This year’s Jewish Film Fest will leave you on the edge of your seat

by Shelley A. Sackett

MARBLEHEAD – Jewish film festivals are wildly popular, and according to jewishfilmfestivals.org, moviegoers had 170 to choose from worldwide in 2018 in locations ranging from Nebraska to Nepal. For the sixth year, local residents need travel only a few miles to Marblehead and Salem to view 13 films offered by the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore International Jewish Film Festival from April 28 to May 9.

While films about the Holocaust are natural candidates for a Jewish film festival, this year’s lineup features several films that – although set during World War II – are more character than history-driven. Bookending the 12-day festival are opening night’s “The Catcher Was a Spy,” a thriller starring Paul Rudd based on the true story of Moe Berg, the Red Sox catcher who became a WWII spy, and closing night’s “Prosecuting Evil,” a gripping documentary about Ben Ferencz, the remarkable 99-year-old and last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor.

Gordon Edes, an award-winning sportswriter and Boston Red Sox historian, will speak and answer questions following “The Catcher Was a Spy,” and both films include a post-screening reception.

The remaining 11 films are a well-balanced mix of documentary, drama, and comedy. In “Winter Hunt,” a riveting German contemporary psychological thriller, a young woman on a personal mission of vigilante justice goes to extremes as she seeks reprisal against a suspected ex-Nazi. Powerful performances, an edgy score, and a tight script fuel the suspense.

Jewish women are front and center in three films that look at dilemmas they face as they struggle to forge their own paths in a world complicated by religious tradition and social conformity. “Working Woman” addresses the complexity of contemporary life in Israel, chronicling the predicament faced by Orna (played by the remarkable Liron Ben-Shlush) as she juggles motherhood, marriage to a struggling restaurateur, and a meteoritic rise in the corporate real estate world. When her boss relentlessly sexually harasses her, her entire world is brought to the brink of disaster.

Life for women in pre-state Israel was no less complex, as illustrated by “An Israeli Love Story.” Based on a true story and set in 1947, the well-shot and edited film explores the relationship between an aspiring actress and a kibbutznik who is also a member of Palmach, an elite fighting force. In “Leona,” a young Jewish artist in present day Mexico City finds herself torn between her traditional, observant family and a forbidden love.

On a lighter but no less poignant note, the award-winning “Shoelaces” traces the relationship between Reuven, a surly parent, and Gadi, his charismatic adult son with special needs, as the two slowly develop a tender and life-affirming bond of devotion. The popular film is thought-provoking and unexpectedly funny.

Three documentaries reveal different facets of present-day Jewish life. “Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal,” follows two local men on the cusp of middle age as they nosh their way through a series of classical eateries and share their community’s 100-year Jewish history. “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” charts the underdog journey of Israel’s national team to the 2017 World Baseball Classic in a story of sports, patriotism, and growth.

“Sustainable Nation,” shown in partnership with CJP as a free community event in honor of Israeli Independence Day, follows three visionary Israelis as they bring water solutions to an increasingly thirsty planet.

Poland and France are the settings for the rest of the line up. “Who Will Write Our History” is a documentary set in 1940, after Nazis sealed 450,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. The story of Oyneg Shabes, a group of journalists, scholars and community leaders who resolved to fight Nazi propaganda with pen and paper, is told through writings, new interviews, rare archival footage and dramatizations.

In her deeply personal documentary, “Chasing Portraits,” filmmaker Elizabeth Rynecki travels to Poland to find the remaining work of her great-grandfather, a prolific impressionistic painter who captured scenes of pre-war Jewish life.

“A Bag of Marbles,” based on a true story, follows two young Jewish brothers as they fend for themselves, making their way through German-occupied France to reunite with their families.

Many films have post-screening guests who will speak to issues raised by the films.

For information and to buy tickets, visit jccns.org or call 781-631-8330.

Salem Film Fest spotlights local filmmakers, adds new Peabody Black Box Theater venue

Hail,Satan!

Salem Film Fest will feature HAIL, SATAN? on Sunday, March 31 at 7:15 pm at The Cabot Theatre in Beverly.

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

On Friday, March 29, from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m., Salem Film Fest, one of New England’s leading all-documentary film festivals, will launch its 12th year with a kick-off party at Salem Arts Association at 211 Bridge St. Visiting filmmakers will be on hand to mingle with filmgoers prior to the first two features of the 70 short- and full-length film fest

 

“SFF always focuses on our filmmakers—we do everything we can to make their visits easy, fun and rewarding,” SFF Co-Founder and Director Joe Cultrera wrote in the program liner notes. Filmmakers are scheduled to be present at more than half the screenings, affording audiences the opportunity to learn about the documentary process and engage in intimate, thought-provoking conversations.

 

SFF2019 runs from March 29 to April 4, with films from around the globe screening at CinemaSalem, the Peabody Essex Museum, and the National Park Service Visitor Center in Salem; The Cabot and Endicott College’s Manninen Center for the Arts in Beverly, and the new Black Box Theater in downtown Peabody.

 

Salem Trolley will provide free weekend rides between cities so filmgoers can easily journey through 2019’s stellar lineup. A complete schedule of films, filmmaker receptions and music events, plus information on how to buy passes and individual tickets is at salemfilmfest.com.

 

One half dozen films this year are by filmmakers or about subjects with local connections.

 

Salem is well known for its historical connection to witchcraft. With Lynn native and director Penny Lane’s Hail, Satan?, its contemporary roots in sorcery may eclipse even the Salem Witch Trials for notoriety. The film’s subject is The Satanic Temple, a non-theistic religious organization with active chapters worldwide that is headquartered in Salem on Bridge St. Its co-founder, Lucien Greaves, is the film subject. Lane’s SFF North Shore Spotlight film questions the meaning of religious expression in a secular nation when The Satanic Temple campaigns to place a Satanic monument on the Arkansas State Capitol lawn. Greaves will answer questions after the screening on Sunday, March 31 at 7:15 p.m. at The Cabot.

