The 16 features and two blocks of shorts that make up this year’s Boston Jewish Film Festival make for an impressive lineup. Films screened during the second week (November 7-13) richly explore the founding of Israel, the Holocaust and Jews of color.
Monday, November 7, 6 p.m. at the West Newton cinema
A conversation with director Michal Weitz follows.
“Blue Box” is Michal Weitz’s documentary about his great-grandfather Joseph Weitz, director of lands and reforestation for the Jewish National Fund (JNF) for more than three decades. The film is a candid and often difficult exploration of the elder Weitz’s controversial role as “father of Israel’s forests”.
The American public will likely associate JNF with the ubiquitous blue and white collection box, a symbol of a highly successful grassroots campaign to green Israel. Weitz’s film benefits from his access to 5,000 pages of his great-grandfather’s diaries and extraordinary archival footage, allowing him to go beyond nation-building myths to expose purchases of Arab land by the JNF in pre-state Israel. Arab landowners were mostly absent, living in places like Aleppo, Cairo, Damascus and Beirut. In many cases, they sold their land without realizing that the people who worked for them as sharecroppers would be evicted.
Weitz also points out that for much of his great-grandfather’s tenure at the JNF, the Holocaust resonated loud and clear. “Building the land of Israel”, said Joseph Weitz, “will be our revenge”. Thus, the acquisition of Arab-owned land for the purpose of building settlements for Israel’s burgeoning Jewish population.
The younger Weitz says her great-grandfather’s real estate deals were meant to reconfigure the land for the 175,000 Jews who lived in pre-state Israel. Joseph Weitz resigned from the JNF in 1966. During his 35 years in office, Weitz was known as the “architect of transference” and could not imagine Jews and Arabs living together. But after the Six Day War in 1967, he wrote “desperately” in his diary that “clinging on” to the Occupied Territories was a new threat to the existence of the Jewish state.
For Michal Weitz, the stories of Israel’s founding “include villages buried under pine trees, their histories swept under a carpet of weeds and needles. Instead, we were told of people who made the desert bloom, and I was told of a great-grandfather who spawned the forest.
Tuesday, November 8, 6:30 p.m. at the West Newton cinema
“The Photographer” (Canada)
Born in Poland in 1920, Faye Schulman survived the Holocaust as a Jewish partisan and documentary photographer. In this 11-minute film, Schulman’s great-grandson recalls stories of his great-grandmother hiding in the woods with a gun in one hand and a camera in the other. An older brother (Schulman was one of seven children) taught him how to take pictures.
Schulman documented stories of the Holocaust – stories of genocide and survival that would otherwise have been lost. She took a chilling photo of the open grave where most of her family members were murdered. She preserved photographic evidence showing the mass grave increasingly flooded in a river of blood for days. She was, in fact, a photographer embedded with the partisans. Although she put away her camera when she emigrated to Toronto, her great-grandson remembers the joy she passed on to her family while never forgetting the Holocaust. Schulman died aged 101 in 2022.
Jewish family photo albums are different in the 21st century. In “Periphery,” filmmaker Sara Yacobi-Harris, a Jew of color, brings together an eclectic cast representing the glorious diversity of the Jewish people. The film features interviews with Jews of color, including Japanese, Irish, Korean and Punjabi Jews.
A Jewish woman from the Indian Bene Israel community and a gay Mizrahi Jew from Iraq struggle to find space in the periphery of white Ashkenazi Jewish communities. An Ethiopian Jew proudly wears white muslin in honor of her ancestors. “I know I’m Jewish,” she said. “No explanation is needed.”
Many Jews appearing in the film portray anti-Semitism in general, as well as discrimination within the Jewish community. Consequently, some have a strained relationship with Judaism after some Jews and non-Jews questioned their Jewish identity. Yacobi-Harris documents that Black Jews engaged in ongoing racial reckoning and tells their stories in light of the growing diversity of the Jewish community. In “Periphery”, Yacobi-Harris dispels the myth that there is only one way to be Jewish.
In eight minutes, “Ibach” tells the story of the Brauer family, who fled Germany to Philadelphia on the eve of the Holocaust. They managed to bring their treasured Ibach piano which had been in the family for generations. Ibach’s swirling signature has adorned pianos since 1794 and is considered the oldest family-owned piano business in Europe still in operation.
The Brauers’ determination to restore their piano for future generations is at the heart of this short but comprehensive tale. A long and painstaking restoration brings the original glory of the piano back to life. We see the younger generation of Brauer children sitting on their parents’ laps, pounding away at the keys. Former Brauers are moved to tears as they understand the family stories that the sparks of the piano will be passed down from generation to generation –l’dor v’dor.
Nov. 9, 7 p.m. at Coolidge Corner Theater
Director Maurizius Staerkle Drux (on Zoom) and Marcel Marceau’s grandson, Louis Chevalier (in person), who is in the film, will be in conversation after the screening.
Marcel Marceau, the world famous mime, is the gripping subject of “The Art of Silence”. In his silent physical performances and the spoken interviews he gave, Marceau captures the complexity and elusiveness of the art of silence. Director Maurizius Staerkle Drux frames his tribute to Marceau’s genius and legacy with observations from his father Christoph Staerkle, a famous Swiss mime born deaf. Staerkle’s commentary is a poignant entry into Marceau’s lasting influence on the art of pantomime. For the elder Staerkle, it was a wonder for a deaf boy to witness a moving story told without words and through movement.
Marceau’s widow, Anne Sicco, and their daughters, Aurélia and Camille Marceau, see Marceau’s genius communicate his emotional tales through facial gestures and supple body movements. As one of his daughters observes, “He mimics what he is holding and becomes one with it.” Sicco notes that Marceau was “full of his personalities, and his silence is the inner suspense of the soul”.
Marceau was born in Strasbourg in 1923 to Jewish parents from Ukraine and Poland. His father was murdered at Auschwitz and Marceau joined the French Resistance soon after. As a member of the Resistance, Marceau helped smuggle hundreds of Jewish children into Switzerland. One of Marceau’s daughters says that at this time her father was cultivating an inner silence that became the foundation of his pacifism. His life in the Resistance was turned into a 2020 biographical drama aptly called “Resistance,” starring Jesse Eisenberg.
“The Art of Silence” is also about Marceau’s outsized influence on pop culture. For example, Staerkle Drux draws a direct line between Marceau’s mime and Michael Jackson’s famous moonwalk. In particular, the stories told by Marcel through visual and physical clues liberated the elder Staerkle’s artistic vision. Archival footage of Marceau’s performances and glimpses into his art provide an in-depth understanding of his life and craft. “The Art of Silence” is an admirable tribute to Marcel Marceau, the man who transformed mime into art.