Tradition in Transition
Previewing the sixth annual Austin Jewish Film Festival
One of my favorite quotes in movie history comes from Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry. While arguing against the longstanding conventions of Judaism with his devoutly religious sister, atheist Harry Block (Allen) snaps, "Tradition is the illusion of permanence." It's a great line, and not just because it's funny and cold-blooded, but because it gets right to the heart of several of humanity's, and Judaism's, most pressing concerns: Where is the line between tradition and superstition, between knowledge and faith? How does the individual find his way with the weight of thousands of years of history bearing down on him? And what value is there to all of that tradition when it conspires to keep mankind at war with itself? This battle between individuality and tradition resides right at the core of Judaism, with its 5,000-year history of inherited rituals and social struggles, and it has become increasingly relevant with the maturing and passing of the 20th century, which saw the Jewish people live through the depths of deprivation in Europe, the height of cultural fecundity in America, and the dark mire of political and moral ambivalence in Israel.
That great discussion continues here in Texas, Jan. 26, with the opening of the sixth annual Austin Jewish Film Festival. Funded by donations from groups like the University of Texas' Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, Congregation Agudas Achim, the Austin Film Society, and this newspaper, this year's festival will feature 25 movies over one week, movies from all over the world (including Israel, the U.S., Canada, and Portugal): documentaries, features, shorts, comedies, dramas, even musicals, all of them about the Jewish experience or created by those who have been defined by it. The themes common to that experience are all over this year's festival: anti-Semitism, the never-ending struggle between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, the joys and disasters of assimilation, the prevalence of humor, the ongoing battle between religion and the temptations of secularism, and the push and pull of family and individuality. Now if someone would just make a movie about the difficulty of finding a decent sandwich in Central Texas, all the relevant angles would be covered.
This year's festival opens on a dark note, with David Gow and Mark Adam's 2006 drama Steel Toes, which is about a Jewish lawyer (Good Night, and Good Luck's David Strathairn) who's appointed to represent a Nazi skinhead (Andrew Walker, star of, among other things, The Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell) on trial for the racially motivated killing of a West Indian immigrant. As the relationship between the two men grows more ambiguous and entangled, the film begets a discussion about racial tolerance in our increasingly multihued Western society.
Festival Co-Chair Cindy Pinto says that, though there's never an official theme for the Austin Jewish Film Festival, a sort of de facto motif tends to suggest itself during the film-selection process to give each year's iteration a particular identity. This year, she says, that motif is tolerance – racial, religious, cultural, political – which is one of the primary reasons why Steel Toes, with its tale of two diametrically opposed world-views butting heads, was chosen to kick off the festival.
The tolerance theme is all over Israeli director Eytan Fox's excellent comedy/drama The Bubble (which also screened this past year at the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival). Following the lives of a young Palestinian named Ashraf and his Israeli lover Noam, The Bubble dares to take on not just the intractable conflict between Arabs and Jews but also the even more slippery issue of homosexuality in traditional Arabic culture. Poor Ashraf is heir to and victim of a cultural, political, and religious legacy of intolerance and willful ignorance (coming from all sides) that he has no hope of escaping. Watching him attempt to do so is to witness joy, terror, resignation, and true tragedy.
All is not dark and racially suspect in the world of Jewish film, however. The Jews have been laughing in the face of daunting historical reality for centuries, and the Austin Jewish Film Festival is filled with comedies and documentaries about the role of humor in modern Jewish life. These films include Local Call, Arthur Joffe's absurdist French narrative about a young man who's abandoned his Jewish faith and is now receiving expensive, nagging collect calls from his father – who has been dead for two years. Then there's Rachel Talbot's Making Trouble, a feature-length documentary about female Jewish comedians, including Fanny Brice, Joan Rivers, Wendy Wasserstein, and Gilda Radner. The film looks at the nature of the female Jewish comic psyche through interviews, performances, and archival footage.
One of the gems of the festival will be Michael Tully's documentary about indie-rock musician David Berman, Silver Jew, which I was lucky enough to see at last year's South by Southwest Festival. Silver Jew is a fascinating look at the spiritual reawakening of a secular American pop-ironist and former drug addict confronting himself in the back alleys of Old Jerusalem while on tour with his band. Seeing a pop-music poet of disaffection, the spokesman for a generation of bearded and bedraggled postgraduate cynics, break down at the Wailing Wall was one of the unexpected joys of my movie-watching year, and one of the purest expressions of religious revelation one could hope to witness onscreen.
The festival will close Friday, Feb. 1, with True to Life: Stories by Ramla Youth, a collection of short films about life in the mixed Arab/Jewish city of Ramla, in central Israel. Producer Moshe Levinson gave video cameras to local teenagers and allowed them to direct their own stories about life in their culturally diverse hometown. The films they made – shot in Amharic, Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, and Turkish – shed light on the next generation of Israelis as they struggle with the same issues Israelis have been struggling with forever: racial mistrust, religious division, economic disparity, and cultural integrity.
All of these issues can be neatly summed up as the weight of history and the strain of tradition, two things the Jews know something about. And since these concerns aren't going anywhere, it seems appropriate to end the Austin Jewish Film Festival with a view of the future created by those who have a vested interest in shaking off the shackles of the past and moving on to freer days.
The Austin Jewish Film Festival runs Jan. 26 through Feb. 1. For a complete schedule and ticket information, visit www.austinjff.org.