Perhaps because the future prospects of the world are so grim, many of the documentaries in this year’s Boston Jewish Film Festival look toward the past. They are about maintaining or confronting tradition, understanding history, about surviving, persevering, and creating anew from past struggles. Most of the people in these films are 70 or older — but they bring to the world an unquenchable spirit of youth.
All of the films and discussions, except for “Space Torah,” which will be shown in a special screening at the Museum of Science’s Mugar Omni Theater, are virtual and available for streaming Nov. 7-21.
Note that this year’s BJFF also includes five narrative features, and three short programs that include animated and narrative films as well as documentaries.
The Adventures of Saul Bellow
“I’m an American, Chicago born,” begins Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March” (1953), the first of his three National Book Award-winning novels. Bellow (1915-2005) also won a Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. As Asaf Galay’s thorough, provocative, and even-handed documentary points out, when it comes to Bellow’s own life, that statement is only half-true — he was born in Quebec and his family immigrated to Chicago when he was a child. But that is the magic of fiction; you can tell the story of your life, fudge the details, and if you’re a genius like Bellow, create a masterpiece.
Galay chronicles Bellow’s life and his transformation of American literature. He interviews Bellow’s children, ex-wives, and fans like Salman Rushdie and the late Philip Roth.
He also hears from others, who have reservations about the author. The Black novelist and scholar Charles Johnson, though an admirer of Bellow, reads a troubling passage from “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” (1970) and reluctantly concludes that it’s racist. Critic Vivian Gornick, who featured Bellow in a Village Voice article on misogynist American writers titled “Why Do These Men Hate Women?,” reads an equally infamous passage from “Herzog” (1964).
Counters the English novelist Martin Amis, “There have been many great misogynistic writers.”
A live Q&A with Galay, moderated by Harvard professor Saul Zaritt, can be streamed Nov. 14 at 3 p.m.
Bukra Fil Mish Mish (2019)
For every Saul Bellow there are countless Frenkel brothers, the subjects of Tal Michael’s fascinating and bittersweet film. While growing up in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 1930s, the three became obsessed with cinema. Self-taught and using do-it-yourself technology, they turned their talents to animation, creating a buffoonish trademark hero, Mish-Mish Effendi, who starred in their short subjects made in the Fleischer Studios style. Though largely forgotten, the Frenkels were among the first animation filmmakers in Egypt and seemed on the verge of a breakthrough, until 1948, when the Israeli War of Independence stirred up anti-Semitism in Egypt and they moved to France.
There they found frustration and indifference and family friction. The wife of one of the brothers turned against the others, because their preoccupation kept her husband from settling into a stable job. Years later she still can’t speak about the situation. “Animation films mean suffering and deprivation,” she says. So the films, equipment, and records were stowed away in the basement, where they were discovered years later and now are being restored and recognized as pioneering achievements.
A live animation workshop with animator Alex Salsberg can be streamed Nov. 12 at 1 p.m.
When one of her granddaughters suggested that she must have led an interesting life, Irmi Selver agreed and decided to write her memoirs. Read in voice-over by the inimitable German actress Hanna Schygulla, they serve to structure this astonishing, heartbreaking, and life-affirming documentary about Irmi’s life. It was directed by Susan Fanshel and Veronica Selver (Irmi’s granddaughter).
She was born into a comfortable bourgeois home in Chemnitz, Germany. Then history took over. One after another her brothers went to the front in World War I. One didn’t return, the others she says were “shattered.” She rebounded, fell in love, and married the son of a factory owner who shared her love of the arts. They lived their dream until Hitler took over.
They fled to Holland, but the Nazis invaded. She and her husband and their son and daughter managed to gain passage on a ship to Chile, but it struck a mine and capsized. Irmi survived, her husband and two children did not. Given refuge in London, she lapsed into catatonia, until finally she arose from her bed and said, “I have decided to live.”
So she did, her life crossed by fate and empowered by an indomitable spirit until she died, at 97, in 2003. The film reminds us of the fragility and transience of what we take for granted and offers a heartening model for how to prevail over tragedy.
A live Q&A with the co-directors, moderated by former BJFF artistic director Kaj Wilson, can be streamed Nov. 8 at 7 p.m.
Leaving Paradise (2020)
Cleo’s family saga is biblical in more ways than one. As seen in Ofer Freiman’s closely observed, empathetic portrait, Cleo had fled the Brazilian city of Uberaba with his wife and 15 children for an Edenic retreat. Leaving behind careers and an urban lifestyle for a communal farm far from city life, they grew their own food and made pottery and lived happily. Now a bearded, hippie-ish patriarch, Cleo gathers mangoes with his grandchildren and looks forward to a life where the “kids would grow up around me and I would grow old around them.”
But his fascination with the Torah and Jewish culture would ironically prove to be the serpent in this paradise. Someone researched the family roots and discovered that they were descended from Marranos, Jews forced to become Christian in Portugal and Spain during the Middle Ages. Learning this, some in the family decided to officially convert to Judaism and move to Israel, which could put an end to Cleo’s idyllic commune.
Shot over the course of several years, the film chronicles how the bonds of family and tradition can constrain, reconcile, and elevate souls in unexpected ways.
A prerecorded conversation with Freiman, moderated by Brandeis professor Dalia Wassner, can be streamed with the film.
Robert Brustein: A Celebration
Had Robert Brustein been able to pronounce the letter “l” as a child he might never have had the preeminent career in theater celebrated in Roger Lyons’s documentary. His parents sent him to an elocution school where he had to recite an “l”-laden poem. “It was my first acting performance,” he recalls. “From that point on I was absolutely devoted to the theater.”
