Monday, April 13, 2015

toronto film festival 2014

Toronto’s film festival has shrank. Not the movies, but the area. The Cineplex Scotiabank googleplex on Richmond is only two blocks away from the Lightbox on King, and with nothing but restaurants surrounding these two venues, you can’t really go anywhere., just circle the same few blocks over and over again. Which is okay, I guess. The Chapters Bookstore next to the main venue is gone, which is a bummer. It was a great place to hang out between screenings.   With Worlds Biggest Books gone as well (something I found out last July, so this is insult on top of injury), and that means there’s nowhere cheap to hang out besides waiting on line for screenings.
So with nowhere to go and nothing to do but go to movies, that’s what I did. A friend of a friend, who looks like a slightly chubby Marilyn Monroe, had to leave early for personal reasons. The publisher of this site had gotten me some tickets for me at great cost to his personal reputation, and I was only going to be up there for a couple of days. So she gave me her five hundred bucks industry pass, which had her adorable visage right there on the front of the pass. She’s 35, blonde, and weighs 138 pounds, and I’m 57, bald, have a bushy grey beard and weigh 235.   This wasn’t going to work.
But somehow it did.
The first thing I did was go down to the HQ and try to get caught. I went to the press lounge and was immediately stopped by a volunteer guard. She took one look at the badge, scanned it, and let me through.   I took a stroll and went   o find a place to sit down. There wasn’t one, so I went around walked around to see where the theaters were in the Lightbox and went back into the press lounge. They let me in for a second time and I was just about to get into the DVD room when the woman who let me in came running up to me.   The jig was up, I thought,
“Excuse me sir” she said.
“Yes,” I replied, apprehensively.
“Oh, I thought you were someone else” was her response, “Sorry.”
“Well,” I said with a smile, “I AM someone else. I’ve been someone else for years.”
She smiled back as I got the heck out of there.
A block away was the Princess of Wales theater, One can see the rush line from the Lightbox. There was a guy giving out free tickets to see James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, a filmic biography of physicist Steven Hawking. They couldn’t throw me out; I had a real ticket!!
As to biopics, this one wasn’t that bad.   It starts at Cambridge University in England where Hawking( Eddie Redmayne) is still healthy. Here he meets Jane(Felicity Jones), and despite the fact that she is gorgeous and he’s kind of geeky, they fall madly in love.  Then he get’s sick. They get married despite of this, and then there’s the usual melodrama, as Jane meets Jonathan(Charlie Cox), a choirmaster and is smitten, surprisingly, so is Hawking, and things get kind of complicated. Then he gets famous and things get even moreso.
The acting is terrific, even though it feels like a movie-of-the-week. But then again, this is Toronto, where Oscar-bait tends to get introduced.
Next, I went up to the Scotiabank googleplex to see if I would get caught again. Nope. I didn’t have a press and industry (P&I) schedule, so I told the lady guarding the elevator I was only going to see the one up on the second floor, which was for the most part true.   I did indeed go up and look at the schedule. Didn’t find anything to my liking, and just walked into the first screening room I found.   What I found inside was a thing called the Owners, which was from one of the ‘Stans and was atrocious.
Director Adilkhan Yerzhanov is an amateur in bad sense of the word. The acting is okay, but the editing is terrible, the star has bruises that keep popping in and out of the poor lead’s face and it’s distracting. This is not a musical and yet people start dancing for no reason at all.  I almost walked out.
The next day’s goal was to recreate the glory days of the film festival by going to as many as five or six movies.  
  I managed to actually do it. It seems that this year’s festival has a theme. Horrible diseases. You will remember the Steven Hawking film. He’s got Lou Gerhig’s disease. The hero in the Owners sister has a fatal disease too.   Now the first film of the Day, Richard Glatzer, and Wash Westmoreland’s Still Alice,   in which the title character( Julianne Moore) is afflicted with early onset Alzheimer’s. To make things worse, she’s married to Alec Baldwin, and the ending sucks. They set up an excellent one, but nooooooooo…Then there’s Daniel Barnz’s Cake, which is about how Claire Simmons( Jennifer Aniston) is coping a year after her horrific car wreck. She’s become a total bitch that only her saintly maid Silvana ( Adriana Barraza) can put up with her. I call these films “gilded turds” because everything is brilliant but the script.   
Across the street from the theater, there was a place that served really great tuna melts, and  I savored one before going to see John Stewart’s Rosewater which ,despite the director’s reputation, is a physiological drama. Maziar Bahari’( Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal) is an Iranian journalist living in London who gets sent back home to cover the 2009 presidential election   He hires a driver named Davood ( Dimitri Leonidas) who shows him around Teheran and  where the opposition   hangs out. This is fascinating and is the flashback part as the film opens with our hero being taken away by the secret police.
Now why is the movie named Roswater? Well, that’s the nickname our hero gives his interrogator, played by Kim Bodnia. The final half of the film is mostly the verbal jousting between our hero and Rosewater, and Bernal and Bodina are both due for getting nominated for awards in the winter and spring.

