Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): Two things have happened recently: The first of my classmates from high school and college turned 40, and I got bangs. (Coincidence? You decide.) Strangely, these disparate events have prompted different people to recommend the 1978 movie Girlfriends, both as an investigation into curly bangs and the changing nature of friendships into adulthood. I was charmed by the film’s episodic portrait of Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayhew) as a young, broke, sexually liberated, Jewish photographer in New York City. Written and directed by women (Vicki Polon and Claudia Weill, respectively), it leans into the small drama of relationships—primarily Susan’s relationship with her remarkably slender and blonde roommate Anne (Anita Skinner), an aspiring writer who abandons their dyad to get married and have a baby. If this sounds a bit like Frances Ha or Girls, it’s because both of them clearly owe Girlfriends a debt. (In a direct nod, Weill even directed an episode of Girls, the one where Adam and Ray go to Staten Island.)
Despite these comparisons, I found myself wondering whether a movie like this could be made today—and finding it surprising that it was made then. For one thing, the last several decades hasn’t brought as much progress when it comes to women directors as one would hope. Indeed, in a familiar tale, Weill herself quit filmmaking due to sexual harassment and creative interference from a male producer during the making of her second film. But for another, the film feels almost politically allergic to dramatics, as if branding it a masculine enterprise. Though there is some talk of men, Girlfriends is basically a movie-length object lesson in passing the Bechdel test: The women ply one another for feedback on their artwork and gripe about being broke. Though there is one heated argument between them, the conflict is less a full-blown confrontation, but a study of that slow, diffuse way we lose people. A brief affair with a much older, married rabbi never graduates to full-blown theatrics. Susan gets a gallery exhibition in that breezy way that one imagines everything happened for boomers. It’s not really about all that. Girlfriends seems instead to be about representation in the simplest sense: a loving gaze on the life of a woman-artist in the big city after the sexual revolution. Its representation of Jewishness, too, as a dimension of the portrait’s specificity is refreshing—perfectly natural and embodied, not overladen with meaning or trying to be anything other than itself. In that way, it feels almost like a sociological study with suspiciously good lighting. In other words, it’s a vibe. And a good one.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Ulises de la Orden’s new documentary, The Trial, is an engrossing, horrifying, and heartbreaking chronicle of the 1985 trial of members of the Argentine military junta. After overthrowing President Isabel Perón in a 1976 coup, the junta oversaw state terror that included the disappearance and murder of thousands of leftists and other Argentines. The nearly three-hour film is built entirely from trial footage which has been preserved in international archives out of fear that a future Argentine regime might destroy it. The Trial reveals not just the material reality of that era, but also the depths of evil that made it possible.
The documentary tells the true story of the events featured in Santiago Mitre’s excellent 2022 fiction film Argentina, 1985. Prosecutor Julio Strassera, that movie’s hero, fades into the background; he mostly sits quietly, occasionally asks questions, and eventually gives a summary that earns him a standing ovation from the audience. De la Orden shifts the focus onto the victims. The director provides us with no explanatory voice-over, background information, or even the identities of the people testifying. We are instead left with the stories of those who were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in what the military called “the final solution.” The survivors and their families display immense heroism by having the courage to recall the horrors that were inflicted on them and their loved ones. Women speak of the omnipresence of rape, of babies born in captivity and taken from their mothers, or killed to prevent raising another generation of subversives. But the victims also recount touching moments of solidarity: One survivor describes a Maoist leader shouting “Long live Argentina! Long live the Working Class!” at his tormenters; another tells of a prisoner touching the shoulder of an unknown comrade, on his way to a torture session from which he will never return, and bidding him farewell.
Over and over again, de la Orden shows the bottomless shamelessness of the junta—and of those defending them. The defense lawyers waver between denial of any disappearances—claiming that those who have vanished simply fled and are living under assumed names, a thesis that echoes Holocaust deniers—and justifying the deaths as acts of war, since the military understood the advocacy of Marxism as a casus belli. (The prosecuting attorneys point out that even in an actual war, the acts carried out by the military are forbidden.) The sight of the defendants and their attorneys smiling and laughing at moments throughout the trial is more chilling than any horror film.
