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Heeb Film Festival: The Recap

by Eric Kohn
December 11, 2008 6:47 AM
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As part of my job programming the Heeb Film Festival last month, I was commissioned to write a post-mortem of the program. I have posted it in full.

In a sense, the Third Annual Heeb Film Festival can be judged by the relative effectiveness of its infamous trailer. This characteristically naughty opening bit (above), which preceded all six screenings at the newly opened 92YTribeca in lower Manhattan on November 22 and 23, shows a young gentile painfully circumcising himself while drooling over images of Sarah Silverman and her tribal ilk posted on the Heeb website. The final shot hovers, in extreme close-up, on the unseemly image of mutilated foreskin. A title card, printed beneath the Heeb insignia, informs us that "some people will do anything to fit in." Cue the moans of revulsion, matched with scattered laughter — and few pockets of telling silence throughout the room, where audience members sat in stunned silence, gaping at the black screen. Roll film!

If only all festivals could force their attendees to contemplate such uncomfortable viscera from the get-go. Offering a not-so-subtle metaphor for cultural identification, this fiercely satiric spot from Night of the Living Jews director Oliver Noble formulates the logic behind the program of the Heeb Film Festival, which I had the honor of assembling this year. As I mentioned in my introduction to the first screening of the weekend, Michael Tully's Silver Jew, we are not like other Jewish film festivals. Rather than imposing a set of predetermined boundaries or values on the definition of modern Judaism, we treat the concept as infinitely malleable. "Treading the line between the holy and the profane," as the official description puts it, the program never fully embraces either extreme. Each movie, fiction or non, focuses on a distinct personality that can be contextualized within an identifiably Jewish framework, if not a conventional one.

This criteria is understandably not enough for other Jewish festivals. Tully submitted Silver Jew to several of them around the country after receiving requests for copies of the film solely based on its title. But no Jewish festival accepted it. The movie follows timid Silver Jew frontman David Berman during his first tour — and his first series of live shows after over a decade of maintaining a vibrant fan base while remaining in the shadows. The tour takes him to Israel, a choice he made after rekindling his interest in Judaism. However, while its main subject relies on spiritual identification, Silver Jew emphasizes Berman's infectious idiosyncrasies over some objective form of Jewish motivation. Wandering through the old city of Jerusalem, Berman mixes his newfound reverence for the area with a sly awareness of the interfaith tensions taking place within it. ("Where's the satanist quarter?" he asks, after visiting both Jewish and Arab regions.) The rocker knows a thing or two about mixing religions; his wife, Cassie, comes from an educated Christian background and appears in the film visiting the site of the crucifixion. Later, Berman melts into tears while wearing tefillin for the first time during a visit to the Wailing Wall. Could the perceived dissonance of this cross-faith couple have turned off certain festivals? Maybe, but it turned us on for the same reasons.

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The second screening of the series invoked more recognizable parameters of Jewish identification, but only on the surface. Love Comes Lately, Jan Schütte's cryptic adaptation of three short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, stars Austrian actor Otto Tausig as an aging writer drifting through his fictions and fleeting love interests with equal bouts of confusion. Unlike conventional Singer adaptations such as Enemies: A Love Story or Yente, the characters in Love Comes Lately feel strangely meta, resembling the established tropes of American Jewish literature that the lead character, a thinly veiled version of Singer named Max Kohn, so heavily relies on. As Max goes deeper into the rabbit hole of his own storytelling finesse, Schütte applies so many narrative layers that the resulting movie is alternately befuddling, frustrating and fascinating. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2008, received a modest theatrical release from Kino International later in the year, and will come out on DVD in December. I felt that, in the interim, the movie deserved a closer look in the context of Heeb's unique atmosphere of subversive inquiry. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to provide the movie with additional viewers; following the credits, the audience was split on its complexities, with some people appalled and others transfixed (or, in at least one case, charmed) by the protagonist's canted perception of reality.

At one point during the screening, the lights in the room inadvertently turned on. It wasn't the last time this mishap took place, and provided one of several reminders of the 92YTribeca's newbie stature. A few weeks into its life, this downtown venue still has a few bugs in the system, many of which lie in the projection booth and the publicity department. The festival could have benefited broader visibility and fewer screening issues. That said, it remains a vibrant space with plenty of potential. The concerts in the room adjacent to the theater offer fantastic alternate entertainment options, and the film program has the kind of versatility that few New York venues consistently maintain (I'm biased, of course, but not at the expense of my sincerity).

