It is entirely to the credit of the New York Jewish Film Festival, which started its 29th annual edition this week, that the event has always cast its cinematic net in a wide arc encompassing fiction and nonfiction, animation and live action, experimental and archival film and video, and shorts as well as feature films. The festival’s selection committee has always made a significant effort to include films from anyplace on the globe where Jews can be found, although inevitably the programs tend to be heavily weighted towards the U.S., Israel and the former Eastern bloc. That is, after all, where the most Jews are.
In recent years the festival has become a launching pad for many theatrical releases that, before the proliferation of multiplexes, streaming services and such, might have disappeared without a trace after an abbreviated festival run. This year’s schedule is dotted with such films, including titles long-listed for the foreign-language Oscar like Israel’s “Incitement” and Hungary’s “Those Who Remained,” and a long-awaited movie based on the popular children’s book “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.” (Those films will be dealt with in these pages when they enjoy their theatrical debuts later this year.)
But if there is one thread that unites most of the films on this year’s slate, it is a renewed focus on the experience of Jewish women, frequently told by female filmmakers in ways that challenge assumptions about gender, sexuality and women’s roles in the Jewish world.
The most powerful argument for such films is the films themselves. One of the most intriguing and varied programs in this year’s festival is a package of five short films directed by Jewish women. There is a subtle and suggestive thematic link among the films: an understated but unmistakable concern with the clichés imposed on Jewish women in American and Israeli cultures, how those roles become media tropes and how they can be turned upside-down. For example, “Write Me” by Pearl Gluck takes as its starting point Deborah Kahan Kolb’s poem “After Auschwitz,” a challenge to the oft-quoted Theodor Adorno observation that after Auschwitz poetry became impossible. Kahan Kolb’s poem, as adapted by Gluck, is a rebuke to Adorno, and the Gluck narrative about a Holocaust survivor and her Auschwitz tattoo offers a subversive and affirmative response to the conventional representation of survivors and the visible signifiers etched into their flesh. “Eleanor of Illinois” by Danielle Durchslag similarly inverts the rather tedious myth of the Jewish mother as annihilator by having Judy Kuhn discuss Jewish guilt, only to reveal at the end of the film that the dialogue she speaks comes from lines spoken by Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine in “The Lion in Winter.” “Silhouette of the Braids” by Rotem Dimand plays with a familiar cinematic trope, mother and daughter viewing old home movies, to remind us that an utterly unexpected “l’dor va-dor” moment is always around the corner, upending our assumptions about family dynamics.
Marceline Loridan-Ivens was a filmmaker, author and survivor of Birkenau who died in 2018. Her rather oblique take on her personal history, “The Birch-Tree Meadow” (2003), is the centerpiece film in this year’s festival. Clearly autobiographical, the film centers on a filmmaker who returns to the site of the camps for a reunion with fellow survivors. While there, she meets and befriends a young German photographer whose grandfather served in the SS, and the two grapple with issues of guilt and remembrance. The film is rather chilly and a bit of a surprise for anyone whose knowledge of Loridan-Ivens’ work is centered on her long marriage to and collaboration with the great Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens. But there is a clue in the casting of Anouk Aimee as Myriam, the Loridan-Ivens stand-in; Aimee’s best-known work, “Lola” by Jacques Demy, “A Man and a Woman” by Claude Lelouch, “La Dolce Vita” and “8 ½” by Federico Fellini, place her squarely in the Left Bank new wave and the multinational art cinema of the ’60s. If one expects “The Birch-Tree Meadow” to be either a conventional survivor tale or one redolent of the Nouvelle Vague of Godard, Truffaut et al., those expectations will be thwarted.
If, on the other hand, you first see “Marceline. A Woman. A Century,” a splendid documentary about Loridan-Ivens directed by Cordelia Dvorak, you might have a different response to “Birch-Tree.” Loridan-Ivens, who was 90 when this profile was filmed, is a sprightly, energetic, iconoclastic bundle of energy. Her recollections of Birkenau are vivid and, understandably, they color everything else in her life, but the film spends as much time on her work with Joris Ivens and her wildly unbridled sex life as anything else. Her connections to the more literary Left Bank filmmakers are acknowledged – she is a principal figure in the classic work of cinema verite, “Chronique d’un Ete” — and suddenly the tone and style of “Birch-Tree” make more sense. More than that, it is impossible to come away from “Marceline” with anything less than total admiration bordering on love for her.
One emerges from “I Was Not Born a Mistake” and “They Ain’t Ready for Me” with similar feelings. The first of these, directed by Rachel Rusinek and Eyal Ben Moshe, is an hour-long profile of Yiscah Smith, a spiritual activist who went from being a Chabad shaliach with a wife and six children to her current role as elder stateswoman in the Israeli transgender community. “I build a life. . . but without the foundation of truth,” Smith says of her earlier life. When she told her wife that she was gay, she was expelled from the community, cut off from her family and livelihood. Her gradual realization that led to the her transition is movingly recounted and her current status as a teacher and leader is nicely documented with footage of her leading study sessions and delivering divrei torah to enthusiastic audiences.
“They Ain’t Ready for Me,” directed by Brad Rothschild, focuses on Tamar Manasseh, an engaging powerhouse whose community work in Chicago is inspired by her intense Jewish identity. A protégé of Rabbi Capers Funnye, she grew up in his Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation and, taking the injunction to “repair the world” to heart, created a group called MASK (Mothers Against Senseless Killing), dedicated to turning at least one corner of Chicago into a safe haven for children and adults. Manasseh started with the idea that a very visible group of moms sitting on a corner lot every day in the summer, providing food and play safe for kids, could create a sense of community and make it less likely for that one block to become a free-fire zone. The program has grown steadily and Manasseh has gradually incorporated elements from her Jewish identity into her task, hosting a community seder and building a sukkah on the lot. She is engaging, pushy in the best way imaginable, voluble and funny. Her personality drives the film, which is a good thing since Rothschild’s conception, tied to chronology, is a bit baggy. The result is a tiny beacon of hope.
The 29th annual New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and Film at Lincoln Center, runs through Jan. 28 at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.). For information, go to thejewishmuseum.org or filmlinc.org.