Monday 26 November 2012

Life and fate

A friend of mine once told me she could never bear to visit Russia because of its terrible history - the suffering, the death, the cruelty that Russians have endured for centuries. I take a different view. Yes, there has been immense suffering here, but the Russians have created some of the world's most beautiful works of art, literature, drama, music and architecture despite this. I have recently begun reading more 20th century Russian literature (in English of course) and have just completed Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, an 855 pages epic set around the siege of Stalingrad in the Second World War. This book illustrates perfectly the terrible suffering that my friend spoke about but also reminds the reader of the tremendous achievements of the Russians in the face of the most terrible adversity.

Although the central "event" of the book is the battle of Stalingrad, this is not a military history. Instead, Life and Fate introduces us to a wide range of characters and shows the waxing and waning of their fortunes over the period of the siege. The characters range from senior military characters (both Russian and German), to scientists involved in research to support the Russian war effort, to prisoners in the Gulag and in the German camps and to peasants and intellectuals all caught up in the horrors of the War. Many of the characters are members of, or linked to the Shaposhnikov family.

Grossman writes eloquently, not about tactical issues of warfare, but about the lives of his characters during this period. The battle is raging, but the cast still have romantic affairs, have children, read books, play the piano, denounce their colleagues, drink vodka and indulge in all of the petty jealousies of "normal" life everywhere. Grossman is particularly adept at capturing the underlying tension and fear in Soviet life - the continuous fear that no matter how bright one's star may be today, a careless remark or badly judged comment can land you in Lubyanka or worse tomorrow.

Stalin and Hitler make cameo style appearances - interestingly drawn as almost human with personal fears and concerns of their own. Hitler is seen walking in a forest and being afraid of the shadows, whilst Stalin is said to b worried about his appearance. Most interestingly, given the time the book was written, Grossman is openly critical of the regime and of Stalin, using his characters to criticise the appalling events of 1937 with the series of show trials and executions that removed the revolutionary generation of Bukharin, Radek and others. One of the main characters - Victor Shtrum, is required to fill in a questionnaire as part of a Communist Party investigation into his "activities". The questionnaire includes detailed investigation of his ethnic and social origins, those of his wife and also of his parents and other family members. He knows that identifying his ethnicity as being Jewish will disadvantage him. He is worried that some of his family are or were petty bourgeois and knows that this will disadvantage him. Some of his family moved abroad during the Tsarist period and have remained overseas. He nows that this will also disadvantage him. Grossman's point surely was to draw out the similarities between the Hitler and Stalin regimes, both of which were virulently anti-semitic and both of which made judgements about people based on their family history, network and ethnicity.

Grossman takes an "episodic" approach to the story - moving from one set of characters to another to keep us updated with the progression of the various stories running through the book. There are incredible acts of kindness and bravery - Sofya Levinton gives up the chance to avoid the gas chambers when doctors are asked to step forward (we are told early on that she is a highly thought of doctor), in order to stay with a small boy who has been separated from his parents. She knows that she will be earmarked for death but chooses to look after the child. This particular story includes a description of the gassing of Jews inside one of the camps from the point of view of the victims. It is impossible to know how to write about this.

There are other appalling acts of horror and random violence including the description of the torture of prisoners in Lubyanka. Some of Grossman's best writing comes near the end of the book with the astonishing scenes that accompany the eventual surrender of the German forces to the Russians as people make a range of behavioural choices that will stay with them forever. More than anything, Life and Fate is a stunning expose of life within a totalitarian regime where you can be shot for not having the appropriate permission to be in a particular city at a particular time, where despite the waging of the most horrifying war ever, there is still time for political commissars to question soldiers (and citizens) to establish their socialist orthodoxy and to ensure those who do not pass muster face the consequences.

