In a city with more film festivals than days of the year, the annual New York Jewish Film Festival (NYJFF) tries to stand out by showcasing the multifaceted world of “Jewish Cinema,” a term so abstract and inclusive it covers almost every aspect of human experience and cultural life, from films about comics and graphic novels to orphanhood and loss to vodka manufacturing and branding.
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This year, its 22nd, the NYJFF will run from January 9-24 and offer up 45 full-length features, documentaries and shorts from nine countries. As always, it will also include some recent successful Israeli films: The fest will be the New York premiere for Beni Torati’s “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring,” Idan Huvel’s “The Cutoff Man” and Dina Zvi Riklis’ “The Fifth Heaven.” Acclaimed Israeli documentaries such as Tamar Tal’s “Life in Stills,” Dana Doron and Uriel Sinai’s “Numbered,” and Gabriel Bibliowicz’s “Let’s Dance!” are also on the roster.
In addition to shedding light on contemporary Israeli society, the 2013 film festival also aims to shed a new light on renowned Jewish thinkers and artists. The German biopic “Hannah Arendt,” for example, covers a four-year period in the life of one of the most acclaimed philosophers in recent history. While Arendt’s story has been told before in documentaries such as the BBC’s “Journey in Thought – Hannah Arendt,” German actress Barbara Sukowa does a remarkable job of re-enacting Arendt's journey to Jerusalem to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker.
Viewers seeking a broader context for the events depicted in “Hanna Arendt” can also attend the screening of Michael Prazan’s documentary “The Trial of Adolf Eichmann,” which focuses on the heated public debates that the trial of “one of Nazism’s greatest villains” evoked in Israel and around the world.
For a different take on the Holocaust and Jewish thought, viewers can check out “The Art of Spiegelman,” a documentary by Clara Kuperberg and Joelle Oosterlinck that unleashes the wit of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and artist Art Spiegelman. He revolutionized the field of graphic novels with his groundbreaking 1991 work “Maus,” which was based on the experiences of Spiegelman's father as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, and is part of the focus of the documentary.
Israeli filmmakers Dana Doron and Uriel Sinai's debut documentary also provides a touching homage to Holocaust survivors. By focusing on the complex relationships three Auschwitz survivors have with the numbers tattooed on their arms, Doron and Sinai were able to capture the extent to which a trauma can shape one's life decades after it first happened. Sinai, who shot the film, created meticulous still-shots in black and white, which turn this work into both an aesthetic and moral achievement.
Another worth-while documentary is “How to Re-establish a Vodka Empire,” which starts out as a conventional family melodrama and quickly evolves into a surprising and often hilarious business adventure. Filmmaker Dan Edelstyn succeeds in turning his grandmother’s story of warfare, exile and turmoil into a touching allegory about the power of family heritage.
While Edelstyn’s late grandmother serves as a specter of a time and place that have ceased to exist, the late Miriam Weissenstein, the poignant protagonist of the Israeli documentary “Life in Stills,” also works to preserve the past, in a different way. The film follows her and her grandson Ben's struggle to prevent the family’s renowned Tel Aviv photo shop from closing. As different as these two documentaries are, they both offer a bittersweet take on the relationship between grandmothers and grandchildren, as well as a refreshing perspective on entrepreneurship in an age that translates nostalgia into a new kind of "branding."
Two Israeli films that are worthy of attention for their experimental and challenging approach are Idan Huvel's "The Cutoff Man" and Nadav Lapid's "Policeman." Both present a nightmarish picture of the ever-increasing gap between the country's haves and have-nots. "The Cutoff Man" is a one-man show staring Israeli actor Moshe Ivgy as a family man whose job is to cut off the water supply to people who haven't paid their bills. Lapid's "Policeman," meanwhile, is a genre-bending porttrayal of a group of wealthy young anarchists who plan to kidnap a billionaire's daughter during her lavish wedding celebration.
The NYJFF is clearly trying to dish up an eclectic menu that caters to different tastes, yet unlike the Other Israel Film Festival, which celebrated its fifth season last month, the NYJFF seems to shy away from more loaded issues, including the elephant in the room: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This curatorial agenda draws wider audiences, but also results in a more predictable (and sometimes less exciting) lineup: Two of the most talked-about Israeli documentaries "The Gatekeepers" and "5 Broken Cameras" (both of which have been short-listed for the 2013 Oscar) are not being screened here.
Yet, even in an age when so-called "Jewish" films are as ubiquitous as, say, Jews themselves, the NYJFF draws our attention to recent trends and shifts in the Jewish world, which makes it a tradition worth keeping.
New York Jewish Film Festival, Jan. 9-24, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, New York.