Taking Woodstock film review

August 27, 2009

This review of Taking Woodstock appeared in the Australian Jewish News on August 27, 2009 in a shorter format.  The full review is below.

Directed by Ang Lee

Written by James Schamus, based on the book by Elliot Tiber

Starring Demetri Martin, Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Groff and Liev Schrieber

August 2009 marks the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock (see my August 10, 2009 post), the famed counter-cultural concert event in upstate New York.  As the baby boomer organisers and attendees are now in mostly in their sixties, there is a veritable flood of memoirs and accounts detailing this most unusual and defining moment in American cultural history.  One of these is Taking Woodstock:  A True Story of a Riot, A Concert, and A Life, by Elliot Tiber, a gay Jewish artist and writer who is widely acknowledged as having “saved” the concert and brought it to Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, after the nearby town of Wallkill refused to host the event.  Tiber is the son of two Russian immigrants who ran a cheap motel in Bethel, and who served as the president of his local chamber of commerce.

Tiber’s story has now been turned into a major film by Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Lust Caution) entitled Taking Woodstock, which is a messy, uneven but hugely enjoyable film.  Taking Woodstock operates sort of the same way Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Tom Stoppard’s play) relates to Hamlet:  it is the “back story” of the minor characters we only glimpse in the “main” play (the 1970 concert film Woodstock, due for DVD and Blu-ray re-release).  Richie Havens, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, The Greatful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Band and Crosby Stills Nash and Young (the list goes on) – none of them appear in this film, although their music is occasionally heard in the background.

Ang Lee does American historical periods well:  his Ice Storm effectively portrayed early 1970s suburbia.  For those who lived in the America in the 1960s (and I did), Taking Woodstock does nostalgia even better than the original concert film.  And Lee’s Woodstock is BIG:  he brought in what appears to be many thousands of extras, effectively recreating much of the event itself, which brought some 500,000 concert-goers to the Catskill Mountains location and reportedly created a 90 mile (145 kilometre) traffic jam, all the way back to New York City.

One of the problems with Lee’s film is that his main characters – Elliot (played by comedian Demetri Martin) and his Russian-born parents Jake (Henry Goodman) and Sonia (Imelda Staunton), whose surname is “Teichberg” in the film – are simply not that interesting, particularly compared to the scores of minor characters who drift in and out.  The four well-known organisers of the Woodstock festival all appear – Michael Lang, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, and Artie Kornfeld – in small supporting roles, but are given little to do.  Only Lang (played by Jonathan Groff, with an appropriately large “Jewfro”) spends any time on screen, mostly providing Zen-like comments to a befuddled Elliott.  Farmer Max Yasgur is played by well-known comic Jewish actor Eugene Levy, who also disappears quickly.

Demetri Martin’s Elliott appears to be strangely passive in the face of the momentous events swirling around him:  unlike his parents (shamefully over-acted by Goodman and Staunton:  these performances are as far from Lee’s Brokeback Mountain as you can get), he never rouses to any sense of interesting emotion, and his closeted gay identity is given little dramatic tension.  These three characters almost suffocate what could have been a profound commentary on American culture and innocence.  Taking Woodstock is also loaded with events and characters which contribute little to the film’s momentum:  Liev Schrieber plays a transvestite who helps out with security; there is an alternative drama group living in the Teichberg barn whose actors insists on taking their clothes off at every opportunity; and Elliott has an “acid” trip, the result of which is … nothing.  There is an important lesson here:  even though Elliott Tiber’s (Teichberg) memoir recounts lots of interesting events, we the viewer want to see them add up to something more than a few good stories.  Viewing the events through Elliott’s eyes gives us no additional insights.

Despite these serious flaws, Taking Woodstock is an interesting film, which had me smiling throughout.  It is partly the sense of “good fun” which Lee brings to the proceedings, but also his energy – including an interesting use of split screens to illustrate how many viewpoints going on in some scenes, his loving care to the details of the time and the sly humour in almost every scene (my favourite:  “It’s August, it’s not going to rain.”) 

