Tuesday, January 28, 2020

BC Wallin on the New York Jewish Film Festival Shorts

Of the eight short films screened during Film at Lincoln Center’s 2020 New York Jewish Film Festival, half were created using pieces of the past. Reckoning with the past has been at the very heart of Judaism since its Biblical origins. The forming of the nation of Israel in the Torah’s story of Exodus is anchored by the Jewish patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Talmudic discussions point to enactments and decisions throughout the Jewish people’s history where there was a fear of losing the tradition (mesorah, in Hebrew). Popularized in Fiddler on the Roof, the Jewish concept of tradition is at the very root of Jewish peoplehood (“3,000 years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax — you’re goddamn right I’m living in the f***ing past” - cinematic Judaism’s favorite convert, Walter Sobchak).

With their uses of old footage and materials, a number of these shorts, in differing measures, recall, preserve, or resurrect the past. Ron Blau’s “Life Is All There Is” presents visions of the past through 8mm home footage, with the kind of intimate, lively visions that help wipe away the historical distance. Seeing the same faces over and again helps reinforce a connection in a World War II-era story that borders on the fairly mundane. 8mm footage from 20 years later in Rotem Dimand’s “Silhouette of the Braids” has a mother and daughter watching home movies together as the mother retells stories of her life that demonstrate the boundaries between photographs, memories, and reality, with their hazy boundaries and rarely perfect tellings. It’s a moving story, to be certain.

Another jump of 20 years takes us to Nili Tal’s 1981 documentary short “Gurit Kadman,” a story about preservation of folk dance and music, a reflection on the ways that Jewish culture has incorporated the cultures of surrounding locations and peoples. Kadman, the film’s subject, is the preservationist herself, learning and teaching the dances and songs of new immigrants to Israel and creating a festival to celebrate that. Think the first 30 or so of Cold War, before the whole romance thing becomes the main story. A wonderful, personal selection.

Monica Manganelli’s “Butterflies in Berlin: Diary of a Soul Split in Two” is the most nuanced in its recycled usage of footage, combining modern animation with archival images and footage to create a uniquely textured world. Its non-fictional story of a transgender Jewish woman in Weimar-era Berlin is one that does not get shared often in mainstream accounts of WWII, and along with the creative vision make it worth a view, though it’s hampered by wonky character animations and voice acting.

Other shorts, while not explicitly using images created in the past, were inspired by some part of Jewish history or another. Pearl Gluck’s moving “Write Me” uses voiceover of modern poem “After Auschwitz” as a means to convey a visual story of how those with tattoos reckon with their past and move into the future. It’s all pulled together devastatingly by Lynn Cohen’s performance as an elderly woman with numbers on her arm. A more bizarre form of voiceover comes in the way of Danielle Durchslag’s “Eleanor of Illinois,” where audio of Katherine Hepburn and a performance Judy Kuhn combine into a haunting image of a Jewish mother.

For more of the bizarre, there’s Oran Zegman’s “Marriage Material,” a musical about women changing themselves to meet the needs of the men they’re being set up with. Satire about society’s expectations of heteronormative relationships or a statement on the shidduch crisis (a lot more nuanced than this, but basically it’s the difficulty of pairing up religious Jewish men and women successfully)? It’s probably just the first, and an interesting way to spend 25 minutes, for sure.

The highlight of NYJFF’s shorts is Hila Cohen’s “Maman,” a tender, slow story that gives you the bare minimum of what you need in terms of story and exposition and still feels lived-in and genuine. It’s a story about youth and old age, the promise of the type of people we believe in to make the past worth holding onto.

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