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The Uncivil Servant: New Jewish Documentaries
by Mitchell Abidor
THE UPCOMING DOC NYC Fest (November 10-17) will be presenting a handful of films on Jewish themes, most of which are more than worth going to see and some of which are simply brilliant examples of the capabilities of the documentary form. A couple are not. If you’re not in New York, fear not: these films are certain to show up in Jewish film festival near you.
Sports can be an excellent prism through which to view a society, and Maya Zinshtein’s chilling Forever Pure (November 14, 7:15, IFC Center) is a chilling portrait of Israel and its descent into racism, tracking the rightwing soccer team Beitar Jerusalem through the key 2012-2013 season.
It might seem odd to describe a team as rightwing, but Beitar Jerusalem has its origins in Jabotinsky’s blue-shirted fascist youth movement and it proudly carries on this tradition, being the only professional team in Israel never to have signed an Arab player. The film shows rightwing politicians like Netanyahu and Avigdor Leiberman glomming onto the team to bask in its reflected racist glory. Forever Pure follows the fortunes of the team and its fans, particularly its “ultra” followers, known as La Familia, when their owner, the soon-to-be-imprisoned oligarch Arcadi Gaydamak, signs two Chechen Muslims during the season. Gaydamak, who purchased the team for political reasons, hoping it would get him elected mayor of Jerusalem, lost interest once he failed in that goal, and he explains that he signed the two Muslims expressly to force the team and Israeli society to show their true face. One can doubt the veracity of that statement, but that it revealed all that is worst in Israel cannot be questioned.
Other Beitar fans try to present La Familia -- whose several thousand members attend practices and chant proudly at games “Here we Are, the Most Racist Team in the Country” and “Death to the Arabs” -- as a loudmouthed minority, one that would seem to have totally discredited itself when they walked out of the stadium when one of the Chechens scores his first goal (their chant about the Chechens is “Fuck you Kadiyev. Fuck you Sadayev” ). But the film shows them organizing a successful boycott of a home game, carrying out the firebombing of the team’s offices, driving out the two Chechens, as well as the team captain, coach, and chairman, and replacing the captain, who attempted to ease the Chechen’s entry to the team, with a player whose brother is part of La Familia and who had himself supported the boycott.
As a portrait of Israel, Forever Pure is as unflattering as one gets, demonstrating the power of rightwing mobs, and of the vileness that festers within the world of professional soccer, as few other films have. (To read more by Mitchell Abidor about the politics of soccer, click here and here and here.)
A SPORTS DOCUMENTARY at antipodes from Forever Pure is Dani Menkin’s feel-good On the Map, about Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 1977 basketball victory over the Red Army’s CSKA Moscow team, and then over the Italian team Varese, to win the European championship in 1977 (November 13, 11:45, SVA Theater; to be commercially released on November 25 in Los Angeles and December 9 in New York). A nice enough film, it suffers from a bloat all-too typical in books and documentaries today, which often exaggerate the “crucial” role the incident at-hand plays as a turning point in the history of whatever is under discussion. In this case, the title is a quote from Tal Brody, the American captain of Maccabi, after the Israelis crushed the Soviets: “We are on the map and we will stay on the map. Not only in sports, but in everything.” The irony of this statement, which the Israeli public took very much to heart and which is elaborated on by the talking heads in the film, is that the team had only one Israeli starter, so whatever glory there was in the victory, it was certainly of a borrowed kind. In fact, when Yitzkhak Rabin met with the team, he said that “As always, Israel wins with its spirit, and a little help from America.”
Setting that aside, the notion that a basketball game put Israel on the map is absurd on the face of it: It’s true that Israel was, as we are told, a country lacking in air-conditioning in 1977, but it had won three wars and absorbed more attention than any other country of similar size. While there’s no disputing that Maccabi’s victories over CSKA and in the European Cup contest were major upsets, they hardly put the country on the map. The CSKA victory’s significance was similar to that of U.S. over the USSR in hockey in 1980, which occurred as the Cold War was turning ugly again after the Soviet entry into Afghanistan; the Israeli (or “Israeli”) victory happened at the height of the campaign to free Soviet Jews. That was its emotional significance -- yet historically, despite the filmmaker’s best efforts and the enthusiasm of those interviewed, that liberation was just a footnote.
KEEPING UP with the sports theme, Jessie Auritt’s Supergirl is remarkable in its unremarkableness (November 13,4:30, SVA theater). Its protagonist, Naomi Kutin, is a champion power lifter, which is not really all that noteworthy. She’s Orthodox, which makes her accomplishment more surprising — and at age 12, as the film follows her in training and competition, she lifts nearly three times her body weight!
We have all the makings here of a veritable freak show, but Supergirl surprises. Naomi is an American Jewish girl, lovely, sweet, and mature and loving towards her parents and her autistic brother, who worships her. No one, neither friends nor family, views her as an oddity, and she certainly doesn’t present herself as one, though being able to lift 265 pounds when you weigh 95 puts you well on the road to freakdom. In a topsy-turvy situation, one where the brother says “I want to be as strong as my sister,” Naomi handles with aplomb everything the life she has chosen throws at her -- at least most of the time. But when she loses a major competition, and then, after suffering months with migraines that might be a result of her weightlifting, she blows out her hamstring and cries like a . . . well, like a 12-year-old . . . one is impressed that within the ferocious competitor there is still a little girl.
Supergirl is a pleasant film, which is perhaps damning it with faint praise. There is no tension between Naomi and her religious beliefs; indeed she integrates what she learns at yeshiva into her weightlifting to raise her spirits when things go wrong. Her parents are supportive without being stage parents, never pushing their daughter where she doesn’t want to go, and her friends clearly view her as simply Naomi. She several times mentions how important her weightlifting is to her image of herself as Supergirl. In doing so she shortchanges herself: It is her normality in an abnormal life that makes her so.
