Streit’s Matzo Raises Money for Documentary

— by Michael Levine

On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in a series of four nondescript brick tenement buildings, sits the Streit’s Matzo factory. In 1925, when Aron Streit opened the factory’s doors, it sat at the heart of the nation’s largest Jewish immigrant community. Today, in its fifth generation of family ownership, in a rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side, it remains as the last family-owned matzo factory in America. This place is filled with history and tradition, and not only in the sense that the recipe for their product is 3,000 years old.

More after the jump.
The machinery still used here to bake and pack 40% of the nation’s matzo is as old as the factory itself. The owners still sit at their great-grandfathers’ desks, declining to clear the drawers of the contents left by their forbearers. They have, again and again, refused offers by developers for their real estate, and resisted modernizing the facility, worried of the potential effects on their fiercely loyal workforce, made of neighborhood residents and immigrants from around the world, many of whom have been working there for 30 years or more.  

And yet, while in many ways Streit’s may seem a relic from another age, they continue to thrive, consistently receiving more orders than they can fill.

In a neighborhood where the Jewish immigrants have long ago moved on, in a nation where progress and profits trump all else, where manufacturing has left the cities if not the country, where family businesses are bought out by giant corporations, and workers move from job to low-paying job, Streit’s remains a Lower East Side institution, and a glimmer of hope for the American Dream.

I’ve been working in documentary film and television (Showtime, A&E, History Channel, HGTV, and numerous independent projects) for the past nine years, and having deep family roots on the Lower East Side (my father’s side settled on Rivington Street in 1910), I am truly thrilled and honored to have a chance to make this film. It has been a dream of mine, for years, to tell this story, and seeing it come together has been nothing short of amazing. And while I’m at it, let me thank you again for your support! Your belief in this project is what promises to get me through all the sleepless nights of editing ahead — I’m so excited to get this film out into the world!

I’m also thrilled to be working on this project with the my producer, Michael Green, whose long and storied career in the world of food and drink (19 years at Gourmet Magazine, appearances on Food Network, Today Show, and much more), his experience as a producer across many forms of media, and his unwavering passion for this project, have made working on this film with him an extraordinary experience.

We are joining forces to create a film, a feature-length documentary, that will tell the story of Streit’s — of the factory, of the family, of its workers, of its place in the rich history of the Lower East Side and in America. It is a story of tradition, of resilience and resistance, of the perseverance of the Jewish people, and of immigrants of all faiths, so many of whom have found home in the Lower East Side, behind the doors of Streit’s, or in the matzo they bake.

In order to make this project possible, we are raising money with Kickstarter. So far, about 300 people have chosen to support us, and we have raised close to $30,000. Please help us reach our goal of $60,000.

UN-Supported Schools Preach “Armed Struggle” against Israel

— by Dave Bedein

Inside the UNRWA classroom, produced on location in the UNRWA refugee camps, represents the first time that the Center for Near East Policy Research crews gained direct access to teachers, principals and pupils in the UNRWA classrooms in Nablus, Jerusalem and Gaza.

In this film, UNRWA teachers and students speak openly about what they are taught in UNRWA schools — to devote their lives to the “Right of Return” to villages lost in 1948 (within the Green Line — not in the West Bank and Gaza) through the “armed struggle.”

Links:

Film Chat: The World Is Funny

— by Hannah Lee

This year’s Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia opened this past weekend with the 2012 box-office hit, The World is Funny. The gala weekend included a visit by the director/screenwriter, Shemi Zarhin, for a Q&A session with Sunday’s audience.

Nominated for a record-setting 15 times by the Israeli Film Academy for its Ophir Awards (and won for one), The World is Funny is set in Tiberias, the birthplace and muse of its director. It has a stellar cast, including Assi Levy, who won a Best Actress Ophir for her starring role in the 2006 film Aviva My Love (Aviva Ahuvati), also written and directed by Zarhin. This film also is graced by the presence of an Israeli legend, Yeshayahu “Shaike” Levi, whose career with the Gashash HaHiver comedy trio spanned 40 years and won the Israel Prize in 2000. (My favorite Zarhin film remains the 2007 “Noodle,” in part because of the Israeli cheerful bravado spirit and the Chinese actors.)

