Monday, July 4, 2011

Joseph Dorman's SHOLEM ALEICHEM: Laughing in the Darkness opens in New York; a short Q&A with the filmmaker

Yiddish week in New York City begins this Friday -- or so it would seem -- with two movies opening that highlight this no-longer-so-oft-spoke language. According to Wikipedia and Neil G. Jacobs, at the beginning of World War II, there were between eleven and thirteen million Yiddish-speaking people around the world. The combination of The Holocaust, Jewish assimilation, the creation of the state of Israel (where Yiddiish is frowned upon and Hebrew embraced), and the growing use of English as the world's common language seems to have reduced Yiddish to its current total (if my addition is correct) of around two million speakers worldwide.  Even so, Romeo & Juliet (in Yiddish), which TrustMovies covered yesterday, and SHOLEM ALEICHEM: Laughing in the Darkness, detailing the life of the world's most prominent writer in Yiddish (who was also the creator of the internationally-renowned Tevye stories) are both opening in New York this week -- which should give a boost to the idea (if not the actual speaking ) of this language.

The man responsible for the Sholem Aleichem documentary -- he wrote, produced and directed it -- is 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.

Via some extraordinary archival photos (this movie boasts what may be the best collection and use of such that I've seen) and smart, succulent, well-edited interviews, the life and history of Sholem Aleichem ( Solomon Rabinovich, born in 1859) is arrayed in rather spectacular fashion. His ideas, politics, loves, and especially his writings -- they're all here, and they work within and around the history of the time, from the secular movement joined by the writer's father to the pogroms, the assassination of Alexander and the scapegoating of the Jews.

We learn why Sholem Aleichem chose to write in Yiddish, and of his romance, marriage, move to Kiev, success and eventual bankruptcy. "He created in his writings," one interviewee tells us, "men who set themselves up for defeat, over and over again." Yet he did this with immense humor. You can easily see (and hear) from where Woody Allen got so much of his own humor. We're with this celebrity writer when he comes to New York and sees a surprising reaction to his new play. "Because life is so easy for Jews here in the USA," someone opines, "this country will end up destroying Jewish culture." Hmmmm.

We're given the Tevye treatment, too, watching as the now-famous dairyman grows from the hero of a short story into an international phenomenon. We're privy to some of the intimacies of Sholem and his wife, and to the relationship between him and his children. Ironically, for someone who endured the Russian pogroms, after his death (in 1916), the writer was elevated into a national hero by the Soviet Communists -- until Stalin's paranoia took over (hey -- the guy was Jewish!) and the writer was once again -- this time posthumously -- on the outs.

For someone like me, who knew little about this man, Dorman's film is a windfall: full of good information about so many things, all woven together via the filmmaker's delightful ability to think and link. He's good at spotting paradoxes, too: the hatred of the Yiddish language by the Palestinian Jews set against the American Jews' embrace of it; and of course the supreme paradox -- The Chosen People's supposed embrace of the doctrine of 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.

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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.

Good. I worked long and hard on this film, and it feels extremely nice to be appreciated.

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.

I suppose that most of us think of him first as the creator of the Fiddler stories?

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.

It’s funny, because on its most basic level, the film is a bio of Sholem Aleichem. But I wanted to create a bio of a people, too. Strand of Aleichem’s own life, interwoven with strands that tell the Jewish history. The larger, universal story about the nature of modern identity.

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.

One of the most important thing about your film for me was how you (and Aleichem) addressed the subject of Jewish exclusivity versus universalism. As somebody in the film asks: “If the universality of mankind is really a Jewish value, then why do Jews continue to distinguish themselves and to set themselves apart?” I think about this from time to time, and have had arguments with Jewish friends about it, and it continues to bother me.

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.

The only thing I would like to stress, always, is that the crucial thing is that this is not just a biography of Sholem Aleichem. It’s for everyone. It’s universal. And it is not just about the fact that Aleichem wrote the Fiddler stories. Fiddler on the Roof is brilliant popular entertainment. But Aleichem is something much beyond that. He was am amazingly popular guy, and a universal figure.

Thanks Joe, for your time and attention. We really wish you well for this new film.

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