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.”

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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/.

Justice Is Not Denied in “Denial”

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

When historian Deborah E. Lipstadt walked onto the stage on September 22 for a Q&A after a preview of the film “Denial”, she was asked what it felt like to be portrayed by the Academy Award-winning actress Rachel Weisz. “It was surreal,” she said with a laugh, noting that the most remarkable part was hearing her own Queens accent perfectly mimed by the English film and theater star.

 

But with that, any light-heartedness faded as discussion turned to her real life role as defendant in a British lawsuit brought by Hitler admirer and “historian” David Irving. After Lipstadt labeled him a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory”, Irving sued her and her publisher, Penguin books, for libel, claiming her false statements had harmed his reputation.

 

Her subsequent ten-week legal battle in 2000 to defend herself and establish the “historical truth” that the Holocaust did indeed occur formed the basis of her “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” (2005), the book on which playwright David Hare’s script for “Denial” is based.

 

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Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt in the true story, “Denial”.

 

As Irving knew, in Britain libel laws favor the plaintiff. The defendant must prove that statements the plaintiff considered libelous, or false, are indeed true. In this case, Lipstadt had to prove that the Holocaust really happened, and that, therefore, Irving intentionally lied when he insisted there were never any gas chambers at Auschwitz and that the Nazis had never murdered any Jews.

 

As if this isn’t complicated (and heart wrenching) enough, Lipstadt and her team had two additional stumbling blocks. The first was a lack of physical evidence. The team had to amass their case despite the facts that the Nazis never allowed photographs of prisoners being gassed in Auschwitz and further covered their tracks by destroying the gas chambers.

 

The second was defense counsel’s decision not to allow Lipstadt or any Holocaust survivors to testify for fear that Irving, who was acting as his own attorney, would humiliate and exploit them. For Lipstadt, this was worse.

 

“A trial is not therapy,” Lipstadt’s British solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott, known to TV’s “Sherlock” fans as Moriarty), tells her. Furious, she tries to make him understand that it is not their own catharsis the survivors seek. “You think they want to testify for themselves? It’s not for themselves. They want to give voice to the ones who didn’t make it.” Unmoved, Julius replies, “It’s the price you pay for winning.”

 

The bulk of the film centers on the trial and all the testimony comes directly from the actual trial transcripts. “This was a film about truth and it had to be truthful,” Lipstadt said during the Q&A. Although some of the film’s detailed court procedures may be confusing (and boring to a non-attorney), the exchanges between Irving (Timothy Spall) and the defense’s Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) crackle, due in large part to the stellar acting of both.

 

Spall, who recently starred in “Mr. Turner”, has a rubber face perfectly suited to playing the duplicitous and self-impressed Irving. One minute, he is all smarmy self-justification, buttering up the judge and showboating for the spectators. The next, he is at his most infuriating, spewing diabolical anti-Semitic racist invectives and then playing the victim, accusing Lipstadt of tarnishing his reputation with a “verbal yellow star”.

 

The always-terrific Wilkinson brings weight and nuance to a cool-headed performance that hints at the roiling emotion lurking just below the surface. The film’s most satisfying moments are when his Rampton slyly lures Irving in during cross examination, then ferociously pounces, drawing and quartering his squirming prey.

 

Its most moving scene is during the legal team’s visit to Auschwitz. When Rampton steps on a barbed wire shard on his way to the gas chamber entrance, he suddenly understands the enormity of the atrocity perpetrated by the Nazis. To imagine a barefooted Jew stepping on a piece of barbed wire on his way to his imminent murder is unspeakably unjust — and real.

 

Given the extraordinary pre-release press “Denial” has engendered, it can hardly be a spoiler to reveal that Lipstadt won her case. The Holocaust scholar, however, hopes the biggest takeaway of the film is not her victory, but a recognition that not all opinions merit defending.

 

“There are not two sides to every story. The Holocaust happened. Slavery happened. There are some things you cannot debate,” she said. “I will debate you on the facts. I will not debate liars.”

 

Noting that earlier in the day, the New York Time used “lie” to describe some of the things Donald Trump has said, Lipstadt is worried about what lies ahead. “We are living in a time when lying has become mainstream. The needle has moved so far,” she said. “There is an anti-intellectual, anti-factual attitude which is frightening.”

 

She paused for a moment and then directed the Q&A session towards the audience. “Where does that put us? As academics and people interested in social justice, what do we do?” she asked.

 

“Ben-Hur” Remake Should Have Been Called “Ben-Huh?”

