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by Mitchell Abidor

 

THE ALWAYS INTERESTING New York Jewish Film Festival will be running from January 10 to January 23 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Information on screenings can be found at nyjff.org. What follows is just a sample of the riches on view.

The Romanian director Radu Jude is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today, and his latest film, The Dead Nation, is his most radical to date. The images are all still photographs taken between the years 1936 and 1946, drawn from the collection of Costica Acsinte, a (not especially skilled) portrait photographer in a small town in southeastern Romania. The images are, for the most part, the banal studio pictures one would expect: happy couples, families, groups of workers and employees, butchers pretending to slaughter meat, people in folk costumes, soldiers . . . Eternal Romania. The voiceover, however, gives all these anodyne photos another meaning, one that sends a chill down the viewer’s spine.

The years covered in The Dead Nation were years of utter horror and degradation in Romania— years of the rise of the murderous, fascist, antisemitic Iron Guard, of the cowardly and vicious Ion Antonescu, of the spineless King Michael, of antisemitic legislation (passed before the Nazi arrival and every bit as harsh as the German versions), and of popular and governmental pogroms. It is news of all this that constitutes the soundtrack, in the form of the diary of the doctor and writer Emil Dorian and broadcasts from Romanian radio and newsreels.

News of children being slaughtered, of pogroms against active-duty Jewish soldiers in the Romanian army, of Christian patients in a tuberculosis hospital gathering a petition to expel the only Jewish patient, as well as speeches by the fascist leaders of the time and the bloodthirsty hymns of the Iron Guard, accompany the photos of peaceful, small-town Romania.

Dorian’s entries are dripping with justified anger, but also reveal the humor Jews tried to find in their situation (a Romanian refuses the offer a Jew makes of his seat on the bus: I won’t sit where a dirty Jew sat. Another Romanian takes the seat instead, then immediately offers it again to the first Romanian: Now it’s been Romanianized.)

If, for the most part, the outside world doesn’t impinge on the world of the photos, at certain moments it does, as when we see children giving the fascist salute and dressed in the uniform of the Iron Guard. The photos also trace the cowardice of the Romanian people, as they go from wearing Romanian garb, fascist garb, and German uniforms, to Red Army uniforms. And the radio voice at the end of the film, just a couple of years after other voices praised Hitler, repeats the chant of the people of the “new” Romania: “Sta-lin! Sta-lin! Sta-lin!”

In his previous films, like Aferim! and Scarred Hearts, Radu Jude has not shied away from showing the rot in the Romanian past. The Dead Nation takes this a step further, and  is not to be missed.

 

ON MY FIRST NIGHT in Israel in 1974 on Kibbutz Hazorea, the militantly socialist and secular kibbutz I’d requested to be assigned to, we were served “white steak” for Friday dinner, a dish known elsewhere as pork chops. I loved the incongruity of this, and in Chen Shelach’s fascinating Praise the Lard we see that pigs and pork are a unique lens through which to view Israeli history, Arab-Israeli relations, and the war between secular and religious Jews.

 

Shelach was born and raised on Kibbutz Mizra, a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz that specialized in pork products — a product they chose, the former head of their factory claims, for political reasons, as a carefully designed means of escaping the confines of traditional Judaism, “valorizing,” we are told, “people over kashrut.” For the non-kosher kibbutzniks, what goes on your table should be a matter of choice, not government dictate, and we are told the story of a soldier who was sentenced to eleven days in the brig for eating a ham sandwich!

The attitude of the secularists is impossible for the religious to swallow, and Praise the Lard tells of the many attempts to put an end to pork production in Israel, which has led to absurd events like a massacre of pigs after their banning, and, after a convent complains when their pigs are threatened with confiscation, the shipping of pigsties and processing plants to Palestinian villages with a Christian presence, even if the village is 80 percent Muslim.

The industry is ultimately saved by the unlikely hero Ariel Sharon, a fan of food and of pork in particular. In an odd instance of the butterfly effect, sales of pork soar with the arrival of 1,000,000 Russians, first welcomed by the religious, then derided as goyim, but in any case, massive eaters of the food of the pig.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Praise the Lard is one of the best, and certainly the most original examination of the fissures within Israeli society.

 

SURPRISINGLY, far less interesting is West of the Jordan River. I say surprisingly because it was made by Amos Gitai, perhaps Israel’s sole member of the pantheon of great international directors.

Gitai interviews over a dozen individual and groups, but we seldom hear anything new or out of the ordinary, unless it’s the dream of a 12-year-old Palestinian that he will grow up to be a martyr. As to be expected from a man of the left like Gitai, the film is heavily weighted towards the pro-peace camp, with Gideon Levy and Aluf Benn of Haaretz and Ari Shavit and B’tselem and Breaking the Silence also making appearances. Most of the Palestinians also express a desire for peace, and a justified frustration. The interviews from 2016 are bookended with an interview with Rabin from 1994, and it’s clear from Gitai’s questions that it’s a Rabin who is needed now: not necessarily a peacenik, but someone who for hardheaded political reasons will make peace.

The final image of this film, a merry-go-round, says it all: The process of achieving peace in the Middle east is like a merry-go-round, i.e., going absolutely nowhere, and built to do just that.

Something quite unintended does leap out from the film: how few of the Israelis, even the most leftwing of them, speak Arabic, while so many Palestinians speak Hebrew. Granted, the latter need Hebrew to work and survive in daily life, but if someone is in the peace camp, then learning the language of your neighbor seems to be something that needs to be done.

 

THE IMPURE, by Daniel Najenson, tells the story of Jewish prostitution in late 19th– and early 20th-century Argentina, when 100,000 Jews arrived in the country and, according to one of the historians interviewed in the film, somewhere around 2,700 were involved in prostitution.

