A Cultural Question

"So," a Holocaust survivor demands of a fellow concentration camp victim, now a famous musician, whom he hasn't seen for 50 years, "if you are so big, why didn't you call me once?"
Since the circumstances surrounding this familiar comic complaint are among the most dire our century has known, the bitter humor adds to an already emotionally charged reunion. The scene comes from Yale Strom's documentary The Last Klezmer, whose title alone suggests the film is far-removed from the Holocaust: klezmer is energetic Jewish folk music originally played by itinerant bands in Eastern Europe, and 69-year-old Leopold Kozlowski, an endearing, vibrant, open-hearted musicologist, is apparently the last great klezmer musician alive. Following Kozlowski on a pilgrimage from his residence in Krakow to his hometown in the Ukraine, the documentary begins as a joyous celebration of the up-tempo music, but as the sites along the way evoke painful memories, the tone becomes haunting. "To understand klezmer music one must be a Jew," he asserts. "But it's difficult to be a Jew."

It's this difficulty that makes The Last Klezmer the best of the nine films -- features, shorts and documentaries -- scheduled to be presented at Jewish Worlds 5, the Museum of Fine Arts' fifth biennial showcase of films with a Jewish perspective. What's a Jewish perspective? According to the films, which come from as far away as Poland and as close as Brighton Beach, New York, the answer seems to be connected to this theme of difficulty -- the difficulty of family, heritage, language and all sorts of diasporas.

Unfortunately, only about half the films are worth seeing. Why only half? Because of another difficulty: the process by which Jewish Worlds films are chosen. According to Marv Hoffman, Jewish Worlds co-founder, the film showcase "has an international scope in mind, not just American Jewish experiences or perspectives. There has to be some element of self-conscious Jewishness. There are some movies that are accidentally Jewish. I think, for example, that Woody Allen's films are sort of sociologically Jewish. Not many films are concerned with Jewish themes, Jewish culture, Jewish ideas."

Not many, indeed. But MFA film and video curator Marian Luntz says that she's reluctant to show films readily available on cassette or in commercial release. Instead, Luntz and Hoffman want to bring in films that otherwise wouldn't come to Houston. It's a well-meaning philosophy, but it puts Jewish Worlds in a bind: eliminating films that have garnered popularity and acclaim drastically reduces the talent pool. If the films selected for Jewish Worlds have to be either international or overlooked, then the biennial would probably work better as a triennial: quality would likely rise with another year's worth of movies to choose from. It's not necessarily frequent exposure that matters, but substantive experience.

Culled from such places as the Jewish Film Festival at Berkeley and the Jerusalem Film Festival, the films of Jewish Worlds, taken as a whole, try to balance entertainment with enlightenment. You don't have to be Jewish to appreciate them, though it helps. Which brings up the question of target audience. Hoffman, very active in the Jewish community, stresses that Jewish Worlds hopes "to draw the Jewish community together around a common interest." Luntz, though, points out that "one of the challenges is attracting non-Jewish people to the films. A certain number will say, 'This has no relevance to my experience.' But I think many of the films have resonance."

Some of the films do resonate with each other, which is not to say that you should necessarily see them. In Coffee with Lemon, a straining comedy-drama based on writer/director Leonid Gorovets' own experiences, a famous Russian actor, disillusioned about his country's violence, emigrates to Israel, only to return home to an inevitable fate after he can't overcome the language barrier, while in Yolande Zauberman's beautiful-looking but ultimately oblique historical slice of life, Ivan and Abraham, set in a Polish shtetl, pre-World War II, family members admonish each other to speak Yiddish.

A movie that more satisfyingly deals with families coming together and moving apart is Freud Leaving Home. An offbeat tragicomedy about a neurotic Swedish family, the film summons them together for a birthday party that turns bittersweet. The family includes a psychoanalyzing daughter nicknamed Freud who still lives at home; her obsessively Orthodox sister who loves the idea of Israel more than the fact; her gay brother who has emigrated to America in a failed attempt to succeed at business; their ineffectual father who perpetually has to joke; and, dominating them all, their German-born mother who survived the Holocaust, but, despite a refined appearance, hasn't done the same with everyday life. "I was never hugged," the mother responds when Freud asks her why she never comforts her children. "There was no time. I just had to stay silent. Then they were shot." The gay son rhetorically questions his unaccepting father if he knows why Moses parted the Red Sea: "Because he was embarrassed to walk through town with his family." Delightful and despairing, Susanne Bier's inner-life tableau calls to mind fellow Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman.

Considerably less satisfying is The Shvitz, an uninformative, rambling overview of Jewish steam baths in New York that relies on anecdotes and observations from rather mundane, cliched storytellers. Somewhat better is Black to the Promised Land, in which documentarian Madeleine Ali follows 11 African-American teenagers from an alternative high school in Brooklyn to an Israeli kibbutz, where they live and work for ten weeks. Though it raises many more questions than it answers, the film brings to life how the teens adapted, if not transformed, themselves, and how their hosts modified some disturbing preconceptions.

If these two films don't quite work, two others shouldn't have been included in Jewish Worlds at all. The painfully earnest American documentary Cancer in Two Voices -- a video portrait of how two lesbian lovers deal with the oncoming death of one of them from breast cancer -- has nothing whatsoever to do with Jewishness. The lovers mention that they're Jewish, but don't talk about it; instead, in the face of demise, they're exceedingly sincere and highly self-aware about being exceedingly sincere and highly self-aware (it's no surprise that they're writing a sort of self-help book about their experiences). The Revenge of Itzik Finkelstein is Jewish enough -- it's an Israeli film -- but it's also lame, technically inexpert and emptily self-indulgent. It's worth mentioning only to point out that if this won the 1993 Best Picture award from the Israeli Academy of Motion Pictures, then Israeli cinema, oy!

Still, the last word belongs to The Last Klezmer. Klezmer is "the soul of the people," Kozlowski declares. It's significant that the film shows him teaching his music to Polish students who aren't Jewish, but who consider it crucial regional learning. It's also significant that in one marvelously illustrative scene, "Hello, Dolly" is turned into klezmer, while in another, standoffish strangers, reluctant to show Kozlowski "the place where Germans killed people during the war," are so moved by the sight of him breaking down, falling to the ground and kissing his father's grave, that they, too, sob. "I get the greatest satisfaction," Kozlowski says, "that I am one of those who hasn't allowed the culture, God forbid, to die." God forbid. Would that more of the other films did the same.

Jewish Worlds 5 runs Saturdays and Sundays, March 18 through April 9, at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet.


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