Fuse Film Clips: Focus on the Boston Jewish Film Festival, Final Films

A Jewish film festival is at heart a communal event, even longer than Hanukkah. If one needs proof of community, see who the sponsors are.

By Joann Green Breuer.

THE GIRL FROM A READING PRIMER: It takes a Jewish festival, at least this Jewish festival, to bring her, living, to us.

My final film of this year’s Boston Jewish Film Festival was The Girl from a Reading Primer, directed by Edyta Wroblewska in Poland. It is short film, under a half hour. But this brief time overflows with an extraordinary woman, Dr. Alina Margolis-Edelman. Her story is, for me, reason enough for a Jewish film festival. Explanation coming.

Film aficionados flock to film festivals. Ethnic film festivals draw primarily persons of that ethnicity, film aficionado or not, to their festival. They seek a kind of solidarity and pride, to see enlarged what or whom they know of, or think they should know of, and enjoy the recognition. A Jewish film festival is at heart a communal event, even longer than Hanukkah. If one needs proof of community, see who the sponsors are.

Dare one demand quality? Well, sure, but one accepts the fact that demands are not always met, shrugs shoulders to a Yiddish lilt, and elbows in line for the next possible disappointment, maybe thrill, but probably, for good or less, a film one will see nowhere else. No festival is all feast. Few are all famine. Sometimes one great dessert can mask the flavor of the previous four courses—a metaphor extended ad absurdum for which seeing too many  films without metaphors is my excuse.

Note: there are several films which have received positive public and critical responses that I was unable to see during the festival. Among those are Anita, Five Brothers, I Miss You, and the closing night film, Little Rose. I hope to catch them if they are shown at a later date.

No film as film took the cake (oops, still at it) at this season’s The Boston Jewish Film Festival. There were pleasant films, mediocre films, and a few clunkers. The range of subjects in fiction documentary, live action, and animation included WWII, of course, Israel, of course, mixed relationships, adoption, and more violence than I anticipated.

Comedies, despite the PR, were rare and rarely funny. How Jewish was it? Clips of a bar mitzvah here, a shabbat there, but none of the heft of ethical quandary or height of ironic humor that many Jews feel they are up against and heir to.

There are probably as many Judaisms and Jewish identities as there are Jews, especially among America’s assimilated Jews. Religious Judaisms, cultural Judaism, secular Judaism, and avoidance of Judaism of any type make a definition of this so-called people confusing, even dismaying, to gentile and Jew alike. What’s a Jewish festival to do? My answer is find great films, great Jews, or both. Here is where my opening paragraph resumes.

Director: Edyta Wroblewska (Poland)

The Girl from a Reading Primer is a collage of animated, childlike drawings from a popular Polish primer, documentary footage, still photos, and close-ups of the narrator, the subject of the film and its solo voice, Dr. Margolis-Edelman. Does this melange of visual technique make sense, add meaning, sustain focus? Surprisingly, yes, because the narrator voice is so consistent, so deliberate.

Dr. Margolis-Edelman relates, in Polish in matter-of-fact tones, her life and work. They may be indeed matters of fact, but to hear her tales is a jaw dropping, gasp a deep breath and try to breathe again experience. Her elisions are as significant as her descriptions: no personal aggrandizement, no pity, no invasion of her or another’s privacy. We can fill in details, if we dare.

She escapes and returns to the Warsaw ghetto, nursing, doctoring, mothering, aging, moving to and within destruction across the earth, holding, healing a child, offering a chance to the dying and respect to the dead. She never stops.

She witnesses starvation, civil wars, abuse, and disease. She keeps her head up, her hand at work, her mind clear, her heart open but unsentimental, easing suffering when possible, accepting when not. She, like her organization, is a doctor without borders.

With understated confidence, she expresses a calm assertion of her belief that there are persons who are evil and her atheism (“it makes it easier to die”). When she says that it is incumbent upon others to do what one can for those who are hurt, it is not hype. It is simple honesty and her history. Yes, we well might learn of her in a book, that very primer, or a later biography. But here we can watch her; we can hear her voice. We note her nose (Jewish?), and how it wrinkles with her stifled, smiled  sighs. We love it. It takes a Jewish festival, at least this Jewish festival, to bring her, living, to us.

