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Jan
12
2024

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): As a rule, the New York Jewish Film Festival (NYJFF) is far less daring than the annual Other Israel Festival—whose last iteration, scheduled for November, was called off after October 7th. Rarely willing to address controversial topics, the NYJFF tends to focus instead on the warhorse of Jewish film: the Holocaust. While this year’s festival, which began earlier this week and runs until January 24th, refrains from treating the most sensitive subjects, it does stray from its familiar terrain. Of the films I was able to see in advance of the event, the most important were two that deal with widely divergent ways of confronting one’s Jewishness: Gad Elmaleh’s Stay With Us and Cédric Kahn’s The Goldman Case.

Gad Elmaleh, a Moroccan-born Jew, is a virtual god of French comedy, and a man willing to push himself in interesting ways. (A 2016 episode of This American Life features his attempt to find success as a stand-up comedian in the United States.) In his new, autofictional film, Elmaleh returns to Paris from abroad to see his family—but also to convert to Catholicism, against the wishes of his parents and sister. As a contemporary film that deals with a genuine crisis of faith and takes the question of religion seriously, Stay With Us is a rarity. It’s hardly a comedy, and what little humor there is—in the form of Elmaleh’s stand-up about religion in France—falls dreadfully flat. But Elmaleh compellingly presents his attraction to Catholicism, a pull also felt by notable Jewish converts to the faith like the great thinkers Henri Bergson and Simone Weil. We seldom see such profound questioning of one’s belonging to the Jewish people on screen. Stay With Us is perhaps the most heartfelt and unsentimental Christian film ever made by a Jew.

The Goldman Case, on the other hand, considers a French Jew quite committed to his Jewishness. Cédric Kahn’s film fictionalizes the second murder trial of the Jewish leftist Pierre Goldman in 1976. Goldman, virtually unknown in the US, was a cause célèbre in France. On trial for killing two pharmacists during a holdup, he admits to other crimes but denies committing these murders. The son of two Polish Jewish Communist resistance fighters, Goldman lived his short life—he was born in 1944 and assassinated in 1979—haunted by having arrived too late to kill Nazis, and endlessly estranged from European life. Indeed, his rebellion against his native country was all-consuming, his alienation perfectly expressed in the title of his classic memoir, Dim Memories of a Polish Jew Born in France. In Kahn’s exemplary treatment of this fascinating figure, still widely admired by many leftists and Jews, Goldman is presented just as he was in life: uncompromising and unpleasant, exasperating his lawyers with his refusal to behave with civility. He was the Jew as the eternal outsider, and his Jewishness is foregrounded at every moment, rightly framed as the motive force behind his revolutionary ideas and actions.

Alice Radosh (JC council): Katherine Fennelly did not discover that her family was Jewish until she was in her 30s. That revelation went from surprise to distress as the author researched the hidden history of her grandfather, Francis Kalnay, described in Family Declassified: Uncovering My Grandfather’s Journey from Spy to Children’s Book Author (2023).

Kalnay was known to his family as an award-winning children’s writer, a charming raconteur, superb chef, successful architect, and inveterate womanizer who abandoned his wife and children. What he successfully concealed from his family and most of the world was that he was a high-level spy for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and—in a more familiar tale—that he was Jewish. As his descendant, Fennelly was granted access to 400,000 pages of unpublished OSS reports, personal memos and letters. Drawing on her academic training as a social scientist and her story-telling ability, Fennelly uses these documents to weave a wonderful hybrid of family story, World War II history, and spy adventure.

Kalnay’s story begins with him leaving Hungary in 1919 and embedding himself in the expatriate Hungarian community of Bohemian socialists in New York. His knowledge of six languages landed him a government job with the Foreign Language Information Service and, with the outbreak of World War II, Kalnay was tasked with interviewing European refugees arriving in New York. The OSS used this information to develop networks of spies, and Kalnay’s work grew commensurately: He went from debriefing refugees to training resistance forces in sabotage of enemy targets. He recruited and headed a secret group known as the Kay (for Kalnay) Project which sent teams behind enemy lines to target factories, bridges, and supply dumps in addition to rescuing downed Allied airmen. Kalnay was one of the few foreign-born Americans that decoded the German Enigma messages. His work was described by his superiors as “brilliant” and his contacts as “the best in the country.”

