Alan Sabbagh brings Purim to Buenos Aires in “The Tenth Man.” Alejandra Lopez
The Tribeca Film Festival has always included a generous helping of Israeli and Jewish-themed films, but seldom has the selection been stronger than it is this year. It’s not about the numbers, although the 2016 event, which opens on Thursday, April 14, includes at least a half-dozen features and a handful of shorts that will be of interest to Jewish Week readers. It is definitely about the quality.
“Keep Quiet,” a documentary by Joseph Martin and Sam Blair, heads the list, offering a unique and unprecedented take on the Shoah and its meaning in contemporary Europe. Hungary is, as journalist and author Anne Applebaum says at the beginning of the film, “a part of the world where history has been manipulated” to serve political agendas that bear little relationship to the truth. Csanad Szegedi, the central figure in the film, was one of the more pernicious manipulators, one of the central figures in the creation and rise of Jobbik, the openly anti-Semitic political party that helped drive the country’s post-Communist shift to the radical right.
Then he discovered that he was Jewish, that his maternal grandmother was a survivor of Auschwitz. Suddenly he was no longer welcome in Jobbik and found himself reviled in circles he had once dominated.
Desperately trying to make sense of what had happened to him, Csanad sought advice from anyone who had had a similar experience. Eventually he found Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, head of the Orthodox community of Budapest. Oberlander is a firm and vocal believer in the power of teshuvah — return and repentance — and took Csanad’s desire to change at face value. So far, he has not been disappointed.
Martin and Blair tell this story quietly, letting Csanad and Oberlander explain themselves in low-key interview segments, utilizing period material from Hungarian sources, unseen here and hence, not the same recycled clips and stills that have become all too familiar. They follow Csanad on a trip to Auschwitz with Eva Neumann, a survivor, and use video he shot of conversations with his grandmother and mother.
Noa Biron in the title role of “Operator.” Pablo Arcuschin
The material is deftly organized, alternating chronology and reflection with clarity and impact. Despite a minor caveat that the timeframe of events is a little unclear to non-experts, “Keep Quiet” is a superb piece of non-fiction filmmaking, telling a story of import with grace and intelligence.
Elsewhere, the laughter continues. As I noted in last week’s issue, Jewish humor is an integral part of the culture, and it is in the realm of comedy that several of the films in this year’s festival excel.
Daniel Burman will be a familiar name to readers; he’s the gifted Argentine director of “Lost Embrace,” “Family Law” and “Empty Nest,” among others. In his latest film, “The Tenth Man,” Burman returns to the setting of “Lost Embrace,” the Once (Eleventh District), a hectic and heimishe working-class Jewish neighborhood of Buenos Aires, and resumes his understated but warmly funny examination of difficult father-son relationships.
Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) is an economist based in New York City, who comes back to the Once in order to introduce his fiancée to his father, Usher. Usher is the head of a foundation whose agenda is to aid Jews in any way possible, from cleaning out apartments whose tenants have died to finding Velcro-opening sneakers for a young man undergoing brain surgery. Of course, in the process of cleaning those apartments, the foundation retains prescription drugs, cellphones with credit still remaining, eyeglasses and whatever other detritus might be useful to the living.
Usher, as you might gather, is a neighborhood fixer, the guy who puts together people with needs with unexpected suppliers for those needs. Ariel finds himself being run around Buenos Aires doing errands for the foundation from the moment his plane lands. His only contact with his father, almost for the entire running time of the film, is by cellphone, his fiancée is stuck in New York auditioning for a dance company, and he falls back on memories of his eccentric upbringing. Gradually, he finds himself reconnecting with a Jewish identity he had all but abandoned, and a young Orthodox woman who never speaks.
As usual, Burman focuses his attention on the rhythms of daily life, here somewhat accelerated by the mad merry-go-round that is the foundation, and the cast of eccentrics that it contains. The humor is low-key, and Sabbagh’s Ariel is a typically sad-sack Burman hero, gradually coming to accept his responsibilities and a new love. “The Tenth Man” feels a little more diffuse than Burman’s previous work, lacking the formal rigor and ingenuity that made “Empty Nest” so satisfying, and I suspect it is a film that needs more than a single viewing to appreciate, but its charms are palpable and worth examining at length.
Mel Brooks in “The Last Laugh.” Ferne Pearlstein
The charms of “Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg” are rather more obvious, starting with the title figure, comedian-actor Klein. If you are not a fan of his, then this documentary portrait by Marshall Fine will be lost on you. If you are a fan, you will revel in a review of Klein’s career with clips going back to his earliest TV appearances, his multiple “Tonight Show” highlights, HBO specials and even a Tony Award show performance.
In the film’s interview segments, Klein manages to be candid, funny and insightful by turns. He acknowledges his sense of competition with his father, a gifted amateur wit, and the necessity of accepting the occasional lunch-buying gig (like “Sharknado 2” of which he blithely says, “I gotta make a living, don’t I?”). Intriguingly, Klein takes a different line from most stand-ups on his relationship with the audience; he rejects the hostility that many of his colleagues feel, saying, “I feel a warmth [towards them] . . . an affection.” Most of all he couches his career path in very Jewish terms, as a mitzvah. “Making people laugh is a high calling, it’s a wonderful profession.”
Killing people, on the other hand, is a damaging one. That is the simple message, simply stated, of “Operator,” an excellent short film by Israeli director Ben Hakim. Hakim quietly follows the morning routine of a single mother (Noa Biron) whose day job is as a drone operator authorizing and performing attacks on targets specified only by numbers. When she actually sees human victims on her video screen, it shakes her, but Hakim has already made it abundantly clear by nuanced vignettes from her morning rituals that the damage has been there for some time, carrying over into her relationship with her pre-teen son. A carefully worked-out little gem, “Operator” feels like the draft for a feature film. One hopes Hakim will make that film soon.
The 15th annual Tribeca Film Festival runs April 14-24 in venues around the city. For schedule and details go to https://tribecafilm.com/festival/.