14th 07 - 2015 | no comment »

To Take a Wife (2004)/Shiva (2008)/Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2014)

Directors/Screenwriters: Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz


By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 2014, with the release of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, a truly great family trilogy entered the cinematic canon. As heartbreaking as Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy and more violent in its own way than Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, the Amsalem Trilogy spins an emotionally savage tale of human unhappiness as seen mainly through the character of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz), a Jewish wife and mother of four trapped in a miserable marriage to a man who refuses to give her a divorce.


This trilogy is something of a landmark in Israeli cinema. Formerly dominated by tales of the sabra/Ashkenazi Jewish experience, the country’s cinematic culture is starting to feel the influence of new waves of Jewish immigrants to Israel. The powerhouse sister/brother team of Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz conceived the trilogy to tell their story—the story of the Mizrahi Jews of North Africa and the Middle East forced by war to emigrate to Israel. The siblings also dared to do what no other filmmakers have done—expose the scandal of Israeli divorce.


The first film, To Take a Wife, opens on an extreme close-up of Viviane, who is being entreated in the wee hours of the morning by four of her seven brothers to make peace with her husband of 20 years, Eliyahu (Simon Abkarian). The brothers can’t understand how a pious man who makes a good living and never raises his hand to her could make Viviane so unhappy. She can’t explain how she feels and what exactly Eliyahu does that torments her. She simply chain-smokes and wears herself and everyone else out. Finally, she agrees to see Eliyahu, who has been sitting in their living room during the negotiations, and eventually gives him a peck on the cheek, signaling that everyone can go home until the next meltdown. Like the Elkabetzes’ parents, Viviane is a hairdresser and casually observant Jew, and Eliyahu is a postal worker and very active in the religious community. They moved to Kiryat Yam—the town where the Elkabetzes grew up—along with Viviane’s very large family, the Ohayons, from Morocco, and are just as likely to speak French as Hebrew.


The second film, Shiva, opens in a graveyard as the camera, shooting at ground level, records the Ohayons, led by matriarch Hanina (Sulika Kadosh), crying and wailing as dirt is shoveled into an open grave. One of Viviane’s brothers, Maurice, has died from a stroke, and the family sets up in his widow Ilana’s (Keren Mor) large house to observe shiva, the traditional seven days of mourning. Blood relatives may not leave the house once shiva has started, must receive all visitors paying their respects, and are to refrain from any activities but thinking about, talking about, and praying for the deceased. Creature comforts, like sitting in an easy chair or sleeping on a bed, are dispensed with as all of the mourners sit and sleep communally on the floor. Into this hothouse of raw emotion comes Eliyahu. He and Viviane have been separated for three years, and he uses the opportunity of paying his respects to try to talk to her.


The final film echoes the first by opening on an extreme close-up of Viviane as others talk about her and details of her marriage from offscreen. She is in rabbinical court struggling to get a gett, a religious divorce, from Eliyahu. Because there is no civil marriage or divorce in Israel, obtaining a gett is an absolute necessity if either party wishes to date without scandal or remarry. Unfortunately, unless the court can find grounds for divorce—and the grounds that would allow the court to compel the husband are very limited—it is strictly up to the husband whether to allow his wife to go free. It is not uncommon for an observant Jewish woman, no matter where in the world she lives, to be stuck in a marriage forever regardless of whether she is living with her husband because he refuses her a gett.


The Elkabetzes are unabashedly political and appropriately follow the second-wave feminist rallying cry that the personal is political by using this family saga to suggest the larger contexts in which these people operate, specifically, the Mizrahi immigrant experience and the suffocating religious dicta that offer little room for movement, especially to women. We see the seeds of Viviane’s discontent with her marriage in the rule-bound attitude of her husband. He and Viviane have different ideas about parenting and religious observance. In To Take a Wife, Viviane gives her young son Lior (Yam Eitan) some milk after he has eaten chicken to calm his stomach even though it breaks kosher dietary law and excuses her willful oldest son Eviatar (Kobi Regev) from accompanying Eliyahu to synagogue, a refusal that fills Eliyahu with shame. In Shiva, he polices the mourning, pronouncing what is and is not customary and correct, scolding the mourners for not focusing on Maurice, yet behaving hypocritically by using the occasion to try to persuade Viviane’s oldest brother Meir (Albert Iluz) to coerce her to return home.


The women we meet have little role other than as homemakers and mothers, with Viviane a glaring exception for running her own business. Families hold each other close—too close in many cases—and the shooting style of the trilogy exacerbates this closed familial and religious community by confining the action largely to single locations: the Amsalem apartment, the shiva house, and the rabbinical court. Indeed, the closed proceedings surrounding divorce are so secretive in Israel that Gett created a controversy on its debut for exposing the protracted, unfair process that gives all power to the judges and, ultimately, to the husband. Gett is an ordeal not only for Viviane, but also for the audiences who watch court sessions demarcated by title cards informing us how many months have passed as the court tries to force the marriage back together. After 5 years, the court negotiates a gett between the couple, only to have Eliyahu renege on his promise to go through with it. His stubborn refusal to give Viviane a divorce, though perhaps driven by a terror of losing her, represents his ultimate assertion of control, one that extends past the end of Gett.


