The five Jewish films in this year’s DOC NYC festival — a festival dedicated exclusively to documentaries — are weighted heavily towards the intimate profile.
Although “God’s Fiddler: Jascha Heifetz” is an historical work weighted towards archival material (it is opening theatrically Nov. 11 and will be reviewed then), the other four films profile a broadcast journalist turned philanthropist; a “philanthropist” and lawyer turned jailbird; the life of German Jews who returned home after the Shoah; and the problem of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community as seen through the eyes of one very special reporter.
Barbara Kopple has already won the Oscar for best documentary feature more than once, and her comparatively modest 46-minute film “A Force of Nature” is a charming miniature, a look at syndicated radio commentator Ellen Ratner, one of the rare liberal voices on talk radio. She is a playful, witty, slightly goofy presence, well liked by even her most strident opponents (Michelle Bachmann loves her). But the film is as much about Ratner’s obsessive good works, ranging from working with ex-slaves in South Sudan to helping rebuild parts of Mississippi still recovering from Hurricane Katrina half a decade after that disaster. A Kopple film is usually a master class in nonfiction filmmaking, and this one is no exception.
The scriptural and rabbinic prohibitions against lashon hara (needless, malicious gossip) have their roots in common sense and common decency. In a small, isolated community such as the ones in which most Jews have lived throughout history, the careless, thoughtless word can do more damage than a single act of violence. But when you combine those strictures with the historical pressures brought to bear on Jews through the centuries, you have a recipe for secretiveness that can sometimes be more devastating than the damages against which it seeks to guard. This theme runs through both “Standing Silent,” a film about Phil Jacobs’ work for the Baltimore Jewish Times on the subject of sexual predators in that city’s Orthodox community and, surprisingly, “Jealous of the Birds,” Jordan Bahat’s film about the Jews who chose to return to Germany after World War II.
“Standing Silent,” directed by Scott Rosefelt and Malachi Leopold, jumps headlong into Jacobs’ campaign against the suppression and denial with which his community has met accusations of sexual molestation, often by prominent rabbis and educators. Jacobs himself is an appealing central figure. On the one hand, he is a dogged reporter with a thirst for the truth and, equally important, was a victim of sexual abuse as a young teen. But, at the same time, he is an active member of the same Baltimore Jewish community that he is covering and, as is immediately apparent, anguished by what he finds and how it affects people with whom he comes in contact every day. (In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that The Jewish Week’s publisher, Gary Rosenblatt, worked with Jacobs at the Baltimore Jewish Times.)
Rosefelt and Leopold are fortunate, not only because Jacobs is such a compelling protagonist but because so many of his sources were willing to appear on camera and talk with painful candor about what they have endured. The film is at its strongest when it simply sits someone down in front of the camera and lets him or her speak. The filmmakers do not, however, do themselves or their audience any favors with their compulsive use of split screen, usually to fill in atmosphere; it’s a distraction and they could get the same effect with judicious cross-cutting.
“Jealous of the Birds” asks a simple question: how could so many Jews, most of them survivors of the camps, resettle in Germany after the war? Jordan Bahat’s grandparents were among those Jews, so he started by asking them, seeking an ending to a story he had imagined in which an elderly survivor of Auschwitz finds himself playing chess in a park with an equally aged former SS officer. His grandmother immediately disabuses him of the notion that there are simple answers to his questions: “This is not a story; this is a life.” Unsurprisingly, it turns out there are many answers to the basic question. There were many who returned in the vain hope of finding other family members. Immigration regulations often made it difficult for those released from the DP camps to come to the United States. At least one of Bahat’s interview subjects implies that he stayed because he wanted to be a reminder to the Germans of their guilt, a thorn in their conscience.
But even those who stayed — and there were between 13,000 and 15,000 Jewish families in West Germany in the early ‘60s — did so with trepidation. “We always sat on our packed luggage,” one woman recalls. And they did so with the silence of people facing their own sense of guilt. In one of the most startling moments in the film, a woman recounts the response of her father to the question: “He pulled the car off the road, drove a little ways into the woods and turned to me, ‘Don’t ever dare to ask me this question! If you love me, don’t ever ask it again.’” Clearly, the 65 years of self-imposed silences have left their invisible scars.
Bahat came to directing from the editing room and it shows. “Jealous of the Birds” is a frequently moving film, never less than intellectually engaging, but it suffers from a kind of hyperkinetic cinematic disorder that comes from a filmmaker spending too much time thinking about how to cut every scene. Yet the material carries its own wallop and most of the time, Bahat is wise enough to let his witnesses deliver the punch themselves.
Marc H. Simon makes a similar choice in his film “Unraveled,” an 85-minute visit with ex-attorney-turned-self-confessed-fraud Marc Dreier. Dreier’s depredations were on a scale somewhat smaller than Bernie Madoff’s and, at first glance, he seems to be more forthcoming about them. The film, which follows Dreier under house arrest in the weeks between his plea agreement and sentencing, gives the glib crook a chance to make chronic confessions that always have blame-shifting as their subtext. Dreier’s brand of fraud showed rather less imagination than Madoff’s but a touch more audacity, but by the end of the film whatever grudging admiration you might have for his chutzpah is battered by the need to take a long hot shower. It’s an artful film with some very creative graphic design and splendid cinematography by Bob Richman, but Dreier is, when all is said and done, a self-absorbed creep.
DOC NYC runs from Nov. 2-10 at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave.), the Kimmel Center at NYU (60 Washington Square South) and the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NYU (566 LaGuardia Place). For information, go to www.docnyc.net.