Sometimes, after watching a really good documentary, I find myself wondering why anyone would want to make a fiction film when reality is so much more compelling, frightening, entertaining, funny and so on. I had that feeling several times while watching films from the last week of the New York Jewish Film Festival, and never more so than after viewing “Crime After Crime,” “The ‘Socalled’ Movie” and “Black Bus,” three of the strongest non-fiction films to turn up at this event in many years. Throw in a flawed but engaging work like Daniel Burman’s first effort in the non-fiction realm, “36 Righteous Men,” and you could almost do without fiction for the next several months.
At the very least, these four films illustrate the many ways of approaching reality on the screen.
“Crime After Crime,” directed by Yoav Potash, is an intelligent, fairly straightforward story of crime and unjust punishment. It follows the last decade of a California case in which Deborah Peagler, a victim of long-term and vicious abuse by her boyfriend (who also pimped her out) was blackjacked into a totally inappropriate guilty plea to charges of first-degree murder. During that time, her case was taken on by an unlikely duo of attorneys, Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa, whose “day job” is real estate law. Although neither of them had a background in criminal law, they brought something more important to the table, empathy and a thirst for justice.
Safran, an Orthodox Jew, grew up watching his mother being brutalized at home. Costa, a former social worker for Children’s Protective Services, had been in an abusive relationship herself. Safran could be easily speaking for them both when he tells the filmmakers, “It’s one of the core principles of Judaism; we have an obligation to free the captive.” And on his bookshelf one glimpses the California Prisons Handbook alongside the Talmud.
Not surprisingly, the heart of the film is Peagler herself, and she is a mighty blend of cardiac muscle, warmth, faith and humor. Her relationship with her attorneys and her sheer indomitable will make “Crime After Crime” compulsively watchable, as if the story itself weren’t already compelling enough.
Anat Yuta Zuria is already responsible for two of the most memorable documentaries to play this festival in its first two decades, “Purity” and “Sentenced to Marriage.” In each of those films, she exposed audiences to an aspect of Jewish life virtually unseen by all but its tightly cloistered participants: the place of women as subordinate beings in the haredi world. Her newest film, “Black Bus,” completes a trilogy with her most anguished, frustrated and infuriated film yet. It is an examination of gender segregation on buses used by the haredim in Israel. (These are not only private buses, mind you, but public buses run by the cities.) With the fight over the buses as her vehicle, Zuria offers a look at appalling discrimination that goes well beyond being pushed to the back third of a crowded bus. Just as the Montgomery Bus Boycott was merely the opening shot in a battle that permeated (and still permeates) every level of American society, the mehadrin (ritually scrupulous) buses, as they are called, are a symbol of a dangerous trend in the haredi community that impinges on the rest of Israeli society: a paranoiac disdain for the female half of that community that is the result of a growing obsession with sexual purity far beyond anything outlined in Jewish law.
Zuria’s entrée into this world is two nascent Rosa Parkses. Both Shulamit, a law student and photographer, and Shira, an utterly frank blogger, have been cut of by their community and family because of their refusal to countenance the treatment accorded to them and their literal and spiritual sisters. What raises “Black Bus” into the upper echelon of issue-oriented documentaries is the total honesty of these two women as they confront a world that has shoved them out the door. The picture that the film paints of the state of women in the most straitjacketed of these communities — a picture that derives from the testimony of many others in addition to the two central figures — is one of depression, eating disorders and the kind of denial of affection that sounds like the conditions that cause infants to “fail to thrive.” But the most telling element of the film is best expressed by Shulamit, who tells a friend, a young man who also left the haredi world, that no one can understand “the kind of loss it involves, the kind of pain it involves,” to be stripped of home, family and community.
Strange to say, Daniel Burman’s “36 Righteous Men” is a warm and appealing look at the flip side of that coin, a diary film in which Burman, “David Ben Lea” for the duration of the movie, reconnects to his Jewishness by accompanying a group of Argentine chasidim on a tour of the gravesites of famous tzadikkim (righteous men) from the early days of the movement, including the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav and Shneur Zalman of Liadi. This is a very different picture of the chasidic world, but then these seem to be very different chasids, buoyant, occasionally bibulous and open to a comparatively secular Jew like Burman. It’s a self-conscious exercise in autobiography but it seldom feels contrived. The warmth and conviviality are genuine and Burman’s sense of attachment to the traditions strikes just the right note of slightly skeptical openness. Burman eschews the demented Jewish vaudeville and smug sarcasm that seem to be the only reason Paul Mazursky made the similarly-set “Yippee.” He opts instead for a quietly sympathetic but nonetheless wry tone that never mocks the chasidim around him, even when the filmmaker is clearly unconvinced by what he is hearing. The result is a film that lacks the formal rigors of his excellent comedies, but has a slightly goofy charm of its own.
Speaking of a slightly goofy charm, “The ‘Socalled’ Movie,” directed by Montreal-based filmmaker Garry Beitel, is a playful, quirky portrait documentary, an attempt to do on film what Josh Dolgin, aka Socalled, does with music: sampling, blending, mixing and creating unexpected and wildly unconventional hybrids. Every so often, the film bounces out of its groove to try on some different routines — a couple films-within-the-film by Dolgin himself, unpredictable swings into black-and-white or distorted video, and delightful side trips into Dolgin’s adolescent cartooning, home movies and the work of a dazzling array of collaborators, from Fred Wesley to David Krakauer to Matt Haimowitz to Irving Fields. It’s a bright, cheery, jaunty and convivial film, as delicious to experience as its protagonist’s idiosyncratic brand of Jewish hip-hop and funk.
Finally, one of the highlights of this year’s festival, for me at any rate, is a six-minute documentary short, “Seltzer Works,” by Jessica Edwards, which is playing with “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish.” This brightly colored, visually lush tribute to one of Brooklyn’s last seltzer purveyors is at once serious and light-hearted. It’s such a chipper little item that it is impossible not to describe it as — effervescent.
The New York Jewish Film Festival, now celebrating its 20th year, will run through Jan. 27. Co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, most of the programs will be shown at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.), with some at the JCC in Manhattan (76th St. and Amsterdam Ave.) and the Jewish Museum (Fifth Avenue and 92nd St.). For information, go to www.filmlinc.com.