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The Eight Annual New York Jewish Film Festival

By Gordon Hitchens

A movie poster next to a black-and-white portrait from 'Delta Jews' (U.S., 1998, 64 min.)

A co-production of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, the New York Jewish Film Festival this year took place in January. Screenings occurred primarily in the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center, with a few additional screenings at the Jewish Museum. There were eleven fiction films, mostly features, and fourteen documentaries—twenty-five titles, from ten nations, a mixed bag of world premieres, U.S. premieres and New York firstimers. Many of the directors were present in New York. Several titles are already set for commercial distribution.

Granted, our mandate herein is reportage on the documentaries—but several of the fiction films, so rare and unusual, merit acknowledgement here not only as cultural artifacts but works that tread onto the territory of the documentary. Four films, introduced by film historian J. Hoberman of The Village Voice, are early classics from the late Soviet Union: Against the Father's Will (1927, 40 min., silent) is an adaptation of Sholem Alechem's In the Storm, a novel of the abortive 1905 revolution, enacted by the Hebrew-language Habima Theater. Suburban Quarters (1930, 60 min., silent) concerns a Jewish girl who defies her traditional parents to marry a Ukrainian boy, only to discover vicious anti-Semitism within her new in-law family. Cain and Artem (1929, 85 min., silent), last seen in New York sixty-five years ago, is an anti-anti-Semitism parable, from a story by Maxim Gorky. Seekers of Happiness (1936, 84 min., sound, Russian with English sub-titles) concerns a Jewish family that migrates from European U.S.S.R. to the remote Asian province of Birobidzhan. Curiously, the film signals the demise of Jewish themes in Soviet cinema. Finally, The Twelve Chairs, by Mel Brooks, is his second feature (U.S., 1970, 94 min.) and one of rhe few U.S. films to be adapted from a Soviet source, a satiric 1928 novel by the half-Jewish team, Ilf and Petrov. The ever-zany Brooks creates a comedy about the culture-clash of Karl and Groucho Marx.

Turning to our documentaries, we note first that Treyf, about Jewish lesbians, by Alisa Lebow and Cynthia Madansky, has already received mention here as part of the Margaret Mead Festival (ID, March 1999). Likewise, Lisa Lewenz's A Letter Without Words has been mentioned often, most extensively in a review of the 1998 Berlin Film Festival (1D, June 1998).

ID readers will recall Ira Wohl's touching portrait of twenty years ago about his cousin Philly, mildly retarded, then age fifty; Best Boy won an Oscar@ and other honors. Twenty years later, Ira re-assembled his original crew to shoot Best Man, when Philly turned seventy and received his Bar Mitzvah. The report here (ID,May 1998) on the seventh New York Jewish Festival carried the news that Ira was preparing to shoot Keeping the Faith, on the last Orthodox Jewish community in Mississippi. Ira's film remains incomplete but eagerly awaited. Nevertheless, our report about Ira's new film inspired Mike DeWitt to redouble his own efforts to complete his Delta Jews (U.S., 1998, 64 min.), also dealing with Mississippi Jews, although with an emphasis different from Ira's, less on religion than on business and culture. Mike found a Jewish community dating back thee or four generations, originally merchants, eventually landowners of large farms.

Now thirty-one, Mike DeWitt had gone to Mississippi for the first time, fresh out of college, to teach English; he was surprised to see so many storefronts with Jewish names, plus an imposing synagogue on the main street of Greenville. At the Delta Jewish Golf Open, he noted in dismay that before golfers could tee-off, a religious ritual took place, to bless the golfballs... no, not a joke. . . Mike swears.

Delta Jews's purpose is serious—to explore relations between the small Jewish minority and the large white majority, primarily Protestant, conservative and racist. The Jewish minority over the decades took on many characteristics, speech patterns, social attitudes and prejudices of their Christian neighbors, except regarding their Jewish faith: e.g., when northern Jewish freedom-riders come south to work with African- Americans for voting rights and desegregated water-fountains, the Delta Jews called these idealistic integrationists "agitators" and "that element."

But now young Delta Jews have become restless and are drifting away to northern colleges, to professions centered in the big cities, and to sophisticated cultural lifestyles. So even the sleepy down-home plantation life of venerable Mississippi is undergoing a change. Nothing is permanent. Delta Jews is narrated by a Southern Jew, the playwright Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, etc.)

I had occasion later to talk by phone with Mike DeWitt, and I noted that no reference was made in Delta Jews to the lynch/murder in the South of the Jewish businessman Leo Frank, falsely accused of the rape-murder of a little girl. Mike replied that this lynching of a Jew some time ago—the 1920s—so traumatized Southern Jews and still resonates among older Jews that mention of Leo Frank is simply not made around outsiders—perhaps a disturbing sign that assimilation remains partial and conditional.

