Sunday, February 4, 2007

Director Richard Berge on art theft in Iraq, World War Two films, and "The Rape of Europa"

Based on Lynn Nicholas' award-winning book, The Rape of Europa documents the systematic theft, deliberate destruction, and miraculous survival of Europe's art treasures during the Second World War. The film interweaves the history of Nazi art looting with the dramatic and heroic story of U.S. "Monuments Men" who safeguarded and returned displaced art at the end of the war.

Richard Berge,
Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham directed the film. The following is my interview with Richard Berge.

Your film maintains dramatic tension without melodrama. With WWII films, there is always this risk. Please talk about how you achieved a balance.
I am not sure if there is a subject that has had more movies and documentaries made about it than World War II. The History Channel is practically devoted to the subject. Going into this project, we knew that the biggest challenge would be to make a film that would seem brand new. I think the key was finding historical eyewitnesses/participants who seem absolutely real while telling fantastical tales that you practically can’t invent. And I think what comes through is this deep, heart-felt reverence that they all have for their culture and its artistic artifacts. They make us believe that something really important was at stake. Not that the art was more important than people’s lives, but that both could be precious and worth protecting at the same time.

How did you devise the film's narrative arc?
This was the hardest nut to crack. We had to contend with several countries, both armies and civilians, and then, on top of that, two different sorts of problems: the vast Nazi theft of art versus terrible wartime destruction committed by both sides. We struggled with how much historical background about the war was needed—what do people 60 years later still commonly know? Like all documentaries, it was a big puzzle, and we decided to structure the film roughly chronologically. And then we used Hitler and Goering as recurring figures to unify the whole.

Our editor Josh Peterson deserves great applause for his discipline in keeping this epic story under control and for devising ways to interweave past and present, archival images and original footage, and for keeping the dramatic tension returning to earlier stories with new surprises. We had 200 hours of original footage, another 50+ hours of archival footage, and hundreds of archival photographs that he had to contend with. That takes a lot of patience and concentration.

Also, I want to note that the music plays a really important function of unifying all the diverse narrative threads. The composer Marco d’Ambrosio created an almost Wagnerian score that offers subtle leitmotifs for different characters and countries. As the film jumps around from country to country, the music subtly prepares you for where we are going next, and sometimes, who is the next story about. It is a fabulous score, emotional in all the right ways, that he and his wife Terri arranged to have recorded in Prague by the Prague Philharmonic.

Here’s an interesting side-story about recording in Prague. For two days we recorded these Czech musicians in this Soviet-era sound stage in an old building on a sidestreet in downtown Prague. The patina of the place evoked so much history, but we were surprised by the engineer at the end of the last session. He, of course, had noticed that our film was about the World War II and that it included old Nazi newsreel footage. He told us that the sound stage had a long history: it was always quite busy through the Soviet era recording music for radio and films. But he said the place was originally built during the war by Joseph Goebbels to record soundtracks for Nazi films and newsreels, maybe even the ones that we featured in the film!

How did the project come to be?
Nicole Newnham and Bonni Cohen read the book by Lynn H. Nicolas. Lynn had published it in 1994, and I can safely say that her book was a landmark in the sense that for the first time the vast story of the fate of art in the Third Reich and World War II was brought together into one comprehensive history. Her work opened the door for all of the interest in art restitution that has been generated ever since. Everyone in the field credits her as the pioneer. Anyway, to Nicole and Bonni, the stories that Lynn wrote about were breathtaking. Here you had the highest aspirations of our nature, in the form of art, under threat by the manifestations of the dark side of human nature: genocidal racism and catastrophic warfare on a scale never experienced. Art and war side by side. On top of that, the story was inherently visual—it’s about art after all. I was just coming off of another project when we all decided to move forward on it. That was 1999. It took us five years to raise the money we needed to make the film, and principal photography started in the fall of 2004.

The Rape of Europa was made with three directors. How do you think this is reflected in the film? How did you decide the division of labor?
When you have an epic story that spans seven countries on two continents and six languages, suffice it to say that it’s a lot for a single director to handle. It’s our secret how we divided up the job.

I'd love to know more about art theft and destruction in the Iraq War and how Monuments Men were involved.
My knowledge is limited with regard to the looting that occurred in Iraq in the early days of the invasion. But I do know that experts were convened to advise the Pentagon on what might be expected and how to respond. Unfortunately, contrary to what happened during World War II when President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower on down the ranks responded to advice from cultural experts by creating the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the Allied Military Government, our invading forces in Iraq didn’t really act on the advice offered by this latest committee of experts. We know now that the Baghdad Museum was looted of some 15,000 objects within the first days. Some of these objects are relics of ancient civilizations, including some of the oldest written languages we know of. Utterly irreplaceable. Thankfully, many of the looted items have been recovered. A few days after the invasion, I got a phone call from one of the living Monuments Men from World War II, a lifelong art historian who seemed to be almost in tears. “Why couldn’t they have called up some of us living MFAA vets for our advice!? We protected hundreds of museums from looting during World War II. It’s a rather simple thing to park a tank or two outside of these important cultural buildings.” In response to questions about the looting, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld replied that “stuff happens.” Maybe there was something special about the so-called Greatest Generation because I can’t imagine Roosevelt or Eisenhower giving the same reply as Rumsfeld.

After the screening:
From left to right,
directors Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham; author Lynn Nicholas

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Poet and Critic Nina Cassian's Introduction to the US Premiere of "The Great Communist Bank Robbery"

In 1959, a car belonging to the Romanian National Bank carrying $1.6 million in cash was allegedly held up at gunpoint in Bucharest. Six Jews, all former elite members of the Communist Party, were arrested. To avoid a death sentence, they agreed to play themselves in a propaganda film and to re-enact the crime and the investigation. The cameras continued to roll at trial; still, the accused were promptly executed. While exploring various theories on the robbery, filmmaker Alexandru Solomon 'deconstructs' Romania's tragic and complex history.

On January 24 and 25, 2007, Nina Cassian introduced the US premiere of The Great Communist Bank Robbery by Alexandru Solomon. She also read selections from her poetry. Nina Cassian is regarded as one of Romania’s most prominent literary figures. She is a poet, playwright, short story writer, illustrator, composer, journalist, critic, and translator. In 1985 she received political asylum in the United States.

The following is Nina Cassian's introduction to “The Great Communist Bank Robbery.” Two of her poems follow.


"I could say "enjoy" the next movie - Alexander Solomon's GREAT COMMUNIST BANK ROBBERY -- even if the subject itself is not exactly enjoyable! But the film is certainly a most striking revivification of a most spectacular moment in Romanian post World War II history.

