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The best of the 45 features and shorts from nine countries that showed January 9 - 24, 2013 at the 22nd annual New York Jewish Film Festival, organized by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, presented thoughtful perspectives on Jewish artists from Israel and the Diaspora wrestling with family stories and Zionist pioneer stereotypes.
Graphic artist Art Spiegelman cheerfully admits in Clara Kuperberg and Joëlle Oosterlinck’s documentary The Art of Spiegelman that he gives good interview, and he does. But the visual focus stays on his drawings, going beyond his best-known Maus graphic novel memoirs to encompass his early comic books, a decade of controversial New Yorker covers, his new line of children’s books and his creative response to the shoah of the World Trade Center falling in front of his family. You will feel guilty that these genial, reflective conversations are distracting him from getting even more work done.
Life? or Theatre? expands on Dutch director Frans Weisz’s obsession with the titular gouache series by Charlotte Salomon that she feverishly and caustically captioned and annotated for musical accompaniment, about threatened Jewish romantic and cultural life in interwar Germany. Weisz supplements excerpts from his 1981 bio-pic Charlotte (not available in the U.S.) with reenactments by the same, now older star Birgit Doll (a bit unnerving as Salomon, killed at Auschwitz in 1943 at age 26, who never got to similarly mature).
With the aid of a previously unknown letter to Salomon's Berlin lover and interviews with relatives, friends and historians, Weisz tries to untangle truth from fantasy about her haunted family in his quest to smoke out autobiography in her magnum opus of nearly 800 paintings. Equally unknowable, though, is why some of the documents are not translated in the film's English subtitles.
The story of Salomon's brief refuge in southern France, where only her work found a trusty hiding place, is fascinating. Weisz provides crucial context and a much better view of more of her startlingly beautiful art and poetry than I saw as part of the permanent collection at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.
The Festival is notably bringing wider attention to the avant-garde shorts of Polish filmmakers Franciszka and Stefan Themerson from the 1930’s and 1940’s, including two lost works meticulously reconstructed by Bruce Checefsky, which are as political as they are experimental in promoting aesthetics, capitalism and anti-Fascism. Who knew that the Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation in Exile in England during World War II had a Film Unit? Cinephiles will particularly want to see their 1937 Adventures of a Good Citizen as an eerie forerunner to Roman Polanski’s famous short Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958) that first brought him to international attention.
Music and Dance:
Two restored films are notable for their music, even though one is silent. Joseph Seiden’s long lost Kol Nidre was made in Yiddish in America at the end of 1939 just as Yiddishkeit was being decimated by the Holocaust in Europe and by assimilation in the U.S. Before descending into moralistic melodrama as a modern Lower East Side gal learns a rueful life lesson about a guy with a roadster (Warsaw’s Lili Liliana with her real-life husband and famed The Dybbuk co-star Leon Liebgold), several low-budget song and dance numbers are delightful gems as snappy in spirit as any of the Warner Brothers’ musicals then playing in uptown theaters. Comedienne Yetta Zwerling especially transports viewers back to the energy and sparkle of the populist Yiddish theater.
With The Yellow Ticket, from 1918 -- as cool as it is to see silent film legend Pola Negri play a Jewish feminist who leaves Warsaw to hide first in a brothel then as a gentile in order to study medicine in St. Petersburg -- the Festival treat is the live accompaniment of the evocative new score by klezmer violin doyenne Alicia Svigals.
Two musical documentaries relive the songs of the 1920’s to early 1930’s Weimar Republic in Berlin, and both reference the vocal ensemble the Comedian Harmonists, who were brought back to attention in Joseph Vilsmaier’s 1997 German fiction feature The Harmonists.
In Fabienne Rousso-Lenoir’s Cabaret Berlin: The Wild Scene, the voice of singer/actor Ulrich Tukur exuberantly and informatively emcees an astonishing compilation of rare archival clips. Resurrected are the primarily Jewish performers and composers who created a distinctive theatrical form of political and social satire that trenchantly commented on life in Berlin between the wars (that was Broadway-ized in the Kander/Ebb movie/musical Cabaret). Though the year-by-year history is usefully explained, unfortunately the pointed lyrics aren’t subtitled in English and the many expressive performers whirl by in quick succession until the closing credits.
Max Raabe in Israel startlingly reincarnates this repertoire, which the eponymous singer had to hunt down since it disappeared after being banned by the Nazis. The film charts his first performance in the Jewish state -- a place that could stir trepidation. Instead, directors Brigitte Bertele and Julia Willmann revive a sense of peace before the storm.
That’s a credit to the respectful and seriously droll style that the very Aryan-looking Raabe radiates when he and his 11-piece Palast Orchester take over a concert stage. So elegant is the orchestra headman in his stiff tailcoat that he makes Fred Astaire in Top Hat look dressed for casual Friday. (Such visuals deflect kitsch, though most of the double entendres are lost without the translations that the theater audience gets.)
Yielding much more than a concert film, Bertele and Willmann go home with several elderly German-born Israelis and their families from the audience, where they bring out how hearing these popular songs again for the first time in decades evokes fond memories of happy domestic scenes as long gone as the sophisticated arrangements of these charming songs.
