Wednesday, April 5th, 2017...12:56 pm

MSPIFF: Curating your own Jewish film festival

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The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) offers 16 films of Jewish interest

by MAX SPARBER

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) has been around since 1981, hard as it is to believe. Year after year, it has brought a dazzling collection of films from around the world to the Twin Cities — this year alone the festival will present more than 350 films.

Menashe (Shtick Film)

And somehow, despite the rise of digital streaming services, the festival feels more vital than ever. I subscribe to a number of streaming film services, and it is easy to fall into a trap of merely watching the same dozen or so studio films that the services wish to promote to you. It can be surprisingly hard to dig deeper, and I expect that is deliberate. It should be inconsequentially easy, as an example, to type, say, “films from Israel” or “films by female directors” into a search engine and get a list of possible viewing choices. Instead, most services don’t offer this.

The MSPIFF website lets you do so, however, selecting films by place of origin, or by theme, or language, or genre. And, honestly, with this many films, you need to be able to do that. It is impossible to see all the films offered, and so viewers must construct their own personalized miniature festival within the larger festival.

We’ll do some of that work for you here. This year, the Festival offers 16 films that they categorize as “Jewish interest,” and so, if you wish to construct your own Jewish Film Festival, you may do so. What follows is a list of these films, with our recommendations. Check out the film’s website for showtimes and venues at mspfilm.org.

RECOMMENDED

Beyond the Mountain and the Hills

Israeli director Eran Kolirin offers a film that Variety described as “his most profound,” telling of a retiree from the Israeli military who becomes an unethical dietary supplement salesman, and who one night blindly fires a gun into the darkness, setting off a chain of events that fractures his family. Kolirin’s direction of the film is deliberate and eccentric, making use of theatrical staging and characters breaking the fourth wall, ultimately all in service of exploring the complicity of the average Israeli in their government’s actions. (Trailer)

Menashe

Former documentary filmmaker Joshua Weinstein took an unusual tack in creating this serio-comic story of a single father struggling to maintain custody of his son: It was filmed using semi-secretive documentary techniques in New York’s Hasidic community, which Weinstein is not a part of, and is filmed entirely in Yiddish, which Weinstein does not speak. Nonetheless, Weinstein built the film around Hasidic comedian Menashe Lustig and was cast with actual Hasids, who provided their own Yiddish and acted as a constant reference for the filmmakers, making this a surprisingly detailed and poignant look at a hidden world. (Featurette about the film)

Norman

Subtitled The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, Norman tells the story of a charismatic Manhattanite whose broad collection of social connections make him a “fixer,” a guy who can always connect a friend up with another friend, find someone the best deal, locate an expert — whatever is required. Norman is played by Richard Gere with shlubby mannerisms, and he finds himself in over his head when he becomes part of a plan to flip Israel’s debt. (Trailer)

OTHER FILMS OF INTEREST

Aida’s Secrets

This documentary by Israeli filmmaker Shaul Schwarz looks at Izak, who was born inside the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp and sent for adoption in Israel. The film slowly investigates Izak’s family history, much of which is unknown to him at the start of the film, and ends with a melancholy family reunion 70 years in the making. (Trailer)

All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone

A documentary about the muckraking Jewish journalist, who authored a newsletter that the New York Times ranked 16th among “The Top 100 Works of Journalism in the United States in the 20th Century,” and whose unimpeachable integrity and dedication to investigating injustice continues to influence journalists today. (Trailer)

Austerlitz

Belarusian documentarian Sergei Loznitsa looks at Holocaust memorials in an unusual way: Through the tourists who visit them. Loznitsa follows several groups of visitors to the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps, capturing mixed, and sometimes surprising, reactions. (Trailer)

Boxing Gym

The Minnesota premiere of a new documentary by acclaimed Jewish filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, this film peeks in on the ramshackle Lord’s Gym in Austin, Tex., where a varied swath of the city’s population trains to box. Wiseman is the Festival’s “Master Honoree,” and so MSPIFF will feature a selection of his films. (Trailer)

Crazy Horse

A 2011 documentary from Frederick Wiseman that is, in part, a look into the business of running a Parisian erotic revue, but is in large part an assemblage of stunning, near-abstract images of semi-nude dancers performing their routines. (Trailer; warning: nudity)

Endless Poetry

Legendary cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, responsible for the classic 70s midnight movies El Topo and The Magic Mountain, has begun making autobiographical films based around his experiences as a Jewish theatermaker and comic book author in Chile, France and Mexico in his 20s. This film is set in Santiago in the 1940s and 50s, looking at a young artist as he frees himself from an oppressive family, with Jodorowsky casting his own son, Adan, as himself. (Trailer)

Fanny’s Journey

This children’s film is based on a remarkable true tale of survival, in which a group of 11 Jewish children must find their own way across the Swiss border to escape capture by Nazis. The film is by French director and screenwriter Lola Doillon. (Trailer)

In Between

The past few years have seen an explosion of terrific Israeli comedies featuring groups of women, including Zero Motivation, about Israeli soldiers, and Women’s Balcony, about Orthodox Sephardic women. Add to this list In Between, a film by Israeli filmmaker Maysaloun Hamoud about three freewheeling Palestinian women with Israeli citizenship living in Tel Aviv. (Trailer)

La Danse

Frederick Wiseman points his lens at the Paris Opera Ballet in this 2009 documentary, widely regarded as his greatest. The film investigates how professional dance is taught, cast, staged, and seen. (Trailer)

One Week and a Day

Shai Avivi is one of Israel’s most popular comedians, and this comedy by Asaph Polonsky gives him a perfect vehicle for his blunt, wounded comedy. Here Avivi plays a grieving father experimenting with dead son’s medical marijuana, and who develops an unlikely friendship with a young neighbor who he enlists to teach him how to get stones. (Trailer)

Paradise

As might be expected from a love story set during the Holocaust, this film by Russian director Andrey Konchalovskiy is quite bleak, telling of a Russian aristocrat who meets a former lover while a prisoner in a concentration camp. The former lover is now a German SS officer, and the aristocrat sees the officer’s still-simmering desire for her as a tool of survival. (Trailer)

Past Life

Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher tells of two sisters in 1970s Jerusalem, daughters of a Holocaust survivor, find themselves investigating the past when a stranger accuses their father of murder. Nesher is himself the son of a survivor, and his films generally address the moral complexities of the past, and the terrible choices people make to survive. (Trailer)

Tracking Edith

A fascinating document of Edith Tudor-Hart, the daughter of a Viennese Jew who had renounced his religion in favor of atheism and Social Democracy. Edith became well-known in England for her socially conscious photographs of England in the 1930s, while at the same time guarding a secret life: She was a spy for the KGB. The film was directed by her nephew, Peter Stephan Jungk, who will be in attendance at the film’s screening. (Trailer)

(American Jewish World, 4.7.17)

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