I've been asked to speak to you tonight because I'm probably one of the few survivors who knew any of the participants in this bleak event. I knew three of them, of whom only one - the woman involved - I did know well. Her name was Monica Seveanu, a young communist, who had been my superior "contact" (as in the French Resistance) with the Young Communists during the war. After the war, we lost touch.

But some fifteen years later, in 1961, some of us would be summoned to the Party's official paper headquarters to see a film which had been made as a "reconstruction" of that already famous bank robbery - the details of which you will be seeing in Mr. Solomon's film. To my amazement and stupefaction, I recognized Monica in it, her husband, whom I had known only slightly, and Sasha Mushat - who, at the time I met them, both seemed to me to be adventurous, if not true adventurers. Though one of them had been a spy, I never met the other three, but if I recall correctly, one of them was a scientist, another was in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Anyway, they were all brilliant young people.

As a first reaction, I thought that the so-called "reconstruction" was a staging of the event, a fake or a fiction, with a pronounced anti-Semitic flavor. I mean, how was it possible for young, honest people, all of them Jewish intellectuals, who had risked their lives fighting clandestinely for an ideal - probably a Utopia - to become genuine bank robbers? Of course, we were all disappointed to see our generous ideal turned into a bloody dictatorship. I myself wrote numerous subversive poems which the censorship couldn't decipher, or actually, didn't care, since a poem could never change a regime!

But back to the robbery: to conceive and perform such an outrageous act in order to achieve what? A kind of protest? Or was it just for money? We were told that Monica's husband, who was also a pilot, was presumably expected to fly the members of the gang to
Israel. What could they have done in Israel with little valued Romanian currency? It didn't make sense.

In any case, ten years passed again -- during which time all the participants in the robbery were executed, except Monica. Around then, she paid me an unexpected visit, asking for an autograph on one of my children's books. Whereupon I asked her: "Wasn't that whole movie they showed us a fake?" "No," she said, "indeed, we did it! I had to find money for my starving children." So, I had to admit reality. It had really happened. But still...

Alexander Solomon has made a remarkably objective retelling of this sad story. A real tragedy. He did an exhaustive job of interviewing all the people he could find who had been involved in any way with this misguided adventure. Friends, relatives, acquaintances, even enemies of the participants. And he artfully selected movie sequences from the original dubious "reconstruction" film, and skillfully shaped this documentary from them and whatever else he could find out. As you will see, there are still a number of unanswered questions. It's up to you to make a final judgment."

-Nina Cassian, January 2007



And when summer comes to an end
it's like the world coming to an end.
Wilderness and terror - everywhere!

Days shrink
till all dignity's gone.
Wet slabs of cloth
drape our bodies:
dejected coats.
And then we shiver, stumbling
into the holes of Winter Street
on the corner of Decline...

What's the good of living
with the idea of Spring
- dangerous as any Utopia?


The wheel is not in my hands
The wheel is over my head;
no one turns it left
or right: the vessel is dead still.
The wheel rests like a spider
fixed on my wooden sky.
What is it doing there?
It's a helm gone mad.
What could it possibly steer
on the vertical road of the Nowhere Sea?
And why does the helm not move
in this world so rich in helmsmen?
The wind at least could have set it in motion.
Where is the somnambulant bat to give it a turn?
Where is the moon to alter its shape,
lengthen the spokes and flatten the contour
so that it is more of a fish?
The vessel's voyage must end here;
the helm is insane, it cannot steer.

-Nina Cassian

Friday, January 26, 2007

Part II of My Interview With Director Alejandro Springall: Filmmaking, Acting and “My Mexican Shivah"

This is Part II of my interview with Alejandro Springall (Click here for Part I).

As a producer, Alejandro Springall’s films have been nominated for an Oscar, and as a director he has won various awards, including Sundance’s Latin American Cinema Award and the Grand Prix de la Découverte for his 1999 “Santitos.”

-Interview by Jon Robbins

When I spoke to Raquel Pankowsky, who plays Esther, she told me how she felt unprepared for the role, and how you helped her.
Raquel is a comedy actress, she didn’t want to perform, didn’t feel she could do it, didn’t like her own religion, etc. She asked me to give her a small role, but I knew she could do it, so I told her no: “Be my clay, I’ll be your sculptor; let me take you, just trust me.”

After two or three days Raquel would cry when she entered the set, so it became quite easy! And my mantra with her was “the less the more.” "I’m going to have your face, just be there,” I would say, “I’ll do the rest with the lighting and the editing.” You see, film is a director’s medium, not an actor’s medium; it’s not like theater.

How do you work with actors?
I love working with actors and I’m very patient with them. They trust me. I know the story like no one else, and I tell them “it’s not your character, it’s mine. I’m lending it to you.” Actors can never see the entire picture: they just don’t know the interrelations of the characters like the director does.

In the editing room, I can move performances the way I want. I can make a character tragic or comedic. Great film actors trust the director because he’s the one telling the story. “I’m going to manipulate you,” I try to convey, “just let yourself go.” I take the pieces and sew them together and make them intelligible.

Did the actors see the whole screenplay?
Yes, but I didn’t want to go deep with them; I kept most information for myself and my editor, Otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten that irony and innocence I wanted.

So from the get-go you knew you’d be highly invested in the editing process?
When you make a movie you make three: one when writing, one filming and one when editing. I enjoy editing the most. All the material you’ve shot becomes your pen and paper. You need to rewrite the film completely because you have to extract its meaning from all the audiovisual material you have. I then forget the script, which I work with on a script level, and which during shooting, I leave it with my script girl.

Once the actors speak their lines, they take on a new meaning, and you have to be open and ready for this part of the process. As a director you need to sensitive enough to know what all the new heads coming to the project are bringing, and you need to be very receptive to this; to be reading constantly the maximum possibility you have with your material.

How did your approach to “My Mexican Shivah” differ from in past films?

I‘ve produced seven movies, so I can have a very rational approach to filmmaking. But in this film my biggest challenge was to direct from intuition, apart from much rational process. And this I think this makes the film a rich emotional experience.

I worked with the actors, saw the scene in place and then decided we’re going shoot it this way or that. It’s like working with the catch of the day: one day they go out and catch red snapper, the next it’s sole, and that’s what you have to prepare, you work with those elements. It’s rather the same with human beings. I don’t believe you can really plan it all as a director, anyway. When you consider that you’re working with human beings, you’re more open, you’re flexible, and things don’t break.