Councilwoman

COUNCILWOMAN is SFF opening night film on Friday, March 29 at CinemaSalem at 7 pm.

 

Opening night’s Councilwoman is the first feature documentary directed by Watertown, MA-based Margo Guernsey. The film is at CinemSalem at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 29, and tells the story of a Dominican immigrant and hotel housekeeper in Providence, Rhode Island, who wins a coveted City Council seat. Guernsey has worked as a freelance director and producer in the Boston area since 2012 and will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A.

Marcos Doesn't Live Here Anymore

MARCOS DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE will screen on Wednesday, April 3 at 8 pm at CinemaSalem.

 

Filmmaker and Tufts University alumnus David Sutherland (Kind Hearted Woman, The Farmer’s Wife) has won over 100 international awards and citations for his films. On Wednesday, April 3 at 8 p.m., the New England premiere of Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore will screen at CinemaSalem. Sutherland tells the heartbreaking story of Elizabeth Perez, a decorated Marine veteran, who fights to reunite her family amidst the trauma caused by America’s immigration policy after her undocumented husband is deported to Mexico. Sutherland will be on hand for a Q&A.

CAMOUFLAGE: VIETNAMESE BRUSH STROKES WITH HISTORY will screen on Saturday, March 30 at PEM at 10:20 am.

 

On Saturday, March 30, filmmaker Bestor Cram will be at PEM for a Q&A following the 10:20 a.m. screening of Camouflage (Contemporary Vietnamese artists overcome obstacles that demand personal courage and artistic determination to document a little known side of the aftermath of America’s war in Vietnam). Cram, a Viet Nam Veteran, has over 25 years experience as director, producer and cinematographer and founded Northern Light Production, located in Allston, MA.

Also on Sunday, March 31 are:

GRIT

GRIT will screen on Sunday, March 31 at CinemaSalem at 2:30 pm.

 

Grit (directed by Western MA resident Cynthia Wade and Sasha Friedlander), the story of one of the world’s largest man-made environmental disasters — a tsunami of boiling mud that sinks 16 Indonesian villages — that transforms a teenage survivor into a political activist; and

Balian (The Healer) (directed by Boston- based Dan McGuire), which follows the 20-year rise and fall of Mangku Pogog, a “Balian” or traditional Indonesian healer who is equal parts trickster, scoundrel and saint. His “discovery” by Western tourists leads to serious consequences and McGuire returns 20 years later to learn about his fate. Both films show at CinemaSalem with filmmakers present for post-screening Q&A sessions.

 

Balian

BALIAN (THE HEALER) will screen on Sunday, March 31 at CinemaSalem at 5 pm.

 

 

Finally, SFF veterans will be relieved to know nine new Salem Sketches will be unveiled this year. The mini docs showcase portraits of the local scene with one Sketch screened before each feature film. And, new this year, there are five Shorts Blocks—and they are all free.

 

 

A complete lineup of films, listings of all events, and information on how to buy tickets is available at salemfilmfest.com.

Salem Film Fest screens ‘The Accountant of Auschwitz’

by Shelley A. Sackett

In 2015, a frail 93-year-old former Nazi officer made international headlines when he went on trial in Germany, charged with complicity in the murder of 300,000 Jews at Auschwitz.

Nicknamed “The Accountant of Auschwitz,” Oskar Gröning was hardly the architect of the Holocaust. He was a 21-year-old soldier, following orders to collect and account for the items taken from Jewish prisoners as they were herded off trains and ultimately sent to their deaths.

Nonetheless, he was there, witnessing and abetting a system where 1.1 million people died at the notorious Nazi camp.

On the stand over 70 years later, with some who had survived Auschwitz in the courtroom as witnesses and testifiers, Gröning unemotionally described what he saw and what he did. He wanted to speak out as a witness because more than anything, he said, he wanted to debunk Holocaust deniers. On the other hand, as a participant, his hands were hardly clean. The issues raised were murky ethically and morally, asking questions with no clear answers.

Gröning was found guilty but died in March 2018, before he could begin the four-year prison sentence he was given.

If this sounds like it would make a great documentary film, director Matthew Shoychet and producer Ricki Gurwitz agreed. They teamed up to make the award-winning “The Accountant of Auschwitz,” which will screen at Peabody’s Black Box Theater (located inside the ArcWorks Community Art Center, 22 Foster St., Peabody) on Saturday, March 30, as part of the Salem Film Fest.

Shoychet, who grew up in a “pretty secular household” in Toronto, always was interested in Jewish subjects, but felt a special link through film. His grandfather showed him the 1959 film, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which opened his 7-year-old eyes to the Holocaust.

Years later, “Schindler’s List” had a strong effect on him, Shoychet said. Although he is not a grandchild of survivors, many of his cousins and relatives were murdered. “I knew, as a Jew, I was connected,” he said.

Gurwitz attended Jewish day school in Toronto in a family she describes as a mix of conservative and reform. A “history nerd,” she was always interested in how her Jewish community has persevered through the centuries in the face of constant persecution.

Their paths crossed and they became friends in 2013 during an International March of the Living, the annual educational program that brings individuals from around the world to Poland and Israel to study the history of the Holocaust and to examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance, and hatred.

Shoychet took the trip again in 2015, where he met and befriended Holocaust survivor Bill Glied, who had to leave early to testify at the trial of another former Nazi in Germany.

“I didn’t know Nazi trials were even possible anymore,” Shoychet said.