Shiva concerns itself with family politics and nods at global politics as well. The Gulf War is raging, and all of the mourners carry gas masks wherever they go. The gallows humor of the Elkabetzes is on full display when an air raid siren sounds, and all the mourners at Maurice’s grave don their masks and continue to recite prayers at graveside. The war comes closer during the mourning period when a bomb falls close enough to the shiva house to nearly blow through a sheet of plastic covering an incomplete wall. The war has all but ruined the manufacturing business Haim Ohayon (Moshe Igvy) owns and runs, and the brothers who work there discuss their obligation or lack thereof to help Haim out. Haim’s rich wife Ita (Hana Laslo) represents the established generation of Ashkenazim. Her German uncle invested in Haim’s plant from Holocaust reparations he received from the German government, and she wields his family’s martyrdom as a weapon against the interests of her Mizrahi in-laws.

still from shiva

The films are not devoid of humor, particularly Shiva, which offers the widest cast of characters, displaying to one degree or another peculiar Jewish types. For example, a pair of old yentes watch as Meir frets about the quality of the posters he has ordered for his bid to become mayor of Kiryat Yam. One says his election will create a lot of financial opportunities for his family, perhaps unaware of how bad that sounds, while the other says it’s bad luck to talk about it. Offended that her friend has accused her of putting the evil eye on Meir and his family, she says, “OK, I’ll keep quiet,” a promise she’ll never be able to keep. In another scene, the mourners argue about whether they can eat the gizzard meat on their plates. Apparently, Iraqi Jews can, but Moroccan Jews can’t. Ever-correct Eliyahu wins the day, and one of the women removes the meat, one by one, from the mourners’ plates as Ilana reminisces about how much Maurice loved organ meat, naming each organ like the names of the Egyptian plagues recited at Passover.


Nonetheless, despite some liberal helpings of humor in both Shiva and Gett, all the films are most memorable for the frightening intensity of the animosity their characters show toward each other. In To Take a Wife, Viviane and Eliyahu have a fight that borders on madness. Viviane, warmed by her reminiscences of her romance with Albert (Gilbert Melki), the lover she had in Morocco before the move to Israel, can only spit venom at Eliyahu’s lack of affection toward her, his thoughtlessness and disregard for her as a woman. He, in turn, accuses her of being a drama queen and failing to appreciate how hard he works, even coming home every day to cook lunch for the family. Their fighting becomes so loud and vicious, we cringe in fear and sadness along with the children in their rooms at how two people who never should have gotten married can tear each other apart for their poor judgment. A similar explosion, which Viviane instigates among her brothers and sisters, occurs in Shiva. All the enforced closeness begun in good humor gives way to simmering resentments, jealousies, and physical confrontations. Saddest of all is watching Hanina cry miserably at the spectacle of her children pouring their disappointments, betrayals, and hates onto each other on the heels of the death of her son Maurice.


Elkabetz is an actress whose immersive approach to the roles she inhabits lays all of her emotions bare. I am still haunted by her unvarnished portrayal of a needy, careless prostitute in Or (2004), and with her decade-long portrayal of Viviane, she takes her all-in commitment as far as it can go. Viviane is passionate and emotional, almost incestuously affectionate with Eviatar, and catnip to the men who mewl around her: Albert, who comes to visit her and apologize for not leaving his wife when Viviane was ready to give everything up for him, only to be written off as untrustworthy and an insufficiently committed romantic for the volcanic Viviane; Ben Lulu (Gil Frank), an unmarried family friend who barely notices the awkward ministrations of spinster Evelyne (Evelin Hagoel) at the shiva house as he tries to sneak a moment alone with Viviane, stealing a kiss, but seemingly merely a placeholder for the lonely woman; and finally, Eliyahu, deeply in love with his wife but far too rigid in his religious orthodoxy and intimidated masculinity to allow her to be herself. Whether she is having a tooth-and-nail confrontation with Eliyahu or a mournful reunion with her lost love, Elkabetz simmers with love, hate, and love-hate that overwhelm with their force. When Viviane is all but gagged during the gett proceedings, one sees the masculine fear of female self-determination that leads to such repression and the kind of woman who elicits it most strongly.


Abkarian is an excellent match for Elkabetz, his charisma and masculine certitude offering a hint of why Viviane was drawn to him in the first place. He is certainly not without feeling for her, and his pain and bewilderment at the breakdown of his marriage are almost too excruciating to watch. In To Take a Wife, he is reciting a passage from the Torah at synagogue about a wife’s return and is overcome with emotion and unable to continue. Again, an overwhelming sadness floods the screen, a paean to human misery that culminates in the chain he clamps on Viviane in his vindictiveness and hurt pride.


Carrying a project like this through over the course of a decade allowed Abkarian and Elkabetz to age and reflect with veracity the long separations of Viviane and Eliyahu. Elkabetz is an extremely attractive woman, but in Gett, she looks rather haggard and faded. Eliyahu has gone gray, but not in a “distinguished” way. In the end, like the country in which they live, their war has been too long and too damaging to continue, but peace remains elusive.

25th 01 - 2011 | 2 comments »

Dissolution (Hitparkut, 2010)

Director: Nina Menkes

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Poverty has a withering effect not only on one’s physical circumstances, but also on one’s spirit. It can make decent people desperate, and desperate people behave despicably. Dissolution, a somber film by American/Israeli director Nina Menkes, takes the character and situation of Raskolnikov, the impoverished student who murders his pawnbroker in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel Crime and Punishment, and transplants them to Yafo, the Arab section of Tel Aviv. In doing so, her interpretation loses focus on the philosophical concerns of the novel, but burrows into the physical and spiritual effects of violence on an oppressed community.

The unnamed protagonist, played by nonprofessional actor Didi Fire, is an Israeli Jew who lives in a tenement owned and populated by Arabs. He seems to have no source of income, and gets by pawning jewelry to a female pawnbroker who will barely let him in the front door of her apartment/shop. He has gone into a meat market to get something for dinner, but only has seven shekels to spend; the butcher gives him a beef lung. He goes home, dodges the aggressive complaints of his landlady about the rent he owes her, and sharpens a knife in time with a metronome. Nonetheless, he can barely cut through the lung, and when he cooks it in a pan, he must skim the globules of fat that bubble up from inside it. Anger at this wretched meal bubbles over inside him, and he makes another visit to the pawnbroker with a pocket watch; he steals some objects that have been pawned while she is in her bedroom fetching the money for his watch.

