Joseph Dorman (shown at right) who, back in 1998, made another popular doc called Arguing the World (you can stream that one via Netflix). His newest film is clearly a labor of love. The good news is that this labor has resulted in a remarkable movie full of keen intelligence: literate, witty and rich in the details of, not just the life of Sholem Aleichem, but of Russian Jewry itself, going through the trauma of transition into the modern era. His film is nothing less than a history -- social, cultural, political -- of Jews in Russia during the later half of the 19th Century into the 20th.
Universalism at the same time as they insist on setting themselves apart.
It's all here -- Sholem Aleichem, his work and his place in the history of modernity and Russian Jewry -- in this movie about the man, which opens in Manhattan, via International Film Circuit, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema this Friday, July 8, with a slow-but-sure national rollout to follow. For an intelligent, encompassing, thought-provoking and educational 93 minutes (not to mention some possible prizes at awards time), this is the documentary to beat.
TrustMovies was able to talk with filmmaker Joseph Dorman (shown again, below) for a good, long chat one afternoon last week. Below are highlights from that conversation, with TM’s comments and questions in boldface and Mr. Dorman’s in standard type.
What really got to me about your movie is how intelligent and literate, witty and rich it is. Granted, it’s about an intelligent, literate man, but still, we don’t get documentaries like this so often these days. We also get history, politics, culture, even a little romance of the Jews and of Russia. Before I saw the film I had no particular interest in Sholem Aleichem (I first came across him during the first job I ever held -- shelving books at Hollywood Branch Library, back in the 1950s), but from now on I will think of him as an important part of world literature.
I am sure many others -- audiences and critics -- will appreciate you. Intelligent, civilized, witty: if these adjective describe you, and I suspect they do, then naturally, this kind of film would follow.
I’d like to think that. But -- you know -- you make films the only way you know how. What comes out, comes out. But what was particularly funny about this material is how little I knew about Sholem Aleichem going into it. I knew “Fiddler,” of course -- like Jews, and even non-Jews -- know it. And I can remember a book by this man on my parents’ bookshelf. But I don’t remember anyone in my family ever touching it. My father was a psychoanalyst, and so we had a lot of psych books in our home, plus all the contemporary books of the day. In retrospect, I think we probably had his book because every Jewish family had the book -- and before World War II, it might well have been in Yiddish. After WWII it would have been in English.
We learn so much about this man -- the personal, political --and so much about his work, too, from your movie.
Aleichem is singular because, not only was he a great writer, he was what Irving Howe called a “culture hero.” I see the film as more than just his history, but a history of the Jewish people – and especially of this transitional period for the Jews. We all have had to make this transition into our current modern -- or now post modern -- world.
Yes, and why not? Fiddler was a great hit all across the world. This may be apocryphal, but it is said that when the musical was put on in Japan, someone turned to the producer and asked, “But can they understand this in America? It is so Japanese!” If you look at Ozu and then at the Tevye stories, they are not that far off from each other. Ozu, just as did Sholem Aleichem, looked at the transition to the modern world via the widowed father and his daughter, who gets married.
Also -- and I don’t think I’ve ever thought of this before -- the separation of parent and child, part of this transition to modernity, was really the great theme of 19th fiction. What makes Sholem Aleichem different is that he deals with it from the parents’ point of view. The larger point is: what is true of all great writers and great filmmakers: They completely define their own time and their own environment. Really, is there anyone more Jewish than Aleichem, more Russian than Tolstoi, more Japanese than Ozu?
One thing I thought while watching your film is that you can really see from where Woody Allen got so much of his humor! I wonder, does he acknowledge Sholem Aleichem as his master?
I have never Googled these two names together, but I would hope that Woody has offered up his thanks. Philip Roth, too.
I don't think Philip Roth ever thanks anybody, does he? But I love the way you’ve put the whole thing together --- more or less chronologically, I guess, but with lots of little side trips. The film flows so well.
And you have, I think. How many hours of footage did you have originally to pare down to 93 minutes? Was this the hardest part of it all? (I have always found editing difficult. As one filmmaker I talked to a few weeks ago said, “It’s like killing your baby.”)
Good question. But I am not a good counter. My time was predominantly spent on interviews, with some location shooting. We went to the Ukraine, and then used a lot of archival footage. I didn’t end up using as much location shooting as I did the archival. (Ed's note: This archival stuff is phenomenal!) I probably shot 30-40 hours of footage, all told.
How hard was the boiling down?
There are always stages. Much of the interview stuff, you know already that you are not going to use. Then you start looking at the screen and think, “This is all good, but it’s dragging things down." I feel like narrative is so important, so bit by bit, until the last moment, I am still cutting. I literally cut out even more during the last couple of days. You get tougher and tougher and tougher.
What did the movie cost to make?
Can’t give a totally straight answer on that. I raised, I think, around $350,000 – but all told, with sweat equity and all else, it probably cost half a million.
This is a critical tension that is essentially irresolvable – this tension between us and them. I draw great strength from being part of the Jewish history. I draw enormous strength from this. At the same time, I want to have all kind of friends from all kinds of cultures. It's important to me -- the idea is that the world should not be just about us vs them. Some say we should wipe out all differences. But I don’t want to do that. Difference is what makes us so interesting, makes our lives richer. And more difficult. And this is irresolvable.
Are there any further playdates scheduled besides Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Jerusalem Film Fest? (I can’t believe there won’t be, and fast, once reviews come out.)
What is happening now, we are just now planning our national release. We’ll be in six cities: Boston, Chicago, DC, San Fran, L.A. and Philadelphia. And from there, we will keep things going via Interntional Film Circuit. I am actually self-financing the distribution because I wanted control. But Wendy Lidell and Intenational FilmCircuit are the best to work with!
Finally, is there anything you want to talk about that journalists never seem to bring up? Here’s your chance.
Thanks Joe, for your time and attention. We really wish you well for this new film.