Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Matt Mindell's doc, THE LION OF JUDAH, explores the Holocaust via a single survivor and the many youths he helps to educate

Another Holocaust documentary? Yup. And, at first glance, one with even less a claim on our hard-earned cash than many others because it is but one-hour long, will surely end up on television, and covers specific Holocaust mini-genres -- survivors speak out; teaching the tale to our youth -- that we've already seen handled a number of times. What is surprising, then, about THE LION OF JUDAH -- despite all of the above -- is how immediate, how necessary and even how rigorous this documentary is, as it tells the story of one Holocaust survivor, Leo Zisman, and how he is spending his final years leading groups of young people (mostly Jews but some not) in and out of various Holocaust landmarks, sharing his own personal history and connecting them with vital knowledge of the century just past.

Perhaps it was the mere 60-minutes length that forced writer/director Matt Mindell (shown at left) to buckle down and fly straight and true toward his goal. He wastes no time bringing us into his Holocaust history, and while some of this has already been told, Zisman's stories are something new. His tales -- including that of the "selection" of his father, his older brother and himself, followed by an order from his dad and the input from two German Shepherds is a rather amazing tale. How this man did what he did -- stood up to the Nazi to their face; ran away, fending off dogs -- and lived to tell about it is pretty extraordinary. (If a tad unbelievable: I sure hope Mindell did his due diligence, as we don't need any more Holocaust deniers screaming, "Told you so!")

In any case, Zisman, above, is quite the performer, and Mindell proves a smart journalist with a lot of good questions to ask that lead to some interesting interviews, such as one with a young woman who lives overlooking present-day Auschwitz. Hearing these young people talk about the Holocaust and their experiences trying to understand it proves more precise and meaningful than many previous films I've seen. One of these young people, Joe Kavitski, a non-Jew who doubles as co-cameraman, editor and co-producer here, notes, "Seeing a Star of David made fun of via the graffiti on a synagogue wall really begs the question: Could all this happen again today?"

Later we're shown actual bone fragments (above) among the pebbles on the ground around Auschwitz today. While the short interviews with some current young Polish citizens point up an obvious (yet to them simply normal) brand of anti-Semitism, two young Jewish scholars who've been touring the country tell us that they have encountered little of that in Poland. The worst, they insist, occurred in Budapest, Hungary -- even as another man walks by them uttering an anti-Semitic slur in Polish. Notes a Polish radio host: "We still have to do a lot of work to know each other better."

There's some smart use of historical footage of the concentration camps (above), contrasted with similar locations today, visited by Zisman and his students (below).

Along the way some very thoughtful and genuinely moving com-ments are made by the visitors regarding everything from the eye-glasses, prosthetic arms & legs, and even shoes (like that below, belonging to a little girl) that the Nazis stole from their victims.

There are even some genuine surprises along the way, like the discovery for these visitors of a hidden synagogue in a Czech concentration camp. Who knew? I certainly didn't, nor did my companion, who is himself Jewish. Another surprise is provided by a young woman, Adriana Celis (shown below) from Colombia -- a Catholic who had long been drawn to Judaism. Her story, too, is worth hearing.

An excellent addition to Holocaust films, The Lion of Judah will be available, post its theatrical showing -- which begins this Friday, August 10, at the Quad Cinema in New York City -- on DVD and via Netflix, iTunes and other major digital platforms.

The photos above, save that of the filmmaker, 
are cribbed from the trailer for the film and 
can be attributed, I think, to its talented 
cinematographer and artist/model/all-round hunk, 

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