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Cantankerous Old Coots

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Retirement often brings out the strangest passions in men. While some may join the Tea Party movement and use its activities as a vehicle for venting their frustrations, others take to volunteer work or seek out mentoring opportunities.

Many end up puttering around in their garages, fixing gadgets and producing strange creations. Matt Lenski's short, The Meaning of Robots, showcases the work of the eccentric but determined Mike Sullivan (who has spent more than 10 years shooting a robot porn stop motion film in his apartment).

As you can see from the above clip, the mind is a terrible thing to waste. What happens to the minds of men who lived through the Great Depression? World War II? Often, as these men grow older, they start to act on fantasies involving adventure or revenge, determined to show "young whippersnappers" who's still in charge. Two films screened at the 2012 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival examined extreme reactions of elderly men to conflicts with members of a younger generation.

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Written and directed by Sameh Zoabi, Man Without A Cell Phone is a classic case of a curmudgeon who demands to be heard -- especially when he feels that others are encroaching upon his territory. Just like Rodney Dangerfield, Salem (Basem Loulou) feels that he "can't get no respect."

Salem is a cranky old farmer living in an Arab village near Nazareth who resents the way Palestinian-Israelis are treated as second class citizens by the Israeli government. When an Israeli telecom company erects a cell phone tower in his village, he tries to organize a grassroots protest with the slogan "Yes to Olives. No to Radiation!"

Basem Loulou as Salem in Man Without a Cellphone

While several of Salem's cronies are more than happy to interfere with the efforts of the Israeli telecom service, the younger generation has other things on its mind:

  • Salem's son, Jawdat (Razi Shawahdeh), is a hopeless romantic who is thrilled that the improved reception on his cell phone can help him juggle his attempts at wooing several attractive young women.
  • Jawdat's cousin, Muhammed (Louay Noufi), is a loyal friend who is hoping to get married so that he can finally have a sex life.
  • Rana (Maysa Abd Elhadi) is a beautiful student leader who keeps urging Jawdat to concentrate on his studies as a means of getting ahead in life.

Razi Shawahdeh as Jawdat in Man Without a Cellphone

Salem's initial attempt to destroy the cell phone tower provokes a surprising reaction. Not only is the tower repaired, soon there are armed guards stationed in front of it. While the guards have been trained to stand their ground against any and all threats, they're not prepared to fight an angry farmer who knows how to use sprinklers as a weapon. Here's a clip from Man Without a Cellphone.

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Written and directed by Leo Khasin, Kaddish For a Friend is the kind of film that can really tear at a viewer's heart. Set in the Kreuzberg section of Berlin, it focuses on the strange story of Alexander (Ryszard Ronczewski), an old Russian Jew who survived World War II, and Ali Messalem (Neil Belakhdar), a 14-year-old Arab whose family recently arrived in town from Lebanon in an effort to escape the ongoing violence between Arabs and Israelis.

As Ali's family moves into their new apartment, they notice water dripping through the ceiling. When the teenager goes upstairs to see what the problem is, he discovers that their upstairs neighbor's washing machine has malfunctioned. After helping the old man fix the problem, he heads downstairs to tell his parents some shocking news.

Ali's father, Wadir (Neil Malik Abdullah), is horrified to learn that his family is now living beneath their worst enemy, a Jew. Determined to build a new life in Germany, he discourages his son from drawing and sketching and insists that Ali concentrate only on school and work.

It's difficult for his social worker to get any cooperation from Alexander. The old man adamantly resists transfer to a nursing home and, although he presents himself to strangers as a gruff, intolerant old coot, Alexander is a former teacher who used to coach boxing. A World War II veteran, he carries the wounds of his lost loves deep inside his heart. Alexander's wife is dead. His only son (an Israeli soldier) was killed while on duty in Lebanon.

Poster art for Kaddish For a Friend

When Ali starts to hang out with his cousin Bilal's (Cemal Subasi) gang, he quickly becomes a target for abuse as the new kid in town. In order to prove himself, he accepts a challenge from the gang's leader, Younes (Younes Hussein Ramadan), to trash the apartment of "that old Jew." Returning home from visiting a cluster of elderly friends who have just honored him for his years of service to their community, Alexander enters his home to find his apartment ransacked and the words "Juden=Nazi" written on the wall.

Knowing full well who destroyed his most cherished belongings, the furious man heads downstairs to confront Ali's parents. Later, when the boy's mother (Sanam Afrashteh) rings his doorbell with a peace offering and begs Alexander to show mercy on her son, he refuses her entreaties. Instead, Alexander offers a strict ultimatum: The only way he will resist reporting Ali to the police is if the boy comes upstairs and returns his apartment to its previous condition.

With his imposing physique, Alexander knows how to intimidate a scrawny young kid like Ali. But soon they find a way to communicate with each other. When Ali shows the old man a drawing he has made that reproduces the scene in one of the old photos he damaged, Alexander realizes that the boy has artistic talent.

Acting on the instincts of a retired teacher, he encourages Ali to keep sketching. As his apartment gets restored, a bond starts to grow between the bitter old Jew and an insecure young Arab. However, a problem still remains: Now that Ali has been noticed by the police, he can be deported if Alexander testifies against him.

The old man's friends insist that he do so as a means of retaliating against their enemies. But Alexander, who understands that Ali made an unfortunate mistake, believes there might be a stronger lesson to be learned from forgiveness.

Ryszard Ronczewski in Kaddish For a Friend

In his director's statement, Khasin (a former dentist) explains that:

"My patients were a colorful bunch from every part of the world, including sentimental Russians stranded in Berlin and loud Arabs. But as much as I thought about them, I couldn't bring them together until, one day, a very scared young Lebanese boy was given a nod of encouragement by an old Russian Jew. It was the birth of my heroes, two dissimilar friends who are destined to overcome the gulf between cultures."

Blessed by Ronczewski's stellar performance, Kaddish For a Friend packs a deep emotional punch. Khasin's tenderly-crafted drama offers audiences an unexpected and deeply moving tale of friendship, forgiveness, and redemption. Neil Belakhdar delivers an impressive performance as Ali, with touching cameos by Heinz W. Krukeberg as Alexander's closest friend and Anna Bottcher as his social worker. Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape