by Dr. Matthew Bernstein, Emory University
The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival came of age well before this 13th edition. Anyone who has attended before knows this is the place to screen terrific movies that far too often can never be seen in an Atlanta theater.
With thanks again to our discerning selection committee, we can enjoy an international array of films: documentaries with stories as compelling as fiction, and fictional narratives that have the intensity and feel of reality. High quality Israeli filmmaking continues unabated with a plethora of entries, and once again, our films reveal little known stories from WWII (notably Besa: The Promise, a superb documentary about Albanian Muslims who saved the lives of nearly 2,000 Jews, and Closed Season, a beautifully shot Black Forest-set romantic triangle between a German couple and their Jewish hideaway). Dysfunctional families take pride of place (what would a Jewish film festival be without them?) in films such as Israel’s comedy of displacement and masquerade Off White Lies, The Dandelions and several others, some of them discussed below.
Perhaps most striking this year is the number of films about music — a documentary about Hava Nagila, so appropriate for our Bar Mitzvah year — but also American blues and rock, European classical symphonic and even Israeli Mizrahi. A.K.A. Doc Pomus, The Ballad of the Weeping Spring, Defiant Requiem, El Gusto, Orchestra of Exiles and the lush Swedish historical drama Simon and the Oaks all focus on the power of music, whether in daily life, or as a mark of religious and national identity.
In Serbia’s superb When Day Breaks, a rabbi movingly tells the protagonist, a retired music professor who has just discovered his Jewish roots: “Music is a miracle. Music tells much more than words. With music one expresses the deepest feelings. It is our tradition to sing and play when it’s the hardest. With music, one overcomes suffering, sadness, despair, everything.”
The same can be said of this year’s movies.
Like many baby boomer Americans, I grew up listening to songs by Doc Pomus (Brooklyn-born Jerome Solon Felder) without the faintest idea of who wrote them. (How often did my friends and I listen to Leon Russell’s rendering of “Youngblood” on George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh album?) And like the 2010 AJFF Best Documentary winner Where I Stand: The Hank Greenspun Story, A.K.A. Doc Pomus is an eye-opening account of an extraordinary American-Jewish life, with an up-tempo mix of interviews with friends, family and coworkers, historical footage and musical excerpts. The charismatic, disabled Pomus clearly earned his hallowed place in American blues and rock music history.
Hybrids ome in all forms: Westerns in particular have been called horse operas (central to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is Ennio Morricone’s iconic score); even the Japanese have a crossbreed noodle western (Tampopo). But Weeping Spring is an equally rare amalgam, a Mizrahi music-lover’s delight that follows with a straight face the plot modeled on Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Seven Samurai and its Hollywood remake The Magnificent Seven (including the motley group of virtuosos assembled by a bald leader). There is virtually no violence in these rocky Israeli landscapes and stone-walled saloons, but personal and cinematic style counts for as much as action — and nothing counts more than the soaring music.
French-Jewish émigré teenager Tal (Agathe Bonitzer) has “got mail” when she connects with Naim, a 20-year-old from Gaza (Mahmoud Shalaby, seen in previous AJFF films Jaffa and Free Men). In the film’s plausibly plotted script, Naim’s ridicule of Tal’s naiveté grows into a fascination with all things French, and when the 2007 Gaza conflict erupts, there are unhappy consequences for them both. The film is most powerful for its hopeful yet realistic portrayal of the harsh realities of Palestinian life. Festival favorite Hiam Abbass (The Syrian Bride, Lemon Tree) appears as Naim’s mother, with all the cast turning in wonderful performances.
In a sports-obsessed home on Long Island, I must have heard many games narrated by Marty Glickman, but I knew nothing about him. No matter where you’re from, you’ll find this film absorbing, as it provides a full-bodied portrait of a true American mensch. An all-around school athlete, Glickman was also a pioneer of American sports broadcasting, which allows the film to trace both personal and national history. Glickman’s verbal dexterity moved between glib gab about games and moving eloquence, both highlighted in various film segment titles. Be sure to stay through the end credits for some wonderfully playful footage of Glickman at work.