THE JEWISH DEFENSE League (JDL), of an piece with La Familia, deserves as revealing a portrait as Beitar Jerusalem, but Jeff Daniels’ Mother With a Gun is most certainly not it (November 15, 7:15, IFC Center; November 16, 10:30 a.m, IFC Center) . A portrait of the group’s current leader and longtime member, Shelley Rubin of Los Angeles (the widow of former JDL head Irv Rubin, who committed suicide in 2002), the film quickly reveals itself incapable of going beneath the surface, of questioning the assumptions that have shaped the JDL from its founding. Occasionally we hear Daniels asking questions of a subject, but they’re never probing. Instead, the racist and murderous assumptions of the JDL are presented with little pushback, and the only outside voice is that of Alan Dershowitz, hardly a man likely to question the fundaments of JDL’s idea, though he does question its methods.
The film’s failure to probe -- indeed, its dishonesty -- is revealed minutes into the film. We hear the voice in French of a JDL member in Paris who attacked a book signing by an unidentified antisemitic writer -- who appears to be Alain Soral, an ally of the Jew-hating comedian Dieudonné. Soral actually says that Jews need to look at their own role in the rise of antisemitism, continuing by saying of the Jews that, “No one can stand you.” The subtitle reads, “No one can stand your stench.” What the writer actually says is bad enough; the subtitle takes it to a whole different level.
Spending eighty minutes in the presence of Shelley Rubin, whose late husband succeeded JDL founder Rabbi Meir Kahane’s successor as head of the JDL, is a brutal and brutalizing experience. Rubin is a woman totally lacking in insight and intelligence. (Likewise the repulsive Fern Sidman, former head of the JDL in New York.) This “mother with a gun” is so thoroughly antipathetic that at the end of the film, after we learn of the suicides of her husband and son, we feel no sympathy for her. Why should we? A woman who feels no remorse for anything the group ever did (in fact, never admits to any of it), who can still call for “Every Jew a .22,” who thinks that, had Kahane’s killer been found guilty the September 11th attacks never would have happened, and who can say, as the film ends, “I have no trouble sleeping at night,” is not worthy of our sympathy.
The subject of the Jewish Defense League deserves a film that can remind us of the danger of Jewish fascism, not a film that serves as an actual vehicle for Jewish racism.
TAL BARDA and Noam Pinchas’s The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev takes us into the home of three generations (fourteen family members) of the Alaev family (November 13, 7:00, SVA Theater). These musicians, with their roots in Tajikistan but now living in Tel Aviv, perform Tajik music under the iron rule of Allo Alaev, the family patriarch. If at first all seems to be well in the “wonderful kingdom” -- roles and hierarchy clearly defined, a united family joyfully maintaining their cultural and musical roots -- eventually fissures of all sorts, cultural, musical, religious, are revealed. Papa Alaev bosses his children around mercilessly; son Ariel accepts this and tries to act in the same fashion with his son Amir, who is in the process of being observant; daughter Ada admits to having been a disappointment to her father and joins her own son Ariel in attempting to open their Bokharan music to newer styles. Allo — who cites Stalin saying “There’s not a single person who’s irreplaceable” — brooks no opposition, and in the tensest moment of the film, when Ada and Ariel attempt to play rock inflected music at Allo’s birthday party, he simply walks out of the room.
The directors say of the film that it depicts “a rigid and unsure shift from monarchy to democracy.” They succeed brilliantly in using a musical family as a microcosm for larger changes in society.
ALEX LORA and Antonio Tibaldi’s Thy Father’s Chair is a film of rare simplicity and boldness (November 13, 5:15, Cinepolis Chelsea). Avram and Nehamia are Orthodox twins living in Boro Park, Brooklyn. Since their parents’ deaths, they have become a kind of kosher Collyer Brothers, their home a shoulder-high mess of old papers, food, computers, and detritus that is about to cost them their tenants and the house. The film unfolds over the seven days that it takes Home Clean Home to clear the mess and make it livable. We get little back story, but the filmmakers turn this horrific process into a tragic epic. The brothers are clearly troubled, and Nechamia admits to be addicted to alcohol, so the bulk of the decisionmaking -- what needs to go, what should stay -- is left to the indecisive Avram, but also, and touchingly, to the cleaning crew and its supervisor, Hanan, who serves as a therapist and prod in helping the brothers through the process.
The film is dedicated to the late Chantal Akerman, and though the subject matter wanders far from her modernist concerns, upon reflection one can see her influence. The film takes place within the space of the apartment and occasionally the alley between the brothers’ house and the house next door. The rigorous unity of place and time is akin to that of Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman and her documentary Là-Bas.
The boldness of the conceit of the film, the pitifulness of the brothers, the sympathy with which they are portrayed, the sadness of their situation, left me shaken. Thy Father’s Chair is a film that need to be commercially released.
FINALLY, Big Sonia, Leah Warsawski’s loving film about her grandmother Sonia, the last Holocaust survivor in the Kansas City area, is proof that we need a moratorium on films of this kind (November 15, 10:30 a.m., IFC Center; November 17, 5:oo, Cinepolis Chelsea). Yes, Sonia is warm and wonderful, and yes, her story is heart-wrenching, but Holocaust films like Big Sonia are really lazy Jewish cinema using a default subject that, aside from its cathartic value for the filmmaker, says nothing we haven’t heard many times before. The experiences of survivors have been documented to death, which has sadly done little to improve humanity. Big Sonia is a film made to be shown in Holocaust museums around the country, little more.
Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is trying to set the Guinness record for translating more books in the shortest time of anyone in history. His translations of the poet Benjamin Fondane can be found in the collection Cinepoems, published by New York Review Books.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.