The script also goes to great lengths to point out the completely Jewish background of Woodstock:  farmer Max Yasgur, the Teichbergs and three of the four concert organisers were Jewish, a fact noted by a number of angry non-Jewish locals of Bethel, who resort to antisemitic graffiti and one of whom shouts “We ought to run you Jews out of town”.  Woodstock – and the American counter-culture generally – were to their eyes a Jewish imposition on “clean” American society, a hint of the “culture wars” which bedevils American politics to this day.

Inglourious Basterds film review

August 26, 2009

Inglourious Basterds, the new film directed by Quentin Tarantino, has just opened in Australia.  It’s long (2 hours, 33 minutes), messy, bloody, loud and frequently hilarious.  This is Tarantino does World War II.

Basic setting:  a group of Jewish-American soldiers become Nazi hunters around occupied France, led by hillbilly Brad Pitt.  A weird set-up.  Lest you think this is a Jewish-American revenge film, none of the Jewish soldiers approach anything like three dimensional characters, all remaining cardboard cut-outs.

The real action surrounds an SS officer who is hunting Jews:  Colonel Hans Landa (played by Austrian actor Christopher Waltz, the best thing in this film), who speaks a fluent German, French, English and Italian – all to devastating effect.

The first scene – where Landa arrives at a French farmhouse looking for hidden Jews – is a classic of suspense and horror.  The only thing which keeps us removed from the horror is that we have not met – and therefore have no emotional attachment to – the Jews Landa is looking for.  Brilliantly written, acted and directed.

The film is full of extraordinary scenes like this, including Tarantino’s signature “Mexican stand-off”, which takes place in an underground French cafe.

Aside from Waltz, the great parts of this film:

– The language, well more than 50% not in English, mostly in German and French.  When the characters should be speaking German, they do.  When they should be speaking French, they do.  There is only one exception to this (in the first scene), which is both comical and horrifying – and surely that’s exactly what Tarantino meant it to be.

– The beautiful French actress, Melanie Laurent, who plays a Jewish survivor and comes back to play a major role in the final scene.  Also the wonderful references to pre-war (and Nazi period) German film, as only a film aficionado could do it.  Emil Jannings appears, as do others.

– The “film within a film”, a Nazi propaganda film, apparently based on a real event.  Daniel Bruhl plays the “hero”, and Bruhl is great.  We previously saw him in Goodbye Lenin and Ladies in Lavender.

Great scenes, but for me the whole film does not add up to being greater than the sum of its individual parts, and left me un-moved.  Entertaining to be sure.  Better than I expected, given the subject matter.  But way less than great.  I predict this will remain an oddity, even though it opened strongly in Australia (number one in the box office against a very weak field).

Trivia note:  Wikipedia reports that Cloris Leachman was also cast as a “Mrs. Himmelstein”, an elderly Jewish woman living in Boston.  “Although filmed, the scenes featuring Mrs. Himmelstein drinking tea with Donny Donowitz (and signing his trademark baseball bat afterwards) were cut from the final film.”

Postscript:  Click here to read Jeffrey Goldberg’s interesting article on Inglourious Basterds, entitled “Hollywood’s Jewish Avenger”, from The Atlantic, September 2009.

New Australian Centre for Public Interest Journalism launched

August 26, 2009

A new Australian centre has been launched:  The Foundation for Public Interest Journalism at Swinburne University in Melbourne has been launched, with its board of directors announced on August 17, 2009.  It will be modelled in part on the American community-funded journalism site spot.us.  This is a pretty exciting development – particularly given the dire state of many traditional quality media organisations (Fairfax and the New York Times, stay in there!).  I have volunteered my services expertise in the area of fundraising to the new organisation.  More reports to follow.  My recent research on new business models for Australian non-profit media organisations is highly relevant.

Chris Anderson’s Free, continued

August 22, 2009

Returning to the Chris Anderson book Free:  The Future of a Radical Price, which I originally wrote about on August 2 of this year.