“My Mexican Shivah” comes from a short story whose idea you introduced to Ilan Stavans. What are some of the challenges you encountered in going from written words to the silver screen?
You end up telling different sides of the story with different media. Really, films are short short stories; In film, you don’t have the time to divert yourself dramatically as you can in writing. So film is a limited medium, but it has other powers that writing doesn’t: the impact of a smile, of a look, of a cut from one image to another, a well-delivered line; that flavor, you get only in film.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

"Hineini:" Judaism, Homosexuality, and One Young Woman's Strength

Hineini, Hebrew for 'Here I am,' chronicles the story of one student’s courageous fight to establish a gay-straight alliance at a Jewish high school in the Boston area. Shulamit Izen enters ninth grade longing to connect more deeply with her Jewish faith while embracing her lesbian identity. This film depicts the transformative impact of her campaign on peers, teachers, administrators, and parents.”

-Interview by Jon Robbins

I spoke with Irena Fayngold, Director of Hineini, Idit Klein (Executive Director of Keshet, the organization that produced the film), Bonnie Rosenbaum (Director of Communications and Film Outreach, Keshet; Associate Producer, "Hineini"), and the film’s star, Shulamit Izen.

How did “Hineini” come about?
Idit Klein: The project started in 2002 when Shulamit spoke at a Keshet house party and a member urged her to document the story. So I called my friend Irena, and as we started work the project grew and grew. It bloomed from a two-month project.

Irena: The school’s board early on revoked permission for us to shoot Hineini. A student, who is now a filmmaker, Arnon Shorr, had been walking around with a camera. We were completely lucky to have his footage, which comprises virtually everything shot at the high school. It really made the film possible.

Shulamit [the film's star], throughout the documentary, you get mixed messages from your teachers, the rabbi-principal of your high school, your parents, perhaps even from your study of Judaism, in general. How did you assimilate all these mixed messages into a framework you could live with?
Shulamit: In the film it is clear that my teacher gave me mixed messages, and in fact it was to her that I came out in the ninth grade. It was in a Jewish Thought class, and we had been studying Jewish views on homosexuality. We had read Maimonides where he proclaims that women who rub up against each other should be flogged. I felt so pained, and she hugged me.

Later I knew she wasn’t a supporter of the Gay-Straight Alliance that I had started, but knowing that she had hugged me, had reached out to me personally, that I remembered. Really, that’s how it was with most of the school; they could mostly accept me on a personal level.

Shulamit, do you feel that having studied texts early on, Jewish texts that are so full of mixed messages, prepared you for coming out? Did being a Jew prepare you for being a lesbian?
Shulamit: I think the Jewish concept of Engaged Argument created an environment where I could struggle and the struggle would hurt, but that was also the point.

Irena Feingold: What impressed me about Shula was her ability to live in the tension, with the contradictions. She was never satisfied to be comfortable on one side of an issue. She needed to struggle with what the text said.

Idit: There is a part of Shulamit that demands the full embrace and love of the community, even as she struggles. She says at one point in the film that she is willing to struggle in her relationship with god, but not with her community. Even there I see a contradiction.

Irena: It’s fine to talk about theory, but as adults we have to recognize that these young people are not struggling in the abstract. They are dealing with real life, and we have to deal with these issues before we deal with the theories of the text. I think Shulamit was able to deal with text in an advanced way, but not all kids at that age can. I remember boys at the school and they’re holding their ego in their hands and they just want to know that they’re okay. That’s really important to remember before you engage in theoretical conversations with kids.

And that’s what impressed me as a filmgoer, that you, Shulamit, were able to struggle without that baseline of affirmation...
Irene: But Shulamit did have affirmation at home, which some kids, and I’ve gotten letters to this effect, did not. Professionals have told me that kids cannot do without this support.

Was that your experience, Shulamit, that you found affirmation at home?
Shulamit: I think that Keshet was even more than home a place of support. After the principal of my high school shot me down when I explained what I was going through, the first thing I did was to call Keshet, whose director sat in a Dunkin Donuts with me and we talked.

At home, my mother made it clear “this is your fight, I’m not fighting this for you,” so I guess you can debate how much support that was. And clearly I wanted her on my team, but she was a weak cheerleader. She did bake cookies! [laughter all around]. But I think Irena’s right, I did have more support than others.

Jon Robbins (me) with Director Irena Fayngold

Even with the support you had, Shulamit, the task you undertook, to introduce a Gay-Straight Alliance, was brave and very difficult. Watching the film I was so impressed. How did it feel to effect such change?
Shulamit: Watching anyone change is incredible and unexpected. In this case, it happened because I had training from Keshet in community organizing. I realized that even if the rabbi [and principal] couldn’t hear me he would hear other around him. Building one-on-one relationships with those in his community was key, and then when teachers in the school came out and spoke with him, he realized, I think, that there was a lot of hurt and hiding. In the end, he is a very sensitive person and he responded.

Irena: One of the skills that Shula has is, as Idit once said, that she isn’t afraid of putting herself out there, in spite of potential rejection. I think that the rabbi’s realization at the end is that it is the responsibility of adults to help kids with these issues.

Idit: Shulamit offered people the opportunity to be allies with her, not just to help her. Her language was key in letting people see how they, too, were invested in her struggle, how it was theirs as well. I think this was extraordinary and particular to Shulamit. The strategy of approaching people one-on-one was something we taught her at Keshet, but her openness and trust is uniquely Shula.

Have you found, Idit, that many of the young people who come to your organization struggle with these mixed messages?
Idit: Sure. I mean, I have plenty of kids whose parents are good Newton liberals [fancy suburb outside Boston] who always vote the right way on gay issues, but it’s different when your kid comes out. And the fact that it feels different is totally unexpected. They’d thought they would be accepting but that’s not how it turns out. This speaks to the need for proactive affirmation for GLBT students in the curricula. Kids really need to hear ‘you’re Jewish, and you’re going to have a great Jewish life’ because the default in the world-at-large is that you cannot be holy and gay. If kids don’t explicitly hear otherwise, this is the message that sticks.

Irena: Kids live in an environment controlled by their parents and their schools, so we need to reach out and be explicit in affirming them. Just because they live in Boston or San Francisco does not mean they get the gay-affirmative messages adults can find.

At one point in the film, Shulamit identifies a teacher’s rainbow keychain, which is a way of saying, “I, too, am a lesbian.” The teacher analyzes this for the camera, and says that Shula was telling her ’I see you, do you see me?” I liked this a lot, and I wanted to ask Irena whether this was a guiding principal in the film: that once you see, you cannot help but be engaged?
Irena: Sure. I like that. And the question is also how do you get people to see. I hope this film allows people to do that.