j street part 4

On the last day of the conference, I started out with a panel on “What’s Next for the Palestinians Leadership?” Which sounded like a very interesting one, especially since I really didn’t know very much about it. Who is running the Palestinian Authority besides Abbas, and what are they going to do when the old man dies?
The answer was clear as mud. The didn’t really talk about who the major politicians or factions were, but they did mention that there were free local elections in ’12, (so much for Palestinians not being able to vote) except for, naturally, Gaza, and that the “Palestinian State” that was sitting in the UN General Assembly was NOT the Palestinian Authority, but the Palestinian Liberation Organization.  
These are important facts that aren’t known to many people. There is also a move afoot by some groups to permit political parties to exist. That would be nice. But they didn’t really say much beyond that.   I should have gone to the “Rise of   anti-Semitism in Europe” panel.
But the really big show was the morning plenum, and that was the one where Obama’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, would be giving a major speech.  Everyone wanted to see that, as did I, and I was thrilled to hear they were letting the press early….only to discover that they gave us seats in the back and the side with a lousy view of the preceedings….
The opening speaker (not counting the introduction by some committee member) was Stav Shaffir, who is still the youngest member of the Knesset and the most popular member of the Zionist Union.   She repeated her CV, how she spent a couple of terms in the Army, then tried to find a decent job while living in a crappy Tel Aviv apartment and starting what was the equivalent of the “Occupy Movement” in 2011 before becoming a professional politician in ’13. She then went on saying that Israel was a great country and would be far better if Bibi was no longer there. The youth in the audience loved her, as did I. (we had had a conversation the previous day)
Then…something happened that shocked the living daylights out of me.
They announced that there would be a televised message from the President of Israel. I hadn’t expected that. Considering that Reuven Rivlin is a dyed-in-the-wool Likudnik, and considering how J-street and Likud aren’t exactly lovey-dovey with each other, I hadn’t even considered he would do that. But there he was on the big screen (which I could see), giving a platitudinous greeting and wishing everyone in the audience well. A majority was enthusiastic, but some weren’t, I wasn’t surprised more weren’t.
Then came Denis McDonough, the second most powerful person in Washington. “…an occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end!” Mr. McDonough thundered, “Israel cannot maintain military control of another people indefinitely,”
That got a standing ovation. It was easy to see why.
It was something EVERYONE can agree with. Not even Bennett thinks the present state of affairs is something that most Israelis want to maintain indefinitely. Everyone at the conference was unified on the basic concept of the Two-state solution, but nobody agreed on the details.
The panel discussion afterwards led by Ethan Bronner wasn’t at all edifying, although someone mentioned Abbas’ threat to dissolve the PA because they’re running out of money.  That was it.
There was going to be a gala, the press was told they would be provided pizza and seats in the back for James Baker’s speech, but that meant I’d miss my flight.
I almost did, but that’s another story….

