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Tuesday 28 October 2014

UK Jewish Film Festival 2014 - 3 film reviews originally written for Jewish Renaissance Magazine

Bethlehem,  Israel 2013, Film written by Yuval Adler and Ali Waked, directed by Yuval Adler, 8* out of 10 

Set during the Second Intifada, Yuval Adler’s Bethlehem, co-written with Israeli- Arab journalist Ali Waked, centres on the relationship between Sanfur (Shadi Ma’ari), a Palestinian youth, and Razi (Tzachi Halevy), an Israeli secret service agent who recruited Sanfur as an informant at the age of 15. However, Sanfur’s brother is a prominent member of the armed group the Al Aqsa brigade, and he organises a suicide attack in Jerusalem, making him a target for the Israelis. The ensuing divided loyalties and contradictory motivations on all sides, test beyond breaking point the complicated relationship between Razi and Sanfur.

No one emerges with much credit from the reality of intelligence work, or the dealings by both Israelis and Palestinians with corrupt officials of the Palestinian Authority. The relationship between Razi and Sanfur may be ambiguous, but the motives for the use of Sanfur by the Israelis are completely unambiguous: he is a replaceable pawn in the dirty war between militant Palestinian organisations and the Israeli army. But Sanfur’s brother and father do not treat him much better than Razi and his bosses. Ultimately he is the tragic anti-hero of Bethlehem, finally left vulnerable and helpless. Only the leader of the local Al Aqsa cell, the ruthless, charismatic Badawi (in a great performance by Hitham Omari) emerges with the credit of not playing a double game.

Bethlehem shows a side of the Israeli- Palestine conflict that both sides would rather forget, and the impact on those who fight the dirty war on behalf of the politicians, ideologues and civilians. It is a hard-hitting, well-acted, feel-bad movie par excellence. 

Agi Erdos & Alex Radzyner

The Internet's Own Boy, USA 2014, Documentary written and directed by Brian Knappenberger, 8* out of 10

This film tells the story of internet wunderkind Aaron Swartz, who, in a life tragically cut short by suicide at the age of 26, managed to significantly contribute to the important RSS-standard on the internet, help the internet start-up Reddit to great success and mastermind a successful campaign to prevent a bad law (the so-called SOPA, which would have given undue power to copyright holders) being passed by the US Congress.

Relying on family videos, archive material and interviews with people personally and professionally close to Aaron, Knappenberger, who also wrote the script, makes a convincing case for the hypothesis that Swartz’ suicide was caused by the disproportionate zeal with which the law enforcement agencies hounded him.

Like his great idol Tim Berners Lee, Swartz was not driven by wanting to make money (although he briefly was a millionaire at the age of 18), but by a vision of what good the internet could do for social justice and human progress.

If only he had not been badly let down by his country’s institutions. If only he had been supported more vigorously by the leading lights of the internet community; or been able o share his anxiety about the threat of a long jail sentence with family and friends. There are many if onlys.

The film tackles a subject full of technical and legal complications with great clarity, raising important philosophical, social and psychological questions in an engaging style. It is a compelling story that speaks to our intellect and our heart.

Shadow in Baghdad, Israel 2013, Documentary written and directed by Duki and Galia Dror, 7.5* out of 10 (but don't miss it)

By the rivers of Zion, there we sat and wept when we remembered Baghdad... 

Linda Abdul Aziz Menuhin is a journalist in Israel who misses the Baghdad of her youth, from which she fled, in 1971, aged 21. Mohammed is a journalist in Iraq who misses the same Baghdad – but born in 1972, he only knows about it from listening to tales of the city as a young boy on his grandmother’s knee.

Shortly after she fled from Iraq, Linda’s father, a prominent member of the Jewish community, was abducted by Saddam’s Ba’ath Party. Linda is desperate to know what happened to him. As she cannot visit Iraq and Mohammed cannot visit Israel, the two bridge the distance in geography and age when they collaborate on a story via the internet. 

The story is about Baghdad’s Jews, who disappeared from Iraq after living side by side with other communities for over 2000 years. Shadow in Baghdad is handicapped because the key interactions between Linda and Mohammed happen via the internet, which are difficult to portray visually. A further barrier is the need to pixellate Mohammed’s face: communicating with an Israeli or showing interest in Iraq’s former Jewish community could put Mohammed and his family in mortal danger.

But any technical shortcomings are made up for by the quality of the story the film tells. In just over an hour Shadow in Baghdad manages to touch on a number of deeply moving themes, such as the relationship between a father and daughter, and between sisters. The developing relationship between Linda and Mohammed is also compelling: despite initial mutual suspicion, the two protagonists, who have never met, gradually learn to respect and trust one another. 

When the film ends we are left wanting to know more about their lives – and about the Jewish community before and after it had to leave its home between the Tigris and Euphrates.

Thursday 16 October 2014

Despatches from the Kabul Café, Book by Heidi Kingstone, Advance Editions (2014), 8* out of 10

With her empathy for the position of women in Afghanistan, a healthy dose of irony for expats living the (good?) life in Afghanistan and an eye for beauty and fashion in the most unlikely places, Ms Kingstone's very readable vignettes are a thoroughly worthwhile addition to the plethora of writing sparked by the West’s intervention in Afghanistan.

When western democracies go to war in far away places in the 21st century, public opinion demands that they win hearts and minds. Moreover, they must  set-up institutions for democracy to take root after the killing of enemies and the collateral damage to friends and undecided or innocent bystanders is done.

So besides the military and their private sector entourage - security firms, contractors of all kinds - western governments will want to make sure that they bring with them a whole group of idealistic civilians. They do this by generously funding so-called non-governmental organisations, which can recruit the right kind of individuals for various projects and organise their stay in their war-torn destination.

In “Dispatches from the Kabul Café” one of these, journalist and foreign correspondent Heidi Kingstone, provides a collection of vignettes in which she turns a critical yet sympathetic eye on the people who have come to make Afghanistan and the world a better place, of which Ms. Kingstone herself was one. The period to which most of her stories and their cast of characters refer is 2007/2008 when Ms Kingstone was based in Kabul was one more hopeful (for some) than the present. But, with the benefit of hindsight, she includes events that happened after her departure. 

Ms Kingstone’s book is readable, ironic and sometimes sardonic without becoming downright cynical, and occasionally moving. The lives of people who seek adventure, career advancement, romance or (just) the opportunity to do good are often veteran NGOers moving from one of the world’s crises to another: Iraq, Darfur, East Timor, Afghanistan…. 

Next to a belief in meaningful work, there is a risk premium that not only heightens income but also adrenaline, testosterone and oxytocin. So amorous adventures, lust and sometimes even love can thrive among the expats ducking Taliban-rockets and attempting to avoid Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). But if the reader were tempted to give up Tinder and look for romance in the Afghan expat community rather the author has a warning in the form of a Local saying: The odds are good but the goods are odd; and so Ms. Kingstone finds herself holding a machine gun on a Nevada shooting range. 

Ms Kingstone is at her best when her stories are about the women in the Kabul, either  among the expat NGOers or  among the Afghan women they meet outside their work. Her eye for beauty and fashion in the most unlikely places and the gentle irony in her writing make there despatches not only readable but a worthwhile addition to the plethora of writing sparked by the West’s latest intervention in Afghanistan.

Heidi Kingstone