From its opening, tight close-ups through its bookended scenes of Shabbat prayers, Meni Yaesh’s riveting film hews closely to its Orthodox protagonist Avi (Roy Assaf) as he and his friends violently police their neighborhood, ostensibly in God’s name. There’s no end to the pleasure this gang takes in their hypocritical self-righteous vengeance, until the attractive, quietly self-confident, secular young woman Miri (rising star Rotem Ziesman-Cohen) causes Avi to question his beliefs, even as he woos her into a more observant life. This intimate, action-filled drama about an unusual side of Israeli society is among the most compelling films on offer this year.
With apologies to sex expert Dr. David Reuben (and Woody Allen), I could easily retitle this film, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Hava Nagila But Were Afraid to Ask.” Afraid perhaps because you thought you knew, or were assumed to know, the answers. With a vigorous pace, and plentiful clips from home movies, mainstream flicks and TV shows, director Roberta Grossman (who made the 2009 AJFF Best Documentary award winner Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh) and co-writer Sophie Sartain wittily recount the disputed origins of the song and its truly extraordinary history in worldwide culture. While the film dares ask if the song has outlived its acclaim, an astonishing array of singers and musicians testifies to its power and longevity.
Few documentarians can boast the consistently high quality output of Richard Trank, the in-house filmmaker for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Like previous Trank films we’ve screened (about Winston Churchill and Simon Wiesenthal, among others), this cinematic biography of the utopian visionary who foresaw a Jewish homeland in the early 20th century features a deft weave of historical footage, archival photos, primary documents and expert commentary. Herzl is a monumental figure in Jewish/Israeli history, yet this film captures his humanity and the accidental nature of his vocation (he was an unsuccessful playwright), as well as his passionate and exhausting struggle to will his dream into existence.
You “don’t have to be Jewish,” or a New York-born liberal to enjoy this film (though the latter may help). It provides an energetic and candid, ultimately admiring portrait of the controversial, often arrogant and divisive three-term Jewish mayor (and former Congressman) who brought the Big Apple out of bankruptcy in the 1980s, and who often crossed party lines in his policies and endorsements. Constructed with period news footage, and interviews with aides, reporters, community leaders and the man himself, Koch is also a dynamic rendering of America’s iconic city and its often tumultuous politics.
In 1963, Ku Klux Klansman Byron “Delay” de la Beckwith had “a little fun” with filmmaker Paul Saltzman, assaulting him in front of a Mississippi courthouse while Saltzman worked on a voter registration drive. Saltzman’s present day encounters with his unapologetic former antagonist (often shown in split-screen) are simply jaw-dropping. Beckwith speaks frankly of his unwavering racism then and now, and defends (if barely acknowledges) his father’s murder of Freedom Rider movement leader Medgar Evers. While footage of integrated Mississippi playgrounds is heartening, the film’s title is clearly ironic: there are too many Beckwiths still around.
In this powerful, award-winning documentary, filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz meticulously examines the “unique” judicial system administered by the Israeli Defense Forces in the Palestinian territories. Alexandrowicz places his filmmaking process literally front and center, allowing viewers to construct their own theories, rather than a predigested argument. Using green screen technology to display historical footage behind his interview subjects, Alexandrowicz brings alive the cases, decisions and actions of the retired judges, attorneys and military leaders who constructed and administered the laws. The result is a disturbing yet fascinating inquiry into the nature of Israeli democracy and the moral costs of administering the territories.
Although Germany made its share of “rubble films” following WWII, we rarely see films about the war’s impact on true-believing Nazis. A bleak spin on The Sound of Music, Lore portrays intimately and intensely the struggles of a fully-indoctrinated Nazi teenager and her young siblings to survive alone, with only family heirlooms to barter for sustenance. Director Cate Shortland again demonstrates her extraordinary skill at delineating her characters’ psychology and physicality without much explanatory dialogue. Thoroughly absorbing, Lore resembles, in its signature shots of children making their way through the Black Forest to grandma’s house, nothing so much as a very tough, grim Grimm fairy tale. For a fine, direct documentary on the not dissimilar subject of how descendants of Third Reich leaders cope with their family legacies, I also recommend Hitler’s Children.
