WALL – movie review

WALL
National Film Board of Canada
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Cam Christiansen
Screenwriter: David Hare
Cast: David Hare
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/8/19
Opens: April 3, 2019 at Film Forum in NY

Wall (2017)

If you wonder why the animation, which informs the whole of this feature, is black-and-white, you might wait until the concluding minutes to get an answer. The final moments of the picture are among the most vivid that you’re likely to see this year. As for the rest of the unusual documentary, it’s a mind-blower of sophisticated animation, of the interface or light and shadows, and what’s more, the narration by British playwright David Hare is both lengthy and fascinating.

Hare takes sides.  If if you like the Israeli point of view you’d think he’s just another fan of the Palestinians. After a suicide bomber hit a Tel Aviv discotheque in 2001 killing many of the youths having a the kind of good time that would be frowned upon by the religious on both sides, Israel built a wall that is four times the size of the one in Berlin, twice as high in points, and successful. Eighty percent of the terrorist attacks on Israel—or of freedom fighters if you’re on the Arab side—have been stopped based on statistics from the pre-wall era. Four billion dollars was spent on its construction by a small country with only seven million Jewish inhabitants, a point that our own president may use to garner support for the wall on the border with Mexico. But unlike the American version, many Palestinian landowners were uprooted as the wall was built partly on land that was part of the Palestinian West Bank.

Why the wall? As noted, this was an attempt to prevent land incursions by Palestinians in the West Bank, but the whole project may be for naught, as the Arab side may not be able to cross over with weapons but can now rely on flights of drones and rockets to cause the same damage without inflicting deaths on themselves. In fact the most fascinating point absorbed by the animated character of screenwriter David Hare in his interviews and road trips is that while we on the outside consider Israel to be strong (it has, after all, the most powerful army in the Middle East), Israelis themselves consider their country to be fragile and weak, and have not settled in the way most of the rest of the world has done in thinking that they have a secure, permanent place to live. Planning ahead to 2030 is out of the question.

Much of the information passed on by the movie is well known by those of us who follow politics. The Arabs are regularly harassed, sometimes having to take heavily trafficked roads and may be stopped for hours at checkpoints. Why does Israel do this? “Because they can,” states one Davuid Grossman who lives in Israel. Most of us know by now that a half million Jews live in the West Bank in settlements, making any peace ever so much more difficult. Aesthetically, the wall is an eyesore in the countryside, and given the frenzied energy of building in Jerusalem, that capital city (at least capital as recognized by the U.S. and Paraguay) has lost its religious ambiance.

If you are among the political junkies following Israeli politics through the Times of Israel, or the Jerusalem Post, or Haaretz, or for that matter any major New York media, you are likely to put aside the boredom you think you’ll feel before you watch the film. The MoCap animation technology (“Black Panther,” “Avengers,” “Guardians of the Galaxy) will capture your imagination and make the road trip engrossing.

82 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – A
Overall – B+

WEST OF THE JORDAN RIVER – movie review

WEST OF THE JORDAN RIVER

Kino Lorber
Director:  Amos Gitai
Screenwriter:  Amos Gitai
Cinematographers:  Oded Kirma, Eitan Hai, Vladimir Truchovski
Cast: Amos Gitai, Yitzhak Rabin, Tzipi Lipni, Tzipi Hotovely, groups of Muslims and Jews
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/9/18
Opens: January 26 at New York’s Quad Cinema

Toward the conclusion of Amos Gitai’s documentary a carousel is spinning, but while its few inhabitants appear to be having a good time, the carousel exists here as a symbol.  Talks between Israelis and Palestinians have been going round and round, a veritable merry-go-roundelay, just like the subjects in Arthur Schnitzler’s play “Der Reigen,” also known as “La Ronde.”  Peace talks between the two sides have occasionally appeared to make progress, such as when Bill Clinton brought Yasser Arafat together with Menachim Begin—and the two adversaries actually shook hands.  In another instance, an extremist Jew was so fearful that Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was on the verge of agreeing to a settlement that Rabin was killed to the cheers of other extremist Jews.  Killed by a fellow Jew!

