Tag Archives: Documentary

Interview with Local Filmmakers of “The Rabbi Goes West”

15 Nov

‘Rabbi Goes West’ on mission to Montana, filmmakers following to close out festival

 

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North Cambridge resident Gerald Peary knows a lot about film. He’s been a critic for more than 40 years and a film studies professor and curator for more than a quarter-century, and is about to premiere his third documentary feature, “The Rabbi Goes West,” Sunday night at the Somerville Theatre. The film – co-directed with Peary’s wife, Amy Geller, it follows a Chabad rabbi who moves from Brooklyn, New York, to Bozeman, Montana – closes out this year’s Boston Jewish Film Festival, playing this week and last at the Brattle Theatre and other locations.

The reason for 34-year-old Chaim Bruk’s relocation is a mission to bring his brand of Judaism to the American West by placing a mezuzah (an encased prayer offering) on the door of every Montana Jew – not a large population. Along the way Bruk encounters resistance from within the Jewish community, and more frighteningly, threats from neo-Nazis.

“I wanted to make a film which spoke to my Judaism,” Peary said. “I’m the most secular Jew, who doesn’t attend synagogue but knows who all the Jewish writers, athletes, et cetera, are. I asked myself, ‘What do I like about Judaism?’ I like mezuzahs – the scrolls put up on Jewish doorposts including inside a verse from Deuteronomy. Having a mezuzah on your door tells the world you’re Jewish, and it’s a big ‘fuck you’ to Hitler, Nazis and Neo-Nazis. ‘Jews are here!’”

“The Rabbi Goes West” co-directors Amy Geller and Gerald Peary.

“Anyway, I read on the Internet about a Hasidic rabbi who has a pledge to put a mezuzah on the door of very Jew in the state of Montana – that’s 2,000 Jews in a state 14 times larger than Israel. I called up Rabbi Chaim Bruk in Bozeman, Montana, and he invited Amy out to film him putting up mezuzahs. The rest is our movie,” Peary said.

Geller co-directed “The Guys Next Door” (2016), a documentary about a gay male couple raising daughters, and Peary said he was delighted to work with a partner who is a “brilliant, talented producer first, and second, knows documentaries inside and out.”

“She was also incredibly demanding about our film,” Peary said, “never letting go of any facet of the movie until she felt it was perfect.“ During production, Peary said most nights they would discuss and argue about the film over dinner and while going to bed. “That was all exhausting,” he said, “but if the movie is really good, it’s because of the intensity of our collaboration.”

Over the years, Peary has penned for several alt-weeklies in the area (“Real Paper” and “Boston Phoenix” – both sadly defunct), taught film studies at Suffolk University and continues to run the Cinemathèque program at Boston University and contribute to The Arts Fuse. His first film, “For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism” (2009), which Geller co-produced, served as something of a bittersweet elegy for iconic film critics Roger Ebert and Andrew Sarris (both died in the short years following) and poetically pondered the fate and value of film criticism. In 2015, his “Archie’s Betty” explored the roots of the comic book town of Riverdale in Haverhill, where Archie creator Bob Montana had attended high school.

Peary doesn’t think making movies affects what he writes when easing back into the critic’s chair – something Ebert also did, having famously penned Russ Meyers’ bit of 1970s kink, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”

“Everyone making movies has endless hardship stories, especially about the financing part in a country which doesn’t support the arts in any way. But it’s ultimately what’s on screen that counts, and only what counts,” Peary said. “I’ve always been a tough critic with high demands for cinema, and I remain that way.”

Midnight Traveler

16 Oct

 

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Imagine if you had no home, no country and a bounty on your head. That’s the scenario facing filmmaker Hassan Fazili and his wife and two young daughters in “Midnight Traveler,” when the clock runs out on asylum requests in Tajikistan and they face deportation back to Afghanistan, where the Taliban put out a contract on Fazili’s life in 2015. It’s unclear what Fazili had done to raise the Taliban’s ire, but in Kabul he did operate a cafe that served men and women (generally not well received in strict Islamic communities that favor gender segregation); and as a filmmaker, he’s sure to have caught the eye of theocrats who enforce their rule with a sword and an AK-47.

The endgame for the Fazili family is Germany (which the film paints as the immigrant Eden of the EU), but it’s a long slog there and a harrowing one filled with peril and uncertainty. The journey begins with a brief reroute to Afghanistan, then there’s some rocky mountain passages with leaden backpacks, riotous gangs that target refugees in Bulgaria and the never knowing if your ride from one country to another will show up or skip off with the money. 