As with his earlier book The Long Tail, Anderson has done a great job at capturing a certain “cultural moment” (yes, I will use that phrase) – in terms of how we relate to information, entertainment and our connected world.  His basic concept is give people lots of real value free items and there are a number of business models that will allow you to make money.  In the Prologue of his book (pages 1 & 2 of my edition), he points to the example of the Monty Python team:  claiming to be exasperated as to the amount of digital piracy of their programs, in November 2008 they posted lots of their high quality archival video material free on YouTube.  But they asked for:

…. something in return.  None of your drivelling, mindless comments.  Instead, we want you to click on the links, buy our movies & TV shows and soften our pain and disgust at being ripped off all these years.

 And according to Anderson, they were wildly successful, with their DVDs climbing “to number  2 on Amazon’s Movies and TV best-sellers list, with increased sales of 23,000 percent”.

 The point that Anderson is making is that providing free information and entertainment is the way the world now turns – having the “force of economic gravity”, and that organisations will need to adapt to make money off of the “free”.  Giving away lots of free samples will encourage purchase, provide training instead of selling software, sell merchandise and concert tickets and don’t worry about the free downloading of music, but instead charge for extras and add-ons and up-sells.  He makes the point that the difference between something which costs and something which is free is enormous, even if the cost is small.  An example:  Amazon’s offer of “free shipping” for orders greater than $25 (alas, not available in Australia, but that’s a whole other discussion) is wildly successful.

“Give a product away, and it can go viral”, Anderson writes. 

I know this to be true.  At the Rural Health Education Foundation, where I am the CEO, we give away large numbers of health and medical educational DVDs (about 22,000 in 2008/09 alone, and that was not an unusual year).  But when the Foundation offers the same product/s for sale at a price, even at extremely low prices, the orders fall away dramatically.  The business model of the Foundation is, interestingly, also based on “free”, although not the commercial model which Anderson discusses.  The model is to receive funding up front to produce and distribute the educational programs and then give as much of it away free as possible (with as little cost).  When the “free” is digital (Internet delivered) or via television (satellite or national broadcast), it’s pretty cheap to add lots of users – although in our experience it is not exactly zero.

It is important to note that, like his “Long Tail” concept, Anderson builds directly on the work of others (but what’s wrong with that?), updating it to the very current present and near future.  This sort of futurist writing – explaining what we have just done and are about to do, can be very exciting, and Anderson is a master of this, even if he is often so excited about his concepts that sometimes he sounds more like an evangelist than anything else.

The context here is important:  print editions of newspapers are disappearing in the USA, the Google search (and advertising) model is killing many of them (see the July 14, 2009 article by Peter Osnos entitled “What’s a Fair Share in the Age of Google?” at the Columbia Journalism Review   or the Century Foundation

(I will soon write in detail on the business models for media organisations – which I recently presented a paper on in Brisbane in July 2009 at the Australian and New Zealand Communications Association conference.   Also more on Osnos at another time:  he is one of the clearest and most interesting commentators around).

In his article, Osnos discusses the concept of “information wants to be free”, noting that it originally came from Stewart Brand – who said it at a computer programmer’s convention in 1984 and later detailed in his book 1987 The Media Lab:  Inventing the Future, writing the following:

Information Wants To Be Free (note:  capitals by the author).  Information also wants to be expensive.  Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy and recombine – too cheap to meter.  It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient.  That tension will not go away.  It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, “intellectual property”, the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.

And remember this was written more than 22 years ago.

Esther Dyson (see http://www.edventure.com/ for her latest activities) was also another pioneer of thinking in this area, particularly with her December 1994 article (from Release 1.0) entitled “Intellectual Value” (available from Wired magazine archives).  Dyson wrote at the time:

Chief among the new rules is that ‘content is free’.  While not all content will be free, the new economic dynamic will operate as if it were.  In the world of the Net, content (including software) will serve as advertising for services such as support, aggregation, filtering, assembly and integration of content modules, or training customers in their use.

