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Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

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January  14
29, 2009

Among the 32 films at the 18th annual New York Jewish Film Festival are many that deserve wider exposure and distribution. In seeking to “present a diverse global perspective on the Jewish experience,” the selections roughly fall into: the autobiographical, from the narcissistic to the revealing; portraits, from standard TV magazine profiles to the intriguing use of the filmmaker as therapist; and the anthropological, from the condescending to the celebratory.

While many of the autobiographical films are too narcissistic or seem to manipulate their subjects for purposes that are fleetingly insightful (Driving Men, Kredens, My Father’s Palestinian Slave, Yideshe Mama), others are exemplars of the power of an eyewitness to make history personal and alive. It might be expected that Holocaust remembrances would be included in the festival, but Forgotten Transports: To Estonia is an exceptionally thorough tribute to survival. This is the first release of director Lukás Pribyl’s four films about little known deportations—little known because so few lived to recount what happened (the others cover deportations to Latvia, Belarus, and Lublin in eastern Poland). He interviewed the few Czech women survivors about their experiences from 1942 to 1945, and they speak for the first time, from their homes around the world, with details that he astonishingly and clearly corroborates with family and archival photographs discovered through years of research. While they each lament how young and naïve they were even to the end, their insights into human nature, for good and evil, demonstrate the power of female bonding.

Personal insights bring several historical documentaries up to the present for contemporary relevance. Being Jewish in France traces continuing patterns of anti-Semitism, from the notorious Dreyfus affair at the end of the 19th century up through the recent synagogue bombings, as the Jewish community changed from Eastern European (Ashkenazi) to North African (Sephardim). Over three fascinating hours, director Yves Jeuland counters the myth of America as the sole beacon for Jewish immigration—Napoleon was the first European ruler to grant Jews citizenship. Narrated by Mathieu Amalric, who seems to be in every French film about Jews these days, the references to politicians, parties, and news events may seem arcane to Americans, especially when the archival documents and identities of the many interviewees aren’t translated in the subtitles.

Muhammad Asad (born Leopold Weiss) (Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum)
Reflections on the impact of an extraordinary man make A Road to Mecca: The Journey of Muhammad Asad much more than a biography of how the man born Leopold Weiss in Ukraine in 1900 lived a life that seems like a fictionalized T. E. Lawrence crossed with Zelig. Director Georg Misch follows Asads fading footsteps through Vienna and Berlin; to his conversion to Islam in Jerusalem; on to his participation in the creations of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Nations; and to exile in Spain, rejected for his peaceful strain of Islam promulgated in his moderate translation of the Koran. This film saves his ideas from going out of print.

Though fictional, The Gift to Stalin follows part of the same road from Eastern Europe to Jerusalem for a survivor of Stalin’s oppressions and brutality. Exiled ethnic minorities, political dissidents, Catholics, and orphans band together in 1949 to protect a little Jewish boy deported from Moscow to the steppes of Kazakhstan. Recalling Claude Berri’s classic The Two of Us (that’s referenced in the French documentary), its charm is crossed with brutal realism that dwarfs any one victim.

Through his connections, Juan Mandelbaum’s Our Disappeared illuminates the darkness of Argentina’s military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. He sets out to discover what happened to an ex-girlfriend from his young activist days, as well as idealistic and militant colleagues (that a few were children of those who fled the Nazis seems to be why this documentary is in the festival). He interviews family members and survivors, pours through smiling family photos (including ones he had forgotten he had taken), and visits their last known addresses and jails to reconstruct their final, painful moments. His moving narration is scathing about the amnesty for sadistic murderers, but he also points out the failings of the leftists.

This global perspective on the Jewish historical experience with oppression and militarism weighs heavily on the Israeli documentary Every Mother Should Know. Despite director Nir Toib’s very disorganized editing (and political and military references unfamiliar to Americans), what emerges is a searing look at generations of men summoned to war again and again. Focusing on an elite unit, the title emphasizes how unusual it is for these macho men to talk about their battle experiences and how rarely they share their feelings with their wives and mothers. The ramifications of the government’s and military’s failings in the first Lebanon war are intensely personal to these men—each man anguishes whether to serve when called again.

Several of the films are portraits of inspirational individuals which could just as well be shortened into TV profiles (Facing the Wind, Stumbling Stone, The Woman from Sarajevo). Though formulaic, Darling! The Pieter-Dirk Uys Story, about a gay Jewish Afrikaner activist, is competently directed by the teenaged Julian Shaw. A more innovative style of portraiture emerges when the filmmaker virtually becomes a therapist for the subject.

In Young Freud in Gaza, the subject is himself a therapist. Current events only make more poignant this intimate look at lives run ragged by the struggles between Hamas and Fatah, Muslim traditions and modernity, all aggravated by the Israeli blockade. Just the kind of man who could be the hope for the future of a peaceful Palestine, Ayed is a modern day Sisyphus, working at a mental health clinic and making house calls to young cloistered women and disabled fighters (whose images of paradise during relaxation exercises are unsettling). An educated young man, Ayed expresses his frustrations to the camera of ever finding a modern mate. Meanwhile, families and demanding husbands forbid his female patients suffering from debilitating psychological problems from having sessions with him alone.

