I love the New York Jewish Film Festival! We are blessed that each year — this is the 28th — the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of New York join to bring us this incredible two weeks of Jewish film at the intimate Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. I adore the chance not only to see films that may never have been shown here before, but to meet their directors, producers, and actors.
It is a real treat, and tickets sell out quickly. So if you miss it this year, make a note for next January and buy your tickets early.
What I don’t like, and what I question, is that often films with no or questionable Jewish content are included in the program. Worse, often the person whose work is showcased may have made little or no contribution to Jewish culture. Yet the festival consistently includes films that I believe have no place in a Jewish film festival. Throughout its history, the Jewish Museum always has classified work created by Jewish artists as Jewish. Though I disagree with that definition of Jewish art, I have come to understand its thinking.
When it comes to Jewish cinema, however, I have grave misgivings about this interpretation. The focus of a Jewish film festival should be on films that focus on Jewish subjects. If any one creative filmmaker is to be showcased, the fact that the artist might be Jewish is not sufficient reason for that choice. The festival centerpiece is “Peshmerga,” an important film that looks at Iraqi Kurds and their fight against jihadi fundamentalism. But why show it here? “Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge” is being screened here. Why? Is it because Curie may have had a Jewish ancestor? I don’t get it!
At a Jewish film festival, should we not focus our attention on Jewish-themed cinema, and on artists — even non-Jewish artists — whose films have important Jewish content? That have had an impact on Jewish life or culture? Though I may agree that the amazingly talented dancer and actor Valeska Gert deserves our attention as an artist, the fact that she was Jewish does not in my mind merit her being the honoree at this festival. The Film Society does many wonderful showcases, and Gert and many of the films in which she appeared deserve recognition. But not here! Take those four film slots that feature Gert and fill them with more appropriate Jewish work!
There are so many gifted and deserving filmmakers who should be getting our attention at a Jewish festival. I believe this approach to be wrong and misguided. Honor filmmakers who have tackled the Jewish story on screen, like Meyer Levin, Edward Dmytryk, Ephraim Kishon, Paul Mazursky, or Adam Sandler. Pay attention where attention is due at a Jewish film festival!
Still, there is no question that this festival warrants our attention and support. This year, it offers a mix of films from around the world, including several Israeli works. Dorit Hakim’s “Moon in the 12th House” opened the festival. It is a nice debut effort, looking at the relationship between two sisters, who went their own ways after their mother’s death. Other films from Israel are Shaul and Alon Schwarz’s documentary, “Aida’s Secret,” about how someone born in a Displaced Persons camp in 1945 learns the identity of his real parents late in life. Documentarian Michal Aviad does a fine job giving us insight into the successes and failures of the “ingathering of the exiles” in Israeli society in “Dimona Twist.” Emil Ben-Shimon looks at a fractured Sephardic community in Jerusalem, which struggles along gender lines, in “The Woman’s Balcony.” Amos Gitai returns with “Shalom Rabin,” with footage shot as he traveled around the world with Yitzhak Rabin, in what is a sequel to his powerful 2015 film ode to the late prime minister.
My four favorite films at the festival were veteran Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher’s latest film, “Past Life,” which uses narrative to look at how Israelis relate to the Shoah, past atrocities, and issues around forgiveness. I quite liked the film and the mystery that the writer/director weaves. Though set in the 1970s, it is very much about today. Then there is Tomer Heymann’s “Mr. Gaga,” an amazing portrayal of the Gaga dance genre, which adapts classical modern dance for spontaneous and often out-of-the-ordinary movements. This dance form, which Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin developed in the 1990s, has become extremely popular around the world. We watch and marvel as Batsheva Company dancers create and perform. Oren Rosenfeld’s “Hummus! The Movie” looks at three Israelis — an Orthodox Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian — who share a love for the delectable Middle Eastern spread. Can this admiration transcend religious, culinary, and cultural divides to bring them together? The film also will be screened at Teaneck’s Puffin Cultural Center later this month. Rounding out my list of favorites is “Stefan Zweig, Farewell to Europe,” Austria’s submission for this year’s Oscar for best foreign language film. The film, chosen to close the festival, looks at the last years in the life of the much-admired writer who fled the Nazis for America and was embraced here by fellow Jews with whom he had no affinity. It is a powerful look at exile, the life of a survivor, and issues related to assimilation.
While many other worthwhile films that are being screened at the festival, including a 50th anniversary showing of Mel Brooks’s “The Producers,” it is worth noting that downtown, at Film Forum, Tony Palmer’s “Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire” is playing through January 31. If you are a Leonard Cohen fan, as I am, you will find this documentary, that follows the late artist’s 1972 tour though Europe and Israel, quite eye-opening.
You experience the dynamic and thoughtful poet and songwriter in an impromptu and off-the-cuff manner that only 1970s filmmaking could have accomplished. Palmer simply turned on the camera, and in following this creative genius, he tried to capture the essence of Cohen the artist, and to some extent Cohen the Jew. Amazingly, Cohen complied, giving him, and therefore us, full access. The film was believed to be lost but amazingly a copy — found scattered in random boxes at a storage facility — surfaced not too long ago. Boy are we lucky!
The New York Jewish Film Festival continues through January 24. For more information, go to www.nyjff.org. For information on Film Forum, go to www.filmforum.org.