The man uses the money to visit a local tavern, where he chats up a woman who is probably a prostitute, but leaves before she can get her hooks into him. He will make two more stops into this tavern, talking with other women, but ending up drinking and conversing with a cop at the bar each time. During the last conversation, his demeanor is shaken, as by then he has killed the pawnbroker, broken into her strongbox to steal some cheap-looking jewelry, and buried it in the woods until it is safe to start using it to live off of.

Dissolution is a very quiet film with minimal dialogue and no music aside from the prayer chants from a nearby mosque. Yet it is loaded with violence, or rather, its aftermath. The first violent scene shows the results of a car wreck from a high long shot looking down into the street. Two cars are smashed from a head-on collision, emergency vehicles are on the scene carting away the injured and dead, people mill around talking about a man from the neighborhood who was killed in the wreck, and two dogs and two people on horseback move in and out of the scene. In another scene, the Arab landlady and her husband are heard (but not seen) arguing bitterly, and then a flower vase comes crashing onto the stairs; the man snatches one of the scattered calla lilies off the stairs and carries it up to his apartment. In yet another scene, a woman with a wide swath of blood on her midsection is moved into an ambulance; her jealous boyfriend has stabbed her, and his friends eye the man suspiciously as he watches the spectacle and then go over to him and threaten him for having spoken with her.

And then, of course, there is the murder. We watch from the opposite end of the hall as the man talks his way into the pawnbroker’s apartment. The camera remains fixed in position for some time, and then a garbled cry of anguish and a thud are heard. After what seems an eternity, we get inside the apartment. A handheld camera is in the woman’s bedroom, where what looks like a large puddle of blood has pooled on the floor. The man comes into the room and kneels down to force the lock of her strongbox open. He seems to play with the swaths of tulle and delicate scarves lying next to the jewelry and a wad of money, and then takes what he wants and ransacks the rest of the room looking for more.

Symbolism from the novel infuses this film, most spectacularly, a dream, or possibly a memory, of a draft horse being stoned while the man, now a boy, yells at his father for doing nothing. The horse is hit and crumbles to the ground. We are left with the arresting image of the street, now empty of everything except the prone figure of the horse that could be a stand-in for the murdered pawnbroker or for all the victims of violence. Another effective image has a scorpion skittering across the man’s floor—a pang of conscience, perhaps, to poison his existence. Tellingly, the man throws a lamp at it to try to kill it; he misses, thereby extinguishing his light.

Not all of the images, symbolic or otherwise, work in this film. An early shot of a large snail that the man pokes lightly with his foot is long and impenetrable. When the snail reappears late in the film, the man lies down next to it. Has he lost his superiority over this slow and relatively helpless creature, or is this just a little too much artiness in trying to suggest events from Dostoevsky’s novel?

Dissolution sometimes gets the better of its mesmerizing story and setting with long takes that go nowhere, as well as a meandering quality that offers impressions rather than points of view. The film suggests the man’s yearning for redemption, but Fire never uses his incredible face or acts in a way to suggest any change in his character after the murder. Instead, Menkes offers images and actions—a young girl from his building who appears at odd moments and mixes with a final image of galloping horses, as well as the man’s wanderings through a church and visit to a confessional—to take us on the man’s moral journey. Yet, offering religion and an Olympus-like ending as hopeful signposts seems like jerry-rigging Dostoevsky’s concerns about nihilism into a geographic region that has benefited little from formalized belief systems.

As someone who spends a lot of time watching celluloid and trying to save the physical medium of film, I was utterly in awe of the look of this HD CAM, black-and-white movie. The cinematography of Itai Marom is miraculous, with such rich blacks I thought nitrate had made a comeback. There is a certain amount of posterizing in the blacks as well, which lends a psychologically unsettling atmosphere to the proceedings, and the shot compositions by Marom and Menkes are perfectly chosen and composed.

Menkes is an experimental filmmaker who says she makes films instinctively. While Dissolution does not resonate as deeply as it might have with a more emotionally emergent presentation, this arresting film is likely to linger in the mind for a long time to come.

10th 10 - 2010 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2010: Circus Kids (2010)

Director: Alexandra Lipsitz

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Growing up in Chicago has given me a great many advantages. I’ve had access to some of the world’s best cultural and scientific institutions, a very ethnically diverse population that exposed me to other languages and cultures, and many clubs and political organizations that bring like-minded people together to work actively for the causes in which they believe.

For all that, one thing I missed out on during my formative years was a trip to the circus. Perhaps as a result, I’ve long had a fascination with this seemingly archaic institution that persists to this day. Therefore, I was eager to attend the world premiere of Circus Kids, a documentary by Alexandra Lipsitz whose maiden directorial outing, Air Guitar Nation (2006), has a boatload of fans. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, and I got more than I bargained for.

Jessica Hentoff is a former circus performer who runs the St. Louis Arches, a youth circus group that has performed with a number of professional circuses in the United States. As she puts it, she is the biological mother of three circus kids—Ellianna, Keaton, and Kellin—and the circus mother of 13 members of the Arches. Lipsitz lets a number of these kids introduce themselves, focusing her camera on their still forms, going to their homes, and letting them talk a little about themselves. We’re not terribly surprised when meeting Iking Bateman, a black teenager from a rough neighborhood whose mother is dead and whose father is incarcerated. We expect programs like youth circus to reach out to “at-risk” kids. It is perhaps a bit more surprising to meet middle-class, college-bound Matthew Viverito, who never found a sport he liked until he discovered circus. Both Iking and Matthew are very talented tumblers, and reflect the diversity of the St. Louis metropolitan region that is caught in microcosm in the Arches troupe.

Hentoff hopes to bring social change, a kid at a time, to the world by building fellowship through circus. Thus, it is not surprising that when Rabbi Mark Rosenstein proposed a cultural exchange to Hentoff, she decided to make it happen. Rosenstein started the Galilee Circus following rioting in the Galilee region of Israel in 2002 to bring Arab and Jewish youth together, and he thought it would help move his mission forward to broaden it to include circus youth from other parts of the world. The film deals primarily with the Arches’ trip to Israel and how the mixing of the two troupes changed the lives of all those involved.

