Family Plots


“To speak of past sorrows gives pleasure,” or so says an old Yiddish proverb. And with a wealth of distress to draw upon, Jewish people have traditionally been big talkers. The 32 productions in this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival offer evidence that the
Jewish experience—from the pursuit of love to the probing of long-buried secrets—continues to prove remarkably productive for storytellers.

At first it’s hard to tell if anybody is Jewish in Rosehill, Hungarian director Mari Cantu’s loosely autobiographical evocation of a Budapest childhood circa 1956. Gabor (Péter Andorai), a minister in the Communist government, lives in a luxurious villa with his much younger wife (Erika Marozsán) and their two children, who run wild under the care of an old, fervently Catholic servant. One day, a letter arrives for Gabor from Israel, and the children, vaguely suspecting trouble, conceal it. This hidden seed of Jewishness (whose significance is only gradually revealed) haunts an affecting story about the loss of political innocence, in which the Soviet invasion of Hungary is framed through the eyes of a 10- and a six-year old.

The past also returns with shattering effect in The Two Lives of Eva, Esther Hoffenberg’s engrossing documentary about her mother, Eva, who was born into a German industrial elite living in pre–World War II Poland. At the war’s end Eva fled to Germany, where she met her future husband, a Polish Jewish survivor of the Warsaw ghetto. They moved to Paris, where (according to their daughter) a converted Eva “worked at being Jewish with all the rigor of her Protestant upbringing.” The film begins with recordings Esther made during one of her mother’s mental breakdowns in the 1970s, moving backward, with archival and eyewitness accounts, to trace the strands of Eva’s submerged identity. The result is a complex testament to a woman of extraordinary strength and fragility, and a life wrecked and rebuilt by the tides of history.

A more manic search for origins is played out to hilarious effect in Roots, expatriate Russian director Pavel Loungin’s tragicomedy about Edik (Konstantin Khabensky), a Russian grifter who cons foreigners into thinking he’s found their long-lost relations. The film takes place over two weeks in a small Ukrainian town, during which Edik recruits assorted villagers to pose as family to a retired American millionaire, a Swiss diva, an Israeli gangster, etc. When the visitors finally arrive, surprises are in store. Gennady Ostrovsky’s script alternates pathos with absurdity, while skillful ensemble acting (particularly by octogenarian Esther Gorintin and Otto Tausig as her alleged brother) turns what might otherwise be a bawdy, cynical romp into a poignant meditation on the nature of family and the longing to reconnect.

“You could even have been divorced by now,” director Tanaz Eshaghian’s stepfather gently chides her in Love Iranian-American Style, a documentary about her family’s fervent desire for her to marry early. Disarmingly personal and comically bittersweet, Eshaghian’s film explores the cultural assumptions of her family’s milieu, Jewish Iranians transplanted to Los Angeles, who value a groom’s material success alongside a bride’s youth and purity. Her prospects at 25, her grandmother informs her, are good; at 28, they are less so. Educated and independent, Tanaz dates on both sides of the Iranian/American divide, but doesn’t feel at home in either. Sometimes she appears unfair to prospective suitors—bringing a movie camera on a first date, for example, seems a touch defensive. But her film is saved from petulance by its tenderness and bracing honesty.

Several other documentaries focus on issues related to love and matrimony. Keep Not Silent: Ortho-Dykes, Israeli director Ilil Alexander’s debut film, examines the plight of lesbians who wish to remain within Israel’s Orthodox Jewish community. Alexander fails to convey the deeper appeal of religious life for these women—why stay within (or willingly join) a community that considers your desires an abomination? Still, her subjects’ moving stories illuminate a group long rendered invisible.

Finally, Anat Zuria’s searing exposé Sentenced to Marriage
focuses on women caught in the mire of Israel’s divorce courts, which are still under rabbinical jurisdiction. Flagrantly sexist, these courts bend over backward to accommodate deadbeat dads who are unwilling to grant their wives divorces, even though they themselves may live with other women. How can Israel, a modern society, countenance this gross miscarriage of justice? Is this a horror story or a work of nonfiction, and are these laws an aberration or a symptom of broader cultural malaise?

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