What makes a filmmaker’s work Jewish?
Benny Safdie, at 24 the younger half of a filmmaking duo with his brother Josh, earnestly asserts that the Jewishness of the two pervades their work, and this critic tends to agree with him. That work is the subject of a current program at BAMCinemathek that includes not only their two features and many shorts but also films that influenced them.
Safdie also readily admits that he’d be hard put to identify Jewishy specifics from their small but significant output.
“It’s just who we are,” he said in a phone interview last week. “If it comes out of the movies it’s a byproduct of being Jewish in New York City. It’s not a conscious decision; it’s who we are.”
He invokes the vast range of Jewish entertainment and arts figures, clearly influences on the quirky, funny, frequently lacerating films that he and his brother have made already.
“Lenny Bruce, [Mike] Nichols and [Elaine] May,” Benny says. “I’m always amazed to find out who is Jewish. It’s funny when you’re forced to think about it. So many of the people we’ve been influenced by are Jewish too. I have a strong attachment to Jewish history; I feel a strong connection to the history of my people. There’s not a lot of Jewish people in the world, and when you think of how influential they have been…”
His voice tails off in wonder.
“We were raised Jewish and both bar mitzvahed,” he says. “I think of Judaism as a culture less than as a religious experience.”
The growing size of their reputation, based largely on their second feature, “Daddy Longlegs,” and the justifiable buzz around the tight circle of collaborators they have gathered around them, has meant that suddenly the Safdie brothers are in demand around the world, not just in New York, where they grew up, and Boston, where they went to college and began their filmmaking adventures. Benny had just returned from the Locarno Film Festival, where Josh was a member of the jury. (The executive director had apologetically told Benny that because Josh was older, albeit only by two years, he would have the official vote, but Benny was welcome to see the films and participate in deliberations.)
“We’ve been visiting all these older countries in Europe,” Benny said, “and somebody apologized to me in Lithuania. I was surprised. I guess I’m very Semitic-looking — they know I’m Jewish by looking at me. And this woman apologized to me. Afterwards I looked up the history of the Jews in Lithuania and I understood.”
That incident could have come from one of the Safdie brothers’ films, an odd moment out of time that combines a certain quirky and unexpected humor with great poignancy.
As my review of their most recent film in this newspaper observed, “In the end, there is something deeply disturbing about … ‘Daddy Longlegs.’ That is, undoubtedly, deliberate and a mark, one hopes, of how far this latest generation of Jewish-American filmmakers has moved from its models. There is a fleeting reference to Henny Youngman … that suggests that this wave of artists both know their artistic and ethnic forebears, from the Borscht Belt to the Upper West Side … and that they are no longer accepted as viable role models.”
That film, as is well known by now, is based fairly closely on the Safdies’ own chaotic childhood; their parents were divorced when Benny was still an infant. Although they lived most of the time with their mother, their father’s influence was strong and unpredictable. A Syrian Jew whose uncle is the noted architect Moshe Safdie, Dad was sort of an aging hippie who was a compulsive videographer, recording over 300 hours of the boys’ childhood.
He set an interesting example for his sons, as Benny explained last week.
“He desperately wanted to be a filmmaker but he could never have done that in his family,” Benny said. “There’s a heavy ‘elders rule’ ethos, so Dad got the short end because he wasn’t the first son. He had to go on the path [the family chose]. But he bought a video camera as soon as they came on the market. And he filmed everything. We got a lot of the idea of selection and what’s important from him.”
The result is the unique rhythmic quality of the Safdie brothers’ work, including subtle indirection in a shambling, episodic form that cunningly conceals its highly intelligent calculations. In a certain sense, that paradoxical but thoroughly delightful structure is a reflection of their childhood, split between their father’s seat-of-the-pants parenting and their mother’s more conventional but no less loving focus on rules and structure.
Benny elucidated on that theme succinctly.
“The father has the ability to create memories, but the mother is the one who gave the structure to explore all that freedom,” he said. “And it’s a thankless job. The mother is the one doing the work, making you eat right, have manners, to do anything that allows you have a means of expression.”
Wordsworth observed that to portray chaos, the poet needs an orderly structure. He could have been speaking for Josh and Benny Safdie.
Will success spoil Josh and Benny? They are so early in their cinematic journeys that it is impossible to answer that question, but Benny suspects not.
“The biggest difference in our work is that people are talking to us who wouldn’t have before,” he said, laughing. “It’s strange. If we had had a bigger budget on ‘Daddy Longlegs’ the scene with the ‘paper tornado’ [when the boys unleash a blizzard of photocopies in front of their father’s workplace] would have been much more true to life. In reality it was 10,000 sheets of paper. In the film we had only 3,000 sheets of paper. But we had a budget that allowed us to do things we couldn’t have done before.”
It just doesn’t matter, Benny added emphatically.
“It’s all about the ideas,” he said. “The ideas don’t change. The execution changes maybe, but the ideas don’t change.”
For their next film, “Uncut Stones,” based on their father’s experiences as a non-Orthodox Jew working in the diamond district, Benny said, “If we have more money to make the next movie, we can make the workplace that much more intricate. But having less makes you have to be more creative in how you do it. But the ideas are where it starts and that’s what’s most important to us.”
“Emotional Sloppy Manic Cinema: Films Directed and Selected by Benny and Josh Safdie,” will run at the BAMCinemathek, BAM Rose Cinema (30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn) through Aug. 24. For information, call 718-636-4100, or visit www.BAM.org.