Lucky for us. Brustein would establish the Yale Repertory Theater and the American Repertory Theater, at Harvard, institutions that for decades produced groundbreaking, challenging works which Lyons presents in montages of teasingly brief clips. Brustein has written books, plays, criticism, and collaborated with artists such as Robert Wilson, Julie Taymor, and Philip Glass as well as a pantheon of actors including Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, Sigourney Weaver, and Tony Shalhoub. Several of these notables share their memories in the film, praising Brustein’s accomplishments and expressing their gratitude for his inspiration, insights, and encouragement. Now in his 90s, Brustein shows no signs of slowing down, still teaching and writing books, articles, plays, and poems.
In a recorded award presentation that will screen before the film, the BJFF will honor Brustein and his wife, Doreen Beinart, for their outstanding commitment to elevating Jewish arts and culture.
The Seven Boxes (2020)
Like the family members in “Bukra Fil Mish Mish,” Dory Sontheimer one day uncovered a trove of artifacts from her family’s past that unsettled her life.
Born in Barcelona, in 1946, to parents who had fled to Spain to escape the Nazis, Sontheimer had been baptized a Catholic and was not told of her true background because it had to be kept secret from the pro-Nazi Franco regime. When her mother died, Sontheimer found the boxes of the title in her attic. They contained documents, letters, and other material that kept a record of the 36 members of her family who had perished in the Holocaust.
Shaken by this discovery, Sontheimer decided to track down the survivors and descendants of the families whose records were stored in the boxes, locating cousins and second cousins and other relations in various places around the world — the United States, the Czech Republic, Argentina, Germany, and other countries. Her search sparked a sense of kinship among those she contacted, and so Sontheimer decided to bring them all together in an international family reunion.
The opening scenes from Katya Ustinova’s moving, melancholy, and meditative film seem taken from Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” (1985). An old man walks through a street of dilapidated, boarded-up buildings in a village in Ukraine. “All of this belonged to the Jews,” he says, pointing out the ruins of the homes where once lived the pediatrician, the sausage maker, and the woman who sold glasses of soda water. “All of this was a Jewish shtetl,” he says. “All is gone, like in a fairy tale.”
Though a Gentile, the old man misses the Jews — he learned his hat-making trade from one. Christians and Jews would often live in harmony in the villages until the Nazis came and annihilated the Jewish communities. Some shtetls survived the war but disappeared in the 1990s, when most of the former Soviet Union’s Jews went to Israel or other countries.
Ustinova tracks down some of those who left. Sofia, now in Philadelphia, prepares a fish, telling jokes like a Yiddish version of Julia Child. In Israel, Vladimir — gaunt, old, and white-bearded — demonstrates the kosher preparation of food. He looks like a rabbi but was born a Christian — during the war his mother hid dozens of Jews from the Nazis in their home, and he adopted their faith. But Emilia in New York, now in her 90s, has other memories, of standing naked before a mass grave, where thousands of her neighbors were being shot. She remembers that many Ukrainian neighbors turned in the Jews, and that the Ukrainian police were more brutal than the German soldiers, one of whom allowed her and her son to escape.
A live Q&A with Ustinova, moderated by Deborah Kardon, executive director of Action for Post-Soviet Jewry, can be streamed Nov. 18 at 7 p.m.
Space Torah (2020)
Early in Rob Cooper’s documentary short he quotes Anne Bernays’s novel “Growing Up Rich” (1975): “The only generalization you can make about Jews is that no Jew is or probably ever will be an astronaut.”
Cut to a smiling Jeff Hoffman in a spacesuit. He became a NASA astronaut in 1978 and on each of his five missions brought with him some Jewish religious object. The first was a dreidel, which was spotted by viewers watching the broadcast of his space shuttle mission. They wanted to know what it was and he explained its role in the celebration of Hanukkah. Most recently he traveled with a miniature Torah; and as the shuttle orbited the Earth he read out the first words of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth . . .”
“Space Torah” will screen at the Museum of Science’s Mugar Omni Theater Nov. 11 at 6:30 p.m., followed by an in-person Q&A with Cooper and Hoffman, moderated by Paula S. Apsell, former “Nova” senior executive producer.
Who Will Remain?
The title of Emily Felder and Christa Whitney’s film comes from an eloquent, heart-rending poem by Avrom Sutzkever. Though not as well-known as Sholem Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sutzkever is regarded as one of the greatest Yiddish authors. His work, drawn from his life in Siberia and Vilna, his experience with the Lithuanian resistance during World War II, and his post-war life in Israel, will — as Emily Dickinson once wrote — make you feel like the top of your head were taken off.
The filmmakers follows Sutzkever’s granddaughter, the Israeli actress Hadas Kalderon, as she travels to Lithuania, where, guided by her grandfather’s diary, she visits the places where he experienced the war. Her journey takes her from a silent, sun-dappled forest where thousands were massacred during the war to a ceremony dedicating a memorial to her grandfather in Vilna. She watches footage of Sutzkever testifying at Nuremberg about Nazi atrocities. The film ends with a recording of him reciting the rest of the line from the poem quoted above: “Who will remain? God will remain. Is that enough for you?”
“Who Will Remain?” is preceded by Kemelia Pebdani’s short film “Shmues” (2020) about the renowned pediatrician, psychiatrist, and author Salomon Schulman, who teaches Yiddish to Swedish teenagers.
A live Q&A with Felder and Whitney, moderated by documentarian Lawrence Hott, can be streamed Nov. 14 at noon.
Go to www.bostonjfilm.org.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.