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Claus Mueller


Claus Mueller is filmfestivals.com  Senior New York Correspondent

New York City based Claus Mueller reviews film festivals and related issues and serves as a  senior editor for Society and Diplomatic Review.

As a professor emeritus he covered at Hunter College / CUNY social and media research and is an accredited member of the US State Department's Foreign Press Center.

 


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New York: Jewish Film Festival 2018

The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center organized the 27th edition of the Jewish Film Festival which is one of the oldest global Jewish film festivals, ranking among the most important ones. Its program presented 37 films including 25 world, U.S. and New York premieres covering a wide spectrum of themes and formats. It showcased documentaries, feature and short films, restored productions and animated films. Topics addressed ranged from minority group issues, bio pictures, hidden aspects of Jewish diaspora groups in the past and present, underground and survival experience during the second world war, and reconstruction of one family's Jewish past to name but a few. Among outstanding productions was a Soviet interpretation of the fate of Raoul Wallenberg, a portrait of Sammy Davis Junior, and the Amos Gitai’s 2008 feature One Day You Understand with Jeanne Moreau. As in past editions of the festival most screenings were sold out with only standby tickets available in some cases. The festival caters to a captive audience and does not seem to have problems retaining this group or finding original and relevant productions for its program. Unlike other festivals appealing to ethnic or religious groups the number of Jewish film festivals in the United States is expanding. In 2012 there were 66 Jewish film festivals in the US including 4 Israeli and one Sephardic festival. This number does not count festivals with special programs devoted to Jewish or Israeli films and college sponsored festivals. One of the reasons for this growth and financial stability is the link between the festivals and Jewish institutions. What also accounts for the success of Jewish film festivals is the relatively large funding base for Jewish themed productions, Jewish film makers and festivals. An overview reveals about 20 institutions in this country provide funding. Support is also derived from the cultural diplomacy of Israeli agencies. Growing use of new technologies has also facilitated access to Jewish and Israeli films and television series. They are readily available on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, and the first streaming service devoted exclusively to Israeli films and television programs, the Israel Film Center Stream has just been established by the Manhattan Jewish Community Center which also sponsors the annual Other Israel Film Festival.

The 2018 festival program of the Jewish Film Festival was one of the best shown over the last decade with respect to innovative variety and depth. The Mission of Raoul Wallenberg, a restored Soviet 1990 documentary by Alexander Rodynanskiy provides a fascinating exploration of the fate of this Swedish diplomat who in 1944 saved thousands of Jews from certain death by the German forces. It does not answer the question how Wallenberg lost his life but raises many questions presenting accounts of a large number of witnesses who claim to have been in contact with Wallenberg long after his alleged death in the late forties. These witnesses include former Soviet functionaries and members of the secret services. Some revelations are stunning such as the January 1945 theft of Wallenberg’s car and jewelry following his arrest by military officers working for Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev was a major commander working as a political commissar for the army and ruled the Soviet Union from 1964 – 1982. Russian authorities refused to release Wallenberg’s dossier though they handed over to his family some of his personal belonging such as his passport. The refusal to release more information about Wallenberg’s imprisonment and death may be linked to a January1945 encounter with Brezhnev.

Tracking Edith, a 2016 co-production by Austria, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom,   directed by Peter Stephan Jungk is a sample of a superb journalistic investigation. Jungk explores the life of his aunt, the noted photographer Edith Tutor-Hart who worked as a long time agent in England for the Soviet secret service, the KGB. She came to be known as the grandmother of the Cambridge Five having recruited for the KGB Kim Philby and his associates. That group ran the most successful Soviet espionage operation in Great Britain during the WW 2 and the post war period and was instrumental in helping the Soviets build nuclear arms. As Jungk shows, Edith was motivated by her background and embraced socialist ideas, also reflected in her photography. She was also such a professional in her work as an undercover agent that the British were not able to convict her though they knew that she had worked for the KGB.

Another fascinating exploration was provided by Daniel Najenson in his 2017 Israeli/Argentinian documentary The Impure. In the early 20th century a subculture of prostitution was established in Buenos Aires operating out of brothels with most of the prostitutes and their pimps from a Jewish background. The business proved very profitable and the managing pimps, who were sometimes married to the prostitutes, were able to prevail over the legal forces for a long period. In prosperous Buenos Aires, with its large number of mostly male immigrants. this subculture was an integral part of the urban life, though considered impure and held in shame by the Jewish community.

A most unusual perspective on the intersection of religious, cultural and economic forces is offered by Chen Shelach’s intriguing 2016 production Praise the Lard, the highly emotional clash between the secular consumers and sellers of pork and the religious world trying to eradicate pork from Israel. Shelach tracks the history of the conflict from the belief by orthodox Sephardic Jews that kibbutzim engaged in the early sixties in the “forced conversion” of young Jews by exposing them to pigs to several attempts to pass pass pork banning laws in the Knesset under the leadership of religious parties. In 1961 such laws stipulated that “no one should be allowed to raise pigs, own or sell them. All pigs must be confiscated and destroyed” The law was enforced and 70% of all pigs in  Israel were destroyed. When the police discovered three dozen pigs in a religious Jerusalem convent, the mother superior objected, mobilizing French opposition. France agreed and suggested that the measure would interfere with French – Israeli relations, The Israeli Foreign minister Aba Eban advised the French that pigs will live and the pork law was modified to allow raising pigs in Christian areas. The French continued their collaboration and support in the development of an Israeli nuclear reactor. Pigs were also raised in the Mizra Kibuz the foremost agricultural enterprise for the animal. Periodic attempts to outlaw pork continued. In the late seventies the conservative Likud party took over the government and supported banning pigs. Ariel Sharon, the secretary of agriculture, who loved pork, intervened and the pork industry expanded. In 1990 religious parties prevailed again by passing an anti-pork law. But the massive immigration of 200,000 Russian Jews per year following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall made the new law untenable as 95% of the Russian immigrants consumed and enjoyed pork in their foodstuff. In 1992 Israel’s Supreme Court declared pork a legal commodity. Orthodox Jews maintain their opposition to pork. As an orthodox rabbi quoted by Shelach states about consuming pork, “Any Jew who flouts God contributes to us losing our birthright to this land”.

 

Claus Mueller   filmexchange@gmail.com.

 

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