By coincidence, Gurwitz, who was working as a TV producer, called Shoychet two months later to tell him about a story she just covered: the German trial of the former “Accountant of Auschwitz.” The two combined forces, created a pitch, and started filming as soon as they could.

They faced many challenges. German law does not allow filming inside courtrooms, so animations and graphics fill in the blanks. But the biggest challenge to Shoychet was for people not to dismiss the film as “just another Holocaust film.” His unique storytelling resists a chronological approach, instead interweaving side stories that take history and relate it to Gröning’s trial.

“There is a feeling of a race against time. Soon, Nazi perpetrators and Holocaust survivors will be gone,” Shoychet said.

For Gurwitz, making the film was a “life-altering experience. Witnessing a former SS officer testify in court is something I will never forget,” she said. “I want to challenge preconceived beliefs about justice, punishment, and culpability. There are two sides here, and I could argue both of them. I want audiences to explore the complexities surrounding this trial and ask questions about how we punish war crimes, who is responsible, and what is the statute of limitations.”

Salem Film Fest 2019 runs from Friday, March 29 to April 4. For more information or to buy tickets, visit salemfilmfest.com.

FOCUS ON: DAWNLAND

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Father and child, Indian Island, Maine Photo by: Ben Pender-Cudlip Courtesy: Upstander Project

 

By Shelley Sackett

DAWNLAND tells the story of the state of Maine’s effort to come to terms with a shockingly shameful part of its history, when state welfare workers removed Indian children from their families and placed them in foster care. The film follows the work of the state’s Truth And Reconciliation Commission, set up in 2012, which gathered stories from the state’s indigenous people.  It premiered at The Cleveland International Film Festival and recently won the 2018 Jury Award for Best Documentary at the Woods Hole Film Festival.

Salem Film Fest Selection Committee member Shelley Sackett had a chance to talk with co-director and cinematographer Ben Pender-Cudlip, ahead of DAWNLAND’S North Shore premiere, which will take place at The Peabody Essex Museum on Friday, September 21 at 7:00pm.

SS: How did you first get involved in filmmaking?

BP-C: In 2009 I was working in computer consulting. My company was a sponsor of a local film festival (IFFBoston), so I used our complimentary passes and saw a ton of nonfiction films. After going to a bunch of Q&As and talking to directors, I decided: I could do this! So I went to work on Monday, gave my two weeks’ notice, and started figuring out how to make films. DAWNLAND is my first documentary feature, and I’m thrilled that it has the chance to have a really robust social impact.

 

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Georginia Sappier-Richardson sharing her story at a TRC community visit Photo by: Ben Pender-Cudlip Courtesy: Upstander Project

SS: How did you get involved with this project?

BP-C: Co-director Adam Mazo and I had collaborated on other issue-oriented documentary projects. Our friend and colleague Dr. Mishy Lesser—the exceptional learning director for the Upstander Project—heard about the TRC in its formative stages via WBUR. Adam reached out to the TRC and REACH and after 8 months of conversation we were invited to make a film about the process. I joined as co-director and cinematographer, and we ended up spending two years traveling back and forth from our homes in Boston to Maine filming the TRCs work, and gathering the material to tell the story of Indigenous child removal in the United States.

SS: What compelled you to tell this story? What about it ignited a fire in your belly?

BP-C: I didn’t know that Native children were being stolen from their homes by state agents, and I wasn’t aware of this country’s long history of separating Native families. I was shocked and wanted to learn more. I’m a non-Native person, and I feel an obligation to try to end institutional racism in the United States. DAWNLAND allows us to tell a story about a present-day investigation that sheds new light on past wrongs, exposes current injustice and contributes to healing and change.

SS: What do you hope audiences take away from this film?

BP-C: I hope audiences understand that this isn’t just a story about the past. The child welfare crisis in Indian Country is ongoing, especially in places like Minnesota where Native children are 20 times more likely than white children to be in foster care. Genocidal policies have a ripple effect from generation to generation, and whole communities are being damaged. And the same basic impulse is playing out at the southern border under the moniker of “family separation,” predicated on the same belief that families of color are worth less than white families.

 

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Father and child, Indian Island, Maine Photo by: Ben Pender-Cudlip Courtesy: Upstander Project

 

SS: What have been some of the audience responses at screenings? Given its special place in the narrative, was the Maine screening different?

BP-C: Before releasing DAWNLAND widely, we held a series of screenings in Wabanaki communities. It was a very emotional experience to watch the film with the same people who had stared down the pain and come forward to share their stories of survival and resilience with the commission. In one community, people sang along to songs in the soundtrack. In another, we had a circle discussion afterwards and somebody chose that moment to share their story for first time. It’s our highest dream that this film will help Wabanaki people heal.

SS: Anything else you’d like to share?

BP-C: We hope DAWNLAND viewers will come to understand that Wabanaki and Native people are still here. We hope teachers will use the film and companion teacher’s guide with students nationwide, and especially in New England where this story is especially relevant. In particular, for teachers on the north shore and greater Boston, we’d love to invite them to participate in the Upstander Academy in Boston in summer 2019 to learn about genocide and human rights with the DAWNLAND team and film participants.

DAWNLAND will screen at the Peabody Essex Museum on Friday, September 21 at 7pm and tickets can be purchased here: http://salemfilmfest.com/2018/films/dawnland/

Scratching below the surface of the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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By Shelley A. Sackett

While Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik’s 2015 book, “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” arguably branded Justice Ginsburg as a pop-cultural phenomenon, the recently released documentary, “RBG” leaves no room to mistake this woman for a fluffy contemporary trend. The diminutive 84-year-old intellectual powerhouse is fierce, uncompromising and a diplomatic champion of women’s rights. After 25 years on the Supreme Court, she remains a force to be reckoned with.

