Jewish Journeys

So there I was, sitting in the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor on May 4, 2009, watching a film set in Ashdod, Israel in which a young half Russian/half Israeli boy was trying to learn dances that originated in Spain and England. His instructor was a famous Russian dancer who was considering going to a dance competition in Stockholm, Sweden.

This mixture of cultures and nationalities came courtesy of Love & Dance, one of many movies in the 11th annual Lenore Marwil Jewish Film Festival. From May 3-7, the Michigan participated for the eighth time in this festival, which also ran in Commerce Township, Kalamazoo, Birmingham, Flint, and Windsor, Ontario from April 26-May 7.

Love & Dance wove together several romantic plots, primarily one involving two young children who find special meaning in their companionship. Their friendship helps them overcome problems at home and inspires them to compete in a national dance contest.

As I watched Love & Dance, I thought about its role as a movie in a Jewish film festival. For the many Jewish viewers of the movie, the sights and sounds of Israel must make them feel more connected to their roots.

I’m sure there were similar feelings at other ethnic film festivals held recently at the Michigan Theater, including the Ann Arbor Palestine Film Festival in March and the Ann Arbor Polish Film Festival in November. The Detroit Film Theatre recently participated in the Italian Film Festival USA.

Watching Love & Dance made me think of the different ways to look at many of the foreign language films shown at the Michigan and DFT. For American audiences, it’s the chance to see some familiar movie situations in a unique setting. For Israeli viewers of the film, they could see homegrown versions of a style of commercial moviemaking that they’re most used to seeing from Hollywood.

Of course, with our global culture, with the portability of ideas and images through video and the Internet, it’s getting harder and harder to tell what might be unique to a society. It was kind of surprising to see foul-mouthed children and punks with pierced faces and mohawk haircuts in an Israeli film—that’s the kind of thing I might expect from an American film.

There were also insecure personal attacks between Russian-born residents and native Israelis. A Russian referred to Israel as a “refugee camp,” and some Israeli youths ridiculed a dancer as a “Russian broad.” A soft drink machine in the community center prominently read “Cold Drinks,” showing how the English language often standardizes culture.

A Celebration of Culture

Love & Dance was shown in the Screening Room of the Michigan, and representatives of the Jewish Community Center of Washtenaw County were on hand in the intimately friendly area outside the theater to greet people, take their tickets, and hand out festival feedback forms.

The display tables included large postcards for a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Tel Aviv (“Israel’s Most Modern City”), which acted as a magical destination for the young dancers in Love & Dance.

Before the movie, the screen displayed thanks for different levels of donors, cleverly identified as Directors, Casting Directors, Screenwriters, Movie Lovers, and Fans. More gratitude was shown during the introduction of Love & Dance, and you could tell from the speaker’s heartfelt tone that this festival had become a labor of love for many people.

As I waited for Love & Dance to begin, I thought about my happy experiences at the December 25th movies shown at the Michigan that are sponsored by Temple Beth Emeth, also a sponsor of the film festival. At that event, like at the Jewish Film Festival, a friendly vibe is in the air, as people greet each other and reminisce and inquire about each others’ health. An equally friendly atmosphere existed right after Love and Dance, which ended on a joyful, triumphant, heart-tugging note.

I then took a short break in which I enjoyed the spring blossoms, easygoing weather, and relative quiet of a University of Michigan campus where the spring semester had just ended. The festival’s weekday schedule included 1:30, 5, and 8 p.m. movies, and I completed an after-work double bill with the drama A Secret, which I had enjoyed earlier this year as one of my favorite movies of the recently completed Detroit Film Theatre season.

(In a tribute the DFT’s influence and taste, that evening the Michigan also showed two other recent DFT movies—Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 and Tokyo!. The Michigan’s wide variety of films helped earn it the Best Movie Theater award in the May 2009 issue of current magazine.)

A Secret was set in France and concerned one man’s struggle with his Jewish identity and the tragic consequences of this struggle. It was another sobering view of the Holocaust, and included a stunning decision that left several people in the theater gasping with shock.

I’ve sometimes wondered why Holocaust films have such an enduring appeal. I’ve concluded that they give people the chance to stare into the abyss of pure evil and measure their hearts and minds against those of characters struggling with terribly stressful moral choices. These movies show people pushed to the limit—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—and the end result often leaves audience members feeling inspired or thankful for their own blessings.

Or maybe, as Irwin Shaw wrote in his short story “Where All Things Wise and Fair Descend,” understanding that “the capacity for sorrow was also the capacity for living.”

I had many of those feelings after a recent television movie, The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, in which a young non-Jewish Polish social worker helped thousands of Jewish children escape Nazi oppression during World War II. I’d love to see this emotionally compelling movie at a future Jewish Film Festival, where the big screen, lack of commercial interruptions, and fellowship of dedicated film lovers would make it an even more powerful experience.

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Copyright © 2009 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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