The Ballad of the Weeping Spring is something of a follow-up to Iraq ‘n’ Roll seen in last year’s NYJFF, where Israeli rock star Dudu Tasa tracked down the heritage of his musical family from Iraq. In Beni Torati’s fictional feature, Tassa plays a rocker who is sent on a similar musical quest.
With the excuse of a family crisis to put together a band like his (fictional) father’s former Turquoise Ensemble, he tours the hidden haunts of Mizrahi musicians (Jews originally from Arab countries), who scrape together a living in dive bars and gambling dens, but are stunning masters of traditional instruments and singers of emotive melodies.
Actor Uri Gavriel anchors with gravitas as the ensemble leader. Though The Ballad can feel a bit slow as past tragedies are revealed and new romance blooms, the camaraderie and playing among the musicians is a thrill and will leave you wanting to hear more from the exotic-looking drums and stringed instruments, like the rare Persian oud.
Hava Nagila (The Movie) entertainingly traces the sources of the ubiquitous song from the Ukraine to Israeli pioneers inventing and exporting their own folk traditions, through many funny film clips and onto worldwide kitsch on YouTube. Director Roberta Grossman also provides a lot of background and information through interviews with an array of experts. These span the expected, such as ethnomusicologists, alongside relatives of those who contributed to its development from a slow Hasidic, prayerful niggun, and noted non-Jewish popularizers, including Harry Belafonte and Connie Francis. While the many home movies from bar mitzvahs and weddings get repetitive, Grossman goes a step further to gently mock how circle dancing of the hora became a stereotyped image of egalitarian kibbutzniks. The documentary is being theatrically released by International Film Circuit.
Let’s Dance! goes many steps beyond the hora to informatively show how modern dance got a foothold in Palestine, first with German expressionist artist refugees. In (too) quick succession, exuberant interviews with dancers and creators, illustrated with archival footage and live performances, document the history of professional dance in Israel, including today’s rebels. Particularly fascinating is the influential role of dilettante philanthropist Baroness Batsheva Rothschild, both in bringing Martha Graham to the country and in picking favorite choreographers to subsidize. And politics and dance do an intriguing pas de deux as filmmaker Gabriel Bibliowicz parses the schism between Batsheva and Bat-Dor dance companies.
The (too briefly seen) work of the new generation practically leaps off the screen as young movers shake things up. Surely this documentary will generate new audiences curious to see more of their work. Viewers may want to start rehearsing now to turn Ohad Naharin’s invigorating re-setting of the traditional “Echad Mi Yodea” into family therapy around the seder table, well,keeping some clothes on!
Shaking off the Pioneer Image
The Fifth Heaven is a bitter answer to 1990’s films about pioneer life in Israel during World War II and independence, like those based on Gila Almagor’s novels-turned-movies The Summer of Aviya and Under the Domim Tree, where group homes sympathetically sheltered refugee orphans. Writer/director Dina Zvi-Riklis faithfully adapts Rachel Eytan’s caustic autobiographical novel of teen girls abandoned by struggling parents to a youth hostel outside Tel Aviv, staffed by adults of mixed political views, from Communist to militant Zionist to collaborator with the British, and beggared by hypocritical philanthropists. While realistically evocative of a very specific time and place, what comes across just as much is the universality of human relationships, particularly of a Queen Bee Mean Girl.
Elie Wajeman’s debut feature Aliyah (a Film Movement release) is a refreshingly jaundiced view of why a secular Jew would emigrate to Israel today. For Alex (a handsome and very appealing Pio Marmai), his barely acknowledged Jewish identity provides a useful excuse to mount a clean slate from his dead-end prospects as a drug dealer in the Paris outskirts and as victim of his leechy brother (played by, surprise, French director Cedric Kahn). The suspense builds if he’ll mature and succeed, despite the threats of danger and, of course, romance with a sexy shiksa.
Contemporary Israel in The Cutoff Man is full of people in financial difficulties, yet debut writer/director Idan Hubel writes sensitively from his own past of having watched his father shut off water from people who didn’t pay their bills. Framed against Israel's desert background where access to water takes on fraught significance, Moshe Ivgy gives a heartbreakingly stoic performance as Gaby, a man buffeted by unemployment, neighborhood resentments, and his own family’s failing hopes and dreams.
Yorzeit is incidentally an object lesson in how the Hassidim in Israel, who hold so much political power to determine its future, are obsessed with the past in Eastern Europe, and not just in the way they dress. Something of a follow-up to Daniel Burman’s 36 Righteous Ones, from the 2011 NYJFF, which showed the popularity of Orthodox tours to centuries-old graves of revered scholars (known as tzaddiks), Zuzanna Solakiewicz's documentary follows a bearded Hasid, Meir Moskovitch, who makes an annual pilgrimage to such graves on a hilltop outside the small Polish town of Gorlice. But he is also on a mission from God to get the town to improve access to the mausoleum, and then to resurrect the old, brutally dispersed Jewish cemetery. As spiritual as his motivation, he’s uncannily good at making a tourism and funding case for his reverse Holy Land pilgrimage.
