I Found It at the Movies


By Ilan Stavans

Published January 14, 2005, issue of January 14, 2005.
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In 1965, Pauline Kael published “I Lost It at the Movies,” an anthology of her reviews and essays for The New Yorker. As I look back, her title should be inverted to define my own experience: I Found It at the Movies.

I owe my passion for films to my father. He is a devotee of Ingmar Bergman, Andrzej Wajda and Francois Truffaut, but he had a special inclination for films with Jewish themes. I grew up in Mexico City, a megalopolis that, in the late 1970s, when I was in my teens, had a population of roughly 8.5 million people. Yet there were no more than half a dozen art theater houses to satisfy a cinephile’s thirst. It was not exceptional for us to drive an hour-and-a-half each way to reach a remote movie theater. Though I didn’t known it then, the Jewish movies I saw with my father — “The Garden of the Finzi Contini” by Lucino Visconti, “I Love You, Rosa” by Moshe Mizrachi, “Jakob the Liar” by Frank Beyer — defined my identity. By offering vistas into communities big and small around the globe, some more exotic than ours, these films established a context for me to understand the Jewish diaspora as a sum of disparate parts.

Mexico has at once the enormous benefit and the insurmountable handicap of sharing a border with the United States. American Jews awakened in us not only awe, but also envy. They were an integral part of their nation’s texture, whereas our condition was closer to that of a pariah: grateful to Mexico for its generosity, yet living in limbo. So watching in the intimacy of a dark theater films about Jewish life in other diasporas, not only Europe and the United States but Turkey, Argentina, South Africa, Greece and Argentina, allowed us to see ourselves in context.

And it was an invitation to connect with our counterparts: Were there similarities between our plight and that of Iranian Jews, for instance? Wasn’t the Holocaust, as portrayed in Alain Resnais’s “Night and Fog” or in a small Western such as Jiri Weil’s “Life With a Star,” closer to our own interpretation of it than to those in Hollywood blockbusters? Watching these films with my father — and often also in the company of my mother — mapped out for me the labyrinthine path of Jewish culture.

I immigrated to the United States in 1985. My father helped me move my stuff to Manhattan. We spent some days together, going to the movies, sometimes three, maybe even four, times a day. Then he left. What did I do to deal with the overwhelming sadness I was feeling? I entered a movie theater and watched Ettore Scola’s “Le Bal” in the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Next I went to see Claude Lanzmann’s 570-minute-long “Shoah.” (Or was it Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo”?) I haven’t stopped since. However one defines them, Jewish films are my obsession.

Since that time, it has become much easier to be obsessed with film. Jews are slowly but surely moving from the word to the image. For ages we were called “the People of the Book.” The Haskala slightly modified that catch phrase, making it plural: “the People of the Books.” And the age of the microchip has again altered it, turning us into “the People of the Books and Images.” Nowadays our narrative thirst comes in the form of moving images. Rabbinical responsa are taped these days and mailed electronically. Jewish education depends heavily on DVDs. Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” for example, has become the prime outlet in American high schools to expose teenagers to the Holocaust. And how often — for better or worse — is Norman Jewison’s “Fiddler on the Roof” shown in Sunday schools? Even famous sermons now come in visual format.

No matter in which urban center you might find yourself, the cultural calendar allows for a plethora of classics and new releases. And

then there are, of course, the Jewish film festivals. It has been nothing short of thrilling to be a witness, since the early 1980s in San Francisco, to their emergence around the globe, from Warsaw to Amsterdam… and yes, Mexico City. Not everything is rosy in Jewish film festivals. In fact, they remain popular, I like to believe, as a result of their critical tenor. Filmmakers are notoriously dissatisfied people. Their quest depends on the fact that not every story worth paying attention to has been told. So they set out like Don Quixote, with their shining armor and with a camera in hand. And they narrate…. A plethora of these narratives is showcased in Jewish film festivals.

