Notes from the New York Film Festival

Notes from the New York Film Festival

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

Scene from “The Gatekeepers Courtesy Film Society Lincoln Center

Only in the last few years has the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center chosen to include Israeli films in its selection of outstanding films from around the world. Finally, the city with the world’s largest Jewish community, gets to showcase among the world’s finest, films from Israel. Last year, the festival premiered Joseph Cedar’s Academy Award-nominated “Footnote.” This year, the festival showed two important Israeli films, one a documentary, the second a narrative film. Both are masterful.


“The Gatekeepers” (Shomrei Hasaf) has six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s security force, which is responsible for its war on terror, talking about Israel’s raison d’etre, its past, and what each believes lies ahead. The filmmaker elicits candid comments from these six men, some of the most powerful in Israel’s history. They talk about what they have had to do to keep Israel safe, and how they feel about it. Not everything we hear necessarily will make us feel good, and certainly what he shows us will shake us up quite a bit. Still, he does a power job of putting the question of Israel’s future up on center screen.

Every once in a while, a powerful documentary film like this is made, a film that has the potential to force the public to tackle an issue and take a good look at itself. In France, Marcel Ophuls did it in 1969 with “The Sorrow and the Pity,” when he raised the question of France’s collaboration with Nazi Germany in World War II. In this country, in his 2003 “The Fog of War” Errol Morris elicited a discussion about the nature and conduct of modern warfare through his interviews with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the man who supervised America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Now, in Israel, gifted filmmaker Dror Moreh has these six men, who often helped make split-second decisions about life and death, about morality and immorality, reflect on their actions and speak their minds.

Documentary filmmaking is a complex form of cinema. All too often, a filmmaker may manipulate footage and choose specific soundbites to make his or her point. We have seen this all too often, and Moreh falls into this trap a few times, using footage of Palestinian prisoners marching in line and shots of torture or degradation, bringing to mind occupation armies throughout the last century. You simply want to look elsewhere or close your eyes. Is he using footage out of context and without explanation or is he simply making a point? We the viewers must decide. Clearly, Moreh is not interested in making a propaganda film; he wants to elicit dialogue. In the film, he skillfully integrates his interviews with these six security giants to tell a story that he believes Israel must hear. These men – like McNamara on Vietnam in “The Fog of War” – speak truths as they see them about the current situation in Israel and about its present and future security concerns, which each sees as very much connected with the peace process. What they have to say may be shocking, but if you value Israel’s future, it’s worth listening to them.


“Fill the Void” (Lemalei et Hachalal) Rama Burshtein’s moving portrayal of a Hebrew-speaking chasidic family in Tel Aviv, was covered in last week’s Jewish Standard. Burshtein, herself a traditional Jew, delves into issues of life and death within that community through a loving yet questioning lens. As troubling as the issues faced by the family might be, she shows a great reverence for both family and community that never loses its dramatic effect. We get a glimpse into a world unknown to most of us – petitioners coming to the rabbi seeking assistance in the midst of Purim celebrations, the shadchan trying to broker matches that can prove successful, and much more. Throughout, Burshtein sensitively and warmly scopes from a woman’s perspective and provides a fine film study. Burshtein, who became a baalat t’shuvah, embracing traditional Judaism more than 20 years ago, is just one of the highly talented and mostly female filmmakers now coming out of the Orthodox world in Israel. This very exciting development is likely to continue bringing us piercing studies like this one.

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