Author Vasily Grossman was born in the Ukraine in 1905 and was both a writer and journalist. He worked as a war correspondent for the Red Army newspaper, Krasnaya Zvedz, in the Second World War and wrote firsthand accounts of the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk and Berlin. He also wrote eyewitness accounts of the German extermination camps following liberation. Shaken by Stalin's move to overt anti-semitism after the war, his two major works - Life and Fate and Everything Flows were censored during the Krushchev period (Stalin died in 1953) and were classified as anti-soviet. Although he was never arrested, the KGB undertook a number of raids on his home - confiscating manuscripts, notes and even the typewriter ribbon on which Life and Fate had been written! Communist party ideologue, Mikhail Suslov said the book could be published - but perhaps in 200 years time! Grossman didn't live to see his work published, dying from stomach cancer in 1964 but copies were smuggled out by Soviet dissidents including Andrei Sakharov. The book was eventually published in Russia in 1988 - just before the fall of the regime he had criticised so much.

Vasily Grossman - war correspondent and writer

Life and Fate is a long and challenging journey, but one well worth taking. The Vintage Orange Inheritance edition is extremely readable and there is a helpful list of characters at the back of the book in case you forget anyone between episodes. It might also be worth a quick read up on Russian naming systems before undertaking the book in earnest - some characters are referred to by their patronyms whilst others may (also) be referred to by a range of diminutives!

I know now what my friend feels about the horror of history in this part of the world, but Grossman's work bears out my point about the incredible creativity of the Russians - much of it coming from this shocking experience.

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. 

Saturday 17 November 2012

Tigran Hamasiyan at the Wigmore Hall

I seem to be having a bit of an Armenian season. First there was the Arbovian Street in Yerevan Picture Post, then there was the Dijvan Gaspariyan concert, not to mention Cafe Ararat in Moscow and to keep the theme going I went to Tigran Hamasiyan's London Jazz Festival Concert at the Wigmore Hall last week.

I am not entirely sure how to categorise Tigran's music. There are clearly strong jazz influences in the work of this young piano maestro, but he also delves into electronica (which is less my thing), unusual use of his vocal talents and perhaps most of all, makes much reference to Armenian folk music. All of these were displayed during his Wigmore Hall appearance. Perhaps evidence of categorisation not mattering! He played several tracks from his recent A Fable album - a solo piano collection. Tigran performed some of his own compositions such as the title track, one all time great jazz standard - One Day My Prince Will Come (made famous by an earlier piano maestro - the late, great Bill Evans) and some songs inspired by classical Armenian poetry.

At his Wigmore concert he was joined by Armenian female vocalist Gayanee Movsisyan whose sang two of the tacks inspired by Armenian folk and religious music as well as joining Tigran on a short improvised session. Like many pianists, his playing is very physical, with lots of mumbling and grunting, much standing up and leaning in very close to the piano. I especially liked the title track of the album, which you can listen to by clicking on the video link above.

Tigran was born in Gyumri, Armenia's second city in 1987 and exhibited musical talent at a very early age, performing at the first International Jazz Festival in Yerevan in 1998 and again in 2000. At 16, he moved with his parents and painter/ sculptor sister to Los Angeles, going on to study at the University of Southern California and winning the prestigious Thelonius Monk piano competition. Still only 25, and having released probably his best album so far, we can expect many years of magical music from him. His appeal is wide and transcends the usual musical boundaries - evidence of this being the diversity of the audience at the Wigmore Hall - a much younger audience than mainstream jazz often attracts as well as being ethnically diverse.

The Hall itself is all worth a visit, with its wonderful symbolist paintings above the stage. Painted by Gerald Moria and Frank Lynn Jenkins in 1901 and restored ninety years later, they include depictions of the "Soul of Music" and "The Genius of Harmony" and would not have looked out of place in the Vienna or Budapest of the same period.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Picture Post Number Eleven - Jerusalem's Famous Sundial

Israel by Yekkes

This is a very familiar image to Jerusalem residents, situated just across the road from the wonderful Mahane Yehuda market on Jaffa Street. The sundial on the front of the building is a well known landmark although few people know the building's name - the Zoharei Chama (Sunrise) Synagogue and even less are aware of the history of the building.

