The Jewish Identities: Journey through Dayton Jewish Film Festival

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Award-winning documentary ‘Sabena Hijacking—My Version’ screens at The Neon May 11

 

As an African-American film critic, I am always fascinated by the Jewish community’s embrace of its multi-layered identities, especially when it comes to cultural celebrations like film festivals. All groups that have been marginalized or disenfranchised, at one time or another, struggle with the perception as pieces of a monolithic whole, a members-of-a-hive syndrome where individuality gets swallowed up in the group consciousness. Things get even more complicated when said groups find themselves forced from homelands and scattered across the globe. How do you maintain a sense of connection in such situations, over decades and even generations?

The internationality of the scope and scale eludes black folks. Primarily, it is because so often we (here in the U.S.) get caught up in the national affiliation to such an extent that we ignore or seemingly disavow our global diasporic roots.

In past coverage of regional Jewish film festivals, I have asked what it means to be Jewish, and the answer is a gloriously moving target. It, in its truest sense, is an idea, rather than a fact. And once again, with this year’s annual Dayton Jewish Film Festival, April 25–May 18, the films selected highlight a philosophical curiosity about identity, a challenge to regional audiences to consider contrasting notions of not only what it means to be Jewish (in all of its complexities), but also what it means for each of us, when we apply identity politics labels to ourselves.

With film, my fallback position always centers on the pursuit of reflections and alternative perspectives that I can use to determine who I am and how others see me.

Just a few weeks ago, in my coverage of February’s 2017 Mayerson JCC Jewish and Israeli Film Festival in Cincinnati, I wrote of that event’s “degree of intimacy, which allows for more time to consider its marriage of moving images and diverse narratives.” With films touching “on themes of love, family, loss, memory, and triumph,” audiences could seek the kind of personal investment in these reflections I long to find every time I enter the hallowed communal space of a movie theatre.

I believe that, in outlying communities like the Midwest, away from major urban markets, there is less of a burden on film festivals to lay out a grand mission or statement of purpose. The fest doesn’t have to proselytize in such a direct way, which opens the door for a more meaningful and engaging dialogue. Of course, that doesn’t mean the festival can’t still address the big looming questions.

When it comes to spelling out, point by point, a detailed approach to defining the purpose of a Jewish Film Festival, the San Francisco Film Festival (which hosted its 36th edition of the event last summer) offers up a bulleted list of values that thoroughly encapsulate the aims and goals driving all such festivals. Here’s how selections from the 2017 Dayton Jewish Film Festival match up with a few of these defining values.

 

Champion freedom of expression 

A fascinating tale of discovery and how knowledge can completely alter perspective, “Keep Quiet” (May 9, at 7:15 p.m., at The Neon) documents the conversion of Csanad Szegedi, the vice president of Jobbik, Hungary’s far-right extremist party. Szegedi spewed anti-Semitic rhetoric and issued strong denials of the Holocaust, which seemed to run somewhat counter to his founding of a now-banned militia group inspired by the Arrow Cross, a pro-Nazi party that was complicit in the murder of thousands of Jews during World War II.

All of this changed once Szegedi discovered that his maternal grandparents were Jewish, and more specifically that his grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor forced to hide her faith to evade further persecution. How does one change and make amends for a lifetime of hateful thoughts, speech, and actions? “Keep Quiet” tracks a three-year period in Szegedi’s journey where, along with a rabbi, he comes to accept this new aspect of himself and his family, while confronting the wrongs he so passionately embraced.

 

Reveal diverse points of view 

The feature “Persona Non Grata” (May 15, at 7:15 p.m., at The Neon, with a 6 p.m. reception at K12 Gallery & TEJAS) tells the little-known support of Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara, a Japanese vice-consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, who signed off on 6,000 transit visas (from July 18 through Aug. 28, 1940) guaranteeing safe passage, against the wishes of Japan’s leaders in Tokyo, who had aligned themselves with the Nazis. Sugihara’s decision to bestow this much-needed mercy on Jews fleeing Nazi persecution was a defiant personal act of courage for a man indoctrinated in a rule-dominated culture and bureaucracy.

 

Provide multiple platforms for open dialogue 

Following so closely on the heels of the NCAA college basketball tournament (with the attending regional flavor we’ve grown accustomed to), the documentary “On the Map” (April 27, at 7:15 p.m., at The Neon) is a timely selection. Come learn about the 1976-77 Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team, which defeated the four-time defending champion team from the Soviet Union—the international Goliath of the time—and established Israel as the team to reckoned with, once they followed that win by knocking off Italy to claim the European Cup Basketball Championship. In many ways, this story, mirroring the U.S. Miracle on Ice at the Olympics, combines the high stakes of sports and tense political drama during the Cold War, highlighting why such stories matter as cultural markers.