 

Ginsburg’s determination, courage and steadfast ability to drill down on overwhelming numbers of details are the weft in the fabric of her remarkable life. Even her personal trainer, Bryant Johnson, calls her a “cyborg.”

 

Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen have crafted an unabashed valentine to the second woman and sixth Jew appointed to the US Supreme Court, peppering their film with interviews, public appearances, archival material and even a Trump tweet. In less than two hours, they cover a lot of ground.

 

Born to impoverished working-class immigrants, Ginsburg’s intellectual prowess was evident at a young age. She credits her mother in particular with encouraging her to reach her full potential.

 

Central to the film and to Ginsburg’s life is the story of her marriage to Marty Ginsburg, one year her senior, whom she met during her undergraduate days at Cornell. “He was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain,” she says. A gifted tax attorney, Marty was also his wife’s biggest supporter, holding down the domestic front while she made history and greasing the wheels behind the scene to ensure her name was on President Clinton’s list of candidates when Byron White retired from the Supreme Court.

 

Justice Ginsburg’s days at Harvard Law School planted the seed for her trailblazing fight for the rights of women and other marginalized groups. As one of only nine women in a class of 500, she recalls — with neither resentment nor belligerence — the dean asking her why she thought she deserved a seat that belonged to a man.

 

When her husband graduated a year ahead of her and took a job in New York, she transferred to Columbia Law School, where she graduated at the top of her class with distinction. Nonetheless, no firm would hire her. “Being a woman was an impediment,” she says.

 

Determined to remove that obstruction for others, she co-founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project while on the faculty at Rutgers University Law School and wrote the first legal casebook on gender-based discrimination. She also formulated a slow but steady legal strategy to end sex discrimination fashioned after Thurgood Marshall’s success at ending the US official policy of segregation.

 

She argued six cases before the Supreme Court (winning five), reasoning that the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment barred treating women differently than men, just as it barred racial discrimination. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg quite literally changed the way the world is for women,” NPR’s Nina Totenberg says during an on-screen interview.

 

Nowhere is that more evident than during Ginsburg’s Supreme Court Senate confirmation hearings, when she at times seems to play the role of patient professor lecturing the judiciary panel. “RBG” paints a memorable portrait of an extraordinarily hard-working woman, but it is also at its heart a primer in constitutional law.

 

Overall, despite its passion and solemnity, the film has a light touch, never diving deeply into the grit and controversy that must have swirled behind those hallowed judicial chambers. Ginsburg may be brainy and indomitable, but she is also charming and approachable.

 

That accessibility may explain why Teen Vogue, the e-magazine geared to teenage girls, touts an unlikely pair of stories on its recent home page. One features un-retouched photos of Rihanna’s new lingerie line. The other is “7 Essential Ruth Bader Ginsburg Supreme Rulings to Know About.”

Lights, camera, action! JCC film festival screens in Marblehead, Salem

 

 

 

APRIL 26, 2018, MARBLEHEAD – Film fans on the North Shore who love Jewish movies but don’t love driving over bridges or through tunnels to see them are in for a treat.

From Tuesday, May 8, to Friday, May 18, the fifth annual JCC of the North Shore International Jewish Film Festival will bring 12 award-winning films to theaters in Marblehead and Salem. With a range in genre from historical fiction and documentaries to mystery, comedy, and drama, the 2018 lineup has something to satisfy every taste.

The 21 members of the Film Committee and co-chairs Izzi Abrams and Sara Winer selected films that showcase Jewish- and Israeli-themed topics. None of the films have been previously shown locally and half include post-screening speakers.

The 2018 festival includes two unique Israeli films, one for mature audiences (“The Cakemaker”) and one dealing with an international problem that affects all combat veterans (“When the Smoke Clears”).

Films will be screened at the Warwick Cinema in Marblehead, the Salem Visitor Center and – for the first time ‒ Cinema Salem. Several films will be screened twice, with both evening and matinée offerings.

“This festival is a signature JCCNS event, one that we look forward to bringing to the community each and every year,” Marty Schneer, executive director of the JCCNS and Film Committee member, said in a statement.

Barbara Schneider recalled how the film festival got started. About eight years ago, when she was publisher of the Jewish Journal, the owner of the Gloucester Cinema approached her about collaborating with the Journal. But the timing wasn’t right.

After a brief and loose affiliation with the Boston Jewish Film Festival, the idea lay dormant until Schneer became executive director of the JCCNS in 2012 and revived it.

“Marty was a key motivator,” Schneider said. He started pulling together a group to help organize and plan the film festival. “I said to Marty, ‘If you want this to be successful, you need to get Izzi Abrams,’” Schneider added.

Schneer did just that and Abrams chaired the first festival in 2014 and every one since, sharing the duty for the first time this year. “It really took off. People were very excited,” Schneider said.

“Itzhak” is the Opening Night celebratory screening at the Salem Visitor Center at 7 p.m. on May 8. This inspirational American-made documentary dives below the surface of violinist Itzhak Perlman, disabled polio survivor and masterful musician, to reveal the charming and entrancing essence of the man. Dessert and live music follow the film.

Also noteworthy is “RBG,” a new documentary about the diminutive but fierce legal warrior and Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. At 85, Ginsburg’s unique personal journey has been largely unknown, but the filmmakers shed light on this daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants and her stunning legacy. It will be shown May 10 at 8:15 at Cinema Salem.

Of special local interest is “Etched in Glass,” the remarkable story of concentration camp survivor Steve Ross, who founded the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston. Mike Ross, Steve’s son, and the film’s director, Roger Lyons, will speak after the screening (May 11 at 2:30 p.m. at the Warwick Cinema).

