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New York Jewish Film Festival 2022

The 31st annual edition of the NY Jewish Film Festival (NYJFF) was held from January 12th to the 25th at Lincoln Center and the New York Jewish Museum. NYJFF is one of the oldest and most important of the more than fifty Jewish film festivals held in the United States each year. Including several press screenings, in person, and online presentations, the program carried productions from numerous countries which focused on the past and present Jewish experience. The festival included narrative features, documentaries, short films on creativity, a Swiss six part miniseries and a tribute program to film historian Pearl Bowser. Eight of the 26 productions selected were Israeli films or co-productions, five originated in the USA, and the remainder in Europe. As in past editions, NYJFF covered a broad spectrum of themes from reflections about anti-Semitism, concentration camp experiences, civil rights issues, the traumas of Jewish persecution, film evidence of Nazi crimes as v projected at the Nuremberg trial, and considerations of the predominance of human suffering in select countries. The programmers of NYJFF may want to consider productions about Israeli and Palestinian issues for future editions. Several of the program’s 2022 choices are of interest.

KADDISH FOR BERNIE MADOFF Alicia Rose, USA 2021. Rose’s film was adapted from the musician Alicia B. Rabins’ chamber rock opera and featured Rabins as a principal actor. Set in New York’s Wall Street of 2008 it depicts the circumstances of the massive Ponzi fraud Bernie Madoff organized with funds primarily from his Jewish affinity friends, corporations, and foundations. The scheme was facilitated by the J.P. Morgan Chase Bank for more than 20 years. The bank was fined $2.6 billion after Madoff’s conviction for its operational support. Rose’s artistic friends from the art world were the performers in her experimental musical art film approach, staging the history of the Madoff affair through close to 20 songs based on the many witness testimonies she had collected. As Rose admits, Bernie Madoff’s crimes became her obsession. Early in the film, there were images of a mock Kaddish for Madoff by several elderly women in Florida he had defrauded. The film ended with an elaborate Kaddish ritual played by the director and her friends, conveying that the ritual reflected ex-communication of Madoff from the Jewish community. Many improvised sets of the film, use of songs, and the final Kaddish ceremony may be understood as an expression of artistic freedom. But Alicia Rose adds little new information about Bernie Madoff in her film. There are some problems in her understanding of Kaddish. According to Rabbi Andrue Kahn from New York's temple Emanu-El, ”Kaddish is traditionally said as a rite of mourning for a dead loved one. It has also been used in some communities as a rite of permanent estrangement. If a member of a family has strayed from the norms of the community to a very large extent, to the point of being fully estranged, there is a tradition of saying kaddish for them while alive as if they are dead to represent their being dead to their family." Put differently, Rose cannot excommunicate a dead Madoff. The director’s emphasis on the US culture of greed and constant desire for rapid personal wealth growth has certainly gained more empirical merit since 2008. But the stress on the source of the $65 billion raised by Madoff may lead to misunderstandings. As the writer Alicia Rabins suggested in the film, Madoff’s Jewishness was central to his success and many of his victims came for the same community who trusted him as fellow Jew, a perceived pillar of the community.

Jean-Christoph Klotz, director, and Sandra Schulberg, producer, finished THE LOST FILM OF NUREMBERG in 2021, an Arte funded project. Stuart Schulberg the director’s father, and her uncle Budd, gathered and reconstructed films produced by Nazis on their crimes to use as evidence at the Nuremberg trials. Seventy five years later, the Klotz documentary is based on research by Sandra Schulberg and the documents and footage she found in her father’s archive. Klotz also discovered evidence as to why the documentary “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today”, which Stuart Schulberg was finally able to finish in 1948, was never distributed globally due to an intervention by US agencies. The most persuasive core material was shown at the Nuremberg trial because it constituted visual evidence made by Nazi authorities themselves, followed by equally persuasive allied footage of the concentration camps . Thus, the defendants at the trial could watch themselves in the films portraying them before and during the war as well as the devastating consequences of their destructive fascist ideology. During the Nuremberg trials there was close collaboration, though with tensions, between the United States and the Soviet Union. By the time Stuart Schulberg finished the film, the cold war had commenced, and Germany was considered a potential ally of the United States. US military authorities decided that Schulberg’s documentary should not be shown in Germany, the US, or other countries, to avoid antagonizing Germans. Permission was given to show the film in Germany only during deNazification projects. It premiered once in Stuttgart in November 1948 with mixed reaction from the German press, was not shown in the United States though it had been scheduled for a screening in 1947, or other countries because there was the fear of undermining support for the Marshall Plan and its contributions to Germany. As the Washington Post journalist John Norris observed at that point “ There are those in authority in the United States who feel that Americans are so simple that they can hate only one enemy at a time. Forget the Nazis, they advise, and concentrate on the Reds”.

THE WILL TO SEE, a 2021 documentary from France, by the French activist philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy and his collaborator Marc Roussel was a compelling highlight of the 2022 NYJFF program. It mainly reflects Levy’s experience in covering western societies and the countries they colonized over five decades. These countries have been beset by past and present rapid social changes, conflicts, and human rights violations, including state sponsored mass killings and civil wars. Consequential concern for the victims of forced migration, civil violence, and persistent starvation is abandoned by Western countries once the disaster stories no longer dominate the mass media. From Levy’s observations of numerous countries he visited, we learn that politicians and the public in our societies are not engaged in finding long range solutions to global systemic problems directly impacting the common people. Having authored many books on these problems, Levy has become an astute observer with a theoretical mind capable of dissecting the issues he encounters and recording them on film. Given his connections with individuals who have in part shaped the societies and problems Levy addresses, he does not succumb to readymade facile surface statements but provides viewers with the necessary context of the issues he analyzes. For him, reaching an audience whether children, students, or those watching his productions, it is essential for creating their will to see. His ethnographic approach places a focus on bottom up observations from the field, comparing them to what he has seen there in earlier decades. The documentary’s investigations were funded by the French Paris Match magazine, and it includes archival material from presentations and encounters Levy made in prior years. Essential for his approach is recuperating our uncensored visual exposure of past and continuing wars and identifying atrocities we are not aware of. This includes, to name but a few, the slaughter of Christians in Nigeria by radical Islamists, the abandonment of Kurds trying to shape their own country by their former allies including the USA, Kurds achieving equality of the sexes because women fight their enemies like ISIS and Turkey to hold on to their autonomous Kurdistan Region in Iraq, the role of Russia and Turkey in generating growing violence in Lydia to enlarge their geo-political influence, and the Moria Camp in Greece for immigrants in Lesbos built for 3,500 but holding up to 20,000. Unsanitary and overcrowded, the Moria camp was burned down in 2020 by Greek rightwing radicals. Women could not leave their tents at night because of rapes. Levy additionally highlights the warlike conditions in Somalia, torn asunder by clan warfare, offering little local armed resistance against the well organized Al Shabaab militants, the outrageous conditions of the largest global refugee settlement in Bangladesh holding at one point more than 800,000 Rohingya Muslims forced out of their homes in Myanmar by governmental ethnic cleansing. The cinematography in Levy’s film is penetrating and upsetting because of the unhampered depiction of violence and atrocities. The film forces audiences to watch and recall, without compromise, what they have deleted from their memories, and to realize that we exist in a global violent world without a strong moral center.

New York Claus Mueller



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