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

During this summer of bloated spectacles, from the latest Jason Bourne franchise’s car chases to Marvel superheroes pitted against each other instead of a common enemy to the blood lust pageantry of the Republican National convention, the remake of “Ben Hur” fits right in. The CGI-burdened film is a superficial paean to excess, short attention spans, and sound bite pablum.

 

That said, it does have a spectacular and thunderous ten-minute chariot race made festive by 3-D glasses- enhanced special effects. You almost feel like a character inside a video game.

 

The plot, in a nutshell, centers on the rivalrous relationship between the Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), and his best pal and Roman adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell). The two share an idyllic boyhood in a Jerusalem under benign Roman rule, riding horses and ignoring the civil unrest that will eventually pit brother against brother.

 

Messala loves Judah’s sister, but knows he is unworthy in station and finance. He does what any red-blooded man in his position and in quest of fame, fortune and globetrotting would do — he enlists in the Roman army.

 

Turns out Messala has quite a talent for battle and pillage, and when he returns to Jerusalem five years later, it is as a wealthy and powerful commander in a red cape and copper breastplate.

 

By then, Jerusalem and its Jews are clearly under Roman military control. Jewish zealots are waging a dangerous resistance, and a Jewish carpenter named Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) proffers a world where one loves one’s enemies. Messala has returned not out of sentimental homesickness, but as a Roman officer charged with snuffing out this unrest.

 

Judah lives in a naïve rich boy’s bubble. This causes his undoing when a zealot he harbors (for humanitarian, not political or religious reasons) shoots an arrow at a Roman procession from the Hur roof. It misses Pontius Pilate, but the Roman reaction is swift and merciless. Inexplicably, Judah takes the blame and is sentenced to a slave’s slow death rowing in the belly of a Roman war ship.

 

The scenes shot during the ocean battles are the film’s most riveting. As man-powered ships ram each other to the steady beat of a war drum, we see only what the slaves can see through the small portholes in the ship’s side. From above deck, we are thrust into the turmoil of a losing naval battle. In this era of arm’s length drone warfare, it is a grim reminder of just what hell war is.

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Messala (Toby Kebbell) trying to keep the upper hand at the races.

Judah eventually escapes and washes up on a desert presided over by Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), a wheeler-dealer who raises and races horses. After witnessing Judah’s equestrian gifts, Ilderim convinces Judah to return to Jerusalem and race his horses in the Circus chariot race against Messala. Of course, Judah’s horses are white and Messala’s are black. Of course, Judah wins.

 

It’s hard to know where to stop complaining about the cast, script and directing. Huston brings a doe-eyed, easy-going melancholy to a role that demands grit and primal presence. When he cuts his Jesus-like hair and shaves for the race, he looks more like the cover of GQ magazine than a fight-to-the-death warrior.

 

Kebbell is no more convincing as the malicious Messala. His un-nuanced, soft performance brings to mind Eliott Gould more than Russell Crowe or Mel Gibson. Santoro’s Jesus, by contrast, is the most three-dimensional and captivating of the three. Perhaps the casting should have been rearranged; perhaps it wouldn’t have made a difference absent a complete script overhaul.

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Morgan Freeman as Ilderim.

The only breath of professionalism is the always magnificent Morgan Freeman, whose voice has that certain remarkable quality that inspired his casting as the voice of God (twice) and the narrator of countless films. Even wearing a grey dreadlocks wig that makes him look like the love child of the Lion King and Whoopie Goldberg, he injects his scenes with a grounded artistic integrity the rest of the film lacks. His cheeky delivery and rascally expressions is an oasis in a creative desert.

 

The remake of Ben-Hur is most interesting in its treatment of Jesus’ crucifixion, the blame for which is placed squarely on the shoulders of the Romans. It’s a shame that the whole episode is treated like a cinematic afterthought.

 

Perhaps the silver lining to this gratuitous remake is that it may send the Generation CGI-ers scurrying to their computers to stream the 1959 masterpiece that won eleven Oscars and catapulted Charlton Heston to godlike status. Who knows — it might even turn into a teachable moment that sometimes it really is best to leave well enough alone.

“Café Society” Could Be Better, Could Be Worse

Shelley A. Sackett

 

Like the West Bank settlements, 2016 presidential politics or the temperature of the main sanctuary during High Holiday services, Woody Allen is a lightning rod topic guaranteed to incite impassioned debate.

His 47th film, “Café Society”, was released less than a month ago and has been called everything from “a lavish diagram working hard to come off as a real movie” to “the most beguiling in his ongoing late work.” It’s not his best, but he’s certainly made worse.

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Woody Allen directing Jesse Eisenberg and Kristin Stewart.

