The New York Film Festival, a project of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, is celebrating its 53rd anniversary. It is one of the oldest and best film festivals in the world.
It always has seemed odd to me that in a city that is about a quarter Jewish, the festival hasn’t seemed interested in screening movies that would appeal specifically to Jews, except possibly if those films have to do with the Holocaust. The festival, as director Kent Jones puts it, takes a “we see work and share what we love” approach. Over more than half a century, only two narrative films in a Jewish language have been screened at the festival: Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1939 American-made Yiddish-language “The Light Ahead” in 1982 and Rama Burshtein’s Hebrew-language Israeli film “Fill the Void” two years ago.
Last month, nine Israeli films were invited to the Toronto Film Festival, including the Persian-language “Baba Joon,” which is Israel’s submission for the Academy Award this year. I understand that there are various complex issues that go into the selection of films shown at any festival. However, with Israeli films as Oscar finalists for Best Foreign Language Film in five of the last nine years, I find it odd that in 53 years, only one Israeli narrative film has been screened at the New York Film Festival! Mr. Jones, was there really no Israeli film that you loved?
There are four films shown at the festival that touch on the Holocaust. Michael Almereyda’s “Experimenter” (10/6 & 10/7) focuses on social scientist Stanley Milgram (played by Peter Sarsgaard), looked back at the Holocaust in the 1960s and anticipated such atrocities as Abu Ghraib. Brilliant filmmaker Chantal Akerman gives us a loving portrait of her mother, a Holocaust survivor who raised her family in post-war Brussels, in “No Home Movie” (10/7 and 10/8). A restored copy of Marcel Ophuls’ 1976 film “The Memory of Justice,” which is about the Nuremburg trials and crimes against humanity, was screened last week. And Laszlo Nemes’ controversial Hungarian film “Son of Saul,” about an Auschwitz sonderkommando responsible for delivering his fellow Jews to the gas chamber, will have its New York premiere at the festival on October 6. Nemes’ movie, which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in May, will open theatrically in December.
Other films to look out for:
“Everything is Copy” is a documentary, lovingly made by Jacob Bernstein, about his mother, the late screenwriter-director Nora Ephron. (It was shown earlier in the festival, and will be on HBO in March.) Bernstein interviews Ephron’s sisters, ex-husbands Dan Greenberg and Carl Bernstein, and many of her friends and colleagues, and offers what I found to be an outstanding piece of filmmaking. The Upper West Side-born Ephron’s personal story, and her son’s intimate look at what drove her to break through as a writer and film director, is inspiring. “Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words” (10/5 & 10/6) is Stig Bjorkman’s tribute to one of the great actors of the twentieth century. We learn, in part through home film footage shot with her own movie camera, that the woman who created Ilsa in “Casablanca” (1942), Anna in “Anastasia” (1956), and Golda Meir in “A Woman Called Golda” (1982), along with 49 other film portrayals, was a complicated person who lived life as she saw it and who paid the consequences for it. Thomas Bidegain’s “Les Cowboys,” screened this past week, is an exceptional French narrative about how the daughter in a “normal” French family runs off with a young Muslim man to make a new life for herself in Afghanistan.
Don’t get me wrong! If you are looking for an incredible selection of films, the New York Film Festival is the place to be. Not only are superb films screened, but the filmmakers and stars are present for post-screening discussions at most showings. A problem is that Film Society members get first crack at tickets and almost a third of the screenings are sold out before they reach the public. By the time you read this, it will be difficult to find tickets — but don’t give up. The good news is that many of the films now shown at the festival will hit New York theaters, and if we are lucky a few New Jersey theaters, in the months to come.
At the Jewish Museum
Early Soviet cinema was one of the glories of 20th-century moviemaking, with work from such directors as Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Lev Kuleshov, and Vsevolod Pudovkin. The Jewish Museum will celebrate “The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film” in a new exhibition that opened this week and will be there through February 7. Many of the early photographers and film directors were Jewish, and the curators did an extraordinary job in mounting 181 brilliant photographic works and showing how Jews, freed from the artistic confines of the ghetto, fit into this story. At first, artists, photographers, and filmmakers were given great artistic freedom as part of Lenin’s great experiment, but with time and Stalin, eventually photographs and films became acceptable only when used to disseminate Communist ideology.
In addition to mounting these incredible photographs with fine exhibit essays, the museum will screen some of the great classics of Soviet cinema, including Eisenstein’s 1925 “Battleship Potemkin,” Pudovkin’s 1926 “Mother,” and Vertov’s 1929 “Man with a Movie Camera.” This is an exhibition not to be missed.
Eric Goldman lectures widely about Jewish cinema. In mid-October, he will be scholar-in-residence at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield.