Blood at the root

Apr 23, 2003 at 12:00 am

What happens when art and hate crimes collide, when rhinestoned rock ’n’ roll searches for its Judaic wellspring, when compassion turns into self-sacrifice and the need for security turns into a nuclear reactor? From April 27 to May 8, the fifth annual Jewish Community Center Lenore Marwil Jewish Film Festival explores all of the above and more with more than 30 films showing at four venues: the United Artists Theatres in Commerce Township, the Birmingham 8 Theatre, the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor and the Palace Theatre in Windsor.

As might be expected, many of the films revolve around the elevating tensions and ultimate pogrom of the Jews perpetrated by Nazi Germany during World War II: Based on a true story, The White Rose whirls around an underground society — made up of a German professor and five of his students — determined to protest and thwart the Nazi regime. In The Sky is Falling, Isabella Rossellini and Jeroen Krabbe portray a couple whose peaceful, Italian countryside life deteriorates into a hellish daily existence when Nazi forces occupy their paradise. Celebrating bravery and self-sacrifice, I’m Alive and I Love You is the true tale of a French railway worker risking everything to save a child from the Nazi scourge; and Monsieur Batignole, official caterer to the SS, slowly changes his cold, cutting attitude, eventually deciding to forget his own needs to smuggle some Jewish children to the safety of Switzerland.

Was the king of rock ’n’ roll Jewish? Three Canadian filmmakers and an orthodox rabbi-Elvis impersonator are determined to unearth this myth in Schmelvis: Searching for the King’s Jewish Roots. If nothing else, the endeavor sends a touch of Vegas flash, riding a camel, on a mission to mystify the Middle East.

It’s not often that a song sparks an ever-expanding ripple in a county’s social strata, but “Strange Fruit” did just that in 1939. In reaction to a photograph of a lynching, Jewish schoolteacher Abel Meeropol (aka Lewis Allan) wrote the outspoken ballad back in the ’30s, then managed to bring its macabre-yet-beautiful lyrics to the attention of Billie Holiday, one of the most sensitive and popular voices of the time. The song merges European cabaret (à la Brecht-Weill) with African-American jazz aesthetics in a perfect marriage of social commentary and the beauty of high art. Despite being banned from radio play, “Strange Fruit” made it onto the charts and forced a discussion of race-hate crimes into the national consciousness. Just shy of an hour, Joel Katz’s documentary Strange Fruit attempts to frame the life of the song, illustrating America’s troubled and lynch-riddled atmosphere of the ’30s and, later, the song’s entanglements with “fear of free speech” McCarthyism.

Radio personality and columnist Dennis Prager touches on one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the short film, Israel in a Time of Terror. As could be guessed from the title, the film rides on footage of bomb-ravaged bodies and free-form, emotion-driven interviews with Israeli citizens by Prager, asking such questions as “Do you hate the Arabs?” and “Why do you think Israel is so alone in the world?” The responses range from a compassionate willingness to share land and wealth to hostile, gun-in-the-back-pocket, us-or-them reactions.

One of the more intriguing films included is A Bomb in the Basement, a potent documentary chronicling Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion’s determination to acquire nuclear capabilities to deter the potential aggressions of neighboring countries. The film unfolds the detailed and complicated political maneuverings that led to the allegiance of France and Israel — a friendship that may have kept the state of Israel from total annihilation — and how the brilliant political stratagem of Israel’s “nuclear uncertainty” kept the rest of the Middle East’s hunger for nuclear power temporarily at bay.

From the politics of war to the politics of sports, from Jewish gospel singers to the dying art of klezmer music, the Lenore Marwil Jewish Film Festival covers a wide, life-affirming gamut.


The Lenore Marwil Jewish Film Festival takes place April 27-May 8. For tickets, call 248-788-2900. For more information, call 248-432-5577. For a schedule of films and locations, visit the cultural arts category at

Anita Schmaltz writes about performance and theater for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]