The whole ordeal’s captured on iPhones operated by Fazili and his wife. The overall tenor’s quite intimate, and the cameras continue to roll even during sudden upheavals and Kafka-esque political processes – and Fazili the filmmaker at times seems more focused on a shot than on a stumbling child. The scenes of the two girls just being kids without a care, when they occasionally have the time and safe space to relax, are wholly affecting, deepened by a preceding clip in which racial epithets rain down on those entering from elsewhere. It’s eye-popping too to realize as Fazili and family move west – toward Western civilization – just how uncivil and unaccepting some of these bastions of art and culture are. 

As a narrative device, the long haul is broken into time/location entries such as “Day 51: Ovcha Kupel Refugee Camp, Bulgaria.” “Diary of a Refugee” might have been a more apt title. No matter, “Midnight Traveler” registers a moving illumination of the inimical challenges faced by those forcibly dislocated from their homeland, adrift on foreign soil and at the mercy of others.

Aquarela

29 Aug

‘Aquarela’: Stunning environmental images from Kossakovsky might leave you gasping

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Had you asked me about four weeks ago, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” would have been the definitive must-see-on-the-big-screen movie. Why? Well, Robert Richardson’s lush era-illuminating cinematography, for one thing, and the amazing sets that re-create 1969 Los Angeles. But the answer changed last week after I drank in a screening of Victor Kossakovsky’s commanding contemplation about water, “Aquarela.” It was an outright obliteration with all the shock and awe that only Mother Nature can deliver when at her extreme-weather fiercest.

“Aquarela” doesn’t have a narrative arc in the conventional sense. It’s more a mounting experience that washes over you. Tagging it as a hybrid of a Godfrey Reggio film (“Koyaanisqatsi”) and an ICA visual art installation doesn’t quite do it justice, but it gets you close. There’s little human dialogue and never any location tags as it slips seamlessly from Siberia to Greenland, California and ultimately, the breathtaking Angel Falls in Venezuela – with a harrowing few moments inside the wrath of Hurricane Irma. Much of the soundtrack too comes from mama nature herself: the perilous pop and crack of vast spans of ice, towering waves crashing down and the harsh, whistling whip of the wind; to take the edginess of this beautifully frightening omnipotence higher, the punk-metal music by the aptly named group Apocalyptical (imagine a Gwar and Nine Inch Nails collaboration) digs into your temples at turns. It’s almost too much, but that’s part of the point. 

The film begins with its most placid, yet harrowing sequence as team of Siberians retrieve a car from beneath an ice-capped lake using just old-fashioned wood and rope tackle. It’s riveting, though a tedious task to observe as they work in near silence, often lying prone to peer through the thick crystal sheet and occasionally crashing through the surface with nonchalant regard. We learn those who drove the car escaped through the hatch – driving on the ice is how these guys get around. Later we see from afar another car cruising the ice, and it too drops from sight. The ensuing scene will not soon leave you.

The film mostly showcases its subject’s majestic indomitableness in aesthetically wondrous framings that are at once hypnotic and eye popping – an exception being a look at those pinned down by Irma and fighting to hold on amid devastating mudslides and massive flooding. There’s no question the film’s a dispatch underscoring climate change and the need for us to clean up our act. Hard to argue, and done so in subtly contemplative fashion the way Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s 2013 locally shot documentary, “Leviathan” and Werner Herzog’s 2007 cold dive “Encounters at the End of the Word” so elegantly did. 

The real power in “Aquarela” is Kossakovsky‘s patiently observant cinematography, which captures some moments that even seem implausible – yet there they are. Kossakovsky shot the film at 96 frames, something of a broadening trend. It’s a true spectacle and wonderment that should taken in its intended natural format.

Marianne and Leonard

11 Jul

‘Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love’: A muse recalled in verse long after the poet moved on

 

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Documentarian Nick Broomfield has tackled some beguiling and controversial subjects during his prolific career, be it Tinseltown escort-turned-entrepreneur Heidi Fleiss (“Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam”), serial killer Aileen Wuornos (“Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer”) or the enigmatic death of grunge icon Kurt Cobain (“Kurt & Courtney”). Broomfield has a shaggy-dog quality to his approach, tending to insert himself into the story no matter his proximity or relevance, and sometimes oddly so – not overbearing like Michael Moore, but it still can be a distraction. In “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” Broomfield can legitimately ring the bell as a participant; Marianne Ihlen, the front half of the film’s title, was at one point Broomfield’s lover, and allegedly his inspiration for becoming a filmmaker.

The other half of the title is none other than iconic folk signer Leonard Cohen, who had a longtime relationship with the Norwegian-born Ihlen. The two met in the early 1960s at an artists community on the Greek isle of Hydra, back when Cohen was a writer and had yet to meet Judy Collins (he penned “Suzanne”and she made it a hit in ’67) and go on to become a major force in shaping the popular music of the late ’60s and early ’70s. (Hydra was also where Broomfield met Ihlen).