More after the jump.
The World is Funny is narrated by a young woman, Tsephi, who cleans houses (although she doesn’t need the income) while seeking out interesting stories for the writing workshop that she attends at the library. Her duties bring her into the lives of three estranged siblings: Yardena, whose daughter died while serving in the Israeli Army; Meron, whose wife died in a car crash and whose teen son has awakened from a 8-year resultant coma; and Golan, whose sweetheart is dying from cancer.

In a testament to the writer’s craft, the film is not depressing. The director livens up the mood with comic depictions of the student writer’s scenes, including a man who falls in love with the goat he’s raising for slaughter for his son’s bar mitzvah celebration, and an assassin who only reveals his true face during his deadly assignments.

“Is the world funny?”, asked Zarhin during the Q&A session. “Well, it’s not so funny; it’s actually sad. But, it’s up to us to make it funny, because we need it to be so”, he answered.

Israeli films succeed when they are “communicative,” when they touch people, and not subjects. Zarhin concludes, “Life is a story we’re telling to ourselves — especially in Israel — and it always has a happy ending, but in Israel, it’s always too late.”

After the opening weekend, which included The World is Funny, By Summer’s End and a collection of short films, Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia continues with “Life in Stills,” “Out in the Dark,” “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea,” and “The Flat,” concluding with “Fill the Void,” on March 17 and a farewell reception at Zahav.


First row: Cultural attaché for the Israeli embassy Deborah Baer Mozes, Israeli Consul General Yaron Saidman, Israeli Film Festival Founder and Coordinator Mindy Chriqui, The World is Funny Producer Shemi Zarhin, IFF Board Member Kira Stein.
Second row: IFF Web and Social Media Chair Irene Glickman, IFF Board Member Galit Carmeli, IFF Chairperson Nurit Yaron, IFF Board Member Idit Trope.
Back row: IFF Board Member Linor Schmeidler, IFF Board Member Zvi Shmulevitch, IFF Board Member Marvin Verman, IFF Board Member Hava Grunwald, and IFF Media and Communications Chair Aelon Porat.

The Gatekeepers: Israel’s Nominee for the Oscar

— by Steve Sheffy

You should see The Gatekeepers, which is nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Academy Award in the Ceremony today, while it’s still in the theaters, and urge everyone you know to see it. If you’re looking for a feel-good movie this isn’t it. If you’re looking for an intelligent, honest examination of what is going on in Israel, this is a must-see.

The Shin Bet (Shabak) is Israel’s internal security agency. The Gatekeepers features all six living former heads of the Shin Bet: Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, and Yuval Diskin.

More after the jump.
The Wall Street Journal writes:

The Israeli journalist Dror Moreh has hit a documentarian’s trifecta with The Gatekeepers. It’s an exemplary piece of enterprise journalism, a vivid history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a polemic that’s all the more remarkable for the shared experience of the polemicists. They are six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secretive internal-security service, and, to a man, they deplore most of the political leaders who have shaped their nation’s turbulent history — not for being too weak, as one might expect to hear from these toughest of professional hard-liners, but for being too rigid, hypocritical or indifferent to negotiate with their Arab enemies.

Yet, as the New York Times notes:

While it is true that Mr. Peri and his colleagues generally favor the curtailment of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are hardly doves or bleeding hearts. And their shared professional ethos of ruthless, unsentimental pragmatism is precisely what gives such force to their worries about the current state of Israeli politics.

The Times concludes:

It is guaranteed to trouble any one, left, right, center or head in the sand, with confidence or certainly in his or her own opinions. If you need reassurance or grounds for optimism about the Middle East, you will not find it here. What you will find is rare, welcome and almost unbearable clarity.

When people tell me that I should see a movie and decide for myself whether it is good or bad, fair or unbalanced, I usually take a pass. I haven’t got much time to waste on movies that might not be good or that advance a political agenda I may or not agree with. I’d rather read. But this movie is just too important not to see.

