NEW YORK — While some January cultural events are closing down in the face of COVID-19’s Omicron variant, the 31st annual New York Jewish Film Festival, a co-production of The Jewish Museum and Film at Lincoln Center, is moving forward. As its director Aviva Weintraub told me via Zoom, they had already planned to make 2022 a hybrid festival, with some of the programs screening at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater and other titles available for online streaming. The festival runs from January 12 to 25.
Weintraub, whom I have interviewed before, is a warm and witty woman, and I can tell that even with all the tsuris of navigating a major festival in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, she’s still eager to talk about a great movie.
This year’s NYJFF lineup of 24 features and 9 shorts runs the gamut from quirky, first-person documentaries to rich international dramas. I was unable to see everything before my schmooze with Weintraub, but among the titles we discuss are “Rose,” a bittersweet French language film about a Tunisian-Jewish woman adapting to life as a widow, “The Lost Film of Nuremberg,” about the sourcing of atrocity footage used in the Nuremberg war tribunal (and the subsequent documentary made about the trial), and “The Death of Cinema and My Father Too,” a hybrid of memoir and film-within-a-film that is too weird and wonderful to summarize in one sentence.
Despite the half-virtual nature of this year’s event, my hope is that you’ll read this conversation, which has been edited for clarity, as if it’s two people jabbering after a long night out at the cinema.
The Times of Israel: How tough has it been to figure out what goes virtual, what stays theatrical? In a way, virtual selections could have the broadest reach, but also, hey, a movie wants to play Lincoln Center!
Aviva Weintraub: It’s not easy. Some decisions are made for us, either by the filmmaker or the distributor, like if someone would be unable to travel. Then there’s the gut instinct of what might do well on virtual, and what would better play in theaters. Two of our programs are doing both, so we’ll see how that turns out. There really is not a gold standard for how to do this yet.
Nor should there be! Hopefully this is the last one.
So let’s pretend we just watched five movies in a row and are now having coffee and rugelach on the Upper West Side, deep in conversation, as is our birthright. I screened as many films as I could, and I only disliked one, and I’ll keep that to myself. The rest were very good. Two, I think, are masterpieces. Let’s talk about “Rose.”
Yes, yes, “Rose” is wonderful.
It doesn’t go where you think it is going to go. It gives itself time. There are sequences that some critics, or maybe screenwriting tutors, would say, “Oh, this just spins its wheels, it’s extraneous.” And if I were in charge, I’d bar those people from Lincoln Center. Every moment in “Rose” is gold.
I love “Rose,” and what is so incredible is that it is Aurélie Saada’s first feature film as a director. She is also an actress and screenwriter. It’s a strong accomplishment for any director, let alone a first feature. Then, of course, Françoise Fabian is simply amazing; a screen legend. I rewatched “My Night at Maud’s,” which she starred in, and she’s every bit as strong here as she was in 1969.
Like you say, it starts and you think, “Ah, a sweet story.” Then it finds many different directions to go in. It’s a directing achievement, really, because you feel like you are with this character as she navigates life and its different situations. You connect with her as she changes ideas about herself. And that’s what life is like; you never know what’s coming next.
And it could have very easily gotten corny, you know? Grandma’s cuttin’ loose!
I also really loved Dani Rosenberg’s “The Death of Cinema and My Father Too,” a movie as unusual as its title. It’s a big swing, a hybrid of fiction and documentary. Here’s a filmmaker presenting his life, warts-and-all, who also has the self-awareness to know that he’s coming off somewhat pompous.
You might think that running a Jewish film festival we have our pick of funny movies. And the truth is there aren’t that many. Or, at least not that many that we feel are good enough to show. Now, this isn’t a comedy, exactly, but it has such intelligence, warmth, and humor. The way it blends the realism, and non-actors, the real actors, that whole thing with the cat you realize is a prop —
It really shows the struggle artists go through to create a film.