We’ve seen many documentaries about Holocaust survivors, but few are as moving as this History Channel account of Ukranian Jews who endured by living in caves for 517 days. Now in their 80s and 90s, these amateurs became “world class cavers,” as one expert decrees. Shot with one-source lighting to emulate cave conditions, their interviews are intercut with reenactments of how they managed. The film’s frame focuses on Chris Nicola, the New York City caver who discovered their relics; he’d gone to Ukraine “looking for my family’s story, and found someone else’s.” These families’ astonishing and exhilarating saga simply should not be missed.
Similar to Theodore Herzl willing the birth of a Jewish state, the great Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman willed the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (later the Israeli Philharmonic) into existence in 1936. Huberman’s story is recounted through a lively mix of historical footage, reenactments, and interviews with both violin virtuosos and descendants of the estimated 1,000 whose lives he saved. Huberman worked tirelessly for the cause, playing as many as 42 benefit concerts in the U.S. to raise money, enlisting the help of Jewish celebrities like Albert Einstein, and battling government leaders who thwarted his efforts. Here is yet another incredibly inspiring chronicle of determination and triumph.
This powerful drama of forbidden love between the smart and perceptive Palestinian psychology student Nimr (first-timer Nicholas Jacob) and naïve and appealing Jewish Tel Aviv lawyer Roy (Michael Aloni) grows steadily in intensity and does not let you go. The film creates surprising parallels between the pressures on both characters to give each other up, and makes especially palpable the growing hardships Nimr faces as a gay Palestinian unwelcome in Israel. First-time director Michael Mayer elicits terrific performances from his leads (the entire cast, in fact) and keeps the camera close and handheld as a way of visualizing the tentative and ultimately dangerous nature of their liaison.
Art theft may seem at first blush a yawn, but documentaries such as The Rape of Europa (about Nazi looting of art treasures) prove otherwise. Portrait of Wally has the look and pacing of the most compelling detective films, as art experts, journalists and government prosecutors recount the tangled history of a famous Egon Schiele portrait of his mistress, taken under duress from a Jewish Austrian art dealer’s personal collection. Though venerable institutions including the Museum of Modern Art and National Public Radio behave badly during the 13-year effort to reclaim the painting, this energetic and balanced film, co-written by David D’Arcy (former NPR correspondent fired for reporting on the case), partially settles the score.
This lush, beautifully shot adaptation of a bestselling historical novel dramatizes a neglected subject: Jews living in neutral Sweden during and just after WWII. The dreamy and talented Simon’s encounter with the fragile Isak (from a wealthy, cultured German Jewish refugee family) proves fateful in many surprising ways. This intimate epic features stunning landscapes, exquisitely lit interiors, sweeping camerawork and award-winning acting. It will stay with you long after it ends.
This is one dinner party you do not want to miss. From its clever, first-name-only opening credits and witty exposition, to its surprisingly upbeat ending, this adaptation of a French theatrical farce (with most of the original cast intact) unfolds like a Gallic version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or God of Carnage, i.e. an evening that goes wobbly and way wrong. To quote Bette Davis in All About Eve: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
I was completely entranced by this absorbing Tiberias-set, multi-character, multi-plot dramedy of intersecting lives, a film in the great tradition of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. A creative writing workshop provides the framework for imaginary and actual stories of people coping with “secrets and lies, wounds and diseases”— and trying to heal. The result is a narrative tapestry that is moving, often humorous and compassionate. It’s beautifully filmed with a uniformly superb cast, and well deserving of its record-breaking number of Ophir Award nominations.
Matthew Bernstein is professor and chair of the Film & Media Studies Department at Emory University. He is also Programming Chair of the 2013 AJFF.