The Sundance Tribe

We were late for the movie because of Shabbat dinner. With fresh sectional challah imported from Zomick’s bakery in Long Island, N.Y., and kosher Cabernet Sauvignon brought from California, a few other traditional Jews gathered at our bicoastal condo for Friday night dinner just as the Sundance Festival was ticking away its last movies of the 2004 season.

We were not the most religious people at Sundance, by far. A high school classmate of mine, Donny Epstein, was also staying in Park City at a condo where people were actually shomer Shabbat; they weren’t rushing out to movies, Israeli-style, after the meal. Donny was in town showing "Paper Clips," a documentary he helped produce about a rural Tennessee middle school class trying to find a meaningful way to honor the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. The mostly white fundamentalist students — many of whom had never seen a Jew — decided to collect one paper clip for each life lost in the Holocaust (Miramax had picked up the film prior to the festival).

But there weren’t many overtly "Jewish" films this year at Sundance. Nothing as in-your-face as last year’s "Hebrew Hammer," a spoof of blaxploitation movies with a semi-Chasid as a superhero. The Holocaust, always a popular theme with filmmakers and judges alike, was, to the best of my knowledge, as absent from the festival as it was from this year’s Oscar nominations and general films of interest. Has it been overdone? Has it become too mainstream for the indie circuit?

"The judges like dark or edgy films with a controversial subject," Israeli-born producer/distributor Udy Epstein told me, offhandedly dismissing his very popular documentary, "Word Wars," an homage to competitive Scrabble players. Epstein, who has lived in America for more than two decades, produced the sweet film, and didn’t think it had a chance at the competition because it was too vanilla a subject. Epstein’s company, 7th Art Releasing, had distributed the Academy Award-winning documentary, "The Long Way Home," a post-Holocaust film about the refugees stranded after liberation from the camps.

Israelis, of course, were everywhere at the festival. It was not uncommon to overhear Hebrew at a nearby table in the press room or at a restaurant or, for that matter, Israeli-accented English schmoozing up the people you schmooze up at Sundance.

A number of Israeli films made an appearance at the festival including "The Garden," Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash’s doc about a Palestinian and an Arab Israeli who live in the desolate section of Tel Aviv where young gay prostitutes and drug addicts gather; and "Nina’s Tragedies," a coming-of-age feature about life and love. (For more on Israeli and Palestinian films, see Tom Tugend’s Jan. 16, 2004 article about Sundance.)

There’s something inherent about Sundance and the film fest circuit that is suitable to Israelis. Always adept at improvising, scrambling, hyping themselves up and scraping their way to where they need to be, Israelis — who were not raised with the traditional linear career trade to which many Americans are accustomed (high school, college, graduate school, internships, jobs, partnerships) — do well at hustling. It reminds me of the Jews who founded the entertainment industry; barred from lily white establishments like advertising, and limited in entry to professional fields such as medical school, in the first half of the 20th century Jews did well in the no-rules jungle of what would become Hollywood.

Festivals like Sundance, I suppose, are meant to revive that anything-goes atmosphere that once dominated filmmaking, giving a shot to previous nobodies who have circumvented the traditional climb to the top, replacing it with that all-American dream of instant fame and success obtained by suddenly "being discovered."

At Sundance, you can make it in about 60 seconds. I was reminded of this when I contacted the publicist for Zach Braff’s incredible movie, "Garden State." By the time I called, the romantic comedy, which was written and directed by and featured the "Scrubs" star, had already been picked up in a historic combo deal by Miramax and Fox Searchlight. The publicist basically laughed at me; my little outlet was going to have to wait in line to talk to the hottest thing to emerge from the festival.

No matter; using my Jewish-slash-Israeli scrambling skills, that Friday night, post-Shabbat dinner, I made it into the final packed midnight showing of the movie; a "Lost in Translation"-kind of poignant but humorous drama. I got to hear the star of the moment talk about the process of making this movie, how he culled all the bizarre characters from growing up in New Jersey. But it wasn’t really a Jewish film. (For that, an audience member I spoke to suggested "Heir to an Execution," the Rosenberg documentary made by their granddaughter, Ivy Meeropol; she presents her personal search for her grandparents while refusing to dole out any conclusions about their guilt.)

One of the opening scenes of "Garden State" featured — from afar — a Jewish funeral, and then a shiva, but Andrew Largeman (Braff) is highly detached from it all. Later, when his love interest, Sam (Natalie Portman), says in surprise, "You’re really Jewish!" he shrugs it off; he’s not. It’s just something he is.

"No one I know goes to temple," he tells her, and that’s that for the Yiddishkayt in the film.

I guess that’s how it goes at Sundance: the shorts tackle topics like rape, incest, homophobia, the future; eerie bobsledding cartoons, spoofs of Korean salespeople, Indian schoolchildren playing as adults. The controversial, the experimental, the incomprehensible, and, if you’re lucky to make the right pics, you can see the powerful. Jews, it seems, are nowhere and everywhere, depending on how you look at it.