Constructed in stages between 1908 and 1917, by one Rabbi Shmuel Levy, an Amercian taylor who came to  Jerusalem at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1906 he purchased a small house in Jaffa Street with the intuition of expanding it to provide rooms for immigrants as well as to act as a synagogue. He financed his project through selling lottery tickets in the United States.

When completed, it was the tallest building in Jerusalem and included the ground floor synagogue and the Glory of Zion and Jerusalem hostel ono the upper floors, able to accommodate 50 people. The sundial was added to the fourth floor and was intended to enable religious Jews to accurately identify the time for morning and afternoon prayers and the lighting of Shabbat candles. The top floor was lost in an earthquake in 1927 whist a fire in 1941 caused extensive damage to the building. The Jerusalem municipality carried out a partial restoration in 1980 and the building still serves as a synagogue.

The sundial was a designed by Rabbi Moshe Shapiro a watchmaker and Meah Shearim resident, who taught himself astronomy and also made sundials for a number of other synagogues including the old Hurva synagogue in the old city, destroyed by Jordanian troops during the War of Independence in 1948 and recently reconstructed. The Zoharei Chama synagogue and its sundial is a much loved iconic presence in one of Jerusalem's most exciting and vibrant areas - Shuk Mahane Yehuda. 

Sunday 11 November 2012

More from the Jewish Film Festival - Life in Stills and Lore

The UK Jewish Film Festival has now reached its half-way point and this weekend included some excellent screenings. I managed to see two of them.

Czech born Rudi Weissenstein is responsible for some of the most recognisable photographs in the history of pre-state and post independence Israel. Together with his wife, Miriam, also born in the former Czechoslovakia, he ran a successful photographic business - The Photo House in central Tel Aviv until his death in 1992, after which Miriam carried on until her death in 2011 at the age of 98. Life in Stills - a wonderful documentary made by Tamar Tal, records her fight to retain her shop in the face of a new development which would include demolition of the building it occupies.

The film is only partly about Miriam's struggle to ensure this piece of Tel Aviv's history is preserved. It is also a love story. Miriam's grandson, Ben runs the business with her, trying to modernise it with a website, overseas exhibitions and changing displays in the shop. Miriam is not keen on modernity. They often disagree, they sometimes row, but he remains infinitely patient and the love, mutual respect and the closeness between them is obvious.

There are moments of extreme sadness in the film. They find it hard to discuss the appalling tragedy that befell them a few years earlier, when Ben's father killed his wife (Miriam's daughter) before killing himself, yet both have an urgent need and desire to talk about it.

There are also many moments of humour. A great deal of Miriam's grumpiness is (I think) tongue in cheek and for her own entertainment, describing the customers as "pests" or "a pain in the ass" depending on which translation you prefer. She is particularly amusing when on a trip to Germany to promote an exhibition, she recreates a photograph of many years earlier - lying on her back in the snow (aged 96) - and when asked to say something, comes out with "hurry up". I can't think of many 96 year olds who would have been willing or able to lay down in the snow for any purpose but this illustrates the toughness and determination of the film's heroine - and also of many men and women of her generation who helped recreate the thriving modern state of Israel. Very few of them remain.

I am lucky enough to own a small number of prints of Rudi Wasserstein's photographs. I couldn't resist including my favourite of his images here - fishermen off the Jaffa coast in 1967, together with a picture of Rudi and Miriam outside their shop.

Life in Stills is a beautiful, bitter-sweet hour of cinema - the most enjoyable I have spent in some time and moves the viewer quickly from smile to tears and back again. I hope it gets a wider release. I want to see it again.

The other movie I saw this weekend was Lore - a German/ Australian production based on a story by award wining author Rachael Seifert. The story is that of a young German girl - Hannelore - the Lore of the title and her younger siblings making an epic journey across a devastated Germany in the dying days of the Second World War and in the aftermath. The children of committed Nazis, we see how effective the training of German children in this period was with the distasteful looks Lore gives to the son a farmer whom she is asking for food when she notices that he has a physical disability.

