Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Best Friends Forever?

As we grow older, childhood friendships hold a special place in our heart. Whether they involve a period of shared innocence (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) or intrigue and team camaraderie (The Hardy Boys, A League of Their Own), that special kind of youthful bonding -- when one's life is relatively free of responsibility -- is harder to replicate in adulthood.

Screenwriters often struggle to create a believable narrative in which an adolescent friendship may be found, tested and/or betrayed. Sometimes the protagonist is an ugly duckling, an awkward nerd, a fat girl who has been ostracized, or a child from a dysfunctional home. Sometimes the writing hits the mark (Stand By Me, Better Luck Tomorrow, Ferris Bueller's Day Off). At other times it comes close, but ultimately misses (Heathers, Mean Girls, Welcome to the Dollhouse).

By a curious coincidence, three films recently shown at the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival focused on adolescent friendships that have been tested and sabotaged by outside forces. The irony is that the two fictional narratives were the films that ran into distinct storytelling problems while the documentary followed a story so incredible and well-tracked that it became difficult to believe that the tale being told was not a masterpiece of fiction.

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Australia's entry, Hey, Hey, It's Esther Blueburger, looks grand thanks to Anna Howard's cinematography. Unfortunately, it has a plot with holes so big you could drive an aircraft carrier through them.

Esther (Danielle Catanzariti) and her twin brother Jacob (Christian Byers) are 13 year olds studying for their respective bar/bat mitzvahs. Their mother (Essie Davis) and father (Russell Dykstra) are successful, upwardly mobile Jews who have reached that point in life where -- although their children are starved for their attention -- all the parents can hear is unnecessary noise. In many ways, Esther's clumsy neediness has simply become an unwelcome distraction in their otherwise well-ordered home life.

At Rowan Academy (the private school she attends in Adelaide), Esther is a social outcast who usually eats lunch alone instead of socializing with the other girls. Her closest friend is a pet duckling she has named "Normal." One day, while passing a local public school's gym, a trickle of blood forces her to use its girls' restroom. When one of the students, Sunni Kaire (Keisha Castle-Hughes) asks Esther why she always keeps watching Sunni whenever she passes by, Esther fumbles for a reply.

Several days later, Sunni is walking down the street as Esther tries to escape the doting relatives who are intent on pinching her cheeks at her bat mitzvah celebration. Inviting Sunni to join the festivities, she gets a hint that there is a less stifling form of life outside the confines of her home and her private school.

A friendship begins to develop between the two young girls during which Esther forges a note to the school from her mother (claiming that she can no longer attend classes at Rowan because she has gone to Sweden as an exchange student). Using one of Sunni's old school uniforms, Esther starts attending classes at Sunni's more liberal public school, where she instantly starts to bloom.

Keisha Castle-Hughes and Danielle Catanzariti

Sunni's mother, Mary (Toni Colette), has been studying for her real estate exam while working as a dancer in a strip club. Having been married at 15 after she became pregnant with Sunni, Mary is barely more mature than her own daughter. When Sunni and her friends enter the nightclub where Mary is performing, Esther gets a peek at what life is like in less privileged areas of her home town.

Meanwhile, Esther and her twin brother are becoming more adept at deceiving their parents and driving them crazy. But when Esther fails to show up for a shopping date with Mary -- and Mary is killed in a motorcycle accident -- Esther is badly shaken by the loss. I tip my hat to writer/director Cathy Randall for allowing Esther to tell Grace Blueberger that "Even a dead stripper would be a better mother than you."

Once Esther returns to Rowan (where her fellow students are now convinced she is an international spy), her sudden notoriety and popularity goes to her head. Esther, who has always wanted to fit in, becomes an obnoxious little brat. Sunni wants nothing to do with her. It is only after Sunni's grandmother enrolls the orphaned Sunni at Rowan Academy that she and Esther begin to salvage their friendship.

In the final scenes of the movie, Esther keeps grinning deliriously at the family dinner table while her parents wonder what could possibly be wrong with their daughter. To explain, she passes a note to her father explaining that she is no longer wearing her braces.

While Hey, Hey, It's Esther Blueberger has a definite quirky appeal for young girls who have not been accepted by the "cool people" at school, I found it hard to believe that:
  1. A strip club would allow a group of 13-year-olds onto its premises.
  2. A pampered young girl like Esther would take the ritual trip to her orthodontist to have her braces removed without an adult by her side.
  3. A shy girl like Esther would try to give a boy her own age a blow job in a back alley just to get the approval of her new girlfriends.
  4. A child could switch schools so easily without any adults taking notice.
There are numerous ways in which Hey, Hey, It's Esther Blueberger feels like a prequel to Ugly Betty with the Suarez family becoming upscale Jews. While it has its moments, it's not a particularly satisfying movie. Here's the trailer:

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Written and directed by Karin Albou, Wedding Song takes place in 1942 in Tunis as the Germans are trying to win over the Arab population. With local sentiment turning against the Jews, Albou's drama examines what happens when two girls, who have been best friends for their entire lives, are forced apart by the politics of hate.

Myriam (Lizzie Brochere) and Nour (Olympe Borval)

Myriam, who is Jewish, lives with her widowed mother, Tita (Karin Albou), whose skills as a seamstress are keeping the family afloat. Nour, whose family is Muslim, lives in a culture that does not want women to learn how to read or think independently.

Myriam (Lizzie Brochere) and Nour (Olympe Borval) have lived across a courtyard from each other all their lives. Both girls and their mothers frequently visit the local hammam (Turkish bath), where women are free from an otherwise male-dominated society.

Nour's father has already picked out one of her cousins, Khaled (Najib Oudghiri), as her future husband but has warned Nour that unless Khaled finds a job, she cannot marry him. Unfortunately, Khaled can't seem to find any kind of employment until the occupying Nazis seek help from Arab locals in rounding up the Jews.

