In years past, the Sundance Film Festival — a two-week marathon of industry schmoozing, skiing and screenings in Park City, Utah — has served as the launching pad for Jewish independent cinema. The gematria-laced, sci-fi-tinged “Pi,” the Simon Wiesenthal Center-produced Oscar winner, “The Long Way Home,” the Academy Award-nominated “Shine,” and the critically lambasted “A Price Above Rubies” all surfaced there in recent years.
This year, Jewish filmmakers triumphed once again, as several top festival trophies went to films containing Jewish subject matter. The Dramatic Feature Directing Award went to Eric Mendelsohn for “Judy Berlin,” a surreal meditation on dysfunctional Jewish families trying to make sense of their lives during a solar eclipse. And co-winning the Audience Award for World Cinema was “Train de Vie” (“Train of Life”), another dramatic comedy, almost film as fable, set during the Holocaust.
Like a French version of a Sholom Aleichem story, “Train of Life” spins the yarn of a shtetl, scheduled to face annihilation at the hands of the Germans, that finds hope when the village idiot proposes a plan to buy a train, disguise the townspeople as Nazis and deport everyone to Eretz Yisrael. Many of the film’s seriocomic incidents — Jewish tailors faking Nazi uniforms, swastikas replacing mezuzahs, etc. — may straddle the line of good taste for some, but, like “Life Is Beautiful,” the film’s life-affirming sentiments strive to win over its audience.
Other features that generated positive buzz included “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.,” a documentary about a Holocaust revisionist by Erroll Morris that received rave response, as did “Fools Gold,” Jeffrey Janger’s road movie about a pair of Oklahoma outlaws — one Latino, the other Jewish — on the lam.
Also receiving attention was “A Walk on the Moon,” directed and produced by actors Tony Goldwyn (grandson of movie mogul Sam Goldwyn) and Dustin Hoffman, respectively. Set in 1969, the bittersweet drama centers around a bored Jewish mother (Diane Lane) and daughter (Anna Paquin) who find themselves lured to Woodstock while vacationing in the Catskills. At the press conference for the film, “Moon’s” screenwriter talked about the resistance she met while shopping around her nostalgic script. Mentioning that studio execs had found her story “too soft, too small, not global enough and too ethnic,” Hoffman quipped, “Hey, that describes me!”
Jewish images also turned up in unexpected places. In “Home Page,” filmmaker Doug Block uses his nephew’s bar mitzvah and a family seder to contrast traditional Jewish community with the fragmented one found across the World Wide Web. In “Fools Gold,” the twentysomething Jew, struggling with both Jewish identity and anti-Semitism, attempts to keep kosher as he is being pursued and, to his dismay, learns that his “wanted” photo is an old bar mitzvah picture (in a postmodern Hitchcockian cameo, the director used his own bar mitzvah photo for the shot). And in the hip romance, “The Invisibles,” a fresh-out-of-rehab rock star named Jude displays an uncanny Chassidic knowledge, offering rabbinical tales from the Baal Shem Tov and offhand comments about planting trees in Israel.
One of the festival’s sleeper hits, “The Invisibles” shot for an astounding $7,000 in eight days and was directed by Noah Stern, a Conservative Jew from Chicago whose production entity, ZH Films, stands for Zionist Hoodlum (a reference to the infamous Oscar speech Vanessa Redgrave gave in the 1970s).
If the overt Jewish presence in, of all places, Park City seemed jarring to some, the juxtaposition wasn’t wasted on “Invisibles” director Stern, who told The Journal: “Most Jews in Hollywood hide from their identity, but like many at Sundance, I have no interest in hiding. There’s a ghettoization in the industry about being a Jew, but we prefer not to be a part of that ghetto. And if we’re labeled freaks for doing that, dayenu.”