Walking down J street, part three

"One thing you must understand is that when you support the BDS movement, you actually are helping Netanyahu, because Netanyahu is playing on that fear, that almost every Israeli Jewish citizen is feeling, that there is a possibility that the world will just turn against us,"— Stav Shaffir, ZU member of the Knesset.
That was a primary theme of the J-Street convention. I heard this over and over again.  The vast majority of the attendees weren’t anti-Israel, they were anti-Bibi, and that was the general consensus: Israel good, Bibi bad. Another consensus was the necessity of a two state solution. What wasn’t agreed to is what shape of the borders for the two (three?) states are going to be.
The first session I attended the first morning was on “Israel as a neighbor”, which was presented by the New Israel fund. The speakers all were in favor of land swaps to keep most of the settlements intact. , it was the same with the   main “plenary session”, called “The Choices Ahead, ” which had  seven members of the Knesset (by my count, nearly a fifth of the entire   Israeli   parliamentary opposition was there)   talking, and they all were very “hawkish” on security and lamented they didn’t get that message across.
Nobody was in favor of the green line as a permanent border. Not even the Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, who specifically stated that Israel needed secure borders.   However, no speaker that I heard, and I missed quite a few panels so I can’t be certain about this, came out in favor of the Hamas plan or going back to Folk Bernadotte’s   “1935 borders.”
What everyone did come out against a ONE state solution that the Arabs and the BDS crowd (and Bennett) are in favor of. Nobody came out in favor of a binational state of Palestine from the river to the sea (although Noam Sheizaf, the guy from +953, came close.)
The panels that I was most interested were the Arab-centric ones. The panel entitled “Gaza: The Human and Political Costs of Deprivation and Disunity” is a case in point. Yes, the situation in Gaza is horrific, and yes, most of the people on the panel blamed Israel (Howard Sulka, who ran an NGO there, gave the case why HAMAS started the last war but came to the conclusion that “we can’t be sure”), but nobody had a nice word to say about Hamas’ government of the area. Even Maha Mehanna, who is Gazan and has to go back, didn’t say anything good about them (She explained that Hamas was elected because the Fatah regime was so corrupt).
However, they did explain how they had to go through diplomatic hoops because Hamas is a terrorist organization that may not be talked to. The holes in the narrative were amazing to behold.
I attended the Iran panel, which was both fascinating and unedifying to the mx, before going to the next plenum: “Does Liberal Zionism Have a Future?”
This is an excellent question, DOES IT?
The panel, led by Peter Beinart, wasn’t very optimistic, and they rightly blamed Netanyahu, Leiberman and Bennet. Which brings everyone back to which two-state solution is the best one? That particular question wasn’t actually addressed, what WAS, was the status quo, which everyone considers untenable.
The villains were fingered as not just Bibi, Bennett et al, but the Republicans as well, who are working to alienate Liberals/Progressives from the entire Zionist project and declare the 69 percent of the Jewish vote that voted for Obama “self-hating Jews” and guilty of treason.  Some of the issues were clearly articulated but not all.
There was no evening session, and Elder’s request that I attend the mincha prayers that day, but I didn’t get the request until after it was over. Just for the record, It took place at the Sixth and Eye Synagogue and was reportedly packed. Also the camera on my computer doesn’t work. Sorry.

Walking Down J Street part two

Day two
With dozens of panels to choose from, it was difficult to choose which ones to go to, and as with a lot of these things, there were scheduling conflicts galore.  So I decided to go to the major ones (and those I could find).   But first, I needed a cup of coffee…
There was a buffet with bagels and cream cheese. Grabbing some of that and a cup, I went down to the lobby where they had the “huckster room” as these areas are generally known, and looked at the booths set up by various groups.
What I found was mostly innocuous, but what really piqued my interest were all the maps….
Now I love maps, I’ve got a huge collection and there in front of me was a gold mine. Most countries have at least two sets, one for the tourists and international community and one for the nationalists and internal use.   Such is the case with Israel.
J Street itself was giving out maps. These were big and were relatively detailed and had the green line easily visible in, what else?, green. Now Israeli maps don’t show the green line.  While most showed the Gaza strip and some showed “Areas A and B”, not a single one shows the Green line.   J Street was giving these out to be posted in synagogues and Hillels and the like because it’s important to understanding what the situation is.  Maps are good for things like that.
Other groups were also giving out maps. For example The New Israel fund had one showing all it’s current projects, such as promoting healthcare for the poor and the rights of Reform and Conservative Rabbis, fighting growing inequality between rich and poor in the land of the Kibbutz and the like. (On a side note, When I asked them about their participation in the lawsuit against the PLO, they said the their witness for the terrorists, Michael Sfard, was actually a ringer who’s testimony deliberately helped the plaintiff.) , and he most interesting was their blurb supporting   “the women of the wall” movement. I say it’s strange because they show the Old City in Israel and don’t mention, as the BDS movement (which NIF claims to be very much against) likes to, that the Kotel is in “illegally occupied Palestinian territory”.
“Americans for Peace Now” has a slick, two-sided map with “East Jerusalem“ on one side and the West Bank on the other, which shows the where all the “settlements” are. It also shows the Barrier wall.  The Jerusalem side attacks “Ideological tourism projects” that threaten to transform the conflict into a religious conflict where no compromise is possible” I thought that was pretty funny.
The best of the bunch (on a technical level at least) was B’Selem’s. It was detailed and easily color-coded.   You can see the facts on the ground much better than on the other maps.   They weren’t there, another group, who was more on the Kumbaya” side of the argument was. There were lots of those, lots of whom were offering trips.
There were lots of groups who like that, only the “Free Hillel” table seemed to be genuinely pro-BDS. The guy was really defensive. So was one fellow who said that Hamas was merely elected to the “municipal administration” of the district and wasn’t really the government. (You can’t really argue with these people without being tempted to punch them in the face).
The “Kumbaya” people were promoting neighborliness and understanding between Jewish and Muslim Israelis for the most part and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. However they generally make excuses for the Palestinians, such as Bikom, which does some amazing maps, who tried to explain why the Arab Jerusalemites, who can vote, don’t (they don’t want to look like they accept Israeli sovereignty).
After filling up my knapsack with give-aways and my face with food and coffee, I went to listen to the speeches….


