Keeping the Faith

Roger Kamenetz's: The Jew in the Lotus

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?

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.  

Jewish Soul, American Beat
Devoted to exploring "the growing numbers of young people who are returning to Judaism," this hour-long documentary is more novel in its political legerdemain than its formal presentation. The crisis at the center of Barbara Pfeffer's video is the high intermarriage rate among American Jews. Up to half, research has shown, marry gentiles, endangering the future of the faith. Pfeffer and her assemblage of talking heads lay off the scare-mongering for the most part; she takes the defection of some Jews as a given and leaves out their stories. Though that choice makes some thematic sense--this is the tacit introduction to the story--the same approach proves less intellectually honest when it comes to the burgeoning ultraorthodox movement. American Judaism is in less peril than many critics would have it, as a baby boom in Hasid communities grows the population there exponentially. This is, no doubt about it, the most vital strain of contemporary Judaism (interested readers are directed to Robert Eisenberg's travelogue Boychicks in the Hood, which is far better than its title would suggest). Yet the fact that these Jews are effectively fundamentalists with tenuous ties to secular America is not an attractive fact for Pfeffer--and so she mostly ignores them. Three recent converts do talk about the vibrancy of the ultraorthodox movement, but their screen appearances are fleeting; the director yields more time to a feminist Seder, an activity of debatable import. To this doc's credit, it devotes ample screen time to those who cast doubt on the nature of this "Jewish renewal"--which, as shown here, seems to consist of a lot of melismatic music. Musician Steve Reich advocates for Torah scholarship as the only avenue for a Jewish renaissance ("the idea that eating bagels together is going to keep Jews together is ridiculous foolishness," he says pointedly), and author Cynthia Ozick repeats the call for study. (Other celebrity commentators include writer Anne Roiphe, playwright Tony Kushner, and saxophonist John Zorn.) If nothing else, Pfeffer's willingness to engage in these debates--or occasional willingness, at least--represents the best of the Jewish tradition. (Michael Tortorello) Wednesday, November 25 at 8:15 and 9:20 p.m.

Freud Leaving Home
The joke in the title of this Swedish comedy isn't a reference to its female protagonist's amusing journey of sexual discovery, but a play on the psycho-emotional unraveling that besets a dysfunctional Jewish family when its mythically anal, clinically oppressive mother falls deathly ill and is sent away for treatment. A more instructive title, however, might be The Diaspora and Its Discontents, as the film focuses on the geographically and ethically far-flung Cohen family's battle with the trials of tradition and morality. Rosha Cohen (Ghita Norby) is a 60-year-old Holocaust survivor who has never come to terms with the pain implicit in her heritage. Her gay, nonpracticing son David (Phillip Zandén) lives in Florida and pays the rent by playing Mickey Mouse at Disney World, while her daughter Deborah (Jessica Zandén) unhappily lives the orthodox life in Israel with her husband Abraham. Sandwiched between them is the areligious Freud (Gunilla Röör), a bookish beauty whose inability to handle her mother's impending death compels her to shack up with the first seamy-looking guy she sees--an older man who ends up giving her the love her hypercritical mother never could. Her comically awkward sexual follies lighten the film's burdensome subject matter, but, sadly, its unfunny, psychoanalytical humor ("Why did Moses cross the Red Sea? Because he was embarrassed to be seen with his family.") doesn't. (Jon Dolan) Friday, November 27 through Sunday, November 29 at 7:15 p.m.

Rothschild's Violin
Even though its characters think aloud about "the image of the Jew accepting his role as a victim," Edgardo Cozarinsky's quietly moving and lyrically chilling Russian film-opera is anything but dry and academic. What begins as a fictionalized account of Dmitri Shostakovich struggling to find ways of performing an adaptation of Chekhov's Rothschild's Fiddle by one of his Jewish students killed in the war becomes something much more: a meditation on musical memory in WWII Russia that takes the music seriously enough to devote a quarter of its running time to a fantasy performance of "the Jewish opera" itself. The film is polemical and gorgeous at once. We're told that when Shostakovich performs the piece in 1968 it gets branded "Zionist propaganda," and then we're left visually adrift, our eyes glued to a young boy playing a blue violin on a Leningrad street corner in total silence. (Kun) Saturday, November 28 at 5 p.m., Sunday, November 29 at 3 p.m.  

The Milky Way
Sometimes fools become the wisest people, and so it is during the last year of military rule in a small Arab village, where a simpleton named Mabruq (Suheil Haddad) comes to see through the power struggles that surround him. Set in 1964, some 16 years after the Israeli war, Ali Nassar's second feature is an attempt to reconcile the physical and cultural carnage of the past with the promise of "the Milky Way"--literally a path carved by carts during harvest and, more important, the true route to hope, security, and prosperity. Like many villagers, Mabruq loses sight of the Milky Way as he suffers the daily indignities wrought by the Mukhtar (Makram Khoury), a fearful leader who serves the military governor before the needs of his own people. Mabruq tries in vain to hold everyone together, including his beloved friend Mahmmud (Muhammad Bakri), a blacksmith who represents morality in an otherwise corrupt environment. By centering his story around the childlike Mabruq, Nassar sends a message of conciliation that's all the more poignant for how injustice tends to be inflicted upon those most vulnerable. Ultimately, the film channels its anger toward the heart, turning politics into visual poetry and, in turn, a subtle strength. (Caroline Palmer) Tuesday, December 1 through Thursday, December 3 at 8:30 p.m.

Alisa Lebow and Cynthia Madansky's excellent identity-interrogating riff on Jewish dykedom is a shining example of why gays and lesbians are at the forefront of reinvigorating American Jewishness. By creatively telling their story as a sort of Jewish odd couple--from their first Passover seder connection to the 100-person Jewish lesbian meet-and-greet they organize--Lebow and Madansky turn "treyf" (the Yiddish designation for unkosher food) into a symbol of empowering difference. The film's most welcome moment is a trip to Jerusalem, which, far from generating yet another propagandistic Israeli romance, launches the kind of informed and conflicted critique of Zionism that has become a trademark of stateside Queer Yiddishkeit. (Kun) Tuesday, December 1 through Thursday, December 3 at 7:30 p.m.

The festival's hands-down must-see, Eytan Fox's television series Florentene makes me want to go to Israel, and I've never wanted to go to Israel. A prime-time soap opera about a magnetic circle of twentysomethings living in a hip Tel Aviv neighborhood (the festival screens the first six episodes), it's like nothing you will ever see on American TV. Forget Melrose Place--Florentene glows with expert acting, super-smart and witty writing, fully drawn characters, palpable political agendas, and, because Israel's two-channel system is still too unorganized to censor everything it screens, beautifully shot and refreshingly matter-of-fact depictions of gay love and gay sex. The same flair for juggling the personal with the political that Fox brought to Time Off and Gotta Have Heart makes Florentene an un-Friends in which a young film student can come out to his parents while they watch the Rabin funeral on TV. (Kun) Sunday, December 6 at 1:30 p.m.

The Minneapolis/St. Paul Jewish Film Festival runs at Bell Auditorium (corner of University Avenue and 17th Avenue S.E. in Mpls.) through December 13 (with the exception of November 20 and 26). Screening dates and times are subject to change. For more information, call U Film Society at 627-4430.

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