From left to right, Shulamit Izen, Idit Klein, and Irena Fayngold

What were some of the factors that drove you, Shula, to keep active despite the obstacles?
Shulamit: When I was in a private place, like the girl’s room, for instance, people would confide in me “I just kissed a girl. What does that mean about me?” So I knew there were other people in the school who wanted to be out, and that drove me. And I’d already been active in a letter-writing campaign on behalf of gay men in Egyptian prisons, yet I couldn’t be out in my own school.

I just found that when you open up and show your vulnerability, people respond in kind. They open up and soften, and seeing this in just one person is sustaining. I realized that everyone, at some point, feels they are on the boundaries of their community, so what does that say about their community?

What is Keshet?
Idit: Keshet was started by three Jewish men who wanted a place where they could be themselves fully, as gay Jews. I’ve brought community-organizing strategies to the organization, which is now a big part of what we do. We’re now doing work to help schools formulate curricula that are GLBT-inclusive in Boston and San Diego, with the plan of incorporating them nationwide in the near future.

-Interview by Jon Robbins

The Directors Eat!

Andrew Ingall of the Jewish Museum reported the following on the Director's dinner:

"On Saturday night, January 20, Joan Rosenbaum, The Jewish Museum’s Helen Goldsmith Menschel Director, invited NYJFF filmmakers to dinner at Josephina, across from the Lincoln Center Plaza. Guests included Gabrielle Antosiewicz (Matchmaker), Henry Meyer (Four Weeks in June), Gabriela Bohm (The Longing), Yoram Ivry (Family Matters), Zohar Lavi (Chronicle of a Jump), Kristi Jacobson (Toots), Lucy Kostelanetz (Sonia), Julia Kots (Naturalized), and festival staffers Andy Ingall and Aviva Weintraub. Topics of discussion included: the benefits of a formal film school vs. a self-taught education, audience response to one’s film in a Jewish film festival and a more general film festival, and the benefits of being part of a community of filmmakers."

Aviva Weintraub, Director, NYJFF

Left to right, Zohar Lavi (Chronicle of a Jump), Gabriela Bohm (The Longing), Yoram Ivry (Family Matters)

Julia Kots (Naturalized)

Gabrielle Antosiewicz (Matchmaker), Andrew Ingall (The Jewish Museum), Gabriela Bohm (The Longing)

"The wine was flowing and we had a wonderful time."

Gabrielle Antosiewicz on Love, Judaism, and the Elusive Kosher Man

I started my interview with Director Gabrielle Antosiewicz by asking her out on a date, which she politely but firmly declined. She has had some practice…

In her witty documentary, Gabrielle Antosiewicz gets to know some promising suitors by inviting them to bake a challah. And while the dough is rising, viewers learn about the travails of Internet dating and the secrets hidden beneath an Orthodox woman’s wig.

What other projects have you worked on?
My training is as a social worker, and I’ve approached my films from there. My two previous films were about physically challenged people, one about a guy who became unsatisfied with Swiss healthcare and moved to Bali, and the other about children with cleft palates in India.

“Matchmaker” was in the theaters in Switzerland for five months, which forced me to talk a lot about Judaism. So that’s what I’ve been doing for more than a year. It kind of just focuses you, doing a movie like that. I’m a Jewish expert now!

Your film was very funny and subtle. Are Jews like that in Switzerland, funny and subtle?
My crew and I always found the film humorous, but we were pleasantly surprised to find the audiences have agreed. Jews can be very funny in Switzerland, or also very not funny.

And the different audiences take it differently. For instance, the Swiss audiences really find the gentleman who sells kosher cheese and chocolate to be great, and funny. The clichés really play well there, and it’s wonderful, an Orthodox Jew selling Swiss cheese and chocolate. It is a good to introduction to Judaism for Swiss audiences.

And your audiences here?
I really appreciated how people waited outside for me at Lincoln Center, all the love they showed for the film. And they tended to get more of the Jewish jokes.

Gabrielle, right, hears about a fan's appealing son

What is Jewish life like in Switzerland?
Switzerland is a great country, a great clean nice chocolate Army Knife clock country. And we have 18,000 Jews, which is not a lot. But one nice thing is the diversity of the Jewish community in Switzerland, which was not decimated during WWII as elsewhere, and which has everything from Lubavitch to Reform. The Jews need to stay together in cities like Zurich and Basel for practical reasons, like forming a Minion and finding kosher food. There is also a tiny community in Baden, where refugees from the camps came. But many Jews in Switzerland have been there for several generations.

How easy is it to be Swiss and Jewish?
We have a large amount of Jews who practice modern Judaism, and are very Swiss. They go to normal schools, and you don’t really know they are Jewish unless you see a kippah. Then you have people like me, the secular, who get their Jewish identity from youth groups, mostly.

In this country, you know every Jew from childhood, and then it is not interesting to date them with you get older. So I cannot find a kosher man. But, maybe I will do as the audiences have been telling me and move to America. I’ve spent the last four months in LA and I liked it.

Or you could date a non-Jew, right? But wasn’t that a problem for one of the families?
And then this Orthodox family got angry and wouldn’t attend the movie because I ended the film saying I might marry a non-kosher man. I told them “I am not judging your life in the film, so you shouldn’t judge mine.”

I’m happy to say I just heard that the gentleman (who sells kosher food) will be attending a talk on Christianity and Judaism I will be giving back home. And I see where he’s coming from, the pressures he faces from his own community, but for me, as a woman, I will be able to make Jewish children and to raise them Jewish, so it is less important to marry a Jewish man. It would be much easier if the husband were Jewish, too, and much more fun. And if he’s not, I will have some difficulties, I’m sure.

Like one of the car dealers in “Matchmaker?”
Yes, the wife converted and then they had children. In fact, the car dealer brothers are twins, and the non-Jewish wives both converted--they do everything together—but they sort of let it fall by the wayside. They turn 50 and the husband joins the Jewish choir and hangs out with Jewish friends. Then, the husband wants the children to marry Jewish spouses. I felt there was a disconnect they didn’t speak about. And then his wife asked him a really good question: “Why didn’t you marry a Jewish woman?” This was a great moment in the film. It was a heavy, serious question that I couldn’t allow myself.

What has the dating experience been like for your Jewish friends in Switzerland?
This is one of things that pushed me to make the movie: once my friends who had been dating non-Jews turned 30, they all started relationships with Jews and within a year all fell in love and got married. I said to myself this is all a bit funny. It never happens to me! What’s going on here?

So what did you do?
I met with my rabbi, which I left out of the film because I didn’t want to present just one sect of rabbi, who helped me calculate that there about 40 available men in my age range and level of observance in the country of Switzerland. I’ve probably met most of them, if not on my own then through the movie.

