September 23, 2019

A Jewish New Wave

Ella Lewenz, pictured with one of her children,is the subject of her granddaughter’s documentary.
Filmmaker Myles Berkowitz made the comedy “20 Dates” on a budget of$60,000.

Park City, Utah

Jewish filmmakers descended on this snowy townlast month for their annual 11-day-long holiday ritual of schmoozing,skiing and screenings, better known as the Sundance FilmFestival.

That’s hardly big news in an industry with morethan a few Jewish members. What is news is that Jews were alsoturning up in full force on screen. While mainstream Hollywood hasbeen leery of taking on Jewish characters and subjects — theHolocaust being the exception– a new generation of independentdirectors is turning the cameras on their heritage.

When Robert Redford started screening cutting-edgework at his festival almost two decades ago, it was rare to see ayarmulke or a non-stereotyped Jewish family on a Utah screen. Butlast year, there was such a profusion of Jewish artists tacklingJewish themes that the Salt Lake City Jewish Community Center hosteda reception for them.

This year’s selection continues the trend.”There’s a diverse group of independent Jewish films here, and theydon’t all look alike,” said director Judith Helfand (“Healthy BabyGirl”).

Beyond the patently Jewish-themed films — more onthose later — it’s worth noting that the festival’s two winningdramatic films were imbued with a spirit that’s Jewish, even thoughthe characters were not. The Grand Jury Prize went to “Slam,”director Marc Levin’s neo-realist, humanistic drama about Washingtonprison life. Levin said that he next plans to film “BrooklynBabylon,” a cross-cultural love story between Jews and Rastafarians,which he hopes will be the “‘West Side Story’ for themillennium.”

The Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy went to”Smoke Signals,” a poignant Native American father-and-son storyco-produced by Scott Rosenfelt, whose own father died the day beforethe Sundance awards ceremony. “It’s so ironic,” he said while sittingshiva with hisfamily. “For the past year and a half, I’ve poured my heart and soulinto this film dealing with the loss of a father. But life is notlinear; it’s cyclical — that’s a concept in Native American cultureand on the Jewish calendar too. I still feel like my father knowsabout this [award], that I have honored him with my work, and that wehave come full circle.”

Other evidence of the Jewish “New Wave” atSundance include:

“Pi” (Winner:Dramatic Directing Award) “Pi” is thebrainchild of twentysomething writer-director Darren Aronofsky, aBrighton Beach-raised Harvard grad whose father teaches science atYeshiva of Flatbush junior high school. In “Pi,” a tortured mathgenius named Max Cohen, with a knack for cracking codes, findshimself pursued by Wall Street suits and kabbalists searching for thehidden numbers behind the Almighty’s secret name. “It’s a spiritualsearch,” said Aronofsky. “The message of ‘Pi’ is that you shouldn’tspend all of your time searching for God in this lifetime. The beautyis in the chaos. It’s about enjoying life — which is also aChassidic message.” The film’s rich Jewish imagery, said thedirector, “comes from a trip to Israel. I got involved with the AishHaTorah Discovery program for three days in Jerusalem. That’s where Igot my introduction to numerology. It didn’t quite work for me, butit gave me a lot of respect for Judaism, and I used a lot of thematerial in this film.”

“A Price Above Rubies” One of this festival’s most lovingly-crafted tales is alsosure to be one of most controversial portraits of traditional Jews tobe released by a major studio (Miramax Films, a subsidiary of theWalt Disney Company). Manhattan-born writer-director Boaz Yakin tellsthe harrowing story of a pretty young Hassidic wife (ReneeZellwegger) who endures a veritable “Perils of Pauline” throughBrooklyn’s Boro Park. Her tribulations include an unloving husband(Glenn Fitzgerald), too busy praying and poring through the Talmud tosatisfy her needs, a judgmental sister-in-law (Julianna Marguiles)who kidnaps her baby; and an adulterous brother-in-law (ChristopherEccleston) who seduces her while reciting the “Woman of Valor” lovepoem–providing the film’s title about a woman’s worth. She findssolace in the arms of a sensitive non-Jewish Puerto Rican sculptor(Alan Payne). Yakin is ready for controversy after a successfullaunch in Park City. “The response to my film at Sundance has beenfantastic. It’s been a real high,” said Yakin, awaiting theinevitable criticism. “It’s all downhill from here.”

“A LetterWithout Words” This fascinating andentertaining documentary traces the rise of the Third Reich via newlydiscovered home movies. Director Lisa Lewenz grew up as anEpiscopalian. At 13, she learned the family secret: Her dad had takenon a new identity in America, converting and marrying out of Judaismto spare his children from the anti-Semitism he had experienced inGermany. Lewenz spent 16 years of her life trying to piece togetherher missing family history, partially to find out more about her ownJewish identity. “One of my subversive goals,” she said over coffee,”was to inspire people to really explore their own families andfriends. I think so few of us ever really delve into that pastbecause we’re so busy living in the present.”

