“I think God gives everyone the same gift. Most people don’t unwrap the gift.”
Rafal Zielinski’s Tiger Within is a study of brokenness, fear, hatred, wisdom, forgiveness, and healing. It is the story of two very different people who manage to find a connection they both need to survive.
Casey (played by the 14 year old Margot Josefsohn) is a 14 year old punk runaway who has come to L.A. to live with her father, who obviously is more interested in his new family. She quickly loses everything she has (except her swastika emblazoned jacket) on the streets. Samuel (the nonagenarian Ed Asner) is a holocaust survivor, now all alone in the world. His days are empty, except for the bitterness that remains towards everyone.
Their first encounter takes place in the Jewish cemetery where Samuel has gone to visit his wife’s grave. On the way out he sees Casey curled up asleep—seeing only the back of her jacket with the swastika. After he walks away, he returns and waits for her to awaken. They begin a very tentative conversation. Casey is wary of what Samuel wants. He buys her food and takes her to his apartment so she can shower and sleep. His acts of kindness make only a crack in her defenses.
Some time later, we find Casey working at a massage parlor (yes, that kind of massage parlor), and living in a cheap motel. When Samuel runs across her again, they continue to talk. They make a deal. She can live with him if she goes to school and removes the swastika from her jacket. It gives Casey a place that is safe, and it give Samuel a chance to act as a parent. (He lost his daughters in the Holocaust.) The bond they build sustains them, but it is also very fragile.
We might wonder why Samuel would create that first encounter and why he would struggle to make a bond with this girl who was so different and so difficult. He tells her that it was because he made a promise to his wife—to stop hating. And by focusing on not hating Casey, perhaps he’d learn to not hate everything else.
The film touches upon a number of issues of import. One of those is holocaust denial. When Samuel and Casey first meet, she tells him that her mother has taught her that the Holocaust is a lie. Polls have recently found that many young people either don’t know of or don’t believe the facts about the Holocaust. In a world where racial hatred and neo-Nazis have become more visible and vocal, it is wrong to remain silent.
Another issue in the film is that of young sex workers. As a runaway, about the only job available for Casey is a clandestine job providing “happy endings”. What strikes us in this story is that even though she has been a sex worker, she is terrified of a boy in school asking her for a date. She’s never had a date. She never been kissed. That cross of innocence and repugnance help us see a bit of the humanity of sex workers.
The big issue is forgiveness—not an easy thing for anyone. Samuel’s bitterness towards the world has an obvious source in the Holocaust. He lost his family. That Casey would think it never happened is appalling to him. To welcome Casey into his life is obviously a challenge.
Casey has much to forgive as well. Neither her mother nor her father wants anything to do with her. She doesn’t fit in with anyone around her. She is victimized in various ways. She has had no real love in her life.
Yet, it is not so much the objects of their bitterness and hatred that is the real focus of forgiveness. Before either can move on to a better life, they must first forgive themselves.
Film credits are often ignored when they come on the screen. The credits for this film are worth noting. The first of the closing credits are “special thanks for all the words of wisdom from” a variety of spiritual advisors, including Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Native American, and Buddhist. (There are videos of these advisors on the film’s website under “Forgiveness”.)
Tiger Within is available on virtual cinema through local arthouses.
Photos courtesy Film Art Planet.