Sunday, August 3, 2008

All My Sons

One of the first rules for aspiring documentarians is to take a cold hard look at their budget. After thinking as creatively as possible about how and where to get stuff for free, they usually end up heading in the direction of their families in search of funding, friendship and fodder for their film projects. This is exactly what happened to Nathanel Goldman Amirav who, along with Uri Appenzeller, co-directed My Father's Palestinian Slave, a fascinating documentary that was screened at this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Upon arriving in Israel to attend film school at Hebrew University, 19-year-old Nathanel (who is of Israeli and Swedish descent) discovered one hell of a story in his father's back yard. His father (long-time Israeli peace activist Moshe Amirav), had developed an unusual friendship with a young Palestinian laborer who had been part of a group of workers doing repairs on Moshe's home. Noticing that Morad was the most diligent and intelligent of the workers, Moshe decided to see what he could do to help the young Arab.

Help, of course, comes in many forms. Since very few Israelis seem to be interested in doing the kind of landscaping work that involves lifting and moving heavy stones (which the athletic Morad excels at), Moshe is happy to pay the young man a decent wage which goes much further than anything Morad could make in his own village. Taking pride in the fact that, unlike other employers, his generosity extends to feeding Morad and letting Morad shower in his home, Moshe feels as if he is helping to make a substantial difference in his young friend's life.

As it turns out, Morad is disgusted with the restrictions of living in an Arab society. At 25, he has never had sex, has no freedom to travel, and cannot escape the financial, educational, and physical restrictions imposed on him by his culture. In order to get to Moshe's house, he must walk for three hours from his village before trying to sneak across the border between East and West Jerusalem. On nights when he is working for Moshe, Morad shares an underground hideout with other undocumented Palestinians who sleep in illegal, cramped quarters where mice run free and, if found, the Palestinians would be subject to arrest.

Given half a chance, Morad would gladly convert to Judaism so that he could live in Israel and enjoy its freedoms. Alas, the rabbi Moshe consults is not in such a rush. Nor are the Israeli authorities Moshe approaches in the hope of wangling a political favor which would cut through bureaucratic red tape. Although Morad wants to make a life for himself through honest work(and not be pegged as a potential terrorist), the cards are not stacked in his favor.

As Moshe explains to his son how privileged Nathanel is in terms of his freedom to travel, choose a career, and do anything he wishes, he contrasts Nathanel's life to the rigors and hardships faced by Morad. Stressing that he loves his son unequivocally, Moshe notes that considering all of the advantages Nathanel enjoys, Morad -- whose needs are much greater -- probably benefits much more from his help.

With the keen, questioning eye of an aspiring documentarian, Nathanel (who also becomes a friend of Morad's) quickly notices that his father holds all of the power chips in his relationship with the young Palestinian. Why not let Morad sleep in the studio whenever he works in the garden, he asks. When Moshe replies that doing so could arouse suspicion among the neighbors and get him in trouble -- possibly even arrested -- Nathanel calls him on the carpet for his hypocrisy. Asking his father how he thinks he is helping Morad by forcing him to sleep under conditions which are so dangerous to his health, Nathanel takes one big step toward correcting his father's shortsightedness and helping Morad in the process.

By the end of the film Morad has purchased a new home in his village, Nathanel is headed back to Sweden, and no one seems to have found a way to help Morad break down the walls erected by warring ideologies that refuse to yield to the concept of peace between Israel and Palestine. Nevertheless, the three men have built friendships which foster a greater appreciation for what they have as well as an understanding of how they can try to help each other.

One of the documentaries I watched this week was part of Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days series on FX. Spurlock, whose Supersize Me won him instant fame, has found a bankable format for bringing hour-long documentaries to television audiences. He finds people with strongly opposing belief systems and has one side live with the other for 30 days to see what they can learn from each other.

In 30 Days: Same Sex Parenting, Spurlock takes a Mormon mother from Orange County who is extremely outspoken in her views against gay marriage and/or adoption and plants her in the home of two gay men in Ypsilanti, Michigan. To describe this woman as a belligerent cow with a religious agenda would be a severe understatement. This is someone who has done a stellar job of ingesting and regurgitating her church's blatant homophobia.

Soon after her arrival in Michigan, Kati (who is a substitute teacher back home in Fullerton, California), begins to issue scathing judgments about everything she sees that contradicts Mormon dogma. When asked to participate in social events like going to church, attending a barbecue, or meeting with gay people who are trying to help change Michigan's adoption laws, she wastes no time in insulting her hosts and condemning their lifestyles.

However, when the gay people Kati meets politely push back and confront her on her bad behavior, she quickly starts playing victim, becomes all teary-eyed and gets very angry, stressing that "I'm just expressing my views based on my religion. Why can't I do that? How can you people be so mean to me?" Although her over-the-top behavior is genuinely appalling, the camera also catches Kati in candid moments as she sulks and pouts about not getting her way. It's a sight to behold -- and not a very pretty one.

This is one of the first times I've actually seen this kind of passive-aggressive religious behavior captured in real life onscreen (as opposed to having been written into a drama). It's an ugly spectacle and I'll admit to having had nightmares from watching this documentary. The irony is not only that Kati herself was adopted as a child, but that this woman has no idea -- nor is she really interested in learning about -- how privileged and prejudiced she is.

Even though Kati is horrified to learn about the living conditions of children who have been forced to grow up in group homes -- and breaks into tears when driven through a broken-down Detroit neighborhood where several group homes are located -- she refuses to budge in order to let unwanted children escape the foster care system in order to have a better life if doing so means letting them be adopted by a same sex couple.

By contrast, her hosts Dennis and Thomas Patrick (who are both professional educators), prove to be caring and conscientious parents. To her consternation and utter disgust, they remind one of their sons as he leaves for his first day of school that his teachers and friends know that he has two daddies, but that some of the children he will meet at school do not know this. They caution the young boy that he doesn't have to explain his home situation to anyone if he feels uncomfortable doing so.

Gay men and women who have successfully navigated the hurdles of becoming "intentional parents" will knowingly wince at some of the more painful moments in this documentary. But I'm pretty sure they will take pride in the moment when one of the gay men in the community reminds Kati that many straight people have proven to be terrible parents.

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