Here we are today, the sides still apart, no talks scheduled between Abu Mazen on the Palestinian side and Bibi Netanyahu on the Israeli’s.  But not to worry: talks will resume, and a peace agreement will remain somewhere over the horizon.  “West of the Jordan River” is another talk-fest, this one initiated by Amos Gitai (Gitai is a Hebrew translation of his parents’ name Weinraub), an Israeli filmmaker with 62 credits, lots of shorts, the last one being “Rabin: The Last Day” about the aforementioned Israeli leader’s assassination.

Not that the doc will lead to peace and a joint chorus of Kumbaya, but it’s an entertaining enough film, some, but not I, would say hopeful, filled with mournful music (that I could do without) between each segment of chats with the locals. Surprisingly Gitai knows his own language, Hebrew, and also English, plus some French for having lived in voluntary exile in France.

But when he converses with Arabic-speaking people, he needs a translator.  He probably need not worry this time that his movie will inflame his fellow Israelis and force him to bolt to France as he did in 1982 after screening his doc “Field Diary,” which found Gitai chatting in Nablus and surrounding areas, making time to hear a fellow under house arrest.  His leftist credentials never wavered, and there’s an implication even with this current film that he belives Israel’s intransigence is the principal reason for instability between the two peoples.

“West of the Jordan River” is not as antagonistic.  He does not goad Israeli soldiers with his camera as he did in “Field Diary.”  And the folks with whom he chats are friendly, though some get pretty excited even though they do not curse the Israelis.  Not all the action takes place West of the Jordan, as much of the dialogue is within Israel proper and a few clips near the beginning in Gaza.  In Gaza, which the media portray as the home of the most militant faction against “Zionists,” people lean into Gitai’s van to say that they want to work in Israel; that they can build their community just as the Israelis built their land, if only they could have the freedom of their own independent nation.  One gets the impression that these Arabs are told that if they moderated their language and even sounded conciliatory, they would have the most chance of making the final cut of the film.

The trouble with everything here is that while Prime Minister Rabin is interviewed, suggesting that he is not the pacifist hippy that some made him out to be, and while a more militant deputy, Tzipi Hotoveli, is on camera with a mystical explanation of the land, most of the talk is with ordinary people. Ordinary people do not make peace or war with the exception of revolutions that succeed by winning the support of the armed forces. It’s all well and good to sit around like the members of Breaking the Silence, a left-leaning activist group that conveys information on life in the occupied territories; and with Arab and Jewish women forming a support group citing how sons on both their sides lost their lives.  But nothing will get done until those in power can carve a peace with definite borders—less likely than ever, Gitai believes, because a “very reactionary” government under Netanyahu has held power for ages with large support, the prime minister having said during a recent election campaign that he has no use for a two-state solution.

Again blaming his own people for the obstinacy, Gitai interviews a pair of settlers, people living on ground that Arabs vociferously claim as their own. We hear one settler, a young woman who was stabbed by an Arab resident living nearby, state that the land does not  belong to anybody; it belongs to God.  And in the Bible, God promised to rent all the disputed land to the Jews.  Who can argue with God?  Probably the Muslims, whose own Koran probably makes no such promise.  Gitai spends the most interesting minutes with an Arab boy of about ten who says that when he grows up, he wants to be…no, not a fireman or a cop or an astronaut, but a martyr.  Asked whether he likes life, the boy responds, yeah, but martyrdom is better.  Does this say anything about what the upcoming generation might do absent a peace?

