Sundance 2016: Jewish highlights

Award nominations aren’t all that set the film world aflutter each January.
February 3, 2016

Award nominations aren’t all that set the film world aflutter each January. It’s a time not only to look back on the past year’s highs and lows, but also to get a sneak peek at this year’s slate. The Sundance Film Festival, the largest independent film festival in the United States, takes place over 10 days atop a large ice shelf in Park City, Utah, and draws industry tastemakers — agents, distributors, filmmakers, critics and party crashers — who have turned their sights to the 2016 landscape. This year, they took in 195 short and feature-length films chosen from among 12,793 submissions. Here are some of the Jewish moments of note from a Sundance first-timer.

“Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You”

Oscar-nominated filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady earned widespread acclaim in 2006 for “Jesus Camp,” their documentary detailing the power of conservative religious fanatics at a youth summer camp. This year, Ewing and Grady were back, kicking off the festival with a doc focused on a different type of mentor. Sundance founder Robert Redford introduced “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” bright and early on the morning of Jan. 21, a film featuring personal accounts and anecdotes galore from Hollywood heavyweights celebrating the life of one of entertainment’s most influential and prolific TV showrunners.


“Weiner” is the high-profile documentary about shamed former Jewish Congressman Anthony Weiner, and its very existence seems a small miracle. (Anticipating a massive following pending its release, Sundance Selects snatched up rights to the film before its official premiere.) Co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg were given front-row seating to Weiner’s 2013 campaign for New York City mayor — Kriegman served as Weiner’s chief of staff in 2005 — and the two started out with plans for a film far different from their end product. Instead of the comeback story of a strapping politician, what materialized is an up-close play-by-play of Weinergate: Part 2. The film won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Documentary category and is expected to be released in May.

“The Settlers”

Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan, too, is making a return to Sundance, where his 2007 documentary “Hot House” won the Special Jury Award. His latest focuses on the West Bank occupation. Through candid interviews with early pioneers of the settler movement and extensive footage of Israel’s past prime minsters, Dotan enriches Israel’s labored history with contextual significance for a relatively removed American audience.

“The Settlers” is humble in its ambitions. Dotan doesn’t uncover hidden truths about the occupation, nor does he take great pains in spinning a particular narrative. As he told the audience member who asked his opinion on the presidential election during the Q-and-A: “That’s not my job. My job is to show you what I observe and let you decide. I’m an observer.” But the love he has for his country and his people is palpable. 

“The Settlers” premiered to a packed house. One of the last admitted into the theater, a Pakistani journalist and newly minted short-film producer, grabbed the aisle seat next to me. His name was Murtaza Hussain, Maz for short. We made small talk while waiting for the house lights to dim; I told him about the Jewish Journal, he told me about some of his work — an investigative piece he wrote about three young Palestinians wrongly accused of terrorism inspired his short — and about playing hooky from his own Q-and-A next door. It was an encounter that might have made Dotan smile.

“Little Men”

Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz. Photo by Eric McNatt

Ira Sachs is the rare auteur filmmaker who has built a successful career making personal films without compromising his subdued style for commercial appeal. Although Sachs’ films have found only a small, niche market in Los Angeles, the Memphis-born Jewish father of two is Sundance royalty and the reigning king of New York indie. His latest, “Little Men,” is a big-hearted story about two families experiencing the rat race of Brooklyn’s gentrification from two entirely different, yet inseparable, realities. In classic Sachs fashion, the film comments with grace and nuance on the growing pains of all of life’s stages.


“Indignation,” based on a Philip Roth novel, follows a young Jewish boy from Newark to a majority-Christian college, where he’s enrolled to escape the Korean War draft. Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is a high-strung, sexually inexperienced idealist who fancies himself a pragmatic, level-headed realist. As Marcus struggles to make sense of a world away from his mother and overprotective father, he gets into a war between faith and reason with the dean of the university (Tracy Letts), complete with ferocious verbal sparring and remarkable tenacity.

Adaptations of Philip Roth novels tend to get a bad rap, so some might take with a grain of salt the author’s praise of “Indignation” as the truest, most faithful one yet. But based on audience reception, Roth may be right about James Schamus’ directorial debut. The film was acquired by Lionsgate’s Summit Entertainment in a $2.5 million deal.

“The Skinny”

“The Skinny” team after the show premiered on Jan. 26, from left: Sundance Film Festival senior programmer Caroline Libresco; “The Skinny” creator, director and actress Jessie Kahnweiler; producer and actress Illeana Douglas; executive producers Rebecca Odes, Andrea Sperling, Paul Young, Jill Soloway and Amy Emmerich. Photo by Melissa Weller

The way eating disorders and body image in general are portrayed in mainstream media and in Hollywood is part of a narrative that Jessie Kahnweiler, creator and star of the new Web series “The Skinny,” means to change.

“I was really frustrated at the lack of eating disorder stories that were honestly depicted, because I’m this loud, Jewish feminist with a moustache who speaks her mind, but, you know, I also struggle so much with pain and self-hate,” Kahnweiler, 30, said after the series premiered at the festival. “I think there was this self-perpetuating cycle of shame because I wasn’t really seeing … stories that I could relate to.”

“The Skinny” is a dark comedy about bulimia, produced by Refinery 29 in partnership with Wifey.TV, a platform founded by Jill Soloway and Rebecca Odes to provide creative space for women to “be the subject, not the object.” The morning before the series premiered as part of Sundance’s Special Events section, ” target=”_blank”>refinery29.com.

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