And how has the scene been treating you as of late?
I can tell you that the men who approached me after screenings were strange. It is interesting that sometimes strange people have more confidence in writing and making contact than the normal ones! Yes, at the screenings in Switzerland, strange men would approach me and tell me they were the one.

I was intimidated to interview you, I must admit. Because you get such good material from your subjects. Would you tell me how you interview?
Haha. I maintain neutrality, prepare carefully, and let things unfold. What I did in the movie was to portray people from different walks of life without judging them, without too much commentary, a really old documentary style, in a way. And even then I only made fun of myself, really. And I appeared in the movie, which I felt I needed to do if I was going to send the message I wanted to send.

At first I didn’t even want to narrate the film, but then it became clear it needed it. In the voiceover, I make comments that are neutral but playfully ironic, which took me ages to write. And as you remarked earlier, Jon, in one scene you can see my reflection in the glass, and I have my hand over my mouth. That is because I was very tired that day. Normally I am much more animated.

I try to be a good listener, and use silence to get people to say a little more, which often is very interesting. Plus, I always fall in love with my cast of characters, so I like to listen to them talk. And in the end, I show myself too, and I make friends from this. From each film I make at least three or four friends.

To what degree do you think the Jewish experience in Switzerland informs Jewish dating culture?
We do have JDate, and I tried this to cast the challah-bakers in “Matchmaker.” But after a while I found you end up writing too much, and the other person’s questions just get silly, like “what is your favorite food to cook?” I would rather meet the person for a cup of coffee. I mean, after a while, what should I tell you, “I’m working. I like to work. I’m sleeping, I’m eating.”? I get bored. Plus, as you saw in the film, my sense of humor is sarcastic. So after a while my emails get sarcastic and this doesn’t fly on JDate! The sarcasm comes from my genes (my dad), and it’s not mean.

Well, they say girls aren’t supposed to be sarcastic.
I know. I should be shy and nice and cooking. That’s why they kept asking me about my favorite dish. I mean, do you want love or someone to feed you?

I just read an article in the New York Times that surprised me. In America for the first time 51% of women live by themselves! And Zurich has one of the highest numbers of single-person households in Western Europe, if not the highest. With some women I know it does not make sense to marry: they make good money and are independent, and the men are unsure how to act, whether to be nice or macho. The gender roles are all blurry, and I think this will soon lead to a 51% figure of single women in Europe, too.

Well, your film screens at Makor. You might try their speed-dating service.
You know, a rabbi in L.A. invented speed dating. You see, I am a professional Jew! Back home this is what they call it when you’re always answering questions about Judaism. I think this period will end soon.

What are the typical questions you get asked?
Back home people always ask about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and they think this is one thing they know about. They confuse Judaism with the political policies of Israel, and so I end up spending a lot of time explaining the conflict from Israel’s point of view; otherwise they would never hear it. If they’re going to bomb something, it’s like I’m bombing them. I mean, I’m sitting in Zurich, so it’s not really true, I’m not bombing anyone. Right?

Yes, Gabrielle is having a latte with me. She is not bombing as of yet.
Thanks. And I also get a lot of appreciative comments regarding the plurality of Jews in “Matchmaker.” Walking the streets of Zurich, most of the Jews you see are Orthodox and they don’t say hello to anyone and don’t make eye-contact. So people think they are weird and unhealthy and have sex through the hole of a sheet, but after seeing my film, and meeting the two families, people realize there are reasons for how they choose to live, and some of the old stereotypes dissipate.

So you play the role of educator, too.
Oh, very much so. In fact I had this in mind as I approached “Matchmaker,” that it would educational and entertaining. All my movies are like that: I try to entertain and to inform. When I watch documentaries, it can get depressing. So I try to impart the information via entertainment. If you don’t have to cry and you’re allowed to laugh, I think it works best. That’s my own recipe.

And the topic is so global. It’s not just for Jews. It also resonates with a lot of minorities in Switzerland. I’ve had a lot of emails from Italians, Greeks, and Muslims saying they faced similar questions.

Where does this leave you in your search for a man?

It is a shame that things are so complicated. Ideally everyone would just mix and be friends and lovers, but that isn’t how it is. I’m not stressed out though, because I know I will meet someone who is comfortable by himself, too. And until then I’m waiting for that crazy feeling in your body when you fall in love.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Kristi Jacobson on Her Grandfather and Her Film, "Toots"

Larger-than-life Bernard "Toots" Shor cut his teeth in Prohibition Era New York. He mixed with the toughest elements in loan sharking, gambling, and bootlegging, and no one was tougher, gruffer, or more charming. Toots Shor loved the city of New York and loved running his famous restaurant and club on West 51st, named Toots, of course. Come discover a simpler New York bounding back from the War with booze, celebrities, sports, and an intense optimism embodied in Toots' private club. The Yankees, Jackie Gleason, and Frank Sinatra were all personal friends, and Walter Cronkite, Mike Walace, Lauren Bacall, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford all have good things to say; but Toots had demons, too. In her documentary film, Toots Shor's granddaughter explores and celebrates his life.

Kristi Jacobson has been working in documentaries for over ten years, and has made a number of television documentaries, but “Toots” is the first truly independent film that she has produced and directed.

I really liked the way you told the story of “Toots.” How did you approach the narrative strategy?

I’m especially pleased to hear that because figuring out how to do the narrative was far and away my biggest challenge. Mostly because I didn’t want to start the film in 1903 when Toots was born in Philadelphia because I knew I wanted to engage people in the era, in that heyday. The structure of the film really came to be in the editing process where my editors were instrumental. It was a really collaborative process.

Was there a script?
No, I only had my idea of what I wanted from the film. But we really worked the material and tried to create a narrative arc like in fiction films, with our feeling and instinct for the material. In fact one of our most important breakthroughs was realizing that New York was as much a character in the film as Toots was, and to make sure that we could interweave the two as they were in real life. I learned filmmaking from my mentor, Barbara Kopple, a legend in cinéma vérité, and I tried to bring that ‘Let’s let the material drive us’ ethos to “Toots.”

And it was especially interesting to see New York in your film, for instance when the city went broke.
As a New Yorker I had an incredible experience getting to know my city from the 30s to the 60s. And all that stuff is still a part of the sidewalks and the buildings, part of the water towers and the life of New York City, which, by the way, I think is the greatest city in the world even if it isn’t as great as it was then.

You showed the good and the bad of the city and of your grandfather.
I didn’t want to make a puff piece. Going in, I knew my grandfather had ties to the Mob, but I didn’t know how deep they ran. It was really important for to get to the bottom of that, and to bring it to the audience. Also, I didn’t go in with a preconceived idea of who my grandfather was; I wanted to discover him as I made the film. So I tried to present the good, the bad, and the ugly.

