Year of the documentaries

Year of the documentaries

Non-fiction among the best bets at 21st annual film festival

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

It is time again to bundle up and go out to explore the world of Jewish cinema. The New York Jewish Film Festival is now under way at Lincoln Center. This year, it offers 35 films from 11 countries, many never again
to be seen in our area. The festival continues through Jan. 26.

Over the years, most audiences have been more interested in the narrative films that have been the hallmark of this festival, as have I. Of late, however, we are seeing more – and better – Jewish film documentaries. This year, I am more impressed by them than the fiction films. Most are significant and worthy of consideration.

Of course, a documentary film may not draw a viewer in the way a “regular” theatrical work will do. There are no known actors, no magnificent sunsets, no plot twists, no dramatic climaxes, no surprise endings. Nevertheless, these films are worth seeing.

In this film form, the accomplished documentarian ably provides a study of a particular subject that both imparts information and provides a flavor for a particular subject that informs you in a unique and powerful way.

Ari Daniel Pinchot and Jonathan Gruber’s “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” is a case in point. Its focus is Yonatan Netanyahu, the lone Israeli army casualty of the historic July 4, 1976, Entebbe rescue mission (his brother is Israel’s current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu), yet the film also provides an insightful look not only of the rescue, but of Israeli society in that period.

“Yoni” led the main rescue team at Entebbe. He lived and died at a time of transition for the Jewish state and we follow that change through his life’s story.

Through interviews with his family and friends, we gain insight not only into Yoni the poet, Yoni the scholar, Yoni the warrior, but Yoni the young Israeli, whose life and promise were representative of a generation at a special time in Israel’s history.

“Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort” is a well-crafted look at American Jewish life in transition. A few years back, Andrew Jacobs’ “Four Seasons Lodge” studied the coming end of a special time for the Catskill bungalow colony. Caroline Laskow and Ian Rosenberg not only place a lens on the Borscht Belt era and its profound impact on American life and culture, but like skilled anthropologists they study what in fact is one of the last remaining “artifacts” and its significance.

Steven Fischler, a Teaneck resident, and Joel Sucher have produced “Dressing America: Tales from the Garment Center,” which documents a time in the United States when suits and dresses were rolled on dollies up and down Seventh Avenue. Fischler and Sucher beautifully portray the “shmata business.”

In 2000, Fischler and Sucher’s “From Swastika to Jim Crow,” the story of German émigré professors who found new lives at black universities in the South, was shown at the festival. This year, Joel Katz’s “White: A Memoir in Color,” a fine exploration of his father’s role as a white professor at Howard University, is being screened.

Then there is “100 Voices: A Journey Home,” a film often screened in our area. It follows cantors from the Conservative movement’s Cantor’s Assembly who traveled to Poland to bring the special flavor of the cantorial art to a Polish world that had not heard cantorial music since Moshe Koussevitsky sang at a Warsaw Ghetto commemoration in 1946.

Also being shown is Sam Ball’s fascinating 46-minute sketch of Joann Sfar, the French novelist and filmmaker. Her “Gainsbourg” was critiqued here several months ago and her animated film, “The Rabbi’s Cat,” about an Algerian cat who wants to convert to Judaism, should be reaching us in the months to come.

Not to be forgotten are the many wonderful film narratives that are being screened, each with extraordinary acting. One of Israel’s premiere actors, Ronit Elkabetz (“Fictitious Marriage,” “The Band’s Visit”) is in two of the films.

In Michal Aviad’s “Invisible,” she portrays a woman who comes across another woman whom she recognizes, but is not sure from where. It turns out that two decades earlier, the two were raped by the same man. This puts into motion a recollection of events and an alarming look at how poorly rape victims continue to be treated today by the authorities. This fictional film, based on actual events, is a piercing indictment of Israeli society.

In “Mabul,” Elkabetz plays the mother of a youngster who is bullied not only because of size but because he has a brother with special needs. In each film, Elkabetz gives a superb performance.

Other narrative films to look for are Joseph Madmony’s “Restoration” about a Tel Aviv antiques dealer who tries to keep his business from failing. There also is Anna Justice’s “Remembrance” about a love affair that comes into being amidst the horrors of a concentration camp.

A special treat is the showing of episodes from Eitan Fox’s (“Song of the Siren,” Walk on Water,” “The Bubble”) mini-series, “Mary Lou.” There are so many more film treats to taste! The festival is presented by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Buy your tickets early, as most Festival offerings sell out. For tickets, go to:!

The lone Israeli soldier killed during the historic rescue at Entebbe airport on July 4, 1976, was Yonatan Netanyahu. He is the subject of a new documentary film being shown at Lincoln Center’s annual New York Jewish Film Festival.
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