Lore fervently believes that a "total victory" for Germany is imminent, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, including the increasingly strange and frightening behaviour of her parents. This belief starts to fall apart as the children make their way across the country to find their grandmother. The portrayal of a society in total moral collapse is shocking as the actions of many Germans during the war period begin to be exposed, discussed and also denied. We see an elderly woman helping the children, although grudgingly and then wanting to keep Lore's youngest charge, baby brother, Peter, in order to receive more rations. We see sexual predators praying on the weak in return for the slightest help and we see those with entrenched views beginning the great denial of the Holocaust and other crimes that continues to today in some quarters.

Lore and the children meet a young man on their journey - Thomas - who may or may not be Jewish and although she at first rejects his offers of help, she comes to depend on them, struggling with the conflict between what she has learned about the Jews and what she is experiencing. There is a certain irony in this - but you will need to see the film to understand it!

Rachael Seiffert was present and took part in a question and answer session following the screening. She explained that her grandparents had been Nazi party members and had been interned following the war. Her grandmother appears to have been involved in looking after mothers and children who had lost their homes following heavy bombing raids. For a short time this was suspected to be part of the lebensborn programme of stealing "aryan" looking children fro the conquer countries. However, this was quickly disproved. Her grandfather was a doctor in the Waffen SS in Belarus. Ms. Seiffert described the conflict for many Germans of her generation, between the shame of knowing what their families had been involved in and the love they felt for them as relatives. She was extremely impressive - not flinching from or side stepping questions from what must have been a difficult audience for her. She was clearly affected by the experience and many in the audience obviously warmed to her.

Technically the film was excellent. The cinematography was beautiful - with several scenes of deep green valleys with delicate white clouds, as well as dark scenes of thick mud and devastation as the film progresses, perhaps showing both the journey that Germany had chosen, beginning with the romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries and ending in dark mud and filth of the 1930's and 1940's.

Finally, a word about Saskia Rosendahl the young (born in 1993) German actress who played the lead role of Lore. She was excellent and totally convincing in the role, taking both her siblings and herself on both a physical and a moral journey. The film has already scooped awards and nominations. Definitely one to see if it gets a wider release.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Libertad - an evening with Yasmin Levy

Since releasing her first album - Romance and Yasmin - back in 2004, Yasmin Levy has gone from being a "world music" performer, known mainly to aficionados of Judeo-Spanish music, to being an immensely popular vocalist known all over the world. She has remained true to her Judeo-Spanish, Ladino heritage but branched out into recording modern songs in Spanish and occasionally in Hebrew.

Her more recent albums have included duets with other stars of the world music scene including Egyptian born Natasha Atlas on the Mano Suave album (which may just have been the best so far) and Spaniard Concha Buika on the latest album. Tonight, her concert at London's Barbican featured another new development. In addition to her usual (and excellent) group of musicians including bass player, guitar player, percussion, piano and flute/ duduk, there was another new development - four female violinists who played on a range of songs from the new album as well as a couple of old favourites.

Ms. Levy, wearing a striking red, "Spanish style" dress, took the stage to rapturous applause and went straight into a selection of songs from new album Libertad including the Ladino traditional songs Skadlerikas de Oro and Aman Doktor, Turkish classic Firuze and Persian classic Soghati. I especially liked the string drenched passages of Firuze  that transported me to Istanbul and the arrival of the Sephardi Jews following the Spanish expulsion of 1492. Fantastic. Old favourites included Una Noche Mas and the now obligatory singalong Adio Kerida. Yasmin is a great story teller and although there was a little less of this than usual tonight, she told the audience that Aman Doktor was a song that her grandmother had sang when feeling sad and that she had written the duet from the album as a tribute to her now dead aunt whose husband had told her not to live alone following his death. 

Jerusalem born Yasmin is from a musical family. Her father Yitzhak, born in Istanbul but a long time resident of Jerusalem was also a singer and musician and collected many of the traditional Ladino songs that Yasmin performs, committing them to paper and preserving them for future generations. You can read a little more about Yitzhak Levy and the Ladino musical tradition here. Yasmin herself says she was inspired by Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Greek and Spanish music. She recently took art in an excellent documentary film - My Sweet Canary - about the life of the great Greek-Jewish, Istanbul born singing star Rosa Eskenazi. 

