NEW YORK – Last July, the Jewish Museum London launched an original exhibition titled “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait,” using the world-famous pop star who died at the age of 27 as an example of how cutting edge, chic and popular 21st-century Judaism can be. While some critiqued this initiative as nothing more than a marketing gimmick, it became one of the most visited exhibitions in the museum’s history.
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Aspiring to attract as wide an audience as possible, the 23rd annual New York Jewish Film Festival challenges the common conception of what “Jewish cinema” looks like and what “Jewish experience” might include. To achieve this goal, this year’s edition will showcase 49 documentaries and features, exploring topics such as Winehouse’s musical roots and influences; the tragic story of the first-ever female rabbi, Regina Jonas; the complex and heartbreaking relationships between three Ukraine wives and their Israeli husbands; the surprising success of Israeli singer Rita in Iran – as well as many others.
The festival, to be held at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on January 8-23, will include New York premieres of several of the most talked-about Israeli movies of 2013: Ari Folman’s "The Congress," a genre-bending adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s sci-fi classic starring Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel and Paul Giamatti, as well as (the voice of) "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm; Yuval Adler’s drama "Bethlehem" – Israel’s overlooked submission for this year's Oscar for best foreign language film; and Amos Gitai’s latest drama, "Ana Arabia," filmed in one single, 81-minute-long shot.
While it is tempting to try and catch the works of well-known names like Folman, Gitai or Eytan Fox (whose latest film, the musical-comedy "Cupcakes," will receive its U.S. premiere), it might be more enriching to focus on the special events, master classes and documentaries that are unlikely to receive commercial distribution in the United States. Such highlights include a conversation between Israeli artist Yael Bartana and film critic J. Hoberman; an exhibition of graphic designer Saul Bass, including a midnight screening of his 1974 sci-fier "Phase IV"; a special tribute to Otto Preminger, including a screening of his 1960 epic "Exodus," staring Paul Newman; a rare screening of the restored version of "Mamele," an early Yiddish “talkie” from 1938; and a master class with Gitai.
Two archival-based documentaries tell the fascinating stories of inspiring women who never received the recognition they deserved. The first is Michal Aviad’s acclaimed project "Women/Pioneers," which uses black-and-white footage to recreate the stories of women who emigrated from Europe to Palestine a century ago, aspiring to create “a new Jewish woman.” Juxtaposing the archival footage with narration based on the pioneers’ diaries and letters, Aviad was able to produce a subversive, feminist, multilayered narrative.
Aviad’s work can serve as an introduction – or as the first part of a double feature – to Diana Groó’s "Regina," another black-and-white documentary exploring a forgotten female protagonist. This one-hour documentary focuses on Regina Jonas (1902-1944), a German Jew who made history by being ordained the first-ever woman rabbi, in Berlin in 1934. Much like Aviad, Groó combines archival footage and narration (read by actress Rachel Weisz) in order to provide her viewers with a glimpse into the life of Jonas, who was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz in 1944, at the age of 42.
However, while Aviad had ample footage to work with, only one still photo of Jonas survived. As a result, Groó faced the challenge of reviving her subject by using footage shot in Berlin during the 1920s and ’30s. Instead of casting actors and reenacting scenes from Jonas’ life, Groó immerses us in the rich, pulsating street life of Berlin through compelling scenes from synagogues, schools and Jewish cultural life.
Another recommended documentary dealing with feminist struggles is Nili Tal’s "Ukraine Brides: 13 Years Later," a one-hour sequel to her 2000 film "Ukraine Brides." Revisiting her three protagonists - Tanya, Vera and Natasha – Tal is able to document the long-term effects of their decision to leave their families and homes behind and marry Israeli men whom they hardly knew.
While the original film followed the initial encounters between the twentysomething girls and the much-older men, the sequel reveals what happens when the reality turns out to be as far removed as possible from “happily ever after.” Natasha left her husband, returned to Ukraine and is now struggling to build a new life for herself and her two children in Kherson; Vera’s husband died, leaving her and their son with debts and the threat of evacuation from their tiny Tel Aviv apartment; and Tanya, whose Israeli husband abused her, ran away and reunited with her mother in Oxfordshire, England.
Two other intriguing documentaries present a complex portrait of the Jewish-Iranian community. Dan Shadur’s "Before the Revolution" juxtaposes rare 8mm footage with numerous interviews to tell the story of the small-yet-vibrant Israeli community that prospered in Tehran during the 1960s and ’70s, enjoying a special relationship with the Shah.
Those looking for an exploration of the Israel-Iran contemporary relationship could find it in Ayal Goldberg’s "Rita Jahan Foruz," which follows the Iranian-born Israeli singer Rita while she works on her first album in the Farsi language.
Finally, in what seems to be a new Jewish tradition, there is also a treat for Amy Winehouse fans. Maurice Linnane’s highly enjoyable "Amy Winehouse: The Day She Came to Dingle" follows the late singer to the remote, southwestern corner of Ireland, where she performs for Other Voices, an acclaimed Irish music festival filmed every winter for television. The documentary moves from an interview with Winehouse to her live acoustic performance in a small church, while some of its best moments include rare footage of musicians who inspired her unique style (such as Carleen Anderson, Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald). Asked whether they are any similarities between all the musicians she admires, Winehouse states: “I think what attracted me to their music was the way they all stood out.”
While the film does not include the word “Jewish,” it offers a portrait of a young, sensitive artist who always saw herself as an outsider. In that sense, it can easily fit within the framework of the New York Jewish Film Festival, which offers us an annual celebration of artists, pioneers and religious leaders who stood out, even if it took many decades to fully recognize their struggles and contributions.
5 Highlights of the 2014 New York Jewish Film Festival:
Q&A with director Nili Tal; Wednesday January 22, 3:45 P.M. and 8:30 P.M., Walter Reade Theater
Q&A with director Dan Shadur and producer Barak Heymann; Monday January 20, 6 P.M.; Tuesday January 21, 3 P.M., Walter Reade Theater
Q&A with director Michal Aviad; Tuesday January 21, 1 P.M. and 6 P.M., Walter Reade Theater
Tuesday January 21, 8:30 P.M., Walter Reade Theater
Directed by Chaim Halachmi. Live piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin; Sunday January 19, 12:30 P.M., Walter Reade Theater