I did a little reading about it after, and saw that he intended to make something else before his father got sick — you don’t need to know this for the movie to work, but you get a sense that this is a project driven by triage, in a sense.
And, like “Rose,” this could so easily have been corny. There are so many examples of first-person films being up their own navel. There’s “Sherman’s March,” a very successful example from 1986, where a guy got a grant to make a historical film, but then threw it aside to make a movie about his love life and whatnot. Ever since, guys have been trying to pull this scheme again, and it never works. Well, this time it worked. And it’s funny.
Yeah it isn’t a comedy, but it has that intelligent humor. The scenes where he’s on the phone with his potential backers, and he’s mystified and frustrated.
And moments where he is oblivious to his wife’s needs. In life you would hate the guy! In a regular movie, you would know to laugh. But with this hybrid, you don’t quite know how to react. It’ll lead to some good conversations, I hope. Some people will watch this and hate it!
We like the conversation at the New York Jewish Film Festival. That is our tradition.
I mean, that’s when you guys know you programmed well. That doesn’t happen too much at the New York Portuguese Film Festival, but for you, some yelling and hissing means success.
The film “Sin La Habana” is interesting because it’s one of those that isn’t too Jewish in its content. It’s about a Cuban ballet dancer who falls in love with (or maybe takes advantage of) a French Canadian citizen, who is a Persian immigrant. Then when you get to know her a bit more you find out she is also Jewish. But you could miss it, if you don’t listen closely.
I guess the larger question is, when you are looking for films, do you have conversations like, “Is this Jewish enough?”
Yes, there is a conversation. It’s not so much a checklist, though. We know there will be some titles that everyone would agree are suited for a Jewish film festival’s context. But we’re also very interested in movies that make you ask this very question — and this movie is a perfect example. You learn one of the characters is Jewish, and you learn about her life and family. Now, you could argue that she doesn’t have to be Jewish, but then we ask, “Well, the filmmaker made a choice! The filmmaker made her Jewish. What does this tell us?”
Our feeling is that if it is done in a meaningful way, and the character’s identity is somehow in line with a Jewish identity, either religiously or not, this is all very interesting to us.
I guess the flip side of this is, would you program a movie where one of the actors is very well-known as Jewish — I dunno, Dustin Hoffman has made some smaller films, or someone like Sarah Silverman — but what if there’s zero Jewish content in it all, other than their presence?
We probably would not. If there was some meaningful reason, perhaps, but it is hard to think of one if it is not woven into the fabric of the work itself.
As someone who covers movies for The Times of Israel, this is something we discuss a lot. Sometimes an actor’s identity does merit the discussion; other times a movie can simply be read as Jewish.
Well, that’s “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial,” right? People have written about this. “E.T.” isn’t Jewish, per se. But Steven Spielberg is one of the most identifiably Jewish filmmakers, so you can read into it about an “outsider” and make a convincing case.
Back to the fest, let’s talk about “The Lost Film of Nuremberg.” Here I thought I knew everything about this topic. Not the case. To think so much effort was put into making the Nuremberg film document, and then, when political winds changed, and the Soviets were the big enemy, it was put in the memory hole.
It’s a fascinating and surprising story. It’s been a longtime project for Sandra Schulberg, the daughter and niece of Budd and Stuart Schulberg. A number of years ago she worked on a restoration of their original “Nuremberg” film, and when it was shown there was so much discussion about what had happened in the intervening years. It was clear she knew it was suppressed, but the details are only out now with this new film. So for me, who had been following the story, it was very rewarding to see all her new research.
It’s incredible just how young they were. One of the brothers was, what, 23? It was his first gig: to go and create a document to be used in the most important war trial in history!
Luckily, they were very skilled, and knew the importance of what they were doing.
Another interesting documentary is the restoration of “Kaddish,” Steve Brand’s film about the Holocaust survivor Zoltan Klein and his son. I’d never seen it before, but I understand it was something of a big deal in the mid-1980s. All these years later it’s a time capsule of a time capsule. In addition to being about a survivor, it’s a look at how they made movies like this all those years ago.