The singer and his muse had a “free” or “open” relationship (thus that brief tryst with Broomfield, who became jealous of another lover on a higher-up rung) that would span decades – several of Cohen’s songs are tributes to her. The film doesn’t center wholly on the relationship, as the title might imply, but more on the after-Hydra days when Cohen decided he needed to do something else to earn a better income. That promising partnership with Collins enters and the focus shifts from Ihlen to Cohen’s musical successes and pitfalls, as well as his self-destructive yen for women and drugs. Cohen aficionados won’t be too much they don’t know (the Hydra chapter may be the exception), but the archival footage – including some newly discovered film shot by famed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker – will hit all the right nostalgia notes and likely educe a new degree of appreciation. Broomfield too tries to layer in his appreciation for Ihlen, even capturing her last, infirm moments, which, because of the remote presence of Cohen, come off more as liberating fist pump than sad, agonizing whimper.

If there’s one thing Broomfield’s deferential redial of a man, a woman and a career does, it’s to show that creative genius does not brew exclusively in one soul, and that nurturing and encouragement from others is needed. There’s also the epiphany that the man, mostly regarded as a cool, croaky crooner with an avuncular exterior, roamed in some dark places chasing artistic self-indulgence.

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation

15 Jun

‘Woodstock’ doc comes to Kendall big screen with too small a vision for moment it honors

 

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“Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” (2019) should never be confused with the indelible 1970 rock-doc “Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music” that captured the iconic concert in all its ragtag glory and raucous verve. Sure, filmmakers Barak Goodman (“Oklahoma City”) and co-director Jamila Ephron (“Far from the Tree”) are playing on the title, and the film’s about the same event, but surely they can’t be trying to outdo Michael Wadleigh and his talented crew – including a very young Martin Scorsese as an editor?

The project put together for PBS for the music festival’s 50th anniversary is a nice, light reminder of what was – a love-in postcard, if you will – and does an adequate job of capturing the political turmoil and spirit of the moment.But if you’re coming to “Three Days that Defined a Generation” for the music, you’ll likely be disappointed. Wadleigh’s doc (and I need to stop mentioning it, but it’s impossible not to) captured Jimi, The Who, Janice, Santana, the Airplane and Joe Cocker in all their sweaty, electric grandeur; “Three Days That Defined a Generation” gives you 30-second metes that look like shortened outtakes of the same footage. If that doesn’t drive you to Wadleigh’s baby, you’re not interested in these legendary acts, performances or the historical significance of the ambitious concert and should stop reading this right now and go get a ticket for “Godzilla.”

One angle that “Three Days That Defined a Generation” takes that gives some fresh perspective is dialing back to three years earlier as Woodstock co-founders John Roberts and Joel Makower borrow money from the Polident fortune to get the venture off the ground. Then there’s the quest for space. Folks from Woodstock and other neighboring townships wanted little to do with a horde of rebellious youth and hippies, but diehard GOP dairy farmer Max Yasgur stepped in and served up his vast fields, and it was on. No one knew how big it would be (a half-million people) or the logistical miscues for hosting that many people in a podunk north of New York City that included getting sets, security and food up and running. The most affecting moment comes when Yasgur addresses the sea of youth from the stage.

Most of it is in that other doc too. Goodman and Ephron do get testimony from attendees, staffers and a few of the performers, including Richie Havens, Joan Baez and Cocker. Most of it’s fine but lacking the fiery energy of the moment. The affect is mostly flat; it’s a real non-starter when someone says The Who or Jimi was “good” – that’s like what, a C or a B-minus? And you don’t have more than a few chords to see that were nothing short of explosive.

Still, “Three Days That Defined a Generation” takes us there. It’s a rock-doc by definition, but more a pat historical rewind. It’s not possible to top Wadleigh’s masterpiece, one of the five greatest rock docs of all time (with “Stop Making Sense,” the Scorsese-directed “Last Waltz,” “Gimme” and “Dig!”). You feel imbedded. It’s more than three hours long, and you never want it to end. They were stardust, it was golden … and “Three Days That Defined a Generation” does little more than remind us about Yasgur‘s garden once upon a time.

A Kendall Square screening Friday includes Susan Bellows, a senior producer for PBS’ “American Experience” and two people who were at Woodstock: Bill Hanley, a festival audio engineer, and Jon Jaboolian, a “Woodstock veteran.”