Discussing media and entertainment, she accurately predicted the rise of Google: 

The payments to creators are most likely to come not from the viewers, readers, or listeners, but from advertisers….  The challenge for advertisers is to make sure that their advertising messages are inextricable from the content.

That was fifteen years ago.  Like Brand, she too was an early evangelist.  And her predictions were wildly optimistic:  they were not wrong, just way too early.  As Paul Krugman (another one of my favourite authors, but more on him another time as well) pointed out in the New York Times on June 6, 2008:

The predictions of ’90s technology gurus are coming true more slowly than enthusiasts expected — but the future they envisioned is still on the march.  In 1994, one of those gurus, Esther Dyson, made a striking prediction: that the ease with which digital content can be copied and disseminated would eventually force businesses to sell the results of creative activity cheaply, or even give it away. Whatever the product — software, books, music, movies — the cost of creation would have to be recouped indirectly:  businesses would have to distribute intellectual property free in order to sell services and relationships.

There is an interesting rule here (let’s call it “Don’s technology rule 1.01”):  the predictions of “technology boosters” (Dyson, Brand et al) are almost always overly optimistic (has broadband reached all of rural Australia yet?), but most do come good … eventually, if you wait long enough.

But back to Anderson.  Many hundreds – probably thousands by now – of commentators, analysts and reviewers have responded to Anderson’s book with a variety of responses.  He has had a number of critics, and their points are worth noting. 

Most notable of the critics is Malcolm Gladwell, in his New Yorker review (July 6 & 13, 2009) entitled “Priced to Sell:  Is free the future?”.  Gladwell summarises the four claims of Anderson’s thesis:

–          technological (digital infrastructure is effectively Free)

–          psychological (consumers love Free)

–          procedural (Free means never having to make a judgment)

–          commercial (the market created by the technological Free and the psychological Free can make a lot of money) 

Here Gladwell points out a fallacy of the argument, that one of Anderson’s main case studies, YouTube, which “has so far failed to make any money for Google” (which now owns YouTube), noting that “YouTube’s bandwidth costs in 2009 will be 360 million dollars.”  Thus in this case, “the effects of technological Free and psychological Free work against each other”.  Put simply, YouTube’s business model does not work, not yet, and … probably never.

Criticising the book’s use of an electrical power industry analogy, Gladwell accuses Anderson of making the “kind of error that technological utopians make.  They assume that their particular scientific revolution will wipe away all traces of its predecessors”, which it won’t.  Gladwell mentions newspapers (the New York Times may not be able to charge for content, but the Wall Street Journal can, and does so successfully) and television:  while broadcast television is struggling, “premium cable, with its stiff monthly charges for specialty content, is doing just fine”.  He also discusses the Apple iPhone business model, which makes money from both the phones (“stuff”) and downloads (“ideas”).

Mark Cuban has an interesting (July 5, 2009) blog post on the topic of “Free” entitled “When you succeed with Free, you are going to die by Free”, where he points out that “The problem with companies who have built their business around free is that it is far from free to remain successful.” 

Cuban’s point is that the more success there is, the harder it will be to stay on top.  All “freemium based content plays” will have a company that replaces them, their “Black Swan” (from the Nassim Nicholas Taleb book of the same name)  competitor that will appear and replace them:  Myspace to Facebook, even Google: 

We don’t know who their Black Swan company will be.  But we all know it will happen don’t we?  The only question is when.  Of course Google knows it as well.  Which is exactly why they invest in everything and anything they possibly can that they believe can create another business they can depend on in the future.

Do you think Cuban is wrong?  Remember AOL?  Some years back it was so big it bought Time Warner, movies and all.  And where is AOL now?

And this comment on Google from John Ott’s “Making the Movie” blog post (“Free is not Free”) of July 8, 2009:  “Google isn’t truly free.  It has ads.  It’s the same model as TV and free newspapers, except it has better economies of scale.”

