Whatever else it may be, Holocaust culture has proven to be a powerful antidote to provincial relativism—almost 60 years hence, it is still possible to be shocked at the scope of the Nazi disaster. How could a mere political ideology and its mobilized goon-squad violence have encompassed so many extraordinary stories, devastated so many lives, generated so many images? Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann’s new doc Shanghai Ghetto (Rebel Child, opens September 27) explicates what may seem like a relatively tangential tentacle of history, but if you’re counting heads, it’s one of the era’s major refugee sagas. Come 1938-39, German Jews desperate to abandon their homeland found every international border officially closed to them except one, halfway around the globe—Shanghai, at the time occupied by the Japanese and still partially controlled by colonial sectors. A truly international city too sprawling, poor, and chaotic to police effectively, Shanghai was virtually a Martian landscape to the transplantees—sophisticated, deep-culture Jews, possession-less but wealthy enough to have paid for the voyage, now suddenly surrounded by millions of dirt-poor Chinese.
The filmmakers (Janklowicz-Mann’s father Harold is one of the five interviewed survivors) cover the waterfront in standard fashion: lavalier talking heads punctuated by archival footage and photographs—of which there is, remarkably, no shortage. (Robin Williams’s One Hour Photo troll was right: The one thing people take with them from the fire is family snapshots.) Two of the aging witnesses briefly revisit their Shanghai flats. As their tales make clear, the trials of refugee life were severe, but mitigated almost immediately by the international intervention of charities and other Jewish communities—soon, the stateless thousands had schools, programs, and resources the local masses did not. (The Manns merely acknowledge the irony.) After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese took the Nazi-prey more seriously and officially instituted a “ghetto,” making starvation a sudden reality. Throughout the film, the storytelling is eloquent and genuine, but the Manns’ unadventurous approach (compared to, for instance, last year’s intimate road movie Fighter) rarely hits emotional pay dirt.
Another authentic pro-am project, actress turned writer-director Debra Eisenstadt’s Daydream Believer (through October 1, at the Pioneer) is the clichéd, all-video story of an eager-beaver small-town actress going to New York to hit it big, and meeting only downtown wackiness, failure, betrayal, and relentless humiliation. The entire cast is bubbling over with effusive conviction—even when the camera is practically stuffed up their sinuses—and as the childish, self-involved heroine, Sybil Kempson is so earnest she could put you off dinner. Eisenstadt (stage and screen’s Oleanna) has nowhere to go with her catalogue of relaxed urban crazies, and at 79 minutes, the movie is padded out by four song interludes too many.