Foreign & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video ">
Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video
2011 New York Jewish Film Festival
The 20th annual New York Jewish Film Festival offers film fans many revealing documentaries and creative interpretations of people caught in cultural, legal, and social clashes around the world, in the present and into the past.
This year’s opening night presentation is timed for the 150th anniversary of composer Gustav Mahler’s birth and the centennial of his death. Mahler on the Couch passionately rescues that extraordinary Viennese muse, and frustrated composer, Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel from the soap opera of Bruce Beresford’s Bride of the Wind (2001). The father/son directing team of Percy Adlon (Bagdad Café) and Felix Adlon portray Alma (the breathtaking Barbara Romaner) through the guilty id of her first, much older spouse, Mahler (Johannes Silberschneider), during his sessions with a bemused Sigmund Freud (Karl Markovics from 2007’s The Counterfeiters). In this imagined version of the actual one-time encounter between the two legends, flashbacks to the Mahlers’ marriage and Alma’s affair with young architect Walter Gropius are well matched to movements from his symphonies, led by maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen on the soundtrack. Alma shines as a feminist icon. Heck, I fell in love with her too!
Revisionist looks at how high culture meets contemporary Yiddish culture (yes, it exists) are notable for a refreshing lack of cloying nostalgia. Director Eve Annenberg works again with a non-professional cast, as in her lo-fi Dogs: The Rise and Fall of an All-Girl Bookie Joint (1996). Street-smart teens, who barely speak English, translate Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish as they learn about Shakespeare for the first time. Under the magic influence of a Puck-like kabbalist, these charming, rapscallion outcasts from Brooklyn Hasidic sects (particularly a sparkling Lazer Weiss) act out a story-within-a-story of Satmars vs. Lubavitchers, religious vs. secular lives, that is funny and touching. The heartbreaking difficulties for young people fleeing the strictures of such ultra-Orthodox communities is starkly explored in Anat Zuria’s documentary aboard the Black Bus, the sex-segregated public transport in Jerusalem. Their experiences are startlingly similar to the Mormon lost boys let loose by polygamists in Jennilyn Merten and Tyler Measom’s Sons of Perdition.
A much more positive view of Hasidic men is seen—quite surprisingly—through the secular eyes of Argentina’s Daniel Burman, who has made such affectionate family dramas as Lost Embrace (2004) and Empty Nest (2008). In 36 Righteous Men, he documents an annual male bonding summer pilgrimage of Lubavitchers to the graves of legendary religious leaders (including one woman’s tomb) in a very long bus ride through Eastern Europe. Berman argues with participants about the logic of known vs. hidden-until-death Jewish saintly sages, and he actually thought he could get away with filming them on the Sabbath, but he gets caught up in the mysticism of visiting cemeteries and drawn into his fellow travelers’ spirituality.
Other Eastern European Jewish traditions are heard as a strand of today’s fusionist world music in two absorbing documentaries. The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground, directed by Eric Greenberg Anjou (2005’s A Cantor’s Tale), starts out as a standard portrait of a band, one that’s the biggest fish in the small pond of the klezmer revival. By closely following the long-time band members over three years, fans and newcomers will not only get an intimate picture, but learn a lot about just how hard it is to be a musician, in any genre, in New York City, even for a Grammy-winning group. Plus there are wonderful performances. A young klezmer and hip hop influenced performer is the genial focus of The “Socalled” Movie, the moniker of Canadian sampler Josh Dolgin, who, on his worldwide travels, jams with James Brown’s Fred Wesley and the “Bagels and Bongos” of Irving Fields. He’ll be playing live after the Saturday night, January 22 screening.
Other documentaries advocate to right wrongs, present and past. Yoav Potash’s Crime After Crime, premiering here just before screening at the Sundance Film Festival, follows five wrenching years in a legal battle to free an abused African-American woman from decades in a California jail. (One of her pro bono attorneys is an Orthodox Jew inspired to help her because of his childhood witnessing of his own mother’s abuse.) The emotional ups and downs of the legal wrangling, the investigative discoveries, and defendant Debbie Peagler’s optimistic fortitude are more dramatic than any fiction.
