Film Of Cantors’ Poland Trip Goes Flat

‘100 Voices: A Journey Home’ offers little historical context.

09/16/2010
Special To The Jewish Week
“100 Voices: A Journey Home”
“100 Voices: A Journey Home”

I feel utterly certain that the new documentary “100 Voices: A Journey Home” is the most exasperating film I will see in 2010. The film, which documents the concert tour of a hundred members of the Cantorial Assembly to Poland, dashes all over the place, offering quick histories of the American cantorate, the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, the Yiddish theater, and the personal stories of several cantors and musicians whose families survived the Shoah. All of these stories, interesting in themselves and complex enough to reward the telling in a single film, are jammed into 91 minutes in a haphazard fashion by director-producers Matthew Asner and Danny Gold.

The resulting film, which is playing in over 500 theaters for a single night before opening on Sept. 22, is an exhausting and frustrating series of missed opportunities.

From the outset, the filmmakers clearly have had a great deal of access to Cantor Nathan Lam, who organized the trip and the concerts. We briefly see him trying to communicate instructions to someone at the other end of a long-distance line despite his self-confessed lack of Polish. The task of organizing the project, he says, has been huge. That is, no doubt, true, but we have to take it on faith since that brief scene is the last glimpse the film gives of the process.

From there we hop over to Poland for the cantors’ first concert, in the Warsaw Opera House, the largest such venue in Europe today. The filmmakers sprinkle us with a bit of cantorial history, aided by brief film clips of some of the Golden Age greats — Moishe Oysher, Joseph Rosenblatt, Mordecai Hershman, Leibele Waldman. Unfortunately, except for some thoughtful observations by Cantor Jacob Mendelson, there is little historical context for these clips. The result is a sort of history without history. (The audience should expect trouble when very early in the film Cantor Lam offers the Yogi Berra-esque “factoid,” “Ninety percent of most American Jews came from Poland.”)

So it goes for the rest of the film’s running time. We hear and see a lot of archival footage from before and during the Shoah, some deeply moving recollections from survivors and the families of survivors, and some intelligent contributions from Janusz Markusz, the founder of the Krakow event.

But no single subject seems to hold the filmmakers’ interest long enough for it to receive the treatment it deserves. Even more distressing, we never hear a single piece of music through from beginning to end; every single performance is interrupted by talking heads. Many of them are profoundly compelling — the reminiscences of Cantors Ivor and Joel Lichterman are particularly powerful. But what is the point of a film documenting a concert tour in which you never hear a concert? At a moment in Jewish history in which the American cantorate is grappling with profound troubles, this film could have been a vital contribution to raising their profile. Count it as an opportunity lost.

“100 Voices: A Journey Home,” directed by Matthew Asner and Danny Gold will play a one-night exclusive engagement in more than 500 theaters nationwide), on Tuesday, Sept. 21. (Go to www.100voicesmovie.com for more information.) On Wednesday, Sept. 22, the film opens at the Empire 25 (42nd Street and Eighth Avenue).

Comments

I agree with all who disagree with Mr. Robinson. This film moved me deeply. I am an educator and a Catholic who accidentally but so fortunately viewed the film last evening because my neighbor was waiting for a ride to the theater!! What a blessing and challenge this film presents for the work of prayer and relationship-building necessary for reconciliation and healing!! The settings, stories, flashbacks, interviews, and site visits combine together with a message of painful remembrance but hopeful inspiration. Will the makers of this film release it to independent theaters so that the message can be shared with a wider audience? Wasn't that the purpose of the cantors' trip to Poland?
Beautiful film!!!! Yes, It has a lot of material packed into a single documentary, but where I completely disagree with Robinson is that, all of the stories, moments and subjects that were introduced in the film left me wanting more and more. I was so captured by each story, that now, 12 hours after seeing the film, I am still so moved, so inspired. I was shocked to read Robinson's final words that this film failed to be a vital contribution to helping raise the profile of the American Cantorate. I couldn't disagree more. It can be a VITAL contribution to this, as well as an inspiration to any individual or culture who has been oppressed, to nations who wish for reconciliation, to anyone who has directly, or indirectly survived any trauma, and for anyone who believes in the healing power of music, and of prayer. I agree with Robinson that each story is interesting and profound enough to warrant having their own documentaries. And maybe this will inspire more detailed accounts of these stories, but it was important to see these Cantors, go back to trace their roots, to recount, to remember, together. And no doubt, their experiences were richer, and more meaningful to have done so. Mr. Robinson, perhaps it would be worthwhile to see it again, without the pressure of needing to review, and maybe, just maybe you won't be as frustrated as you were the first time.
Interesting... While I have not seen the film I know people who have and they came out kvelling. The one thing that puzzles me about Mr. Robinson's review is that he seems upset that the songs don't play from start to finish. I don't believe that it is a concert film I think they use the songs to illustrate and underscore. Perhaps the filmmakers can provide Mr. Robinson with a copy of the concert itself so he can have a happy remainder of 2010.
The name of the founder of Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow is Janusz MAKUCH :) Greetings from Krakow! :)
I have personally seen the film and COMPLETELY disagree with this review!!! I think that George Robinson was not paying attention to the film and needs to see it again! This film is poignant and thought-provoking. Especially meaningful was the worship service the cantors conduced at Auschwitz, depicted in the movie, where survivors and their progeny were wrapped in the unfurled torah. Unimaginably powerful. With a strong theme of reconciliation between Poles and Jews, the film is quite timely in this High Holy Day period. NY’s sister city relationship with Krakow, where much of the film is shot, and the fact that some 70 percent of American Jewry traces its roots to Poland enhance the film’s appeal to a broad NY audience. The film is a beautiful way for reconciliation between two past adversaries. As a matter of fact, the Polish Consulate is sponsoring the reception in Los Angeles following the September 21st event. 100 Voices used music as a powerful median to bridge gaps of political dissonance, which is so timely in world affairs today. I00 Voices illustrates how much American musical talent in Hollywood finds it roots in a century old Polish Cantorial culture. I am sure that Mr. Robinson missed the boat on this review!

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Add Your Comments

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.