From Wednesday through Jan. 24, the popcorn will have a dash of kosher salt at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater in Manhattan. It’s the 22nd annual New York Jewish Film Festival, highlighting the best in documentary and narrative films on Jewish themes from around the world.
Curated by the city’s Jewish Museum, the festival program runs the gamut from art films, biopics, comedies and first-person documentaries to short subjects, archival prints and cinematic cries for social justice. Festival director Aviva Weintraub spoke with The Times of Israel recently about how she selects the lineup, what makes a film Jewish and whether every Israeli movie is eligible merely because of where it‘s from.
A transcript of the discussion, edited for length and continuity, follows, along with a brief list of festival highlights.
How do you program the festival? Is it a mix of direct submissions, as well as sniffing out projects at other festivals throughout the year?
That’s exactly it. We get films submitted from all around the world, and we also attend a variety of festivals throughout the year. The ones we can’t [attend] in person, we voraciously scope out the [festival] catalogues. We also keep in touch with filmmakers we’ve worked with in the past. There’s no one way to get a film in the festival. Scott Foundas from the Film Society of Lincoln Center and I also went to the Berlin Film Festival this year, which also has a large film market. It just so happens to have a large number of films on Jewish themes every year.
Are you ever in a position where you say, “That’s a great film, but it’s not right for our festival?”
I don’t think so. If it’s a great film and touches our parameters, if it discusses the Jewish experience in an interesting way, we’ll always find room for a good film.
Your closing night film is a biopic, “Hannah Arendt,” focusing on her experiences during the Eichmann trial in Israel. This is a key point in 20th-century Jewish history, and clearly a Jewish film. By contrast, the only thing that struck me as Jewish about “The Cutoff Man” was that it happened to be set in Israel. But it could have very well been set in Milwaukee or Mexico. How do you decide a film is Jewish?
In general, I think that there’s more than one way to express Jewish identity. Certainly, many fit squarely in the category. “Hannah Arendt” is a natural. “Suskind” [the story of Walter Suskind, the German-born Jewish bureaucrat who saved hundreds of Dutch children from deportation during WWII] is another. Then, there are those like “The Cutoff Man.” We often have a debate about Israeli films. There are some who think that any film from Israel is a Jewish film. We’ll consider any film from Israel, but I think something that has no connection or specificity about Israeli society would be lower on the list. “The Cutoff Man,” to me, felt a lot about today’s Israel. We saw a number of films about economic distress, and this one [about an unemployed man who takes a job shutting off his delinquent neighbors’ water] we found interesting in that hard times are already being reflected by a young Israeli filmmaker.
You’ve also got a wide range of styles. In terms of documentary, you have the very touching but very straightforward “Numbered,” which is about Holocaust survivors and their relationship with their tattoos. It’s a talking-head documentary, very traditional. You’ve also got “Cabaret-Berlin: The Wild Scene,” an experimental, avant-garde collage of images from prewar Germany with a very thin narrative. It’s the type of film that may, perhaps, distance some less-adventuresome audience members. Do you look for something very arty, then something that’s in your face, and so forth?
I wouldn’t say that we’re working statistically or rigorously checking a list, but mentally, we are. We wouldn’t put something in that’s stylistically one way or the other just because we didn’t have anything else like it — we’d have to also love the film. Still, we definitely have to mix it up. It’s gratifying, as a programmer, to include something stylistically daring and see an audience trust you based on what else they’ve seen.
Controversy is always good. Is there something on the slate that might get people up in arms?
I’m hard-pressed to pick one, but you never know. We’ve had some heated Q&As before, but we’ve always had articulate filmmakers who are able to steer the conversation back to an artistic place and diffuse any political arguments.
Had this festival happened during Israel’s November conflict with Hamas, it may have changed the way some of the films were received. Does the potential for fighting in Israel during the festival concern you when you’re acquiring films?
Not in the way you might think. It concerns us in that we’re looking at films sometimes six months in advance. So if it is a film very absorbed in last year’s news, unless there’s something in the film that makes it evergreen, we’ll likely give it a pass.
You’ve got some special events on the program. One of them is critic J. Hoberman introducing archival Jewish horror films. What’s this about?
Hoberman had written a piece on how some old Hollywood horror films could be read through the lens of the Jewish experience, so we approached him and asked if he’d like to introduce a screening. So we’ve got “The Black Cat” from 1934 by Edgar Ulmer, a Hollywood director who also made a number of Yiddish films. We’ll also have clips from some other films.
This brings up an obvious joke, which is that half the producers in Hollywood are Jewish. The Jewish film festival is always running at the multiplex!
For intellectual purposes, you could argue a number of things. Our passionate goal is to bring films to New York that may not play here at any other time. We wouldn’t rule out showing a big Hollywood movie, though, if the opportunity came up.
An edgy drama that defies easy categorization, “Policeman” begins as a meditation on alpha male camaraderie in an anti-terror squad, then switches focus to an insular (and not very organized) group of ultra-leftist activists looking to stage a violent protest. What’s fascinating is the film’s refusal to show the two groups as exact opposites, or as part of a larger system, instead portraying them as working wholly independent, with little common ground.
“The Art of Spiegelman” is a short documentary about the cartoonist behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Maus.” His family history, so thoroughly mined for his work, is all the more fascinating after his success, as is the archival footage of his working process.
“How To Re-Establish A Vodka Empire” is a first-person documentary about a quirky English Jew who discovers that his Ukrainian grandmother owned a spirits bottling plant prior to the Bolshevik revolution. With no business training, he decides to go into the booze importation business, and in so doing connects with his family history.
“The Ballad of the Weeping Spring” is a charming fable about Middle Eastern musicians “getting the band back together” and forgiving one another for past sins. Set in a quasi-spaghetti Western landscape where flutes and mandolins strapped to one’s back double for shotguns, this one is odd and lovable.
“The Films of Franciszka and Stephan Themerson” is a special program of the only three surviving short films from these extraordinary Polish experimental filmmakers. From the 1930s and 40s, the works will be introduced by Bruce Checefsky from the Cleveland Institute of Art.
“Cabaret-Berlin: The Wild Scene” is something of a wonder that defies a straightforward description. Using a voiceover bordering on kitsch, the history of the Weimar Republic is laid out in a collage of documentary footage and clips from Germany’s golden age of expressionistic cinema. Beautiful, haunting, funny and gorgeous, it provides an understanding of the era that is less fact-based than impressionistic.