Yesterday, Mr. B and I went to see Les Misérables with friends. I’ve seen the musical on Broadway and I’ve fallen asleep to Stars on a lot of nights in high school (I’m one of those people), so I was expecting a lot. Meanwhile, Mr. B, who hates musicals, braced himself morally and physically. Les Misérables, even as a movie, is three hours.
This is not an easy movie to see. In fact, I didn’t want to see it at all and fought with myself because I knew just from the description it would be an impossibly cruel movie about the bodies Stalin left behind.
Nevertheless, you should see it, because to see this movie is to understand what it means to be human. It helped me understand much better what my grandpa, who was in exile in Uzbekistan during World War II to flee the Nazis and lost his father in the war, went through. It also reaffirms your belief in human nature.
The movie is about Sashenka (Russian nickname for Alexander,) Pozner (Dalen Shintemirov) who is about 8 or 9 and on a train to Kazakhstan to live in exile with his grandfather while his parents serve hard labor time in Siberia for crimes against the state. What this almost certainly means is that they were arrested because they were Jews. His grandfather dies on the train, and Sashenka escapes from the train to survive in the vast steppes with the help of a Kazakh man, Kasym (Nurzhuman Ikhtimbayov) and other Russian exiles including Katya (Ekaterina Rednikova), a Russian woman whose husband in Siberia and Ezhik, a Pole (Waldemar Szczepaniak).
As the grown-up Sasha, narrating from Jerusalem, notes the steppe is a freedom that is constrictive and oppressive in its expanse. He leads an extremely hard life as he struggles to adapt to his new life in the sleepy backwater Kazakh town, with Kasym taking on the role as his caretaker in a very touching and extremely skilled performance. The movie was perfect in almost every respect.
Most importantly, it captures the era of that time, the early 1950s under Stalin’s rule, down to a T. (For a further look at the era, you can read the book Sashenka, which I reviewed.) One of the moments that struck me the most was the sound of the Internationale as the background noise to Kasym’s salat. Everything in the movie resonated with what I’d absorbed from my family about how the Soviet Union was, and as I watched, I got extremely strong pangs of both recognition and pain, because most of what the Soviet Union was, was pain and unfairness. Everything was so very Soviet, down to the dresses Katya wore and the way the sycophantic and cruel Bulgabai tried to adapt to the regime. Additionally, I can’t speak to this part of it since I’ve never been to Kazakhstan, but I think it describes perfectly the nomadic loneliness and Soviet backwater that Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian republics were in the 1930s-1960s.
I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but I do want to say that I was blown away by the enormity and weightiness of this movie (the first for the studio that produced it!) , and want to thank the DC Jewish Film festival for including it. Here’s a small clip from when Sashenka first comes to the village:
I cried at the end of the movie, something I haven’t done since I saw Under the Tuscan Sun (to be honest, I was single and very emotional at the time. Those damn sunflowers were so colorful). What was most amazing to me was that, after the movie, the festival staff worked hard to get the actors and producer to come from Kazakhstan to speak.
L to R, Aliya Uvalzhanova, producer, Ekaterina Rednikova (Katya), Boris Cherdabayev, Producer; Nurzhuman Ikhtymbayev (Kasym); Yerkin Khanimolda (Aldongar Productions)
I especially was excited to see Nurzhuman Ikhtymbayev, who played Kasym so well. They spoke about many topics of the film to the audience, which I captured on video.
Aliya talks a bit about producing the movie:
Nurzhuman Ikhtimbayov and his acting career:
A bit about Yekaterina Rednikova:
How they cast Sashenka:
A big thank you to the Washington Jewish Community Center for giving me press tickets to see the movies. The film festival has been an extremely exciting, well-planned endeavor, and has exposed me to a world of ideas and new locales in the DC area, as well as imbuing in me a sense of Jewish community, probably for the first time since the Jewish tweetup. For my other reviews of movies in the festival, check here and here. And please, please, please see this movie.
