The complexities of Jewish identity — what it is, how it is determined/created/lived — lie at the heart of several films at this year’s DOC NYC film festival. Opening on Nov. 13 for its fifth year, DOC NYC offers a dauntingly wide range of non-fiction films, a category that is nearly as protean as Jewishness.
“The Return,” a deeply engaging and satisfying new film by Adam Zucker, deals dead-center with the thorniness of Jewish identity. Zucker chose four women engaged in a ruthlessly honest search for their own spiritual, ethnic and political identities in what was once the largest Jewish nation on earth, Poland. Of course, the Shoah rendered that historical anchorage eulsive, but a slow process of rediscovery and rebirth, delayed interminably under the Stalinist leadership that followed Nazi occupation, finally began in 1989 with the end of Communist rule.
Each of Zucker’s four protagonists comes at the Jewish question from a different angle. Kasia only discovered her family’s Jewish roots after the political explosions of ’89; she is looking for a component of her personal identity that will fit with her feminism, queer activism and lack of interest in religion. Maria, at the outset of the film a single mother, has always known she is a Jew, and over the course of the film will marry an Orthodox Jew and move to Israel, perhaps permanently. Katka was raised as a secular Catholic in Slovakia but has an increasingly committed ba’al teshuvah boyfriend and has vowed to explore Jewish life in Warsaw. Tusia has dual U.S. and Polish nationalities, the product of an intermarriage between her Jewish mother and Catholic father; she is pursuing a graduate degree in creative writing at NYU and loving life in Brooklyn, but her fiancé is not quite ready to abandon Poland and she looks at being a Jew in Poland as “a full-time responsibility.”
Zucker moves among the quartet easily and gracefully, with the audience gradually becoming aware that while the choices of identity available to the women are wildly differing, the process each woman experiences is intriguingly similar. The film is thoughtful, never confronting the questions it raises head-on but approaching them obliquely; it allows the slow movement of real time to reveal the variegated ways in which the four women respond and adapt to the changing realities of their lives. Needless to say, Zucker offers no final answers — as a Polish-based rabbi wryly observes, everyone in these communities is a “Jew by choice,” and one of the choices to make is what kind of Jew to become. The fluid, organic evolutionary process by which we live our choices is the warm, beating heart of “The Return.”
The darker realities of the Shoah and its aftermath are at the heart of Roberta Grossman’s “Above and Beyond,” a brisk recounting of the pivotal role of Jewish volunteers (mostly but not exclusively American) in the creation of the Israeli air force. Nearly 70 years after the founding of the Jewish state, it is almost too easy to forget that the original aerial component of Israel’s military consisted of fewer than a half-dozen rickety fighter planes and a handful of second-hand transports, flown by a band of young, carousing WWII vets. Grossman managed to interview many of the surviving fliers, and a colorful and candid group they are. George Lichter, a hard-nosed Brooklyn boy, speaks bluntly for all of them when he says, “I knew I was risking my citizenship and jail time [by breaking the American arms embargo]. I didn’t give a s***.”
As recounted in the film, this story manages to offer the cloak-and-dagger elements of the weapons smuggling trade, the adventure of high-altitude combat and the machinations of international politics. Add to that mix a healthy dose of testosterone and schoolboy hijinks and you have a recipe for a Hollywood adventure film. Indeed, actor Paul Reubens of Pee-wee Herman fame, whose father Martin Rubenfeld flew for Israel during the War of Independence, characterizes his dad as “a swaggering Indiana Jones” character.
But the stakes were ominously higher than in a Spielberg-Lucas comic thriller. As Grossman’s witnesses remind us repeatedly, the life-or-death nature of the struggle for Palestine/Israel was not a a boyish tale of derring-do, and never a joke. The heroism and death of Modi Alon, the first commander of Israel’s first fighter squadron, is a story and theme that soberly anchors the middle of the film. Grossman’s use of several historians — most notably Benny Morris — helps put events into a larger historical context. But the real center of the film is the group of American fliers whose Jewish identities were profoundly shaped by the experience of helping make the dream of a modern Jewish state a reality.
For some people, the nature of personal identity is a question, not a statement. Lacey Schwartz, the writer-director of “Little White Lie” always knew she was Jewish. But it was only in adolescence that she began to suspect that she was also African American. In college she embraced this second aspect of her identity openly, but without telling her parents, who seemed to be in denial about what was obvious to strangers. Her search for the truth behind her parents’ rather disingenuous claim that she resembled a grand-uncle who was a swarthy Sicilian (!) led to her making a first-person essay film in which she repeatedly confronts family members in an attempt to draw out the truth. The outcome of her search is the film’s all-but-foregone conclusion, but when the film focuses on the ripples spreading from the splash of lies it is an intelligent, if someone stern examination of yet another aspect of the ways in which we create our personalities and/or have them thrust upon us.
Ironically, the 11-minute short that accompanies the film, the Israeli-made “Mirror Image” directed by Danielle Schwartz (not a relation), makes similar points more forcefully in one-sixth the time, with another young filmmaker interrogating family members (this time grandparents) about a shadowy element of the family past.
DOC NYC opens on Thursday, Nov. 13 and runs through Nov. 20 at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave., at West Third Street) and the School of Visual Arts Theatre (333 W. 23rd St.). For schedule and other information, go to www.docnyc.net.