Jewish Journal

Jewish themes on tap at Sundance festival

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on Jan. 17, 2008 at 7:00 pm

"The Wackness"

"The Wackness"

"I never sold weed after high school -- I swear," said 31-year-old filmmaker Jonathan Levine.

Instead, he said, "The Wackness," which revolves around a dealer who trades pot for therapy sessions (and premieres in competition at the Sundance Film Festival this week), was inspired by his teen angst back in 1994, as he bemoaned his social status, bickered with his Jewish parents and obsessed about what he calls life's "wackness, the awful stuff, rather than living in the moment."

The movie -- which stars Ben Kingsley as a druggie psychiatrist -- is among the high-profile films of interest to Jewish viewers at Sundance, where many of the 121 features deal with existential angst and how individuals come to terms with painful realities, often in comic ways.

"The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" -- also in competition -- is adapted from Michael Chabon's early novel about a young man who crosses his Jewish mobster father (Nick Nolte) and explores his own bisexuality; "The Deal" tells of a suicidal producer (William H. Macy) who cons a studio into financing a $100 million movie with a nonexistent script, starring a black action star who has converted to Judaism; the drama, "Strangers," spotlights an affair between an Israeli man and a Palestinian woman; and Boaz Yakin's "Death in Love," chronicles a Jewish woman's (Jacqueline Bisset) trysts with a Nazi doctor, and how that later impacts her grown sons. (A documentary, "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," recounts the sexual scandal that led the director to flee this country in 1978.)

Yakin ("Fresh," "Remember the Titans") previously appeared at Sundance in 1998 with "A Price Above Rubies," which raised ire in the Jewish community (and earned mixed reviews) for its tale of a Chasidic woman battling her oppressive community.

"People will probably be more upset about this film," Yakin, 42, said of "Death in Love," which melds Holocaust themes with explicit sex.

"But it's not a bone I'm picking with Judaism, as much as it is an expression of how difficult it is to be a human being," he insists. "Because I happen to be Jewish, the story manifests in that way."

"Death in Love," Yakin said, is the most fantastical (in terms of plot) but the most "emotionally personal" screenplay he has ever written. It draws on the time -- about five years ago -- that he fell into a severe depression as work proved uninspiring, a longtime relationship ended and, he said, "I woke up and went to sleep thinking about suicide." He said he went back into therapy and delved deeply into "the roots of my own psyche, which includes my relationship to the Holocaust."

Most of Yakin's mother's relatives died in Auschwitz.

"Her parents were the only ones of their respective families who survived, so the Holocaust is deeply ingrained in my psyche and the way I approach Jews and non-Jews," he explained. "It's a wariness, and a kind of masochistic relationship to the outside world. In the film I try to explore what I consider to be a kind of sadomasochistic relationship that Jews have had with their tormentors over the centuries -- an almost sexual cycle of pain and suffering that keeps this relationship alive."

The Sundance Festival runs through Jan. 27.

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