All six living former heads of the Shin Bet: No one can question their love of Israel, their devotion to Israel, or their knowledge. Something is not true simply because these six say it’s true. But it’s hard to imagine any other six people whose views we should take at least as seriously. You might not agree with them, but you can’t say the views they express are not pro-Israel. And yes, the film does accurately present their points of view: Carmi Gillon, one of the six, says:

The importance for me is the message the film gives to the Israeli public. The message is that occupation is bad for the future of Israeli society from all aspects — humanistic, economic, moral, etc. I can assure you that all six former heads and some 95% of my colleagues and workers from the Shin Bet from over three decades all agree with the overall conclusions of the film.

The movie is impossible to summarize and packs a lot of information into 95 minutes. Three of many key points are:

  1. Israel should talk with anyone about peace.
  2. The occupation is bad for Israel and will get worse for Israel the longer it continues.
  3. The only reason the Palestinian Authority cooperates with Israel on security matters is that they hope the result will be a state of their own. In other words, they are not cooperating to help Israel but to help themselves, and they may stop cooperating if they lose hope.

It occurred to me while listening to these former heads of the Shin Bet that if Chuck Hagel had said to the Senate Armed Services Committee what these six men say in this film, there’s no way he would be confirmed. Then on Friday I read this review, which lists the same quotes that struck me while watching the film.

If you want to cling to your illusions, I can recommend several supposedly pro-Israel groups right here (and I do mean “right”) who regularly feature speakers and programs designed to describe the world as we’d like it to be, not as it is. For them, Israel is the Israel that never was, the Israel of Paul Newman and Exodus, an Israel that doesn’t have to choose between retaining the West Bank and remaining a democracy because demographic facts to them are just myths. But we can’t effectively advocate for Israel if we divorce ourselves from reality. See The Gatekeepers and decide for yourself.

Martin Ben Moreh of the Reut Institute recommends “strongly that every Israeli and every Jew should see this film regardless of what their particular political views are.”

Let’s hope The Gatekeepers wins an Oscar tonight.

17th Israeli Film Festival Opens Next Month

The Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia will mark its 17th year next month, March 2-17. The aim of the festival is enriching the American vision of Israeli culture and society through film. A slate of feature films and documentaries were selected with a goal of providing a diverse and impartial reflection of Israel. The program includes feature films, dramas, comedies and documentaries that are award-winning and have received wide recognition both in Israel and abroad.

Click on each event for more details and a trailer.


The World is Funny

Fill the Void

By Summer’s End

Life in Stills

Film Chat: From Swastika to Jim Crow

— by Hannah Lee

On Monday, the National Museum of American Jewish History again waived its admission fee and opened its doors on a day when it is usually closed to the public, and hosted a full day of programs in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The museum’s new exhibit is “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow,” about the experiences of Jewish refugee scholars who were driven from Europe by the Nazis who found teaching positions at black institutions in the American South of Jim Crow laws. And, in keeping with the spirit of the day, the museum organized a screening of the documentary film that inspired the exhibit, as well as a discussion with one of the filmmakers, Steven Fischler, of Pacific Street Films. Up to 900 people visited that day.

More after the jump.
Soon after Adolf Hitler took leadership in Germany in January, 1933, the Nazi Party issued laws to ban Jewish scholarship and pedagogy. These restrictive laws had huge support in the ivied walls of academia. According to Dr. Ismar Schorsch, the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, students were amongst the most rabid of Nazi sympathizers. By 1940, some 2,000 German and Austrian academics had been dismissed. These members of the intelligentsia, called “mandarins” for their revered status in society, were cast out in a world where few spoke fluent English and fewer probably had manual skills.

Limited assistance came from the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, founded in New York in 1933, which offered one-year grants to colleges to partially subsidize salaries of the refugees. While the Committee did rescue over 300 scholars from Nazi-run Europe, they were the ones with established reputations such as philosopher Martin Buber, physicist James Franck, and writer Thomas Mann.