Milk film review

August 20, 2009

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Written by Dustin Lance Black

Starring Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco and Alison Pill

The recent DVD release in Australia of the film Milk makes it important to reflect on the significance of this film.  My review below originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News earlier this year – on January 29, 2009

Milk, the biopic about the life and death of gay Jewish San Francisco city councilman (“supervisor”) Harvey Milk, is both highly conventional and a fascinating example of how mainstream gay and lesbian life has now become in American culture.  It is also one of “the” films of the year, and destined to join Brokeback Mountain as the “gay” film which garners a wide general audience.  Directed by gay film-maker Gus Van Sant (To Die For, Elephant, My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting), Milk stars actor Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in a moving and convincing performance which will certainly achieve his fifth Academy Award nomination and just possibly claim his second win (note:  my prediction on this was correct:  Penn did win).  How could this tightly muscled actor turn himself into the voluble, emotional, thin, homosexual and Jewish Milk?  He does so, brilliantly, and thus anchors the film, giving the rest of the cast a powerful presence to play against.  The result lifts Milk from straightforward predictability to an often moving and riveting screen experience.

Milk tells the story of a particular time in San Francisco history – the early 1970s leading up to Milk’s death, when he was deliberately murdered along with Mayor George Moscone by fellow supervisor Dan White on November 27, 1978.  For those of us living in San Francisco then – and I was one, a resident in the Mission District adjacent to the “Castro” where most of this film’s action takes place – this was a tragic time, and dare I say, a highly creepy one as well.  Just one week before Milk and Moscone were killed, the “Jonestown massacre” took place:  the mass suicide/murder in Guyana of more than 900 former San Francisco residents from the city’s “People’s Temple”.  This was a time when any strange thing could happen, and in fact much did.

One of the great achievements of Van Sant in Milk is in capturing this tumultuous moment in American social history.  Aside from a strong cast, he is ably assisted by cinematographer Harris Savides who helped to make another “historical” San Francisco film, the murder-thriller Zodiac (2007), so convincing.  I never met Harvey Milk, but I did meet a number of the minor characters who appear in the film and I well remember the odd feeling of that city in the late 1970s:  already post-hippie, post flower-child (trends die quickly), with political power rapidly moving from “old” money to the community-based activists like Milk and his liberal Jewish colleague Carol Ruth Silver (who I briefly worked with, and who appears in the film as another character; her character also appears, played by a different actress).

Milk makes extensive use of newsreel footage of that time, including that of a shaken San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein (later mayor of the city, and currently one of California’s two Jewish senators) announcing the deaths of Moscone and Milk.  This scene appears early in the film, so there is no doubt how it will end; the fun (if you can call it that, and it often is) is to see how Harvey Milk’s life unfolds.

Milk’s early life was peculiarly American mid-twentieth century:  the geeky, big-eared, second generation son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants was born in 1930 in Woodmere, Long Island, New York (as “middle Jewish” suburban as you could get), went to university and then served in the navy during the Korean War.  The film opens as he is living in New York, still hiding his homosexuality, but picking up younger men in the subway.  He moves to San Francisco and becomes fully “out”, opening a camera shop, and slowly turning from a Goldwater Republican to an ardent progressive Democrat.  Milk had a number of romantic relationships, and was notoriously bad at them, frequently choosing emotionally needy partners.  The film includes two of them:  Scott Smith (James Franco) and Jack Lira (Diego Lira).  The film’s willingness to acknowledge Milk’s messy personal life is admirable.  There is a delicate balancing act going on here:  San Francisco gay life was (in those pre-AIDS days) full of wild sex and multiple partners, but Milk is portrayed as a serial monogamist.  I don’t know if this is true or not, but it does make the film that much more palatable for the “straight” audience.  Be warned, however:  this is not a film for those who are uncomfortable watching men being affectionate with each other on screen.