It was really hard. Someone asked me whether I’d been turned down for interviews. In fact the only people who turned me down were those who specifically did not like Toots. For instance, Joe Namath had noted in his biography that he didn’t like Toots and that he had no interest in a restaurant full of old geezers, that there were no chicks there. So I wanted to interview him because he represented an entire group of people who were important in the demise of Toots. I approached him with various important people and he did not want to do the interview. There was also someone who had written bad things about Toots and when I interviewed him he wouldn’t talk about it. All this made me quite determined.

Are you connecting this reticence with organized crime?
No, I think it has more to do with the fact that my grandfather was so beloved in the sports world, that to criticize him publicly isn’t gonna make you any friends. But it was frustrating as a filmmaker to dig through it all to get to that "other side" of Toots, which was really a big part of him.

How did you prepare for “Toots?”
“Toots” was a challenge to me because it was neither issue-based nor cinéma vérité, my milieu for ten years. So I watched a lot of film, and one that really influenced me was “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.” That’s what I love about filmmaking—I’ve made films about the Teamsters union and about women survivors of sexual abuse—there was something fun and new about “Toots.”

What’s next for you?
I’ll be doing a film about reform in the juvenile justice system in Washington, D.C. as a logical follow-up to “Toots.” And so I’m sticking with my cinéma vérité roots and branching out to historical topics as I’ve learned that not only is it important to tell stories of injustice but to engage with history. And if it makes people smile instead of cry, that’s okay.

When does "Toots" hit the theaters?
It's coming out in September of 2007. Neil Friedman at Menemsha Films really gets "Toots" and I’m very excited about that. His distribution model really fits the film.

Where did you get all that great archival footage?
The Oral History Recordings at Columbia University were of tremendous help. They had eight hours of audio footage of my grandfather! Getty worked with us as well, and we had a researcher there who did incredible work to get us footage. He was really determined to get new footage, which was exactly what I was trying to do, to bring the past alive. I had two great researchers on my team, too. And then, when it came time to get permisoon to use footage from people like Mike Wallace, it really helped to be Toots Shor’s granddaughter. There were a lot of people in high places who helped to free up materials for us. The Sinatra family was especially generous in allowing us to use “Come Fly With Me” in the interview with Frank.

You can find out more about "Toots" and filmmaker Kristi Jacobson at

Monday, January 22, 2007

Part I: Director Alejandro Springall on Judaism, Mexico, Filmmaking, and “My Mexican Shivah"

As a producer, Alejandro Springall’s films have been nominated for an Oscar, and as a director he has won various awards, including Sundance’s Latin American Cinema Award and the Grand Prix de la Découverte for his 1999 “Santitos.”

Alejandro bought me some chamomile tea and told me about Judaism, Mexico, filmmaking, and “My Mexican Shivah”…

-Interview by Jon Robbins

How does your film fit into today’s Mexican cinema?
Right now there’s a lot of expectation from Mexican cinema and Mexican filmmakers. For the moment, I am exempt since my film is completely out of any Mexican canon. Still, it reflects the rainbow of themes there is right now in Mexico cinema. For instance Judaism in Mexico and other topics that weren’t touched before are starting to emerge. For the NYJFF at Lincoln Center we sold out every screening, they had to return people! This is a good sign for Mexico. I was really happy to see such large turnout at the New York Jewish Film Festival.

“My Mexican Shivah” is Chekhovian comedy where there’s comedy and there’s drama. So it’s unique on this count alone. In fact, it is only the second Jewish-themed film from Mexico--the first being “Like a Bride”--“My Mexican Shivah” is the very first about Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim. The one private screening we had in Mexico City already created a lot of talk, and Jews talk a lot, thankfully.

Is there a consciousness of European history in Mexico from a Jewish perspective?
Absolutely. Most of the Ashkenazic immigration was Polish, Lithuanian, Russian; it’s people who came from the Shtetl, fleeing pogroms as early as the 19th century and into the 1920s and 30s, and then certainly after the war, but that was the smallest part.

We have a Museum of Tolerance, focused on the Holocaust and genocides throughout the world, and also on the different kinds of intolerance in Mexican history, discrimination against indigenous peoples, especially. It’s opening late this year in downtown Mexico City.

Jews in Mexico can have a very good life because it’s a country that supports liberty. Former president Vicente Fox had four ministers of Jewish descent; The head of the Federal Electoral Institute, which acts like a fourth branch in Mexican government, an architect of democracy in Mexico, is Jewish. The Jewish presence is respected and active in public life.

At one point there was the idea of creating the Jewish state in Baja, and there were discussions with Mexican government. Also, the Jewish community in Mexico has supported the state of Israel. And Mexico was one of the first countries to recognize Israel, and Mexico was the only Latin American Country that openly declared war on the 3rd Reich and who opened its doors to immigration from Jews fleeing Europe, and that is something the Jewish community in Mexico appreciates. And in turn, the Mexican government is appreciative of the Jewish community, and guarantees free Jewish life and pursues any act of anti Semitism.

There is hardly any overt anti-Semitism in Mexico; that’s very controlled. But remember that Mexico has a history of immigration different from other Latin American countries and from the US. Since its independence in 1821, slavery was outlawed and religious freedom was guaranteed.

What drew you to make a film about Jews and a film about a Shivah?
My first motivation was to make a family drama that took place in one location. Now I've always had a fascination for Jewish rituals…

I have a Jewish grandmother, and though I didn’t grow up as a Jew, I have one foot in the community. Of course I’ve been to a lot of Shivot in my life, and it occurred to me that the Shivah was a great ritual that had an incredible dramatic engine. For me, the purpose of the ritual is to find some spiritual well-being, and to decontaminate from death in order to mourn and thus continue with life. People who sit Shivah, the Avelim start in one emotional state, and after the seven days there has been a radical change.

I said to myself it was time to make a film about the Jewish community; that Mexico has developed enough and has become ever more present internationally, and that a lot of eyes are turning to Mexican cinema. All these ingredients made me want to do it.

We were talking casually the other day, and you remarked how different “My Mexican Shivah” was from your previous film, “Santitos” [Traveling Saints]…
Santitos was the opposite of “My Mexican Shivah”: the conflict rages because there is no ritual; there is death, but there is no means for resolution. There is no process for the loss. With “My Mexican Shivah” it is the opposite: the conflict arises because of a strictly regimented ritual. Also, I used 82 sets for "Santitos"! "My Mexican Shivah"mostly takes place in one apartment.