The film opens with a breathtaking shot of a romanticized version of 1930’s Hollywood, surprising coming from Allen, known more for his antipathy than amity towards Los Angeles. Sophisticated guests in formal evening wear mill about an impossibly blue pool where their host, the mega-agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell) holds court. He is expecting a call from Ginger Rogers, he announces loudly. Instead, he gets the family matriarch in the Bronx. His older sister Rose (Jeannie Berlin) announces the imminent arrival of her youngest son Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), who is heading West to seek his fame and fortune. Phil should “set him up”.

Phil manages to avoid his nephew for three weeks, and then gives him “some cockamamie title” and a glorified errand-boy job. He also gives him his secretary, the Nebraska transplant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart, whose luminous performance lends the film its only breath of fresh air), to show Bobby around his new hood. With her midriff-baring ensembles, ankle socks and little girl headbands, she is the quintessential Allen “it” girl/woman (think Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Mia Farrow and Scarlet Johansson).

Predictably, Bobby falls hard for her as they bond over Malibu beaches, grand old movie palaces and cheap, authentic Mexican food. Suddenly Bobby isn’t so homesick.

But just when he thinks he’s hit it big, it turns out he’s mined fool’s gold. (WARNING: Spoiler alert!) Vonnie has a much older, very married boyfriend who, in a plot twist all the more creepy in the context of Allen’s real life marriage to his quasi-adopted stepdaughter, is none other than Bobby’s Uncle Phil. Phil ups the ante and finally leaves his wife, asking Vonnie to marry him after Bobby confides he has just proposed to her. Vonnie chooses the Hollywood wife life, and Bobby heads back to New York broken-hearted.

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Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, Blake Lively and Jesse Eisenberg live it up in New York high style.

Bobby’s gangster brother Ben (a credible Corey Stoll) sets him up with a nightclub, and before long Bobby and his “Café Society” are thriving. His sophisticated clientele are the same swanky swells we met in the opening scene — they’ve just swapped their California sunglasses for sequins. It turns out Bobby was in his element in Hollywood after all; he was simply displaced on the wrong coast.

While Bobby and Vonnie get on with their lives (he marries another Veronica, Blake Lively, in an under-scripted part), they never get over each other, and their unrequited love is the theme of the last third of the movie. This would make for a gloomy half-hour were it not for some terrific one-liners and stand-out, effortless supporting performances, especially by Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott, as Bobby’s squabbling parents Rose and Marty, and Sari Lennick, as his older sister Evelyn.

Unfortunately, Jesse Eisenberg is miscast as the Allen archetype of neurotic, articulate, self-absorbed and self-identifying New York Jew. There is a disconnect between the message and the messenger as Eisenberg giggles, hiccups and lurches his way through the film, his flat affect and bland hunch-shouldered physicality becoming distracting annoyances by the film’s end.

There are the usual cringe lines (Bobby’s response, “It’s part of our charm” to an unambiguous, “It’s true what they say. You people are pushy.”) and scenes (notably the gratuitous and unfunny prostitute encounter) we are braced to expect. But Vittorio Storaro’s stunning cinematography is bewitching. He brings a pallet of sepias, golds and organic shadows to his first collaboration with Allen. His artistry and Stewart’s portrayal of Vonnie are reasons enough to see the film.

It’s hard to believe that Woody Allen is an 80-year-old man, but believe it we must as we listen to his brittle, fragile voiceover narration. Love him, hate him, tolerate him, whatever. There’s no denying the guy’s a cinematic wunderkind and our very own boychik to boot.

All’s Unfair in Love and War in “Indignation”

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

Boston Jewish Film Festival did a real mitzvah on Sunday, July 17 when it treated local film lovers to a free sneak preview of Indignation, the film based on the 2008 Philip Roth novel that opens at the West Newton Cinema and local theaters on July 29. Even better, BJFF further indulged the sold out audience by bringing director and screenwriter James Schamus, (co-founder and former CEO of Focus Features) and his lead actor, Logan Lerman (Fury, Percy Jackson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), to the stage for a post-screening Q&A.

 

Semi-autobiographical, Roth’s dark story fictionalizes his own early-1950’s college experience at Bucknell University in rural Pennsylvania. Schamus picked up the slim novel in an airport and fell in love with the book. “It is contemporary but shocking,” the producer and frequent Ang Lee collaborator said.

 

Set in 1951 against the backdrop of the Korean War, Indignation introduces us to Marcus Messner (played by 24-year-old Logan Lerman). He is the straight-A, straight-laced only son of Max, an overbearing Newark kosher butcher, and Esther, his practical, well-meaning wife (played by theatre veterans Danny Burstein and Linda Emond). Marcus is also the film’s narrator, and his voiceover story has a single simple message: the choices we make determine our fate.