The real core of the film charts Harvey Milk’s growing political success – the first openly gay elected official in San Francisco, and his political battles, notably his successful opposition to “Proposition 6”, a California citizens initiative that would have prevented homosexual teachers from working in schools in that state.  The most interesting relationship in the film, one which is clouded with ambiguity, is Milk’s on-again, off-again attempts to work with Dan White, a highly conservative former policeman and fireman who was a City Supervisor from another district – and who ultimately killed him.  Van Sant’s interpretation suggests a potential (but unrealised) closeness between the two men which I am not certain actually existed.  But it is these ambiguities that make a good film.  (White served only a short prison sentence for the murders, which sparked riots in the city.  He committed suicide a couple of years after being released from jail.)

This is not the first time the story of Harvey Milk has been told:  in 1982 Randy Shilts published his book The Mayor of Castro Street and in 1984 Robert Epstein directed the Academy Award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (declaration of interest:  Epstein is my second cousin), which used much of the same archival footage – and is credited in Van Sant’s film.

“My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you”, Harvey Milk states a number of times in film, each time to widely different audiences, gay or straight.  For Milk, who was by then turning into a consummate politician, the meanings could be very different, depending on who he was talking with.  Gus Van Sant is an able enough film-maker to know simply when to let his main character talk, actively recruiting us into Milk’s messy but fascinating life.

AICE Israeli Film Festival – Sydney and Melbourne

August 20, 2009

The following article about the AICE Israeli Film Festival appeared in the Australian Jewish News on August 20, 2009 in a shorter (edited) format.  The complete article is below.

Cant’ make it to Israel this year?  Well, this month’s Israeli film festival (organised by Australia Israel Cultural Exchange – AICE – opening on 25 August 2009 in Melbourne and 1 September 2009 in Sydney) is just about your second best choice, with a wonderful depth and breadth of themes reflecting modern Israeli society, life, culture and concerns.

Of the fourteen films which premiere this year, a number of interesting themes surface.  One of the most persistent of these is that of generational conflict and family commitment; this lies behind what are likely to be the two most popular festival films, both highly accessible modern dramas:  Lost Islands – the opening night film, and Zrubavel, about Israeli-Ethiopian life.

Lost Islands arrives with a strong pedigree:  last year (2008), it was the biggest Israeli-produced hit within Israel and won four Israeli Film Academy awards, with eight additional nominations.  The publicity description describes it as an “Israeli American Graffiti”, but that is only because it concentrates on the “coming of age” of young men, particularly non-identical twins Erez (Michael Moshonov) and Ofer (Oshri Cohen).  I would liken the film more like Diner (1982), American-Jewish director Barry Levinson’s first film, neatly mixing comedy and drama.

Lost Islands is the first feature from Israeli writer/director Reshef Levy, who comes to this story of sibling rivalry and guilt naturally:  according to the Internet Movie Database, Levy always credits his dead brother as his co-writer, as a tribute to his memory.   Lost Islands is a comedy, of sorts, but one overlaid with the challenges faced by a partly dysfunctional family.  The two brothers, their two siblings (an older brother and a younger sister) are part of a close family, with emotionally demanding parents.  And Erez and Ofer have an agreement:  what one wishes to do, the other stays away from.  So although Erez has his heart set on becoming a paratrooper, all their plans all go awry when an attractive new girl, Neta (Yuval Scharf), arrives at their school after some years spent in Iran, and both boys fall in love with her.

The result is a complex relationship triangle which is then complicated further by a family tragedy, putting an almost unbearable strain on everyone concerned as they attempt to balance family loyalty with their own desire to follow dreams.  Lost Islands (the title comes from a 1976 American television series about teenagers shipwrecked on some islands) is set in 1980, a time of greater innocence than now (but isn’t that always the case?) which gives the film a unique sense of melancholy.  Despite introducing a few too many story lines, the film works well due to some outstanding performances and the ability to capture a universal conflict between siblings and parents and children, setting the story neatly in a time well-remembered.

