You would never know to look at the global span of cinema, but 51 percent of the world’s population is female. On the other hand, this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival (running through Jan. 22) includes eight features (out of 26 total) and several shorts directed by women, including some of the most accomplished films in the series. Roberta Grossman’s last film, “Above and Beyond” (2015), was a brisk and enlightening recap of the early days of the Israeli Air Force, as remembered by the mostly American fliers who spearheaded it. Her new film, “Who Will Write Our History,” is rather more somber, although it ends on a note of muted triumph against all odds. (See interview with Grossman here.) “History” tells the story of one of the more successful examples of an effort at cultural resistance to the Nazis. From almost the outset of the existence of the Warsaw Ghetto, Emanuel Ringelblum organized 60 of his fellow prisoners to document every aspect of ghetto life. Called the Oyneg Shabes Archive, this silent effort involved the creation of a paper record of everyday life and death in the ghetto, remarkably detailed and staggeringly complete.
“History” is a sober and thoughtful retelling of the history of the Warsaw Ghetto as seen through the eyes of the archivists, beginning with the reluctant return of journalist Rachel Auerbach (voiced by Joan Allen) to the Polish capital in 1946, then moving back to the prelude to war, when Warsaw had a vibrant Jewish culture and population. Drawing all of the film’s words from the archives or the writing of those involved, Grossman guides the audience through the gathering clouds, the catastrophe that ensued and the eventual retrieval of the archives, buried in the rubble that once was Warsaw.
Grossman chose a rather complicated structure for her film. Although all the words are documented, she also drew on period newsreel footage and photographs and on dramatic reconstructions. The latter represents an unfortunate but inevitable choice; how else can you convey a sense of what is no longer present? The actors who portray the historical figures bear a surprising resemblance to their real-life counterparts, and the readings by Allen, Adrien Brody and others is unobtrusive and intelligent. Judging from her previous work, Grossman probably shares my unease with reconstruction, but “Who Will Write Our History” is scrupulously honest and has an admirable intellectual integrity. The result is a film that, against all odds, leaves a viewer with a sense of achievement.
Pat Steir’s accomplishments, while underpublicized even in the art world, are considerable. Part of the second (or third?) wave of abstract expressionists, her immense canvasses are a striking, pleasing reply to the action-painting ethos pioneered by Jackson Pollack. Veronica Gonzalez Peña takes a slightly unconventional approach to Steir in her new film, “Pat Steir: Artist,” and the result is rewarding. Essentially, Gonzalez Peña spends almost all of the film’s screen time focusing on the painter, with occasional side-trips to influences like John Cage and Agnes Martin, bits of a chat between Steir and her friend Sylvère Lotringer, and footage of Steir being interviewed in the ’70s. But most of the film presents the witty, mordant artist herself offering dry comments on her rebellious childhood in a family of rather disturbed individuals. It ends quietly with her placing a stone on her father’s grave, a reminder of the evanescence of human-made objects and the fragility of life, even for artists. A glorious, brightly colored tribute to an underappreciated creator.
Nina Paley, the animator whose “Sita Sings the Blues” attracted a lot of positive attention a few years ago, has returned with another animated feature, this time drawing from her own family heritage with “Seder-Masochism,” a frequently playful reimaging of the Passover story. Utilizing a wildly variegated palette and a soundtrack that runs from Gene Kelly to Gloria Gaynor, Paley dishes up some disappointing commonplaces about patriarchy in the Abrahamic faiths, while extolling the virtues of the Great Mother goddess-figure. Scene by scene the film is often delightful, but the structure is jury-rigged and the tone becomes increasingly shrill without ever acknowledging the powerful impact that feminism has had on post-WWII Jewish thought and practice.
Uri Barbash is a familiar name in Israeli cinema. From his 1984 breakthrough film “Beyond the Walls” through multiple TV series, he has been a reliably stern, progressive voice on the country’s film and television screens. His latest film, “Black Honey: The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutzkever,” is a bit of a departure, a crisply made documentary about one of the last great Yiddish poets whose life had a dramatic second act when he made it to Israel after surviving the Vilna ghetto. While imprisoned there, Sutzkever was part of the famous “paper brigade,” a small group entrusted with preserving the ghetto’s library by rescuing books from the Nazis. Sutzkever himself was rescued from the Nazis by Soviet fliers, apparently on direct orders from Stalin,. After the war, testified against the Nazi leaders at Nuremberg (reluctantly in Russian rather than his beloved Yiddish) and eventually founded and edited one of the greatest of Yiddish literary journals, “The Golden Chain,” in Israel, where he ended up living for almost 70 years.
The irony of that outcome is not lost on Barbash or any of his interviewees, a group that includes Ruth Wisse, Dan Miron and many Israeli Yiddishists; Zionist hostility to Yiddish was a palpable and significant part of the state’s ideology. Sutzeker emerges from the film as a sometimes prickly figure, self-possessed and perhaps a bit stubborn, but those are precisely the qualities that enabled him to survive the Shoah and keep the torch of Yiddish verse burning in a world in which few wanted to warm themselves from its flame.
Finally, there is the lovely, inspiring “Dear Fredy,” directed by Israeli filmmaker Rubi Gat, with a massive and key assist from Mind the Gap Animation. Fredy was Fredy Hirsch, a gay, Jewish athlete, rejected by the German Olympic team in 1936 for obvious reasons, a warm and caring young man who was particularly supportive of orphans and strays. That trait made him particularly valuable in Terezin and Auschwitz, where he became the shepherd to the large body of children imprisoned in those desolate precincts. Gat uses a mixture of interviews with Hirsch’s former colleagues and charges and some deft animated sequences to reconstruct the absences of which Shoah memory is made.
The 28th annual New York Jewish Film Festival, co-sponsored by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, runs through Jan. 22. Screenings will take place at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St., filmlinc.org). Roberta Grossman’s “Who Will Write Our History” will be shown Jan. 23-24 at the Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan (334 Amsterdam Ave., jccmanhattan.org). The film will open theatrically Jan. 18 at the Quad Cinema (34 W 13th St., quadcinema.com.)