The younger and lesser known academics arrived with tourist visas, desperately seeking work on their own. Walter Fales worked as a butler and cook until he landed a position in 1946 as Associate Professor of philosophy at Lincoln University, a traditionally black college in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Some 50-100 of these refugee scholars found haven in these black colleges, where the facilities were ramshackle but where the students had a keen thirst for knowledge. These professors became beloved on their campuses, despite their formal European customs such as insisting that their students wear jacket and tie.

Former students testified on the film to the pivotal role these Jewish mentors had on their lives. John Biggers arrived at Hampton Institute (now University) in Virginia with a work-study scholarship for plumbing, but Professor Viktor Lowenfeld opened his eyes to the world of artistic creativity. Biggers became an artist, professor, and founder of the Art Department at Texas Southern University in Houston.

Civil rights activist and author Joyce Ladner recalled that she couldn’t afford the application fees for graduate school, so her professor at Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS, Ernst Borinski, a former judge and law professor in Germany, paid them with his own money. When she reported the successful defense of her doctoral dissertation four years later, he sent a telegram with his congratulations and $100 for her to celebrate the milestone with her friends.  The telegram is in the exhibit.

How were these Jewish refugees received in the American South, where Jim Crow laws (the name taken from a minstrel routine) isolated blacks physically and culturally? Were they considered white or not? Donald Cunnigan was a former student and now a professor of sociology at the University of Rhode Island, and he recalled the unusual status of these highly educated Jews in the South. While they were not accepted by the whites, they were regarded by the off-campus blacks as either non-white or even black — one told him that Jews were mentioned in the Bible and any people who’d suffered as they did in ancient Egypt must have been black!  Karen Brodkin, professor of anthropology at UCLA, addressed this topic in her 1998 book, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. In the nineteenth century, there were hundreds of races; most, including Jews, being considered neither black nor white.

The film does not address the Jewish life of these refugees, but the exhibit has a quote from John Herz, professor of international politics at Howard University in Washington, D.C., who recalled that the Düsseldorf rabbi came to visit his mother about religious instruction for her children.  His mother replied, “That decision I leave entirely to my children; music is my religion.”  However, Georg Iggers, professor of history at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, AR grew up in a religious family in Hamburg and he recalled that Jews could be culturally German and yet be observant of Jewish tradition.

An audience member asked the filmmaker Fischler if the rise of the black nationalist movement (“Black Power”) set back black-Jewish relations. The film referred to people who decried the role of whites on a black college, such as Professor Borinski who’d created a curriculum on race history. No, said Fischler, because the refugee professors were close to retirement age in the 60s and no one lost their positions for it, unlike earlier movements of xenophobia.

The catalyst for the film came from a letter by Professor Herz to The New York Times about the anti-semitic comments of speakers at Howard University and other black colleges in the late 90s. He referred to the 1993 book by Gabrielle Edgcomb, From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges, which inspired the filmmakers to make their documentary.

I noted how all the interview subjects were so articulate and highly accomplished and I asked if the filmmakers had conscious choice in their selection. They didn’t eliminate any potential candidates, said Fischler, and maybe only the students with the strongest memories and the closest relationships stepped forth. Only three of the refugee professors were still alive for the film.  Furthermore, many of the black students of the time did become prominent in their fields, noted Fischler.

In the 12 years since the release of the film, an audience member asked, what would they add to a sequel, if one were to make one? This traveling exhibit is their sequel, responded Fischler, making the material more accessible to a greater public.

“Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges,” originally from the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, is on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History until June 2.

Film Chat: Les Misérables

— by Hannah Lee

I’ve never attended the first showing of a blockbuster movie, but I saw the premiere showing of Les Misérables at noon on the 25th, along with the other Jews in the area. By the time the credits were over (I always stay for the credits to show respect for the crew), the lobby was mobbed and the line outside was down the block.  

The full review after the jump.
The movie was very well done, maybe over-the-top for some tastes, and if the Oscars had a separate category for musicals, I would vote for it as best, but Lincoln, followed by Argo, are still my top choices. It’s been a strong year for films.