I don’t think there’s anything more awesome about DC than being able to go to Le French Embassy for a Jewish Film Festival (you can read about the last movie I saw here, and please note that I was compensated with free tickets for the festival, but as always, I don’t endorse anything that’s lame). I did just that last week. Can you tell I was excited by my tweets?
I wish everyone could see both movies. Fortunately, I’ve found 10 Weizman Street on YouTube.
It takes place in 1991, somwhere in Tel Aviv, amongst abandoned back streets. It is the Gulf War and three Soviet immigrants-a father, mother, and daughter and straight from Ben Gurion, lugging their suitcases in hand and Soviet, stiff, mothball-filled clothes looking extremely out of place in the shimmering dry dust of the Holy Land of Florentin. The daughter is weaing a Soviet school uniform. They struggle with all the things that immigrants struggle with when they put on the new uniform of their adoptive homeland. All of a sudden, an air raid siren sounds, signaling that they have 45 seconds to get to a miklat (bomb shelter)-it’s Saddam Hussein and the SCUD missiles, and alien people wearing gas masks run through the street.
The film is only 13 minutes long, but in a way, it sums up the whole of the post-Soviet immigrant experience in Israel-the fear, the frustration, the completely new laws of the West. And, although the episode is surreal, it happened hundreds and thousands of times, in slight variations, for thousands of immigrants in the same way. All in all, a completely subtle, quiet, and extremely powerful film. Here it is:
Everything in the short resonated completely with me, especially as a single girl child of Soviet immigrants who went through much the same process over a longer period of time.
And then, there is Comme on Pere. The scene below showcases one of the things I loved most about it-the period outfits.
The next movie, Father’s Footsteps, or Comme ton pere in French, was also a jewel. The showing was prefaced with an introduction by the director, Marco Carmel, who sought to recreate the story of his childhood in France with a father who he originally thought was larger than life. In the movie, Marco as Michel, is the youngest of two sons of Algerian immigrants to Israel who have decided to go to France to experience the world in the early 1970s. He sees his father, played by even hotter than Clive Owen talented thespian and Moroccan-born Jew Gad Elmaleh, as a superhero. Instead, Elmaleh, while well-meaning and extremely concerned about -
-where was I? Oh, yes. Elmaleh’s character, Felix, falls in with the wrong crowd while selling antiques at a market in Paris and-
-em. Elmaleh’s character falls in with a bad crowd and eventually resorts to crime with his partner, an older Jewish gangster from the same town in Algeria as he is, Gabes, leaving his family broken and his youngest son, Michel, devastated and without a solid base.
This movie is about so many things, and all of the actors in it are skilled on so many levels. Not only does Elmaleh carry the movie as a family man and a gever gever, but his wife, played by Yael Abecassis (who also did an excellent job in Lech, Lechi in 2006), also has excellent on-screen presence that is subtle but just right as she struggles to raise two teenage boys and rise above the circumstances. The relationship between Elmaleh and Abecassis is most touching because, although it is flawed in many ways by Felix’s schemes, it is a relationship between husbands and wives that you don’t see too much anymore-one built on clearly-defined roles but also admiration, and, most evident, class. In the background are the beginnings of the Arab-Israeli conflict as it is currently playing out in France and the Yom Kippur War, all shot in a backdrop of brilliant 70s clothes and hairdos and a combination of Sephardi North African culture that is so foreign to me as an Ashkenazi and that I found fascinating.
The movie is essentially wrapped up as a jewel with an amazing, and ultimately warming plotline, yet one that doesn’t feel saccharine at all, and also at the same time gives us a peek at how people lived in Paris in the 1970s. With this movie, you can really tell that the director was trying to write down his story for absolution so he could move on to other projects. I loved it. Both of them are 100% worth your time.
