October 28, 1999
Keiko Ibi’s “Personal” Journey
By Curt Schleier
Selma, 73, discusses her sexless marriage, her affairs, the elderly man who tried to rape her and the hopelessness of living alone. "Touching, it's what I miss," she confides. "What I'd really like is not the sex act itself. I just want to be held."
This sentiment is the essence of Keiko Ibi's 1999 Academy Award-winning short documentary, which screens Nov. 7 and 9 at the first International Jewish Film Festival. The simple, poignant movie focuses upon Jewish senior citizens who are rehearsing an original play about the single life. Offstage, they reveal their most intimate thoughts to Ibi, who, at first glance, seems the last person one would expect to make a movie about elderly Jews on the Lower East Side.
The 32-year-old filmmaker is a soft-spoken, former Miss Japan, who never met a Jew before she arrived in New York to study film in 1991. Her own Japanese grandparents, she acknowledges, would never have discussed intimate matters on camera. "Asians tend to be shy and do not talk openly about sex," she says. "I could not have made this film in Japan."
If opposites attract, perhaps that is one reason Ibi was so taken with the outspoken, elderly Jews she met at a luncheon at her acting teacher's home in 1996. The professor directed the thespians' Alliance Stage Company, where they were preparing a play inspired by the personal ads in The Jewish Week. "They were really vivacious, energetic and funny," Ibi recalls. "They held my hand. They wanted to know about me."
Ibi, who at the time spoke broken English, was also curious about them. She began attending their rehearsals, with her camera in tow, and then followed them home to learn about their real lives. &'009;
Harold, a playboy who never married, told Ibi he worried about dying alone. Several of the women described marrying as virgins, only to be disappointed with sex.
"I knew as little about Jewish culture as the seniors... knew about Japanese culture," the filmmaker says. "We had nothing in common... But I think people were open with me precisely because I was a stranger. You are less concerned about how you appear to someone who does not belong to your community."
Ibi, the only child of a Tokyo couple, now divorced, who worked in real estate, grew up a world away from the Lower East Side. An artistic young woman, she studied literature, directed school plays and, at 19, won the Miss Japan Grand Prix competition, the Japanese equivalent of Miss America. But the activities of a beauty queen ultimately proved dissatisfying for Ibi. For a year-and-a-half, she begged her mother to let her study film in the U.S. When her mother finally relented, Ibi moved to New York, enrolled at Syracuse University and then transferred to New York University. Almost by accident, the Jewish senior citizens became the subject of her master's thesis.
Only in America, Ibi says, could a student film win the Oscar. Nevertheless, she was so shocked when her name was called that she burst into tears on the dais and marveled that "A girl from Japan can make a movie about Jewish senior citizens and [win]." Ibi, only the second Japanese filmmaker to receive an Oscar since the legendary Akira Kurosawa, is now working on a screenplay and another documentary, about high school cheerleaders in Texas.
All the while, she has kept in touch with her Jewish "American grandparents," who have taught her a thing or two about survival. "They gave me a glimpse of the aging process that is sometimes scary," Ibi admits. "But when they are struggling, they can [glean] humor from the situation. That is very Jewish. I have learned the Jewish way of dealing with struggle."
The seniors, for their parts, were thrilled with all the attention from the Academy Award. And when one of them, Fred Schecter, died this year, his family showed Ibi's film during the period of shiva. "It gave them comfort," she says, "and that means so much to me."
"The Personals" screens Nov. 7, 8 p.m. at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Nov. 9, 5 p.m. at Laemmle's Town Center in Encino. For more information, call (818) 786-4000.