In early 19th century France of author Victor Hugo (who published the book in 1862), there is no support network for the poor and the film vividly portrays their wretchedness. The budget for dirt in the film must have been significant. The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis objected to the ardent religiosity of the film, compared to the screenplay, but I appreciated its role in explaining how the embittered Valjean, paroled from 19 years of hard labor for the theft of bread for his nephew, could turn his life around by his love for the orphaned Cossette.  Alas, he is perpetually hounded by Inspector Javert, with a singular passion for the law, because Valjean broke his parole. Both Les Mis and Lincoln deal with the issue of slavery and the desire for freedom; the former depicts how fear and obsession could also imprison a soul.

The director Tom Hooper made the unusual decision of filming the actors live, instead of dubbing in their singing voices later. Thus, the sound quality was not as ideal as possible in a recording studio, but the acting looked raw and vibrant. Anne Hathaway was stunning, in voice and acting, in her portrayal of the doomed Fantine, who loses her job unfairly and later her purity and dignity trying to provide for her young daughter, Cossette. Hathaway lost 25 pounds for this role, amidst concern by the director. It may not have been the best role for Hugh Jackman, but he keeps his clothes on (in contrast to his role as the Wolverine in the X-Men series) and as a Tony winner (for The Boy from Oz), his voice is fine for the role of Valjean. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were marvelous as the despicable innkeepers, the Thénardiers, and their duet “Master of the House” was a comic farce of how guests may not leave their inn intact.

The Englishman Eddie Redmayne was excellent as the young revolutionary (with a wealthy family) Marius as well as Samantha Barks as the lovelorn Éponine (whose voice was deemed the best in the film according to my opera-loving friend). There is an indelible scene in which the doomed leaders of the failed rebellion of June 1832 are shot and the leader Enjolras falls out the window still holding their flag and his legs are tangled in the air. The young English boy Daniel Huttlestone playing the role of the brave Gavroche had the signature British accent for most Les Mis stage productions; Sacha Baron Cohen had the only discernible French accent for this French tragedy. Amanda Seyfried is beautiful as teenage Cossette in a role that does not demand much, but she has a lovely soprano voice and she trills her notes.  Russell Crowe ably filled the role of the obsessed Javert, a character who defies my understanding.

New York Times critic Dargis objected to the heavy-handedness of the director, but I thought it was a fabulous production as was his previous film, The King’s Speech (my Oscar pick from last year). The opening scene was absolutely awesome, even knowing it was computer-generated, with the hundreds of prisoners hauling in the battleship with Javert astride the deck. The mooring lines gradually rise with their efforts and the men become discernible from the water. As Dargis noted, Valjean becomes the Christ figure with his hoisting of a broken mast and I do not object. Hooper was aptly kind to the Catholic church, which was the sole savior for many souls in that period.

A Film Informs My Sh’ma: Powers Of Echad

— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

As a single young man in 1977, I once found myself in a science museum where I viewed a just released short film that — there’s really no other way to put it — expanded my consciousness.  It apparently did the same for many others and remains to this day, despite powerful advances in special effects, an impressive work.

More after the jump.
Produced the year I encountered it by husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten begins with a simple scene, a picnic in a Chicago park.  As predicted by the voice-over, though, the camera pulls away from the picnic, at a rate of one power of ten per 10 seconds.  The zoom-out continues straight up, so that, in a few seconds, the picnic blanket is but a dot of color against the green expanse of the park, which soon enough, with the camera continuing to soar heavenward, itself shrinks to a speck.  Then the viewer sees the outline of Lake Michigan, then North America; the earth’s cloud cover next fills the screen, and then earth itself, which itself quickly recedes into the distance.  Eventually we see an image of our solar system and then the galaxy to which it belongs, before it, too, becomes but one of many galaxies.  The camera seems to fly ever backward, until it reaches the farthest reaches of space.


The effect is visceral, or at least it was for me.  It recalled to me how, as a child, I would sometimes lie flat on my back on our lawn on a clear dark night and concentrate my vision on the starry sky until I felt an inexplicable and sudden shock.  It was as if the sheer vastness of the stars, of the universe itself, had somehow reached out and seized me; it was a frightening experience, yet one that, when feeling brave, I would occasionally seek out.  Although Powers of Ten on a screen could not quite evoke that childhood shudder, it visually captured, maybe even more compellingly, the vastness of the cosmos.

