Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel


They keep their heads covered to show their devotion to God.

(2018) Sports Documentary (Menemsha) Ike Davis, Sam Fuld, Ryan Lavarnway, Josh Zeid, Scott Buchan, Ty Kelly, Cody Baker, Jason Marquis, Jerry Weinstein, Cody Decker, Peter Kurz, Jon Moscot, Jeremy Bleich, Danny Valencia, Jonathan Mayo, Margo Sugarman. Directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger

 

As underdogs go, there are few more under than the Israeli national baseball team. Even back in the 80s, the spoof Airplane! Joked about handing out a tiny pamphlet sized book called Great Jewish Athletes to passengers looking for a little light reading. Baseball has had a few great Jewish players including Hank Greenberg and most notably, legendary Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax. Sadly, while Koufax is fawned over in the film, Greenberg who was one of the great sluggers of the game back in the day gets nary a mention.

Most of the players for the Israeli team that was fielded for the 2017 World Baseball Classic – a kind of World Cup for baseball – were American Jews who have at least one Jewish parent or grandparent which qualifies them under the Heritage Rule which allows players of a different national descent to play for that team rather than the country they are actually citizens of.

For the most part Team Israel was made up of players who were career minor leaguers or had just a cup of coffee in the majors. One big exception was Ike Davis, a slugger for the New York Mets and later the Pirates, A’s and Yankees. Injuries had shortened his career, but he was hoping to make a comeback when he agreed to play with Team Israel.

The team was ranked 41st in the world and were derided by the press as “has-beens and never-will-bes” but that only served as motivation for the team who beat the heavily favored Great Britain team in Brooklyn to qualify for the 16-team tournament. Placed in Pool A, they would be playing in Seoul, South Korea.

Many of the players weren’t really practicing Jews and almost none of them had been to Israel. Billionaire Sheldon Adelson arranged to fly the team there in his own private jet, beginning a spiritual and personal journey for the team who began to appreciate their Jewishness more. A terrorist attack that occurred while they were touring the country further cemented their connection to their heritage.

Once the tournament starts, the team captures the imagination of the world, becoming the Cinderella story of the tournament. The film doesn’t really cover the individual games in more than a cursory fashion but then again, the movie isn’t about the games themselves.

One of the quirks the team was known for was their mascot, Mensch on the Bench. Sharp Shark Tank viewers may recognize it from an episode of that show, a light-hearted parody of Elf on a Shelf. Well, Team Israel had a life-sized version who accompanied the team to most media events and games. That was indicative of the light-hearted spirit that the team possessed as a whole.

The bonding of the team isn’t particularly unusual; most teams bond in some fashion and Team Israel was no exception. The 2017 team hoped to win the WBC but not for the reasons you might think. They wanted the future of Team Israel to be populated less by American players but with Israeli-born players. A disgruntled Cuban at a press conference excoriated the self-described “Jew Crew” because of this, but that doesn’t hold a whole lot of water – the Cuban team could certainly have recruited players of Cuban descent from other countries had they chosen to.

At the end of the day underdog movies are pretty much a lifeblood for sports documentaries and this one, while occasionally inspiring, really doesn’t add much to the picture except for one item – the awakening of the players to their Jewish heritage. Those scenes in which the players react to Jewish traditions and ceremonies are among the most compelling in the film. Clearly the players grow a connection to Israel and those are the moments that make the movie satisfying. Unfortunately, the standard sports clichés that litter the baseball sequences keep the movie achieving all-star status.

REASONS TO GO: This is a heartwarming and occasionally inspiring documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses some steam towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The three directors are childhood friends and met Mayo through a Jewish summer camp.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Cecil

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Aftermath (2012) (Poklosie)


You can't beat Ireneusz Czop's performance with a stick.

You can’t beat Ireneusz Czop’s performance with a stick.

