A Cinema Of Intersecting Identities

A Cinema Of Intersecting Identities

From Morocco to Australia to Tel Aviv: Week 1 at the New York Jewish Film Festival.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

Nabil Ayouch on the set of his new film “Razzia,” a story of political upheaval in Casablanca. Courtesy of New York Jewish Film Festival
Nabil Ayouch on the set of his new film “Razzia,” a story of political upheaval in Casablanca. Courtesy of New York Jewish Film Festival

Note: This is the first of two articles on this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, its 27th installment.

There is a new buzzword in progressive academic circles, “intersectionality.” One could roughly define it as the ways in which multiple identities intersect. The term has only been around for a few decades, but the concept is hardly new, and as this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival reminds us, intersectionality is basically what Jewish identity has always been about.

The festival opens Wednesday, Jan. 10, with three films calculated to push that theme to the forefront (as if it weren’t there already). The opening night film, “Razzia,” is an epic drama of five Moroccan Jews struggling to survive in Casablanca. Inevitably, it lovingly name-checks the classic Hollywood film “Casablanca” (written by three Jews and directed by a fourth, not coincidentally), offering a counterpoint rooted in the realities of a real-world city with real dilemmas and no Rick Blaine to make everything come out OK.

Nabil Ayouch, the film’s director and co-writer, knows more than a little about the intolerance that his film examines; the son of a Tunisian Jewish mother and a Moroccan Muslim father, Ayouch has shuttled between his native Paris and Morocco, where his last film “Much Loved,” a drama about prostitution, was banned two years ago. By contrast, “Razzia” was chosen as Morocco’s entry in the foreign-language Oscar race.

Su Goldfish as a child with her parents in Trinidad, in a scene from “The Last Goldfish.” Photos courtesy of New York Jewish Film Festival

The first film to be shown in the festival sets the tone and offers great promise for the rest of the event. “The Last Goldfish” is an Australian-made documentary by Su Goldfish that blends autobiography, reportage and a family mystery to great impact. Goldfish was born in Trinidad and lived there with her parents until she was 13, at which point the trio relocated to Australia. As the filmmaker says wryly at the beginning of the film, “My father tells me stories. Not always the truth.”

Intersectionality is basically what Jewish identity has always been about.

Her father, who repeatedly proclaimed that he wished to be “a citizen of the world,” possessed a mysterious past. As the filmmaker grew up and probed his stories, she gradually learned that he had another family and a tragic history that included Kristallnacht, the death of his parents in Auschwitz and a scattered and fascinatingly variegated employment history that included a pivotal role in the Trinidadian music industry and a family connection to a kosher hotel and resort in Germany.

Goldfish interweaves her investigations with her own emerging identity as an out lesbian and political activist, documenting the multiple strands of the story with an enchanting array of photographs, home movies and contemporary footage of her globe-trotting efforts to reconstruct her family history and, by extension, to clarify her identity as a Trinidadian-Australian Jew with a German passport. It is her good fortune that Manfred, her father, was a talented amateur photographer, filmmaker and short-story writer who documented much of his past. That he kept that rich vein of personal recollection in the shadows gives the film much of his narrative force.

“The Red House,” a fanciful animated re-creation of the eponymous building in Tel Aviv. Courtesy of New York Jewish Film Festival

Goldfish is a deft nonfiction filmmaker whose sense of the intricate structure of “The Last Goldfish” gives the film much of its considerable attraction. Her work has echoes of American independent filmmakers Su Friedrich and Barbara Hammer, but the result is very much her own unique blend of post-Shoah diaspora identity and calypso rhythms. As she offers at the film’s conclusion, “This family of mine [is] like so many others, scattered by history.”

If intersectionality is a keynote of Jewish existence, unsurprisingly it affects even those who have stayed put. Consider the case of “The Red House,” a delightful if slightly overstuffed short film by Tamer Tal Anati. A 21-minute documentary that recounts the history of a vividly colored building in the middle of Tel Aviv, “Red House” covers just under a century in the life of the eponymous structure; but it manages to range from Lodz, Poland, to the West Bank, from the silk-stocking business to a ramshackle synagogue to a New York-inspired artists’ colony and a setting for an avant-garde dance project, ending with a satisfying look at the historic preservation in Tel Aviv itself. This is a world in which even the buildings have multiple identities and complicated roots, and Anati whips through them with wit and charm while never downplaying the poignant realities that underpin the building as surely as its foundation stones.

“Razzia,” a story of political upheaval in Casablanca. Courtesy of New York Jewish Film Festival

Amusingly, the short is paired with an hour-long film by Chen Shelach, “Praise the Lard,” that examines the once highly lucrative pork business run by Kibbutz Mizra. Mizra Delicacies was a very successful food company that specialized in that most forbidden of foods; it raised its own pigs and turned them into a wide range of pork products, using everything but the oink. But it repeatedly ran up against the anger of religious authorities and that subsequent tug-of-war led inevitably to the downfall of the company. Shelach, who grew up in Kibbutz Mizra and worked for the company, tells the story with a maximum of humor, although the underlying tensions are ones that still pose a threat to Israeli society today. 

The New York Jewish Film Festival opens on Jan. 10 and runs through Jan. 23, presented by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Screenings take place at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.). For information go to www.filmlinc.org/.

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