Celluloid Shalom

Keeping the Faith: A Hasidic boy recites his prayers in A Life Apart: Hasidism in America.

"Mpls./St. Paul Jewish Film Festival"
U Film Society, Bell Auditorium

November 15 through December 3

CREATING HOLLYWOOD'S first Jewish superhero was hardly Cecil B. DeMille's chief concern in casting the brawny Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956). Still, when this chiseled gentile donned a beard and split a simulated Red Sea with macho flair--"Behold His mighty hand!"--it was enough to make even the most faithless moviegoer believe.

In hindsight, this seems pretty close to parody, but it doesn't belie the fact that heroic screen images of Jews were all too scarce in the years prior to DeMille's popular epic. The Marx Brothers notwithstanding, it's difficult to locate more than a handful of Jewish protagonists from the early years of American cinema--and fewer still whose Judaism itself yielded such spectacular special effects. It wasn't until Americans began to grasp more fully the drama of the Holocaust that Hollywood found an inroad toward heroic Jewish narratives.

For example, check out a sharp young Burt Lancaster in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), condemning the Third Reich with Oscar-caliber zeal. Previews of such embryonic dramas are among the motley artifacts assembled in Trailers, Schmailers: the latest coming-attractions compendium from Bay Area film-maker and -historian Jenni Olson, screening as part of U Film Society's first-ever Mpls./St. Paul Jewish Film Festival. (Trailers plays Wednesday, November 19 at 9:15 p.m.) Compiling 30-odd preview reels to create a veritable celluloid scrapbook, Olson provokes a pointed analysis of Jewish identity on the silver screen, sketching out a jagged web of imaginary lines that stretch from Groucho and Woody Allen to Schindler's List.

Alas, there's not much method to this melange. The clips aren't ordered chronologically, nor are they positioned theoretically with the aid of a cinephilic narrator. And yet, for its lack of definitive statement, Trailers works as a subjective and unpredictable sampler of Semitic images in popular cinema. Whether for their take on Jewish lifestyles (The Diary of Anne Frank, Hester Street) or their elevation of Jewish personalities (Dustin Hoffman in Lenny, Barbra Streisand in anything), each of these disparate, sometimes obscure selections is made to seem utterly relevant when viewed through Olson's collective-retrospective lens.

Perhaps it's this sense of context that helped inspire U Film to launch the two-week, dozen-film Jewish festival (patterned after a similar series in San Francisco) in the Twin Cities. Other minority-themed film fests have gone beyond niche-hunting, offering screen time to directors who are not only significant but also deft at the high art of entertainment. However, while films like Daniel Petrie's Bernard Malamud adaptation The Assistant (Saturday at 7:15 p.m., and Sunday at 5:15 p.m.) may rely partly on more universal themes, the specificity of the Jewish experience--of the Holocaust, in particular--has given way to an inaugural festival calendar where sociological subtext is more than mere connective tissue. In other words, these aren't films that "just happen" to be about Jews.

Take Carpati: 50 Miles, 50 Years (Monday at 7:15 p.m.; and Monday, December 1 at 7:15 p.m.), a video documentary by director/musician Yale Strom (The Last Klezmer). In typical "no-budget" fashion, Strom and his cameraman roam the rural Carpathian climes of the Ukraine with Zev Godinger, an aging Auschwitz survivor on an impromptu pilgrimage back to his native village of Vinogradov. A simple spokesman for a dying generation of Eastern European Jews, Godinger bonds with the director and provides candid access into the dwindling community for which he mourns. The rawness of handheld video yields an awkward intimacy here, akin to watching home movies from half a world away. And, from start to finish, its poignancy literally depends on the persistence of Jewish struggle.

Cleaner and more objective is A Life Apart: Hasidism in America (Sunday at 7:15 p.m.; and Sunday, November 30 at 7:15 p.m.), a roundly educational doc by co-directors Owen Rudovsky and Menachem Daum. Whereas the low-budget Carpati discovers a Jewish community on the verge of extinction, A Life Apart is a PBS-ready assessment of the hearty Hasidic communities that have thrived in Brooklyn since the end of WWII. (For a teensy touch of star power, the creators enlisted Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker to narrate.) The film's frank and revealing interviews with men and women both inside and outside of the Hasidim cover a lot of ground--political, social, and spiritual--without slipping too far into the academics of faith.

There is some room for laughs in the festival, mind you. Me and My Matchmaker (Tuesday at 7:15 p.m.) is the bizarre, borderline-hysterical portrait of the relationship between a filmmaker and his subject, a Chicago widow who's made a business out of pairing up unwed Jews. But Mel Brooks fans need not apply. If this year's formative lineup is any indication, this festival is for serious inquiries only.

For more festival information, call the U Film Society hotline at 627-4430.

 
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