Themes that you will always find explored among the documentaries at the Boston Jewish Film Festival, now in its 28th year, include repression, injustice, perseverance, vindication, and tragedy.
Eddie Rosenstein’s “The Freedom to Marry” (Nov. 11, Coolidge Corner Theatre) combines some of each of the above, though it’s a bit light on the comedy (one great punch line near the end, however). It profiles those in the team who pled the case that led to last year’s landmark Supreme Court decision “Obergefell v. Hodges,” which determined that same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry, making it legal throughout the United States.
They include Evan Wolfson, who made marriage equality his goal three decades earlier, and civil rights attorney Mary Bonauto, who argues the landmark decision. Though for many the decision seemed to come abruptly, the documentary makes clear the years of perseverance that it took to bring about the ruling. Following two parallel timelines — one an observational account of the legal team preparing their case, the other historical, tracing the gay rights movement from Stonewall to this moment. The result is surprisingly suspenseful and thoroughly moving and inspiring.
Slawomir Grunberg’s “Karski and the Lords of Humanity” (Nov. 20, Museum of Fine Arts) tells of another mission to do the right thing, but more fraught with danger and with a more ambiguous outcome. A Polish gentile, Jan Karski always felt guilty about not helping a Jewish student he watched being beaten by bullies at his school. So when the opportunity came to help Jews after the German invasion of Poland, he took it. He became a secret agent, and in 1942, at the risk of his life and sanity, he accepted a mission to gather firsthand evidence of the Nazi extermination of the Jews in Poland.
He did so, reporting what he found to world leaders, the “Lords of Humanity” of the title, as he calls them with some irony. He briefed Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, who expressed more interest in the plight of Polish horses than the Jews.
Karski thought his mission was a failure, and did not speak of it until the 1980s, when he was interviewed by Claude Lanzmann, who included his testimony in his documentaries “Shoah” (1985) and “The Karski Report” (2010).
Grunberg uses footage from Lanzmann’s films and effectively reenacts some of Karski’s 007-like experiences — such as escaping from a Nazi hospital after being tortured by the Gestapo — with sketch-like animation. He also employs archival photos and footage — which offer a glimpse, however minuscule, at the horror Karski witnessed.
Theodor Adorno famously stated that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. But what about telling jokes? In “The Last Laugh” (Nov. 16-17, Coolidge Corner; Nov. 19, Somerville Theatre), filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein interviews comics such as Mel Brooks and Sarah Silverman along with Jewish leaders and Holocaust survivors to plumb the depths to which comedy can go.
Is the Holocaust off limits? There are no conclusive answers — though Brooks’s “The Producers” (1967) and Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” (1997) seem to demark the extremes of what some find funny and others think is in bad taste. Is laughter a palliative? The only weapon of the powerless? Perhaps significantly, the film ends in tears.