By Raj Ranade
11:30 AM EDT, April 3, 2013
17th Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Fest
April 4-15, hjff.org.
Two documentaries are the highlights at the 17th Annual Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Festival, which will be bringing 21 films related to Jewish culture and history to theaters across the Hartford metro area. A full schedule is available online at hjff.org — here's a look at some of the most interesting entries:
Koch (dir. by Neil Barsky), April 7, 4 p.m., and April 13, 8:45 p.m., Digiplex Destinations, Bloomfield 8, 863 Park Ave., Bloomfield, (860) 286-7900, digiplexdest.com.
Speaking about post-mayoral life in Neil Barsky's new documentary about his three-term reign over New York City, Ed Koch notes that "People would say you must run again, and I would say 'No. The people threw me out and now the people must be punished.'" He waits a long beat, and then with a wide grin adds "People loved that. I still say it occasionally!" The moment is a good summary of Barsky's portrait of Koch — here was a man who was not only egotistical enough to tell a joke like that, but self-regarding enough to brag about how much people liked that joke years later.
Barsky's documentary is a comprehensive talking-head style work about the ups and downs of Koch's controversial tenure. The largely sympathetic documentary leans toward focusing on Koch's campaign successes (there's lots of entertaining footage of his glad-handing on the streets with his ever-present refrain of "How'm I doing?") and mayoral triumphs (like his revamping of the public housing system and the handling of transit worker strikes). But it doesn't shy away from the many scandals of his career, particularly his conflicts with the black community and his botched handling of the AIDS crisis in the city (which many still attribute to Koch's rumored status as a closeted homosexual).
The most fascinating footage here, though, is the recent footage of the man himself. In addition to speaking candidly about his career (the mayor is surprisingly blunt when asked about the homosexuality rumors), Barsky follows the mayor around to speaking engagements and campaign events — one great scene here follows the mayor around at Democratic campaign headquarters during the 2012 election, where he openly cracks wise about Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. And then there's the family dinner where Koch discusses how he feels about the Ground Zero mosque controversy — or more precisely, how proud he is of the interview sound-bite he came up with for the issue. With most politicians, sitting through footage of their family dinners would be agonizing. It's a testament to this fascinating man (whose death unfortunately coincided with the film's release earlier this year) and the filmmaker covering him that it's anything but that here.
Hava Nagila (dir. by Roberta Grossman), April 15, 7 p.m., Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford, (860) 236-4571, mandelljcc.org.
The experience of watching Roberta Grossman's Hava Nagila, a documentary about the history and significance of the bar mitzvah standard, is not unlike starting at one Wikipedia page and ping-ponging through links until you've almost forgotten what you were looking up in the first place. I mean this (mostly) as a compliment. It's not that Grossman doesn't do a thorough job covering the song's origins — she dutifully covers the dispute over who wrote the song, its adoption as an unofficial anthem for Israeli statehood, and its eventual transformation into an apolitical fixture of Jewish-American life.
But it's the many tangents to that central story that are the most fun here. In one scene, Leonard Nimoy talks about how the famous Spock gesture actually came from the priests who ran his Jewish youth choir. Soon Grossman is launching into a discussion of Jewish-American migration out of the cities into the suburbs and how Jewish culture was subsequently repackaged. And before you can entirely process that, there's a montage of performances of the song by Bollywood stars, three Serbian guys on a single guitar, and an Asian drag queen. If this sounds like a scattershot approach, it is, and it becomes clear that most of the archival footage is less about making a point than it is about padding the film out to feature length. It's never boring though, and Grossman manages to ensure that even with 75 minutes of variations on it, the song never gets on your nerves.
The Day I Saw Your Heart (dir. by Jennifer Devoldere), April 6, 8:45 p.m., Digiplex Destinations, Bloomfield 8.
This frothy French farce features Melanie Laurent (known to American audiences as Inglourious Basterds' Shosanna) as the youngest daughter of a family headed by a Royal Tenenbaum-esque asshole patriarch Eli (Michel Blanc), who particularly enjoys striking up friendships with his daughter's ex-boyfriends. Redemption and reconciliation ensue once Eli faces a serious heart operation (the elderly Jew also has to check with his rabbi about whether the pig valve being used qualifies as kosher), along with lots of ramshackle melodrama and an odd amount of product placement. But Devoldere has a striking sense for moodily-lit visuals and the performances by Laurent and Blanc are both thoroughly likeable.
Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story (dir. by Jonathan Gruber and Ari Daniel Pinchot), April 4, 7:30 p.m., Hartford Spotlight Stadium 4, 39 Front St., Hartford, (860) 422-7712, spotlighttheatres.com.
Gruber and Pinchot's film focuses on the iconic Israeli soldier who gave up his studies at Harvard to serve in his country's military, fighting in the Six Day War and later losing his life in the famous raid at Entebbe that freed Israeli hostages from a hijacked Air France flight. Anyone looking for insight here into the man behind the icon may be a little disappointed, as this is total hagiography, and the filmmakers' decision to jump back and forth between the raid and Yoni's early life proves more frustrating than enlightening. The testimonials to the man are moving though, particular from his brother Benjamin (the current prime minister of Israel), and Yoni's letters to friends and family (read by actor Marton Csokas) are hauntingly eloquent about the horrors of war.
Reporting on the Holocaust: The NY Times and the Holocaust (dir. by Emily Harrold); and From Silence to Recognition: Confronting Discrimination in Emory's Dental School History (dir. by David Hughes Duke), April 11, 6 p.m., Criterion Cinema, Blue Back Square, 42 S. Main St., West Hartford, (860) 523-4600, bowtiecinemas.com.
Two documentary shorts about institutional discrimination against Jews will be screening together. Harrold's documentary focuses on the shocking under-reporting of the Holocaust by one of the world's most prominent newspapers — the massacre in the Warsaw Ghetto, for example, merited a tiny paragraph at the bottom of page seven. Harrold suggests that the lack of coverage may have been linked to Jewish publisher Arthur Sulzberger's fear of having the Times labeled as a Jewish institution. Duke's documentary covers the campaign of discrimination at Emory's dental school in the 1950s, when a malicious dean flunked out dozens of perfectly capable students, telling them that "Jews don't have it in the hands". (Many of the "flunking" students went on to graduate at the top of their classes in other schools.)