Monday, July 14, 2008

Tribal Survival

Ever since the Jews followed Moses out of Egypt, survival has been a constant challenge. Whether faced with relocation, assimilaton or annihilation, the constant thinning of the tribe is a grave source of concern for Jewish leaders. Two short films soon to be screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival put the issue of tribal survival under a piercing lens with results that might startle the average viewer.

While many people are accustomed to the concept of Jews scattering to the four corners of the earth, I doubt many people think of Bombay as having once been host to a flourishing enclave of Jewish life. Sadia Shepard's 36-minute documentary, In Search of the Bene Israel, was inspired by a promise to return to the neighborhood where her grandmother grew up in India and explore what kind of Jewish community remained. The Bene Israel is a tiny community of Indian Jews who believe they are the descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel (the persecuted Jews of Galilee) that was rumored to have been shipwrecked on the shores of India nearly 2000 years ago.

At their peak in 1948, the Bene Israel numbered close to 20,000 Jews. Today, there are at best 5,000, with many leaving to build a new life in Israel. Descended from people whose trade involved pressing seeds for oil, the remaining Bene Israel have worked hard to keep their traditions alive in modern India. As Shepard interviews the small population of Jews who remain in Bombay, she learns the basic challenges of pulling together a minyan when many people lack transportation. She also spends time interviewing a young Jewish Indian woman (also a filmmaker), who tries to articulate the difficulty of combining her Jewish and Indian identities.

Shepard follows a young couple as they plan to get married and then move to Israel. Fascinating cultural overlays include the Indian and Jewish traditions of prearranged marriages as well as the sounds of a Klezmer band and Indian sitars, which deliver a stunning musical mesh in the background. Not surprisingly, Hava nagila sounds the same in any country, with any kind of orchestration. This film also offers Jews the rare opportunity of never having to say they're sari.

While Shepard's grandmother had the dubious luxury of watching her community diminish through attrition over a fairly long arc of time, some of the Jewish women facing Hitler's forces could not enjoy such options. Desperate times required desperate measures. For the women who joined the Jewish Partisans, their choice was really a matter of life or death.

Narrated by Tovah Feldshuh, Mitch Braff's 15-minute documentary entitled Every Day The Impossible: Jewish Women In The Partisans is an eye-opening look at a part of the underground resistance to Hitler's forces. The difference is that this film focuses on the role women played in World War II as saboteurs. Whether burning bridges, placing bombs, or blowing up depots, the women who joined the Partisans were fearless -- and with good reason. They could either try to survive or end up being killed by the Nazis. What makes Braff's film so startling are the interviews with elderly Jewish women, most of whom are now in their 70s or 80s. One by one, they describe their wartime efforts with remarkable candor, conviction and with absolutely no regrets. One comments that, as a Jew, she didn't care if she died. But as a soldier, she didn't want to die.

Sex in the ranks is also discussed. Some women were forced to prostitute themselves in order to survive; others recall how a commander was executed after he had been accused of raping some of the women who had volunteered to join the Partisans.

A particularly poignant moment occurs during the film when one of the survivors describes being interrogated by the Germans about what kind of ammunition she and her colleagues had at their disposal. With nothing but brains and daring, these women pulled off a string of minor miracles. I only wish this film could be shown to the Joint Chiefs of Staff to help them understand why their feeble old arguments against gays serving in the military are such a total crock of shit!

The struggle to survive a different, and extremely pernicious enemy, was illustrated as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival joined forces with the American Indian Film Institute to present a rare screening of The Silent Enemy (1930) at the Castro Theater on Sunday, July 13. Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, this film depicts, in fictional terms, the struggles of the Ojibway Indians to find sufficient food to keep them from starving to death during a bleak winter. Combining a documentary-like style with an attempt at ethnographic drama, the film's amazing footage of a cultural landscape that has all but vanished made me feel like I was watching footage of a lost tribe (with the exception of a handful of actors, the filmmakers tried as much as possible to use only aboriginal people in their native settings).

The film begins with a spoken introduction as Chief Yellow Robe (an actual Sioux Indian chief who plays the role of Chetoga, the tribal leader) addresses the audience to explain that everything they will see in the film -- canoes, weapons, clothing, teepees, etc., -- was constructed according to Ojibway traditions. He notes that probably only six people in the film have ever seen a motion picture, but does not mention that many of the Ojibways who appeared in the movie later succumbed to diseases (tuberculosis, flu, pneumonia) they contracted from the white men who made the film.

Although the slide show prior to the feature outlined the dubious achievements of Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, his loincloth-clad appearance as Baluk, the hunter, brought a strong masculine presence to the screen which was easily appreciated by the crowd in the Castro Theater. Even if much of the footage had been used for a nature documentary, it would still have made a strong impression. Watching 13-year old George McDougall (as Baluk's son) manage to get two squirming bear cubs into his canoe was one of the many joys of this film.

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