While several films share roots in the Holocaust, their styles are completely different. In “1945,” (in Hungarian and Russian with English subtitles), an Orthodox man and his grown son are treated with suspicion and fear when they arrive at a small Hungarian village. Similarly, Holocaust researcher uncovers a long-buried secret that casts doubt on his family history in “The Testament” (Austria). “Bye Bye Germany” (Germany) combines upbeat klezmer music and a fresh historical perspective to tell the story of a Holocaust survivor who returns to postwar Frankfurt to strike it rich.

Rounding out the lineup are: “Humor Me,” a father-son comedy starring Elliott Gould and Sam Hoffman; “My Hero Brother” (Israel), an inspirational story about young Israelis with Down syndrome who trek through the Himalayas; and “An Act of Defiance” (South Africa), a riveting historical drama about the fight against apartheid and the lawyer who risked his life to defend them.

“Les Enfants de la Chance,” a coming-of-age drama set in 1942 France and based on a true story, will be shown at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 17, at the Salem Visitors Center. Light refreshments and live music by Jack Skowronski follow the film.

For tickets and more information, call 781-631-8330, or visit jccns.org.

Mr. Fish makes a big splash at Salem Film Fest

By Shelley A. Sackett

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Producer Ted Collins, Mr. Fish and SFF moderator Debra Longo at the PEM post-screening Q&A.

 

Dwayne Booth wears many hats.

 

He lives in the Philadelphia area, where he is a loving family man and a popular lecturer at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

For the last 25 years, he has also been known as Mr. Fish, the controversial and enormously talented freelance editorial cartoonist whose work has been published in some of the nation’s most reputable and prestigious magazines, journals, newspapers and web magazines, currently at Harpers.org and Truthdig.com.

 

Although Fish (as he prefers to be called) has written three books of cartoons and essays and won several prestigious awards, his was hardly a household name. All that has changed with the release of the documentary feature, “Mr. Fish: Cartooning from the Deep End,” which screened last Friday evening at the Peabody Essex Museum as part of the Salem Film Fest.

 

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From the left: Mr. Fish (Dwayne Booth), flanked by his two daughters, producer Ted Collins and “Mrs. Fish”, Diana Booth.

 

Not your average editorial cartoonist, Fish’s radical and sometimes outrageous work brims with controversy and biting satire, drawing from politics, propaganda, religion and social taboos. His rebellious anti-establishment philosophy is a throw back to the 1960s, yet his angst is contemporary. He has been called a poet with a cartoonist’s pen.

 

Nothing is off limits to Mr. Fish — he dares us to look away and invites us to cringe all the while challenging us to examine our assumptions and question the status quo. “I want cartooning to be dangerous and to be more than ink on paper,” Fish says to the camera.

 

Director Pablo Bryant shot over 90 hours of footage over the course of five years, and his film lets its audience through the keyhole into Fish’s private family life. Against a backdrop of Fish’s art and animation, the film explores his relationships with his wife Diana and their children; the beginning of his career; his views about money, war, and environmental catastrophe; the decline of the print industry that used to publish his work, and the diminished commercial appeal of his art.

 

“Where is the threat to the dominant culture today? There’s still so much work to do. Who’s going to do it?” Fish says in the film.

 

Watching Fish effortlessly draw his cartoons is one of the film’s greatest pleasures. Bryant’s unobtrusive camera allows the audience to eavesdrop as Fish explains how he comes up with his ideas and what drives him.

 

“The fact that I use art to communicate what it feels like to be human and why it’s significant to me- I feel like I have no other choice,” he says. “A lot of people go thru life masking what it means to be a human being. I would rather use art to demonstrate the injustice of the overall society.”

 

Faced with compromising his creativity to earn a living or staying true to his artistic and moral compass, Fish is at a real financial tipping point by the film’s end, and the audience is left wondering whether Fish will have to sell out after all.

 

Luckily, Fish, his family and the film’s producer and Massachusetts native, Ted Collins, were on hand for a lively and intimate 30-minute Q&A once the near sell-out crowd stopped clapping and settled down.

 

Asked if he was receptive to being the subject of a documentary, Fish said he really didn’t care one way or the other, but credited his wife Diana (who, with their twin daughters, later joined Fish and Collins for the Q&A) with deciding to invite director Bryant to stay with them while he was filming. “For a filmmaker, it was sort of like Jane living with chimps,” Fish said, referring to Jane Goodall.

 

Asked what happens to the original art he creates if it has no current market, Fish told a story about his early career, when he was fiercely opposed to the commodification of art. He would take his cartoons to Staples, make copies and destroy the originals. When he met the famous Los Angeles gallery owner Robert Berman ten years ago, Berman asked him for the originals. “Luckily, I had a few I was too lazy to throw away,” he said as the audience laughed.

 

Fish said that since Trump was elected President, there has been a renewed interest in his art. He published a new book in 2017, “And Then the World Blew Up,” and has two more scheduled. He even has a line of skateboards.

 

“I’ve been told, ‘Now is your time. Now you have a purpose.’ My job is very hard, though. What I don’t want to do is to turn Trump into a clown or a monster. That turns it into burlesque and ignores the underlying problem,” he said.

 

When an audience member asked Fish how parent-teacher conferences went, given his known proclivity for the graphically vulgar and obscene, he invited his family to join him on stage. His daughters told a story about their 6th grade teacher who fished their lunch bags out of the trash during a field trip because he knew Fish drew cartoon portraits of the girls.

 

Diana told about the time she entrusted her husband to attend parent-teacher open house, which included attending the girls’ classes to meet their teachers. When she received a call from Fish, she asked him why he wasn’t at the open house. “He told me he was cutting their classes,” she said.

