Jewish Films To Watch at Sundance

By Jade Chang

Published January 17, 2003, issue of January 17, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Sundance Legend has become as much a part of Hollywood lore as the Lana Turner at Schwabs story: An upstart with a vision maxes out four credit cards, borrows his neighbor’s movie camera, makes an independent film, takes it to the Sundance Film Festival, sells it to a distributor and makes a million.

Andrew Jarecki brings to this year’s Sundance a new kind of legend — an indie who has already made a million ($388 million, to be exact, which is what AOL paid for his company, Moviefone, in 1999, keeping him on as CEO). The multitalented mogul, who has also penned and performed songs for the WB’s late, lamented “Felicity,” is showing his documentary “Capturing the Friedmans,” one of several offerings topping the list of must-see films with Jewish themes.

Most of the filmmakers descending on Park City, Utah, this week probably aren’t Internet millionaires but, like Jarecki, they’ll be spending their 10 days at Sundance meeting with potential buyers and searching for distributors. When there are 134 full-length films in a score of different theaters, all scheduled on top of one another, advance buzz can often determine what gets seen and what is forgotten.

Buzz for “Friedmans” is strong. In 1987, New York Newsday broke the story of Arnold Friedman, an upper-middle-class high school teacher from Great Neck, Long Island, who was arrested as part of a federal sting operation against mail-order pornography. Friedman’s wife ran a childcare center from their home; Friedman was also a buyer of child pornography. As detailed in “Capturing the Friedmans,” during the arrest agents began to suspect that children who came to the Friedmans’ home for day care and after-school computer classes were being abused. Jarecki was given surprising access to the family’s home videos, which he uses to sort through the various versions of the truth regarding the charges. The filmmaker also examines the Great Neck community that turned against the Friedmans and the legal system that baffled them.

A Friedman figures in another Sundance documentary — Andrei Friedman, who dropped his Hungarian- Jewish name for the more dashing moniker Robert Capa when he immigrated to Paris from Budapest. In “Robert Capa: In Love and War,” acclaimed filmmaker Anne Makepeace re-creates the life and work of this legendary war photographer. When Friedman first arrived in Paris, “Robert Capa” was wholly imaginary — a rich American photographer that he and his collaborator girlfriend invented to gain credibility. The ruse was quickly uncovered, but his work was so good that the young photographer took on the persona of Capa and went on to document the Spanish Civil War, the Sino-Japanese War, World War II and Israel’s War for Independence.

“The Death of Klinghoffer,” a film adaptation of John Adams’s 1991 opera, focuses on a single incident, but it is as historically charged as Capa’s photographs. In 1984, a group of armed Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. All of the hostages were eventually released except for one, the wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish man from America, who was executed on board the ship. Adams’s dramatization of the event premiered under intense scrutiny and was denounced by both Jews who thought it tried to advance the Palestinian cause and other opponents who called it a Zionist plot. Performances were canceled, debate reigned and the opera hasn’t been performed in America in the past decade.

Director and screenwriter Penny Woolcock reworks the book, adding extra narrative and using archival footage to update the material and bring it to life onscreen. When “Death of Klinghoffer” opened in 1991, the Gulf War was just ending. With our current heightened awareness of terrorism it may take a brave distributor to bring this film to screen.

A welcome antidote to these weighty projects is “The Hebrew Hammer” — first-time director Jonathan Kesselman’s hilarious spoof of 1970s blaxploitation fare such as “Shaft” and “Superfly.” Mordechai, played by Adam Goldberg, is an undercover Jewish superhero called into service when Santa’s evil son, played by Andy Dick, tries to eliminate all holidays that might compete with Christmas, including Chanukah. Mordechai becomes — what else? — the Hebrew Hammer, described in the Sundance catalogue as a “badass mofo with chutzpah enough to kick ass for the Tribe. Sporting pais (earlocks) and black leather, he’s a Manishewitz-slugging Semitic Superfly.”

Kesselman should be getting plenty of offers at the festival. Star Goldberg is doing his share of promotion, telling talk show hosts that his favorite line in the script is “Shabbat shalom, motherf–ers!” With that addition to the tough-guy phraseology, “Go ahead, make my day” and “I’ll be back” don’t stand a chance.

The timeliness of “Klinghoffer,” the sensational nature of “Capturing the Friedmans,” the fact that Makepeace helmed the Capa documentary and pop culture’s need of a superhero billed as the “baddest Heeb this side of Tel Aviv” mean that all four films are good bets to be picked up at the festival.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.