Note: This is the first of two articles on this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.
This year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, which opens its two-week run on Jan. 11, falls neatly into two thematic threads, focusing on the role of women in the Jewish world, Israel in particular, and the exigencies of the artistic life under political and social pressure. What is impressive about this duality is the range of films it produces, running the gamut from biopics about famous scientists to arch comedies about synagogue life, from documentaries about great photographers to family dramas about dark secrets and the price it costs to keep them.
In short, it’s another typically heady smorgasbord from this always-engaging event.
The first week’s films are weighted towards women and women’s issues, leading off with an exceptionally promising feature debut from writer-director Dorit Hakim, the opening night film “Moon in the 12th House.” It’s a moody, elliptical and occasionally chilly family melodrama about estranged sisters Mira (Yuval Scharf) and Lenny (Yaara Pelzig), who are thrown back together by circumstance. Mira has walked away from her lover and business partner after putting the cops onto his nightclub/drug-dealing enterprise. Lenny is caring for their father, rendered immobile after a major stroke. These two have a lot of history, and Hakim doles out the backstory adroitly with a metaphorical eyedropper, scattering hints and actual information slowly and sparingly.
The film’s coolly distanced visual style — shimmering surfaces, reflections on glass and water, oddly antiseptic settings — works as a dynamic counterpoint to the narrative structure, keeping viewers at arm’s length, much as the two sisters warily circle one another. It’s a film in which voices are never raised and the potentially purple plot devices are played out in a low, electric hum rather than a demonstrative rattle of gunfire.
Happily, the effect of all this understatement and the pauses and silences that surround Hakim’s functional, efficient dialogue is to make the deep feelings underlying the quiet resonate all the more powerfully. Home, as the man said, is where you go and they have to let you in, but the baggage you carry comes with you, and that is what makes “Moon in the 12th House” a good start to Hakim’s career and this year’s festival.
Avi Nesher has long been interested in paired female protagonists working through their problems with an over-riding solidarity that outweighs any other conflicts. His latest film, “Past Life,” could be taken as a vaguely feminist reworking of the themes of his “The Matchmaker,” from 2010, with its concern with the generational split among Israelis who survived the Shoah and those who came after. Like “The Matchmaker,” the new film is a period piece, this time set in 1977 and, as is usually the case with Nesher’s films, it centers on the ways in which the not-so-distant past threatens the potential romantic happiness of the present.
As in “Moon in the 12th House,” the protagonists are sisters and somewhat estranged. Sephi (Joy Rieger) is a promising music student, a gifted choral singer who wants a career as a composer. When a strange woman confronts her after a successful performance in Berlin, calling her father a murderer, she is baffled and troubled. Her sister Nana (Nelly Tagar, star of the 2014 hit comedy “Zero Motivation”) is an investigative journalist working with her husband on a magazine that is an uneasy mix of muckraking radicalism and soft-core porn; barely on speaking terms with their father, she wants to pursue the story, perhaps with the hope of embarrassing Daddy.
The past, of course, involves the Shoah and their father’s survival in hiding with a Polish family. The strange woman who confronts Sephi is the mother of Thomas (Rafael Stachowiak), a composer who is himself a rising star in Poland, who takes an interest in Sephi’s talents. The story comes to a head not once but twice. Nana is diagnosed with cancer and, weakened by chemotherapy, develops a near-fatal case of meningitis. Nesher juxtaposes her struggle in the hospital with Sephi’s desperate attempt to find their father’s long-lost diary that will prove him innocent of the murder accusation. The sequence is an elaborate crescendo of cross-cutting between Warsaw and Tel Aviv, a dusty archive and the spotless hospital, that reaches a rather nicely judged climax.
Therein lies the film’s central problem. Nesher has engineered this sequence, which, — for all its contrivance — is fairly stirring, with a half-hour left in the film. He then reveals that the composer’s mother wasn’t referring to the Shoah-related incident at all, but to another, more intimate tragedy. The remainder of the film centers on Stephi and Thomas attempting to reconcile the parents.
Structurally, it simply doesn’t work. The last 30 minutes feel like they were imported from another film; the tone is different, the rhythm staggers and whatever impact the previous events may have had is lost. It’s a fatal mistake and one that Nesher, who wrote the film too, must take complete responsibility for.
“Doing Jewish: A Story From Ghana” is a documentary by Canadian filmmaker Gabrielle Zilkha that reverses the structural flaws of “Past Life.” Zilkha went to Ghana for six months to work with a feminist advocacy group, but found herself engaged by and finally deeply involved with a small community of Ghanaians who consider themselves Jewish. Although the community wasn’t officially founded until 1977, and was recognized by the government during the making of the film, the people of Sefwi Wiawso have apparently been carrying out rituals highly reminiscent of Jewish practice for hundreds of years.
There have been several recent films examining the growth of Jewish communities in sub-Saharan Africa, and there is clearly a real trend emerging here, but for the first 20 minutes or so of “Doing Jewish” the focus seems to be on Zilkha herself. Her narration feels like a dry run for a not-very-funny stand-up routine, and the slick, overwrought visual style of the film, all split-screen, snappy opticals and pointless camera movement, screams, “look at me.” Then Zilkha begins to connect with the people of the community, particularly Alex Armah, the leader of the struggling congregation. Suddenly the film turns deeply serious and frequently quite moving. The comparisons between Zilkha’s upbringing in Montreal as a rather deracinated Jew and the workings of this remote outpost of Judaism start to make sense, and the input from numerous rabbis across the denominational spectrum becomes meaningful. In the end, the film is more well-intentioned than successful, but there are moments of genuine feeling that make it worth a look.
The New York Jewish Film Festival, which is co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, runs from Jan. 11-24 with most screenings taking place at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. For information, go to www.nyjff.org.