The logistics of getting the kids packed and on the plane starts the journey, and we get to experience their jetlag on landing in Tel Aviv and being whisked immediately onto their coach to meet the Galilee Circus members and travel to a kibbutz that will be their first stop on the tour. The groups are disparate in skills, with the Israeli kids more adept at juggling and stilt walking, and the Arches at acrobatics. Trying to put the skill sets together, while dealing with a language barrier and the Arches’ unfamiliarity with and dislike of the food and kibbutz living, is a challenge. Their first joint show, assembled in a day and a half, is sloppy and full of flubs. This bumpy start is exacerbated when two of the Arches get into a nasty fight in which the “n” word is uttered, right in front of the Israeli kids. There are some real concerns about whether the experiment will be a dismal failure.

However, over the two weeks the two circuses travel and perform together, the hoped-for cultural understanding starts to take hold. Ellianna, who seems to be complaining about everything, and Riana, a troubled girl with learning disabilities, watch and then join in when a group of Arab girls at the home of Galilee Circus kids, Manar and Manal, belly dance to some records. Riana especially is enthralled by the way they move, their coin-clad hip belts shimmering and sounding as they dance.

There isn’t much the Arches don’t experience. They sleep in a bedouin tent in the desert (not a happy experience), they ride a camel, they attend a birthday party with a cake, candles, and a song that is not “Happy Birthday.” The feasts they are offered for everyday meals leave the Arches bewildered.

A visit to Jerusalem is a profound experience for the Arches. Matthew talks excitedly about actually being at the Dome on the Mount, which he had only seen in his history book, “and the picture I took is better than the one in my history book!” Michel, whose parents initially were worried about him traveling to a war zone (his mother, not knowing where Israel is, says, “Israel better be in St. Louis!”) is thrilled about being at the Western Wall and inserting a wish into a crack. “I’m so happy!” he enthuses.

When the tour comes to a close, the combined circus is running like a well-oiled machine. Manal is excited that she learned how to do tricks on a stationary trapeze, Keaton got his first kiss from Israeli beauty Shirell, and everyone is crying at the airport.

The film concentrates on the growing bonds that form between the Arches and Galilee troupe members, but there are some disturbing moments. Ali, one of the Arab performers, is unhappy with the way the girls are behaving. “They should be beaten,” he says. Two of the male Arches also talk about punching girls who they imagine are their girlfriends. In the Q&A, we learn about an incident in which one of the Arab kids was thrown out of a shop after being accused of stealing—a bit of this was included in the trailer for the film, but not in the final movie. Keaton said in the Q&A that the presence of the Arches seemed to have broken down barriers between the Arab and Jewish members of the Galilee Circus, and Jessica Hentoff said that change like they hope to bring is a drop in the bucket, but that she expected those drops to accumulate.

I hope she’s right. Some changes have come to some parts of the world with persistent, peaceful efforts such as this one. By planting the idea that the Arches were peace ambassadors to Israel, Hentoff opened their minds to new possibilities, and the continued cultural exchange—both groups continue to travel between each other’s countries—will keep those minds open. I’d like to see some work done on bringing peace and equality not only to Arabs in Israel, but to women in both countries. Circus Kids is a movie that is determined to plant hope. While I think it would have benefited from revealing some of its sharper edges, it is an entertaining and revealing film that deserves a wide audience. l

Circus Kids will screen Sunday, October 10, 1:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns about love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)

Ten Winters: Emotionally honest and lyrical study of a man and a woman whose initial attraction goes through many changes as they experience 10 years worth of living. (Italy)

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

8th 10 - 2010 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2010: The Matchmaker (aka Once I Was, 2010)

Director/Screenwriter: Avi Nesher

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Anyone who reads me regularly knows of my antipathy toward most Holocaust films. Their apparent attempts at ennobling victims and resisters of the Nazis always seem like just the reverse to me: to riff on something director Melvin Van Peebles said about black characters in movies, I suspect audiences just like to see someone suffer. Rarely in my experience have I seen a Holocaust-related movie that shows suffering without exploitation (Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book is a very notable exception) or, more importantly, offers some kind of life lesson beyond the eternally paranoid “never again.” I’m extremely happy to report that The Matchmaker, by popular Israeli director Avi Nesher and based on a book by Amir Gutfreund, is a wise and wonderful coming-of-age tale that comments on the misuse and misunderstanding of the Holocaust while showing us a way to live a more gentle, tolerant life.

The film is told primarily in flashback by 50ish novelist Arik Burstein (Eyal Shehter), who is in for some surprising news from an attorney (Ya’ackov Bodo) whom he drives with his elderly father Yozi (Dov Navon) through a war zone in Haifa to meet. The attorney tells Arik that he has inherited the sizeable estate of Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), a matchmaker for whom Arik worked one summer when he was 16 years old. Both Arik and Yozi are thunderstruck at hearing this name, long vanished from their lives, and Arik is even more surprised to find that Yankele kept a story Arik wrote and gave to him during what would turn out to be their last meeting.

We are taken to the summer of 1968, when young Arik (Tuval Shafir) is aware of the “doctrine” of free love espoused by American youth, and perhaps only dimly aware of the onset of their determinedly delayed adolescence. Arik is interested in sex, of course, but he goes against the grain of his American counterparts by wishing he were 18 and able to start his compulsory national service in the Israeli armed forces.

