Filmmakers Look Back in Anger (Also Regret, Wonder, Hope)

If the 11th Annual New York Jewish Film Festival can serve as a barometer of Jewish thought and feeling –– at least what a generous sampling of the world’s Jewish filmmakers currently care about–– there’s an extraordinary concern at large about the Jewish past. This year’s festival which runs January 13 to January 24 at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater and is a collaboration between the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum –– presents a diverse array of documentaries and explore the present’s search.

Not every one of the festival’s 18 programs (which involve 30 features and shorts from 13 countries) shares this focus, to be sure, but it appears persistently in disparate ways. Fiction films re-create the past. Documentaries explore the present’s search. Films ostensibly set in the present nevertheless pivot on nostalgia or regret for the past. Both fictional characters and living people look into mirrors to seek traces in their own faces of a lost or missing past.

The festival’s two world premiere presentations are striking examples. “Last Dance” (showing January 20, 21, and 23) is a remarkable documentary record by New York fimmaker Mirra Bank of collaboration itself. Mr. Sendak proposes a Holocaust narrative to be performed to the music of murdered Jewish composer Hans Kr? sa, and Ms. Bank’s film documents the creative conflicts that emerge as story is translated into body movement (and costumes, sound, scenic design and lighting). The triumphant result, a dance event titled “A Selection,” fuses meaning and motion in a contemporary idiom that honors the past’s tragedies.

The other world premiere, “Strange Fruit,” by Filmmaker Joel Katz (January 21 and 24), rediscovers the Jewish author of the anti-lynching song made famous in a 1939 recording by black singer Billie Holiday (also the subject of a recent book by David Margolick). Lewis Allen, the name of the sheet music, was the pseudonym of Abel Meeropol, a teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where the song was first performed as an expression of the heady 1930s urban Jewish amalgam of politics, the arts and community culture. Mr. Katz’s illuminating film shows another facet of the era’s black-Jewish relations with scenes of Barney Josephson’s integrated jazz club in Sheridan Square, Café Society, where Holiday frequently performed the song. (IN the 1950s Meeropol and his wife Ann became parents of the Rosenberg children Michael and Robby, after the Rosenberg executions.)

Another major nonfiction exploration of the intermingled fate of Jews and blacks in New York city life is “Brownsville Black and White,” by Richard Broadman (January 20, 21,22). Going back to the 1940s, the film tells an exceptional story of how the separate “turfs” of Jews, blacks and Italians in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville broke down in the world of youth sports, where the Jewish Brownsville Boys’ Club voted unanimously to admit blacks and fielded integrated teams. Postwar urban renewal, however, reinforced segregation and created new ghettos. The notorious “School War” of the late 1960s in the Ocean Hill––Brownsville district pitted the black community against predominantly Jewish teachers and their union. “It cut the progressive elements into ribbons,” recounts an interview subject, Irving Levine, whose Brownsville life encompassed both the Boys’ Club and the School War, and marked the end of a certain kind of naïve Jewish liberalism.

Among other compelling documentaries on the theme of past and present is “The Secret,” by Israeli filmmaker Ronit Kertsner (January 15 and 17), which follows several Polish men and women, raised as Catholics, who discover their Jewish family heritage. One, a Jewish infant saved from the Holocaust, learns of his birth parents a dozen years after becoming a priest. A woman, whose husband divorces her because he suspects her Jewish ancestry, joins the community of “new Jews” even as she continues to search for information about her origins. On the same program with “The Secret” is “Zygielbojm’s Death,” by Polish filmmaker Dzamila Ankiewicz, concerning the life of S.A. Zygielbojm, a Jewish representative in Poland’s wartime government in-exile. He committed suicide in 1943 after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, as a gesture to protest the world’s indifference to the fate of Poland’s Jews.

Documentaries, at least in this year’s festival, provide more telling insights about the past than do fictions films. Nonfiction works offer the power of personal testimony and rare archival footage. Fiction films, with more opportunities for drama, performance and scene setting strive to strike a balance among creativity, meaning and relevance, a difficult combination, which the festival’s fiction films only partly achieve.

An opening night feature “One of the Hollywood Ten,” and English-Spanish production written and directed by Karl Francis (January 13 and 14), stars Jeff Goldblum as the blacklisted director Herbert Biberman and Greta Scacchi as Gale Sondergaard, his Oscar
winning actress wife. The film recounts the struggles of Hollywood’s blacklist years and Biberman’s subsequent effort (with writer Michael Wilson and producer Paul Jarrico) to make “Salt of the Earth” (1954), their radical classic about Hispanic mine workers and their families in New Mexico. Yet, other than indignation at the blacklist and the anti-Semitism of some of its instigators, the film’s purpose appears murky, its attitude toward its subject unclear. At best, the film seems to suggest that Biberman’s life shattering banishment from Hollywood forced out of an idealistic and egotistical shell ( as his wife accuses him) toward greater understanding of racial and class issues.

Another opening-night presentation, “Once We Grow Up,” is a genial French comedy directed by Renaud Cohen in a familiar genre of 30-somethings perplexed about their sex lives and careers (January 13 and 14). Its protagonist, Simon (portrayed by Mathieu Demy), has an Algerian Jewish background, and the film’s dark side emerges in his grandmother’s pining for a lost home and the revelation of a family tragedy in the Algerian past.

Two additional foreign-language fiction features are German-Swiss production, “Gripsholm,” direted by Xavier Koller (January 17 and 20), and the polish film “Keep Away from the Window,” directed by Jan Jakub Kokski (January 17, 19 and 20).. Based on autobiographical novel by the Jewish-German writer Kurt Tcholsky, “Gripsholm” dramatizes the author’s growing depression during a summer 1932 holiday in Sweden, but barely hints at Tucholsky’s importance as a political journalist in Weimar Germany. With a dark, claustrophobic palate, “Keep Away from the Window” creates a fictional account of the dilemma more compellingly documented in “The Secret” –– a hidden Jewish woman during the Holocaust gives birth to a child later raised as a Polish Catholic.

The festival conducts its own archaeology of the Jewish filmmaking past with two archival presentations “Szulamit” is a 1916 Hungarian production based on a biblical operetta by the Yiddish playwright Abraham Goldfaden (January 13 and 15; silent, with simultaneous translation of Hungarian inter-titles). “The Vow (“Tkies Kaf”), a restored Yiddish film from 1935 with English subtitles, is one of the last such works made in Poland before the Holocaust (January 13 and January 14).

Perhaps surprisingly there are few reflective moments in these films that directly articulate a rationale for being absorbed in interrogating the past. Maybe the need is self-evident –– to seek and identity, to preserve what may otherwise be lost or acknowledge what is already lost, to recollect times that were different and sometimes better, to mourn. For the makers of these particular films, it seems impossible to imagine Jewish present that is not imbued with the past.

Mr. Sklar’s “A World History of film” is being published this month by Abrams.

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