No Two Documentaries Are Alike
01/09/2008
Special To The Jewish Week
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The second week of the New York Jewish Film Festival is heavily weighted towards documentaries, but these days that label covers such a huge swatch of territory that you can’t know what to expect. The movies included in this year’s event are no exception to the trend toward the unconventional in nonfiction cinema.

Consider, for example, the pairing of “Red Zion” by Yevgeny Tsimbal and “Buenos Aires Pogrom” by Herman Szwarcbart. Both of these short films — just under an hour apiece in running time — highlight a little-known corner of 20th-century Jewish history, but they choose very different means and produce significantly varied results. Tsimbal traces the history of Soviet efforts under Stalin to address the Jewish “national question” by granting Russian Jews “autonomous regions” in the northern Crimea and Birobidzhan. Drawing almost entirely on period footage, he attempts to create a musically structured essay on these efforts, but the result is so impressionistic and oversimplified as to be nearly worthless as history. And compared to Yale Strom’s 2002 film on the same subject, “L’Chayim Comrade Stalin,” it is weak tea as filmmaking.

Szwarcbart, by contrast, takes a single episode, a week of street-fighting in 1919 Buenos Aires, in which the idle sons of the Argentine rich terrorized working-class districts of the capital, mostly Jewish, as the jumping-off point for a nuanced examination of the class struggles of the period and their continued resonance. Again, the means chosen are not the usual PBS-style historical reconstruction. Rather, Szwarcbart draws on two first-person accounts from the period, making use of actors reading from them as a Brechtian distancing device that keeps us constantly aware of the narrowness of a single point of view and the ways in which history is constructed from competing narratives. He livens these up with period footage and Argentine-Yiddish tangos to create a subtle fugue that is both evocative and provocative.

There is a similar mismatch in the pairing of “Stefan Braun” by Itamar Alcalay and “The Quest for the Missing Piece” by Oded Lotan. Both are Israeli-made hour-long films that touch on the lives of gay Jews in Israel, but they couldn’t be less alike. “Braun” is a portrait of a major player in the garment industry in Tel Aviv of the ‘50s and ‘60s, a highly fashionable furrier whose creations were the pinnacle of chic, and whose will, which left almost everything to his life partner Eliezer Rath, became a cause celebre in the Israeli courts. When Alcalay focuses his attention on the shmatte business or on the Tel Aviv gay circuit the film comes to vivid life as the portrait of two communities; when he is recounting Braun’s life and loves and family ties, it is tedious.

Lotan is after something completely different. His film, presented as a tongue-in-cheek children’s fable, is a lighthearted but level-headed study of circumcision, taking in everything from his own bris to a Muslim family’s ceremony, from a meeting of a support group for parents of uncircumcised Jewish children to his own relationship with his partner, a non-Jewish German. His sense of humor is winning and his sense of family is charming.

There are, of course, some subjects that cannot be appreciated properly in less than 60 minutes, and the feature-length documentaries on view at the festival this year include several fine examples. “The Murder of a Hatmaker” could be just another examination of a victim of the Shoah, but Catherine Bernstein, its French director, has a greater stake than that of a mere filmmaker. The hatmaker in question, the indomitably stylish Fanny Berger, a great favorite of Paris in the ‘20s and ‘30s, was her great aunt. Bernstein’s reconstruction of her life and her death at the hands of the Nazis represents yet another powerful lens on the Holocaust from a new, decidedly personal angle.

“Praying With Lior,” directed by Ilana Trachtman, is the one film in this week’s group that has already been acquired for theatrical release (it opens in theaters on Feb. 1). It also falls within a fairly well-defined subgenre of the documentary: the portrait of a person overcoming disabilities to thrive in ordinary society. Lior Liebling, the film’s title figure, is a Jewish boy with Down syndrome, an endlessly cheerful boy who prays eagerly and with a fervor the rest of us can only dream of. In the best meaning of the word, Lior is a true chasid, a pious Jew; as we see repeatedly throughout the film, he prays with total abandon, not plagued by the hesitations wrought from doubt or self-consciousness.

The film follows his preparations for his long-awaited bar mitzvah, offering a series of deftly drawn portraits of his family: his mother, Devora, a rabbi who died of cancer when he was 6; his father Mordecai; his older siblings, Reena and Yoni; his younger sister Anna and his stepmother Lynne. Not surprisingly, his interactions with them are at the heart of the film and, to Trachtman’s credit, she doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties that having a special-needs child presents for a family. Anna is wonderfully frank, telling the filmmaker that “as the baby” she ought to get more attention but Lior, of necessity, demands more hands-on care. It is moments of honesty such as this, and Lior’s own delightful personality that make “Praying with Lior” work.

Nadav Schirman’s “The Champagne Spy” doesn’t have a U.S. distributor yet, but it ought to, because it is, quite simply, the best documentary in the festival so far. Wolfgang Lotz was a German citizen, possibly a former SS officer, who ran with a fast crowd in Cairo in the 1960s, a horse breeder who liked the high life. He was also a spy. What nobody in Cairo knew was that he wasn’t a spy for Germany. He was actually Ze’ev Gur Arie, a Mossad agent with a wife and son in Israel. His son, Oded, knew of his dad’s mission and was, understandably, proud of his father. What neither Oded nor his mother knew, however, is that Ze’ev/Wolfgang also had a smart new wife in Cairo, Waltraud. And when the pair was arrested for espionage in 1965, Oded’s world caved in.

Schirman tells this story from the perspective of the adult Oded, whose presence represents one of the great strengths of the film. He also managed to get numerous ex-Mossad higher-ups to talk about the case in fascinating detail. With material this dramatic, it would be hard to make a dull film, but Schirman does more than merely retell the story. Using Oded as the primary witness, he manages to convey with great subtlety the toll that a double life takes on everyone who is touched by a professional liar.

“Two Ladies,” directed by the Moroccan-born French filmmaker Philippe Faucon, is another example of how a creative cineaste can breathe life into a potentially hackneyed plot. Selima (Sabrina Ben Abdallah) takes a position as nurse to a wheelchair-bound Jewish woman, Esther (Ariane Jacquot), and when Esther forces her son to fire the housekeeper, Halima (Zohra Mouffok), Selima’s mother, replaces her. Esther, who was born in Algeria, bonds with Halima, also Algerian, despite the difference in their religions. It’s the kind of story that has a very high sticky-sentimentality quotient, but Faucon takes a detached approach to the material, eschewing reaction shots, cutting away on dialogue, insisting on the visual isolation of his characters. As a result, the film succeeds through nuance and suggestion, sidestepping the pit of warm maple syrup into which all-too-many such stories inevitably slog. At 73 minutes, “Two Ladies” is just right.

The 17th New York Jewish Film Festival continues through Jan. 24. Almost all the films will be screened at the Walter Reade Theater (70 Lincoln Center Plaza), but there are a handful of screenings at the Jewish Museum and the JCC in Manhattan. For information, call (212) 875-5600 or (212) 423-3337, or go to www.filmlinc.com or www.thejewishmuseum.org.

“Praying with Lior” opens on Friday, Feb. 1 at the Cinema Village (22 E. 12th St.). For information, call (212) 924-3363 or go to www.cinemavillage.com.

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