The Portland Jewish Film Festival, which ends this week, provides wonderful opportunities to see works from the Jewish experience. But there are other great films out there, including two recent DVD releases.
Hester Street (1975)-Jake (Steven Keats) is a Jewish immigrant working at a garment factory, trying to carve out his version of the American Dream in late-1800s New York City. A popular ladies' man, Jake has his eyes set on an ambitious, self-sufficient woman with enough money to support herself. Problems arise for Jake, however, when Gitl (Carol Kane), his wife from back in the old country, arrives with their young son in tow. The old-fashioned Gitl still believes in tradition and, more importantly, does not fit into Jake's plans for his new life as a Yankee. Complicating matters is the unspoken attraction between Gitl and Mr. Bernstein (Mel Howard), a Jewish scholar who shares a tiny apartment with Jake and his family.
Released at a time when themes of female empowerment were being played out primarily in films like Switchblade Sisters, Hester Street offered a rare glimpse of feminism not entangled in male-fantasy sexuality or encumbered by soapbox preaching. It is a powerful examination of women's liberation that understands that restraint is often more effective than Brechtian polemics. The simple direction and nuanced script by Joan Micklin Silver (Crossing Delancey) relyon subtlety to paint complex, layered characters that live and breathe. The drama never goes over the top, the humor never degenerates into silliness, and the characters never become cardboard cutouts.
Carol Kane gives the best performance of her career as a woman who comes to America looking to continue her old life, only to be forced into starting a new one. Kane received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance as Gitl, a role that allows her to transform herself in front of the camera. Keats, best remembered for his supporting roles in films like Death Wish, also rises to the occasion, turning in a solid performance as a shallow man who fails to see what is in front of his eyes. Playing a character as unlikable as Jake is a challenge-many actors would simply portray him as a shallow villain, while Keats gives him dimension and soul.
Shanghai Ghetto (2002)-Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann's profound and emotionally powerful documentary explores the lives and experiences of some of the 20,000 Jews who fled Europe in the 1930s seeking refuge in, of all places, Shanghai. As the Nazi threat grew, more and more countries closed their borders to Jews, and one of the only places they could go without visas or passports was 8,000 miles away in China. Despite the difficult conditions they faced in Shanghai-which was occupied at the time by Japan-the Jewish refugees managed to survive and endure. Shanghai Ghetto serves as an inspiration and a cautionary tale of the heavy price war exacts on humanity-a lesson of great relevance during these volatile times.