But in both films we have extremely Mexican characters: “Santitos” is not a religious movie either; it’s about the devotion of a woman to her saints, not Catholicism per se; in Mexico we inherited this devotion to saints from the early polytheistic religions. And with Judaism I wanted to add a third religion, to connote Mexico, really, where you see religious sites with all kinds of motifs—pre-Hispanic stuff, Judaism--where there is true religious syncretism.

The country allows what I call the “religious Paella,” but there is always a way to find a logic, and a fundament; Mexico is the blend of cultures: pre-Columbian, Spanish, but in the 19th century, French, and then the influences of commerce with China, Japan, and India. So we have that heritage. After all, the New Spain was the most important colony on the continent.

And also we should recall that the first Jews who arrived in Cuba and Mexico were fleeing Spain; Yes, the first Jews arrived with Cortez in 1521. Mexico City has the second oldest synagogue in the Americas! And since 1821 it has been recognized and open: the pogroms STARTED in 1860! Mexico has always been an extremely free country. No, I think the problems here are not about freedom but about social and economic differences.

When I spoke to Ilan Stavans, who wrote the short story on which “My Mexican Shivah” is based, he commented that Jews live freely in Mexico but are not “protagonists in the history of their country, the way they are in the U.S.” What do you think?
I believe that Jews are. Before now no, but there wasn’t that interest in it either.

They’ve always been protagonists in the sense that great lawyers and doctors are, but you don’t become a protagonist until you become a politician and Jews have become politicians only in the last 12 years. That’s what I think. You see, there were only ever a few cases where being Jewish prohibited you from being X; One cannot say this was ever part of the Jewish experience in Mexico.

Never has a Jewish temple been closed in Mexico, and despite the constitutional law that the government owns all temples, synagogues are NOT owned by the government; they respect the synagogues, and hillels and midrashes. And despite the law that education must be secular, Jews were always able to maintain religious schools. This is the first article in our constitution: no slavery, and full religious freedom.

Although in society, I can tell you, there is some anti-Semitism but it is a religious anti-Semitism. It comes from the horrible Catholic tradition of the Theocide. There is of course the type of anti-Semitism you have where people say “Oh you’re half Jewish Alejandro, I like Jews. I fact some of my best friends are Jews!” They don’t even know how deep this problem runs. But in the press you don’t see comments like that because of the Jewish Central Committee, which really works to educate and to keep anti-Semitic discourse out of public discourse.

No, there is no big difference between Jews and Mexicans like there is in the US, which is very anti-Semitic outside the large cities. I myself have investigated anti-Semitism on the Internet, and have found many chat rooms to be full of anti-Semitic discourse. I feel that American Jewry is in deep crisis, and not just because of intermarriage. To be a true American, you have to get rid of your past, this is part of the American dream: "We don’t look back we look forward,” which, I believe, makes younger Jews care a lot less about their religious background. However, in Mexico there is a lot of effort in the Jewish community to preserve their culture, and there is a lot less intermarriage. 80% of Jewish children in Mexico attend Jewish schools, in fact.

“My Mexican Shivah” has a unique visual style. The camera is an outsider, an “eavesdropper,” as you put it. Would you talk about this approach? How much of it is a product of the excellent acting?
I rehearsed a lot with the actors so they would really have the characters in their skin. The film wasn’t acted for takes. This allowed me to spend all set-time creating a naturalistic life for “Shivah” and to have the camera move with a lot more freedom. This way, I would catch bits and pieces of something that was actually happening.

Many times I used two cameras. I would run the entire scene knowing how I wanted to fragment it, so I would cover it in full takes. There was no performing for a certain cut. I just picked it all up with a very close camera and a POV, depending on what I thought of the scene. In some scenes we have to be very close to the character, we are their intimate, and then when it comes time to follow up on the general action, I switch to the POV.

Would you give an example of this technique?
For example, when Ari arrives with the kids: we are part of the turmoil, and it’s handheld and it’s brisk cutting. Like any Jewish family, everyone’s speaking at the same time. The camera is in the epicenter of the turmoil, so that the audience would be there and that would strengthen their emotional relationship with the whole Shivah.

The important thing was to be close or distant enough, and then to jump into the middle of the scene as that other characters, the camera. 85% of the movie takes place in one apartment so I had to avoid this feeling of claustrophobia, but also to go in and out in a certain way so the audience somehow feels it, too. To me it wasn’t very mise-en-scene but more documentary.

What about the music by the Klezmatics, wasn’t that mise-en-scene?
But the music helps with the atmosphere. It’s very specific, at certain transitions, in certain scenes, it keeps us attached to the Shivah and Jewishness.

Was that a concern?
I made this movie for Mexican audiences, non-Jewish audiences; I think non-Jews relate to the movie by way of these elements. I tried to communicate how this Shivah smells, sounds, and tastes by way of certain elements. How are the nights, how are the days, what do you eat? How’s the light? I had to give the most I could, I had to introduce Jewishness to the Mexican audience, and of course Jews who watch the movie pick up on many of these elements.

There is an aspect to the film that only Jews can understand, and there are a few elements that only very observant Jews notice and appreciate, like when the son and father recite the Kaddish. I had great council: two rabbi friends of mine helped me to plan the details.

We had one screening in Mexico City, but the World Premiere was here at the NYJFF. The non-Jewish audiences find it to be funnier; there is less time spent identifying and comparing. You see, that’s why I killed a grandfather distant to his family, and not a young boy. I’ve been to the worst and most tragic Shivot, and it was awful; that would have been inappropriate for my film. I wanted to open the door to a Jewish ritual which otherwise you cannot see, so people could watch and say a Jewish family is like any other. This is important to me because most prejudice is based on ignorance. Which was the thing my dad, who is Jewish, appreciated the most; that "My Mexiican Shivah" shows there is nothing cryptic about the Jewish experience.

Like Ilan Stavans says, ‘Jews are like any other human being, just a little bit more.’ Jewish rituals are very intense, and I wanted to communicate this. Look how beautiful, how wise, how old this ritual is, but also how right it is, how efficient. Everybody should have Shivot in their families, with their own prayers, their own religions; those seven days, man, they’re magical!

Maybe my next movie will be about a Bris: people think it’s a horrible thing to do, but I always show off my own Bris photos—that was one thing my father would not negotiate on. It’s one of the happiest rituals of them all. Men especially get very happy.

Please check back in the next few days for Part II of my interview with Alejandro Springall.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Directors Party!

Thursday night, after screening "Four Weeks in June," we headed over to Makor for the NYJFF Directors Party! Here are some photos from the evening...

La Laque provided the music...

