At this stage of Jewish history, one might think that the last thing needed is a documentary that traces the ideological roots of ant-Semitism. We should know all this stuff by now, right? But “The Stigma?,” the new Catalan film that has its U.S. premiere as part of the 17th New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, which begins this week, puts that history in a subtly different context that makes all the difference.
Martí Sans, who made the film, admits at the outset that he “inherited the prejudices of my family,” and decides to record “the process of deconstructing my anti-Semitism.” That statement would suggest a very different, more personal kind of film, a film that one hopes he will make some day. But what he has done is examine the dark history of Spanish and Catalan attitudes towards the Jews, keeping in the forefront the reality that for nearly a half-millennium Spain had no Jews at all. Indeed, as one of the several intellectuals interviewed for the film notes, until very recently it was illegal for a Jew to set foot on Spanish soil.
The result is an eerie kind of anti-Semitism, one that is, as Sans observes, “based more on ideology than experience.” It is as if Spain underwent a 500-year-long version of the “anti-Semitism without Jews” that distinguishes the Polish experience in the 1950s and ’60s. And the result is an appalling combination of ignorance and superstition dominating the popular imagination, one that Sans documents deftly with a series of street interviews of ordinary residents of Barcelona. Despite what one might expect, “The Stigma?” is a thoughtful and well-crafted film that puts a new spin on supposedly familiar history and ideology.
To see the results of that ideology in practice, you could do worse than to see “The Longest Journey: The Jews of Rhodes.” Not quite an hour in length, this handsomely made film by Ruggero Gabbai focuses on three of the very few Rhodesli Jews who survived the death camps after the Nazis deported the 1,800 Jews from the Aegean island. Of all the millions transported to the camps, these unfortunates had the longest trip (hence the film’s title), a grueling, atrocious 21 days in midsummer heat, first packed below deck in three cattle freighters, then imprisoned in freight cars.
This material, too, is regrettably familiar, although Gabbai’s witnesses, Sami Modiano, Stella Levi and Alberto Israël, are eloquent and brutally honest. But the bulk of the film consists of the trio offering their memories of a small but warm community, culturally unique and completely comfortable until the 1938 racial laws were enacted by the Italians, then in control. Before that happened, the Jews of Rhodes lived what seems to have been a fairly normal life, first under the Ottoman Empire, then Fascist Italy.
The Rhodesli Jews were unusually fortunate in one respect. Those who could see the clouds gathering were able to leave Rhodes as late as the actual outbreak of war. One place in which they found a new home was Los Angeles. This vibrant community, which occupied five blocks in South Central L.A., is the subject of another excellent short documentary, “Once Upon a Time at Hoover and 55th.” It was a tight-knit fiercely proud community, almost an extended family, that lasted into the 1950s, when demographic changes dispersed its members. Writer-director Andrés Enrique-Arias is a professor of linguistics and that background gives him an interesting perspective on issues of cultural continuity, one that informs the film quite nicely. Smartly paired with “The Longest Journey,” the program that results is a useful crash course in a hidden corner of the Jewish world.
The fiction features in this year’s event take a much lighter view of the Sephardic experience. One of the festival’s several New York premieres is a new French comedy, “My Best Holidays,” directed by Phillipe Lellouche. The film limns the plight of a Parisian couple that is trying to recover from his adultery by taking a vacation trip to Brittany. There they remain divided by chilly suspicion at first, but their two young sons find ways to crack the ice.
Writer-director Benny Torati’s previous feature film, “Desperado Square,” was a wry, affectionate portrait of a small group of mostly Mizrahi losers seeking redemption on the fringes of the arts. It took him 11 years to make a second film, but the wait was well worth it. “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring” is a wry, affectionate portrait of a small group of musicians seeking redemption. It is also a sly homage to “The Seven Samurai” and “The Magnificent Seven,” with Josef Tawila (Uri Gavriel) assembling a group of eight master instrumentalists and singers to play one last time for his dying friend. Tawila has his own burden of ghosts, the nature of which becomes apparent fairly quickly, although the scene in which he reveals the story is quite effective. It’s a road movie with a bit of the shaggy dog to it, some incredible music and a delicious tone that veers cunningly between parody and tragedy. Gavriel, for once not playing a cop, gives the film a profound gravitas that allows everyone else to play freely for laughs.
Even more playful is “The Rabbi’s Cat,” Joann Sfar’s second directorial effort (in collaboration with Antoine Delesvaux); it is an animated feature in which the energy never flags. The cat, which has no name, is a creature of pure appetite, given to eating fish and birds without hesitation. After apparently eating the rabbi’s parrot, he gains the ability to speak, and almost immediately adds two new tricks to his repertoire: Talmudic disputation and lying. Adapting his own books for the film, Sfar has concocted an entertainingly elaborate story that combines such classic elements of children’s adventure as a quest for a lost utopian city, a hunt for treasure and a close-knit band of friends to share it all with. Sfar and Delesvaux also have an eye on the adults in their audience and the film is as rich in its supply of inside jokes as the classic Warner Brothers cartoons of the ’40s and ’50s, ranging from a playfully snarky homage to Tintin to a rather pointed dig at Russian monarchists. The underlying message of the film is one of tolerance for diversity and for feline desires for fish, both of them admirable themes energetically enacted.
The festival’s programmers have cleverly paired “The Rabbi’s Cat” with a French documentary profile of Sfar, who is only happy when he has a pen or pencil in his hand. Sam Ball’s clever little film “Joann Sfar Draws From Memory” lets us watch the brilliant comic book artist sitting in cafés sketching the occupants and recording their conversations, working on his books in the studio, and remembering his childhood in Nice. Sfar is candid about the impact his mother’s early death had on his career: “Drawing gave me the company I needed” after her death, he tells Ball. Sfar is a delightful presence, and spending 45 minutes with him, even on film, is a real pleasure.
The 17th annual New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival runs from March 13-20. Most of the screenings take place at the Center for Jewish History (15 W. 16th St.), but there are other venues as well, so check the festival website, at http://sephardicfilmfest.org.