I trust the film will last long after she received her own respectful burial. Dr. Margolis-Edelman died, as the film’s tagline reads, on “Easter, 2008.”

Kudos to this peculiar manner of dating a Jewish death, perhaps the clearest indication of the slipperiness of Jewish identity in the whole festival. A little sense of humor never hurts either.

SAVIORS IN THE NIGHT: It is generally not a good idea to build art to make a statement, no matter how worthy the statement.

SAVIORS IN THE NIGHT (fiction, based on a memoir)
Director: Ludi Boeken (Germany)

The Dutch director of this depiction of righteous German gentiles and those they saved says he made it for “intellectual reconciliation.” It is generally not a good idea to build art to make a statement, no matter how worthy the statement. The art is often stultified by a desire to manipulate a story to suit a purpose, and its metaphors are missed. The film’s documentary coda helps us accept the preceding rather predictable fictionalization of what was historical, but far more messy, heroism.

There is an important message here, even if the message does not always justify the medium. As shown, there were a few, albeit very few, Germans who risked their lives and livelihoods to save Jews during the Nazi period. These German saviors are rightly, though rarely, recognized and honored. Germans also suffered loss, deprivation, and the agony of patriotism misplaced. Danger did not take sides.

Two elements of this film seem, unconsciously, to undercut its vision of heroism, however. Menne Spiegel had been a soldier in World War I. During the next war, his old brothers in arms remember and rescue him, his wife, and their daughter. German farmers are forced to feed and house displaced, non-Jewish Germans. Would they have chosen to do the like for Jews had they not known them? Well, most Germans did know lots of Jews, and they did not rescue them, so I may be quibbling.

Menne does suffer, probably more realistically, in his various hiding places more than his wife. She is blond, beautiful, and healthy, physically and emotionally. With her false identity she is openly helpful, openly concealable.

The German family at the center of the film work their farm through the seasons, sweat, play, eat with little particularity. The conversion of one family member from true Nazi believer to pained Nazi hater is sudden and simplified. It can and does happen, but here it feels more contrived than integral, which is unfortunate as it was actual.

Yet the film can grab us. When Nazis are approaching and the possibility of reveal imminent, the soundtrack whines a wind-like moan. We don’t need the warning, but, despite its obviousness, the note is chilling. One line in the film carries perhaps the moral irony of the perilous endeavor. At learning of the death of her Nazi soldier son, his mother cries, “I hid the wrong ones.” Yes and no—the answer to many moral dilemmas.

For the record, my husband, a Hungarian, was hidden and saved with his immediate family by brave Gentiles who knew them. He acknowledges the accuracy of much of the general events of the film, with some quibbles about how identity papers were acquired, yellow stars discarded, and what even Jewish Germans might say to anyone, even their saviors, about allied bombings. He and I continue daily to offer our gratitude to and amazement at those Europeans who proved that Anne Frank can be right.

FIVE HOURS FROM PARIS: The camera rests on her and her would-be lover far longer than Hollywood would permit, in silent scenes, at a table, in a car, facing each other, or the sky.

Director: Leon Produvsky (Israel)

Americans need to see more leading ladies of a certain age, with circles under their eyes, especially if they can act. Here’s one. This domestic drama may lack drama, but it has characters. The camera rests on her and her would-be lover far longer than Hollywood would permit, in silent scenes, at a table, in a car, facing each other or the sky. We know pretty soon that they enjoy or at least indulge in temptation more than action, possibility more than progress. They and all others in this slight but well crafted tale credibly sustain an engagingly frustrating u-turn of events.

The background is music. The score, as plot and as mood, is terrific. If the characters do not move, the score certainly does. She is a music teacher, concertizer manqué. He is a taxi driver, afraid to fly as passenger. One has to fly to get to Paris or out. They like the same pop semi-star. That’s a beginning. For some unexpressed but reasonable assumptions, his son attends but will not participate in music classes.

That’s a connection. Ties among all are both stronger and shallower than they might be. Fascination with them lasts just about the length of the film. That’s enough and oddly satisfying.

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