One afternoon, he and his friends are approached by Bride, who asks them if they have a brother or sister looking for love. He specializes in matching people who have some problem—physical or mental—that keeps them from attracting a mate. The boys decide to have it off on Bride, and Arik tells him he has a sister with flippers, that is, webbing between her fingers, that have ruined her chances for marriage. He directs Bride to his family’s apartment, and the boys follow him into the building to listen in on what is bound to be a humorous conversation. Much to Arik’s surprise, and his friends’ disappointment, when his father answers the door, he recognizes Bride as an old classmate from Romania and invites him in. When Bride learns that Arik is Yozi’s son, he offers him a job tailing prospective matches to be sure they don’t have any dark secrets that could make his clients unhappy. Arik’s qualifications beyond his family connection are his ability to lie convincingly and his love of detective novels.

Yozi and Yankele are both Holocaust survivors. Yozi chose to put the past behind him and start with a clean slate in Israel; his wife is a native Israeli, and neither of them talks with Arik about the Holocaust. Yankele, limping and with a huge gash across his face, is marked in more ways than one by his dark experiences. He lives “off the map” near the waterfront in the low-rent district people from Arik’s neighborhood only visit when they want to buy something that “fell off the boat.” He and his neighbors feel safer flying under the radar of the government and being near a port where they can flee quickly should the need arise.

Yankele works next to a movie theatre run by dwarves and across from a bagel bakery whose front-loading, coal-fired ovens face Yankele’s glass-fronted office in painful (and obvious) reminder of what 6 million of Yankele’s fellow Jews suffered in Europe. Another painful reminder is Clara Epstein (Maya Dagan), a beautiful woman Yankele loves but can never marry because her memories have left her so deeply damaged that she cannot bear strong feelings—even love; she has left her son in the care of others on a kibbutz so that he won’t be scarred by her emotional instability. Clara works with Yankele coaching his clients in the art of courtship and running a card gambling establishment out of her apartment. Yankele makes his money on the black market, and sees his penny-ante matchmaking business as more than a front—it is a mission to bring love back into the world.

Before meeting Yankele, Arik looked up to Meir (Dror Keren), the local librarian, who guided his literary choices to help him develop as a writer. But Meir proves to be a foolish and obsessive person who believes the stereotypes about Holocaust survivors—the men must have been camp capos and the women forced to be prostitutes for Axis soldiers—and tries to wreck revenge on Yankele when he dissuades Meir from pursuing Clara, whose attentions during his coaching session have set Meir’s heart on her. Through Yankele’s example—trying to find a mate for the beautiful dwarf Sylvia (Bat-el Papura), checking to see that his clients won’t be hurt in a bad match, treating Clara and everyone he encounters with kindness and dignity—Arik learns what being a mensch is all about and comes to love the sad, goodhearted “criminal.”

The Matchmaker is a teeming and brilliantly told story with a mise-en-scène that creates a believable past while still offering a certain timelessness that befits the film’s universal theme of love. The characters wear period clothing that seems somehow contemporary, and even some aspects of Israeli society, like kids as old as Arik being in the scouts, are updated when Tamara (Neta Porat), the cousin of Arik’s best friend Benny (Tom Gal), comes for the summer. The insertion of the rebellious Tamara, brought to Israel from the United States by her Iraqi Jewish father to remove her from the 60s youth culture, seems a bit of a non sequitur, but it is through Arik’s relationship with her that we see how he is developing as a sexual and emotional man. It is also through her that Arik comes to realize that it might not always be a good thing to inform on the people Yankele is considering for matches—that they may have loves and lives of their own with which no one has the right to interfere.

The performances are superlative and believable, with the actors and director affording dignity to characters that might have come off as too tragic, clownish, or freakish. Indeed, this entire film seems to be a plea for understanding, that we try to stand in the other person’s shoes. One moment I particularly liked is when Arik tells Yankele that he knows it’s a good deed to try to help Sylvia. Yankele shoots back, “What? Do you think they are pets? They are people!” Yozi, too, complains to Arik about what the average Israeli thinks about Holocaust survivors, calling The House of Dolls, a popular book about Nazis turning Jewish women into sex slaves, distorting rubbish.

The Matchmaker taught me a lot about Israel when it was still quite young and active in dealing with the fallout from World War II. Most important, it taught me about an aspect of the Holocaust that is often hidden, but that I so hoped existed—survivors surviving and learning to live, love, and try to spread joy to fight against the hardships of life. In these rather bleak times, The Matchmaker is a bittersweet valentine to the human race that might just renew your hope for a better tomorrow.

The Matchmaker will be shown Monday, October 11, 2 p.m., Sunday, October 17, 4:15 p.m., and Tuesday, October 19, 8:40 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

Ten Winters: Love will find a way, but it takes its time in this wise, realistic story of a young man and woman whose mutual attraction and friendship take some interesting turns over 10 years. (Italy)

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

30th 04 - 2010 | no comment »

The Liquid of Life (2008)

Director: Pini Schatz

The 2010 Talking Pictures Festival (May 6-9)

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The Liquid of Life is a 50-minute Israeli documentary with a subtitle: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Blood. Quoting from one of the most mordantly funny films ever made is both audacious and a signal that we’re not in for a boring Red Cross lecture—or should I say Red Star of David, which is the more appropriate symbol the Israeli bloodsucker organization uses. I learned that and a few things more from this jittery survey of what blood means to director and narrator Schatz, the Jewish people, and, of course, to horror movie fans.

Shatz lets us know at the outset that he’s a filmmaker who hasn’t made a film in eight years. Becoming a father has taken most of his time and interest away from his craft. Shatz’s lifelong attraction to horror movies—particularly vampire movies—seems to have prompted his choice of subject for breaking his cinematic fast. We are liberally treated to snatches of vampire movies, starting with the most famous—Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Shatz points out something I never noticed before: Lugosi wears something that looks like a Star of David on his chest in some scenes. This revelation takes us into a historical exploration of one aspect of anti-Semitism: that Jews use Christian children as blood sacrifices for their rituals, a medieval urban legend that arose from stories about one cultish Jew who killed children. Leavening this unappetizing matzo of a fact, Shatz offers a sarcastic scene from Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers: when faced with a crucifix brandished by his next meal, Shagal the Vampire snickers, “Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!”