Daavid—Stories of Honor and Shame, by Taru Makela (Finland, 1998, 94 min.), tells a strange tale of Jewish soldiers, born Finnish citizens, who joined with German Nazis in war against the Soviet Union, starting in 1942. Finland, with a small population and a long frontier with the Soviets, had warred with them in 1939/40, ending in a draw, except for some Finnish concessions of land on the southern border. The film uses rare footage. interviews with Finnish war veterans, audio-recordings of confidential meetings among high Finnish military officers, and pictorial documentation.

But, wait: why would any Jew—in this case, Finnish Jews—fight beside the Nazis, like comrades, against the Soviet Union? One Jew explains: "Well, we thought that if Hitler wins, they'll only take the Jews and the Gypsies. But if Stalin wins, they'll take the whole lot." During the war, of all the European nations allied with or occupied by Hitler, all had to surrender their Jews, for work-slavery and/or extermination. Except for Finland. In March 1942, Heinrich Himmler, having ascertained the efficiency of the extermination camps at Sobibor, Treblinka and Maidanek, came to Finland to explore "the Jewish question." In vain, apparently. Finland's Jewish Finns, or Finnish Jews, were compelled to obey their government's orders, to serve in the military against the Soviet Union, even if that meant being brothers-in-arms with the Germans—a consequence of having a double identity, as Finn and Jew. A certain defiance arose, in the form of a field-synagogue erected at the Karelian front, one kilometer from the German command post. For heroism in battle against the Soviets, three Jewish Finns are decorated by the Germans with the Iron Cross. But they refuse the medals.

Vilna, by Harvey Wong (U.S., 1998, 3 min.), is an elegiac salute to the former Jewish ghetto of Vilna, Lithuania, the camera passing through deserted streets, a visual metaphor for the loss felt by a young woman.

A Trip to Malin, by Arkady Kogan (Russia, 1997, 20 min.), records the return by the director with his wife and son to a small Ukrainian town, on a visit to his widowed mother. "Don't forget us," she pleads. Proud to show her native land to her frisky young grandsons, she takes them to the local cemetery. They do not recognize the Star of David on their ancestors' gravestones.

My Mother's First Olympics, by Ron Carmally (Israel, 1998, 64 min.), profiles Kitty, Israel's blind bowling champion and member of the national Para-Olympics. Kitty is not one to indulge in self-pity. Ron accompanied his lively mother to the Atlanta games, 1996—for international contestants, a test of wills and skills. An inspirational film, yes—but without sentimentality.

Another film without sentimentality, André's Lives by Brad Lichtenstein (U.S., 1998, 62 min.) traces the time-line of André Steiner, now 90, a successful Jewish architect based in Atlanta, trained at the renowned Bauhaus, and who during WW II rescued thousands of Slovak Jews from the Holocaust. How? By designing work-camps of value to the Nazi War effort. Using old footage, photos, spoken and written testimonies, Steiner traces how he resorted to bribery, persuasion, deceit, even charm, whatever was necessary, to organize work for imprisoned Jews, thus sparing them from the gas chambers. Now, more than a half-century later, he returns for the first time, reluctantly, to Slovakia and the Czech Republic, to relive with his two grown American sons the Holocaust experience—events that have made him, perhaps, permanently reclusive and bitter. An authentic tough guy, Steiner has survived plenty, but at a price: he is haunted still by the ambiguities of his wartime collaboration with the Nazis, with some shadowy deals, the arbivalences of good versus evil.

André's Lives postulates the value of "Zachor," that is, total self-confrontation, embracing one's own Holocaust experience, even the horror. "Zachor" offers those who can dig deeply into their wartime past a possibility of healing and renewal. It's not easy. Steiner was forced to make intolerable choices—he could not save them all, and with great difficulty he saved 7,000. Many survivors tell their stories, they confess their suffering, but André cannot, will not. Thus his repressed memory denies him full knowledge of himself, of the moral complexity of his wartime deeds, of his Jewish identity, of a rapport with his sons who regard him as cold and distant. The film suggests that André may belatedly have another life, via total self-knowledge and self-acceptance.

André's Lives uses, better than most, a common device for documentaries trying to explore the Holocaust and other World War II events, fifty or sixty years atter the fact. The device is to confront the locales and events and persons of the subject's past, and let the questions arise: what documentation has been lost, suppressed, distorted, destroyed? what memories are repressed as unspeakable? what recollections have been sanitized and refurbished with exonerations and self-exculpations? Yet, these questions become the answers, or at least the beginning on a search for if not answers, then resolution.

