New York Jewish Film Festival

What is the New York Jewish Film Festival?

The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum presented the 28th annual New York Jewish Film Festival from Jan. 9-22, offering a variety of films related to Jewish identity, whether that be through religious observance, remembrance of the Holocaust, connection to the land of Israel or some other way. The Ticker presents short reviews of some NYJFF selected entries.

Autonomies

A definite highlight of the festival, Autonomies is a five-episode Israeli miniseries from Yehonatan Indursky, depicting a dystopian Israel split into a secular state and a Haredi autonomy, where ultra-Orthodox Jews can live behind a guarded wall, protected from the influences of the outside world, free to practice their Judaism and enforce it with their own guard patrol.

            The series is packed with details of Jewish observance, stories and iconography that likely come straight from Indursky’s own religious upbringing — in a question and answer sessionQ&A, he spoke about attending the Ponovezh Yeshiva and feeling like he was growing up between two worlds. All it takes is a character mumbling a blessing before eating to provide the imagined world with authenticity.

            Anchoring the whole story are moving performances, most notably by Assi Cohen as Broide, a Jonah-like figure on a journey of doubt and woe. He, like his creator, is between two worlds, smuggling illicit materials past the autonomy’s kosher inspectors or chanting Charlie Parker’s “Lover Man” as if it was a Hasidic niggun, a religious tune.

            As an exploration of character, Autonomies is superb, though it’s less articulate in its expression of theme. To take a side between the Hareidis and the secular Israelis would be potentially volatile — at the Q&A, various audience members harangued Indursky for holding views he had not expressed or blamed him and his religious family for Israel’s religiously skewed laws. Indursky’s decision not to play favorites in his show comes across less as avoidance than as the message of disliking barriers that he’s trying to get across. Whether he’s successful will likely depend on the viewer and how they already feel about walls.

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Seder Masochism

Nina Paley’s Seder Masochism, animated in a style not too dissimilar from internet flash animations, has some really fun parts, and it would be great if those memorable parts were the majority of the movie — it’s almost impossible not to love a joyful sequence of the biblical Moses dancing with his sheep to the ditty of Gene Kelly’s “Moses Supposes.”

            The film is part recounting of the Passover seder and the stories told therein, part reconciliation by Paley with her past religious experience. A significant portion of the film, though, is a wordless diatribe against the patriarchy and the way Paley sees it represented in war and religion.

            Paley comes at Judaism with a viciousness; her joking only goes so far before it toes the line of cruelty. Biblical stories are reinterpreted and added to, with Paley adding scenes of misogynist violence to the proceedings. One part of the story of Exodus tells of Jewish circumcision, which the director reinterprets into an assembly line of swords, blood and smiling viciousness.

            Seder Masochism is a tough work to reconcile with, as it does laugh at itself, doesn’t take itself too seriously throughout, but then it turns a corner and incorporates footage of the Sep. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.  There is little sense of love in Paley’s work; she is not trying to fairly approach Judaism to deal with the aspects she dislikes.

            There’s a reason the NYJFF summary describes Seder Masochism as a “wildly playful and imaginative retelling.” It’s so much nicer to remember the good, fun parts of the film. To seek out the rest would be to purposely look for pain.

A Tramway in Jerusalem

Amos Gitai’s 94-minute portrait of a single part of Jerusalem’s public transportation system is the kind where every minute is felt. The minutes even show up on screen, as time cards come to indicate that the film has reached a new segment. A Tramway in Jerusalem limits itself to the platforms and cars of Israel’s Light Rail, an electric train that has an estimated 45-minute travel time between its most distant points. As small as the coverage is, the stations it visits span a wide breadth of those who live in Israel.

            Gitai’s objective seems to be to capture a place and the people who are there, indiscriminately pointing a camera and letting the conversations go forth and wander. The film is a drama, but Gitai constructs his work to seem naturalistic, like he and his viewers are stumbling upon the Light Rail passengers together.

            If anything, A Tramway in Jerusalem makes an argument in favor of more selectivity and editing. More often than not, the people that Gitai captures aren’t terribly interesting. They cover ideas that have considerable value, to be sure, but the execution is poor, the final product, boring. A relatable moment comes with a young boy almost bouncing off the walls, walking from side to side of the train, aimlessly, as his father obsessively reads aloud from Flaubert.

            The biggest tease is in the recurring characters, the moments where the film seems to be building toward a cohesive story. A Tramway in Jerusalem is for anybody who likes doing what Gitai apparently does, taking an aimless ride on a train, never really reaching a destination.

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Who Will Write Our History

Once it gets going, Who Will Write Our History is a deeply meaningful story for anybody who knows what it’s like to have their story negated by somebody else’s telling of it. The Jewish people have defined themselves by their texts from early on, and this documentary confronts what happens when history is in danger of being skewed by a falsified telling and the legitimizing of texts that don’t fairly depict the people of the book.

            While living in the Warsaw Ghetto, historian Emanuel Ringelblum decided to begin documenting the lives of the Jews in the ghetto. From 1940-1943, he and his group created the Oyneg Shabes Archive, a collection of documents, writings and records of Jewish existence at the time. Ringelblum recognized the historical nature of the time he was living in and was determined that the Jews would tell their own story.

            For the most part, Who Will Write Our History succeeds at depicting the archive’s construction, the reasons why the archive was so necessary and what the material was that was actually contained within it. The documentary is filled, more than with sorrow, with intent and purpose. What is being told is just as important as how it is being told.

            If anything, the film leaves viewers with a curiosity of what kind of treasures could be contained within the Oyneg Shabes Archive. As eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust grow scarcer, other ways of finding direct testimony are welcome considerations. Thinking about the Oyneg Shabes Archive makes one wonder how many individual stories could be told from the information, and, if so, who would be doing the telling.

ArtsBenjamin WallinComment