Family stories are among the most moving films in the festival, even when directors turn the camera on their own relatives. Oma and Bella sweetly demonstrates how personal connection can draw out insights strangers can’t reach. Here director Alexa Karolinski’s grandmother, Regina, and Bella Katz, her best friend since they found each other as displaced Jews in Berlin after surviving work camps in Czechoslovakia and Lithuania, and now widowed roommates.
Comfortable in the small kitchen where she grew up lunching weekly, Karolinski has the two prepare meals redolent of their childhoods –- picking out ingredients at welcoming neighborhood shops, then pounding, chopping, peeling, slicing, rolling –- even as they keep urging her to put the camera down and eat. The project started as a cookbook, and produced one.
By keeping their hands busy, Karolinski gets Oma and Bella talking about their lives, especially the unfamiliar postwar years when they were buffeted by circumstance into the strange city whose language echoed orders from their captors. Out comes in bits and pieces the chaos of being bereft, yet desperate to have a delayed youth, and accidentally re-founding a Jewish community for Berlin. During a Q&A at DOC NYC, Karolinski described how she and her subjects flagged in a boiling kitchen during a very hot summer over her film school vacation, preventing her from capturing important background. No matter. The two featured friends' closeness nonetheless bakes a trust for heartbreaking revelations. For Americans and Canadians, the documentary is now available via digital download on iTunes and Amazon.
By contrast, in Papirosen (a Film Movement release), director Gastόn Solnicki just seems overwhelmed from 10 years of filming four generations of his family in Argentina, from grandparents who fled the Holocaust to childbirth home movies. Their ups and downs just ramble.
How to Re-establish a Vodka Empire creatively combines several genres of telling family history as Daniel Edelstyn amusingly considers the incredible impact on his life of finding his Grandmother Maroussia Zorokovich’s (unreliable) memoir of her travels through early 20th century tumult -- from the wealth of Czarist Ukraine to seductive dancing across the continent to rebellious housewife in Belfast, all re-enacted in silent-film style by his wife Hilary Powell, who also provides fanciful animation using his family photos.
While re-discovering his Jewish heritage, Edelstyn travels to his ancestors’ hometown, sees first-hand its economic depression, and gets the crazy entrepreneurial idea, especially for a broke filmmaker, to revive his great-grandfather’s crumbling distillery that was nationalized after the 1917 revolution, thus inspiring its brand name for ironic placement in upscale British stores. Along the way he learns a lot about vodka and marketing, let alone about how to make an engaging documentary.
In Life In Stills, Tamar Tal was not following her own family’s story over several years, but she is so intimate with 96-year-old Miriam Weissenstein and her grandson Ben Peter that this touching tribute to an unusual bond sure feels like she’s adopted them. Tal follows the irascibly pessimistic grandmother and determinedly optimistic scion struggle to save the legacy of herlate photographer husband Rudi, a unique archive in their 70 year old Pri-Or PhotoHouse of his million beautiful images of Tel Aviv when Palestine was becoming Israel.
Even as Ben juggles with Miriam over international exhibitions, sales, and site negotiations, Tal gradually reveals that their deep and tender connection is complicated by a hauntingly horrific personal tragedy, ironically contrasted with happy home movies and family photographs. Sad news: since the film was completed and the shop was moved, Miriam passed away; but, good news, the National Library of Israel is preserving the negatives -- and finding even more.
I was about eight when I first noticed a number tattoo on a local storeowner’s arm that made my mother too uncomfortable to explain to me. The frank and emotional Numbered gives more people that same close-up sight, and goes further by talking to Auschwitz survivors in Israel who bear those numbers, as did co-director Dana Doron’s grandmother, about their varied feelings towards the tattoo -- and towards the reactions of people like me.
While co-director/photographer Uriel Sinai takes their individual black-and-white proud portraits (even some together with consecutive numbers), culminating in a group portrait of over two dozen survivors with arms exposed defiantly aloft, they each describe the day they were among the 40,000 who were branded in Auschwitz-Birkenau. But, in an unusual perspective, the very personal shadow the Holocaust continues to cast over children and grandchildren of survivors is poignantly seen as they take the drastic commemorative step of making the digits they so identify with a loved one permanent on their own bodies -- a very intense way for the next generation to never forget.
In comparison, the images of Israel as a last resort for Holocaust victims just seem so conventional as twice seen through Hannah Arendt’s eyes -- in Margarethe von Trotta’s bio-pic Hannah (as played by Barbara Sukowa), and in Michael Prazan’s unfortunately very pedestrian compilation of clips (primarily) in The Trial Of Adolf Eichmann.
In addition to the opening night bio-doc AKA Doc Pomus, which is sure to be seen more for the back stories of the legendary pop songwriter’s beloved hits, two documentaries on prominent New York Jews offer contemporaries reviewing their lives, but not getting much deeper than feisty anecdotes. Koch is being theatrically released by Zeitgeist Films, and Joe Papp in Five Acts will be shown on PBS’s American Masters.
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