It was not until two decades after 1985, under President Néstor Kirchner, that Argentina began to officially commemorate the murders and disappearances. Today, the main torture center at the Navy School of Mechanics is a moving memory museum, while other torture centers around the country display the names and photos of some of the victims for all to see. Like these monuments, The Trial is a tribute to those who died, and to those who fought to make the perpetrators pay.
Mari Cohen (associate editor): Recently, The New Yorker published two articles focused on US liberal communities that attempted to buck the 20th century trends of redlining, white flight, and segregation, seeking instead to create integrated neighborhoods.
The first is staff writer Jay Caspian Kang’s review of Dream Town: Shaker Heights and the Quest for Racial Equity, a new book by Washington Post education reporter Laura Meckler which follows integration efforts in an affluent suburb bordering Cleveland, Ohio. In the ’50s, groups of Black and (mostly-Jewish) white families organized to integrate the town of Shaker Heights, in part by encouraging more white people to move into its Black neighborhoods. Yet both Black and white liberals of Shaker Heights were ultimately as well organized in trying to keep poor people out as they were in combating segregation. “It’s . . . clear that the dream of Shaker Heights—expressed, as in so many places like it, through the cause of ‘good schools’—is primarily one of upper-middle-class solidarity,” Kang writes. “It is interesting and even commendable that such solidarity could cross racial lines in one suburb of Cleveland, but the latter part of the Shaker story is far more instructive: the dream falters once poorer people move into town.”
The second New Yorker article is an essay by the writer Jonathan Lethem on his childhood in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill. When Lethem was born in 1964, the neighborhood had just been given its name by a group of locals trying to revitalize its old, crumbling brownstones and create a flourishing, and multiracial, middle-class community. The Boerum Hill brownstoners vocally supported integration. They fought the forces of redlining banks and of urban renewal—a controversial program in which cities seized and demolished supposedly “blighted” old homes and businesses, often to create suburban-esque structures like highways and shopping centers. But some of their poorer neighbors viewed the brownstoners as condescending agents of displacement. Lethem acknowledges the brownstoners’ good intentions and yet notes that they drew an invisible line between their new neighborhood and the public housing complex just blocks away, mostly sidestepping the larger moral and political questions of the day. “The boundary [between Boerum Hill and the public housing projects] was a recipe for cognitive dissonance, for a preëmptive turning aside, in favor of more solvable matters, like how to restore a ceiling’s crumbling plaster scrollwork,” Lethem writes.
I found the themes of both of these pieces reminiscent of undergraduate research I did on the neighborhood of Hyde Park in Chicago, which in the ’50s became one of the first communities in the country to implement an urban renewal program. I studied the papers of Jacob Weinstein, a local Reform rabbi who was nationally recognized as a pro-integration civil rights advocate, yet enthusiastically supported the urban renewal program that ultimately displaced many poor and Black Hyde Park residents. As Hyde Park rapidly integrated, Weinstein actively lobbied his congregants to stay in the neighborhood, even as many other local Jews were decamping to the suburbs. Weinstein believed that convincing well-to-do whites like his congregants not to flee required urban renewal, which would preserve the orderly, upper-middle-class character of the neighborhood. Perhaps, this vision suggested, the white Jews of Hyde Park could have it all: the comforts of suburbia and the richness of diverse city life, as well as the pride of living up to their political commitments.
Like the liberals of Shaker Heights, Weinstein and other Hyde Park activists prioritized class homogeneity in order to try to maintain racial heterogeneity, failing to see how racial inequality was tightly bound up in economic factors. And like the brownstoners of Boerum Hill, Hyde Park integrationists seemed to conceptualize their neighborhood as an island cordoned off from the rest of the metropolis. Weinstein believed, naively, that simply building an integrated Hyde Park might influence other communities to follow its model. Yet when the wrecking ball dust settled, the result was a relatively integrated Hyde Park, but one within a city that remained devastatingly segregated.
Before you go: Reuven Abergel is one of Israel’s pioneering activists: He founded the Black Panther movement in Israel and has advocated for an intersectional struggle with the Palestinians. Abergel also authored the Israeli Black Panthers Hagaddah, published by Jewish Currents Press. On the occasion of his 80th birthday, left-wing activists are coming together to grant him the crowdfunded “People’s Award,” which you can donate to here.