Thursday 22 November 2012

Second week at the UK Jewish Film Festival - Holocaust stories, gangs in Bat Yam and a great Dutch movie

The second week of the UK Jewish Film Festival featured some great cinema. These were my highlights!

Here I Learned to Love is an extremely moving documentary about two brother - Avner and Izik, children in Poland during the Second World War. Separated from their parents, they were looked after first by their aunt Malka who managed to get them onto the controversial Kasztner train by throwing them on at the last minute before falling into the care of an unrelated young woman - Naomi who looked after them until they were liberated just before the end of the War.

The two men, both in their 70's had taken different paths to dealing with their history. Avner refused to talk about it and blocking it out in order to become a "Sabra" following their arrival in Israel just after the end of the War. Izik was more forthcoming and wrote about his experiences. The film takes them on a journey of terrible discovery, back to Europe, to Poland, to the death camps and on to Budapest from where they were taken to eventual safety - but not before a sojourn in Bergen-Belsen.

The love between the two brothers is obvious as is the trauma they feel at re-experiencing their childhood years. There is a particularly touching scene where we see them sitting talking and holding hands whilst in Europe and talking about their lives. Touching in a different way - devastating - is the moment when a Polish official manages to trace the records of their mother - Mindel - and Avner says "Mindele, there is so much I have to tell you".

Avner was present at the screening as was his niece and the film director - Avi Angel. A very dapper and sprightly gentlemen, Avi was clearly touched by the audience's reception and spoke clearly (and well, despite his protests!) in English in answer to questions from the floor. One member of the audience asked if he felt better now that he had spoken about his past and faced it head-on. He gave a hearty "yes" in response and it was easy to believe.

Security at this year's festival had been a little less obvious than in previous years. Until Saturday night that is, when following threats from Hamas to renew suicide bombings in Israel, security was more obvious and bag searches were carried out. Good, I like the idea of being safe in the cinema - but sad that its likely someone might want to blow me up because I've gone to see an Israeli film.

God's Neighbours, a new Israeli movie featured three young religious men living in Bat Yam. Avi, the most interesting character, is only recently religious but struggling with himself after the death of his mother and trying to find meaning in life through the Nachman, Breslov group of Hasidic Jews. His two friends are Kobi, the most extreme and who especially favours violence as a way of bringing people to religion and Yaniv, who is the least interesting and easily led of the three.

The film examines the clash between ultra religious and secular sections of Israeli society, Russian immigrants and to a lesser extent, the Arabs. Interestingly at least one of the panelists in the Q and A that followed the film seemed most interested in the short piece that featured the violence between the Hasidim and the Arabs, despite it being a relatively small part of the film and not the major issue.

Female characters are few and far between - this is a "a man's movie" but here is some love interest when Avi begins to fall for the very secular Miri and both begin to influence each other - perhaps indicating that there can be a dialogue and that there is something for both sides to learn - although the panelists (mostly) disagreed, instead viewing Miri's renewed interest in religion as capitulation.

One of the most interesting dimensions of this challenging and often violent film is that it focuses on a largely Sephardi community in Bat Yam, with the lead characters being of Turkish, Moroccan and Yemenite background. Avi and his father even exchange a few words in Ladino - I wonder how many others in the audience spotted this? Very interestingly we see that socially and culturally there is little difference between the different groups featured in the film with religious and secular Jews and Arabs all drinking coffee, playing shesh besh and eating Mizrachi food during the course of the film.

A great central performance from Roy Assaf as Avi. One for more general release please.

Suskind - by makers of Black Book is a heart breaking true story of Walter Suskind, a German Jew who had quit his home country to escape persecution only to get caught in the same trap following the German invasion of the Netherlands. We see the gradual erosion of  the rights of Jews and their separation from the rest of society. Suskind is faced with the challenge of co-operating with the oppressors or trying to subvert them, knowing it is unlikely either he or his family will survive.

There are some truly shocking scenes in this film. The vile collaborationist Dutch characters, (of whom there were many despite decades of telling a different story) - such as the "key man" who empties Jewish properties once the inhabitants have been deported and happily turns in anyone he finds hiding in return for money. There is the tacit collabariton of some of the leading members of the Judenrat whilst acknowledging whatever they did would be wrong - Suskind challenges them morally. And also the examples of those who didn't collaborate or stand by, like van Hulst who lived behind the theatre where Jews awaiting deportation were held or the "communist" policeman who helped spirit children away from the Germans.

Excellent performances from Jeroen Spitzenberger as Suskind, Nyncke Beekhuyzen as his wife Hannah and a suitably tortured performance from Karl Marcovics as SS boss Ferdinand Aus der Funten. Marcovits played the lead role in a film from the same period - The Counterfeiters, which was screened at the festival a couple of years ago.  It is still possible to visit the Hollandse Schouwberg (Dutch Theatre) which was the last stop for Dutch Jews and Jews who had fled to the Netherlands to escape Germany and Austria, before being transported to the holding camp at Westerbork and then, for the main part, to Auschwitz and death. 140,000 Jews lived in the Netherlands at the time of the German invasion. 75% of the total were murdered.

The Last Flight of Petr Ginz is a documentary telling the story of another Holocaust victim - talented Czech teenager, Petr Ginz. By the time he reached his early teens he had written a number of novels, (some of which survived the War) as well as being a talented young artist. Petr was deported to the Czech town (which became a camp) of Terezin, renamed Theresienstadt by the Germans and during his time there, managed to establish and edit a magazine for the other young prisoners. He was deported to Auschwitz in October 1942, where aged 16 he was gassed to death on arrival.

The documentary features his sister Chava (now Pressburger) who survived Theresienstadt. She speaks movingly about her older brother and how they played together and teased each other in the happy years before the Second World War. She spoke about Petr's passion for learning and for life, his talent for drawing, writing and inventing things and his desire to travel in space! Some of his art work has also survived and was featured in the film. His diary for 1941-42 resurfaced in Prague in 2003 when someone who had cleared a house in the Praha Mrodany area of the city discovered them in an attic and offered to sell them to Yad Vashem. Chava managed to acquire two of the notebooks and have been published as "The Diary of Petr Ginz".  An excellent documentary and another reminder of the great losses during that terrible period.

And so the festival comes to an end for another year. It passes by so quickly. My favourite films? I loved the documentary Life in Stills and I suppose my favourite drama was Yossi, although God's Neighbours and Suskind ran it very close. I missed some movies because of either clashes with other films or other commitments and particularly want to see Lea and Daria and the two old German ladies Oma and Bella so will be looking for opportunities to see them. 

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