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Although the majority of the entries are usually from the United States, Israel, and Canada, the Washington Jewish Film Festival invariably reaches beyond those countries to unexpected parts of the globe. Just in the five films I was able to preview, this year’s tour of the Jewish experience journeyed from New York and Switzerland to Algeria and China.
The latter film, Round Eyes in the Middle Kingdom (Dec. 9 at 1 p.m.), has a remarkable story to tell. The son of refugees from ’30s Russia, director Ronald Levaco lived the first 10 years of his life near Beijing. His family always intended to move to the United States and did so after the Communists took control in 1949. A few European Jews stayed behind, however, notably Israel Epstein, whose father came from Poland but who calls himself “a non-Asian Chinese.” Epstein’s father taught him that, as a Jew, he should empathize with the impoverished, oppressed Chinese and not the Europeans who lived high at the expense of the locals until the Japanese invasion. A UPI reporter during World War II, Epstein went to work for official Chinese publications after Mao came to power.
Epstein wasn’t the only European Jew who actively supported Maoism in China. So did Sidney Rittenberg, who’s also interviewed in the film. The difference is that after both were imprisoned for years during the Cultural Revolution, Rittenberg lost some of his enthusiasm for the regime, while Epstein didn’t. His refusal to acknowledge Mao’s missteps seems curious at best, and Levaco’s comments on Epstein’s five years in solitaryambiguously illustrated with footage of an abandoned barracks in Californiaare strangely bland. Epstein reportedly protested any potential criticism of China in the film, insisting that footage of the Tiananmen Square massacre was not relevant. When Levaco ends by calling Maoism “the path that even many round eyes realized was right for China,” his deference to Epstein seems to have clouded his vision.
Another journalist who was busy in the ’40s was Peter Hirsch, the subject of He Called Himself Surava (Dec. 7 at noon). The editor of a left-wing Swiss newspaper, Die Nation, Hirsch regularly clashed with government censors over his reporting of German war crimes and his criticism of Switzerland’s reluctance to admit refugees, especially Jewish ones. Hirsch wasn’t Jewish, but when claims that he was became a distraction, he started writing under the name Peter Surava. It was a pseudonym, borrowed from a small mountain village, that he had already used on a book about his life as young ski instructor.
Astonishingly, the Swiss government was still accusing Surava of engaging in anti-German “atrocity propaganda” as late as 1944, when he went to newly liberated France to report on the murderous Nazi activities there. Ultimately, he was imprisoned on various trumped-up charges, including the crime of purloining the name of the village of Surava. After his release, Surava stayed inconspicuous for decades, writing under various aliases. In 1991, he revealed himself in an autobiography written after his secret police files were finally released to him; the files seem to suggest that, during the war, Swiss authorities actually passed information about Surava, a Swiss citizen, to the Gestapo. The writer died soon after director Erich Schmid’s documentary was completed in 1995, but the film could hardly be more timely. In the wake of revelations about Swiss banking, this documentary offers another example just how impartial Switzerland’s World War II “neutrality” really was.
Though they haven’t entirely avoided the effects of living in affluent, secular America, Hasidic Jews have largely maintained the austerity and separateness demanded by the sect’s 18th-century founders. That makes them a mystery to other Americans, including some who are Jewish. Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky, the directors of A Life Apart: Hasidism in America (Dec. 10 at 6:45 p.m.), embody both perspectives: Daum was raised in a Hasidic community, while Rudavsky is a nonobservant Jew whose father is a Reform rabbi.
Informative but overly cautious, A Life Apart answers the basic questions about where Hasidism came from and how it has endured in the U.S. (specifically Brooklyn). The film approvingly portrays Hasidics as sort of tradition-bound hippies: mystically minded and critical of “the victims of shopping-mall America.” Considering the circumscribed role of women within Hasidism and the strife the Brooklyn Hasids have experienced with their African-American neighbors, a considerably more volatile film could be made on this subject. But this documentary’s few outside voices are mostly restrained: A woman who left the sect says she still has great for respect for it, a black parks employee calmly accuses Hasids of “spiritual arrogance,” and a professor notes that the Hasids’ refusal to send their kids to college guarantees that they’ll be poor. The only interviewee with an edge in her voice is a female rabbi, the chaplain in a hospital, who was offended when she was barred from the room of a Hasidic boy by parents who didn’t want him to be “confused” by the possibilities for women outside Hasidism.