As well as being a stunning vocalist, Ms Levy is also a bit of a comedian. The comedy showed itself in her remarks about most of her songs being about dead people or those about to commit suicide. She joked that Adio Kerida is her most joyful song. The song tells the story of a woman leaving her lover. Quite a jolly number then! Despite the humour and despite being the major success that she now undoubtedly is, she remains humble and thanked the audience throughout for supporting her and for continuing to appreciate her music - and it felt genuine. Her husband plays in the band - he was one of her many thank-yous at the end of the concert, not just for his playing, but for "making my dreams come true". A nice touch. 

She closed with the title track from Libertad, introducing it with a short speech about how lucky she felt to be free to make choices and decisions for herself, when many women around the world are not in that position.  The aforesaid duet Olvidate de Mi - sang solo tonight, was the well received encore and then it was over. Yasmin Levy has come a long way since I first saw her perform at Pizza Express in Dean Street, Soho. She fills large concert halls, has five albums under her belt and a much deserved world wide profile. She has a special affection for London and mentioned early concerts in Camden this evening. I hope we can see her again soon.

Sunday 4 November 2012

Ohad Knoller - a big hit at the UK Jewish Film Festival

A clip from Yossi - French subtitles here, but not in the UK!

It's November, so it must be the annual UK Jewish Film Festival! Once again the festival offers an eclectic mix of drama and documentary, full length movies and shorts, and films from a long list of countries including Uruguay, Croatia, Sweden and Russia. There are also many films from the more obvious places - Israel, USA, France and the UK. The festival centres on the Tricycle Cinema in Kilburn but also includes other London venues and some screenings in Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester.

So, to the films! I saw three films at the festival this weekend -two starring Ohad Knoller,  of Yossi and Jagger, the Bubble and Beaufort fame (not to mention Srugim - one of my favourite TV series ever). Ohad was present at screenings of both Yossi - the sequel to the aforementioned Yossi and Jagger as well as the rather offbeat (at least at first sight) We Are Not Alone.

Yossi and Jagger hit the screens ten years ago and won a string of awards, citations and critical acclaim. It touched on a number of issues - the Lebanon conflict, life in the Israeli army and an examination of being "on the outside" in this case through focusing on the relationship of two gay men. Most readers will know that Jagger dies in the movie, killed near the Lebanese border and Yossi finds the surviving partner (Knoller) a decade later, having left the army, qualified as a doctor and working as a cardiologist in Tel Aviv.

The Eytan Fox directed movie examines themes of loneliness, loss and also the crassness of some elements of modern living including the depersonalisation of the personal. Branded as a "gay" film in some quarters, Yossi addresses universal issues for the most part, through the medium of a gay character. The most specifically gay issue in the film is a discussion of the acceptance of gays in the Israeli Defence Force today compared to ten years ago when the first movie was released. There are moments of intense sadness that will move viewers to tears as well as some extremely funny scenes including a fair amount of poking fun at some of the tackier sides of Eilat!

There are some excellent performances - Knoller in the title role, Oz Zehavi as Tom one of a group of young soldiers Yossi meets and who have a significant impact on him and Orly Silbersatz as Jagger's mother who enters the story through a chance encounter at a hospital. There is also a brief appearance from Lior Ashkenazi of Late Marriage fame. A short Q&A followed the screening with Ohad fielding a range of questions on gay life in Israel (he is not gay incidentally!), a series of questions on the Srugim TV series and a bizarre question about honour killing of gays by Orthodox Jews which he dealt with cleverly and humorously. Nice one Ohad.