 

Salem Film Fest Program Director Jeff Schmidt knew “Mr. Fish” would be a good fit for the Salem festival. “As a programmer, I’m constantly on the look out for films starting to make their way onto the film festival circuit.  I ran across “Mr. Fish: Cartooning From The Deep End” early on and reached out to producer Ted Collins and director Pablo Bryant to encourage them to submit to the festival. Our programming team loves films with unique characters who take chances, and Mr Fish certainly fits that bill,” he said.

 

 

Salem Film Fest 2018 kicks off weeklong documentary film festival on March 22

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

Reluctant Radical

Ken Ward breaks the law in “The Reluctant Radical.”

 

For the eleventh straight year, Salem Film Fest 2018, the weeklong all-documentary film festival, arrives just in the nick of time to brighten the spirits of weary North Shore winter warriors. With a diverse program of more than 60 feature and short films, parties, discussions, and opportunities to meet visiting filmmakers in intimate settings, Salem Film Fest is the perfect antidote to those Nor’easter blues.

 

The festival kicks off on Thursday, March 22 at 5:30 pm with an opening night reception at Old Town Hall featuring a video installation by local filmmaker Elayne Cronin and a Virtual Reality film by WGBH’s FRONTLINE and NOVA.

 

Salem Film Fest runs March 22-29 with screenings in Salem at Cinema Salem, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), the National Park Service Visitor Center and Old Town Hall. For the first time, screenings will also take place in Beverly at The Cabot and at Endicott College’s Rose Performance Hall.

 

“Although we will always be rooted in Salem, we are excited to increase the opportunities for audiences outside the city to see these works. We want the whole North Shore to consider this their documentary film festival,” said Salem Film Fest Co-Founder and Co-Festival Director Joe Cultrera in a press release.

 

With its focus on artistically well-told stories, SFF 2018 offers a broad menu of films on subjects that range from art & music to global politics, from legal dramas to soulful journeys. During the week, audiences will have the rare opportunity to mix and match films on such eclectic topics as: Irish Big Wave surfers; the British punkers, Sleaford Mods; Fred Beckey, the mountaineering “dirtbag”; Father Divine, a black minister who claimed to be God; a subculture of women who dress as mermaids; and giant swamp rats that invade Louisiana.

 

As one of the largest all-documentary film festivals on the East Coast, Salem Film Fest prides itself on the post-screening Q&As, where filmmakers, film subjects and filmgoers engage in thought-provoking conversations that often continue beyond the theater.

 

“Audiences have a great opportunity to speak with filmmakers at Q&As after screenings, but also out and about in Salem as they take in the downtown. Filmmakers tell us all the time how much they enjoy the recognition they get and how much they enjoy interacting with our audience,” said Salem Film Fest Program Jeff Schmidt.

 

Filmmaker Lindsey Grayzel, who directed “The Reluctant Radical” and will attend its East Coast premiere screening on Sunday, March 25 at CinemaSalem at 7:20 pm, is looking forward to hearing how the audience reacts to her film. “It still thrills me to hear a group collectively giggle or sigh during certain scenes,” she said by email.

 

“The Reluctant Radical” follows climate activist Ken Ward through a series of civil disobediences as he breaks the law to fulfill his personal and moral obligation to future generations. Ward spent over 15 in Massachusetts, living in Amherst, Boston and Hull.

 

Grayzel met Ward in 2015 and found his personal history compelling. “He made me feel differently about climate change after our first conversation,” Grayzel said. Ward, whose activist journey took him from environmental organizations and lobbying to civil disobedience and direct action readily agreed when Grayzel asked if she could make a documentary film about him. “It was the one approach he hadn’t yet tried,” she said.

 

Grayzel hopes audiences will realize that they have the power to slow down and prevent the worst-case scenarios of climate change and “commit themselves to joining the fight for our future. We are not powerless to change the course ahead,” she said.

 

In addition to connecting with other filmmakers and “seeing some great films,” Grayzel is also looking forward to the post-screening Q&A. “I’m curious what kinds of questions and issues the film brings up for people, and if my themes came across clearly,” she said.

 

Filmmakers are expected to be present at more than half the screenings, including “This Is Home” and “Beauty and Ruin.”

 

“This Is Home,” a New England premiere, will screen at The Cabot on Friday, March 23 at 6:45 pm. The film is an intimate and timely portrait of four Syrian refugee families arriving in America and struggling to find their footing as they learn to adapt to challenges, including the newly imposed travel ban.

 

East Coast premiere “Beauty and Ruin” spotlights Detroit and its recent bankruptcy, which put all the city’s assets on the table, including the Detroit Institute of Art’s priceless collection. The film follows the struggle that unfolds between the retired city workers, who want the art sold to fund their pensions and health care, and the museum, which wants to preserve the city’s cultural treasure for future generations. The film screens at PEM on Saturday, March 24 at 8:10 pm.

 

Other films of special note are: “Becoming Who I Was” (a boy discovers that he is the reincarnation of a Tibetan monk and takes an epic journey with his godfather in a story of faith and unconditional love); “The Judge” (the first woman judge to sit on a West Bank Palestinian Shari’a court redefines how the law treats women); “Mr. Fish” (an outrageous editorial cartoonist tries to raise a family and maintain his defiant voice when dangerous humor has no market); and “Siberian Love” (after 20 years of living in Berlin, director Olga Delane journeys back to her roots in a small Siberian village, where she is confronted with traditional views of relationships, life and love).

 

For those who can’t wait for the March 22 kick off reception, SFF is partnering with local businesses to hold three launch parties — Notch Brewery & Tap Room (Thursday, March 15 from 4-11 pm), Far From The Tree Craft Hard Cider (Friday, March 16 from 5-9 pm) and Deacon Giles Distillery (Saturday, March 17 from 6-10 pm). SFF volunteers will be on hand to answer questions and sell tickets.