Shatz grows more serious when he discusses the death of his father of leukemia at the age of 53. We observe a series of blood donations in progress—including the wince-inducing insertion of needles into veins—and an explanation of the components of blood narrated by a physician and illustrated with some crudely funny cartoons. The horrors the sister of one of the donors went through to try to cure her cancer—a travesty of healing that ended up killing her anyway—are wrenching. On the absurd end of the spectrum, some wacko theologian/psychologist offers that more men than women donate blood because they fear and envy a woman’s ability to give birth, and enact their own bloodletting as a symbolic usurpation of the menstrual cycle. At least, I think that’s what she said.

Another wince-inducing moment—be forewarned, gentlemen—is when Shatz recounts his own underground circumcision when he was a baby in his native Estonia, which was then part of the officially atheistic Soviet Union. He talks about the clandestine smuggling of a mohel from a neighboring country, and shows us an actual circumcision—one of several bloodlettings in his own life. The final scene shows how he reenacted the execution of his grandfather by a single gunshot to the head. The packing of the blood package and the way the concussion of the blank in the prop gun actually explodes the package was really very interesting.

The festival blurb characterizes The Liquid of Life as “a rapid fire ‘essay’ film that prompted Canadian auteur Guy Maddin to state: ‘A fantastic idea for a film, maybe the best idea I’ve ever heard.’” It is a good idea, but calling it “rapid fire” is a nice way of saying it’s kind of a random mess; like any essay, it needs an editor’s hand to shape it into a logical whole. Nonetheless, The Liquid of Life is an enjoyable mess created by a genuinely funny director I’d be happy to spend time with again. l

The Liquid of Life will be screened on May 8 at 9:15 p.m. at the Hinman Theater on the 9th floor of the Hotel Orrington, 1701 Orrington Ave., Evanston, Illinois.


6th 12 - 2009 | no comment »

Defamation (Hashmasta, 2009)

Director: Yoav Shamir


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Handcuffed to the Holocaust. Shackled to the Shoah. Those of you who read me know these are phrases I’ve used before to express my dismay and disgust at how I’ve felt forced to wear an invisible Star of David on my invisible, threadbare schmattes, forever linked to a history of victimhood that saw its peak in Nazi Germany. It has long been a sore spot with me that Jewish stereotypes include meek lamb to the slaughter among them, and that because of our recent tragedy, we are held to a higher standard of humanity than the people who actually perpetrated the Shoah. When Jews act “out of character” with aggressiveness, it’s somehow worse—we should know better. Yet, as Shakespeare’s Shylock said:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.

Yet, while I strain at the anti-Semitism inherent in singling out Jews as both victims and mandatory moral arbiters, many Jews, especially in America, cling to our past victimhood with all their might. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the largest organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism in the world, feels every pinprick, no matter how insignificant, and adheres to the broken window theory: let just one incident slide and you’re halfway down the slippery slope that leads to another Holocaust.

Israel is the one place on earth where Jews are just people, living in their customary way, unburdened by the feeling that to declare oneself a Jew is to risk a range of kneejerk reactions among neighbors, coworkers, friends, and strangers—though perhaps the only real reaction is one’s own paranoia. As a young Israeli, Defamation director Yoav Shamir acknowledges at the outset that he has never known anti-Semitism, even though the newspapers, magazines, and TV broadcasts he consumes shout of its existence with disturbing regularity. He doesn’t understand what anti-Semitism is, how it relates to anti-Zionism, or even if an anti-Zionist is automatically an anti-Semite. His film seeks answers in Israel, Auschwitz, and the United States, as he questions his 90-year-old Zionist grandmother, an early emigré to Palestine; Abraham Foxman, a concentration camp survivor and head of the ADL; American scholars critical of the American lobby for Israel, including the reviled Dr. Norman Finkelstein, a son of Holocaust survivors who was fired from Chicago’s DePaul University, he claims, because he is an outspoken critic of Israel and the ADL’s peddling of the Holocaust; and Israeli high school students who take a field trip to Auschwitz.


Each thread Shamir follows reveals a different set of assumptions about how Jews can, should, and do look at the world. The high schoolers are shown the by-now-prescribed footage of mounds of dead Jews being bulldozed; they wrinkle their noses in disgust, but say they can’t feel the anger and sorrow they are “supposed” to feel. Already we are seeing that the “pilgrimage” to Auschwitz is meant to indoctrinate these young Israelis, who have never felt the sting of anti-Semitism, to feel angry, tortured, and seek vengeance on Jew haters everywhere. One of the girls says what I and other Jews have thought in the context of our religion—that she would be killed just because of her nationality (note she didn’t say religion), not because she personally did anything to anyone.


When we move to Shamir’s adventures in America, we are in what for me is more familiar territory. Foxman’s numerical Auschwitz tattoo is incontrovertible proof of his legitimacy as a victim and moral arbiter. His self-confessed obsession with anti-Semitism has propelled his work. When Shamir asks for a case he can follow up, an ADL worker who records reports of anti-Semitism can’t find much beyond employers who won’t give Jewish employees the Jewish holidays off. Foxman reads a letter he received from a woman who was incensed when she overheard a cop providing protection at a Jewish funeral in Crown Heights, New York, tell someone on his cellphone that he would be over after he was done with the “Jew shit.” Anti-Semitic? Well, I don’t know—regardless, the cop’s immediate apology ended the ADL’s role in the matter.