The Jew in the Lottus, by Laurel Chiton (U.S., 1997, 58 min.), recounts the historic meeting in 1990 when eight Jewish delegates conferred with the Dalai Lama of Tibet. The film derives from the HarperCollins book, The Jew in the Lottus: A Poet's Identity in Buddhist India, by Rodger Kamenetz, now into fourteen printings in hardcover and paperback, and widely used in universities and programs in Jewi Studies. Known for his work on Jewish-Buddhist dialogue, Kamenetz in 1996 helped organize a national series, "Passover Seders for Tibet," and other scholarly events, including a Seder for Tibet in Washington, D.C., attended by the Dalai Lama. The film emphasizes the work of Kamenetz as an ex-septic, later intensely involved in Jewish heritage.

Freefall, by Peter Forgács (Hungary, 1996, 15 min.), is the tenth program in a Hungarian TV series, Private Hwtgary. It uses exceptional home movies shot by a young Jewish businessman, Gyorgy Peto, and provides a rare glimpse into Jewish life from 1938, through the wartime years, to 1944, when the full force of the Holocaust decimated Hungary's once thriving and culturally rich Jewish population. In short, Freefall is a nostalgic but tragic document of a vanished people and period. Peto, of wealth, acquired an 8mm camera at the age of 30, in 1937, to shoot street scenes, family fun, his lover Eva in the bathtub' the kind of stuff people point their camcorders at today. Using primarily the Peto footage, producer Forgács intercuts historical scenes to supply the national context, including the cruel anti-Jewish laws being promulgated by the pro-Nazi Hungarian government. In the spring of 1944, as the Germans were retreating on all fronts, they and the Hungarian government began round-ups and deportations of Hungary's Jews to the death camps. To accomplish this, the Nazis had to divert soldiers and transportation from the war effort—an illustration of their priorities. There the Peto footage stops.

Man of the Wall—A Documentary Mistery, by Herz Frank, Semyon Vinokur, Jakob Sfirski (Israel, 1998, 58 min.), is a documentary, both serious and humorous, without narration, a collage of sights and sounds, about the Western Wall In Jerusalem. The filmmakers invoke the memories of Dziga Vertov and Robert Flaherty as precursors of their poetic style.

House of the World, by Esther Podemski (U.S./ Poland, 1998, 58 min.), is a modest but profound documentation of specific Jewish cemeteries—and of all Jewish cemeteries—as "houses of memory," repositories of Jewish traditions, expressing "Never forget," The Hebrew word for "cemetery" translates also as "house of the world," in that a cemetery in the link between the living and the dead, an expression of continuity, needing devotion and care. The filmmaker and colleagues visit Jewish graveyards in Poland, some simply deteriorated with age, some deliberately destroyed during wartime desecration—e.g., the immense Jewish cemetery in Lodz is crumbling, it's not being cared for properly, as most Jews of the once huge Lodz ghetto died in the concentration camp nearby. Using a montage of historical images, amateur snapshots, archival music and new footage, House of the World attempts to convey a sense of the cemetery as an ongoing creative force, expressing and representing an indestructible culture, of assurance to the living.

Adio, by Gregoli Viens (U.S.. 19913. 19 min.), profiles Rebecca, born 1912, a Greek Jew on the island of Rhodes, where the Sephardic community dates back 500 years. Rebecca escaped the Italian fascists in 1939, as the war began. A natural storyteller, a repository of ancient wisdoms, Rebecca lives now in Los Angeles and spellbinds her daughter and granddaughter with family tales and old photographs. She also acknowledges a painful paradox: her daughter and granddaughter were born free but have lost any personal knowledge of their family pastonly Rebecca's memory provides the fragile link.

The South: Alice Never Lived Here, by Senyora "Sini" Bar David (Israel. 1998, 62 min.), is another Sephardic trio film, with a grandmother, daughter and a teenager, although the young girl is not from the same family. It's also a travel film, starting with the Sephardic migration from a small Greek village early this century to the slums of contemporary Jaffa, once Arabic, in Israel, their homeland now, but a homeland of racism, poverty, abandoned hopes. Little known outside Israel is the tradition of discrimination against Sephardic dark-skinned Jews, usually poorly educated and "uncultured" Jews who come from "The South," i.e., the Balkan or Mediterranean and the Maghreb or Arabic nations: these Jews are regarded as socially inferior and uneducable. In contrast, the "superior" people are the Ashkenazi, the Jews of European origin, who control Israel, its economy, and who benefit from what is, in effect, a caste system that oppresses, limits the Sephardic. Prejudice and discrimination, in jobs and housing and education, are endemic, although little acknowledged and protested outside Israel. The South illustrates this injustice, this division within Israel, in the figures of 89-year-old Ida, from Greece, her daughter Bar David the filmmaker, and Elinor, age 15, who is Sephardic but somehow was accepted for enrollment in the Ashkenazi superior school.

The film complains that Israel is weakened by a caste system that in fact marginalizes fifty percent of its population, that the country has forgotten the idealist "socialism" of its origins, and that Israel is being built on a social system of "elitism and racism... a poor tactic, a greedy lust for power."