How do you preserve a culture and yet move forward in a changing world? That dilemma is at the heart of the Jewish experience, so it comes as no great shock that almost all the films in this year’s New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival center on that theme. The documentaries in this year’s event are particularly sensitive to the nuances of evolving cultures and the results are frequently as dramatic and poignant as you will find in any fiction feature this year.
Until recently the condition of the Ethiopian Jews in Israel had been an underreported story as Israeli officials understandably preferred to emphasis the triumph of Operation Moses and similar rescue efforts while downplaying the difficult transition facing the newly arrived olim. In the past decade, at least in cinema, that has changed significantly. Last year’s “Live and Become” is the most obvious (and popular) example of a no-punches-pulled examination of the uneasy issue of race in the Jewish state.
This year’s festival offers two excellent films that treat the issue, in all its complexity, with sensitivity, intelligence and wit: “Across the River,” by Duki Dror, and “Children of the Bible,” by Nitza Gonen. Both films are making their New York premieres. “Children of the Bible,” which is the festival’s closing night film, opens rather unpromisingly with Jeremy Cool Habesh, an Ethiopian-Israeli rapper, telling a group of children a variant of the Exodus that recasts it as the story of the Ethiopian Jews. Gonen uses the sequence as the excuse for a series of dizzying and pointless quick cuts between Habesh, his listeners and red-tinted footage of the scene he describes.
Happily, the director abandons this irritatingly mannered approach almost immediately and settles into more conventional rhythms, appropriately allowing Habesh’s own speech patterns to dictate the film’s pace. He’s a bright, talented and frequently funny guide to the contemporary Ethiopian-Israeli scene and the film conveys quite strikingly the extreme culture shock that pummeled the newly arrived Ethiopians when they were plunged from an ancient agrarian society into an ultramodern high-tech one. Habesh’s music itself is the best embodiment of the possibilities for an entente cordial between two such disparate worlds.
Moshe Rachamim, the protagonist of “Across the River,” could be Jeremy Cool Habesh some years later, more contemplative but just as committed to his people. At the age of 12 he left his all-Jewish village in Ethiopia and, essentially, walked to Israel. Several years later in 1986, the rest of the inhabitants abandoned Gultosh, that village, and came to Israel. What they found in Israel was a series of humiliations, from forced conversion to a scandal in which the Ministry of Public Health discarded blood donated by Ethiopian-Israelis in an AIDS scare. Rachamim recounts these incidents as he personally experienced them; in an ironic twist, he now is one of only three AIDS educators working for the ministry in the Ethiopian communities, where the disease has now become a serious problem. Duki Dror handles this material sensitively, with the same blend of humor and polite but definite outrage that Rachamim himself embodies.
Nissim Mossek’s “Salvador: The Ship of Shattered Hopes” also retells a story that will be unfamiliar not only to an American audience but also an Israeli one. Indeed, one of the central questions of this Holocaust documentary is why this story has been all but invisible in Israel. In December 1940 the Salvador, a rickety wood-hulled sailing ship carrying three times its capacity in Bulgarian Jewish refugees set out for Palestine from the Bulgarian port of Varna. After nine harrowing days the ship had progressed only 200 miles, at which point it was wrecked by a storm on the shores of Marmara, Turkey. Of the 352 people on the ship, 238 died. Mossek travels with five of the survivors as they retrace their steps, including a moving return to the Jewish community of Istanbul, which took them in during the first weeks after the catastrophe.
The principle reasons for this journey seem to be a need to re-examine the motivations of Baruch Confino, the Bulgarian Jewish eye doctor who personally organized a series of illegal immigrations to Palestine, culminating in the wreck of the Salvador, and to try to understand why both the Jewish Agency, which discarded Confino before his first ship ever sailed, and the Israeli press ignored the plight of Bulgarian Jews. There are, it appears, no simple answers to any of these questions, but the film is enlightening — even heartening —if, at 70 minutes, just a touch too long.
The 14th Annual New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival takes place Feb. 4-11 at the Center for Jewish History (15 W. 16th St.). and the JCC in Manhattan (334 Amsterdam Ave.). For information, call (212) 294-8350 x0 or go to www.sephardicfilmfest.org.