Arthur Hertzberg once said that for Judaism to survive in the 21st century it had to be more than just “anti-anti-Semitism and ‘hooray for Israel.’” You could say the same about Jewish documentary films. Regular readers of these pages know that the bulk of non-fiction film with Jewish themes focus their attention on the Shoah and the Jewish state.
But not all of them.
This year’s edition of the excellent DOC-NYC festival offers a wide range of Jewish-centered films, covering everything from a biography of composer Marvin Hamlisch to the story of a Jewish filmmaker whose family runs a motel/strip joint; from a portrait of the splendid controversialist Nat Hentoff to a (literally) animated conversation with Noam Chomsky; from another rumination on daily life in the Palestinian refugee camps to a post-mortem on the death by suicide of the wife of New York State Sen. Franz Leichter as seen by their daughter.
There is even a film about rebellious Modern Orthodox teens, surely a subject rarely explored in documentary. “Unorthodox,” directed by Anna Wexler and Nadja Oertelt, focuses on three teens in various states of disaffection who go to Israel for a year of study. Wexler, who is as much the center of the film as anyone, talks about friends of hers who made that trip and “flipped out,” came back much more observant than before. It’s a phenomenon she doesn’t understand, and the film is as much about her exploration as that of Tzipi, Chaim and Jake, her three subjects.
There are really several different films lurking through “Unorthodox”: the story of the three teens, Wexler’s own story of her push-pull dance with her own Modern Orthodox family, the underreported incidence of drug abuse and overdoses in the religious community and the pull of Jerusalem and the yeshivot on students from abroad. Unfortunately, Wexler tries valiantly to bring all these stories together. She takes us through her own chronology, from childhood to a degree in neuroscience at MIT, all the while trying to make sense of a religious upbringing that no longer has a hold on her emotionally or intellectually. She follows Tzipi, a would-be acting student, Chaim, a Jewish-Dominican-American hard-nose, and Jake, an aspiring musician, while also returning on several occasions to her own contemporaries.
There are a lot of obstacles to the successful telling of these stories. The two women directors are barred from filming in the men’s yeshivot, and aren’t able to put in a full year in Israel with their young protagonists anyway, so they give the trio video cameras. Unfortunately, the footage that results is, frankly, a mess that only serves to add to the film’s running time while imparting little information or color. Wexler drifts away from the film herself until a couple of deaths bring her back to the subject. But one of those deaths, of another friend by drug overdose, introduces the issue of substance abuse, one that would be worth a film of its own. The result is a shapeless but not frequently interesting film, in severe need of a form and structure and some editing.
Saul Leiter is one of the great underappreciated American photographers, a chronicler of a small but distinctive slice of downtown Manhattan that, as his assistant says, “he has photographed for over 50 years.” His color work in the 1950s is startling and vivid, his cityscapes haunted and moving. And he is a pistol, a garrulous, funny, self-deprecating teddy bear of a man.
In short, he’s the perfect subject for a documentary portrait, and London-based filmmaker Tomas Leach has made a near-perfect film about him, “In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter.”
Leiter was the unhappy son of a distinguished Talmudic scholar. He was raised in that same tradition but, to his father’s dismay, he “turned against it,” as the photographer says. “Greatness was important, great scholarship … knowing a great deal was important. Kindness? If it interfered with the pursuit of knowledge and scholarship … get rid of it.”
Needless to say, beauty for its own sake was not valued either, so when the younger Leiter turned his back on his Jewish training to become a painter and photographer, his father must have been dismayed. Leach shows us several photos of the older man, his visage stern, unforgiving, yet shrewd and intelligent. But in a later photo, taken by his son, he appears thoughtful yet troubled. Eye of the beholder, I guess.
Saul himself has lived on East 10th Street for more than a half-century and his gracefully off-center work documents the East Village as a sometimes ghostly tapestry of color and form. He casually and repeatedly dismisses his work and his place in the history of art; at the opening of the film he says to Leach, “I just take pictures … that’s not such a great achievement. … I am, actually, sometimes very good.” He’s more than that and, underneath the humor, one senses he knows as much. “[Photography] teaches you how to look,” he says later. Clearly, Leach has learned the lessons well. “In No Great Hurry” is a handsome, beautifully paced film, shaped by Leach’s eye for stillness in the midst of the city, and driven by its delightful protagonist.
DOC-NYC runs from Nov. 14-21 at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave.) and the SVA Theatre (333 W. 23rd St.). Many of the programs include appearances by the filmmakers and their subjects and there is a four-day marathon of workshops for would-be documentarians that include an impressive array of guest speakers. For information, go to www.DOCNYC.net.