As if the screening of “On the Map” weren’t enough, the festival welcomes guest speaker Don Donoher, the winningest coach in University of Dayton basketball history, to participate in a discussion following the film. He served as head coach for 25 years beginning in the second half of the 1964 season. During his first full season as UD head coach, Donoher and his team faced off against Tal Brody, the Illinois point guard who also happens to be the hero of “On the Map.”

 

Celebrate the full spectrum of Jewish identities 

Writer-director Shemi Zarhin in “The Kind Words” (May 4, at 7:15 p.m., at The Neon) presents what, in other hands, could have easily been seen as a cultural and familial comedy of errors. Once their mother dies, three siblings—Dorona (Rotem Zissman-Cohen) and her brothers Netanel (Roy Assaf) and Shai (Assaf Ben-Shimon)—stumble upon a secret from the past that shines new light on the identity of their father. With Ricki (Tsahi Halevi), Dorona’s husband, in tow, the siblings traipse from Israel to France on a quest to discover the truth and its impact on their long-held opinions about their very different established identities.

Reading the premise, it would be easy to recast “The Kind Words,” removing the cultural identity factor from the equation, inserting broad jokes, and celebrating the notion that it is family that unites us all. Cue the happy ending, right? But it seems Zarhin recognizes that cultural identity adds weight and depth to the narrative and the experiences of these characters. Each must reflect on who they are as individuals, within the family dynamic, and as part of a greater, quite diverse community. More than any other film, “The Kind Words” holds up the mirror I feel is so lacking in the human dramas issued by mainstream studios.

 

Nurture connections within and beyond the Jewish community 

The foodie in me can’t want to head off for “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” (May 1, at 7:15 p.m., at The Neon), which tells the story of a people and a nation through the only cultural element that matters: food. The film ties up all the diverse strands that go into food culture—chefs, home cooks, farmers, vintners, and cheese makers—but makes sure to illustrate that what we think of as Israeli food draws from hundreds of cultures and places around the region and the globe. Remember, Israel today is Jewish, Arab, Christian, Muslim, and so much more.

For this event, the festival welcomes special guest Michelle Korin, an Indianapolis resident and volunteer chair of Partnership2Gether. In 2010, she participated in a Federation leadership mission to Israel and has made several trips back since then with her Israeli husband and their children. I imagine that she will implore audiences to follow the most direct path to the heart.

 

Promote an evolving definition of Jewish film and media 

Documentary filmmaking, more so now than ever, has found ways to employ narrative feature techniques to place audiences inside the lives of subjects and/or unfamiliar historic moments. “Sabena Hijacking” (May 11, at 7:15 p.m., at The Neon) focuses on the May 1972 hijacking of Belgian Sabena Flight 571 by four assailants from “Black September,” a Palestinian organization. For 30 hours, tension mounted as an intricate and complex human drama took center stage during this pre-cable news era. To create a heightened sense of the situation, which might be more accessible to modern viewers, writer Moshe Zonder and director Rani Sa’ar boldly inject reenactments of events into the archival footage as well as interviews with Israeli political leaders and the only surviving hijacker.

“Sabena Hijacking—My Version” enjoyed a celebrated festival circuit run, winning Best Docu-Drama at the 2016 Cherry Hill Jewish Film Festival and Audience Awards at the 2016 Charlotte Jewish Film Festival and the 2015 LA Israeli Film Festival.

Curation is always more than a simple matter of taste. Festivals must have a keen sense of their own goals and objectives; more importantly, they must recognize their own identities and the role they play in their regions. If there is conscious introspection, the festival should be able to honor depth and complexity in the presented narratives. As I mentioned regarding “Kind Words,” such awareness ensures that formulaic elements are left in the dust.

The Dayton Jewish Film Festival didn’t need to aspire to the level of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, despite hitting the proverbial bull’s-eye on so many of the value-based targets. For instance, there wasn’t the same imperative to introduce new voices and emerging talents because each and every one of these titles, by default, achieves that aim, since we are traditionally not a major market for such international fare. Concerns about excellence, originality, and innovation are also easily checked off by nearly all of these selections without having to over-think things.

Which leaves us with one final value from the San Francisco set that the Dayton Jewish Film Festival and all Jewish Film Festivals certainly struggle with mightily—the notion of staying relevant. American audiences, both Jewish and non, should be forgiven for the mistaken assumption that Jewish filmed narratives are dominated by the specter of the Holocaust. Jewish life and identity is not, nor should it ever be, encapsulated by one event. The Dayton Jewish Film Festival shows us that there can, and should be, as many different Jewish experiences as there are moving frames unspooling in the cinematic universe. Maybe that’s the only value worth remembering.

 

The Dayton Jewish Film Festival takes place April 25 – May 18. For more information and a more complete listing of festival events, please visit JewishDayton.org. 

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T.T. Stern-Enzi
Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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