Ever since I moved to the New York area for graduate school, the New York Film Festival has been my go-to venue for the latest in cinema.
The festival always mixes films from around the world with American cinema, and mixes narrative movies with documentaries. It is known for both introducing new talent and also showing fresh works by some of cinema’s greats. But somehow it almost never includes many films of Jewish interest or movies from Israel. This year is no different.
Over the years, the culture attaché at the Israeli consulate often would meet with the festival’s producer, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, with the hope of persuading programmers to include Israeli and Jewish works in a festival that takes place in a city a quarter of whose population is Jewish. But it hasn’t worked.
Yes, a few Holocaust films have been screened, but with a few exceptions, the festival is devoid of any real Jewish presence. I can think of only four Israeli films that have been included in the 55 years that the New York Film Festival has been in existence; this year, Toronto International Film Festival screened four Israeli films. In one year.
American Jews, unfortunately, often need a secular or non-Jewish venue to legitimize Jewish work. When that happens, the audience turns out in droves. I.B. Singer was largely ignored here until he won the Nobel Prize. He needed that outside hashgachah!
Years ago, a Yiddish film that had been shown at a JCC in Queens drew an audience of about 10 people. But then the New York Film Festival showed it — and it was the first film to sell out that year. The festival had given it a stamp of approval.
But most of the time, the NYFF seems unwilling to give Israeli or Jewish film that stamp.
There were a few Jewish films of note screened this year. As both writer and director, Noah Baumbach brought “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” to the screen. In that film, Baumbach examines a dysfunctional family of New York artists and intellectuals. They are classic New York Jews — but no one ever says so. The characters certainly don’t — except possibly in every action and word. Baumbach chose key male players — Dustin Hoffman as the dad and Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler as his sons — who certainly seem Jewish. I liked the intricate dynamic between the three actors and the women in their lives. The film will be available on Netflix this weekend.
Another two films that had their premiers at the festival are documentaries, produced for HBO, about two of the most remarkable Jewish artists of our time. Rebecca Miller’s portrait of her father, Arthur Miller, who is acknowledged as one of America’s greatest playwrights, is very special. The filmmaker pulled together recordings from a variety of sources as well as footage that she shot, providing us with great insight into the man, his life, his politics, and his relationships. Arthur Miller narrates much of the work and he tells us about how, while he was in college, he was attracted to the non-Jewish woman who became his wife. He also talks about his own celebrity, especially during his years with Marilyn Monroe, and how that affected him as a writer and a human being. The work, due to be released in the spring, is incisive and worth the wait.
I was totally blown away by Susan Lacy’s “Spielberg.” Though I have been a devotee of the film director since his earliest films made decades ago, I learned a great deal not only about his work, but also about his family, his humanity, and his special connection to Judaism. To see this truth, largely coming from Spielberg himself, was reassuring. In today’s America, successful artists in the secular world often distance themselves from their Jewish background. But not Steven Spielberg. He talks about his earlier attempts to separate from and later return to his Jewish roots, his marriage to Kate Capshaw following her conversion to Judaism, and Kate’s constant support in his search for spirituality and religiosity. Spielberg is a Jewish American who wholeheartedly and unabashedly is a supporter of Israel. He is a proud Jew and he is not afraid to express that truth, both in his words and in his work. Bravo, Steven! And bravo, Susan Lacy for putting it on film! The documentary is playing now on HBO.
A quartet of films by documentarian extraordinaire Claude Lanzmann also is having its premiere at the festival. Lanzmann spent years documenting Holocaust survivors, eventually releasing his monumental 9½ hour work, “Shoah,” in 1985. Since that time, he has made a number of films, including documentaries about the Israel Defense Forces and the prisoners’ uprising at the Sobibor extermination camp. Over the last decade, drawing from unused footage shot largely for “Shoah,” he has created newer documentaries on a variety of people. This year, the festival is premiering four of those films, built around four women from four different areas of Eastern Europe, each with a different destiny.
Twenty-eight years ago, the Jewish Museum, partnering with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, created the New York Jewish Film Festival. It is a delight to go to Lincoln Center each January to see new and classic Jewish cinema, and I salute both institutions for creating that experience. But that is not an excuse for such a paltry sprinkling of Jewish and Israeli cinema at this year’s New York Film Festival.
The festival ends this Sunday.
Eric Goldman is a film critic for the Jewish Standard and an adjunct professor at Yeshiva University. He writes and lectures about Jewish and Israeli cinema.