The Aesthetics of Meaning:
Jewish Arts & Culture

Jewish film fests now transcend ethnic borders
by David Chack

This article originally appeared in the LEO - Louisville Eccentric Observer

The Passover Seder asks the question, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" A similar question could be asked about Jewish film festivals.

The first such festival emerged in San Francisco in 1981 and featured films that went beyond religion and faith to depict themes stemming from social, cultural and historical Jewish experiences. Today's Jewish film festivals - in cities throughout the United States from Atlanta to Salt Lake City - continue to do that but go further to embrace films that depict more varied and trans-cultural perspectives that are part of the Jewish experience and reflect our modern world.

At the New York Jewish Film Festival in January, the line-up's 29 films ranged from Israeli films to German-Jewish films to films that reference the Holocaust. They took on spirituality and feminism and love and relationships. As is typical of large city festivals, it showed American and international films, and presented works by a varied legion of directors, including Oren Rudavsky. His 2003 documentary, Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust, focuses on a journey to Poland to find the family that hid his father 60 years earlier. The line-up also included Brazilian director Sandra Kogut's 2001 film A Hungarian Passport, in which she attempts to regain the Hungarian nationality that was taken from her grandmother. Her labyrinthine journey through the bureaucracy of the Hungarian civil service acts as a metaphor for homelessness and the search for identity in the world after the Holocaust.

The New York festival and those in other cities also include many Israeli films with young characters who struggle with national identity. This year, audiences in San Francisco and New York (and soon Louisville) had the chance to see the captivating story Caravan 841, directed by Zion Rubin. The drama depicts the experiences of an 11-year-old Ethiopian-Jewish boy living in Israel without parents, and his difficulty in acculturating. His friendships with a rabbi and an African-American jazz musician help him decide how he will live as a new Israeli Jew and incorporate his blackness into his new identity.

Another Israeli film, Taliya Finkel's Tikkun from 2002, focuses on the phenomenon of the rabbanit or female orthodox charismatic leader. Her personal spiritual practice centers on reading the entire Book of Psalms (Tehillim) daily, and in an ecstatic spirit ceaselessly blesses and gives thanks to her followers. The film offers a vivid picture of the routines and customs of life in an ultra-orthodox household.

Still, the festivals continue to show films that provide turbulent and candid views of contemporary Israel life. One example is the 2003 film "Alila," from acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai. It chronicles the lives of the inhabitants of a rundown Tel Aviv apartment building. The characters include a troubled young woman involved in an illicit affair, a divorced couple, a Holocaust survivor and a Filipina housekeeper.

Many films that are featured at these festivals transcend their definition as "Jewish films," and win awards, recognition and wider release through showings at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sundance, Cannes and the recent Berlin International Film Festival.

At this year's Berlin Film Festival, El Abrazo Partido (Lost Embrace), by Argentine director Daniel Burman, became a critics' favorite. In the film, Ariel, the grandson of Jews from Poland, lives in a world of Jewish shopkeepers in the Barrio del Once of Buenos Aires. To escape his surroundings, he tries to obtain a Polish passport while grappling with the mystery of why his father left one day for Israel and never returned.

As Jewish films and Jewish film festivals reach out to broader audiences, we see the Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theaters make the New York Jewish Film Festival part of its regular season, and the Toronto International Film Festival carve out a special block for Israeli and Jewish-related films. (The crossover comedy of 2001, Kissing Jessica Stein was included in that festival.)

The fare showing at these festivals demonstrates that Jewish films today do not adhere to any stereotype. They show a complexly nuanced and multifaceted view of Jewish identity in a multi-ethnic world. By doing so, they break through geographical and metaphorical borders and forge new images of Jewish life and culture for the 21st Century.

Copyright 2004 by David Chack. All rights reserved.

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