Light And Dark At N.Y. Jewish Film Fest

Week 2 offerings move from the Shoah to an Israeli counter-terrorism force to Joe Papp and ‘Hava Nagila.’

01/08/2013
Special to the Jewish Week
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If the first week of the New York Jewish Film Festival was largely about music, both as reality and metaphor, the second is a spectrum that ranges from dark to light, 

from the somber to the frivolous, with music and theater tucked away somewhere in between. As it inevitably must, the Shoah comes into play in several films and they, of course, represent the spectrum’s darker hues. 

But not entirely. “Numbered,” an hour-long documentary by Israeli filmmakers Uriel Sinai and Dana Doron, takes a potentially bleak subject — Auschwitz survivors and the numbers on their arms — and turns it into an unlikely but whole-hearted celebration of survival itself, the inextinguishable urge to go on living. Sinai is a profoundly gifted photojournalist whose “Project Numbered” was the jumping-off point for the film; Doron is a doctor specializing in geriatric care and the granddaughter of a survivor. It’s an unlikely pairing that works brilliantly, with Sinai supplying a strong visual sense and a great eye for stillness, and Doron bringing a tenderness to the way that the participants are depicted. As a result, a film that could have been embarrassing or exploitative is a triumphant affirmation of human desire in the face of incalculable cruelty.

The film opens with a quotation from Primo Levi that ends with him saying of his number, “For me it’s a medal.” That sentiment is echoed by most of the men and women who appear in “Numbered,” but with a range of nuances. One woman recites her number in German, saying dryly, “I can’t say that in Hebrew.” Another tells of a young American bank teller who thought the tattoo was “cool,” to which she replied with a certain amusement, “That’s right, it is cool.” Daniel Chanoch, one of the most memorable of the interview subjects, approaches the entire subject with a dark, wry humor, seldom letting his joker’s mask slip. But the reality behind the numbers is never more than a breath away, giving the film, even at its lighter moments, the gravitational pull of a black hole.

“Numbered” would make a perfect lead-in to “The Trial of Adolf Eichmann,” by Michael Prazan. Sinai’s visual approach — calm, abstract and just a shade detached — would make an excellent foil to Prazan’s rather dry, dispassionate film. The stories told in Sinai and Doron’s short film would serve as a useful supplement to the juridical restraint of the Eichmann trial. Prazan’s film is methodical and highly intelligent, and the somewhat chilly tone works well to defuse any urge to the bombastic. It also fits the film’s central figure. Eichmann, as has been noted repeatedly over the past half-century, was bland and dull, a bureaucrat whose train manifests could have catalogued fresh fruit instead of future murder victims.

The emotional punch of the trial itself and, on one level, its raison d’être, is the testimony of the survivors. In the course of the proceedings, 111 of them spoke, and for the first time, Israelis heard something of the reality of the Shoah, puncturing their assumptions. As the film makes clear, that was always part of the plan. Nor does the film gloss over the questions of legality raised by the manner in which Eichmann was apprehended and spirited out of Argentina. In the end, as one Israeli diplomat said, Argentina had “no outstanding complaint” against Israel, an outcome that might not occur today under comparable circumstances.

Generally, the festival focuses its attention on films that haven’t been shown in New York and on historically significant restorations. This year’s event is no exception, but there are two films that played here previously but haven’t secured theatrical distribution; their inclusion in the festival, one hopes, will prod some distributor to acquire them. “Policeman,” Nadav Lipid’s excellent first feature, played the New York Film Festival two years ago, then disappeared. “Joe Papp in Five Acts,” a documentary by Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen, was one of the treats at last year’s Tribeca festival.

“Policeman” focuses on Yaron (Yiftach Klein), one of five members of an elite police counter-terrorism unit who are facing possible indictment after an action that went horribly wrong. These guys live for one another, and as we see them in the first third of the film, little else. They have wives and even kids but, as becomes quickly clear, family life exists mainly as an adornment that testifies to their masculinity. When we see Yaron with a friend’s baby, he is hefting the little guy while looking into a mirror, as if he is trying on the image for size.

That shot is echoed in the middle section of the film when Shira (Yaara Pelzig), a would-be radical leftist, briefly watches herself handling a pistol in a mirror in her parents’ sumptuous apartment. The shift from Yaron and his buddies to Shira and her terrorist wannabes is abrupt and total, until their paths cross in the final movement of the film. It’s an eccentric and gutsy choice, made all the more effective by the fact that — much as Shira’s play-acting for the mirror is an echo of Yaron’s — the two groups are grotesque parodies of one another, two quintets prepared to kill for no apparent reason.

Joe Papp was a mercurial, gleefully defiant figure, a crusader who never had to look far for his next confrontation. It’s probably not a coincidence that his rise and heyday overlapped that of Ed Koch, the subject of another film in the festival. Papp was pretty frank about what motivated him, saying, “I just don’t do shows; they must have meaning.” He also confesses in an interview in the film that the most important lesson he learned on the streets of Brooklyn was, “If you hit first, you have a tremendous psychological advantage,” an observation he would have ample opportunity to practice.

“Joe Papp in Five Acts” is splendidly eloquent in tracing Papp’s jousting with the House Un-American Activities Committee, his triumph over a bullying Robert Moses, and the Reagan-era strictures on the National Endowment for the Arts. It is also brutally frank about his professional and personal shortcomings. “Five Acts” is particularly good on Papp’s early estrangement from his Jewish identity and the enthusiasm with which he embraced it when he chose to go public in response to attacks on his decision to stage “The Merchant of Venice.” Most of all, though, Holder and Thorsen make splendid use of the Public Theater’s video archives, giving viewers a glimpse of legendary Papp productions. The theater just hasn’t been the same without him.

Over at the brightly colored, frequently wacky end of the festival spectrum this year is the improbable “Hava Nagila (The Movie).” When a movie opens with home-movie footage of a several weddings, and a sly, self-consciously mocking voice-over, you expect the worst. But filmmaker Roberta Grossman actually has  bigger fish to fry than the wretched excesses of post-WWII suburban assimilated Jews. She brings in everyone from Henry Sapoznik and Josh Kun to Harry Belafonte and Connie Francis to discuss the ubiquitous tune and manages to trace it back to its surprising roots as a chasidic nigun. She then takes the story forward to examine the real nature of Jewish cultural and political history, from the Shoah and the founding of the State of Israel to the place of Jewish identity in America. And despite the occasionally jokey tone, the film is pretty smart about the stuff that matters. 

The 22nd Annual New York Jewish Film Festival, co-sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and The Jewish Museum, runs through Jan. 24. Screenings take place at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.). For information, call (212) 875-5601, or go to either www.filmlinc.com or www.thejewishmuseum.org.

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The biography of Joe Papp by Helen Epstein is now available as an eBook http://www.plunkettlakepress.com/jp.html

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