Raphaël Delpard’s historical investigation Convoys of Shame also furiously targets bureaucracy. The French national rail company not only efficiently transported thousands of Jews, Roma, and resistance members in horrendous cattle cars through France to Nazi death camps, but later falsely claimed to have resisted German orders—even while billing the post-war government for its wartime services. The few actual resisters among their workers—not management—are identified and myths are exploded. An intriguing alternative way to plumb guilt is explored in Rod Freedman’s hour-long Wrong Side of the Bus when a South African Jew returns to his homeland for his 40th medical school reunion. He brings along his teen son from Australia to narrate a youthful perspective of life under apartheid, and together they explore individual responsibility through a very personal participation in the country’s multi-racial reconciliation process.
Centenarians are the spunkiest and wisest voices in the festival, and you can use these as models for how to conduct oral histories of folks you know. In Kevin McNeer’s Stalin Thought of You, Boris Efimov, the dictator’s favorite political cartoonist, recalls in feisty detail how he survived through his talents the upheavals over the entire 20th century in Russia. He still snaps to fearful attention at the memory of a personal phone call from Stalin, and he’s painfully haunted by the execution of his revolutionary older brother, Mikhail Koltsov. Red Shirley was the label pinned on Shulamit Rabinowitz by the garment industry bosses she challenged, but to debut director Lou Reed (of the Velvet Underground), she’s his cousin. During this half-hour film, she frankly answers his leading questions, on how she went from Czarist Russia to the front of the 1963 March on Washington.
Of the Israeli films available for advance screening, the best fiction and documentaries deal with the ongoing human impact of the conflict with the Palestinians. The Human Resources Manager, directed by Eran Riklis (2008’s Lemon Tree) from A. B. Yehoshua’s novel A Woman in Jerusalem, puts it in into a larger context. In a poignant journey, a nameless executive (a wry Mark Ivanir) takes the coffin of an employee killed in a terrorist bombing back to her very complicated family under pressure from a tabloid reporter (named only “The Weasel”). He also has to deal with inept and corrupt politicians and the barren landscape of Romania dotted with relics of the Cold War. Film Movement is planning a U.S. release in March.
Two documentaries start out as sentimental, well-meaning peacemakers, but by staying with participants over time, come to much more difficult understandings of the complexities involved. My So-Called Enemy opens with what seems like a naïve American program called “Building Bridges for Peace” that brings 22 Israeli and Muslim and Christian Palestinian teen girls to New Jersey for leadership training exercises. Director Lisa Gossels (1999’s The Children of Chabannes) follows the young women for seven years afterwards to see if one getting-to-know-you summer made any difference in their lives. To be cynical, at least they can put a name and face to a few on the other side of the wall. Similarly, TV journalist Shlomi Eldar learns in Precious Life that trying to save one sick boy by practicing first world medicine across the border from the Third World (Gaza Strip) doesn’t necessarily lead to gratitude. The documentary will be seen on HBO.
The festival also includes several informative, well-done documentaries that should find wider audiences on PBS. In the mode of Secrets of the Dead, Raymond Ley’s Eichmann’s End: Love, Betrayal, Death uses witnesses, reenactments, and documents to unravel a mystery. West German prosecutors were justifiably suspicious of their own intelligence service when they passed onto the Mossad a tip that Adolph Eichmann was in Argentina, and even the Israelis didn’t believe it. This film brings to life the coincidences of his son’s flirtation with the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and how his supporters were hoping for the fourth Reich—if Eichmann would just explain to them, over hours of taped philosophical discussions, how the Final Solution fit into it all.
Two documentaries would fit into the American Masters series. Lilly Rivlin’s Grace Paley: Collected Shorts profiles the late writer’s life and political activism, both inseparable from her work. Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, directed by Joseph Dorman (1998’s Arguing the World), is a very engaging portrait of the life and tumultuous times of the turn-of-the-last-century Yiddish writer, from the Russian pale to the Lower East Side. Peter Riegert voices the writer’s most famous character, Tevye, famous from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. (A restored version with new English subtitles of Maurice Schwartz’s 1939 adaptation of the play Tevye will also be screened during the series.)
episode of American Experience, Jonathan Gruber’s Jewish
Soldiers in Blue and Gray focuses on Jews who fought on both
sides in the Civil War, using Ken Burns’ style of lingering looks at
photographs and readings of letters to and from their families (and from
Abraham Lincoln, read by Sam Waterston). The background on Southern Jews
is generally less well known, and this provides historical ballast
against more jaundiced misconceptions, as does the festival as a whole.
Nora Lee Mandel