Walking down J Street, episode one

I got an email a couple of weeks back informing me that the J Street   “Progressive Zionist” organization, sort of like AIPAC’s evil twin (or good, depending on how you view things) was having it’s annual jamboree at the Walter Washington convention center in DC, and would I like to pay a ton of money to go?
I would not.( Pay the ton of money that is.).
So, as I do on occasion, I filled out the press form and sent a bunch of digital clippings. They gave me a ticket. Even better, KAYAK was able to get me a $150 round trip flight to DC.   Another sixty bucks for two nights at the youth hostel next to the Convention center and off I went….
Day One
“Do you have a card” She said.
“No,” I replied, “why?”
“If you’re a journalist I need to see your business card in order to talk to you”
She was a student you see. She had taken a training course before she came here and was told to be suspicious of   skeevy old men with press badges and was told to get the business card and give it to the secret police (or whatever J street calls them). I said there was no reason, because I was only making conversation.
She gave me a very dirty look.   I could understand sort of.   Netanyahu had just won the election and everyone was to some extent angry and depressed. However they did try to look cheerful. The opening ceremonies were starting soon and I headed up to take my seat.
 The first two rows of seats in the grand ballroom were in fact circular tables. I searched around for a while and got a seat with a decent view. The rest of the people around my table were middle aged, behind us were the kids, allegedly there were about a thousand of them from all around the country, and Toronto, Canada, and tonight, they were the stars of the show. Lights! Music!!!!! Here we go….
Onstage comes J-Street Morton Halpburn, who gets a standing ovation. He thanks the crowd , and starts on a short and forgettable speech. He then starts talking about “J Street U”, which is their version of Hillel.   There’s a fanfare and football music, a bunch of squeaky clean college students enter stage rights looking like something out of the Bradhy Bunch, and in their peppiest voices they start the roll call of the universities. I’m not sure if it’s more of a high school pep rally or a political convention. Clearly this was latter and goes on and on and on. . Then they announce the Hillel’s who decided to come. Apparently the BDSers have somehow managed to split the movement, and the two organizations are actively feuding.. J Street, no matter what else you may have heard, is currently anti-BDS, they think it makes Bibi and his ilk look like victims and it leads to anti-Semitism., both of which are true.
There’s more football music and cheering as President Jeremy Ben Ami is introduced. He’s a thin and wiry gent, with a crooked smile and glasses, kind of nerdy. He starts thanking people lie in awards show, all the kids in general, and the senior staff in particular before shedding his kindly persona and starts tearing Bibi limb from limb before going after the rest of Likud, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a whole bunch of other people and organizations. The crowd loved it.
Then there was the “Kumbaya” story of two grandmas, one Jewish and one Palestinian, and how they called each other by phone as their governments bombed each other. Very sweet.
Finally there was Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union Reform Judaism. who gave an astoundingly good speech. He hit all the right points, wasn’t radical at all, and was almost thrilling. The crowd loved that too. Then came the cake.
We’d get to the really important stuff   the following day.