On the other side of the conflict, director Ori Ben Dov of A Refusenik’s Mother helps Marit Zamaret to understand how her son, a third-generation kibbutznik, became a conscientious objector. Under his guidance, mother and son meet with the far more politically active leftist families of others who refuse military service (though some only reject serving in the occupied territories, son Shimri is a pacifist), and strategize and maintain morale through detention and military trial. Also in the festival, Moshe Mizrahi’s stiff transposition of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to a Weekend in Galilee includes a couple of similar young men who are reviled by the older veterans.

Sam Rakowski (Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum)
In the wrenching Mr. Rakowski, Dutch filmmaker Jan Diederen almost seems to have been hired to mediate between father and son to bring about a reconciliation. Wizened Sam Rakowski dispassionately recounts the details of his life in pre-war anti-Semitic Poland and on to the horrors he survived in Auschwitz, where he even managed six times to save his wife’s life. His deprivations sharply contrast with his son’s idyllic suburban estate, and his post-war reminiscences vividly and sharply diverge from his baby-boomer son Richie’s memories. Richie painfully testifies what it was like to grow up in a household of secrets and suppression that seethed with posttraumatic stress. (Paolo Barzman‘s gauzy adaptation of the novel Emotional Arithmetic, also in the program, is far less raw in its parallel post-Holocaust generational clash, even with a stellar cast.) The younger Mr. Rakowski keeps pulling the director back in to help him and his father communicate, which seems most possible, ironically, at a cemetery.

The less successful anthropologically-oriented films are outsiders’ views of hidden communities, such as the Jews in India (In Search of the Bene Israel) and Peru (The Fire Within: Jews in the Amazonian Rainforest). Karin Albou, who created a rebellious Orthodox French woman in her debut La Petite Jérusalem, intimately depicts neighbors and BFFs Jewish and Muslim teens in colonial Tunisia under Nazi occupation in The Wedding Song. But explicitly titillating scenes of the sexual initiation practices of suppressed women can’t quite overcome stiff and overly schematic dialogue and story.

In something of a cross between Jesus Camp and Religulous, Waiting for Armageddon claims the evangelical Christians who are eagerly anticipating taking over Jerusalem any day now are mainstream all-Americans. The evangelical tourists followed here seem a bit more cognizant that they are in a Jewish state than the oblivious ones I saw traveling the Holy Land in 1976, but the film seems to think that it’s a revelation to depict Israeli leaders as foolishly oblivious to the political implications of accepting the support from those who Photoshop out Jews and Muslims from their plans.

Zoe Moore as Nelly in MAX MINSKY AND ME (Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum)
Most successful are films that are more celebratory, particularly of Jewish women. Max Minsky and Me is a marvelous family film, if folks around the age of Nelly (Zoe Moore), the central 13-year-old Berliner, would be willing to watch a subtitled movie. The celebrity crushes, planetary travel dreams, boring school work, and parental squabbles are all universal rites of passage. With a script adapted by Holly-Jane Rahlens from her young adult novel, Anna Justice directs a sprightly debut feature that is a contemporary German parallel to Paul Weiland's recent Sixty Six from Britain.

Teenage girls are also the focus in the chick flick documentary Camp Girls. Photographer Gay Block revisits the subjects of her 1981 portraits of her daughter’s camp mates at Camp Pinecliffe in Maine, who reflect on their camp experiences and their lives since. Breaking stereotypes, this slice of middle-class New York Jewish women offers more variety than is ever portrayed in movies and television. The struggles these women discuss between personal and intellectual growth, and between independence and responsibility within a Jewish family, are sweetly fictionalized in Two Lives Plus One, the directing debut of actress Idit Cebula. The always expressive French actress Emmanuelle Devos is Éliane Weiss, a frustrated nursery school teacher, daughter, friend, wife, and mother who discovers that not only can she be herself in her secret notebooks but others, besides the ghost of her father, may be interested in that side of her too.

Bringing together many of the other films’ themes, Empty Nest’s Leonardo (Oscar Martínez), a writer, uses his art as therapy to cope with getting older after his adult children have left home, though his vivacious wife Martha (Cecilia Roth) is rejuvenated. Writer/director Daniel Burman continues following the cycle of Jewish life in Argentina after his Lost Embrace and Family Law, but where characters in those films just talked about going to Israel, here the parents visit their daughter who has settled there with her husband. Burman finds atypical symbols for looking back and going forward in life, especially in Israel, culminating with Leonardo and his wife floating together on the Dead Sea, which provides a fulfilling image for the film, and for the festival as a whole. Nora Lee Mandel
January 16, 2009



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