Shamir finds a more suitable case—black teens have thrown rocks at a bus taking Jewish students to a yeshiva in Crown Heights, where tensions between blacks and Jews have flared through the years. His interviews with several black men and women on the street sound both anti-Semitic and a bit incoherent but no moreso than his interview with his grandmother who says any Jew who isn’t a Zionist is anti-Semitic, though whether that means pro-Israel, making aliyah, or backing Israel 100% in everything wasn’t clear; she left me thoroughly confused.

finkelstein_01.jpgThe most interesting part of the documentary for me was to hear from Jews who feel much as I do about Israel—supportive of its existence but concerned about the power of the Jewish lobby to influence American foreign policy and condemnatory of Israeli abuses against Palestinians. Finkelstein, a very unique Jew to merit ejection from Israel as a security risk, is savage in his opinion of Foxman, whom he sees as a profiteer of the Holocaust; the ADL has a yearly budget of $13 million, and Foxman regularly takes lavish junkets, Finkelstein says, to hobnob with world leaders. When Finkelstein gives the Nazi salute at the mention of Foxman’s name, Shamir reacts badly. “Why are you all of a sudden so politically correct? You Israelis call each other Nazis all the time” and then ticks off the names of Israeli leaders who have done so in the past. In another case, this time at a conference on anti-Semitism in Israel, a British Jew calls out Israel for its human rights abuses in the West Bank, only to be met with vehement attacks afterwards by other lecturers. He is nonplussed: “Back home, I’m considered radically pro-Israel. There were some very right-wing elements at this conference today.”


Shamir scores his documentary with strangely childish music that suggested to me he saw himself as Alice in Wonderland; to many piously self-righteous Jews and humanists, this might have seemed irreverent, but I thought it hit just the right note myself, for what else must it be like for a Jew who has never experienced life outside of Israel to suddenly be thrust into a world that plays by different rules—surely it must be a through-the-lookinglass experience. On the other hand, Shamir isn’t a naive babe; he knew to tell the black New Yorkers quoting from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion that the book was a proven fraud written by Jew haters.

This documentary, while touching on politics, stays within its scope of exploring the meaning of anti-Semitism. I don’t know if Shamir felt the sting of it, but he surely can’t deny (as others did in the film) that it doesn’t exist. Yet, how much of Jewish wariness and vigilance is hype and actually counterproductive to Israeli and Jewish interests? Anyone who sees this thoughtful and, yes, often enjoyable documentary will be better equipped to answer that question.

Michael Guillen has a terrific interview with Yoav Shamir at The Evening Class.

26th 07 - 2008 | 7 comments »

My Father, My Lord (Hofshats Kaits, 2007)

Director/Screenwriter: David Volach


By Marilyn Ferdinand

“You know what you know about life from your encounter with it, but you react to life while building it.” (David Volach)

David Volach’s much-honored debut film helps us encounter a world that is a self-protected mystery to many of us—that of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews. As one of 19 children raised in a Haredi family in Jerusalem, Volach understand this world well. My Father, My Lord tells of one week in the lives of one such family—the elderly Rabbi Abraham Eidelmann (Assi Dayan), his much-younger wife Esther (Sharon Hacohen), and their 7-year-old son Menahen (Ilan Griff). In a well-honed Jewish method of teaching, Volach constructs his tale as a parable—actually, a sort of counter-parable to the biblical tale of the binding of Isaac.

In this tale, Rabbi Eidelmann is very much like his biblical namesake, Abraham. He is the extremely devout spiritual leader of a Haredi congregation in Jerusalem. We first meet the so-far nameless rabbi doing what rabbis usually do—studying scripture closely at a desk and making notes. We view him at lower than eye level through a space between the stacks of books piled around him. He is shaky, having trouble keeping to his task. Eventually, he stops, throws his head back, and starts to weep. We then see him going through the doors of his synagogue. The men of the congregation, engaged in animated conversations, pause and move to let him pass. The rabbi climbs the few stairs to the altar and leans wearily at the podium. He looks over at an empty seat with a brass nameplate. The subtitle translates it as “Menahen Eidelmann.” We assume he is weeping for this missing congregant, who must have died. A birds-eye shot passes over the congregation, with its table set with food for after the service.

In the next scene we meet Esther and young Menahen (could this be the missing congregant?) in a scene of domestic bliss. We hear Esther call to her son as the boy sits on the edge of a full bathtub, twirling with his finger some wet hair that must be his father’s floating on top. Menahen is a curious, observant boy, filled with wonder about everything, particularly things of nature. He has some breakfast and then goes with his father down the street to school. On the way, the rabbi quizzes him about the purposes of the prayer boxes called tefillin Haredi wear on their forehead and arm. To get high-quality tefillin, the rabbi tells his son, they will have to order them four or five years before Menahen’s bar mitzvah.

In class, the instructor is teaching them songs of praise to G_d; the song they are learning today is the story of the binding of Isaac. Menahen is distracted by a mother dove that has built her nest on his classroom’s window sill and is caring for two chicks. On the playground, he shows a classmate an educational card from a National Geographic set that shows a tribal African in exotic make-up beating on a drum.

At home, he shows the card to his mother and asks, “Is this idolatry?” Esther calls Abraham in to look at the card, and he confirms that it is idolatry. He orders Menahem repeatedly and harshly to tear up the card. When their son starts to cry, Esther suggests that he can have another card. The rabbi, angry, asks, “Next, are you going to reward him for observing the Sabbath?” Finally, Menahem holds the card in front of him and tears it in two.

Father%205.jpgMenahem is very excited that they are to spend time at the Dead Sea and goes through the bag of things his mother has purchased for the trip—plastic sandals, a new bathing suit. He asks her where the water wings are. She says they are in the bag. Then he says, “you don’t need water wings there. You just lay back and float,” a comment on the high salt content of the Dead Sea. On the day they are to leave in a private transport—a treat to Menahem from the rabbi—the teacher at Menahen’s school rushes out to the car to fetch the rabbi. He is brought to the nest of the dove, where he recites a prayer, and shoos away the mother bird in observance of a Torah commandment. Then he finishes the prayer asking G_d to honor him and his wife with many sons and daughters, which is part of the ritual. When Menahen asks him why he made the chicks motherless, the rabbi replies, “We do everything in the Torah without asking why.” Esther tries to reassure Menahem that the mother bird will come back to the nest. She knows that Menahen has observed the feelings—the souls—animals have, which his father has told him they do not.


