By Larry Mark
As sundown came to Sundance on Friday evening, I prepared to trek over to the local synagogue, Temple Har Shalom, now ensconced in a beautiful new building, complete with a theater for Sundance’s use. It was the weekend of parshat Shemot, the start of the Book of Exodus from Mitzrayim—how appropriate to read from it at a festival where the main theater is called “The Egyptian.”
But I was a “Boy Interrupted” (the title of a Sundance film that is building buzz – actually a tragic documentary about a teenager’s suicide). As I prepared to leave the Yarrow Hotel, I saw a sign for a “Shabbat at Sundance” dinner being held in a ballroom one floor away. I popped in and found 100 people eating a buffet dinner and singing Sabbath songs. In its third year, Mendel Schwartz of Los Angeles’ Chai Center helps to organize and host a Shabbat dinner which draws an extremely diverse group of Sundance Jews, Hollywood Jews, Jewish festival attendees and industry leaders. The kosher food and excessive amounts of wine had been trucked in by a Dallas, TX based kosher caterer. I am not one to kiss and tell, or pray and tell, so without mentioning names, at my table were two founders of the Palisades Park Film Festival, and three young filmmakers from New York City.
One highlight of the dinner, in addition to the Israeli-style rice, was my naiveté at sitting at another table and chatting with some participants, only later realizing that the man sitting next to me was the Jewish reggae star, Matisyahu.
As I got ready to leave after the Birkat haMazon, or grace after meals, one of the hosts approached me to ask me to be a tenth man the next morning at their condo minyan. Free cholent would be provided afterwards, they said. How could I resist? But seriously, I was and am a Jew at Sundance, and given the choice of seeing two films in the morning, or making a minyan, especially one where someone might need to say Kaddish, the choice was clear.
The next morning I hiked into the snowy mountain area and found the condo. It was many times nicer than mine, so I got to see the luxury that can be Park City (or what I, a guy who lives in a one-room studio in Manhattan, would consider luxury). Complete with a Torah supplied by Chabad of Salt Lake City, the worship service was unique. It occurred in the living room, facing east towards the fireplace, as out the window, snow boarders could be seen lining up for rides to the slope and nearby chair lifts. The Torah was read from the marble-topped kitchen island. Afterwards, without praying and telling, I was introduced to Matisyahu, once again; his wife, Tali, herself a nascent Jewish documentary filmmaker; Mendel Schwartz of The Chai Center; and Marc Erlbaum of Nationlight Productions, a new Jewish faith-based production company that hopes to reach mainstream audiences.
Nationlight—which had “Sundance” kippahs made up—is led by Erlbaum, who put together an experienced team of Jewish professionals to serve on his board. They include Michael Helfant, executive producer of “Iron Man,” and Doug Mankoff, producer of “Away From Her” and executive producer of Sandra Nettelbeck’s “Helen,” which stars Ashley Judd as a professor coming to terms with her clinical depression, and which screens in the Spectrum section at Sundance. “Nationlight will mingle Jewish wisdom with cutting-edge entertainment in order to highlight human potential, probe the difficult but essential questions of our existence, and inspire viewers to better themselves and their surroundings,” Erlbaum said. His initial films will include “The Good News,” about a man who sets out to launch a news broadcast that only reports positive stories.
A drash on Moshe was given by Noah BenShea, a writer who is known for his “Jacob The Baker” series of books. It fit in so well with the storytelling theme of Sundance 2009.
On Saturday evening, I headed over to The Egyptian Theater for the world premier of “Zion and His Brother,” an Israeli drama by Sundance Lab alumnus Eran Merav. The film opens with a scene of boys in Haifa playing soccer under an overpass. Zion, 14, is hunted down and attacked by Meir, 17, his older brother, wrestled to the ground and taken to a dentist. They live among the endless apartment blocks, vulnerably small and insignificant in the grander scene. Trains pass from Haifa to the center of the country, ignoring the people in this neighborhood. They are two brothers, perhaps like Jacob and Esau, forever struggling, with an estranged, absent, most likely imprisoned, father, and a struggling single mother desperate for love, on the poor side of town. It is the end of summer, hot and sticky, and the sun is drying out everyone and everything, spotlighting all events. Watching the film, I felt I was back in Israel, walking the steps of an apartment building, flicking the switch to light the interior steps, hearing the sounds of Zohar or Haim Moshe from behind apartment front doors.
When a schoolmate of Zion‘s, an even lower-class son of Ethiopian immigrants, an outsider among outsiders, is killed in an accident and the brothers are in some respects responsible, Zion must decide whether to keep the secret to himself or to take on a greater role of leadership in the family as their dysfunctional relationship descends even more into chaos.
Also screening was an Israeli short film by Michal Vinik. Unfortunately, the Sundance film guide listed Michal as a “Michael” and as a “he” instead of a she. Which was ironically appropriate, since her film, “Bait” is about a tomboy named Nitzan, living near Ashdod, who plans to go out for a day of fishing. Instead, she accompanies her sister—who takes a risk by hitchhiking to the beach in skimpy clothing. They are given a ride by a Filipino guest worker (played by Israeli-Filipino, Peter Somra) from a nearby moshav, who spends the afternoon with them swimming in the sea and more. Just what is Nitzan fishing for?
I must admit, my favorite film so far is not directly a “Jewish” one. It is “The September Issue,” a documentary by R. J. Cutler about the creation of the largest September issue of Vogue, and a profile of its editor, Anna Wintour. It will be a must-see for all 13 million readers of Vogue, anyone in fashion and fashion retailing, all garmento’s, runway models, fashion photographers and stylists. For all her cold glances and rudeness, I would work for Wintour in a heartbeat, albeit a fashionably styled heartbeat.
For more information, visit the Sundance site.