 

When Marcus’ buddies start coming home from Korea in body bags, Max’s spiraling anxieties fuel his transition from paternal protector to paranoid oppressor. “The tiniest mistakes can have consequences,” he relentlessly warns his son, worried he will squander his future in a pool hall or behind the wrong closed door.

 

As much to escape his suffocating parents as to avoid the draft, Marcus accepts a scholarship (awarded by his synagogue) to the fictional, elite and very WASP-y Winesburg College in bucolic Ohio. Instantly, the cinematographer Christopher Blauvett’s pallet changes from the overcast skies and gloomy browns and greys of working-class Newark to the sunshine and lush lawns of the collegiate mid-West.

 

Marcus’ emotional pallet, however, retains its muddy hues. A defiant loner by choice, he avoids getting too close to his two roommates and chafes at any action he interprets as controlling. He resents mandatory chapel attendance not because he is Jewish, but because he is an atheist. He is an equal opportunity religious objector, a rebel for whom the whole world is his cause.

 

He joylessly slogs through his days, excelling at his studies and working in the library. Then one day, the dreamy creamy Olivia (Sarah Gadon) awakens his slumbering id. Simultaneously calculated and insouciant, she casts her line in Marcus’ sight line and reels him in with the lure of her twitching foot. Schamus’ light directorial touch subtly alerts us to impending danger and ultimate doom. She is Eve, and Marcus is ravenous for whatever she is serving up.

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Olivia (Sarah Gadon) and her alluring twitching foot.

 

During their first date at the only French restaurant in town, the two seem an easy intellectual match, but there’s an unsettling emotional power imbalance at play. He’s as naïve and unscathed as she is cynical and damaged. Even later, during and after the unsolicited sexual favor she performs on him in the front seat of his roommate’s borrowed car, there’s a steely premeditation to Olivia that puts Marcus (and the audience) on edge. This is the least intimate intimate act imaginable, and that disconnect bodes ill for our protagonist.

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Marcus (Logan Lerman) and Olivia (Sarah Gadon) on their first date.

Marcus may be sitting in the driver’s seat, but Olivia’s clearly behind the wheel. With that single shocking act, she has changed his life forever, and she knows it.

Their initial infatuation becomes hopelessly complicated, careening from snub to obsession to mutual self destruction. This unravels the stoic Marcus to the point where he draws the attention of Dean Hawes Caudwell (played by the terrific Tracy Letts, lately of “Homeland” fame), who summons him to his office for a little chat. In an 18-minute scene that is the unequivocal showpiece of the film, Marcus sheds his melancholic reserve and demonstrates his High School debate captain chops as he rips into the Dean’s defense of all things Winesburg, including mandatory chapel.

 

Admiring the precocious Marcus’ considerable oratory skills while clearly loathing his message, the Dean treats him as an intellectual equal, and the two go at it tooth and nail. There is no deference to status or age; this is intellectual trench warfare, and each is prepared to fall on the blade of his razor sharp wit.

 

“I knew the film would live or die on that scene,” Schamus said during the Q&A, and he’s right. It’s the most riveting and emotional scene of the entire movie. It’s a shame Marcus doesn’t show half the passion and urgency with Olivia that he does while lacerating the Dean. The two lovers just don’t share the same on-screen chemistry.

 

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Director and screenwriter James Schamus

Eventually things go from not great to worse, and Esther shows up at Winesburg when Marcus lands in the hospital after an emergency appendectomy. She meets Olivia, immediately spots the suicide scars on her wrist, and quickly evaluates the danger her son is in. The scene where she exacts Marcus’s promise never to see Olivia again in exchange for her remaining married to his increasingly abusive father is both devastating and tender.

 

In his directorial debut, Schamus has made a classy, painterly film. As Marcus, Lerman gives a focused performance of subtlety and depth. Although Marcus is clearly Jewish, he is more engaging and accessible than the neurotic clichéd stereotypes popularized by Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Allen. Each time he bristles at some real or imagined oppressive authority figure, his indignation brings home the film’s point.

 

Gadon’s Olivia is impossible to look away from. She is as complicated as she is stunning, equal parts Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelley and Rebecca Pigeon. Letts, however, is nothing short of brilliant as Dean Caudwell, the roguish academic autocrat whose concern for Marcus is both intrusive and sincere.

 

Schamus has made a good, entertaining movie, especially considering it is the industry’s “Summer Season”. But for Jay Wadley’s trite and overbearing score, and the fact that we really don’t care enough about Olivia and Marcus because they don’t seem to care enough about each other, it could have been a very good one indeed.