(2012) Drama (Menemsha) Ireneusz Czop, Maciej Stuhr, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Danuta Szarflarska, Jerzy Radziwilowicz, Zuzana Fialova, Wojciech Brzezinski, Danuta Borsuk, Andrzej Mastalerz, Anita Podderbniak, Magdalena Gnatowska, Ryszard Roncziewski, Zbigniew Konopka, Elzbieta Romanowska, Lech Dyblik, Jaroslaw Gruda, Zbigniew Kasprzyk, Robert Rogalski, Maria Garbowska. Directed by Wladyslaw Pasikowski

We really don’t know what darkness lurks in the hearts of our neighbors. Even in the nicest, most bucolic towns there can be absolute horrors beyond imagining. Some people will go to the most extreme of measures to keep those secrets hidden.

Franck Kalina (Czop) has flown to Poland from Chicago. His destination is a pretty remote one; to get there he has to take a plane, a train, a bus and then walk the rest of the way. He is there to visit his brother Jozef (Stuhr) who runs the family farm.

Franck has been in America nearly 20 years and has been estranged from his brother at least for that long but when Jozef’s wife Jola shows up at his door with their kids and without explanation, he returns to the land of his birth to get to the bottom of things. There he finds Jozef has been essentially ostracized by the town. Why? Because he’s unearthing old Jewish tombstones that were repurposed by the Nazis during World War II as flagstones, pavement and other uses. He can’t really explain why he’s doing it other than it seems right; there’s nobody left to look after them.

Franck soon becomes embroiled in the controversy as the incidents escalate from rocks thrown through windows to anti-Semitic graffiti on their barn to physical violence directed against Jozef and his dog. Only the retiring village priest (Mastalerz) and a kindly medic (Fialova) seem to have any sympathy for them at all. Franck’s dogged determination to discover what the reason is for all the hatred over stones for people nobody can remember leads to a shocking discovery.

This movie took nearly a decade to secure the financing to make it to the screen. The movie is inspired by a real incident in the village of Jedwabne during the Second World War. The controversial non-fiction book Neighbors by Princeton scholar Jan Gross (which was denounced as anti-Polish and inflammatory) about the subject inspired the filmmakers to make Aftermath. Even now the events are a sore subject with the Polish people; even reviews of the film in American newspaper have inspired some passionate posts both pro and con; some look at the filmmakers as brave men who have become the first Poles to directly acknowledge the events in Jedwabne and in other places like it in the Arts. Others have condemned it as furthering vicious slander against the Polish people.

This is an incredibly moving film which is on one level the bond between two very different brothers. Franck is taciturn and confrontational but at the same time he didn’t have the decency to return home for the funeral for his parents. Jozef is stubborn and unforgiving but has a curious soft spot for the underdog. Both men, surprisingly, are what I’d call environmental anti-Semites. They habitually refer to Jews as “Yids” and often say things that convey their low opinion of Jews in general and Polish Jews in particular. Franck even intimates that the troubles Poles have getting decent jobs in the U.S.is due to Jewish interference.

They do make the unlikeliest of righteous men but yet they are. It works making them so un-heroic in many ways. These aren’t American action heroes who use their fists to get themselves out of sticky situations; they get beat up and they often seem to go out of their way to avoid conflict but who can blame them – at every turn they are attacked verbally and physically by the townspeople and the new rector (Radziwilowicz) arrived to replace the retiring priest for some odd reason is stirring the town up to do so.

Czop and Stuhr deliver raw, honest performances that depict the brothers as deeply divided and unsure how to bridge the gulf between them until this common cause unites them. They are dogged more than brilliant and stubborn more than compassionate. Perhaps the problem that some conservative Poles have with the film is that none of the Poles in the movie come off as good guys.

This isn’t a movie for the faint of heart. It tackles the issues of hatred, greed and suspicion in the real world and it does so in a real world way. While I saw this movie at the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival, there are no living Jews in the movie until the final scene – and yet the ghosts of the Jewish dead in the Holocaust hang heavy over the film itself. This is the kind of movie that will leave you speechless and is much worth seeking out if you can find it (the official website has a list of theaters playing the movie if you want to click on the picture above and find out if it’s playing near you). It is another contender in what is turning out to be a very strong year for independent films as one of the best of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Czop and Stuhr deliver powerful performances. Raw and emotional.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some disturbing images and thematic content. There’s also a little bit of violence and some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Received the Yad Vashem Chairman’s Award at the 2013 Jerusalem Film Festival for excellence in depiction of the Holocaust.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Attack