New York Jewish Film Festival 2014 - Critic's Choices

Kurt Brokaw picks his top choices from the 23rd New York Jewish Film Festival.


In "Ida," a Polish nun discovers that she's Jewish.
In "Ida," a Polish nun discovers that she's Jewish.

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How inspiring that The Film Society of Lincoln Center has partnered with The Jewish Museum for more than two decades in presenting world, US, and New York premieres of films from around the globe. And how encouraging to read Sheerly Avni’s report in The Jewish Daily Forward that more than 80 similar Jewish fests are based in America alone.

Avni gives lively praise to five in particular: San Francisco (“the oldest and biggest, dating back to 1980”); Miami (“best winter escape”); Telluride (“best non-Jewish Jewish fest”); Sephardic Jewish Film Festival in New York (for its Pomegranate Award); and The New York Jewish Film Fest (“classiest”).

In Manhattan festival circles these days, “classy” has come to mean “inclusive.” The Tribeca Film Festival surely engineered the city’s paradigm shift in the spring of 2002, when its first fest debuted with the humanitarian goal of “spurring the economic and cultural revitalization of the lower Manhattan district” following the terrorist attack of 9/11. What neighborhood—in any suburb, town or city—wouldn’t welcome some economic revitalization, then or now?

New York’s events of 2001 birthed a something-for-everyone approach that local festivals from New Directors/New Films and Rendez-Vous with French Cinema to Doc NYC and The New York Film Festival have slowly come to embellish and embrace. The result is that fests once aesthetically partitioned for the one-percent have become come-and-get-it grab bags for the ninety-nine percent. While our new mayor’s “tale of two cities” is exemplified in the big-ticket real estate, countless banks, and upscale restaurants that flank Lincoln Center, the movies being shown are trying to attract a much broader viewership. Aviva Weintraub, director of the New York Jewish Film Festival (NYJFF), summed up the curatorial zeitgeist when she told reporter Neta Alexander in Haaretz, “The target audience is everybody and anybody, and not only the American Jewish community.”

This 23rd NYJFF is a clear example of this “silo-ing” effect in festival programming. There’s a “From-The-Vaults” section that excavates an early Yiddish talkie (Mamele with Molly Picon) and silent feature (Oded the Wanderer by Chaim Halachmi and The Wandering Jew by Georges Méliès). New Israeli shorts have been bundled into a free showing January 18th at 6:30 pm, and director Amos Gitai leads a free master class on January 19th at 2 pm. Wim Wenders shows Paris, Texas 30 years after its release. Director Otto Preminger is remembered with three films, only one of which (Exodus) movingly reflects the Jewish experience, though all three showcase the imaginative title credits of designer Saul Bass. There’s a “Midnight Movie” (a familiar if dubious add-on at Tribeca and other venues) of Bass’ 70s sci-fi ant invasion, Phase IV. And you can walk into the Elinor Bunin Munroe amphitheater anytime and catch an hour-long loop of Bass’s most rock ’em sock ’em movie title credits on Seconds, Walk On The Wild Side, Vertigo, Psycho, Anatomy of A Murder, Man With The Golden Arm and Cape Fear.

Some of the feature selections—like an Amy Winehouse performance doc shot in a tiny Irish village, and Ari Folman’s part live, part animated tale of an actress (Robin Wright) who surrenders her digital image—seem like remote exercises in plumbing Jewish identity. But this fest, like its uptown and downtown neighbors, widens the curatorial tent poles each year. More than 40 narrative and documentary features in this fest alone are vying for your business. Here are critic’s choices of NYJFF films, which have reimagined the Jewish cultural and religious experience (both in engagement and apartness) in the most innovative ways:

Ida
(Pawel Pawlikowski. 2013. Poland. 80 min.)

