Brief Reviews: Films with a Spanish Accent
Films about Mexican Jews like Mariana Chenillo’sNora’s Will and Alejandro Springall’s My Mexican Shivah have been taking the international film festival circuit by storm in recent years. Revealing a community best described as insular—clustered in wealthy, tight-knit enclaves, 45,000 Jews have lived among their 111 million Mexican compatriots for more than 100 years without getting to know them beyond an employer-servant relationship—these films are part of a new effort to introduce Jewish culture to non-Jewish Mexicans through film and theater.
One major force in that effort is the International Mexican Jewish Film Festival, founded in 2004 to promote “knowledge of Jewish culture through film festivals to achieve integration, coexistence and understanding with the Mexican society,” as the festival’s Web site ambitiously proclaims. Mexican Aron Margolis, who studied film in California, directed the 2009 festival, which opened last October 22 in Mexico City, then moved on to Guadalajara and Monterrey, to finish in Cancún on December 2.
The festival’s mission seems to be working: More than half the people who attended the festival were not Jewish. Nevertheless, despite that Jews helped shape the Mexican film industry—the “father of Mexican cinema,” Alfredo Ripstein, was the son of a Jewish Polish immigrant whose merchandise supplied Pancho Villa’s army—the festival has had to import most of its films because, to date, only seven Jewish-themed films have been made in Mexico itself, almost all within the last 20 years: In addition to Nora’s Will and My Mexican Shivah, they include Like a Bride, A Kiss to This Land, Ocho Candelas,Recuerdos and Tijuana Jews.
The historic reluctance of Mexican Jews to turn the camera on themselves is articulated by Susana Alexander, creator ofThe Jewish Mother, a wildly popular play she wrote, produced and starred in in 1979: “You wouldn’t dare do something that spoke about being Jewish because Jews hung Christ, and you’re in a very Catholic country: They don’t want these Jews around them because Jews are a very mean people…. You will not take that out of the masses.”
Maybe not—but the movies are now being made nonetheless. And when viewed in a certain order, they portray the evolution of a modern Jewish community, creating a timeline that stretches from the community’s founders (A Kiss to This Land) to their great-great-grandchildren (My Mexican Shivah and Nora’s Will), giving a unique view into the effects of time and increasing prosperity.
Daniel Goldberg Lerner’s 1995 film A Kiss to This Land (Un Beso A Esta Tierra), a sweet and tender documentary, details both the essence of the immigrant experience and the particularities of Jewish immigration to Mexico in the 1920s. It exhibits the values and qualities that made the Jewish community in Mexico what it is today: hard work, ambition, fearlessness, the ability to adapt, but also a love of life, family and tradition. We also see the prejudices that split the Jewish community into isolated Sefardic, Ashkenazic and Mizrahic domains.
Ten years later, Tijuana Jews, directed by Isaac Artenstein, documents the same founding generation, but it concentrates on the experience of those meshugenes who chose to set down Jewish roots in the seedy border town of Tijuana instead of Mexico City. The film is funny and incisive and it includes clips of a teenaged Rita Hayworth doing a club act.
The first feature film made about Mexican Jews, the 1994 Like a Bride (Novia Que Te Vea) directed by Guita Schyfter, reveals the difficulties the grandchildren of the 1920s generation faced as Jews born in Mexico. Through the friendship between two young women, one Sefardic, one Ashkenazic, who meet in the socialist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, the younger generation struggles against their grandparents’ prejudices toward other Jews, as well as the prejudices of the Catholic society they live in. This seminal film is the perfect double bill with A Kiss to This Land; between the two, the tradition passes from generation to generation to generation.
It passes one more generation in the 2007 My Mexican Shivah and Nora’s Will. Both are dark comedies (and very good ones, too) that portray the great-grandchildren of the 1920s generation, with the inevitable straying from religious tradition and the dysfunction inherent in 21st-century family life. In My Mexican Shivah (Morirse Está en Hebreo), the angel of light and the angel of darkness secretly listen in on Moishe’s shiva to determine which angel will guide him to the afterlife. Given that Moishe left his family for a Catholic mistress years earlier and his family is nuts, darkness is a good bet, but the sweetness of the 1920s generation still has its hold on these modern Mexican Jews. Infidelity also comes to light in the 2008 Nora’s Will (Cinco Días sin Nora), another dark comedy about a shiva that is arranged and executed by the dead woman herself. In these two films, it is as if the maladies affecting Jewish filmmakers north of the border—Woody Allen’s whiny egotism, the Coen brothers’ juvenile cynicism—haven’t been able to corrode the joy of the Jewish community in Mexico.
Only Ocho Candelas (2002, directed and produced by Sandro Helphen, whose company, Goliat Films, also produced My Mexican Shivah) reflects sadness over being Jewish in Mexico. But it is a sadness created not at the hands of Catholic compatriots but at the hands of unrelenting coreligionists. This documentary focuses on Conversos’ recognition of their Jewish roots, subsequent conversion to Judaism and the refusal of the Jewish community to recognize them as Jews.
There is no doubt that Jews are integrating into Mexican society. Alexander, who will soon be starring in The Jewish Grandmother, a rewrite of The Jewish Mother, smiles as she says, “I realized the beauty of what I did when one day, the garbage man said, ‘Adios, Madre Judia,’ and for the first time, ‘Judia‘ wasn’t an insult.”