February 3, 2000
Jewish Themes at Sundance
The Sundance Film Festival, that two-week industry schmooze-fest in Park City, Utah, was once more a launching pad for Jewish independent cinema.
British playwright David Hare arrived for the world premiere of "Via Dolorosa," the filmed version of his acclaimed monologue about life in Israel. Another Brit, writer-director Ben Hopkins, offered his "Yiddish Biblical western," "Simon Magus," actually a fable set in a 19th century Central European Jewish community. Maggie Greenwald ("The Ballad of Little Jo") was back at Sundance with her film, "SongCatchers."
Buzz was high for Gurinder Chadha's "What's Cooking?," the fest's opening-night pic, which reflects the filmmaker's fascination with the melting pot of Los Angeles.
Starring Julianna Margulies, Lainie Kazan, Joan Chen and Mercedes Ruehl, the broad comedy provides snapshots of four diverse families -- Jewish, black, Latino, Vietnamese -- all preparing for Thanksgiving on one street in Los Angeles. An African-American clan anticipates WASPY guests; A Vietnamese émigré worries about her children; a young Latino man invites his philandering father to Thanksgiving dinner; a Jewish lesbian brings her lover (Margulies) home for the holiday.
Other films of note included "But I'm a Cheerleader," starring Joel Michaely, a former student at Heschel Day School; and "Yana's Friends," a quirky tale of life among Israel's Russian émigrés. Variety called Russian-Israeli director Arik Kaplun, who dabbled in Orthodoxy before turning to filmmaking, one of the top 10 directors to watch at Sundance: In his Russian- and Hebrew-language film, a young Russian woman, abandoned by her husband, moves in with a commitment-phobic Tel Aviv videographer and falls in love in the sealed rooms of the Persian Gulf War.
Amid the documentary fare was "Paragraph 175," about homosexuals and the Holocaust, the latest documentary by Oscar winners Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple, who last followed Woody Allen and Soon-Yi around Europe for "Wild Man Blues," offered "My Generation," her work-in-progress documentary about all three Woodstock music festivals. Kopple apparently put up her own money, for a time, to explore what was different and what wasn't about the youths who attended the music fests in 1969, 1994 and 1999.
Throughout the festival, which ran Jan. 20 to 30, it was clear that Sundance continues to provide a forum for filmmakers who want to explore their Judaism on film. "There's a ghettoization in the film industry about being a Jew," as one director once told the Journal. "But we prefer not to be part of that ghetto."