Keeping the Faith

U Film Society's Jewish Film Festival delivers a celluloid shalom for the age of kabala chic

Events like the Minneapolis/St. Paul Jewish Film Festival are simultaneously crucial and so very risky. Crucial for visibility's sake, for tossing Jewishness into the cinematic public sphere in ways that, say, The Governess can't; and risky for providing a condensed, one-stop representational window--film-festival identity politics at its best and most ambiguous. What makes a feature film or a documentary video "Jewish," anyway?

This isn't just a question for the MSPJFF programmers (I've wondered the same thing ever since reviewing my first Jewish film festival five years ago), but it is one worth asking. In the age of corporate multiculturalism, kabala chic, unfinished peace talks, the Holocaust Oscar, and Monica Lewinsky (when there's Yiddish and blow jobs in the White House), what does the Jewish Film Festival tell us about Jews?

Roger Kamenetz's: The Jew in the Lotus
Roger Kamenetz's: The Jew in the Lotus

Judging from this second annual Twin Cities program (which runs at U Film Society's Bell Auditorium through December 13), one answer is that Jews can't seem to get enough of found footage. And with directors like Cynthia Madansky, Alisa Lebow, and Eytan Fox around, it would seem that queer Jews--no matter where they plop down in the diaspora--definitely do it better. Surf the highlights and see for yourself.

The Jew in the Lotus
So, this bunch of rabbis, a doctor, and a writer go to India to meet the Dalai Lama. No, it's not the beginning of a bad joke but the setting for this documentary inspired by author Roger Kamenetz's best-selling account of a 1990 pilgrimage to meet His Holiness. The Jewish delegates intend to share "the secret of spiritual survival" with the exiled leader, but they end up learning as much from him as they impart. This is especially true for Kamenetz, who begins his journey depressed and returns inspired. Unfortunately, these pilgrims fall into stereotypical roles, such as the archetypal world traveler taking photos of local children and then benevolently presenting them with their own image, or the nervous passenger complaining about "atrocious," allegedly drunken taxi drivers. Kamenetz and his comrades acknowledge that they're playing out their internal struggles on a world stage in the midst of enacting a historic moment. But the question remains: Is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship or the latest chapter in a long history--that of Westerners' personal therapy via exotic "others"? (Leslie Dunlap) Wednesday and Thursday at 7:15 and 9:15 p.m.

The Photographer
No Life is Beautiful, this. As an aptly devastating Holocaust documentary whose form reflects its content, director Dariusz Jablonski's portrait of the Lodz Ghetto in Poland achieves some of the same power as Alain Resnais's landmark "Night and Fog." At the core of the film are 400 color slides of the labor camp and some of its 300,000 inhabitants; the photos were taken between 1940 and 1943 by the ghetto's chief accountant, Walter Genewein, and rediscovered just 10 years ago in an antique shop in Vienna. "Though they were real," says the surviving Jewish doctor Arnold Mostowicz, "they did not show the truth." To complete the picture, Jablonski shifts with wrenching impact between the doctor's reminiscences; a succession of SS memorandums whose unspeakable horror is conveyed in the affectless style of an accounting report; and the director's own haunting cinematography within the still photos, as the camera acts as an investigator, panning across the vast ghetto landscapes and the victims' thin faces, searching for telling details but often blurring metaphorically out of focus. There are also periodic eulogies for the dead in the form of black-and-white portraits of men, women, and children who lost their lives; and the photographer's shockingly matter-of-fact letters to the AGFA company inquiring about faded colors on the film stock. The stark contrast between the photographer's still pictures and The Photographer's moving ones mirrors the great distance between past and present, between memory and occurrence, between representation and the living nightmare of something unrepresentable. By granting the spaces in between to the viewer and his conscience, the film acknowledges its limitations--and becomes essential. (Rob Nelson) Saturday and Sunday at 5:15 p.m.

Yidl in the Middle: Growing Up Jewish in Iowa
The title pretty much sums things up for Marlene Booth's documentary memoir. Using photos, old home movies, and contemporary interviews, Booth sketches a portrait of a young woman caught "between Jewish pride and Iowan belonging." Coming of age in a town with only 3,000 Jews, where big-city friends had to import sides of kosher beef for the family, young Marlene lived authentically at home, while at school she paid careful heed to her mother's warning during the trial of the Rosenbergs: "Behave, so people don't think we're like them." In '50s Iowa, no one was to stand out: The German Reform Jews looked down upon the Eastern European Orthodox Jews, who in turn looked down upon the Hasidic Jews. Booth admits she and her family also felt superior to the "goyum" of their world, while at the same time they wanted desperately to be accepted. The film is at its best when it portrays these specific tensions, and when it gently demonstrates the strength of community and tradition. Yet Booth ("I was Jewish and Iowan") spends rather too much of her one-hour running time reiterating the same points. (Anne Ursu) Wednesday, November 25 at 7:15 p.m.

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