 

A complete lineup of films, listings of all events, and information on how to buy tickets is available at salemfilmfest.com.

 

 

Salem Film Fest presents special Thanksgiving weekend screening

FOR AHKEEM

By Shelley A. Sackett

Above: Daje Shelton in “For Ahkeem,” a documentary film directed by Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest.

BEVERLY — By the Sunday after Thanksgiving, even the most diehard football fan and Black Friday shopper should be ready to trade leftover pie for popcorn and venture out to the Cabot Theatre where Jeremy Levine, a Beverly native and Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker from New York, will be returning home to screen his latest feature film, “For Ahkeem.”

The film tells the intimate and frank story of Daje Shelton, a strong-willed Black 17-year-old girl in North St. Louis, Missouri. The audience walks beside her as her path takes her from public school expulsion to the court-supervised Innovative Concept Academy, an alternative school for delinquent youth and her last chance to earn a diploma.

Shot over a two-year period against the charged backdrop of nearby Ferguson, we witness Daje’s struggles as she copes with academic rigors, the murders and funerals of friends, teenage love and a pregnancy that results in the birth of a son, Ahkeem.

With motherhood comes the realization that she must contend with raising a young Black boy in a marginalized neighborhood. The film illuminates the challenges that many Black teenagers face in America today, and witnesses the strength and resilience it takes to survive.

“For Ahkeem” will screen on Sunday, November 26 at 4:30 p.m. at The Cabot Theatre, 286 Cabot Street in Beverly as part of a special Salem Film Fest Presents — the documentary fest’s first cinema presentation outside of Salem. Levine will be on hand at to answer audience questions at the post-screening Q&A.

Salem Five Charitable Foundation is underwriting the screening and three local organizations are community partners: The Beverly Human Rights Committee, First Church Salem, UU and Salem No Place for Hate.

For Levine, who attended Beverly High School and worked for years as a counselor at the Waring School, the film he co-directed is more than a simple coming-of-age story. “It highlights the horrible effects of the school-to-prison pipeline, where we suspend and expel huge numbers of students — especially black and brown students — and the impact that has on girls like Daje from the time they’re five-years-old,” he said by phone from New York City, where he and co-director Landon Van Soest run Transient Productions, a full-service production company.

The film also approaches some of the most pressing social challenges facing America today — racial bias, social inequality, public education, police brutality and a biased criminal justice system.

“We wanted to tell a deeply personal story about what it means to live your life when so many systems are set against you,” Levine, an Ithaca College alumnus with a degree in Documentary Studies, said.

“For Ahkeem” has had an award-winning festival run starting in February at the Berlin Film Festival, followed by prestigious showcases like the Tribeca Film Festival, Canada’s Hot Docs, and the DMZ International Film Festival in South Korea.

While the film’s worldwide audience and awards —such as the Grand Jury Prize Award at Boston’s Independent Film Festival — thrill Levine, for him the screenings and discussions at high schools and prisons fulfill a greater mission of trying to do better for future generations of children.

In Tribeca, New York City, for example, approximately 500 high school students attended a screening. “When Daje came out for the Q&A afterwards, the kids erupted in applause,” Levine said.

The ensuing discussions included kids “really opening up about some of the challenges they face in their lives. It was really incredible,” Levine added. He is currently working to bring the film to more public high schools through a grant program.

Screenings at prisons have been equally powerful. When the lights came up at one screening for 100 inmates, all the tears in the room full of men touched Levine. “One of them wrote a poem for Daje and Ahkeem. Another man said, ‘Who knew I could learn so much about being a man from the story of a young woman?’” he said.

Levine credits the culture of Judaism and Hebrew School lessons at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly, “a part of my life growing up”, with imbuing in him a sense of responsibility to try to make the world a better place. “I learned about the long suffering of our heritage and the injustice of that. That kind of moral underpinning is definitely huge in the work I do,” he said.

 

“For Ahkeem” will screen on Sunday, November 26 at 4:30 p.m. at The Cabot Theatre, 286 Cabot Street in Beverly as part of a special Salem Film Fest presentation. For more information or to buy tickets, visit theCabot.org.

Salem Film Fest Turns Ten!

The “little festival that could” celebrates with a Gala

When local filmmaker Joe Cultrera, businessman Paul Van Ness and Salem Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rinus Oosthoek gathered at the fledgling CinemaSalem’s café in 2007, they all shared a common goal: to create an event that would be fair to documentary filmmakers and attractive to audiences. They presented a week of special film programming and live events in the middle of that same winter. “That’s about as fast as a festival can be put together once you have a venue,” said Van Ness who owns CinemaSalem. “I suppose you could call it a spring training for the big league festival that would inaugurate the next year.”

The 2008 Salem Film Fest drew 1,743 filmgoers; last year, more than 6,000 attended what has grown to be both one New England’s largest and among the nation’s most respected all-documentary film festivals. Each March, the festival presents a rich and diverse collection of the year’s best work from all over the world that helps sustain cinephiles through the long, bleak slog of New England winter.

This year the festival runs from March 2-9 and will kick off its tenth anniversary with a Gala on Thursday, March 2 at the Hawthorne Hotel that will combine presentation of the 2017 SFF Storyteller Award to Frontline founder David Fanning with a live music dance party. (Visit salemfilmfest.com/2017/gala-tickets for more information).

“Come to Salem, see the world” has been the Salem Film Fest catch phrase since its inception, both as an homage to old Salem merchant ships that established trade with the rest of the world and in tribute to the dozens of countries represented by the films the festival has screened over its ten years.