The film, which proceeds from outer space to inner space, zooming back in to the picnic and then further, into the skin of a picnicker, into one of his cells and its DNA, then into an atom and an electron, has been recently celebrated on the 35-year anniversary of its release.  (Charles Eames passed away the following year, in 1978, and his wife Ray, in an arresting irony, died precisely — to the Gregorian calendar day — ten years later.)

The short film actually plays a role in my life as an observant Jew, thrice daily when reciting the fundamental Jewish credo, the Sh’ma (at morning and evening prayers and before retiring). The Sh’ma declares G-d’s transcendence of time and space, and, as we pronounce the word echad (“one”) halacha prescribes that we try to conceptualize, to the degree we can, the immensity of the universe – “above and below and in all four directions” (Brachos 13b) — and the fact that the Creator of it all is not of it at all but “beyond” it and in control of it.

One of the ancient Hebrew euphemisms for G-d is “Makom,” which literally means “place.”  The Talmud explains that the word describes the Divine because “the universe is not His place, but rather He is the ‘Place’ of the universe.”  

Leaving — even in our imaginations — the dimensions of time and space isn’t an option for us mortals.  We are like the two-dimensional residents of Flatland, Edwin Abbott’s 1884 satirical fantasy world, trying to comprehend three-dimensional existence.  There is a reason the Hebrew word for both time and space is “olam,” rooted in “ne’elam,” which means “hidden.”

And yet, we are required all the same to concentrate, as we recite the first verse of the Sh’ma, on G-d’s transcendence of time and space.  That can be done in an entirely intellectual manner, without any sort of visualization.  I find it helpful, though, when I recite the Sh’ma, to try to capture something of the feeling I felt as a child lying on the lawn on those starry nights. Images from Powers of Ten, as they did 35 years ago, provide me a “visual” to accompany the intellectual recognition of the scope of the olam.

I doubt that the Eamses ever thought of their film as something that would come to invigorate a Jewish religious devotion.  But that’s what it did, at least for this Jew.

© 2012 Rabbi Avi Shafran

It’s All in the Angle (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.

 

Some Lessons of Argo

— by Hannah Lee    

When the animated musical film Prince of Egypt was released in 1998, a rabbi acquaintance expressed his dismay over the Hollywood version of the yetziat Mitzrayim story. Why worry?, I asked in my naiveté. He reminded me that for many Americans, it’d be the only version they know of that Bible story.*  My husband and I saw Argo this weekend when it finally arrived at my local Bala Cinema and we thought it a fabulous movie, thrillingly told. The rescue of six Americans, trapped in Iran after our embassy was invaded in 1979, was classified until 1997 and remained under our national radar. It only made the headlines when Joshuah Bearman wrote about it for Wired magazine. That article sparked

More on what you can learn from Argo, the film, as well as from published testimony after the jump.


Ben Affleck, center, with his “Argo” inspiration Tony Mendez, far left, and real-life “house guests” Kathleen Stafford, Bob Anders and Lee Schatz. At right are Pat Taylor and former Ambassador Ken Taylor (Keegan Bursaw/Embassy of Canada)

The historical context: On January 16, 1979, Iranian revolutionaries overthrew the Persian monarchy under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced it with an Islamic republic led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. On November 4, the American Embassy walls were breached by Islamic students and militants; 52 Americans were held hostage while five embassy employees escaped from the back. These five plus an agricultural attaché managed to evade capture by moving from house to house until they were welcomed by the Canadian Embassy.    

The U.S. State Department considered various preposterous schemes to rescue these “houseguests” that would not jeopardize the welfare of the remaining hostages. Finally, the CIA offered another plan: "It's the best bad idea we have, sir. By far," declared Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck in the film. Mendez was the best CIA agent in “exfiltration” (extracting people from hostile situations) who came up with a scheme to set up a fake movie company, Studio Six Productions, dedicated to the six Americans to be rescued.  