The closing night attraction, Ida (3:45 pm and 9 pm on January 23rd) wrestles with a tremulous crisis of identity: an orphaned novitiate in a 1960s convent in Poland, visiting her retired aunt, discovers she’s not Catholic but Jewish. Will the girl take her vows at 18 and become a nun, or renounce her religious training and studies to begin her adult life as a secular Jew? (Oh, and she’s experiencing the first stirrings of love for a young man who plays saxophone in a primitive jazz quintet.)

Ida was the most closely watched film of this fest even before it opened, not for its narrative premise but for its daunting artistic simplicity—it traps its two female leads in a rural, agricultural setting that seems frozen in time and plowed under the shadows of war that hung heavy in European dictatorships for decades. Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson once made movies that felt like Ida; the recent Romanian renaissance of films like Police, Adjective and Beyond the Hills resurrected a later, chillier Communist era; and Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse whipped up a winter blizzard so severe in its imprisonment of a father/daughter in their isolated farmhouse that the 35mm images nearly congealed. Ida can proudly join those timeless art pieces.

Anna (played with impressive restraint by Agata Trzebuchowska, who is 21) was left at a convent near Lublin, Poland during WWII, and raised by nuns. It’s 1962 and the Mother Superior insists that Anna visit her one living relative in town, Wanda Gruz, the week before taking her vows. Wanda (Agata Kulesza, superbly cast), a former judge and ferocious public prosecutor tagged “Red Wanda,” has become a low-ranking magistrate and is drinking her nights away with anyone who strikes her fancy. She’s a wily cynic as she smirks to her niece that “this Jesus of yours adored people like me.” Wanda confides to Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein, that she was raised in Piasti (which housed a Nazi ghetto in 1940), and that her mother Roza (Wanda’s sister) was killed by soldiers along with her father, Haim, and a brother, all of whom may be buried in an unmarked grave in a woods.

The two women set off to try and find the grave, and Anna, who’s lived her entire life in a world of silence and obedience, is clearly bewildered and shaken, but alert and attuned to what she’s learning. A number of twists and turns follow in this 80-minute precisionist drama, not to be disclosed here. Pawlikowski shoots in black-and-white, standard aspect ratio, and his production design of a drab, cheerless, impoverished community trying without much success to rouse itself to something approaching a nightlife—boosted by a jazz combo and sulky blonde vocalist (Joanna Kulig) who tackles John Coltrane—is peerless. You listen to a few minutes of their lumpy set and wonder why Ida/Anna doesn’t immediately head back to the convent. Maybe she will…but maybe Coltrane and his local interpreters are exactly what she needs to heal her and bring her into a new life. You’ll see.

The Jewish Cardinal
(Ilan Duran Cohen. 2012. France. 100 min.)

As you might guess from its title, Ilan Duran Cohen’s robust, sumptuously produced and impeccably cast biopic of Jean-Marie Lustiger (1926-2007) is the mirror opposite of Ida. Cohen’s opulent film positions Lustiger as a Jewish Christian, a position he’s entirely comfortable with, while Ida’s young nun-in-waiting is seen as a Christian Jew, a position that locks her in a life-altering struggle.

The Jewish Cardinal opened the 17th annual UK Jewish Film Festival last October, and would have made an ideal partner to Ida as this NYJFF’s opener. It’s anchored by Laurent Lucas’ supercharged portrayal of the Paris Chaplain who grows by leaps and bounds through the institutional church hierarchy, from Chaplain to Vicar to Bishop (of Orleans, where he’d been baptized) to Archbishop (of Paris) to Cardinal and advisor to Pope John Paul II.

Though he led France’s 45 million Catholics for a quarter century, Lustiger was born to Polish Jews and faced continual scrutiny, doubt and even hostility from the Jewish community, starting with his own father (marvelously played by Henri Guybet) who runs a button and frame shop in Paris and can never forget that his wife perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When the movie picks up his life in 1969, the young Lustiger is a chain-smoking micro-manager who travels by moped and studies Hebrew in his spare moments.

