If Jewish history is at least partially defined by perseverance, so, too, is New York’s Jewish Film Festival, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. Presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, the long-running series again affords a multifaceted, up-to-the-minute view on the Jewish experience, from both contemporary and bygone perspectives. The relationship between the past and the present resounds throughout the fest’s 36 features and shorts, which hail from 14 countries and are comprised of fiction and nonfiction works, a host of New York, domestic, and world premieres, and revivals of seldom-seen classics. The result is an uneven but striking vision of Jewish life that’s urgent and insightful, precise and profound, personal and global.
Throughout these diverse offerings, the act of remembrance proves vital and often painful, as in Red Shirley, a brief yet poignant documentary from Lou Reed (yes, that Lou Reed) that depicts—through an inviting array of color and black-and-white close-ups—a conversation between the first-time filmmaker and his 100-year-old cousin, Shirley Novick. Recounting her brave solo journey from Poland to Montreal to America as a teen, as well as her eventual rise to seamstress labor union bigwig (which earned her the titular nickname), Reed’s maiden directorial effort is exemplified not only by the stoutness spied in Novick’s heavily lined face, but by the sight of her pensively flipping through photo albums. It’s a telling image also found in Cabaret Polska, a somewhat awkward if nonetheless unique blend of nonfiction and staged skits that addresses, from the point of view of the persecuted (and those who watched friends and loved ones suffer), the Polish government’s 1968 anti-Semitic campaign to forcibly emigrate Jewish citizens.
Memory is essential and slippery, as in 1956’s newly restored Singing in the Dark, in which a concentration camp survivor played by legendary Israeli cantor Moishe Oysher—in his only English-language film—suffers “traumatic amnesia” from his Holocaust experiences (reminiscent of 2008’s Waltz With Bashir), only to slowly regain his former self while navigating a gangster-infested New York City nightclub scene. Individual histories are also plumbed at great peril in the fest’s opening night selection Mahler on the Couch (from Café Baghdad director Percy Adlon and his son, Felix). Played by Johannes Silberschneider, the legendary 20th-century composer winds up consumed not with completing his symphonies but, rather, with tackling grief over his beloved wife’s infidelity via a prolonged, contentious therapy session with Sigmund Freud. Staged with dreamlike intensity, Mahler is an inquiry into regrets, fears, resentments, and traumas that’s an apt first course to the fest’s myriad dissections of the Jewish heart and psyche.
Given many films’ focus on literal and figurative dialogues between the past and the present, it’s no surprise that Yiddish turns out to be a favored festival subject. Employing a Ken Burns–ian template, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness provides a lucid biography of the famed author, whose Yiddish stories—the basis for Fiddler on the Roof—humorously expressed, in form and content, the tectonic social, political, and religious shifts taking place within Jewish culture at the end of the 19th century. As a colloquial language rooted in an Eastern European shtetl past, Yiddish often symbolizes an antiquated time divorced from Jews’ modern American realities, such as in the newly restored Lies My Father Told Me, director Ján Kádar’s effectively manipulative 1975 coming-of-age tale about a young boy torn between a beloved old-world grandfather who represents religion, tradition, and benevolence, and a new-world huckster father who stands for cruel, greedy, godless capitalism. If generational divides are frequently fraught with antagonism, though, they’re still far from insurmountable, as evidenced by The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground, a rollicking doc about the Grammy Award–winning Klezmer band that conveys Jews’ still-vibrant efforts to preserve and celebrate their heritage.
Just as tensions between young and old endure, so, too, does hostility between Jews and Palestinians, a familiar subject confronted by My So-Called Enemy, Lisa Gossels’s sensitive, slight documentary about Jewish and Palestinian girls trying, after attending a U.S. peace camp, to sustain friendships during the subsequent, second intifada-wracked years. The most poignant conflict examined in this year’s films, however, is that between genders. 36 Righteous Men, which finds director Daniel Burman recording his journey with a group of Orthodox men to the Eastern European tombs of Tzaddikim (famed holy men), is narratively and aesthetically sloppy, but its depiction of Hasidic boys-club camaraderie gains profound weight when viewed alongside Black Bus. A knockout portrait of two Israeli women’s efforts to fashion independent new lives after fleeing misogynistic Hasidic families, Anat Zuria’s documentary eschews stuffy didacticism in favor of intimate expressionism. With grace and vigor, it captures the harrowing toll of systemic subjugation as well as the courageous sacrifices made by those who dare oppose it, a struggle that—epitomized by one woman’s frowned-upon photography of her neighborhood’s oppressed Hasidic females—reflects the fest’s own belief in cinema as a vehicle for actualization, rebellion, recollection and survival.