Director Lisa Azuelos

From left to right, NYJFF Director Gabriela Bohm ("The Longing"), Leslie Yerman, and Leslie Friedman

From left to right: Writer Robin Cembalest, Jon Robbins (me), and Director Gabriela Bohm

Aviva Weintraub (The Jewish Museum/NYJFF Director)
and Irene Richard (Film Society of Lincoln Center).

Livia Bloom (American Museum of the Moving Image)
and Elliott Malkin (My Bris/Family Movie NYJFF 2005)

Ali Siegler (Makor) and filmmaker Alan Berliner
(Intimate Stranger/Nobody's Business NYJFF 1997)

Carlos Guitterez (Cinema Tropical) and Andrew
Ingall (The Jewish Museum)

Aviva Weintraub (The Jewish Museum/NYJFF Director) and Henry Meyer (Director, "Four Weeks in June")

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Gabriela Böhm Discusses Her Documentary, "The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America"

"'The Longing' is a moving documentary portrait of South Americans who, after discovering that their Jewish ancestors converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition, undertake profound, personal journeys of faith. Dismissed by local Jewish authorities, these determined men and women choose to study via the Internet with an American Reform rabbi who ultimately arrives in Ecuador to complete the conversion."

I spoke with Gabriela Böhm, whose documentary “The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of
South America,” has its World Premiere at the NYJFF.

Would you tell us more about what brought you to this project?

I was born in Argentina to parents who emigrated after the war from Eastern Europe. Then when my parents divorced, my mother took us to Israel, where I lived for ten years.

Later, as a film student at NYU, I heard an NPR show about crypto-Jews in New Mexico, which fascinated me. At the time I was still a student, and the issue’s richness and complexity put it a little out of my reach. But, years later I returned to that idea of crypto-Jews who believed they were the descendants of forced converts from the Inquisition. I wanted to find out why these people believed they were descendants, and what drove those who wanted to pursue Judaism.

What were some of the fundamental themes you wanted to explore?
The question of identity is really important to me: how people construct identity, what constitutes the pillars of one’s identity. And the people in my film lived in what I call a ‘dual identity process,’ as descendants of Jews who survived the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition and expulsion. Their relatives had to choose how to live, how to keep their traditions alive, while continuing to be Catholics on the outside. More than the real Catholics, they had to be very involved in the Church and the Catholic community to avoid suspicion, and on the inside, as forced converts, they lived out a secret identity.

Any written communication was risky: they could be tortured and killed for it; so Judaism lived on through the oral tradition. And traditions began to mutate as they embellished the existing ones, but some standards remained: not eating pork, lighting candles for Shabbat, not going to church during one’s menstrual period. It was unclear to the children why they observed these traditions but they passed them on just the same.

The few who care and begin to research their backgrounds, remark that they've noticed something in their fiber, if you will, that feels Jewish. This is not a scientific question, this is not an academic question, this is a question of feeling. And that is why it interests me so much: this question of what makes us who we are, what really forms our identity. What makes one a Jew?

Why did they identify these feelings with an essential Jewishness?
People who search for their identity are people who are looking for something concrete. All of us have this desire. The people in my film all spoke of returning home, not as a literal place but as a means of grounding, of a relationship to god they did not feel with Christianity. Part of this experience was identifying with Judaism. In any event, I think it’s a miracle for these people to be feeling a connection to Judaism so many centuries after their families were forced to convert.

“The Longing” maintains an expertly neutral tone throughout, but curiosity left me wondering where you stood…
It was very important for me to stay neutral: I didn't want to be some accusing hand because I feel we all make choices and need to take responsibility. I wanted to be there for their quest for acceptance, and to tell their story. Their hearts were set, and I felt for them.

You know, I don’t believe in answering questions so much as asking them. That makes me a Jew I guess. We really don’t like answering questions unless it’s with a question. This provides an environment with more discussion and investigation.

The prospective converts encounter tremendous resistance from the local Jewish councils…
Of course, I didn’t know that their story would take the path it did, that they would encounter such obstacles. As I filmed, I realized there was a strong reaction on my part, that I really was appalled by what they had to face. Even after completing the film, I am left with a lot of questions as to why things happened as they did. At the time I felt it had to do with the socio-economic difference between the two groups. Certainly they looked different: the prospective converts are mestizos, a mix between Indian and Spanish, so the mainly Ashkenazic council members couldn’t really identify with them as brothers. You know, Jews like to identify with one another as brothers, and here they couldn’t.
And one thing that struck me was how very Catholic the gestures and prayers of potential converts were.
Absolutely, this was interesting to me because they were affected by the Catholic environment at all levels, and they bring it with them even into their new Jewish lives. But, as the rabbi in the film says, if they were already Jews they would be like us, but since they are new to Judaism they bring with them a new relationship with god, a new love for god that we are not familiar with. And there is some iconography that gets blended into their behavior.

So, as much as they feel they are Jews, as much as they want to be, they are not recognized as Jews, even though have been become Jews. But will they ever be able to know how a Jew behaves if they are never allowed in the Jewish sanctuary? Only through participation could they learn? In this sense I sympathize with them. In Israel, they ask the same questions: are the Ethiopian Jews really Jews? I ask, how do we know?

How did you get to know the rabbi who helps the prospective converts?
I have amassed a lot of contacts as I’ve been researching this for a few years. The leading expert on Brazilian Jews put me into contact Rabbi Cukierkorn.

What are the lives of Jews like in Ecuador and Columbia?
For the cryto-Jews it is a very difficult road, even more so for those who converted. They have taken a stand, but they will not be part of the Jewish community. For what I’m told, they plan to form an association of crypto-Jews to worship together. This will be very difficult.

The local Jewish communities are very selective and exclusive. They are like a club. They can do whatever they like since they have their own guidelines. They mingle with those on the same social level, and marry within these ranks. Not so much in Argentina, but elsewhere in South America, it’s a ghetto-like experience.

Are they subject to anti-Semitic violence?
During the dictatorship in Argentina, they were. In fact, my young student cousins were among those murdered. Yet I don’t think there is active anti-Semitism in South America but I do feel the crypto-Jews will really suffer marginalization and that they will never find their place as things currently stand.

One last thing I wanted to say is that I have never seen a film where the actual process of conversion is shown. I’ve seen photographs from before and after the mikvah, but to be there inside the process, the rabbinical trial, I think this is an aspect of my film that might be interesting for many people.

"The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America" screens at Lincoln Center on Monday Jan. 22nd at 4PM and Tuesday Jan. 23rd at 1:30 & 6.

To find out more about Gabriela Böhm and her films, please visit

Please see the NYJFF in The News section of this blog for more press about "The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America," including her interview with Robin Cembalest in Nextbook.