The short film, “Jew,” has one of the bolder titles to cross my desk in recent years. It’s downright provocative, which was filmmaker Josh Berger’s intention, he told me at the premiere of the 38-minute movie for some 200 viewers at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood recently.
The drama revolves around a modern Orthodox boxer (played by Berger) who encounters anti-Semitism at the gym and in his neighborhood. The harassment gets so bad that his younger brother – who has just become bar mitzvah – questions whether it would be easier to be non-Jewish. Meanwhile, a racist youth – just out of jail and down on his luck – targets the brothers’ synagogue for a hate crime, with tragic results.
So why did Berger title the film, “Jew?” Dressed all in black at the premiere, he began by describing his trip to concentration camps and to Israel on the Birthright Israel March of the Living program some years ago. There, Berger was startled to learn that anti-Semitism is still alive and well in parts of Eastern Europe.
Back in Los Angeles, he had been overhearing anti-Semitic remarks by people who assumed he was not Jewish. (Actually Berger grew up in a Reform home in Santa Cruz before moving to L.A. to become an actor.) “Don’t be such a Jew” seemed to be a common slur to mean “don’t be cheap.”
“Used by the wrong person, ‘Jew’ becomes a derogatory word,” Berger explained. “But I wanted to make a movie that would inform people about what the word really means.”
And so he brought his idea to the film’s co-writers, Dean Anello and Michael Carney, who also directed the movie, which was shot over four days with a $50,000 budget. To write the drama, the team drew on hate crime incidents that had been reported across the country – including a game called “beat the Jew” allegedly invented by students at a high school outside Los Angeles, Berger said.
“I wasn’t interested in making another ‘American History X,’” Carney, who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home in the South, recalled at the Q&A after the screening.
“But when Josh talked about his research [including speaking to an official at the Simon Wiesenthal Center], I was shocked that these kinds of hate crimes are still occurring. This stuff is very real. For me it was a chance to sink my teeth into something that hadn’t even been on my radar before.”
After the screening, a number of viewers remarked that the film could well apply to all kinds of racism today. “You definitely hit the target,” an African-American man said at the Q&A. “The film is very timely to all the things that are still going on now. This story is not an old story, and unfortunately will never be.”
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