Friday, August 8, 2008

Suffer The Children

From a child's point of view, life is decidedly unfair. Other children get to play with toys that remain out of your reach. Other children get rewarded when you don't. Other children intimidate and bully you.

The adults who are supposed to be there to protect you never seem to understand.

Whether real or imagined, the slightest insult can burrow into a child's psyche, finding a hidden fortress of previously stored hurts that can undermine his self esteem for years to come. Some wounds lie dormant and never surface. Others continue to nag at a child's insecurities, making him feel as if the entire world has been rigged against him and life will always be a struggle.

Some children hear -- and end up believing -- such terrible messages that it's no wonder they cross their arms and sob "Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I'm gonna go eat worms."

What do you do if you're a nerdy little British Jew with thick glasses who is constantly being bullied by your older brother and is never picked for any of the teams at school?

What do you do when you're an asthmatic social reject, your father is a depressed eccentric shlub with failure written all over his face, no one has time to listen to you, and the rabbi coaching you for your bar mitzvah is blind?

You wake up every day wondering if things could possibly get worse. And the answer is always the same.

Yes, they can.

How much worse? After constantly being told that the day of your bar mitzvah is the day when all eyes will be upon you -- when you will be the most special person in the world -- you discover that the date that was chosen for your bar mitzvah falls on the same day as the final soccer match of the World Cup (which England is hosting). No matter how strongly honed your skills may be at planning menus, mixing cocktails, and laying out seating arrangements, there's no way you can compete with one of the biggest sports events of the decade.

Paul Weiland's touching autobiographical feature, Sixty Six (which recently received its Northern California premiere as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) is a bit of a sleeper. Thanks to Dan Lundin's loving cinematography (which has rendered many sequences to look like home movies), this charming film offers a successful blend of personal narrative mixed with archival footage of the actual World Cup event held at Wimbley Stadium in July 1966.

Although the archival sports footage and the film's finale are happily triumphant, most of this movie focuses on the frustrations and exasperations of trying to control your life when you're 12 years old and have absolutely no power over the events shaping your day-to-day existence. Weiland captures all of this with a surprising tenderness and psychological acuity interspersed with moments of biting personal regret (particularly when Bernie's parents watch the film footage from his older brother's bar mitzvah and realize how consistently they have pushed aside their younger son).

While the film has many moments which tug at the heart, there are plenty of laughs as well. The rubbery-faced Eddie Marsan triumphs as Bernie's sad sack father while Helena Bonham Carter is surprisingly effective as his confused, beehived wife. As young Bernie Rubens, Gregg Sulkin perfectly embodies the dorky, confused Jewish adolescent so many of us could not wait to leave behind. Strong cameos come from Peter Serafinowicz as Bernie's outgoing uncle, Stephen Rea as Dr. Barrie, and Richard Katz as the blind Rabbi Linov. Well worth renting.

Perhaps the greatest fear of any parent is for their child to be snatched away from them. In another film which boasts exceptional art design and cinematography, Jochen Alexander Freydank's Toyland tells the tale of a young German boy who has been best friends with a Jewish boy in his apartment building. Sworn blood brothers, the two children love to practice piano together. Not understanding the code words his parents have used to describe what is happening to the Jewish families around them, Heinrich is eagerly looking forward to a trip to Toyland. When his friend's family is rounded up in 1942 to be sent to the camps, Heinrich eagerly follows them with his little suitcase in one hand and his teddy bear in the other.

Upon returning home to an empty house, his mother panics and goes in search of her little boy. After finally convincing the police that she is not Jewish, she manages to retrieve Heinrich from the cattle car where he has been standing silently with his Jewish friends and his beloved music teacher, wearing a jacket which has been embroidered with a yellow star marking him as a Jew.

This surprisingly powerful 13-minute film, which was included in the Jews in Shorts program, is a gem that grabs the audience by the throat and forces it to see, through a child's innocent eyes, how important friendship can be. The film ends with a beautiful shot looking down at a piano keyboard as two sets of wrinkled, liver-spotted hands make music together once more.

Freydank notes that "Shooting Toyland was one of the most rewarding experiences in my film life, with a team completely devoted to this project, working with actors who were excited to do this film because they really wanted this film to be made."

If you are ever fortunate enough to see this short, you'll know why.

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