My other two films of the weekend were screened at the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley. This was my first visit. It is a little art deco gem, with some original features retained and what look like restored (or replaced) panels in the auditorium showing symbols of the theatre and music. Its also very conveniently about three minutes walk from East Finchley Northern Line station. My second Ohad Knoller film of the weekend - We Are Not Alone - was a world away from Yossi. An offbeat romance between a security guard in Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Centre, played by Knoller and a young "lost" woman played by Efrat Ben Yaakov, nevertheless the film examines issues of belonging, the desire for closeness and the often frightening prospect of facing the world every day. Interestingly, during his introduction to the film, Knoller explained that he had once worked as as security guard and had felt "invisible" in that job. The film illustrates that feeling very clearly.

The same themes receive attention in Foreign Letters. This is a true story, set in the 1980's and based on the friendship between Ellie, a young Israeli girl recently emigrated to the United States with her family and Thuy, a Vietnamese girl of the same age from a refugee family. They have much in common - leaving their homelands to escape war, they are largely ignored by the majority of their very WASP classmates and to different extents are isolated through barriers of language and class. Language and words play a very big part in the story directed by Ela Thier (the Ellie of the film). If you get to see this, look out for a few scene stealing scenes from Ellie's little brother, I especially liked the door knocking episode and the shouting of "I have something, I have something" in Hebrew!

My favourite film of the festival so far? Yossi by a mile, but there are lots more to come including a Dutch war story - Susskind - by the same producers as Black Box. I can't wait.

Thursday 1 November 2012

Diana Krall at the Royal Albert Hall

I last saw Diana Krall play in 2001 at London's South Bank Centre. She was tall, elegant, funny and played a range of jazz standards to an enthusiastic audience. I saw her again last night at the Royal Albert Hall, playing to a packed house and playing a different kind of standard.

It was of course Hallowe'en and Ms Krall, resplendent in a long, asymmetrical black jacket, talked about having enjoyed trick or treating earlier in the day with her husband - Elvis Costello and their two children. Her style is relaxed and she spoke about Hallowe'en experiences when growing up in Canada where she would be invited in to people's houses to play the piano. As she joked, she now does that for money and although this was no cheap ticket, it was certainly worth it.

She featured several tracks from her recently released album Glad Rag Doll, co produced with T-Bone Burnett which includes a number of tracks in the 1920's jazz style including some stonking renditions of Here Lies Love (great for Hallowe'en!), Lonely Avenue (with the continuous video showing in the background featuring footage from Metropolis the Fritz Lang classic) and the Latin inflected Boulevard of Broken Hearts. The video backdrop was interesting - I enjoyed the vintage animations, the Carol Lombard footage (Diana confessed to having been in awe of Lombard as she grew up - not to mention being a big fan of the Ziegfeld girls too!) - but some of it seemed a little out of place - the Stingray clips for example.

The performance included some old favourites too - a great rendition of Fats Waller's Sunny Side of the Street, Straighten Up and Fly Right and a short tinkling instrumental version of Mud Mud Glorious Mud! There were several references to Canada throughout the performance including a lengthy version of A Case of You which was well received. The stage was set out with a number of mementoes of Diana Krall's childhood - a piano she said she had played when growing up, her father's gramophone, a pile of 78 records and some other nice touches including a large crescent moon!

The new album is a departure from what has gone before. It is definitely not in the style of the earlier Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and other classic song writer influenced tracks. It includes Tom Wait songs. The live versions of some of the tracks were almost threatening with the dark mood of the lyric and the robust approach of her excellent musicians. It has had mixed reviews. I must confess the songs would not normally have been my own choice for her to play - but I did enjoy this new Ms. Krall and admire her courage in trying something new.

She sang with a cold and was clearly in some discomfort but that did not prevent her returning to the stage for three extra numbers at the audience's insistence, cracking some funny jokes including a cute play on words  - boos (as in boo surprise), boos (as in we don't like this) and booze (as in a bottle)! The notorious Royal Albert Hall acoustic was a bit tricky at first too, but  together with the tight band, our heroine overcame this.

My favourite tracks had to be Lonely Avenue and Boulevard of Broken Hearts - heart stopping bashing of the piano in the former, enticing Latin influence in the latter. Come back soon Ms Krall - this was a real treat - and no tricks!