A wrenching new documentary chronicles the dilemma of Palestinian gays: survive illegally in Israel or legally in the territories under threat of death?
Watching “La Rafle,” which dramatizes the painful episode of French police rounding up 13,000 Parisian Jews, including 4,000 children, in July 1942, is difficult enough given its grave subject matter without also having to consider questions of artistic merit.
The Nazi era and the Holocaust are such monumental subjects that any documentary filmmaker dealing with them is bound to feel daunted by the challenge. At the same time, we would be foolish to think that even the most serious moviegoer is breathlessly waiting for the next cinematic inquiry into Hitler’s perverse universe.
In feature films the deaf have made for exotic yet sympathetic characters. From Jane Wyman as the saintly eponymous innocent in “Johnny Belinda” (1948) to Marlee Matlin’s Oscar-winning turn as a self-possessed, sexually confidant woman in “Children of a Lesser God” (1986), their portrayal measures our society’s slow acknowledgment that the deaf are, well, people. It is hard from this distance to fathom that Helen Keller was once a figure of worldwide fame, but the Broadway play and film, “The Miracle Worker,” enshrines her in our memory as a wild child brought to personal enlightenment through the ministrations of her similarly “afflicted” teacher, Annie Sullivan.
While making “Free Men” (“Les hommes libres”), a subtle examination of an Algerian émigré living in Paris at the outset of the Nazi Occupation, it must have been tempting to pump up the emotional volume. Had the movie been made by Hollywood, Younes, a young man selling goods on the black market, would have been played by a sexy under-30 hunk, the tangential romance with a mysterious woman would have been front and center, and Younes’s conversion from a self-sufficient but apolitical layabout into a man committed to saving lives at the risk of his own would have been pushed as high-key melodramatic heroism. The moral quandaries would have been italicized and the young Jewish children at risk would have tugged at our heartstrings in a manner more sentimental than thought provoking.
I imagine a movie that is even-handed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will enrage people at the extremes. If so, the French produced film “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea,” screening January 22 and 23 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, could create a battle royale among American Jews, even though its provocations are measured.
Even Chekhov thought he was writing comedies, but the bracing first feature by writer and director Katia Lewkowicz, “Bachelor Days Are Over,” billed as a comedy in the current New York Jewish Film Festival, would serve audience expectations better if it had been given an English title closer to its original French one: “Pourquoi tu pleures?” (“Why are you crying?“). The film is a rueful portrait of Arnaud (nicknamed Cui-Cui), a man-child passing several errant days before his wedding in a state of existential angst after he beds a gal he meets at his bachelor party night-on-the-town, and begins to question his choice of bride, Anna, who has done a short-lived disappearing act of her own.
And now, a different kind of Jewish film festival. “In the Beginning Was a School…,” a two-part documentary celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, has its American premiere March 13 at the New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival. Traditional in its visual presentation — talking heads intercut with archival footage, animation, video montage, and old black and white clips of maps that look like out-takes from Casablanca — this television production tells a story little known on these shores, even if legendary among the francophone Sephardic diaspora. Its director, Josy Eisenberg, is a prominent figure in France, known as host — for over 40 years! — of a television program on Jewish life, history, and culture, and as the co-screenwriter of the 1970s cult film comedy, “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob.”