It goes without saying that the history of the Jewish people is filled with trauma and that that story is essentially about survival and redemption. This year’s edition of the New York Jewish Film Festival, which opens next week, is a splendid showcase of movies about teshuvah, healing and renewal. But many of them are centered on personal stories rather than communal ones, on how individuals sustain themselves after bruising encounters with the ferocity of daily life as well as larger historical forces. Sometimes, of course, it’s hard to tell them apart.
Consider the opening night film, “Aulcie,” written and directed by Dani Menkin, and “Picture of His Life,” which Menkin co-directed with Yonatan Nir.
Menkin has built an impressive filmography of nonfiction features that are almost always focused on men who must overcome the limitations of body and mind to fill an emptiness created by trauma. In the two new films that are part of the festival, those limitations include the aging process and the gradual loss of powers that are an inevitable part of it. Where “39 Pounds of Love” and “Dolphin Boy” were about young men transcending physical disabilities or the aftermath of near-lethal violence, “Aulcie” and “Picture” are about finding one’s way back to an equilibrium and lost home and family.
Aulcie Perry was one of the first African-American basketball players to achieve stardom in Israel, a lithe, quick, multi-skilled center who led Maccabi Tel Aviv to its first two European championships in 1977 and 1981. He was much beloved in his adopted home, indeed a veritable legend, avidly embraced by Israeli fans even as his career began to wind down. He built a lasting relationship with Tami Ben-Ami, one of the first Israeli supermodels (and a woman tall enough for the 6-10 Perry), converted to Judaism, and seemed set for a long and happy life in the Jewish State.
There were a couple of obstacles in his path. He had a somewhat difficult relationship with his son from a previous relationship and was completely cut off from a young daughter. And he had two deteriorating knees that kept him in need of increasingly strong painkillers. Eventually his drug use led to more serious problems including a heroin bust that led the team to reluctantly cut him loose and his expulsion from Israel in 1985. The following year Perry was arrested in Amsterdam and extradited to New York, where he was found guilty of conspiracy to distribute drugs and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Redemption and a return to Israel would come eventually, giving the film one set of happy endings.
But Perry became obsessed with the need to reconnect with Cierra, his daughter whom he had not seen in 20 years, and that quest is the framework on which Menkin hangs his film. We move back and forth in time as the former star recounts his unusual career trajectory, all the while seeking the opportunity to explain himself to Cierra. Menkin handles the complicated narrative structure deftly for the most part, although the occasional use of animation to cover events for which no film exists seems a bit forced. Perry himself is a quietly authoritative figure, equitable in his willingness to take responsibility for his past transgressions. The journey that led him from prison to redemption suffers a bit from the concertina effect of Menkin’s compression of events, but the result is a satisfying film that makes a splendid companion piece to his earlier examination of the ’77 European championship team, “On the Map.”
The central figure of “Picture of His Life” is Amos Nachoum, one of the world’s foremost wildlife photographers and a specialist in underwater photography. Nachoum’s obsession for many years has been his desire to swim with and photograph polar bears, something no underwater photographer has ever done before. Given that the polar bear is “the biggest predator on earth,” as his friend and colleague Adam Ravetch puts it, can swim twice as fast as any human and, as its natural habitat has been destroyed by climate change, has developed a taste for human flesh, Nachoum is facing a significant and life-threatening challenge.
But that challenge has its roots in his own personal traumas. His father fought in the War of Independence in 1948 and suffered from PTSD. As one of Amos’ sisters recalls dryly, “It wasn’t a peaceful household,” and Amos was on the receiving end of physical and verbal abuse. At one point in the film, he returns home for his father’s 90th birthday and becomes the target of a scathing and vicious attack by the old man. Nachoum is also the survivor of the terrors of modern warfare, a veteran of an elite commando unit that saw horrific action during the Yom Kippur War and his defense mechanism, still highly visible, is an invisible but obvious suit of emotional armor.
Nir and Menkin use the quest for polar bears in the Canadian Arctic as a thoroughly plausible and efficient way to explore Nachoum’s personal search for tikkun. He is a genuinely likeable and profoundly compelling protagonist and the film is astonishingly beautiful, shot by himself and Ravetch. Needless to say, the subtext of environmental crisis adds to the film’s power as well.
Not everyone who lives in extremis is elevated by the experience, but can be forced to develop some remarkable coping skills. For example there is the case of Lea Gottlieb, the central figure of Dalit Kimor’s hour-long film “Mrs. G.” A revolutionary designer of swimwear, Mrs. G survived the Shoah in Hungary and reunited with her husband after the war. In Israel, she built the Gottex brand from nothing. She was one of the first designers to create haute couture swimwear, to extend her product line to include resort wear and to put Israeli fashion on the global map. But as Kimor makes clear in her smart, concise film, Gottlieb (who died in 2012 at 94) did so at a harrowing cost to her two daughters who were suffocated by their own roles in the company and her chilly workaholic behavior. The film is frequently amusing and quite enlightening, but the final message is not a cheerful one.
The 29th annual New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Jewish Museum and Film at Lincoln Center, runs Wednesday, Jan. 15 through Tuesday, Jan. 28 at the Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St. For information go to thejewishmuseum.org or filmlinc.org.