Menahen’s love of nature and his father’s love of the Almighty will lead to the tragedy we fear is coming. Indeed, this is a film filled with love. I found myself quite moved by Menahen’s inquisitiveness and the beauty of the shots Volach shares with us—a window onto the soul of earth that even Abraham acknowledges is a wondrous gift from G_d—and fell quite in love with this sweet, little boy. Esther is a gift of a mother, gentle with Menahen and angry on his behalf over the torn card. She writes a note to Abraham when he comes to bed that night (not permitted to speak after she says the cleansing prayer of sleep) to express her anger.

Father%204.jpgBut what of Abraham? He loses his son because he “was wrapped in the arms of the Almighty” at afternoon prayer. Does that mean he loves G_d more than he loves his family? It would be easy to judge Abraham as a kind of careerist too devoted to his work—or as a religious zealot, which a number of reviewers of this film have charged—but this is a complicated issue that doesn’t smack of zealotry to me. Abraham believes that the Lord determines the fate of men, and he must accept that this loss was G_d’s will. He also knows that the biblical Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his miracle son Isaac on an altar to show his love of G_d. He is an old man who has devoted his whole life to Torah; its laws are his life. He never learned how to deal with a little boy. His contrition in the face of Esther’s anger about the torn card shows he would like to learn, but unfortunately, he must learn about the sanctity of life the hardest way of all.

When Menahen and his father are at the seashore, the boy brings over a fish he has caught in a plastic bag from a nearby stream. Abraham says the fish is from the mountain streams that run to the sea. Since it is a freshwater fish, it will die when it enters the salt water. Now that Abraham has come down from the mountaintop and swum in the salt water of sorrow, what will happen to him and his faith? David Volach poses a worthy question in an incredibly moving and lyrical film. l

8th 10 - 2007 | 2 comments »

Tehilim (2007)

Director: Raphaël Nadjari

2007 Chicago International Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Israel is a country all too familiar with tragedies that tear families apart. Most of the outside world is familiar with the car bombs, border fighting, and saber rattling of Israel’s international politics. It is rare, however, for the average outsider to get a glimpse of the daily life of this country; we imagine, I suppose, that everyone lives in bunkers and watches for flak over their shoulders every day.
In fact, of course, Israel’s daily life is much like that found in other countries. Lower, middle, and upper classes exist in their day-to-day spheres. Fathers and mothers work, tend to their homes and families, and send their children off to school. Ordinary crimes and celebrations occur. Religious services are held. People come and go.

Eli Frankel (Shmuel Vilojni), his wife Alma (Limor Goldstein), his teenage son Menachem (Michael Moshonov), and younger son David (Yonathan Alster) lead a seemingly typical, middle-class life in Jerusalem. The kids fight, the mother badgers, the father intervenes when conflicts arise, and all do what they are assigned to do—work, homemaking, and school. Eli admonishes Menachem to listen to his mother and not come home at all hours because she worries. Menachem disobeys, of course, when he goes out with his friends and girlfriend Debbie (Reut Lev). David is always late getting ready for school.

One morning, Eli is driving David and Menachem to classes. When he reaches the school, a strange, distracted look comes over his face. He passes by the building, and David asks him why he didn’t stop. The car narrowly avoids hitting oncoming traffic and crashes onto a median. Menachem emerges from the vehicle a bit stunned. Eli tells him to go get help. Menachem weaves his way up the street and out of sight.


When Menachem returns with a pair of heavily armed policemen—perhaps military—they see David lying in the back of the car. Eli is gone. The troopers call for an ambulance to take David and Menachem to the hospital. They take a statement from Menachem about his father. The Jerusalem police take over and plan a search of a 20-kilometer area to see if they can find Eli, who may be hurt and disoriented. Their search turns up nothing.


The Frankels are in shock. They accept the ministrations of Aharon (Yoav Hait), Eli’s brother, and his father (Ilan Dar), which include nightly prayer vigils in Alma’s home and the printing of 200 copies of Tehilim (Psalms) for distribution within their prayer community. Alma also finds that she must find a way to make ends meet—the bank has frozen all the family’s assets until a missing person declaration is granted.

Amid the general tumult, and despite Alma’s attempts to comfort them, Menachem and David are left largely to their own devices. David seeks help from Menachem, who merely wants to be left alone. He stops attending school and pushes Debbie away. The accident car, which has been towed to a parking spot near their home, becomes a haunted place that Menachem visits, but fears touching, and a setting for his dreams.

Alma puts her foot down about the prayer vigils one day, declaring she needs some peace and quiet at home. Eli’s father becomes offended and storms out. Menachem chases after him, and visits him the next day to apologize. “She can’t help it,” says the pious man. “It’s how she was raised.” Menachem drags David to their grandfather’s Saturday morning Torah readings. It was something he used to do with his father.


We watch Menachem slowly implode throughout this understated, internalized film. It doesn’t help that everyone around him emphasizes how important family is at a time like this; perhaps the most important family member to Menachem—his father—has apparently bugged out. He must feel, as children do, that he did something wrong to drive his father away, and what solace can there ever be for him.

The handheld camerawork, meant to give this film an immediacy, is frequently and jarringly out of focus. Watching the daily struggle of a family in crisis is both tedious and extremely unnerving. However, French director Nadjari pulls a stellar performance out of Moshonov that is mesmerizing to watch. The growth of panic and grief is so gradual, but insistent, that we experience the same anticlimax at the end of the film as the Frankels do. We’ve become invested in their plight more than is comfortable.

Tehilim opens on one of the grandfather’s Torah readings. The men are studying a text that asks how a man who does not know toward which direction he is facing turn his prayers toward Jerusalem. The answer is that he must turn his face to God. Menachem and we can only hope that turning his face to God will help him find his way. l

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