Unrated.  84 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B

THE INSULT (L’insulte) – movie review

THE INSULT    (L’insulte)

Cohen Media Group
Director:  Ziad Doueiri
Written by: Ziad Doueiri, Joëlle Touma
Cast:  Adel Karam, Rita Hayek, Kamel El Basha, Christine Choueiri, Camille Salamé, Diamand Bou Abboud, Georges Daou
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/7/18
Opens: January 26, 2018
L'insulte Movie Poster
Sometimes a judicial case causes repercussions well beyond the courtroom.  Consider how the extradition by Mexico of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán for trial in a New York court must have helped to influence President Trump to push for an $18 billion wall on our border with Mexico to keep out (as he put it) their rapists and criminals that illegally enter our country.  Though fictional, the judicial proceedings that involve two warring sides in Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult” inflame all of Lebanon and bring up memories from that country’s recent past, including the horrendous civil war 1975-1990 that resulted in the death of 120,000 Lebanese and a massive exodus as in Syria today.  Partly as a result of people’s memories, hostilities remain between Christians and Muslims that have been partly resolved by a power-sharing agreement.

The judicial proceedings in Doueri’s film—from a director whose “The Attack” centered on a Tel Aviv Arab surgeon who learns a dark secret about his wife—bring to the surface the only mildly repressed antagonisms between the Christian population and the Palestinians living in Lebanon.  The Palestinians feel humiliated that they are treated like refugees with no avenue to citizenship, while the Christians who are four times more numerous, simply resent the influx of the people in the same way that Trump begrudges most immigration from the Middle East.

“The Attack,” one of my favorites from 2012, finding Doueri’s raising the tension until it reaches fever pitch, has resonance in his current work.  There is no wonder that Lebanon has entered “The Insult” into our Oscar competition where it will compete against such emotional stories as the remarkable German entry and my own favorite, “In the Fade.”

Part courtroom drama, “The Insult” allows the audience to go not only beyond the trial but into the broad, unfortunate ways that people can differ with one another, even justifying physical violence before considering peaceful settlements.   A fairly innocent quarrel leads to a case which, upon appeal, draws high dudgeon among the Lebanese people, even resulting in a conference arranged by Lebanon’s present not unlike the “beer summit” that Mr. Obama set up between an allegedly racist cop and an innocent African-American professor.

The two principals are Yasser (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian Muslim refugee who is foreman of a company that repairs building-code violations; and Tony (Adel Karam), a car mechanic seen early on watering his plants on his own balcony.  When Yasser explains to Tony that he must fix a leaky pipe, Tony, recognizing a Palestinian (“not one of us,” “the enemy,” “the devil”), slams the door in his face.  A confrontation follows—the kind of thing you expect from macho men but rarely from women—as Tony tells Yasser that he wishes Ariel Sharon would wipe out [all the Palestinians like you].  (Viewers unfamiliar with the conflict between Israel’s late Prime Minister and Palestinian refugees in a camp can find considerable information in Wikipedia.) Yasser, by all other standards the milder man, responds with a punch, breaking two of Tony’s ribs and ostensibly causing Toni’s pregnant wife Sharine (Rita Hayek) to deliver a baby that needs temporary life support.

The case itself revolves around a law that states no crime is involved if you use physical violence when under extreme stress. Yasser and Tony go court; first before a magistrate who throws it out, then in a nationally followed appellate division.  The case engages the entire country, right-wing Christians including members of the Christian party supporting Tony while Palestinian refugees in the court occasionally causing noisy protests.  Three magistrates hear Wajdi (Camille Salameh), a high-level lawyer supporting militant Christian politics, facing against his own daughter Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), a novice, though one more high-minded and supportive of the Palestinian cause.

The real principle, the overriding theme, is this:  what happens when two opposing sides each considers itself a victim of long-lasting injustice?  Israelis today point to the Holocaust as a prime factor for insisting on a homeland denied to them for 2,000 years.  Palestinians consider the land which was promised to them now occupied by Israeli Jews.  Two victims, two rights in conflict.  The educated viewer cannot help looking at “The Insult” and thinking of a huge array of oppressors and victims, sometimes each claiming to be both. The trial scenes and the rallies in Beirut largely by Christians point to the trial as a touchstone for renewed violence. That’s not all.  To its credit, director Ziad Doueiri, with co-writer Joëlle Touma, deliver a feminist message: that women are the caregivers of society with an overriding interest in stability having to face a tough fight against the male gender for whom honor and winning are paramount.