This is, of course, an opportunity to tell the story of the infamous mutual aid society of pimps and prostitutes, The Zvi Migdal, named after its leader, Luis Migdal. Founded as the Varsovia, the society both glommed onto Jewish women in Argentina in need of a job and sent handsome men to the shtetlakh and cities of Poland to lure women into the trade. The organization had enormous clout in all areas of Jewish life, even influencing what Yiddish plays would be performed in Buenos Aires. And like any mutual aid society, it had a full panoply of officers, with a president, a vice-president, a secretary, a treasurer, and an accountant, all to protect the interests of Jewish prostitution in the country.

One of the focuses of the film is the controversy surrounding their cemetery in Avellaneda. Denied burial in the Jewish community cemetery, the Zvi Migdal built its own cemetery for the “impure,” one where no visitors are now allowed and which had been allowed to become overgrown.

Impure director Najenson visits the offices of YIVO in Buenos Aires and gets into a heated exchange with its head, who is enraged at the very notion of opening a cemetery like that to the public and exposing the Jews to shame. Wounds about the Zvi Migdal, which features even in Argentine works of fiction about the period, have clearly not healed.

he film tells this story well, if a trifle conventionally, with historians — all of them well-spoken and terrific story-tellers — taking us through the period. Najenson met an activist against the sex trades at a demonstration who appears at several points in the film and who describes the horrors of the life of a sex worker. The film would have been better with a lot less of her, but it remains a compelling film.

 

SCREENING SAM POLLARD’S Sammy Davis: I’ve Gotta Be Me is an eccentric choice, since the only Jewish thing about the subject was his conversion to Judaism after the automobile accident that cost him his eye. That story is told in the film, of how conversations with a rabbi while he was hospitalized convinced him that Judaism was the religion for him.  Later we see Davis visiting and kissing the Wailing Wall. Jewishness does pop up as yet another element in the immature and occasionally racist banter that was so much a part of the Rat Pack of which Davis was a member, along with Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. There are moments when one can’t help but think that Davis, always anxious to be ingratiating, converted for the jokes.

The film is a part of PBS’ American Masters series, which is never good news if one is interested in films of any depth. In this series, criticism takes a back seat to hagiography, and the subject is always presented as the first to do this or the greatest at that. In this case, we have over an hour and a half of, for the most part, groundless praise of a man who distinguished himself by his tireless quest to endear himself to white America.

The film opens with his infamous 1972 hug of Richard Nixon, which is rightly criticized by the talking heads who comment throughout the film. But this turns into a feel-good moment when Davis then shows  up at a Project Push gathering shortly afterwards and wins over the crowd with his anthem “I Gotta Be Me,” a song as empty and self-serving as his pal Sinatra’s “My Way”— a pal, we learn, who did nothing to defend Davis when JFK insisted he be kept away from the Inaugural Ball that Ol’ Blue Eyes organized for the newly elected Kennedy.

The Davis we see is presented as a rebel, a title he earns by marrying a white woman, kissing a white woman on stage, and kissing Arch Bunker’s cheek (presented by Norman Lear of all people as a supreme act of rebellion!). He’s even praised for struggling from his childhood, performing for nickels on street corners — after we’ve been shown clips informing us he was a performer from age 3, and excerpts from a film with Ethel Waters (Rufus Jones for President) when Davis was only 8. Street-corner struggler indeed.

Yes, Davis participated in the civil rights movement and gathered funds for it, but this was the one bright mark in a life that also included a trip to Vietnam to entertain the troops, dressed in a typically odd, Sammy Davis idea of a hippie-style uniform.

It is the composer Leslie Bricusse who gets Davis right: Given his choice, Davis would have had no color. In many ways, he was like O.J. Simpson, a man who thought he was beyond race, though unlike Simpson, Davis was someone who recognized the plight of his fellows, and who suffered in his own person, but nevertheless cut himself off from the black community after the King assassination.

Yet his feet didn’t lie, and while dying of cancer and unable to sing, he remained a master of tap dance, one of our great African-American art forms.

 

AUSTRIAN WRITER and filmmaker Peter Stephen Jungk has spent years tracking down facts and hypotheses about his great aunt, Edith Tudor-Hart, who, when still young, left her native Austria for England. The fruits of his research were a book published in German and the film Tracking Edith, which reveals Edith’s life as a Communist militant in Austria and in England. Far more importantly, Edith, we learn, was an unpaid agent of Soviet espionage, the woman who recruited Kim Philby for the KGB. She was the linchpin, we are told, of the Cambridge spy ring, and was herself involved in atomic espionage. A convincing case is made by several people in the film, most of them former KGB men, that Edith and the Cambridge spies played a large part in keeping the world safe from use of the A-Bomb by helping the Soviets obtain it, thus neutralizing the American threat. Though Jungk is puzzled by his aunt’s love for the Soviet Union and perhaps wouldn’t agree with the characterization, he has made a moving film about a true hero.

Edith was also a tremendously talented photographer and a romantic free spirit, and the film makes a strong case for the artistic importance of her photography (which Jungk at the end of the film claims will be her lasting legacy). The photos are indeed remarkable and also provide the answer to the question Jungk poses as to the why of Edith’s activity. Her photography focused on the life of the poor and the working-class and those fighting capitalism. There was poverty and injustice in the world, and Edith insisted on fighting it, with her art and through her espionage.

Jungk never explores Edith’s Jewishness, and remains puzzled by her commitment to communism. Despite these lacunae, he has made a touching film about a woman he neither knew nor understood.

 

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. His May Made Me: An Oral History of 1968 in France will be appearing in February 2018. His latest translation is Daniel Guérin’s For a Libertarian Communism. Two of his translations, about the Paris Commune and French anarchists of the 1890s, are available at our Pushcart.