Yes, even just on the surface level there’s a wow factor of the cars, the buildings, the Upper West Side —
A great New York movie!
Yes, and also it places you in a different moment in the Jewish community. There were more Holocaust survivors around, obviously, and they were younger, but also there was more self-censorship, less willingness to share their experiences than what came in later years. Then you have young Yossi Klein, now known as prominent writer and intellectual Yossi Klein Halevi, and he’s quite the whippersnapper, typing away, and so bright even then. It’s great to see him like this.
Let’s talk for a minute about the special sidebar honoring Pearl Bowser. Am I understanding this correctly, that the Jewish Museum’s 1970 series called “The Black Film” was pretty much the first collection of these early films by Black directors for a Black audience, so-called “race films,” to ever show in a historic context?
I believe so. The context is that the Jewish Museum in the late 1960s was showing a lot of contemporary art, and it did not necessarily have to have a Jewish angle. It was a groundbreaking time. We have some great photos in the archives; the Jewish Museum was the place.
Pearl Bowser was one of the researchers to help curate this exhibit, and she really ran with it. It was an enormous undertaking. These films were not being collected. Many were missing or had been trashed.
This is before the internet — you couldn’t just click on an esoteric director’s name and see their credits. You had to sleuth it out.
That’s what Pearl did, and we’ll have a new interview with her on our virtual platform.
The show in 1970 attracted great audiences, it had great press, but after our screenings the series traveled all over the city, then the whole country, to universities and film societies, and even to Europe. It was groundbreaking.
And as you say, nothing particularly Jewish about this, other than an act of righteousness.
No, it was just something that was done. And Pearl recently turned 90, God bless.
You’re showing a new one by Bernard-Henri Lévy, about humanitarian crises.
Yes, “The Will To See,” which is important, heartbreaking, and brilliant. He was commissioned before the pandemic to look at underreported or “forgotten tragedies.” He went to these areas of political atrocities, and then continued during the pandemic, before the vaccine. So it’s an incredible record, but also a look at Lévy’s drive, and his intellectual history, reporting from war zones for 50 years.
I spoke to him once and asked him, as someone with a family, how can he explain to his children putting himself in danger like this time and again, and he said that he simply doesn’t tell them where he’s gone until afterward.
There’s amazing footage in there from Ukraine and Bangladesh and, sadly, not a lot of happy endings, but it is an important documentary, because it’s so easy for us to look away.
You’ve also got one of Ed Asner’s last movies, “Tiger Within?”
Yes, he’s wonderful in this. He plays a curmudgeonly character, to which he was no stranger, and he encounters a teenager who is wearing a swastika on the back. She’s not a neo-Nazi; she has no idea what it really means, she’s just wearing it because she thinks it is cool. She’s from a troubled background and somehow he develops a rapport with her, and he teaches her about the Holocaust. And how to be a mensch.
I watched the two hour-long documentaries about writers, one about David Grossman, the other on A.B. Yehoshua. That second one was particularly good; it’s tough to make movies about writers, since they just type all day. What else should I not miss?
Another double bill of hour-long documentaries. One is called “We Were The Others,” which is about six gay men who came of age in Israel in the early years of the state. So, a not-easy time; an impossible time to be out. It’s paired with a sensational movie called “Alone Together,” about a woman who volunteers at a hospital where there are abandoned babies, and her role is simply to hug them.
Holy cow. That’s… that’s… you hear a sentence like that and think, “Someone has to make a movie about that!”
Yeah, it gives me chills just telling you about it.
Who would think of that as a job? Wow.
You have to see it.
Gosh, I don’t know, it sounds depressing.
No, no, no, she’s funny, she does other things, she meets some of the families.
Okay, I like this. I like having conversations about movies. And in 2023 it won’t be over Zoom!
Yes, next year at the Walter Reade Theater!