Tommaso Fiorilli behind the lenses gives us clear pictures of the trial and especially of the enthusiastic, partisan rallies outside.  There is enough drama in this film to warrant the subtler use of music. The look of the almost two-hour work, should have the Oscar voters’ work cut out.

Unrated.  113 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – A-

IN THE LAND OF POMEGRANATES – movie review

IN THE LAND OF POMEGRANATES

First Run Features
Director:  Hava Kohav Beller
Screenwriter: Hava Kohav Beller
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/20/17
Opens:  January 5, 2018

First Run Features: In the Land of Pomegranates

Our President states that if anyone can negotiate peace in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians, it’s his son-in-law, but then, that was before he provoked days of rage in the Arab community by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.  The conflict between the two peoples has been going on at least since 1948, since Palestinians recognize all of  Israel, the West Bank and Gaza as Arab land.

With the thought of stimulating discussion between young people in the two communities, a number of youths are invited to Germany to discuss their opinions with one another.  They are deliberately housed together, enjoying the sights and sounds of the Central European country when they are not trading viewpoints in a large room.  What’s called “Vacation from War” is thankfully just half of the 123-minute film.  The rest, easily the more arresting sights, involves an array of individuals throughout the West Bank and Israel proper.

First, though, as for the discussions.  There is no stated objective, but we might surmise that one aim is to show that all the individuals are human beings, none of whom possessing horns on his or her head.  They do that.  Another might be to project into the future that some of these youths might become high level members of government, using their knowledge to negotiate peace.  That’s a long shot.  What actually occurred is that the Palestinians and the Israelis acted like today’s Republicans and Democrats, remaining united with their own separate tribes, sticking together just as all Republicans in our own Congress voted the same on the disastrous tax bill and all the Democrats likewise stuck with one another.

As I see the conference, the two tribes did not get together, not even at the pace of an aging, sclerotic snail.  Quite the contrary, they dug in, provoking anger rather than kumbaya at every moment.  The Arabs declared that no Jews should remain in either Israel proper or the West Bank, though when asked whether they would support the existence in some way of a Jewish populace, they averted the issue.  For their part, the Jewish contingent brought up the Holocaust, maintaining that some place simply had to become a refuge for the oft-humiliated Jews, whether from the Holocaust or the pogroms of various countries and empires.  What’s the point of “Vacation from War” when one side believes that it is treated so badly by the Israeli government that their suffering is worse than what was experienced by the Jews of the Holocaust.  Have these people ever seen films about the camps?

Aside from the discussions’ being needlessly provocative, insipid and wholly without originality, the film is saved by events occurring on the outside over a wide area.  The most heartwarming sense involve a Gazan woman whose young child, Mohammed, has a serious heart defect and is given permission to cross the Erez frontier into Israel for surgery.  There, a Jewish doctor performs the delicate, complex operation to restore the flow of blood and end the suffering and anticipated early death of the cute lad.  “We don’t see people as residents of different areas,” states the heroic doctor.  (In a similar vein, Israeli hospitals are treating Syrian refugees who cross the Golan Heights for treatment.)

On a sadder note, 85-year-old director Hava Kohav Beller, whose film spans decades and who worked on it for years—even showing the heart-operated recipient four years after surgery—observes the tense battles erupting now and then via intifadas.  The Arabs throw stones, the Jews return the fire with rubber bullets.  We realize a dichotomy in the titles of the film, as “pomegranates” are a Middle-East-grown fruit associated with rebirth but is also the Hebrew word for grenade.  Summing up, in a future film, lose the pointless discussions and show more depth about both the fighting and incidents of heroism.

Unrated.  123 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story –  B
Acting –  B-
Technical – B
Overall – B