“Obsession” Perhapsthe sweetest Jewish images at the festival were offered up by PeterSehr, a German director who is, naturally, Catholic. “Obsession”concerns a ménage àtrois between a young female musician andher two men, and their friendship with two aging Russian Jewishbrothers, Simon and Jacob Frischmuth (played by Allen Garfield andSeymour Cassell, respectively). “People are a bit surprised that aGerman director would put two Jews in there,” said Sehr, who haspresented one of the first glimpses of Jews in contemporary Berlin.”What I tried to show was 50 years of absence. I think the biggestloss in German cultural life is the loss of its Jewish community, andI think only now we realize how big this loss is. This is my smallopportunity to give something back to the community, my wish that wewould have what we don’t have now: people with humor, generosity, acertain type of attitude toward life, a type of love which I’mmissing with my own people.”

“20Dates” Appearing at the rival SlamdanceFilm Festival, New Yorker Myles Berkowitz took the Dramatic AudienceAward for making a comedy about his two biggest failures in LosAngeles: his professional and his social lives. He consults amatchmaker, married friends, a rabbi, and even crashes a traditionalJewish wedding, posing as a videographer so that he can interview theprettiest girls at the reception. We get to see each one of his 20miserable real-life dates, many of whom are brutally honest, thanksto a hidden camera. Although Berkowitz claims that “religion is notan issue” in his dating habits (most of his pursuits are non-Jewishwomen), he remains proud of his Jewish heritage and his family’stemple, the Pelham Jewish Center in New York. “Slamdance wanted toopen my film on Friday night,” he said somewhat slyly. “But just likeSandy Koufax, I refused to pitch on a holy day. I told my family Iwas not going to première my movie on Shabbos.” Berkowitz’sfinished effort, a polished homage to Albert Brooks’ “Real Life” andWoody Allen’s romantic comedies, cost $60,000, provided by a LebaneseChristian producer.

Now that Jewish themes are trendy at the festival,dire
ctor Judith Helfand suggested that the Jewish filmmakers gatherfor a Shabbat dinner in Park City next year. “The only problem,” shesaid, “is that all the Jews will be at the movies on Friday night.We’ll have to work on that.”

Woody’s Story

“Wild ManBlues,” which won Sundance’s DocumentaryCinematography Award, includes the first-ever real-life portrayal ofWoody Allen’s very private life. Directed by Academy Award winnerBarbara Kopple, the real focus here is on Woody’s recent Europeanjazz tour. Fans will be surprised to see Soon-Yi mothering Woody,while Woody notes that Soon-Yi was once “this kid eating out ofgarbage pails in Korea”; Soon-Yi referencing “Manhattan” as herfavorite Woody Allen movie (starring the teen-aged Mariel Hemingwayas his love interest); and an epilogue in which he visits hisparents’ condo to drop off some new trophies. His father, examiningthe DGA Life Achievement Award, admires the quality of the engravingbut never recognizes the achievement, while Woody’s mother, whenprovoked, lets him know what she really thinks of him:

Woody’s Mom: “Sure,you did a lot of good things, but you never pursued them! I took youwherever I thought was good for you.”

Woody: “Like where?Hebrew School? All that junk?… You still think I’d still be betteroff if I was a druggist, right?”

Woody:’s Dad: “Maybeyou would be. Maybe you’d do more business as a druggist than you didas an actor?”

Woody:“I probablywould. Maybe if I had a drugstore, I’d have a bigger audience than Iget for my movies! Mom, how do you feel that both Christopher[Woody’s nephew] and I are going out with Asian women?”

Mom: “I personallydon’t think it’s right. I would have liked him from the beginning forhim to end up with a nice Jewish girl! [Soon-Yi recoils.] That’s whythe Jews — someday, not in your time — will be extinct! And that’svery bad!”

Woody: “This istruly the lunch from hell.”

Kopple, who grew up in the Reform Jewish communityof Scarsdale, N.Y., notes the meaning behind this interaction. “Itcertainly says, whenever you go home again, you’re a child,” shesaid. “There, he has all these awards, and all the father is lookingat is the engraving. [And Woody has] a typical Jewish mother. It washysterical. Throughout the entire film, it was hard for me to controlmy laughter.” — HarryMedved

Harry Medved hosts “Cinema Beshert: MeetingYour Mate at the Movies” at the University of Judaism on Sundaynights.

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‘I Don’t Feel Any Need to Apoligize’

By Leila Segal

Boaz Yakin is waiting for theother shoe to drop: While his new film, “A Price Above Rubies,” got awarm welcome from audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, theChassidic community has yet to react to his tale of emotionalrebellion, which opens here next month.

Director Yakin is known for his criticallyacclaimed debut, “Fresh,” set in gangland Brooklyn. In “A Price AboveRubies,” Sonia (Renee Zellweger), a young wife and mother living in aclose-knit Chassidic community in New York, finds herself frustratedby her allotted role. She sets out to explore her individuality andsexuality, and her journey to self-fulfillment encompasses a job inthe jewelry business and an affair with her brother-in-law, Sender(Christopher Eccleston).