Yet after the war, Kalnay fell into total silence. None of this was known to anyone in the family until Fennelly discovered the records that resulted in the publication of Family Declassified. And especially obscured was the family’s Jewish heritage. When he was a year old, his mother was institutionalized and erased from the family story. Kalnay listed his Catholic step-mother on official documents and never acknowledged his Jewish mother’s existence. Fennelly addresses this repressed history by taking us to Hungary in World War II, where close to 75% of the Jewish population was murdered. The extent of her grandfather’s deception is brought home to Fennelly when she realizes that he must have known, but never revealed, that his mother was murdered by the Nazis and his sister by the Hungarian Arrow Cross. By following the threads of her family story, Fennelly personalizes a lesser-known massacre during the Holocaust that scholars at the Holocaust Memorial Museum say “even the Germans were surprised by.”

Francis Kalnay signed an oath to “forever keep secret” information obtained in the service of the OSS. Yet no oath prevented him from acknowledging his Jewish roots, and the few family members who discovered this fact were similarly reluctant to have this truth revealed. Shortly before his death at age 93, Francis Kalnay lowered his voice into a whisper to reveal the family name was not Kalnay after all, but Klein. Family Declassified takes you through the amazing life that ended with this truth.

Jonathan Shamir (JC fellow): How do you represent a massacre? Stefano Savona’s documentary Samouni Road (2018) tries to do it by assembling fragments of memory into a kaleidoscopic narrative. Drawing on the experiences of the children of the Samouni family—and in particular, Amal—Savona reconstructs a gruesome episode from Israel’s 2009 invasion of the Gaza Strip, in which Israeli soldiers killed 48 civilians in the neighborhood of Zeitoun.

The film is explicitly concerned with questions of representation: The children are constantly hunched over on the floor to draw, and they always end up rehashing their traumas in chalk. Ateya, Amal’s father and a supreme raconteur, even opines that stories are what separate humans from beasts. His instruction looms large over his children: Amal begins the film by musing that she “doesn’t know how to tell stories,” and her older brother Faraj laments that they did not write down the stories Ateya told them before he was killed. “How were we supposed to know what would come?” Faraj asks.

But Savona doesn’t provide any easy answers about what representation does. A gorgeously rendered yet claustrophobic black-and-white animation fills in the gaps in Amal’s traumatized recollection, but alongside the live action, it feels fragile and even unreliable. The extent to which this form captures Amal’s own subjective experiences, let alone the truth, is left unclear. While there are moments of beautiful allegory—such as the Quranic birds of Ababil dropping their stones on the invading elephant army—the scratchboard sequences are more brutalist. Ateya lives only in the animated world, and we watch him mowed down by Israeli soldiers in his own home.

Savona draws on several voices and forms—of live action, animation, reconstructed drone footage. But there is a sense that tragedy on such a mass scale defies easy representation. In an act of morbid administration, the locals leaf through the photocopied IDs to compile a comprehensive list of the dead. Aside from writing two rows of cursive names on a piece of paper, they draw a single sprawling family tree—the Samouni clan—with its branches prematurely pruned.

In the shadow of familicide, Savona seems to cling to the idea of regrowth, the idea that there could be coppicing after all. He shows us the replanted orchards after the destruction, and ends the film with Faraj’s wedding. At the same time, the film also reminds us that destruction often leaves the soil barren in its wake. Pre-teen Mahmoud, one of the younger brothers who has had to become the “father” to his younger siblings, vows never to marry in order to avoid leaving behind a widow when he dies for the resistance. He, too, is drawing his father as this dialogue takes place, yet representation provides no restoration or catharsis. Instead, it seems to spur him on as he pleads with his mother to “let me go greet my father.”

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