Over the years, I’ve talked to countless curators of these events. The choices they make often turn them into targets of animosity. They tell me that people accuse them of bias. At times, organizations even withhold donations because of the way a topic is covered by contemporary directors. A curator friend of mine told me of the displeasure in her community about films that have Middle Eastern themes. “They tend to be critical of Israel,” she said. “And so, Zionist groups boycott the festival.” Another one said something similar about the representation of Orthodox communities. “Donors threaten us if the content is unfavorable.” Needless to say, these challenges shouldn’t be underestimated. Freedom of expression is essential. The curator’s job is as tough as it is subjective. Success depends on assembling a mix of perspectives. That mix needs to be built by consensus and to reflect the needs of the audience. It must alternate the local and the universal. But the final selection depends on availability. A fine mix doesn’t give the audience what they want; instead, it teaches them to enjoy difference.

In fact, the Jewish film festival, along with its sibling, the Jewish book fair, seems to have become an alternative to religious affiliation. How many people forgo attending synagogue and instead satisfy their inner doubts and find a way to connect by watching a movie such as Agnieszka Holland’s “Europa Europa” and Guita Shyfter’s “Like a Bride”?

The true hero, naturally, is the filmmaker, the revealer of dreams and enabler of meaning. The filmmaker, in my view, is a descendant of medieval travelers like Benjamin of Tudela, a native of Navarre, Spain, whose mid-12th-century account — written in Hebrew — of his globe-trotting from Zaragoza took him to Greece, Syria, Palestine and on to Mesopotamia. His chronicle, invaluable to historians, allows us to understand the way various Jewish communities lived at the time, in terms of education, cuisine, religion and family affairs. He simultaneously looked inward and outward. Yes, the world is considerably smaller at the dawn of the 21st century. Globalism multiplies the mundane: Is a McDonald’s milkshake in Beijing different from one in Kiev? Or, in a more anthropological sphere, to what extent is the Muslim minority in France different from its Latino counterpart in the United States? Only the artistic eye manages to go beyond. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac… (yet its eaters have stories to tell, as in Morgan Spurlock’s documentary, “Super Size Me”). Similarly, a Saudi in Paris understands her plight not exactly like a Cuban in Miami, as in Carles Bosch and Josep M. Domènech’s “Balseros.” Documentaries and fictional accounts of real-life Jewish communities also bring news from far and near. Take Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans”: It allowed for unexpected insight into Jewish domestic life in the affluent Long Island neighborhood of Great Neck.

What kind of a challenge do Jewish festivals face? For starters, they risk the danger of becoming insular. If their target audience is Jewish only, they are de facto building a visual ghetto, separating Jews from other groups. Some people talk of the phenomenon as having reached its apex: Festivals are now incredibly popular, but will that popularity bring their demise? Only if they fail to branch out, adapting to the changing needs of the society from which they spring.

In the United States in particular, other ethnic groups also have shaped their own festivals. So are we witnessing a tribalization of culture? Maybe, but there is an answer to it: Create partnerships. Curators of these Jewish festivals need to look for ways to establish links with other non-Jewish, noncinematic institutions (museums, libraries, theaters, universities, community centers). The more far reaching this partnership is, the better educated and less parochial the pubic will become.

In the meantime, back at home, my 13-year-old son has become, in the last few years, a veritable film aficionado, so much so that his knowledge of movie history is quickly surpassing mine. He and I watch movies frequently, especially Jewish ones. Not long ago, he saw Paul Mazursky’s “Enemies: A Love Story,” and the discussion that ensued was invigorating. Our opinions were different, as befits our generational gap, I suppose. But I see myself as a replica of my father, allowing the moving image to educate him subtly and decisively, in the same way the films my father took me to see in Mexico when I was an adolescent defined my sense of self. And if my father is around to watch movies with us, sitting side by side, the experience is transcendental — and unreservedly Jewish.

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