Looking at Ourselves at the Jewish Film Festival

The week-long offerings of documentaries and feature films at the New York Jewish Film Festival (Fall 1981) were like some extraordinary family album—richly affecting, full of familiarity, and yet also full of revelations, especially so for Jewish women. The films are scheduled in other major cities later this year. A striking number of the most distinctive films were directed by women, and are about women. Even in the films made by male directors, the images of women are what linger most powerfully, even hauntingly.

The personal documentaries ranged from portraits of young women struggling for autonomy and self-definition, like liana Bardin’s Leaving Home (reviewed in issue #8) and Joyce at 34 made by Joyce Chopra and Claudia Weill, to a touching neo-anthropological study of old Jews, Number Our Days, directed by Lynne Littman from Barbara Meyerhoff’s book.

The two best-known feature films on the program, Weill’s Girlfriends and Lee Grant’s Tell Me a Riddle, similarly involve Jewish women directors (and writers) looking at Jewish women across the generations. Weill’s young heroine struggles to shape her professional life as a photographer, and Grant gives us Tillie Qlsen’s poignant story of an old woman struggling to come to terms with the thwarted life she’s led during hectic years of mothering that robbed her of her own freedom and intellectual development.

These two American women directors give a welcome shaking-up to some over-familiar stereotypes of Jewish women. Tillie Olsen shows us, through Lee Grant at how much cost to herself the famous all-nurturing Jewish Mama gave. Weill’s equally fresh vision is of a young Jewish woman’s coming of age, her face very much turned toward work and her back turned to weddings and children.

Girlfriends, by far the better film of the two, which talked with a surprising new voice to some important feminist themes when it first came out a few years ago, still feels fresh, charming, disarming-ly personal. This is due in large part to the attractive New York Jewish quality of its central figure, a quality that at the same time is very different from standard film images of young Jewish women.

In Melanie Mayron, who plays Susan Weinblatt, Weill also cast an interesting and real person. The look and personality of Mayron is central to the film—her wild hair and unfashionable glasses, her too-round face and irregular teeth, her attractively clumsy gait—and the fact that she is beautiful and enormously appealing, looking as unconventional as this. Along with her intelligence, she has a lovely whimsy and hunger for life, and intense work ambition.

Mayron is not a great actress, nor is this a monumental character, but Weill’s heroine is full of a precious individuality unusual in film, and rooted here in the particularity of her New York Jewish origins.

The film is about work, an area American films have never done well with (in contrast with Italian films, for instance) but which is crucial to feminism. Weill doesn’t glamorize work; she honestly pictures what it is to work hard, to learn to push for oneself, to cope with competitiveness. She shows us the disappointments, and the joy of achievement and recognition.

The film has Susan raise questions about marriage and childbearing through her disapproval of her more conventional friend Anne’s decision to marry, have children, and forego her writing. Susan, scornful of the old “gracious living” marriage ideal, is like one of her photos, glimpsed fleetingly, of a girl turning away from the bride. Yet the film harbors no cliches. If all the marriages in the movie are floundering, living alone is not idealized but seen as painfully lonely.

Only an independent filmmaker, and a brave one, would attempt such unlikely (that is, unmarketable) material as Tillie Olsen’s “Tell Me A Riddle.” An old couple is at the center of the film, quarreling bitterly; the woman, further, dying of cancer; beyond that, she is an old Jewish mother and grandmother who recoils from her young.

A character this appealing and yet this contrary to stereotypes is in itself a contribution. Olsen’s theme of the woman imprisoned in domesticity, craving books and solitude to think her own thoughts, is powerful enough to even manage to give some strength to the film, but so wonderful, and so richly and uniquely Jewish a literary work deserves far better than it got at the hands, however well meaning, of Lee Grant.

Being a Jewish woman director going the independent route is in no way a guarantee of quality, even with such a brilliant and touching work. The world created there, saturated in Yiddish culture, radiant with poetry, heavy with the deepest emotions, needed an equal talent to translate it to the screen—and Lee Grant’s direction in my view is disastrous, as is her choice of Lila Kedrova for the heroine. Despite some captivating childlike charm and glee at moments, Kedrova’s face is wrong, her movements are wrong, as in-authentic as the Beverly Hills costumed group that in flashbacks are laughably supposed to evoke old Revolutionary Russia. These choices, as well as other kinds of directorial decisions, are continually disturbing. Only Melvyn Douglas, the old husband in Riddle, can sometimes sound true notes. Still, people sniffled all through the movie at the Jewish Film Festival, stirred by the film’s general content and what they recognized in it.

The American women directors focus heavily on the personal and on self-exploration, and strongly question traditional associations with love, marriage, and motherhood. The films by non-American men—The Wooden Drum by the Israeli director Ilan Moshenson, and High Street by the Belgian director Andre Er-notte—are heavy with tragedy—of war and Holocaust. Although not conventional films, they cast women in traditional symbolic roles, identified them with family, and with profound emotion, to the point of hysteria, even derangement. The terrible Holocaust losses are expressed through their anguished grief for their own particular destroyed family. By the intensity of their suffering the women provide a humanizing moral vision from the pain of the Holocaust.

Annie Cordy, a well known comedic performer in Europe, does an extraordinary tour de force as a seemingly mad woman in High Street. She is the film in fact, as she stares out blankly from behind her street fish stall or alternately, rages in the streets. Gradually we realize that she is reliving over and over again the S.S.’ taking of her husband and their killing her child, while people watched and did nothing to help. She repeats that indictment from a church pulpit and, in fact, everywhere—a harrowing truth she will never be released from, witness to a level of monstrosity that pushes one beyond sanity. But her madness is entered voluntarily by a successful American painter in the film who becomes fascinated with her, and finally takes her place. While this artist is not a convincing character (a serious flaw), the woman herself—and the mute German man who accompanies her—are haunting figures, and her paroxysms are seen not only as a pitiful illness but as an appropriate moral response to this world.

In The Wooden Gun, a 1979 Israeli film that addresses itself to the question of Israel’s military preoccupations through a “war” between two groups of pre-adoles-cent boys, the two important female characters are again vessels of intense emotion, of mourning and memory of the dead. And finally they are figures who point the way beyond these, to healing and peace. The boy who is the central character of the film, Yoni, is deeply attached to a mother obsessed with finding her lost (and probably dead) Eastern European family (the film is set in 1950, right after the War of Independence). Yoni’s mother is horror-struck at the thought of further wars for Israel and equally chagrined over the parallel warring of her son and his friends. Palestina, the other central woman character in this affecting film, is a mad woman who dances by the sea, and cries to her neighbors for peace. Victimized by the boys, she lives in a kind of cave, the walls of which are covered with photographs of Holocaust dead, as well as one wall ablaze with yahrzeit-like candles. The film’s most powerful and poignant scene occurs here, when Yoni finally reaches a stunned understanding of what the Holocaust was. The film’s conclusion shows him groping his way toward some alternative to the hopeless male militarism he has been living by, and the film’s women are crucial to this process.

Barbara Quart teaches English at the College of Staten Island and reviews regularly for several film periodicals.