Anyway, the program managed to chug along at a smooth rate. The following afternoon's Spanish language double bill, although sparsely attended, nevertheless achieved my goal of incorporating an international dynamic to the program. Both films on the bill, El Brindis (To Life) and My Mexican Shivah, involve highly dysfunctional Jewish families (hey, they're just like us!) involved with generational conflicts and varying degrees of religiosity. El Brindis revolves around a young Catholic woman's visit to her ailing Jewish father and his immediate family (her half-relatives) for his late-in-life bar mitzvah. My Mexican Shivah uses the My Big Fat Greek Wedding approach to analyze a large family's uneven chemistry in the wake of an elder member's death. Both movies allow for multiple interpretations of Jewish conceits, due to their dense, divisive ensemble casts.

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At the end of the day, however, it took one memorable voice to truly win the favor of the festival audience. My Mother's Garden, a fascinating portrait of Eugenia Lester's debilitating hoarding disorder from the perspective of her daughter Cynthia, was the indisputable champion of the Heeb Film Festival. An involving, sometimes shockingly intimate diary film, My Mother's Garden uses two years of footage to show how Cynthia and her estranged siblings cope with her mother's incessant need to fill her house with junk. They eventually convince the mentally troubled woman to visit Cynthia in New York while her brothers clear the place out. Although at times amateurishly shot, the low budget aesthetic manages to lend a strong personal element to the enthralling story, coupled with narration by Cynthia, who provides crisp insight into the social issues that play into her mother's psychosis. Nobody seen in the movie is blatantly Jewish — in fact, Eugenia is a devout Christian. However, the family has a murky background, and aspects of their puzzling history justify the film's inclusion in the festival. Eugenia was raised by an Auschwitz survivor on the Polish side of the Jewish/Polish resistance, but her children discover a Torah scroll amid the trash heaps in her neglected house. That was good enough for me as a programmer, and it was certainly good enough for the audience, which was filled with representatives from local organizations that work with people suffering from hoarding disorder.

In a lopsided manner, the program for the Heeb Film Festival grappled with its own tailor-made version of hoarding disorder. Because we constantly sought fresh approaches to definitions of Jewish identity, we refused throw any one definition away. As a result, even the Gentile Gaze, which served as the title for the short film program that closed out the festival, became an intrinsically Jewish trait. In this roughly ninety minute compilation, Jewish and non-Jewish personalities clashed, conversed and interrogated their differences, opening up a two way channel in a space usually reserved for close-minded dogmatism. Dating issues were a big theme: Bob Odenkirk's hilarious vignette The Pity Card deals with the aftermath of a young Jewish man's misguided decision to take his date to the Holocaust museum. Chana Zalis's strikingly involving The Unkosher Truth finds her at odds with her Orthodox father, a chaplain in the United States army, when faced with the prospects of revealing her relationship to a German gentile. Other stories dealt with social coupling sans romance, such as the eerie Goyta (a Polish housecleaner has an awkward encounter with Brooklyn hasidim) and Zachary Lennon-Simon's adorable Playing with Other Tigers, which documents the young half-Jewish filmmaker's lifelong friendship an Arab American classmate. Playing with Other Tigers, which won the festival's annual Palme D’schnorr at the evening's close, illustrates a happy ending to the kind of relationship often looked down upon in conservative households as too edgy or dangerous.

Alongside such familiar plotting, I chose to beef up the program with complex examinations of Jewish and non-Jewish tensions. The Holocaust Tourist observes the ironic Disneyfication of concentration camps, with particular emphasis on curious non-Jewish visitors. However, it was David Cronenberg's bizarrely intellectual four minute piece At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World that truly put this otherness in perspective. Produced for the 60th Cannes Film Festival’s Chacun Son Cinema series, the film features Cronenberg in a single close-up shot, his face contorted with an intense expression of fear as he holds a gun to his temple. On the soundtrack, two news reporters narrate the scene as if discussing a sports championship. They explain that this Jew, the last Jew, some filmmaker, had the option of being put to death by the authorities. Instead, he chose to end it all himself in the bathroom of the only remaining movie theater on the planet.
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What horrifically distorted universe has Cronenberg brought us? According to the filmmaker, it's merely a symbolic version of our own. Last year, I had the opportunity to ask Cronenberg about his motives for the project. "I don’t feel the need to involve myself with the traditions of Judaism," he told me. "I wasn’t hiding my Jewishness. It just never seemed to be an issue. But when I started to make this little short, suddenly, it was. It was provoked by what’s going on in the world right now...the pronouncements of various Islamic leaders about how nice it would be to kill all the Jews in the world." Some may believe that Cronenberg's confrontational reflection on global conflict represents bad taste. Maybe, but for some people, that's simply the chosen flavor.

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