Ask Dr. Ruth

3 May

‘Ask Dr. Ruth’: Sex therapist of decades past has always had a lot going on – and still does

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Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Dr. Ruth Westheimer was everywhere, including on her own radio show and frequent appearances with the likes of Howard Stern and Johnny Carson. The diminutive sex therapist (she’s 4-foot-7) was Dr. Phil and more, as Ryan White’s adoring but deep-delving documentary reveals.

“She was America’s sex therapist during the AIDS crisis,” one talking head inserts before a cut to footage of Westheimer taking a hot potato insinuation about that disease from an audience member; the eternally grandmotherly woman calmly urges no blame or accusation, but a coming together of minds to avert a wider public health crisis and find a cure.

Recollections from that time may have her rendered as something of a caricature, but White’s dial-back reveals a keen, caring soul, and ever quick-witted (even at 90, as this documentary was shooting). He goes all the way back to when Westheimer, a German Jew, was put on a train to Switzerland as part of the Kindertransport program at the outbreak of World War II. Her parents perished in the Holocaust, and there’s a deeply heartfelt moment in the film as she looks them up at the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. It gives her pause, but the the stoic Westheimer stiffens a bit and remarks to the camera,“I will cry later when no one else is around. German Jews don’t cry in public.”

There’s some fun it the telling too, which includes a pleasant blend of animation and old black-and-white images in importing tales such as Westheimer’s first sexual experience – in a hayloft in Israel after the war (where she was to meet her parents) with the brother of a young man she was dating. And it’s revealed that Westheimer was a killer shot: She served as a sniper in the Israel Defense Forces. Yup, little Dr. Ruth could pick apart a titan with her finger as well as she could with her words.

Married three times and something of an enigma to her children and grandchildren, Westheimer remains in perpetual motion, always acting and moving as if her life and the world depended on it. In one scene she shows White’s camera crew just how fast she can skedaddle. Along with getting a deeper look into Westheimer’s alluring persona and career, not to mention the dark corners of her childhood, the thing you realize is the absolute infectiousness of her charm and her care and compassion for fellow human beings. Ryan captures her winning personality with caring deference, and we all win.

Hail Satan?

1 May

‘Hail Satan?’: Political pranksters they may be, but devil worshipers say they’re on a mission

 

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Billerica native Penny Lane, whose documentarian endeavors have included Super 8 found footage of Richard Nixon (“Our Nixon”) and an eccentric doctor who treated impotency in the early 1900s with goat testicle implants (“Nuts!”), tackles devil worshipers in her latest foray into the strange and off-center, “Hail Satan?”

The subject for Lane’s lens this time also happens to have nearby roots – The Satanic Temple is based out of Salem. You might assume satanists flocked there because of witches, but it’s more that co-founder Lucien Greaves was a Harvard man. (Harvard Square is front and center in footage, as it’s the site of the first TST dark mass. Initially slated to take place on or near university property, the ceremony, after protracted protests, was moved at the eleventh hour to the infamous scorpion bowl den of the Hong Kong Restaurant.)

Penny Lane, maker of the documentary “Hail Satan?” screening at Landmark Kendall Square Cinemas. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The film opens with footage of the Temple supporting then-Florida governor Rick Scott’s bill to allow prayer in school because, while aimed at Christianity, the bill would allow in theory for any creed to be expressed – even those of the dark church. That’s the kind of cunning twist the Temple routinely bends back on society; but if you don’t find that right-to-worship stunt devilish enough, how about the demand to erect a statue of Baphomet (the half-man/half-goat icon of Satan) in Oklahoma and Arkansas next to sculptures of the Ten Commandments? That legal wrangle becomes the central thread of the film as Lane weaves in the Temple’s origins and bigger contemplations of religious freedom and freedom of speech. At times you can’t help but wonder if the Temple isn’t wholly something of a satirical prank, conceived and played on society for kicks.

As talking heads, TST leaders Greaves (a handsome lad with a scarred eye that adds to his mystique) and Jex Blackmore possess enchanting charisma as they articulate missions and political battles with lawyerly control and precision, making common sense remarks such as “the freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend” and “one should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.” If you’re hoping for black robes, satanic rock blasting from speakers and midnight rituals of the occult (not that they don’t happen, we’re just not really invited), you might be disappointed – though a vociferous political rant by Blackmore, something of a piece of performance art, offers a bit of verve and bite.

Lane at times feels a bit too embedded, which, given the allure of the personalities of display, is understandable. Asked about the subject and her approach, she said, “I set out to make a film that poked at religion and, in the end, I made a film about religious people.”

Like many of us probably would, Lane admittedly came to the project with misconceptions about satanists and devil worshipers. The film, as it rolls along, humanizes its members. By the end you realize that, outside a public campaign, they are intelligent, regular folk with different religious beliefs and political views, not unlike you and me.