Crossposted from Batya Reads
This year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, starting January 9, is heavy on the Holocaust. Two films, however, stand out in conversation with one another. “Hannah Arendt,” directed by Margarethe von Trotta, is a fictionalization of Arendt’s presence at the Eichmann trial. And a new documentary, “The Trial of Adolf Eichmann,” directed by Michael Prazan, attempts to retrieve the Eichmann trial from the clutches of Arendt’s highly controversial book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” and to reinterpret the event through a different lens.
Arendt famously saw in Eichmann not a monster, but a bureaucrat following orders. She derived the term “the banality of evil” from observing Eichmann and his reactions during the trial. While the prosecution attempted to portray him as a conniving anti-Semite — the force and form behind the Final Solution — Arendt saw Eichmann as a cog in the machine of the Third Reich. She derided the theatrical nature of the trial and was deeply critical of Ben Gurion’s attempts to turn a matter of justice into a platform for nation building. The prosecution insisted on calling survivor after survivor to testify to their suffering in Germany, Poland and France. As far as Arendt was concerned, the question of Nazi atrocities had nothing to do with whether or not Eichmann was guilty of orchestrating the Final Solution.
I imagine a movie that is even-handed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will enrage people at the extremes. If so, the French produced film “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea,” screening January 22 and 23 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, could create a battle royale among American Jews, even though its provocations are measured.
With its tight structure and frequent use of voiceover, it’s not surprising that the film is adapted from a literary source. But I would not have guessed that author Valerie Zanetti — who also co-wrote the film script with director Thierry Binisti — intended her original novel as a work of young adult fiction. While its main characters — an Israeli teenager of French origin named Tal and a young Gazan named Naim — come perilously close to stock figures, they gain in complexity as their predicaments with family, friends and social environments gather texture and nuance. Yet the story never descends into a predictable tale of love across boundaries of ethnicity, religion and class. Rather, it builds as an epistolary friendship set within a political context.
Even Chekhov thought he was writing comedies, but the bracing first feature by writer and director Katia Lewkowicz, “Bachelor Days Are Over,” billed as a comedy in the current New York Jewish Film Festival, would serve audience expectations better if it had been given an English title closer to its original French one: “Pourquoi tu pleures?” (“Why are you crying?“). The film is a rueful portrait of Arnaud (nicknamed Cui-Cui), a man-child passing several errant days before his wedding in a state of existential angst after he beds a gal he meets at his bachelor party night-on-the-town, and begins to question his choice of bride, Anna, who has done a short-lived disappearing act of her own.
In scenes that have the sweet-sour perfume of “The Hangover” mixed with Federico Fellini’s “I Vitelloni,” Cui-Cui goes drinking and carousing with his buddies, plans a reception with the input of his manic older sister, and roams aimlessly through his last free days. He meets his fiancee’s extended non-French speaking family, touches base with his needy yet still beautiful widowed mother, and deals with a real estate agent who interrupts his most recent sexcapade with an unscheduled visit. Then his apartment floods. The chaos of his daily life, familial demands, and memories of a father who first abandoned the family and then died, all send the sober (if not necessarily sensible) Arnaud into a state of paralysis.
In a 2007 obituary for Grace Paley published in the New York Times, Margalit Fox wrote that “Ms. Paley was among the earliest American writers to explore the lives of women — mostly Jewish, mostly New Yorkers — in all their dailiness.” Lilly Rivlin’s recent documentary, “Grace Paley: Collected Shorts,” screening March 27 at the Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival, brings together a chorus of voices from friends, family and colleagues to Paley herself, to convey a powerful portrait of an artist, poet, teacher and political figure whose depictions of the everyday lives of women had, and continue to have, a deep and powerful impact.
Paley was born in 1922 to Russian parents who were “kid socialists,” as she calls them in one of many interviews interspersed throughout the film. She explains that her parents “were part of a generation of Russians who hoped they could be Russian.” Of course, in Russia at the time, they were seen primarily as Jews, a legacy that Paley examines throughout her oeuvre. Her stories, poems, and essays continually explore questions of identity, and through her writing we witness an author attempting to account for diversity even as she celebrates the mundane but meaningful rituals and experiences that people share: spats between loved ones, the humor of everyday life, the solace and beauty that can be found in art and literature and language.
There are upwards of 180,000 women incarcerated in U.S prisons today. Of those, an estimated 80% are victims of rape, assault, incest, and other forms of sexual and domestic violence. Considering what a closeted problem this sort of abuse is in many communities, it wouldn’t be shocking if the true percentage were actually higher. Responding to that overwhelming statistic, California passed a law in 2002 to allow the reopening of cases of convicted domestic abuse victims, with the circumstances of their suffering allowable as evidence. The California law was the first, and is still the only, one of its kind in the United States.
