Identity In The Spotlight

Questions of culture and race in first week of N.Y. Jewish Film Festival.

01/03/2012
Special to the Jewish Week
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Identity is who we are, what we are. For Jews, identity is complicated, the product of 4,000 years of history, several thousand years of exile across the entire globe, initiating contact with people and cultures unlike our own. The result of all that intermingling is the savory stew that is Jewish culture, and a principal theme of the first week of this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.

The festival opens on Jan. 11 with an Israeli comedy-drama, “Mabul” (Flood), that focuses on the ways that puberty and adversity shape personal identity. Yoni (Yoav Rotman) is having all the traumas that accompany turning 13. He is preparing for his bar mitzvah, worrying about his diminutive size and trying to fend off the school bullies. His problems are complicated by a few unique twists: he has a yen for his rabbi’s brazen daughter, his dope-smoking father has been grounded by the small air service for which he works and his autistic older brother Tomer (Michael Moshonov) has just been sent home from the sanitarium where he has lived for several years. This, in turn, creates some new and disturbing tensions in the home, not the least for Yoni’s mom Miri (Ronit Elkabetz), whose preschool/day care operation is jeopardized by her having Tomer around.

Guy Nattiv (who co-directed the underrated “Strangers” with Erez Tadmor) juggles all these elements with a fair degree of success for most of the film. Tzachi Grad’s hangdog look makes Gidi, the father, instantly recognizable as a poster boy for failure, while Elkabetz turns in another performance in which her barely concealed bitterness and the hurt look in her eyes convey more levels of pain and disappointment than the script (by Nattiv and Noa Berman-Herzberg). The heart of the film, by design, is Rotman’s, and the 15-year-old manages to be fairly convincing as the dark flip side of a young Woody Allen.

The problem with “Mabul,” as with so many other films of this sort, is that the damaged child exists mainly as a catalyst, an excuse for intra-family truth telling and a hot flow of tears mixed with recriminations. And inevitably, Nattiv has to bring all the aggrieved parties together for a reconciliation and resolution. By contrast “Strangers” was a smart and daring film precisely because it eschewed an easy ending and left things very much up in the air.

Of course, for documentary filmmakers, leaving things up in the air as the final credits roll is usually the nature of their job. Two films that explore issues of identity more philosophically, and largely in terms of how race interacts with Jewishness, Joel Katz’s “White: A Memoir in Color” and “400 Miles to Freedom,” by Avishai Yeganyahu Mekonen and Shari Rothfarb Mekonen, cannot help but end with open questions. After all, each of these hour-long films closes while pondering the future of the filmmakers’ very young biracial children.

Avishai Yeganyahu Mekonen was 10 years old when his family fled Ethiopia where the Mengistu dictatorship was persecuting its Jewish population. They were stuck in a refugee camp in Sudan, waiting for rescue when Avishai was kidnapped and drugged by slavers. Eventually he was freed and the family came to Israel on one of the earliest Operation Moses flights. But the experience of persecution, slavery and degradation left understandable scars on the boy, scars which he explores in “400 Miles.” The film shifts rather uneasily from the plight of the Ethiopian olim in Israel to the story of Mekonen’s personal tragedy and to the state of non-white Jews around the world. Seeking “a place where we [won’t] be called falasha, outsiders,” Mekonen surveys the experiences of African-American synagogues; Angela Buchdahl, the first Asian-American rabbi in America; the Abuydaya Jews of Uganda and the Anusim, Latinos reclaiming their Jewish heritage generations after their forced conversion. These are all fascinating stories, well worth exploring in a film of their own, and the Mekonens clearly have an affinity for their subjects. But shoehorning all this material into an hour results in an unwieldy and disappointing experience.

Joel Katz, whose “Strange Fruit” was one of the highlights of 2002, also has a complex history with issues of race, this time in America. His father created the chemical engineering department at Howard University, but he started teaching there in 1968 and became collateral damage in the battles over black identity and control of black institutions. His son’s film “White” touches on that history along with the decision he and his wife Leah took to adopt a child. They did, in fact, finally adopt a biracial child with charming results (so far: little Sonya is only 3). But those two events provoked Katz to ponder the identity of whiteness in America, particularly experienced by Jews. The film’s approach seems a bitter scatter-shot at first, but he eventually weaves all the strands together quite deftly.

Watching “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story,” directed by Ari Daniel Pinchot and Jonathan Gruber, is a bit like watching a nice young Jewish boy grow into manhood. The film traces the life of the hero of the Entebbe raid through his letters to family and friends, as well as interviews with them, principally Iddo and Bibi, his brothers, counterpointed with the chronology of the raid itself. Yoni was clearly a superior example of the human, intelligent, meticulous, dedicated and brave, and over the course of the film his words are the most eloquent testimony to his growth from self-assured adolescent to complicated adult. The film is artful, although at 80 minutes, it drags a little as the back story catches up with the raid itself.

The 21st annual New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, will take place Jan. 11-26 at the Walter Reade Theater and the Eleanor Bunin Munroe Film Center (both at Lincoln Center, on West 65th Street). For more information, go to www.filmlinc.com or www.TheJewishMuseum.org.

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