Film Review: “Once in a Lifetime” and “Meet the Hitlers” at the Boston Jewish Film Festival

Two films in the Boston Jewish Film Festival: one sticks to the commonplace, the other looks at the bizarre.

Once in a Lifetime, directed by Marie-Castille Schaar. Part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, screening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, November 15.

A glimpse of "Once in a Lifetime," screening at the Boston Jewish Film Festival this Sunday.

A glimpse of “Once in a Lifetime,” screening at the Boston Jewish Film Festival this Sunday.

By Paul Dervis

To Sir with Love
Up the Down Staircase
West Side Story
Hell, throw in Welcome Back Kotter

The film Once in a Lifetime has been made before…probably a hundred times before.

We find ourselves walking through the doors of a poor, melting pot of a high school (this time around in Paris), where the students—black, white, and Middle Eastern—not only hate each other but don’t feel particularly good about themselves. They do not want to be at school, and they let their teacher know it by way of very vulgar terms. They swear at, confront, and dream up new ways to bedevil and intimidate Anne, an instructor who has been around for decades. The scenario is ancient—toss in the Christian/Muslim conflict for a new twist of the knife.

But Anne will not throw in the towel.

The administrator of the school pleads with her to give up on her proverbial ‘sweat hogs,’ but that is not her style. She didn’t choose this career to become a glorified babysitter. Besides, she actually believes in the kids, even if they don’t believe in themselves. They have been told, repeatedly, that they are stupid, that they are the dregs of France’s educational system; Anne takes it upon herself to change their dire fortunes. She fights to give her students a belief in the future.

How will she do this? By having them look carefully at the past. After all, she is teaching history.

There is an annual contest among high schools in which the students analyze the lives of children and adolescents in the Nazi concentration camp system. The better pupils are anxious to win, so this is a tough and competitive assignment; especially for inner city kids who know little about anything that happened before last week. And, at first, many of them do not give a damn. After all, what does it have to do with their lives? Nothing…or so they think.

But to complete this project, they need to work in teams. This is new territory for these teenagers, one that does not come easily. But, you guessed it, the collaborations come off well.

Although most of this film delves into a subject that viewers will most likely be familiar with, it is all new to the students. And they take to the research in life-affirming ways. Kids who never applied themselves to educational tasks before reverse course and delve pretty seriously into the material. And, of course, they begin to bond. If this all sounds a bit like Stand and Deliver, well, it is. Replace calculus with the Holocaust, and you get the gist.

There is one simple yet vividly moving scene here. A genuine Jewish survivor, Léon Zyguel, tells his story to the students. It is not only intensely moving, but also grippingly real. It is easily the best seven minutes in the film; Léon galvanizes the kids—they take his emotional tale and run with it.

Like the aforementioned Stand and Deliver, this film is based on a true story, so it is better than your standard formulaic ‘feel good’ movie. And Ariane Arcaride, playing Anne, gives a fine performance as the steadfast teacher. However, the teen performers don’t do much to distinguish themselves from each other—and that’s a shame.

When all is said and done, writer/director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s piece is ‘kinda’ uplifting and ‘kinda’ thoughtful, but alas, it is not very gripping as drama … except for Léon’s seven minutes of fame, when the real world bursts onto the screen. Once in a Lifetime could have used more of this bedrock sincerity.

Meet the Hitlers, directed by Matthew Ogens. Part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, screening at the Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA, on November 14.

A  scene from "Meet the Hitlers."

A scene from “Meet the Hitlers.”

The Boston Jewish Film Festival has a quirky documentary in its lineup this year. As a film, Meet the Hitlers proffers a split personality. At times, the piece is quite funny, particularly when it brings in footage of interviews with a racist family, the Campbell clan, who named a child after the infamous man himself and then infamously tried to get a birthday cake made for the kid with his name emblazoned on it.

Others sporting the taboo moniker articulate the expected spectrum of emotions. Young girls laugh off people’s reactions while a middle-aged woman speaks darkly of the rough road she had to travel growing up.

If nothing else, Meet the Hitlers is a provocative look at a bizarre issue.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

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