By contrast, the film Zrubavel is set very much in the present of modern Israel, where Ethiopian immigrants are still caught between a tribal African past and a contemporary Israeli present.   The older generation is typified by patriarch Gite Zrubavel (Meir Desai, in an outstanding performance), a former colonel in the Ethiopian army who is now reduced to sweeping streets.  But this has not diminished his powerful ambitions for his children and grandchildren.  Son Gili (Abina Beru) is bright and articulate but hangs around with Ethiopian gangs in scenes that could be taken right from a Spike Lee film, and is discouraged from entering a selective high school because of his background and his family’s poverty.

That’s one point the film wants to make:  the racism these migrants experience is similar to that experienced by poor African-Americans in the USA.  And to make the point even clearer, the film opens as one grandchild – who has taken on the nickname “Spike Lee”- does a clever autobiographical fictional documentary that introduces his family.  Daughter Almaz is insistent on rejecting an arranged marriage, preferring a love match instead, but tragically she is “related” to her boyfriend, as Ethiopian families insist on going back seven generations to make certain there is no common blood.  Daughter Hana has married an Ethiopian who has turned religious – and breathtakingly insensitive to his wife and children.

Zruvabavel is the first Israeli film totally made by Ethiopians, and provides a loving “inside out” perspective on the Ethiopian experience, with dialogue in both Amharic and Hebrew.  While it has a passing similarity with Live and Become, an Israeli-French co-production which opened in Australia two years ago, this film tells a unique story of a family in cultural disorder and stress.

Zrubavel was written and directed by Ethiopian-born Shmuel Beru, who had never made a film before.  It was produced only $150,000, and shot mostly in Beru’s home town of Hadera.  The film rings true with a strong sense of true incidents from Beru’s life and family.  The result is highly engaging, very entertaining and deeply affecting:  my choice for pick of the festival.

Whereas Zrubavel is a fictionalised account of Ethiopian life, the documentary Yiddishe Mama explores an real inter-racial relationship between Russian immigrant Gennady Kuchuk (who also co-directed the film) and Nurit, his Ethiopian girlfriend who he wants to marry.  His mother Zina refuses to accept this partnership, flatly questioning why he can’t find a nice “white” girl.  And here’s a fascinating connection:  Kuchuk was the cinematographer for Beru on Zrubavel.

The festival features three other documentaries:  Chronicle of a Kidnap which details the heartbreaking story of Karnit Goldwasser – the wife of kidnapped Israeli solder Ehud (one of the events that led to the July 2006 Lebanon war).  The film is stunningly made, and tells us much we did not know about the event itself and the devastating emotional aftermath.  Nine Years Later is also a documentary about a family undergoing a painful struggle in a mixed culture:  Danielle is a Jew who grew up in Morocco as a Muslim, and fights to bring up her son.

On a lighter note, Eye Witness – 60 Years is a documentary about the work of famed Israeli photographer (and Israel Prize laureate) David Rubinger, who has been photographing key events in Israeli history since 1947.  Rubinger features throughout, discussing his own work, along with comments by his wife and others.  It’s a lovely opportunity to be reminded of how significant some of his work has been in creating the image of Israel over the past sixty years.  In a neat twist, the film follows Rubinger as he successfully attempts to track down the original subjects of a number of his most famous photographs.  While this might seem to be a manipulative trick, the result is frequently deeply affecting, as we slowly realise that these subjects of Rubinger’s historic photographs are proud of and deeply value their iconic roles in portraying Israel’s visual history.

Terrorism and its psychological aftermath is the central point of the feature film 7 Minutes in Heaven, an Israeli-French-Hungarian co-production which follows the experiences of Galia (Amsallem Raymond), the physically and emotionally scarred survivor of a Jerusalem bus bombing.  With little fanfare, this spare and delicately observed film unfolds like a mystery, detailing Galia’s journey as she moves from deep-seated psychological trauma to a new place of acceptance and knowledge.  Combining elements of romance with resonance to the work of Christopher Nolan (Memento) and Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Double Life of Veronique), this frequently tense and powerful film won the best film award at last year’s Haifa Film Festival.

(If you want to see more of David Rubinger’s photos, go to this 2008 Time magazine article, where you can view 16 photos from his book Israel Through My Lens.)