Lustiger is eventually mentored by the Pope, expertly played by Aurélien Recoing, who bears a close resemblance to His Eminence John Paul II. The Catholic leader is conceived as a canny politician who wears white sneakers, swims in a luxurious outdoor pool, and endorses his bullet-proof “Pope mobile” as an ideal way to stay in the public eye; in Lustiger he sees a fellow Pole, maverick enthusiast and cheerleader, who uses modern media as persuasively as US president Ronald Reagan. Even as a parish priest Lustiger is known as “The Bulldozer,” a nickname he’ll validate when he founds a Catholic radio station (Radio Notre Dame) and the KTO Catholic television enterprise.

Lustiger pushes against everyone, from a Catholic newspaper editor who’s troubled by Lustiger’s “devouring ambition” in founding broadcast media, to his own cousin (a refreshingly adult Audrey Dana) who breaks with him when he won’t say Kaddish at his father’s grave. The Pope tolerates Lustiger as a Jew (“you’re like a Jewish mother to me,” he chuckles in a lighter moment), much as the Jewish community tolerates Lustiger as a Catholic—which is to say, not well.

The film gives much of its last half hour to Lustiger’s greatest career dilemma: The occupation of a two-story building at Auschwitz used by the Nazis to store Zyklon B gas pellets. The structure was leased by Polish communists to a group of Carmelite nuns dedicated to memorializing Polish lives lost in the holocaust—partly by erecting a 23-foot cross in front of the entrance. Cohen’s script suggests that Lustiger was critical in persuading Pope John Paul II to order their evacuation in 1993. The scenes of actor Lucas breaking down and crying out to his deceased parents on Auschwitz’ railroad tracks—a turning point in his position regarding the nuns’ occupation—may be the most anguishing moments in this festival.

Cardinal Lustiger’s real life epitaph, which he wrote years before his passing from cancer, reads in part “I was born Jewish. I received the name of my paternal grandfather, Aaron. Having become Christian by faith and by baptism, I have remained Jewish as did the Apostles.” Cohen’s film shortens this to “I am God’s mixed child.” His Jewish Cardinal is a film any NYJFF devotee will find worthy of the closest attention.

Regina
(Diana Groó. 2013. Hungary. 63 min.)

Documentarians who make films celebrating obscure historical figures quickly learn the art and craft of camouflage. If you don’t have many images of your subject, you build a life through environment, events, or all those admiring talking heads. Jeffrey Kaufman’s 2012 doc The Savoy King: Chick Webb and The Music That Changed America is a good example; only six seconds of film of the early swing drummer exist, but Kaufman built a satisfying 90-minute portrait of Webb’s life by relying heavily on stills, archival footage of Harlem night life in the 1920s, and Bill Cosby’s voice enacting Webb.

But if you have no film footage of a notable person long deceased, and only one lone still photo, the task becomes far more formidable. Consider Frankfurt journalist and rabbi Elisa Klapheck’s book, Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi. Open the link and examine the cover: there’s Regina Jonas in her only photograph. In 2005 Klapheck approached Diana Groó, a Jewish Hungarian writer/director, after viewing Groó’s first narrative feature Miracle In Cracow (about the gravestone of a mystical rabbi), and urged Groó to consider constructing a feature-length documentary of Jonas’ life.

Groó had directed more than a decade’s worth of shorts, but when she got around to reading Klapheck’s book in 2008, she was stunned. After all, Groó was a woman who once said “the style of a 1990s director has to be completely different from Szabo, Malik, Jansco, Elek or Rozsa.” She would spend the next five years assembling 50 hours of footage and thousands of photos, determined to assemble a no-frills, unadorned but coherent life of Regina; two of her primary sources were Berlin and Warsaw archives of Orthodox Jewish life at the turn of the century. She wanted especially to see schoolgirls who might have been influenced by Jonas’ teachings and support.

From the start Groó eschewed what would have been a familiar documentary technique of turning to rabbinical female authorities, even friends like Katalin Kelemen (Hungary’s first female rabbi), to connect the dots of Jonas’ brief life. One new contact who did become the filmmaker’s angel was 84-year-old George Weisz, also a Hungarian Jew, whose The Joir and Kato Weisz Foundation provided major funding.