Najib Oudghiri as Khaled

Before you can start singing songs from Cabaret or The Sound of Music, Khaled is helping the German soldiers raid the hammam, asserting his will over Nour, and terrorizing Myriam and her mother. What he doesn't know is that it is only through Myriam's intense sisterly devotion to Nour -- and her willingness to run interference on behalf of the young lovers -- that Khaled has been able to enjoy secret meetings with his betrothed on select nights of lust.

Meanwhile, Tita has been trying to marry her daughter off to Raoul (Simon Abkarian), a wealthy Jewish doctor with a beautiful villa outside of town. Myriam, who is only 16 years old, refuses to cooperate and does her very best to sabotage the marriage until her mother sternly explains that they are poor, there is a war on, and Raoul represents Myriam's best chance for survival.

When Tita asks Raoul how he would like his young bride to be presented to him on their wedding night, he chooses "Oriental" over "European." Thus, the audience is treated to scenes of Myriam having her genitalia waxed by an older woman in the hammam (which, if underage pussy is not your thing, might just send your popcorn flying through the air).

After Myriam learns that Raoul has been helping the Nazis separate the elite Jews from the poor as men are selected for service at work camps, she tells him that she would rather be married to a poor man than someone who was a coward and a Nazi collaborator. As tensions rise between Arabs and Jews and planes begin to drop bombs on Tunis, the two girls are temporarily forced to stop seeing each other.

By the end of the film, however, they are back in each other's arms, comforting one another with prayer in a bomb shelter. While there is some excellent acting and a great sense of realism, the print I saw was often so dark that it made it quite difficult to follow the story. Wedding Song, which examines antisemitism in a North African setting, certainly has its dramatic moments but is often confusing. Here's the trailer:

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How ironic that a documentary should trump these two feature films in the area of storytelling. But with a history as powerful as what happened to the Mayer brothers of Hoffenheim, one would be hard pressed to develop a more compelling narrative.

Written and directed by Ofra Tevet, Menachem and Fred tells the story of a Jewish family that was evicted from their home on Kristallnacht by their Nazi neighbor, the head of the Hopp family. It is a story filled with tragedy, confusion, loneliness and redemption, a drama whose twists and turns will leave your jaw hanging in disbelief, your hands clutching your heart with suspense, and your eyes filled with tears.

It's that kind of film.

Heinz (Menachem) and Manfred Mayer were 6 and 11 years old when their family was forced to board a train bound for the tiny town of Gurs in the south of France. Along with their parents, they ended up in the Camp Gurs Concentration Camp. Their parents, fearing the worst, agreed to relinquish the two boys and volunteered to have them placed in a local orphanage -- a desperate move that saved their lives (the boys' parents subsequently died at Auschwitz).

When World War II ended, Manfred relocated to America, where he eventually became a NASA space engineer working in the Los Angeles area. When his wife became ill, a black healthcare worker who helped care for her became a part of the family for the course of a 13-year terminal illness. After his wife died, Manfred (who, upon arriving in America as a young man without a country, had changed his name to Fred Raymes) married the healthcare worker.

Fred's children grew up in nonreligious households -- some of his grandchildren have been raised as Christians. Since coming to America he had done everything in his power to forget the horrors of World War II -- until he came across a package containing the last letters he had received from his mother (including a letter in which she begged him to look after his younger brother).

Menachem, however, had chosen to relocate from Switzerland to Israel, where he raised a family and became a deeply religious Jew. Upon receiving the package of letters from his brother, he tucked it away, out of sight. Despite his daughter's pleadings, he didn't want to look at its contents.

Eventually, he succumbed and, upon reading the letters, understood the sacrifices made by the Mayer family. As Menachem and Fred developed an email relationship, they eventually decided to use their mother's letters (as well as their own correspondence) as the basis for a book entitled Are The Trees In Bloom Over There?

That's when things got even stranger. The success of the book led to Ofra Tevet's request to make a documentary about their lives. As they began visiting places from their distant past, both men found themselves seized with regrets for having embarked on the project.

Meanwhile, Paul Hopp, who used to play with Menachem when they were six years old, learned of the book and managed to contact his old friend. By that time, Paul's younger brother, Dietmar Hopp (one of the founders of SAP AG), had become one of the wealthiest men in Germany.

The Hopp brothers, who sought permission to publish the German translation of Are The Trees In Bloom Over There?, didn't want their father's Nazi affiliation to be listed in the book. However, the Mayer brothers (now in their seventies), were insistent that, just as the Jews who died in the Holocaust had names, so did the people who acted as enablers.

The film follows the two brothers as they return to Hoffenheim and are shocked to hear Paul Hopp tell them stories about how much their mother meant to him. Unfortunately, the two Mayer brothers have no memories of their parents.

Tevet's film crew travels with Menachem and Fred as they return to Gurs to visit the orphanage that effectively saved their lives. There, they pose for an exact replica of a picture taken 60 years ago of two young boys, one with his arm on the other's shoulder.

Near the end of the film, as the Hopp brothers try to help heal the wounds of the past, Dietmar underwrites a reunion of all the remaining relatives of the Mayer family by bringing the American and Israeli contingents together in Hoffenheim. Menachem's children have decidedly mixed emotions about accepting Dietmar Hopp's largesse, but the reunion provides an emotional catharsis which helps to continue the healing.

Menachem and Fred is the kind of film that will grab you in the kishkes. Filled with guilt feelings, moments of doubt and repressed emotion, it unfolds with the diligence of a murder mystery, the confusion of so many lost years and opportunities, and the aching pain of a family loss spread over six decades. Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

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