Outliers book review

August 13, 2009

Book review of Outliers:  The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Published by Penguin, $26.95.  This review appeared in today’s edition (August 13, 2009) of the Australian Jewish News.

Back in January 1999, Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian writer who has a Jamaican mother and a British father, published a fascinating article in The New Yorker entitled “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg”. In the article, he described how this Jewish grandmother living in Chicago was a “particularly rare and extraordinary type who seems to know everyone”.  From this initial article came his breakthrough 2000 book The Tipping Point:  How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference – a business-marketing-come-social-psychology book that attempted to explain real world phenomena through careful research and highly accessible writing.  Why was Paul Revere’s ride so successful?  Why did crime drop in New York City?  Gladwell explained it all, and in doing so singlehandedly started a highly popular new genre of books along the lines of Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics, Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist, James Surowieki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness, Robert Frank’s The Economic Naturalist and Gladwell’s own 2005 Blink:  The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

Now Gladwell has turned his attention to an analysis of highly successful people in Outliers:  The Story of Success, where he attempts to deconstruct the essential prerequisites for extreme success – people like Bill Gates and the Beatles.  In doing so, Gladwell has almost become that which he describes:  “Outliers” is a fabulously successful business/non-fiction book:  since its first release in late 2008, it has been in the “top ten” of The New York Times best-selling non-fiction list, and recently regained the number one position – and reached number nine in Australian non-fiction best-sellers earlier this month, a full eight months after being published here.

Gladwell’s key:  a highly fluid writing style that reads easier than a novel, great vignettes, and a personal touch that quickly engages the reader.  In fact his last chapter is about how his mother rose out of highly stratified racial Jamaica to travel to England, meet his father and eventually produce him (a neat touch).

And what does Gladwell conclude are the essential elements of success?  Birth date (time of year) DOES matter, particularly when cut-offs arbitrarily assist older children in sport and academics.  So does practice:  his “10,000 hour rule” postulates that to be superb at anything (music, computers, etc) you must practice at least that amount of time when you are young.  And accidents of birth – place and time – also matter a great deal.  Bill Gates became successful not only because of his genius, but because of his timing:  born in 1955, he was the right age (20) at the right time (1975) at the dawn of the computer age to become an IT mogul.  And he had access to unlimited free computing time.  Had Gates been born ten or even five years earlier or later, it is very unlikely he would be the household name he is now.

And what does this mean for the Jews, who have frequently been “outliers” throughout history?  This is where Gladwell gets even more interesting.  He tells the story of Jewish scientist Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the American atomic bomb project, and did so despite a history of severe depression that lead him to try to poison his tutor in graduate school.  Oppenheimer was convincing enough to survive that incident and still thrive – all because he had the ability to convince others – which Gladwell marks to his upper-class background which gave him “concerted cultivation”.

Gladwell also devotes a whole chapter to New York Jewish lawyer Joe Flom.  Because of widespread antisemitism in old-line Wall Street law firms in the 1950s and 1960s, Jewish lawyers were excluded and had to take work that the “white shoe firms” did not want – litigation and proxy fights.  Except a funny thing happened in the 1970s:  as money became easier to borrow, as the aversion to lawsuits disappeared and markets internationalised, these Jewish lawyers (including Flom) had a unique set of skills on which to capitalise, and became wildly successful – and very rich and powerful.  Gladwell’s thesis is even more complicated, examining demography, birth rates, classroom sizes in New York City (very low in the 1930s) and the quality of New York public schools (the best in the country in the 1940s) to analyse why a certain generation of New York Jewish lawyers did very well.

Gladwell is by no means the first person to conclude that antisemitism has helped the Jews adapt to modernity.  Yuri Slezkine in The Jewish Century examined this in great depth, and Neal Gabler in An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood applied a similar thesis to the rise of the Jewish film moguls.  But not all smart Jews who experienced antisemitism flourished professionally.  Gladwell’s expertise is in showing how accidents of history and time have impacted and made some people successful and others not.