The two fiction films I previewed were also a bit soft, although not without interest. Another tale that turns on the disruptions of World War II, Soleil (Dec. 6 at 7 and 9:30 p.m.) is director Roger Hanin’s old-fashioned, semi-autobiographical account of a 13-year-old Jewish boy in Vichy France-controlled Algiers. The rest of his family doesn’t face the immediate danger braved by his father (Philippe Noiret in a cameo), who is working under an assumed name in a Paris suburb. Still, the expulsion of Jews from most jobs has forced the family’s matriarch (Sophia Loren) to struggle to feed the spoiled Meyer (Nicolas Olczyk) and his four less annoying siblings. The sometimes wistfully depicted details of Jewish life in sun-dappled wartime Algiers are fascinating, but some of the lighter sequences are pure sitcom, and Meyer’s coming-of-age activities (getting drunk, visiting the kind-hearted local prostitute for the first time) are timeworn.
For the story of a criminal’s redemption set during the harsh days of the Depression, The Assistant (Dec. 7 at 6:15 p.m.; Dec. 9 at 4 p.m.) is also remarkably sunny. Adapted from Bernard Malamud’s novel by second-string Canadian writer/director Daniel M. Petrie, this is the story of Frank (Gil Bellows), an unemployed drifter who’s talked into a robbery by a genuine bad guy. The masked Frank is horrified when his cohort pistol-whips avuncular grocery owner Morris Bober (Armin Mueller-Stahl) in an anti-Semitic rage, and later he tries to make amends by helping out in the store. Frank is not recognized, and soon he and Bober’s daughter Helen (Kate Greenhouse) have fallen in love, despite the objections of her mother Ida (Joan Plowright). The film’s principal weakness is that the players are too mild for the tale to have any moral force. Frank does bad things and then he does good things, but Bellows never captures the cruel side of his character, so his transformation seems as capricious as his crimes.
More Reefer Madness than That’s Entertainment, East Side Story conducts a brief, sprightly tour of Eastern Bloc musicals. The years before the Berlin Wall fell were not auspicious for Eastern European song-and-dance flicks, but some 40 nonetheless managed to get past the censors in Warsaw Pact countries. Director Dana Ranga’s account of the era includes some useful comments from filmmakers and film historiansincluding a Soviet one who’s just beginning to reconcile herself to the notion of entertainmentbut the main attraction is the string of clips from the musicals themselves.
Behind the Curtain, musicals were regarded with suspicion as insufficiently edifying and too Western-bourgeois in origin, but for a time filmmakers could appeal to a higher authority: noted movie buff Joseph Stalin. Grigori Alexandrov’s ’30s comedy, the vaudeville-rooted The Jolly Fellows, was banned until Stalin gave it a reprieve. More typical of the era are the Soviet-workers musicals, which featureyes, it’s trueperformers singing as they operate tractors and work on assembly lines.
The boom town for Iron Curtain musicals, however, was apparently East Berlin. Some of the most entertaining examples of the genre were made there in the ’50s and ’60s, and they feature neither peasants nor industrial workers. East Germany was the most prosperous of Soviet Bloc countries, and the musicals made there look a lot like the ones made on this side of the divide in the same era. Hot Summer, for example, is a now-hilarious youth-culture romp that doesn’t seem much more dated than, say, Bye Bye Birdie. 1962’s Midnight Revue even takes a Brechtian approach to the form: It’s a musical about writers and composers contemplating the difficulty of making a relevant socialist musical. This is the sort of theatrical gambit Americans used in the same period, when rock first threatened to make Broadway obsolete.
Scholarly but playful, East Side Story offers contemporary American filmgoers a mirror image of their own plight. Remarkable as it may be to feel nostalgic for regimes that attempted to throttle cinematic expression, Soviet Bloc films are an intriguing alternative to Hollywood’s current dictatorship of the proletariat. Whereas Warsaw Pact filmmakers had to scheme to inject a little fun into their work, today’s American directors work in an industry where anything but fun is suppressed with a vigor that is very nearly Stalinist.CP