Jewish Journal

Rocky Mountain Chai

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on Jan. 18, 2001 at 7:00 pm

American diplomat Ralph Bunche is the subject of a film scheduled to run at Sundance.

American diplomat Ralph Bunche is the subject of a film scheduled to run at Sundance.

Move over Sundance, Slamdance, Digidance and Nodance. The two-week showbiz schmoozefest in Park City, Utah, traditionally a launching pad for Jewish indie cinema, is now home to SchmoozeDance, a forum for Jewish filmmakers, journalists, observers and studio execs to celebrate Jewish film.

"Since everyone's schmoozing at Sundance, I thought the Jews should, too," founder Larry Mark said. Mark has dedicated the past five years of his life to Jewish cinema. A circulation marketer at The New York Times by day, the movie buff was annoyed by the ubiquitous stereotypes he heard about Jewish film. "It was, 'Oh, Jewish cinema -- that's "Fiddler on the Roof" or Holocaust stuff,'" he said. "But there's so much more."

Mark proved his point by starting JewishFilm.com, the online Jewish film archive; there are now some 800 listings, including past Sundance entries like Boaz Yakin's "A Price Above Rubies" and Darren Aronofsky's "Pi." To keep his site current, Mark compulsively studies Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and worldwide film festival lineups. (He's also the editor of MyJewishBooks.com.)

Now he's turning his attention to Park City. "I've always wanted to go to a real industry film festival," explained the affable Mark, who'll use vacation time to attend the fests.

SchmoozeDance is starting small. This year, it's an oneg Shabbat and a kiddush sponsored by JewishFilm.com Jan. 19 at Park City's only shul, Reform Temple Har Shalom. "I even had yarmulkes made up that say 'SchmoozeDance at Sundance,'" said Mark, who's invited everyone from Village Voice critic J. Hoberman to Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein.

In 2001, movies to watch include Michael Apted's "Enigma," based on Robert Harris' best-selling novel about Britain's elite team of code-breakers facing their worst nightmare in March 1943. Nazi U-boats have unexpectedly changed their enigma code, endangering a merchant shipping convoy of 10,000 men. Sundance opens with Christine Lahti's "My First Mister," a March-October romance starring Albert Brooks and Leelee Sobieski. The festival will also premiere "Divided We Fall," about a Czech family that harbors an escapee from Theresienstadt; the documentary "Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey," about the life of the remarkable African American mediator of the 1949 Arab-Israeli armistice; and "Trembling Before G-d," a highly anticipated doc about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews by Sandi Simcha DuBowski (see story, page 27).

Then there's director Marc Levin, winner of the 1998 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for "Slam," a lyrical feature about an incarcerated Black poet; he's back in Park City this year with Slamdance opener "Brooklyn Babylon," a Black-Jewish "Romeo and Juliet" inspired by the Song of Songs. Set in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where Black-Jewish tensions have simmered since the riot of 1991, Sol, a charismatic rapper ready to break into the music business (hip-hop MC Tariq Trotter), meets Sara (Karen Goberman), a young Jewish beauty ready to break free of her religious background. Sparks fly.

The provocative pic brings Levin, director of the video version of Anna Deavere Smith's L.A.-riot saga, "Twilight: Los Angeles," back to his Jewish roots.

"[As] the millennium was approaching, I felt it was time to do my Bible film, a hip-hop Solomon and Sheba in the neighborhood where my parents and grandparents all grew up," he said. "In a way, it completes my trilogy: 'Slam,' 'Whiteboys' and 'Brooklyn Babylon.'"

In dramatic competition at Sundance, the Yale- and Stanford-educated writer-director Henry Bean offers "The Believer," starring Theresa Russell and Billy Zane, based on the 1960s true story of an ex-yeshiva bocher turned anti-Semite. In real life, Danny Balint committed suicide the day The New York Times printed an exposé revealing he was Jewish. In the movie, we meet the 12-year-old Balint (Ryan Gosling) arguing with his rabbis and dodging gentile toughs on the street. By 22, he is a skinhead and budding fascist leader; when the court sentences him to "sensitivity training" with elderly Holocaust survivors, his conflicting feelings set him on the path to self-destruction.

While Balint was hiding his Jewishness, "at the same time he was compulsively revealing it," said Bean, the screenwriter of "Internal Affairs" and "Enemy of the State." "He would bring knishes back to the Nazi headquarters and hang out with girls who looked obviously Jewish. The notion of somebody hiding something and revealing it at the same time fascinated me."

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