Studio Six, as set up by Mendez and John Chambers, a veteran Hollywood insider (who won an Oscar for creating the masks and makeup for Planet of the Apes), occupied an office on the old Columbia Studio lot in Hollywood and announced its intention to produce a non-existent sci-fi movie, Argo, by placing full-page ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Mendez would pose as the Irish Kevin Costas Harkin, the assistant producer, fly into Tehran, and leave with his scouting party of six.    

Given less than a 50% chance of success (as later revealed by President Jimmy Carter whose hope for a second term was dashed by the Iranian hostage crisis), but in a delicate blend of risk, training, and luck, Mendez did succeed in spiriting the six Americans out of Iran on January 27, 1980. They left with Canadian passports, aboard a Swissair flight for Zurich, flying out of Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport.

The delicate situation of the remaining hostages meant that the “Canadian caper” was classified, with no public mention of the role of the CIA. The hostages would languish for 444 days until they were released in January 20, 1981, with one failed military attempt, Operation Eagle Claw.      

If I can learn the truth from other sources, then I don’t mind that Hollywood changes the facts to make their product more heart-thumpingly (and hands-over-the-eyes) dramatic. I’ve learned that Tony Mendez, the CIA agent, and John Chalmers, the Hollywood makeup artist, were both awarded the top CIA honor for their multiple services for our country. However, there were other heroes in this crisis, such as the Canadians (their roles minimized in the movie) and the British (erroneously disparaged in the film). The housemaid—- the only good Iranian!– whose courage helped the six Americans at a crucial moment of questioning by the Islamic militia was probably made up for the film.    

The film, Argo, simplified the list of players by eliminating the role of Canadian consular official John Sheardown who, with his wife, sheltered four of the “houseguests” and makeup artist Robert Sidell who collaborated with Chambers in Studio Six. It telescoped events. Most glaringly, the role of the Canadians appear in the film as “glorified innkeepers,” keeping their houseguests comfortable with food and liquor (despite the ban on alcohol by the Islamic regime). The Canadians saw their roles diminished in the film, while the CIA– “the junior partner” in the words of their Ambassador to Iran of that time, Ken Taylor– became the team that masterminded and executed the delicate rescue.  

When Argo was aired at the Toronto International Film Festival, it almost caused another cross-border scandal. Later, Director Affleck invited Taylor and his wife to Los Angeles for a private screening and offered to change the postscript. The new postscript says: “The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian Embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments.”    Taylor said to Jim Coyle of the Toronto Star, “All the documentation to authenticate the diplomats as Canadians, the business cards, credit cards, the passports, the academic credentials, everything came out of Canada.” The ambassador’s wife, Dr. Pat Taylor, booked three sets of airline tickets with her own money. The Canadian Embassy staff scoped out the airport and, to create a pattern of chaos, sent members in and out of Mehrabad Airport.      

So, what are the lessons I’ve learned since viewing Argo? First, diplomacy matters.  When the Iranian revolutionary regime ignored all the rules of diplomatic protection and the Vienna Convention by invading the American Embassy, it was the diplomatic ties with the other embassies (British, Swedish, and New Zealander) that kept open the possible routes of escape.    

Second, language fluency is a matter of life-and-death in hostile situations: an embassy staffer passed instructions in Thai with the cook, Somchai "Sam" Sriweawnetr and another corrected an error in Farsi, when he noticed that the date for departure on the fake passports was listed before the date of arrival (based on the Shah’s calendar instead of the Ayatollah’s calendar, with the new Iranian year starting in late March). And in a less serious note, I’ve learned that fluent Farsi speakers noticed that Affleck says salam at the end of a conversation with an Iranian official, but salam means hello in Persian, not goodbye.    

Third, Hollywood rules and history rues. From the CIA account: “By the time Studio Six folded several weeks after the rescue, we had received 26 scripts. . . . One was from Steven Spielberg.”    

Director Ben Affleck is now touted as an Oscar contender for Argo, his third film; his two previous films were Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010). It is a masterly work of art. The final credits juxtaposed the archival images with the Argo still shots. The casting of the six American “houseguests” was eerily exact. Furthermore, marveled Robert Sidell who’d collaborated with Chambers in Studio Six, "John Goodman was a Xerox copy of Johnny Chambers… right up to capturing the legendary makeup man's limp.”    

