Monday, July 7, 2008

You Can't Go Home Again

The old saying that "you can't go home again" usually refers to changes that have happened in an individual over time due to an ongoing process of maturation. It is rarely meant to focus on the physical changes surrounding one's home. However, two short films soon to be screened at the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, put a rather different twist on that old adage.

In Joe Balass's Canadian documentary short, Baghdad Twist, the filmmaker interviews his mother about what life was like for Jews living in Iraq in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Balass carefully illustrates his mother's comments about how Iraq's population of nearly 180,000 Jews was subjected to intense pressure following the creation of the state of Israel and how being Jewish affected the family's fortunes. Clips from home movies show Iraqi Jews celebrating at weddings and dancing the "Twist" at private parties, while archival news sources show "modernized" Iraqi women attending fashion shows as well as preparing for careers that were once only open to men. Historical footage shows the streets of Baghdad filled with vintage automobiles; a Baghdad few of us could even dream of.

Looking back, Valentine Balass describes how Jews started to experience more persecution and her husband continued to be arrested for "questioning" by local authorities. Ultimately, she began to fear for her children, her husband, and to plan their escape -- even though Jews were not allowed to travel outside of Baghdad's city circle. The documentary is extremely poignant and shows pictures of a Baghdad many Americans cannot now imagine -- a thriving metropolis at peace. It is filled with the wistful insights of a sadder, but wiser woman whose life was changed by circumstances far beyond her control.

By contrast, Barak Heymann's Dancing Alfonso introduces audiences to the kosher equivalent of Zorba the Greek -- a man imbued with a zest for life. Prior to the death of his wife, Alfonso had been one of the participants in a group of senior flamenco dancers in Tel Aviv. Although fiercely loyal to his wife (who had been getting more critical and religious in her old age), after she dies Alfonso finds himself in a rut: depressed, unable to cope and losing weight. What eventually sustains him is his participation in the flamenco dance troupe and the exercise it provides -- not to mention the attention of various female dance partners and colleagues in the troupe.

There's an old saying in many senior communities that when a wife dies, the husband can't wait to remarry. But when a husband dies, many wives are quite content to live alone. The bottom line? "I picked up after my husband for X number of years and I'm in no mood to start cooking and cleaning for another man, much less pick up his dirty socks and underwear."

That kind of reluctance to get into a new relationship is not about to put a stop to the newly single Alfonso's amorous advances. He sees himself as a charming, older Dan Juan who must seem irresistible to the ladies. Alas, it's not just the ladies who find him eminently resistible. As one potential amour informs Alfonso, "The children and I have decided to end this relationship. It's over." That won't stop the aging flirt from bicycling around Tel Aviv, dancing flamenco, and continuing to lead a vital life as long as he can breathe.

What lends great strength to this film's charm are the shots of elderly men and women trying to express their souls through flamenco. The film captures the magic of dance when performed by people one does not normally associate with the searing passion of this exotic dance form.

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