Monday, May 11, 2009

BEING JEWISH IN FRANCE: winning documentary begins week-long run @ WRT

Fortunately for us (or it would be, should we ever have the chance to see more of this fellow's work), forty-year-old documentary filmmaker Yves Jeuland has wide-ranging interests. In 2001 he won the 7 d'Or award for his television documentary Paris a tout prix (Paris at any Cost) about the two-year election campaign for the capital's City Council. The following year came Bleu, Blanc, Rose, his film about gay and lesbian life in Paris over the last 30 years.

One year later he was awarded the silver FIPA for his next documentary on the history of Communism in France, Camarades. In 2005 came The Century of Socialists, then in 2007 the film under consideration here: BEING JEWISH IN FRANCE, a sad and joyful (though that first adjective does seem to take precedence) exploration of what it has meant to be a Jew in France over nearly an entire century. (The poster above, by the way, is not one for the film itself, but rather an anti-Jewish propaganda piece from the days of Vichy France, which Jeuland has included in his history.)

From the opening credits for the film, throughout which a kind of golden light dances over various objects -- a face, a ball being tossed, shoes, all sorts of things -- it is clear that we are in for something a bit strange, perhaps wonderful, certainly not standard. And the documentary lives up to these expectations, as it combines everything from songs and film clips (The Two of Us, Little Jerusalem) to interviews, oodles of old photographs and fascinating newsreel footage that help assemble a long (just over three hours, with a short intermission) and moving history of Jews in France.

France was the first country in Europe to offer Jews citizenship, and for that, despite what followed, praise is in order. It's little wonder that the country has long had the largest Jewish community in Western Europe. The movie begins with the Dreyfus affair (Jeuland, shown left, presupposes his audience has some knowledge of this) and moves on, in its just over one-hour format, until -- and through -- the Holocaust. Part Two lasts nearly two hours and takes us from just post-Holocaust through nearly present day, tracking the upticks of anti-Semitism, as these have grown in both power and number.

For his talking heads, Jeuland has chosen wisely a baker's dozen of smart, articulate people, including former Minister of Justice and lawyer/author Robert Badinter (shown at right, photo courtesy of Wikipedia) to playwright/screenwriter Jean-Claude Grumberg, filmmaker and Auschwitz survivor Marceline Loridan, leader of the WWII Jewish resistance movement Theo Klein, popular Algerian-born actor Jean Benguigui, historian Annette Wieviorka and others. These talking heads, as passionate as they are intelligent, know history, and they help bring it alive for us. Jeuland has woven their reminiscences and ideas together so that they play off and deepen each others' contributions.

Interesting things emerge here, from the competition between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews for a place at the French table to certain phrases ("inclined to domination" among these) spoken about Jews by Charles de Gaulle that would come back haunt the general, and a more detailed look at the Prime Ministries of Léon Blum than that provided by the current (and, yes, I'll say it again: delightful) Paris 36. Each decade along the way is given its due, with the "uncloseted Judaisim" (as Jeuland calls it) of the 1970s particularly rich in goofy looks and memorabilia.

If I, a non-Jew, could find this movie fascinating, entertaining and thought-provoking, I should think it will be a want-to-see for many of that tribe/faith, and a must-see for history buffs and Francophiles, Jewish or not. Further, it has made me extremely eager to see all of M. Jeuland's other documentaries. One might imagine that one of the distribution firms catering to the GLBT market would take a chance on Bleu, Blanc, Rose, while political/progressive companies like Ironweed or First Run Features might give us Jeuland's Camarades or The Century of Socialists.

Being Jewish in France (Comme un Juif en France) is receiving a well-deserved one-week run beginning Wednesday, May 13, at the Walter Reade Theater, where it will screen at 3 and 7 pm on Wednesday, May 13; Thursday, May 14 and Tuesday, May 19. Sat-Sun, May 16-17, it screens at 4:45 pm and 8:15 pm. Friday, May 15: 7pm only, and Monday May 18: 1 pm only. Single tickets are $11; $7 for Film Society members, students and childen, $8 for seniors. You can order online here.
Photo Credits (other than the photo of Robert Badinter):
The Film Society of Lincoln Center
and The National Center for Jewish Film

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