The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center kicked off the 21st annual New York Jewish Film Festival at the Film Society's Walter Reade Theater and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on January 11, 2012, with screenings that run through January 26. The festival showcases a vivid tapestry of the Jewish experience, captured through the lenses of global cinema, featuring 34 films from 11 countries, the majority receiving their premiere screenings at Lincoln Center. Many of the screenings are followed by the filmmakers themselves in onstage conversations with the audience.
The festival opened with Guy Nattiv's Mabul (The Flood), which was nominated for six Ophir Awards (Israeli Academy Awards), and will close with Caroline Laskow and Ian Rosenberg's Welcome to Kutsher's: The Last Catskills Resort, which focuses on the last surviving Jewish resort in the Catskills, one of the legendary "Borscht Belt" hotels that, while a summer vacation spot for American Jews, also contributed to postwar American culture with vast influences over entertainment, stand-up comedy, and even sports. A young Wilt Chamberlain is shown playing basketball while working as a bellhop at Kutsher's.
Many of the films may not receive a commercial release, so now is the time to take in a screening at the festival. As in prior years, even with the truly international flavor of the festival, the Holocaust continues to cast its dark shadow over a number of the films, demonstrating how the Holocaust still shapes the perceptions and influences the imagination of Jewish artists worldwide. Two of the films of particularly powerful resonance are Branko Ivanda's, Lea and Darija, from Croatia, and Ami Drozd's My Australia, a joint Israeli and Polish production.
Lea and Darija tells the story of Lea Deutsch, known as the Croatian Shirley Temple, and her friend and dancing partner, Darija Gasteiger, talented and exuberant 13-year-old girls who were great stars in Zagreb before World War II, dancing in front of audiences in grand theaters all throughout Europe. Focusing on a Jewish dance prodigy, a young and precocious teenage girl, provides the echoes of yet another doomed budding talent, Anne Frank (the actress in the film who portrays Lea Deutsch even resembles Anne somewhat), except that Deutsch lived openly outside of an attic and the sounds of her tap dancing, and her national fame, made hiding impossible.
Of course, whether scribbling in a diary in a Dutch attic, or rehearsing for a future dance performance that will never come, Anne Frank and Lea Deutsch each faced a similar fate.
My Australia captures the other side of the Holocaust: the part that lived. A Jewish woman who survived the ghetto is now raising her two of sons as Catholics in postwar Poland -- in a poor neighborhood in 1960s Łódź. Despicably, anti-Semitism remained in Poland long after 90% of Polish Jewry had been killed. As if springing from a Greek tragedy, the two brothers become members of a Jew-hating gang, only to later discover that they are, in fact, part of the very people and religion that they have been trained to hate.
The mother decides that she cannot allow this lie to continue, so she makes arrangements to leave Communist Poland and board a ship for Israel. Of course, the younger son, still shaken by the news that he is a Jew, believes that the family is headed to Australia, the land of his fantasies. There is a limit to how much truth a young boy, yet another postwar casualty of the Holocaust, can take. But this is one immigrant journey that is sweetly and achingly rendered, and based on the filmmaker's own experience.
What makes the New York Jewish Film Festival so special is its diversity of cinematic talent projected with such poignancy and sympathy for the Jewish experience, transcending all borders, and yet revealing a historical dilemma that still haunts, and inspires.