While Yakin realizes that his choice of backdropfor the movie is bound to provoke controversy, he insists that thefilm’s main concern is societal repression, not a critique of theChassidic way of life: “‘A Price Above Rubies’ is about the power,fear and anxiety that can be created by feminine sexuality in aconservative society,” he says. “I only used the Jewish background asan excuse to tell a story that is really about one woman’s struggleto discover herself in a society which emphasizes conformity and dutyover self-fulfillment.

“It could apply to any community. It shows you awoman who essentially has a certain kind of selfish need and acertain kind of passionate need that isn’t being met, because, in anystrongly knit group, the needs of the individual are subordinated tothe needs of the group, which is very healthy in certain ways. But,like Sonia, there are those people who don’t fit, and they’remiserable, and that’s what this film is about.”

Yakin, himself from a yeshiva background,acknowledges that, in some respects, the film is critical of theChassidic way of life: “I’ve presented a very warm, sympathetic viewof the Chassidic world, but it’s also got a sense of humor, and, inplaces, it is critical,” he says. “Isn’t that what Jewish humor hasalways been about? Isn’t that what we’ve always been able to do? Weshould be able to make art that is critical and loving and humorousabout our own people. Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize fordoing it, and his stories are far more violent, sexual and criticalthan mine.”

True, Jewish tradition encourages discussionrather than imposing dogma. But should that discussion should beallowed to extend beyond the Jewish community, exposing our faultlines to the scrutiny of the wider world?

“The biggest victory someone else can have is toalter your own perception of yourself and your own sense of personalfreedom,” is Yakin’s response. “Historically, Jews have beenghettoized by other people. What we have today is a self-imposedinsularity that leads to total paranoia. Now I don’t forget history;I appreciate history. But when you let crimes against you dictate theway you look at yourself and at the world around you, you have letyour oppressors win.

“Anyone who’s going to be an anti-Semite is goingto be an anti-Semite no matter what we say about ourselves. The morewe can show ourselves as human beings, warts and all, the stronger wewill be.”

And while the Chassidic community, aware of itsvulnerability, is unsurprisingly defensive, if the Chassidim chosenot to participate in modern culture, then they cannot complain whenothers take up the torch on their behalf, asserts thedirector.

“My feeling is that there is nothing more healthythan art that is self-critical,” says Yakin. “Any society that can’tsurvive criticism isn’t going to make it anyway. As an artist, yourlife’s work is to explore the spirit of life in general. If my filmdidn’t offend anybody, I’d feel like I’d totally failed. I don’t feelany need to apologize for it or to soften it up.”

“A Price Above Rubies” opens nationally onMarch 27.

Leila Segal is a writer who lives inLondon.

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Exploring the Dark Side

By Naomi Pfefferman,Senior Writer

Hungarianfilmmaker János Szász agrees that his movies areunrelentingly bleak. “I lost half my family in Auschwitz, so all myfilms, in a way, are pessimistic,” says the soft-spoken, 40-year-oldauteur. “I see the dark side of life.”

Szász’s eerie “The Witman Boys,” Hungary’sOscar entry, is a grim, frightening tale of adolescence. Set amid thewintry mists of Transylvania, it f
ollows two brothers obsessed withsex and sacrifice after the death of their father. The exquisitelyphotographed film has earned accolades from Cannes to Sundance, whereSzász was recently toasted at a Variety magazine reception for”10 leading new independent directors.”

During a telephone interview, the filmmaker tracedhis gloomy vision to the Holocaust, to the mother who survivedAuschwitz and the father who survived Mauthausen. He loves hiscountry, its people and language, yet, as a Jew, he has always felthimself something of an outsider in Hungary.

While working on “The Witman Boys” in small-townTransylvania, he was devastated by “the ruined synagogues, with onlya few Jews left to [frequent] them.” He recalled how his parentsnever spoke of their Holocaust experiences. Instead, his belovedfather, a prominent screenwriter, fell into a quiet depression eachevening.

Only after Szász’s father died, in theearly 1980s, did a grandfather briefly speak of the “vast trains” tothe camps. The family silence molded a filmmaker: Szász becameobsessed with telling the stories of outcasts, “lost nobodies,”people alienated from the system.

The award-winning “Woyzeck” (1994) focuses on alonely, degraded railway worker who lashes out at society by killinghis wife. “The Witman Boys,” unloved by their cold, stern mother,seek a gruesome revenge.

Szász cast the film by scouringTransylvania for unknown talent; he knew he had found one of hisactors when he came across a teen-ager brooding alone in a darkclassroom while his peers gathered for auditions in theauditorium.

Today, however, the director wants to move beyondthe dark side. “I have to change because I have a beautiful youngdaughter, and I’d like to show that at the end of the tunnel, thereis a little light,” says the filmmaker, whose mentors have includedthe Oscar-winning director Istvan Szabo of “Mephisto.” To this end,Szász is relocating to Los Angeles, where William Morris hasexpressed interest in him.

Nevertheless, the bespectacled Szász hashis eye on at least one more somber endeavor, a Holocaust-themedproject. “I’m hoping it will help me explore my Jewish identity,” hesays, with a sigh. And perhaps, he muses, it will finally exorcisehis personal demons.