Brief Reviews: Movie Premieres, Jerusalem on the Tube
These films were screened at the 2009 New York Jewish Film Festival, cosponsored by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, both in New York. Reviewed by Judith Gelman Myers
In Search of the Bene Israel
When the camera reveals a sanctuary full of men enfolded in talitot and singing “Adon Olam,” we might find it surprising to see women in shimmering saris singing along behind them. However, filmmaker Sadia Shepard, who traveled to India to explore her maternal grandmother’s Jewish roots in the Bene Israel community, conveys such a feeling of “insiderness” to her film that, by its end, we find ourselves questioning why we would find Mumbai a less likely home for Jews than, say, New York. Sadia Shepard Films (www.sadiashepard.com).
The Fire Within:
Jews in the Amazonian Rainforest
In the late 19th century, Sefardic Jews made their way to Peru to try their fortunes in the rubber boom. There they married indigenous women and created a Jewish community (called Judios mestizos) in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest. Five decades later, one man dedicated his life to guarding the Jewish spirit; his efforts led to more than 500 converts, 300 olim and virulent opposition from the Orthodox community in Lima. A descendant of Peruvian Jews, Lorry Salcedo Mitrani produced this documentary (with Gordon Gilbert) while discovering his grandfather’s story (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A Road to Mecca:
The Journey of Muhammad Asad
What would have been a fascinating subject becomes an object of frustration in this documentary about Muhammad Asad, once an Austrian Jew named Leopold Weiss who converted to Islam, helped found the modern nation of Pakistan and wrote a definitive translation of the Koran. Austrian filmmaker Georg Misch clearly wants us to view Islam as a religion of peace and Asad as a visionary cultural intermediary between East and West, but Misch presents virtually no concrete evidence. Distributed by Icarus Films (www.icarusfilms.com).
Every Mother Should Know
“What the hell are Israelis fighting for?” producer-director Nir Toib asks in the synopsis of his film. In addition to interviewing great warriors from Israel’s past, Toib follows the members of an elite reserve reconnaissance unit that fought in Lebanon in 2006. Viewed against the headlines coming out of Gaza in 2009, Toib’s work, which aired on Israel’s Channel One, blends terror with sorrow as we contemplate the existential threat to Israel from both without and within its borders. Moriya Moyal G.N. Communications (www.gn-com.com).
The full horrors suffered by the 30,000 social activists who were “disappeared” during the brutal right-wing military dictatorship in Argentina between 1976 and 1983 come to light in this painful but gripping documentary by Emmy Award-winning producer-director Juan Mandelbaum, who returns to Argentina to research the fate of an old girlfriend. Thanks to Mandelbaum’s efforts, thedesaparecidos will not be forgotten (www.ourdisappeared.com).
Plucked from the archives of the National Center for Jewish Film in Waltham, Massachussetts, this silent 1925 gem was directed by Alexander Granovsky, founder of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (GOSET). The script is based on a Sholom Aleichem character, here played by the great Solomon Mikhoels; Mikhoels attained international renown for his (Yiddish-speaking) King Lear and became the head of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. He was murdered in the Stalinist purges in 1948 (www.brandeis.edu/jewishfilm).
Director Daniel Burman has moved his stages-of-life films into late middle age. This comic drama portrays Leonardo, a writer in Buenos Aires, who can’t concentrate on a new project. With their children grown and out of the house, his wife, Martha, returns to teaching, broadening her horizons with work and a social life, while Leonardo begins an affair with an attractive young dentist. Though the issue of midlife crisis is real, there is a sense of the surreal when the couple visits their youngest daughter and her husband in Israel: An image of Leonardo and Martha floating in the Dead Sea is a moment of beauty and healing. Outsider Pictures (email@example.com).—Zelda Shluker
Jerusalem: Center of the World
This two-hour special gives an overview of four millennia of Jerusalem history with emphasis on the Holy City’s numerous disasters and profound significance to three faiths. Narrator Ray Suarez introduces the main players, from Abraham to Moses, Jesus to Mohammed, and conquerors from the Babylonians, Persians and Romans to the Turks and British. The presentation is solid on factual data, chronology and visual impact, but could use a bit more soul. Airing April 1 on PBS (www.pbs.org). —Tom Tugend
Swimming in Auschwitz
“If you look at anybody who survived the Holocaust, they seemed to do so by finding a purpose for living and by trying to create normalcy,” says film director Jon Kean. Using interviews, archival footage, Kean tells how six Los Angeles-area survivors created moments of normalcy in the hell of Auschwitz. From wearing scarfs to cover their shaven heads to sharing recipes, women developed different strategies than male prisoners to cope and support each other. Bala Cynwyd Productions. Airing on PBS in April (www.pbs.org; www.swimminginauschwitz.com).
One Soul: When Humanity Fails
The first in a series of traveling exhibits from the Afikim Foundation explores America’s liberation of Europe through striking photographs, text, film and audio testimonies from survivors and liberators. Disturbing images, such as the remains of prisoners from Ohrdruf concentration camp, highlight the destruction of German society and the United States Army’s sacrifice. Now showing at military museums throughout the country and New York institutions. (On view at www.whenhumanityfails.com; for schedule or bookings, go to www.afikimfoundation.org). —Sara Trappler Spielman
The last known photograph of young Holocaust victim Judith Sternchuss shows her cuddling her doll. The image and Sternschuss’s name (which means shooting star), inspired and gave title to the current exhibition after that little girl. Along with photos from Yad Vashem and other original artwork, the exhibit examines how beloved dolls, toys and stuffed animals brought comfort to Jewish children during the Holocaust. Through March 31 at Temple Judea Museum in Congregation Keneseth Israel, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania (www.kenesethisrael.org). —Barbara Trainin Blank
Autumn Hearts: A New Beginning
This slow-moving Canadian film by Paolo Barzman, originally calledEmotional Arithmetic, brings together three former inmates of the Drancy transit camp in France. Melanie (Susan Sarandon), now unhappily married to her former teacher, played by the excellent Christopher Plummer, is reunited after 35 years with a fellow inmate (Gabriel Byrne) and their protector, the elderly and ill Jakob (Max von Sydow) on her farm in Canada. Memories and feelings of love, gratitude, jealousy and frustration are in abundance as truths surface. Seville Pictures Release (www.emotional-arithmetic.com).—Z.S.
The Bielski Brothers
Dean Ward’s documentary confirms that Ed Zwick’s feature filmDefiance is based on truths: The Bielski brothers were charismatic warriors who built a secret village in the Belorussian woods during World War II, saving 1,200 Jews and often killing Nazis and collaborators in the process. Featuring interviews of those who survived in the forest and Bielski family members as well as incredible archival footage (including some from brigade operations and battles), this film highlights a heroism that at moments is quite moving. Nostomania Productions (distributed by History Channel;www.shop.history.com). —Sara Trappler Spielman
Last Stop Kew Gardens
When filmmaker Robert H. Lieberman interviewed adults he had known as kids growing up in tight-knit Kew Gardens in Queens, New York, in the 1940s and 1950s, he discovered he was one of many high achievers, including two Nobel laureates, two physicists, a winner of the MacArthur genius award, a naturalist—and television host Jerry Springer. As German-speaking children of refugees from Hitler, all of them say they were affected by their parent’s losses and worked hard to achieve and belong. Ithaca Filmworks, distributed by Sisu Entertainment (www.kewgardensmovie.com). —Susan Adler