good mix of moments that were humorous and moments that were heartbreaking.

It gets four stars from me.

And I think I ate about a hundred cheese crackers as I wrote this.

4

Dancing with the Enemy

So, yesterday, after the show, I went to watch the second of four films offered by this year’s Madison Israel Film Festival, Dancing at Jaffa, a documentary directed by Hilla Medalia and starring Pierre Fontaine and Yvonne Marceau. For someone who is a huge fan of documentary films, of ballroom dance, of human interest stories, and of Israel, I have to say that I was let down.

Dancing at Jaffa documents the true story of an intercultural experiment aimed at uniting two groups of children in a very unusual way: through a ballroom dance class. French ballroom dance champion Pierre Fontaine returns to Jaffa, Israel – a suburb of Tel Aviv and the city of his birth – to see how he can best contribute to the people of a divided city in a divided nation. The idea of a ballroom dance class is brilliant, and especially the way he did it, by making Jewish boys dance with Palestinian girls, and Palestinian boys with Jewish girls. Of course, the program does not run smoothly; the scenes where the children meet for the first time are wonderfully awkward, and their reactions are candid and honest. Slowly, though, the resistance to look at, to touch, and to dance with the partner of the opposite sex and religion melts away, and by the end, they all (well, most of them) dance in a competition in front of a crowd of parents, family, and friends from both communities. Other than Pierre, two of the trajectories are those of Noor, a chubby Palestinian girl who can be either incredibly shy and withdrawn, avoiding everyone or hostile and belligerent, attacking and scaring everyone; and that of Lois and Alaa. We do not learn about Noor’s partner, but we do learn that Alaa comes from a very poor Palestinian home at which Lois is shocked, and that Lois’s thing is that she was fathered by a sperm donor, which prompts an adorable scene where she tries to explain to her partner what a sperm bank is, and then is followed by an awkwardly graphic scene where Lois’s mother gives Alaa the intimate details of her procedure and of the reproductive process. She’s a wily one, that lady. Noor’s arc basically ends with her in control of her emotions and actually proving to be a very talented dancer, and Lois and Alaa take us out with a scene where they row Alaa’s father’s boat and it’s all very Hand in Hand and gooey as the credits roll.

The concept of the film is great; cute kids and a fun project. If the synopsis weren’t enough, the trailers made me want to jump right up and buy a copy of the movie for myself. However, as I mentioned before, it was not a cakewalk to sit through.

Okay, disclaimer: granted, I missed the first 20 minutes because I was still at the theatre finishing up with the costumes, but for an almost 2-hour-long movie, missing 20 minutes shouldn’t be that big of a deal, and I was able to get right into it when I walked in. The main criticisms I had were the treatment of ballroom dance, the character development, and the camera work/filming style.

Okay, first, the ballroom dance. Obviously, I was not expecting to watch children do ballroom for two hours straight, because that would be boring, but they could have shown more of that and fewer tracking shots of school buses and checkpoints. The only dances that I counted were merengue (which is not something I know much about), rumba (a different style than what I’m used to, though, and tango. There was a tiny bit of foxtrot and waltz in the scenes where Pierre and his American partner, Yvonne Marceau, were demonstrating for the class, but they didn’t show them teaching it. It’s obvious that the children were not professional dancers or even actors, but I felt like I was either watching them dance the same steps over and over in different settings or just watching them talk about their lives. There was a lot left on the cutting room floor.

This leads into character development. I found it odd that almost nothing was mentioned about Noor’s partner; that would have been a great counterpoint to Lois/Alaa. It is clear that we were supposed to root for Noor, but she seemed like a whiner up until the very last moments. Unlike Lois/Alaa, the Noor scenes always seemed to be about someone other than Noor, and Noor’s relationship with that person (Noor’s mother, Noor’s teachers, Noor’s classmate, Pierre). Also, some of the adult characters were frustrating. Pierre seemed a little full of himself at times; Lois’s mother, while funny, clearly attempted to commandeer a documentary that was not about her; and there was something that one of the teachers said to a class that I thought was incredibly harsh and unwarranted. Also, there were like five different schools, and so many children that we barely knew anyone else’s name by the end.

Finally, the camera work. Pick a style and stick with it. You want to do it as if it’s a real movie, with no fourth-wall breaking? Do it that way. You want heavy confessional action? Do it with all the characters, or at least not just Pierre. And for goodness sakes, decide if you want your voice in it – there was one scene in the Palestinian neighborhood where they were talking to Alaa and some of the other boys, and it was clear that the prompts/questions were coming from the person holding the camera.

I would give it a 2 out of 5 star rating, and that’s only because I just love ballroom dance.

And hello to another six continent day, the first after a few! So, just who danced in today? North America (Canada and USA), South America (Paraguay and Colombia), Europe (UK, Hungary, France, Netherlands, and Czech Republic), Asia (India, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia), Africa (Burkina Faso), and Oceania (Australia and Papua New Guinea).

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How Do You Pronounce Your Name, In Your Country?

Today, I hosted the sixth and final film in this year’s Madison Israeli Film Festival. It was a Sunday matinee showing of the 2012 film Foreign Letters by Israeli Filmmaker Ela Thier.

A still from the film

The film takes place in the USA in 1982 and centers around Ellie, a young girl who has recently emigrated from Israel to America with her family. She struggles, but is curious to learn about this strange new place called America where supermarkets give away bags for free and schools have libraries and cafeterias. While at school, she befriends Thuy, a girl who has moved from Vietnam to America with her family several years prior, due to the war. The girls have an unlikely friendship but bond over being outsiders in an America that is predominantly white and English-speaking. Their close friendship is tested by Ellie’s self-proclaimed “boyfriends,” Thuy’s shy and protective nature, and ultimately, betrayal, when Ellie spills one of Thuy’s secrets. But the film ends on a happy note, when Ellie makes a sacrifice in order to win her friend back.

After the film, I gave a short speech and invited some students from our school’s Vietnamese Student Association to the front of the room, where they talked about their lives and their different connections with their own Vietnamese culture and heritage. The two members of the group who were born in Vietnam (including one who just arrived in America this past year for school) wore spectacular Vietnamese outfits called ao dai just like Ellie and Thuy wear in the film when they are dancing together on the rooftop of Thuy’s apartment building. They gave a really solid presentation about Vietnamese culture and traditions, connecting it to things that we saw in the movie, such as Vietnamese clothing, food, and family values.

We had a small crowd, of only about 40 people, but I think any more than that would’ve been overwhelming. After their presentation, they took questions from the audience. All in all, it was a really fun event and I got more than a few compliments from people who attended and those who worked at Hillel.

From the moment I read the description of the movie, I had to see it, and after the first time I saw it, I knew I wanted to see it again and that I wanted to be the host for this one (there were six students on the film committee, each of us hosted a different night) because I love films that have a happy ending but still an urban, gritty atmosphere. Life is awkward sometimes and watching Foreign Letters again helped me feel like even though I’m an awkward person, I’m not alone. I also feel like this film really shied away from stereotypes, and showed a slice of life, something real. The Jewish/Israeli perspective was spot on, and I hope that the Vietnamese perspective was shown accurately, which I think it was. This film is definitely among my all-time favorites.

And of course, there’s the background soundtrack, featuring the fabulous vocals of Chava Alberstein. Watch the trailer here:

Oh, and welcome to my newest country, Latvia (laipni lūdzam!). Maybe I’ll get my first blog hit from Vietnam?