Thus the jumping-off point for “Crime After Crime,” the surprisingly intimate documentary from director Yoav Potash, screening January 23 to 29 at the Sundance Film Festival and on January 27 at the New York Jewish Film Festival. The film follows the case of Deborah Peagler, an inmate serving a life sentence for conspiracy to murder her boyfriend in 1983.
Although it may seem odd to hear a man who drew caricatures for a living talk about what it felt like to live through the horrors of the former Soviet Union, this is exactly what happens in the documentary “Stalin Thought of You.”
Meet Boris Efimovich Efimov, a political cartoonist who witnessed every major event in the history of the Soviet Union — from the Russian Revolution to the collapse of the Berlin Wall — before he died at the age of 109, in 2008. In the film, which screened on January 12 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, Efimov appears as a small, fragile man with a robust personality. His prescription glasses are weighty, yet his attitude is buoyant. His wit and charm and ability to tell an endearing story all seem natural before the camera. Either that, or these qualities are the result of over ten decades of practice.
Tongues have been clicking in the Orthodox world about the U.S. debut of Eve Annenberg’s feature film “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” (which I previously wrote about for the Forward here), but the New York Jewish Film Festival screening on January 16 at Lincoln Center sold out quickly and the Hasidic dropouts-turned actors who star in the film expect a huge black hat turnout.
On the frum woman’s web site imamother.com someone who grew up in Boro Park with former Satmar beauty Malky Weisz, who plays Juliet, posted: “I think this film is going to create a huge chilull ha shem [desecration of G-d’s name], even though I have no inkling as to what the story line is.”
For those accustomed to seeing Lou Reed as the snarling badass of the New York music scene, his first directorial effort, “Red Shirley,” will come as something of a shock. Far from touching on the trademark obsessions of his Velvet Underground days — sadomasochism and drugs, to be precise — the film is a loving, strenuously respectful portrait of his cousin, Shirley Novick, on the eve of her 100th birthday.
The documentary, which screens January 15 at the New York Jewish Film Festival and clocks in at a mere 28 minutes, is full of awkward angles and random shifts from color to black-and-white. It’s a clumsy effort, technically speaking, full of production flaws that are bizarre to the point of distraction, yet the story that Reed tells is charming enough that you can almost overlook the film’s defects.
A tragic event can provide a filmmaker with compelling material for a movie, but simply presenting calamity on the big screen doesn’t necessarily result in a good story. In director Fabian Hofman’s semi-autobiographical “I Miss You” (“Te Extraño”), which screened in November at the Boston Jewish Film Festival and will be shown on January 22 and 23 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, he comes close to making this mistake.
“I Miss You” is about a Jewish family coping with the disappearance of their eldest son, Adrian, during Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. Fearing for the life of their second son, 15-year-old Javier, the parents send Javier to live with his aunt and uncle in Mexico until some degree of stability is restored back home. During his time away, Javier vacillates between despair over the needless loss of his brother and the impulse to join the remaining members of a resistance group, the Montoneros, to seek revenge.
Tearful laughter, raunchy story telling, and punchy witticisms are not the typical ingredients one expects to find in a tribute to a late literary legend. Then again, Grace Paley and ‘typical’ never met.
Last Tuesday the Center for Jewish History and Jewish Women’s Archive paid homage to the poet, short story writer and political activist, who passed away in her Vermont home in August 2007. The evening consisted of a panel discussion with excerpts from Lilly Rivlin’s new film, “Grace Paley: Collected Shorts.” The film, which premiered at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July, will be shown at a selection of upcoming festivals on the East Coast, including the New York Jewish Film Festival in January.
Inspired by Paley’s vast collection of short stories, Rivlin’s film tells the tale of a woman whom a colleague described as “a very small woman who was a giantess.” Rivlin, a writer and political activist herself, shared her experience creating the film: “The challenge about making a film about Grace Paley is that she was a political animal and I saw her everywhere, and the challenge was to make a film about someone who did it all.”
Written by Blum’s grandson Antoine Malamoud and directed by University of Alabama Professor Jean Bodon, the film offers a mere sketch of an eventful life, and its English narration is geared to a public largely ignorant of Blum’s remarkable trajectory, as relatively little about him has been translated from the French.
Serge Berstein’s astute 2006 biography “Léon Blum” from Fayard Publishers recounts how Blum became a militant Socialist after the Dreyfus Affair, and despite antisemitic violence, carefully described in “Anti-Jewish France in 1936: the Attack on Léon Blum in the Legislature” (Éditions des Équateurs, 2006) he was elected Prime Minister as leader of the left-wing Popular Front. After the German invasion, Blum was sent to Buchenwald, from which camp he wrote touching letters home, collected in 2003 as “Letters from Buchenwald.”