Chosen Ones


Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, Ajami, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 120 minutes.

THE NEW YORK JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL is literally all over the map, although films from Europe and the Middle East dominate the selection. There are movies that excavate history and two historic excavations: the 1935 Yiddish Cinema classic Bar Mitzvah, directed by Henry Lynn, and the 1951 East German Holocaust drama The Ax of Wandsbek, based on the novel by Arnold Zweig. Two films from the Middle East, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s Ajami and Haim Tabakman’s Eyes Wide Open, were critical favorites at Cannes. Both are scheduled for theatrical runs in New York, and both are early contenders for my 2010 best films of the year list. (Sorry, list making became obsessive last month and I can’t shake the habit. And it’s such great shorthand for saying you should not miss these films.)

Codirected and coauthored by a Palestinian (Copti) and an Israeli (Shani), Ajami is largely set in the titular beachfront Yaffa neighborhood, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians live together in an atmosphere of gnawing anxiety and explosive anger. Encompassing a novelistic array of characters and relationships, the film is divided into overlapping chapters. After the somewhat baffling in medias res opening, each segment doubles back to fill in the gaps in what we’ve already seen. The narrative structure is designed to make the audience hyperattentive to detail; it also slows down the rush toward the climactic violent confrontation, thus adding a sense of tragic inevitability to the outcome. The snarelike plot reflects the economic and political situation—the more the characters struggle, the more tightly they’re bound. The adult characters are burned out, corrupted, or operating on the brink of madness. Empty machismo passes for power. At the heart of the film are three fragile Arab teenagers, desperate to save their families even at the cost of their own lives. Cast largely with nonprofessionals and shot with handheld camera sensitive to both action and inner life, the film has a sense of reality and of being made from the inside that very few movies dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have achieved.

Located entirely in a closed, ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, Eyes Wide Open is similarly revelatory. A story of forbidden love filled with yearning and passionate, albeit discreetly shot, gay sex, it involves a married father of four small children who runs a butcher shop inherited from his father. One day a wandering Jew—that is to say, a beautiful young man with a gossip-worthy past and no family ties of his own—takes refuge from the rain in the butcher’s tiny, glass-front store. The butcher, who is not unaware of his own homosexual desires, takes him on as an assistant, rationalizing this dangerous decision as a way of proving himself. “The closer to the sin, the closer to God,” he explains. One never doubts his sincerity, nor that desire will win, regardless how tragic the consequences. Soon the “purity police” come banging on his door. In his feature-directing debut, Tabakman is fearless in his pacing (the film is slow but never too slow), and his attention to tactile detail (hands slinging a side of beef, hands fingering a prayer shawl, fingers brushing against each other as if by accident) rivals that of Claire Denis.

Haim Tabakman, Eyes Wide Open, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 91 minutes.

Among other compelling movies in the series, two involve the real-life stories of women of exceptional courage and conviction. Based on the memoirs of Russian poet Evgenia Ginzburg, who was stripped of her Communist Party membership and spent ten years in a Siberian gulag on trumped-up terrorism charges, Marleen Gorris’s Within the Whirlwind is an intelligent film—one that makes you think twice about how anyone who had a choice in the matter could have supported the CP once the Stalinist purges began. It also confirms the impossibility of depicting one of the twentieth century’s greatest horrors in a realistic yet audience-friendly manner. Gorris’s mise-en-scène is absurdly tasteful. Still, the film is worth seeing for the radiant resolve in Emily Watson’s performance.

A more eccentric and privileged independent woman, Pannonica Rothschild, a child of the British wing of the Rothschild family, flew planes for the Free French before coming to New York, where she fell in love with bebop. She recognized the genius of Charlie Parker and was an even more devoted and crucial supporter of Thelonious Monk, who lived out the final reclusive period of his life in the New Jersey house where she also cared for hundreds of stray cats. (Monk was not fond of the cats.) In The Jazz Baroness (2009), documentarian Hannah Rothschild fashions a portrait of her great-aunt “Nica,” whom she met only in the last years of her life. Rothschild had an inside track to her own well-insulated family (the Rothschilds believed that one should be mentioned in the papers only at one’s birth and death), and the details of their extraordinary wealth and how it did not save the Hungarian branch of the family from the Holocaust are jaw-dropping when recounted by Nica’s older sister Miriam, already in her nineties when she allowed her niece Hannah to videotape her. There are terrific bits of performance footage and lively interviews with members of Monk’s family and various jazz luminaries. A movie fashioned from scraps goes a long way toward fleshing out the complex and unquestionably platonic relationship between Monk and Nica. She was a woman of taste and spirit, and I adore her as much for her devotion to her felines as for that to one of the geniuses of American modernism.

The New York Jewish Film Festival runs January 13–28 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York. For more details click here. Ajami plays February 3–13 at Film Forum in New York, and Eyes Wide Open begins its run at Cinema Village on February 5.

Amy Taubin