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Brandon Judell

A Voice Without a Face: His Dad Was a Singing Spy


By Brandon Judell

In the deliciously dysfunctional-family documentary, "Tell Them Who You Are," whining, right-wing, and not very bright filmmaker Max Wexler turns the camera on his father, the cantankerous legendary cameraman/director Haskell Wexler. The result is a highly involving, cultural document interspersed frequently with amusing outbursts by Max that his father has never loved him enough. As far as celluloid, psychological car crashes go, this one is top-notch.

On the other hand, there's Assaf Basson's "A Voice Without a Face," an offering from the recent 11th NY Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, one of the more delightful, narrowly focused annual events in the Big Apple.

Basson's pop Yitzhak, who was better known as Magdi, was born in Baghdad, had his first record played on Iraqi radio when he was 14, moved to Israel, got married, fathered five children, and tried to continue making a living with his Arabic music. When this proved an impossibility in a Hebrew-speaking nation, he took a job with Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, which is "responsible for intelligence collection, counter-terrorism, [and] covert operations such as paramilitary activities" (Wikipedia). Assassinations and kidnappings are said to be part of this agency's highly successful activities, which have included the capture of Nazi Adolf Eichmann and the decimation of Black September, the terrorist organization responsible for the Munich Olympics massacre.

Surprisingly, this doc reveals nearly nothing about Mossad, except that its members have to lie to their families about what they do. Magdi did just that, making believe he was involved in the music business for decades. He was the phantom father.

He's also the phantom star of this "tribute," being already dead when the film begins. All that is seemingly left of him are a few photographs, four fake passports, audiotapes, and a tombstone. So what we get to view for 52 minutes is the highly self-involved Basson querying his mother and his dad's acquaintances for morsels of emotional data that they might recall about Magdi. The reluctant answers are seldom illuminating.

The big revelation here is Magdi was an adulterous ladies' man who had numerous encounters and apparently one long serious affair with a younger woman.

As one old friend shares, Mrs. Basson was aware of her spouse's infidelities: "Your mother was very patient because a woman who senses a man is cheating on her wants to retaliate. She was the opposite. She was different. She polished his shoes. She treated him like a king."

Eventually, Magdi's former mistress agrees to chat with Basson, but only over the phone, and her recounting of her seduction is the high point of the film.

The low point quickly follows with the camera focused upon the whimpering Basson, who sits on the street crying, "I want to stop making this film. I feel like I'm going to undermine the world. This film has no meaning."

His cameraman responds off-camera, "Did it ever have any meaning?"

Apparently not. If only " A Voice Without a Face" had some relevancy to anyone outside of the Basson clan or to Basson's shrink. It doesn't, which makes you sympathize with Basson's girlfriend who early on urges the not-so-young man to get a life: "You stopped working, you hardly eat anything, and you're constantly with these documents, these papers, another song, another lyric, another phone call to someone you've found. And my question is: 'Till when?' I'm in favor of making this film, but look what it's doing to you? The question is what do you want to achieve?"

Hopefully, Basson has finally heeded her sound advice, left the film industry, and entered a useful trade more suitable to his talents. Pottery is a possibility.

Director: Assaf Basson
Producers: Levi Zini, Dubi Kroituru
Script: Dubi Kroituru
Cast: Assaf Basson, Aliza Basson, Albert Alias, Farid Tzadok, Feliks Mizrachi, Suzan Sharabani (Emaan)

In Hebrew with English subtitles


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