Films based on true events inevitably become a balance between facts and the director’s artistic vision. Cinematic adaptations of fictional stories face the ire of devoted fans when they deviate from the books, but documentary-style dramas have the greater risk of changing the public’s understanding of world history. As a regular viewer, I do not challenge the director’s prerogative, but I count my blessings for living in a country where I can research the facts!


*An Orthodox friend disputes the rabbi’s contention, stating that the plot followed Midrash.

Film Chat: The Other Son

— by Hannah Lee

Last night, I was fortunate to watch The Other Son at the Bala Cinema, before the whole township closed down for Hurricane Sandy. My family declined to join me, thinking it too sad to watch a movie about two babies switched at birth (because of a Scud attack to the hospital’s region in Haifa) and one son growing up with a professional Israeli family and the other with a Palestinian family barely eking a living on the West Bank. The premise was wretching, but it was also beautifully acted, especially the expressive face of the Palestinian mother played by Areen Omari. Directed by Lorraine Levy, a Frenchwoman, it tries to give a human face to the Middle East conflict. It was filmed in Israel, and shown in French as the dominant language (with English subtitles), and supplemented by Hebrew, Arabic, and English.

Spoiler alert after the jump.
Joseph is the musician son of an Israeli Army colonel, Alon Silberg, and a physician mother, Orith.  At age 17, a blood test for Joseph being drafted into military service proves that he is not their son. Their baby was switched with another baby born premature the same day by a Palestinian woman, Leïla Al Bezaaz, who was visiting her sister. This other son, Yassin, has just passed his baccalaureate exams in Paris and is expected to commence his medical studies.  He plans to return to the West Bank and, with his older brother, Bilal, open a hospital there, so other families would not have to grieve over a child dying from inadequate medical care, as happened to their brother, Fariz (circumstances not detailed in the film).

The shock of mistaken identity is intensified for these two families who are on opposite sides of the political war of existence.  Is Joseph, who’d had a brit milah and a bar mitzvah and who was the star pupil of his yeshiva still a Jew? No, said his Rabbi sadly, but he only need to immerse in a mikveh, under the supervision of three rabbis. So, was Yassin who’d been raised by Arabs a more authentic Jew than he was?  Does he exchange his kippah for a suicide bomb?

Yassin better learn Hebrew, taunts the border guard, who’d presumably been informed by their Army superiors.  Both fathers, Alon and Saïd, struggle to cope with the devastating news, and Bilal lashes out at Yassin, for being an enemy in their midst. But he was the same person as before, with the same dreams, responded Yassin. The two mothers, Orith and Leïla, are the harbors in a storm, the ones who quickly adapt to the cruelty of fate, and caution their men for love and acceptance.

A special visa from Colonel Silberg allows Yassin to seek out Joseph, who’s selling ice cream (poorly) at the beach.  Yassin offers his more agile sales technique and Joseph gives him half his day’s earnings, which Yassin noted was almost a full month’s wages for his father, an engineer who works as an auto mechanic (because he’s not allowed to work outside of the West Bank).

When Joseph attempts to visit Yassin at his home, he is welcomed but to the neighbors he is labeled the nephew from Paris. When Leïla realizes that the Silbergs did not know of his intentions, she calls them with the news. The Silbergs race to the border at dusk, and it was poignant to watch the Colonel race-walking along the border fence, in an effort to find his son before he comes to harm.

Spoiler alert: In the climactic scene, Bilal gets to visit Tel Aviv, but the boys are attacked on the beach and Joseph sustains a serious abdominal cut and needs emergency care.  When he awakens, Bilal, who’s also been bloodied in the attack, tells Joseph that he’d alerted his parents. Which ones, queried Joseph, with a weak smile. It’s the bizarre and charming premise of the film that people have hearts big enough to adapt and welcome new members into the circle of loved ones. I’m not convinced it’s a fitting metaphor for the troubles of the Middle East, but it’s a delightful conclusion to the film for me.