Producer Weisz provided an artistic bonus, too: the services of his daughter, Rachel Weisz, the Broadway and film actress, who agreed to voice Rabbi Jonas. (Groó also used her own grandmother, age 86 and a Holocaust survivor, to enact older women we see in the footage). Finally, Groó listened to and used numerous musical recordings from the Weimar era that blurred the line between popular and classical. What this director has built in picture and sound is a raw, deliberately primitive newsreel that’s powerfully immersive. There’s a bit of slo-mo and a few touches of what look like skip-frame tweaking from time to time, but make no mistake—Regina is the real deal.

Growing up in Berlin, Jonas took seminary courses at the Academy for the Science of Judaism, graduating as an academic teacher of religion. Her thesis affirmed what she perceived to be her qualifications to be ordained as a rabbi, but she was refused by the head Talmud professor. She reapplied to Rabbi Leo Baeck, the spiritual leader of German Jewry, and was refused again. Finally in 1935 the head of the Liberal Rabbis’ Association ordained her.

Most of her brief teaching and speaking was done in schools, old age and nursing homes, and venues not monitored by the Gestapo. In 1938 she wrote a journalist that, “I hope the time will come for all of us when the ‘female question’ will no longer arise, for there is something wrong in a place where this is still an issue.” In a sermon after Kristallnacht the same year, she acknowledged “a time of ordeal by fire, where we will see if childlike love, gratitude, the faithfulness of relatives and friends all hold true.”

Jonas was arrested in 1942 and deported to Theresienstadt, a so-called “model concentration camp” shown in Nazi propaganda films of the time. She served there for two years, trying always to comfort and teach Judaic values of humility and reserve to terrified newcomers coming off the trains. In 1944 she was transferred to Auschwitz, where she was murdered at age 42.

In her last sermon prior to being removed to Auschwitz, which closes the film, Rabbi Jonas said this:

“All Jewish men and women, women and men equally share in the responsibility to continue this service with perseverance. The testimony of our service to God is the great trial of our work in Theresienstadt, and when we pass from our life on earth into eternity, may our work bring blessings upon Israel and all of humanity. …Honest Jewish men and unselfish, brave women were always the preservers of our people. Moral acknowledgment is a reward from God and his thanks for these mitzvahs, good deeds and noble actions, if He finds us worthy of joining this circle of women and men.”

GentleDog
(David Shadi. 2012. Israel. 10 min.)

“It’s been a long time since I brought someone home,” says the drop-dead blonde (Yael Duani) to her handsome date (David Shadi) she’s clicked with at a wedding they both attended. “Don’t worry, I won’t bite,” smiles the polite, mild-mannered David, settling in with a drink while she goes off to her bedroom to change.

Her gigantic, black Great Dane pads into the living room and sits facing David. “Go home, pal,” says the dog. “We’re in a relationship. I sleep with her.”

Yes, GentleDog is a talking dog short, and a very funny one. The dog, who tells us the name is Samson, makes it clear: he’s always supportive, always there for her, loves her unconditionally, and on and on. Samson wants David to know his collar is really jewelry, that sex has made their relationship even stronger, and that he’s more of a man than David will ever be. Samson’s quite persuasive, not to mention practically as tall as the human interloper, and probably a hundred times stronger. Eventually David takes the hint and heads out—accusing the young woman (who’s changed into a seductive nightgown and robe) of sleeping with her dog, which she calls an outrageous lie as she slams the front door in his face. Then there’s an even funnier ending between her and Samson.

GentleDog is one of the new Israeli shorts being shown free on January 18th at 6:30 pm. All four have smart, contemporary premises along with first-rate casts, direction, and production. The gentle dog’s real name is Fiona, and the talented Shadi, who wrote, produced and directed this gem, also performs Fiona’s deep-throat voice.

This concludes critic’s choices. Watch for critic’s choices from New Directors/New Films Festival March 19-30, 2014.