This year’s edition of the New York Jewish Film Festival has been an instructive experience. Even a program as large as this one cannot claim to be representative; there are simply too many Jewish filmmakers working in too many different political, socioeconomic and even geographical contexts to be given voice. However, a few tentative conclusions can be drawn, with the final handful of movies serving nicely to underline our findings.
The 2008 edition of the event offered few films that one could call fully realized. “Beaufort,” “Tehillim,” “The Champagne Spy” and “Two Ladies” come the closest, particularly the first two, with directors whose strong visions are expressed through powerful visuals. “Jerusalem Is Proud to Present,” Nitzan Gilady’s deft documentary about the battle over the World Pride march in Jerusalem, can be added to that list. Gilady juggles multiple points of view, allowing a range of gay and lesbian voices and Orthodox and right-wing spokespersons to state their cases, creating a compelling set of parallel narratives that work best when they are most personal and least polemical. The film has a structure that resembles a thriller, with two mutually exclusive forces dashing headlong towards a collision. When the voice of reason speaks, it is frequently New York’s own Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who urges gay and lesbian Jews “to put forward a different religious vision than the one [anti-gay forces] promote.”
“Labyrinths of Memory” also has a parallel narrative structure, comparing the stories of the filmmaker, Guita Schyfter, a Costa Rica-raised child of East European Jewish refugees, with that of Maite “Tete” Guiteras, the adopted Mexican daughter of a prominent Cuban anthropologist and supporter of the Revolution. Schyfter is seeking the history of her family’s uprooting from Lithuania and Ukraine, while Guiteras wishes to return to Mexico to find her biological mother. Schyfter calls the film “a testimonial documentary,” and proclaims at several points in the film “we are made of memory.” But she never really manages to unite the film’s dual narratives in any but the most abstract way, and while neither of them is without interest, combining them makes for a rather disconnected film, blunting the impact of each.
The shared memories of family are also the subject of Ferid Boughedir’s new fiction feature, “Villa Jasmin.” Boughedir is a filmmaker, film theorist and teacher, amd a professor at the University of Tunis. His new film, based on a novel by Serge Moati and adapted by veteran screenwriter Luc Beraud and the director, recounts the story of a Jewish-Tunisian family during the ‘30s and ‘40s, as rediscovered by their son when he brings his young, very pregnant wife to La Goulette, his hometown, for a visit after 20 years absence. Serge, the father, was a socialist activist who fell afoul of the Vichy and German authorities and ended up in Sachsenhausen. The problem is that it is never clear exactly what his son, who has taken his name, is trying to find out; the film’s chronology is wildly skewed (if the parents died in 1957, why is Serge fils only 30-something?), and Boughedir coats everything in a gauzy patina that makes the film highly decorative but not terribly convincing.
Perhaps Jewish filmmakers are on safer ground when they focus on Jews in show business. That would seem to be the conclusion one might draw from two other films playing during the last week of the festival. “Making Trouble,” by Rachel Talbot, is a slightly ramshackle but very entertaining history of six Jewish women who made a living by their wit, rather than their wits: Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner and Wendy Wasserstein. Talbot takes each in turn, returning regularly to a roundtable of contemporary women comics at Katz’s Delicatessen. Judy Gold, Jackie Hoffman, Jessica Kirson and Cory Kahaney are by far the best thing about the film, although the segments on the half-dozen performers/writers are competently done. The problem is that each of these six would be better served by a film of her own, and the four comics could easily carry another documentary on the lives of Jewish women stand-ups. Still, the film is great fun, even if it makes little sense structurally.
The protagonist of Shlomo Hazan’s “Film Fanatic” is Yehuda Grovais, one of the pioneers of the exploding haredi cinema, a film-obsessed ex-insurance salesman who is struggling to balance the demands of his community, his conscience and his passion. Grovais has made over 50 feature films that you probably have never heard of, let alone seen, working on less-than-shoestring budgets with an ingenuity that would do the legendarily thrifty filmmaker Roger Corman proud. He is also a sweet, deeply sincere and somewhat naïve young man who we see desperately trying to find foundation money to film a dream project on the Psalms. Hazan treats his subject with respect and affection, and at the film’s close Grovais is making something of a small, richly deserved, career breakthrough.
The 17th New York Jewish Film Festival continues through Jan. 24. Almost all the films will be screened at the Walter Reade Theater (70 Lincoln Center Plaza), but there are a handful of screenings at the Jewish Museum and the JCC in Manhattan. For information, call (212) 875-5600 or (212) 423-3337, or go to www.filmlinc.com or www.thejewishmuseum.org.