Amreeka (America in Arabic) is the story of how a Christian Palestinian single mom, Muna, and her son, Fadi, get a visa to go to America from the West Bank town of Bethlehem because it is clear that there is not much future in the territories for them. They arrive in snowy Illinois to stay with Muna’s sister and her family. So starts Muna’s process of getting on her feet as an immigrant by working at White Castle (having obtained two degrees and 10 years experience working in a bank), and Fadi’s process of fitting in at his new high school.
I’ll let the trailer speak for itself:
Everything about this movie was achingly familiar and close-to-home for me, both in the scenes they shot in the West Bank and the ones in America.
I’ve been struggling lately with reconciling my Zionism with the realization that Israel is not only a place of ideals, but a country, just like any other, where ordinary people get up, go to work, drink Aroma coffee, and are screwed over by the beauracrcy of what is ostensibly a state created to protect us. The fact that Israel, even as a Jewish state, is not perfect, has caused me to struggle between loving it and criticizing some of its actions.
In spite of this inner conflict, the minute Israel and the territories were shown in the movie, I became “homesick”. The director, Cherien Darbis, portrays Israel and the territories with much familiarity. All the nuances: the pale Jerusalem stone, the small, hot, cramped makoliot with flies on the tomatoes, the constant sunshine, and the crowded markets. However, Darbis takes all of these things that I am intimately familiar with, and spins them on their head. She doesn’t show Israel proper. She shows Bethlehem, the separation wall, and the checkpoints. She shows Palestinians living their everyday lives, and she shows it from their perspective. True, there is a political tilt, but, for the most part, she just aims to show how Muna and her family live, particularly as non-Muslim Palestinians that have to put up with the same obstacles as Muslims (who are, ostensibly, responsible for 100% of terrorist acts commited in Israel) do.
All of a sudden, everything changes as Fadi pushes Muna to accept the visa. They fly to Chicago and brought home to live with Raghda, her husband, and their three children in American suburbia. And this is achingly familiar, too. The comfortable suburban houses, the American road signs, the snow, and small-town life. Raghda’s children, mostly born in America, are predictably enormously Americanized and look at Muna and Fadi with wild eyes. They reply in English to Muna’s Arabic and blast rap music. They sneak out of the house to smoke weed and, what’s most important, the eldest daughter argues passionately about the rights of Palestinians without really understanding what it means to be one.
I really loved this movie because of the way it portrayed immigrant life (with the same type of flavor as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but slightly more serious.) It once again reaffirmed my belief that all immigrants are the same. Our parents have the same fears that their children will assimilate, that they won’t carry on the traditional cultural mores that they’re used to, that they won’t speak their native language. At the same time, they know America is really the best place. Yet, they still have nostalgia. One scene really stuck with me. Raghda and Muna are in an Arab grocery store, and Raghda says something to the effect of, “Oh, how I want to go back to Palestine. The food tastes better there,” and Muna replies that everything has changed in the 15 years they’ve been away; the wall is in place now, and the people are much different. Raghda replies, “It doesn’t matter, it’s still home,” and Muna replies that there’s really nothing left there for them. This struck such a deep chord with me because the nostalgia, the urge to return, forgetting everything else, is one that is also very prevalent in the Russian community. It also clearly shows the difference between Americanized immigrants and those fresh off the boat, and the sharp difference in family values.
More than relate the immigrant story, Amreeka also humanizes Palestinians, bringing them down from suicide bombers or casualties in the far-away headlines, to real people. They live in Bethlehem, a town that’s in the news a lot, but which we don’t see a lot of in real life. They laugh, they dance, they are angry, just like normal people. They’re not all oppressed wretches, and they’re not all Al-Aqsa suicide bombers, just as not all Arabs are Iraqi and deserve to be shunned. Some Arabs, such as everyone portrayed in this movie, aren’t even Muslim. How do they fit into the web of stereotypes that we construct?
All in all, the honesty, warmth, and genuine hope in this movie make it a must-see for anyone, either to understand Palestine beyond the politics, or to understand immigrant culture in America. Jews and Zionists, this goes double for you. It challenged and broadened my understanding of Palestinians as a people, and I hope it will challenge yours, too.