With a line-up of 35 feature and 13 short documentaries from more than 25 countries, SFF 2017 covers a lot of the globe: from the largest Syrian refugee camp in Jordan (“After Spring”) to Finland’s worst cheerleading team (“Cheer Up”); from the Mississippi Delta blues (“I Am the Blues”) to Mexico’s most famous tabloid photographer (“The Man who Saw Too Much”); from Jalalabad’s child street gangs (“Snow Monkey”) to a New York City’s West Village artist community (“Winter at Westbeth”). And everyplace in between.

Besides CinemaSalem, SFF partners with Peabody Essex Museum’s Morse Auditorium (PEM) and the National Park Service Visitor Center (NPS) as additional venues. With simultaneous screenings at all three sites, the streets of Salem feel like a mini Sundance as filmgoers greet each other on the street, making their way from one film to the next.

As in past years, SFF 2017 focuses on filmmakers as much as their films, and 19 filmmakers and/or their subjects will attend this year’s post-screening Q&A sessions, which promise to be as exciting and informative as festivalgoers have come to expect. “It’s great to see the growth of the festival while we also stay true to our roots. More and more filmmakers have found the festival to be a haven of sorts for their films, and they enjoy spending time in Salem,” said Jeff Schmidt, who has been SFF program director since 2014.

Cultrera, who handed the programming to Schmidt in 2013, agrees. “The thing I look forward to every year is getting a new crew of filmmakers to the festival: spending time interacting with them; introducing them to Salem; watching friendships build between them and some of our audience, and talking shop at after-hours gatherings,” he said.

Among this year’s line-up are three U.S. premieres: “The Day the Sun Fell” (surviving Red Cross doctors and nurses remember the day Hiroshima was bombed as nuclear disaster strikes Japan again); “Mattress Man” (an Irish 60-something-year-old creates a tacky YouTube persona to boost his failing business) and “Zimbelism” (one of the last working street photographers shares stories from his dark room). Both filmmaker Matt Zimbel and his subject and father, George S. Zimbel, will be present at the “Zimbelism” screening at PEM on Sunday, March 5 at 10:50 a.m.

The programming committee started looking for SFF 2017 films last June, and the richly varied menu of films has something to please every palette. To make planning easier, SFF offers a helpful guide that organizes the films into a number of “curated itineraries” to allow the audience to review films through specific lenses.

Three films that address complex socio-political issues through one person’s story are “Almost Sunrise”, Tickling Giants” and “Death by One Thousand Cuts”.

Filmmaker Michael Collins’ “Almost Sunrise” addresses “moral injury” by following two Iraq War veterans suffering from PTSD as they trek 2,700 miles in a last ditch effort to find the healing they both seek. Collins will attend the Q&A after the screening at PEM on Saturday, March 4 at 8:35 p.m.

“Tickling Giants” examines the aftermath of the Egyptian Arab Spring by showcasing Bassem Youssef, the “Egyptian Jon Stewart” who endangers his life and livelihood when the Morsi regime doesn’t appreciate his jokes. Filmmaker Sara Taksler will be available for a post-screening Q&A. The film is at PEM on Friday, March 3 at 8:10 p.m.

In “Death by a Thousand Cuts”, a brutal murder on the Haiti-Dominican border exposes the complex consequences of killing the Dominican forests, one cut at a time. The filmmaker will attend the Q&A after the screening at CinemaSalem on Sunday, March 5 at 5:10 p.m.

On the more whimsical side, “The League of Exotique Dancers” introduces eight unforgettable Burlesque Hall of Fame inductees who share the good, the bad and the ugly about the golden age of stripping with bawdy good humor and moving insight in a film that is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. It screens at CinemaSalem on Saturday, March 4 at 9:40 p.m.

Those most interested in the arts have plenty to choose from this year. “The Ballad of Fred Hersch” traces the foremost jazz pianist and composer’s journey from AIDS coma survivor to musical triumph (Friday, March 3 at CinemaSalem at 5:10 p.m.). “Yarn” introduces edgy, contemporary women who are revolutionizing the art of knitting and crocheting. (Saturday, March 4 at PEM at 11:50 a.m.). “I Am the Blues” gives an up-close-and-personal tour of the original southern juke joints with the aging blues musicians who still play its “Chitlin’ Circuit”. (Closing night feature on Thursday, March 9 at CinemaSalem at 7:00 p.m.).

Every year, regular attendees look forward to the premiere of “Salem Sketches”, a series of two-minute documentaries based in Salem and created exclusively for SFF by local filmmakers and SFF Planning Committee members Cultrera and Perry Hallinan. “We’re one of the few festivals that can claim to have our own original programing,” Cultrera said with pride.

SFF 2017 is also jam-packed with events, parties and the live music performances before many of the screenings at CinemaSalem by local musicians whose contributions add to the festival’s literal good vibrations.

While the community-driven, all-volunteer festival steadfastly remains true to its ideals of high-level programming and treating filmmakers like the stars they are, the “little festival that could” seems poised for even wider appeal and reach in its second decade. All agree that fundraising and broadening the volunteer base are two critical ingredients for generating this growth.

“The festival is special, but it could be on another level entirely if we had the resources and if there was a mechanism in place in Salem that better synchronized public, private and non-profit energies,” said Cultrera.

Nonetheless, the wildly popular and highly anticipated festival draws sell-out crowds to one of the liveliest and friendliest of Salem’s many festivities. Patrons return year after year and hugging reunions in the CinemaSalem lobby are commonplace. Clearly, the Salem Film Festival is about more than films. It’s also about community.

“Come to Salem, see the world. Come to Salem, meet the world,” Oosthoek said with a smile.

Salem Film Fest runs March 2-9 with screenings at CinemaSalem, Peabody Essex Museum and National Park Service Visitors Center. For more information or to purchase tickets or passes, go to the CinemaSalem box office or visit salemfilmfest.com/2017/.