Monday, August 3, 2009

The Multicultured Jews

Once, when asked how I could describe myself as a Jewish atheist, I replied that, although I did not believe in God or organized religion, there was no way a person could ignore his cultural heritage as a Jew. Whether or not one is a believer, the annual ritual of the Passover seder reinforces the history of the Jews, their escape from Egypt, and their eventual relocation to other continents. According to Wikipedia:
"The term diaspora (in Greek, διασπορά – "a scattering [of seeds]") refers to the movement of any population sharing common ethnic identity who were either forced to leave or voluntarily left their settled territory, and became residents in areas often far remote from the former. It is converse to the nomadic culture, and more appropriately linked with the creation of a group of refugees. However, while refugees may or may not ultimately settle in a new geographic location, the term diaspora refers to a permanently displaced and relocated collective. Diasporic cultural development often assumes a different course from that of the population in the original place of settlement. It tends to vary in culture, traditions, and other factors between remotely separated communities. The last vestiges of cultural affiliation in a diaspora are often found in community resistance to language change and in maintenance of traditional religious practice."

In America, we see a wide range of Jews, from the orthodox Hasidim to reformed Jews who have not only assimilated into the larger culture but have often married people of other races and religions. Three films recently screened at the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival focused on Jews who, as a result of their intellect, the immigration of their parents, or the strangest of circumstances, spent a good part of their lives immersed in other cultures.

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One of the more fascinating documentaries shown at this year's festival focuses on the life work of Melville J. Herskovits, the American anthropologist who helped bring African and African-American studies into the curricula of America's universities. A man who made great strides in showing the cultural connections between Africans and African Americans, Herskovits often had access to data that was unobtainable to black scholars. Llewellyn Smith's film contains some wonderful footage of Herskovits visiting jungle communities in Africa and South America as he observes their traditions of dance, clothing, farming, etc. It also features interviews with his daughter, former students, and other anthropologists who detail the numerous contributions he made to the field of cultural anthropology.

Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness has a few surprises, as well. There is a discussion of how young Japanese who had taken to wearing their hair in dreadlocks were often misidentified as being of African descent. Strong parallels are drawn to how an anthropologist who is familiar with the cultural traditions evident in the Jewish diaspora might better be able to understand how the rich cultures of Africa were transplanted to American shores as a result of the slave trade.

The author of such books as
Herskovits was also the subject of Jerry Gershenhorn's Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge (2004). While his white colleagues dismissed African culture as offering nothing worth learning, Herskovits shot extensive footage in Benin, Surinam, and Trinidad to prove his theories. Ironically, Herskovits's book The Myth of the Negro Past was embraced by the Black Panther Party.

What makes Smith's documentary stand out is its rapid pacing, the genuine love and admiration expressed for Herskovits by most of the interviewees, and their excitement at being able to shed light on his pioneering work in the field of cultural anthropology. Here's the trailer:

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Written and directed by Rustem Abdrashitov, A Gift To Stalin begins in a rail car filled with Jews as they travel to isolated areas of Russia. When an old Jew dies as his grandson tries to feed him some water, his final prayer is that God look after the child.

During a stop somewhere in Kazakhstan, the dead are unloaded from the train and the sleeping child is sent with them to be buried in a communal grave. One of the railroad workers, a Muslim who has been "contused" in the head (and is often mistakenly thought to be deaf and/or dumb), realizes that the child is still alive and decides to hide the boy from the authorities.

Later in the film, we learn that Kasym's wife and children all died of disease. As Kasym (Nurzhuman Ikhtymbayev) struggles to carve out a living in the bleakness of the steppes of Central Asia, this unexpected child whom he names Sashka/Sabyr (Dalen Shintemirov) brings some happiness into his lonely life.

The village in which Kasym lives is hardly a happy place. Vera (Yekaterina Rednikova), a pretty young woman whose parents were political prisoners, takes a shine to the boy.

Their lives are occasionally thrown into turmoil by the presence of a corrupt police officer, Bulgabi (Bakhtiar Koja), who has raped Vera and threatens to take Sashka away from her. When Vera suggests that Ezhik (Waldemar Szczepaniak), a homely medic, marry her, their happiness is destroyed when the drunk Bulgabi gets into a fight with Ezhik on his wedding day and kills the shy, quiet groom.

After Sashka (who has demonstrated his good aim using an air gun with a local gang of orphans) shoots and kills Bulgabi, Kasym takes the boy to the local train station and sends him on a westward journey to find his parents, who were probably killed in a concentration camp. Years later, as the elderly Sashka wanders around Jerusalem, his thoughts travel back to his memories of Vera, Kasym, and all the other Kazakhs who took care of him -- and were killed during one of Russia's nuclear tests.

Although the film's narrative is somewhat disjointed, A Gift To Stalin benefits tremendously from the cinematography of Khasan Kidiraliev and the silent strength of Nurzhuman Ikhtymbayev's portrayal of Kasym. Here's the trailer:

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I found myself curiously charmed by Victoria Day, a film which had its world premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and unravels in a very slow, deliberate, and surprisingly intimate style. Written and directed by David Bezmozgis with great care and tenderness, this drama revolves around the concepts that (a) your life can change in a flash, and (b) no good dead goes unpunished.

At 16, Ben Spektor (Mark Rendall) may be the only player on his school's hockey team who can actually score a goal. While Ben is a devoted Bob Dylan fan, an outstanding hockey player, and an overall nice Jewish boy, his home life is bilingual and, in a sense bicultural. Ben is totally Canadian and speaks fluent English. His parents, Mila (Nataliya Alyexeyenko) and Yuri (Sergiy Kotelenets), converse primarily in Russian and can't understand why their son doesn't spend more time at home.

In 1988, when Wayne Gretzky has become one of Canada's national heros, Yuri (who blew his chances at entering medical school in Russia and now makes a living as a masseur) has become a rabid hockey fan who doesn't want Ben to ruin his chances of becoming a star player. Ben, of course, is at an age where he's starting to think of rock 'n roll, girls, and other distractions.

Ben is also the subject of constant bullying by Jordan Chapman (a larger and no doubt less intelligent member of his team). When the two teammates run into each other outside a Bob Dylan concert being held at Toronto's Ontario Place, Ben succumbs to Jordan's nagging request for a five-dollar loan. Fully aware that Jordan intends to use the money to buy drugs, Ben is consumed with guilt when Jordan is missing from school the following day.

The fact that Ben is developing a crush on Jordan's sister, Cayla (Holly Deveaux) doesn't make things any easier. Ben is that rare teen with a conscience who, despite the national frenzy over the Stanley Cup finals, doesn't think his team should be playing hockey while one of its members is missing and possibly dead. When he finally gets up the courage to tell Jordan's father (Jeff Pustil) that he lent Jordan five dollars on the night he disappeared, the grieving father (who had given his son nearly $100 for clothing and tickets) misinterprets Ben's concern as a request that the family pay him back the money Jordan borrowed.

David Franco's cinematography is sparse yet surprisingly effective. A sequence in which Ben and his friends Sammy (John Mavrogiannis) and Noah (Scott Beaudin) hurl burning Roman candles at each other, is particularly affecting.

What anchors this drama is a beautifully understated performance by Mark Rendall that captures the quiet, thoughtful teen (as opposed to the rowdy fuckups so often seen in movies about teenagers). Unlike so many other "coming of age" films, Victoria Day -- which focuses on a thoughtful and responsible young man with a strong sense of ethics -- is a welcome change from Judd Apatow's "jerk" ouevre. Here's the trailer:

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