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Warsaw ghetto documentary will make you weep

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The Canadian International Documentary Festival, popularly known as Hot Docs, gets underway in Toronto on April 29 and runs until May 9. (videos)

A sampler:

Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished tears at one’s heart and soul. This haunting documentary deconstructs the ma­king of The Ghetto, a vile Nazi propaganda film that was never finished. Hersonski found it in a concrete vault, hid­den in a forest in eastern Germany.

This historically significant film was made in the doomed Warsaw ghetto in May 1942, two months before most of its hungry, sick and bedraggled residents were deported to Treblinka. Hersonski descri­bes it as a“rough first draft.” It isn’t clear why work on The Ghetto was cut short.  The images, some of which flick­er and melt, are searing. They were re­corded by Willy Wist, who was forced by the SS to stage many of the scenes.

Adam Czerniakow, the head of the Judenrat, sits behind a desk in his office holding court. Diners in a restaurant en­joy a sumptuous meal while their fellow Jews outside starve to death. Talmud Torah students pore over texts. An infant is circumcised. An elaborate funeral procession wends its way down a road. Men and women at a fancy ball sip champagne and dance to music. A shop­per enters a well-stocked grocery. And in a scene designed to humiliate and demean Jews, nude women step into a ritual bath full of naked men.

This chilling film brims with crowd scenes, underscoring beggars with sun­ken cheeks in rags and “prosperous” city dwell­ers in fine clothes on a stroll. There are also shots of horse-drawn carts and trams. As well, Wist’s camera pans on corp­ses splay­ed on streets.

When he is interviewed, Wist claims he did not know a thing about the Holocaust. He complains that lighting con­ditions in the mikvah were poor. Former residents of the ghetto recall its misery and recognize some faces. We hear anguished excerpts from Czerniakow’s di­ary and clinical voiceovers from a Ger­man commander in the ghetto.

Watch and weep.

May 2 at 1 p.m. at the Cumberland 3 Cinema and May 5 at 7 p.m. at the Cumberland 2 Cinema.

***

American academic/ lecturer Nor­man Finkelstein is a fierce critic of Israel  who claims that the Holocaust has been exploited for partisan political ends. He  is the subject of American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein, a balanced film by David Ridgen and Nicolas Ros­sier.

The son of Polish Jews who survived the rigours of the Warsaw ghetto, he has been fixated on Israel since the 1982 war in Lebanon. It was then that he held aloft a sign in front of the Israeli consulate in Manhattan comparing Israel to Nazi Ger­­many. Since then, Finkelstein has claim­ed that Israel uses the Holocaust to deflect attention away from its “crimes” against the Palestinians. He also thinks that “Holocaust hucksters” foment anti-Semitism in Europe.

In this intriguing documentary, Fin­kelstein comes off as a possessed, cocksure, lonely figure whose animus for Israel is boundless and whose acidic views cost him jobs at two universities. The filmmakers interview him in New York City, his hometown, and trail after him in a speaking tour of U.S. and Canadian campuses.

In addition, Finkelstein is seen debating celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who has scathing opinions about him. Says Dershowitz, “If he was not Jewish, no one would have any doubt that he’s an anti-Semite.”

These are strong words, but Finkelstein is to blame for his isolation. Friends describe him as a self-destructive and needlessly provocative person who has singled out Israel. Even his mother, a pa­cifist, laments that her son has man­aged to destroy himself.

Fin­kelstein says that Jews have a right to self-determination in Israel. “I have no interest in bashing Is­rael,” he claims disingenuously. But on a tour of Leb­anon, he cozies up to Hezbollah, an Islamic organization  that rejects Israel’s existence, and calls its bombardment of Israel in 2006 “a very good thing.”

May 6 at 9 p.m. at the Bloor Cinema and May 9 at 11:30 a.m. at the Isabel Bader Theatre.

***

Budrus, by Julia Bacha, is about a Palestinian Arab village near the Israeli border whose olive groves and farmlands are expropriated by the construction of Israel’s security bar­rier. The residents of this scenic village in the West Bank rise up in non-violent pro­test, join­ed by Israeli and foreign sympathizers.

They argue that the fence should be built along Israel’s border rather than in Palestinian territory. In the interests of ba­­lance, Bacha interviews an Israeli ar­my officer. He explains that suicide bom­bings made it necessary to build the fence. A female member of the Bor­der Po­lice who confronts demonstrators in the village is given air time, too.

If nothing else, this quietly powerful film exposes the tragedy of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

May 2 at 4 p.m. at the Isabel Bader Theatre and May 3 at 7:15 at the Royal Ontario Museum.

***

The aftermath of Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip in January 2009 is the subject of Nicolas Wadimoff’s Aisheen (Still Alive in Gaza).

Always underdeveloped and impoverished, Gaza is presented as a desolate and bleak place of broken buildings and mounds of rubble. Life goes on, yet noth­ing is normal. Palestinians  queue for basic provisions. A boy who was woun­ded during the war vows to be­come a “martyr.”  Ani­mals in a zoo go hungry. Israeli jets roar high in the sky. Clowns readying themselves for a children’s party dress up as an explosion rocks the area. Aisheen depicts a people under siege and in distress.

May 3 at 9:30 p.m. at the Isabel Bader Theatre and May 6 at 1:30 p.m. at the Royal Ontario Museum.

***

Tahani Rached’s Beirut! Not Enough Death To Go Around is a cri de coeur, a vivid portrait of Muslims in western Beirut who have endured hardships since the 1975 Lebanese civil war and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. These working-class people express anger and disdain to­ward sectarian-minded Leb­anese politicians, fear of Israel and sympathy for the Palestinians who live in their midst.

May 8 at 7:15 p.m. at Innis Town Hall.

***

Alexander Gentelev’s Thieves by Law is about the Russian Mafia, some of whose members have found a refuge in Israel. By his reckoning, these ruthless gang­sters live by their own rules, go to any lengths to protect their honour and crave material goods, ranging from expensive oil paintings and top-of-the-line lug­gage to Mediterranean mansions.

According to Gentelev, they made their fortunes in the early 1990s when Russia, in its rush to a capitalist system, sold off state enterprises for bar­gain basement prices. Several of these high-living criminals, notably Grisha Lerner and Leonid Bilunov, have acquired Israeli citizenship and passports, which enable them to move around freely. Since Israel has no law to counter money laundering, they flock to the Jew­ish state like moths to light.

Thieves by Law is a chilling picture of an alternative universe.

May 5 at 9 p.m. at the Cumberland 3 Cinema and May 8 at 10 p.m. at the Isabel Bader Theatre.

***

Daddy’s Girl, by Lily Sheffy, is an unusual Israeli film about a serial philanderer, as seen through the eyes of the filmmaker’s caring  daughter. Yaron Ivry, a physically fit consultant in his mid-50s,  commutes regularly between Israel and Eu­rope. But his trips are not solely for business. He keeps a mistress in Ger­many and has a pregnant se­cond wife in Israel, all the while pursuing yet another German wo­man. “I do what most men want but dare not do,” he says openly.

Although Sheffy, his daughter, disapproves of his behavior and mo­rals, she has accompanied him on many dates and regards him as a confidant. Daddy’s Girl is a morally complex film about desire, lust, companionship and, believe it or not, love.

May 2 at 9:30 p.m. at the Cumberland 2 Cinema and May 4 at 4 p.m. at the Royal Ontario Museum.

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