November 15, 2007
Yiddish theater documentary opens, thanks to WWW
For independent filmmakers Dan Katzir and Ravit Markus, making "Yiddish Theater: A Love Story" was the easy part; booking the documentary into a commercial venue where people could see it was the real struggle.
After two years of rebuffs, the director and producer of "Yiddish Theater" can now pop open the champagne. The feel-good, feel-sad film is opening this month in Tel Aviv, New York and Los Angeles, thanks to persistence and the Internet.
Katzir, a non-Yiddish speaker and former Israeli paratroop officer, fell in love with New York's Folksbiene when its ensemble was trying desperately to keep the longest-running Yiddish theater in America open with a production of "Grine Felder" ("Green Fields").
For eight days during the brutal New York winter of 2000, Katzir followed the venerable producer-star Zypora Spaisman and her cast during rehearsals, performances and the cliffhanging maneuvers to save the place from foreclosure.
Despite a glowing review in the New York Times and appeals to six Manhattan millionaires to come up with the needed $75,000, the play and the theater closed down on New Year's Eve.
It seemed that the same curse afflicted the completed film. Although "Yiddish Theater" won plaudits and awards at Jewish film festivals, professional distributors, who could book the film into commercial theaters, wouldn't even look at the picture.
"As soon as a distributor heard the word 'Yiddish,' he hung up the phone," Katzir said.
PBS, which loves films on ancient Chinese and Etruscan cultures, was equally uninterested.
Almost broke, Katzir and Markus hit on an idea. They put the film's trailer and some information, for free, on MySpace.com, then on YouTube.com, and inquiries started coming in.
One was from the program director for the Pioneer Theater in New York, an art house usually featuring edgy movies attracting mostly younger audiences.
With New York booked, Tel Aviv and Los Angeles followed in short order.
Katzir draws two conclusions from his experience."
The Internet has changed the landscape dramatically for independent and foreign movies, which are no longer at the mercy of distributors," said Katzir, speaking from Israel where he is putting Hebrew subtitles on the film for its Tel Aviv premiere.
"Secondly, Yiddish has jumped two generations," the 37-year old director observed. "When I talk to people in their 50s and 60s, I get rejections, but we're drawing in younger audiences."
"Yiddish Theater: A Love Story" opens Nov. 30 at Laemmle's Grand 4-Plex in downtown Los Angeles. American Friends of Tel Aviv University will sponsor a reception for the filmmakers and audience on Dec. 2 after the 1 p.m. show at the theater.