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Social Media Film Surprise at Jewish Film Festival
by Doniphan Blair
"The oldest Jewish film festival in world is doing the newest Jewish storytelling thing," said Sam Ball, of Citizen Film, which produces the New Jewish Filmmaking Project (NJFP; njfp.org) in partnership with the San Francisco Jewish Fill Festival (SFJFF). "The project was worked out on Facebook," Ball said, "We said, 'Whoa, we're onto something here.' It could not have happened a generation ago. This is how young people think and relate today. We found that art making and social media can be interrelated." Citizen Film is documentary production company associated with Joshua Venture Fellowship, founded by Ball with filmmakers Sophie Constantinou and Kate Stilley Steiner, in San Francisco's Mission District in 2001.
Her Czech Jewish Grandmother A blog about her grandma, by half-Chinese San Franciscan Yenny Martin, has piqued interest among Czechs.. photo courtesy Yenny Martin
Since 2002, through NJFP, it has co-created videos with young people coming of age at the intersection of Jewish and other identities. They have produced over 100 shorts and several hour-long programs, and have shown in hundreds of classrooms, as well as on PBS, HBO, IFC, Sundance and NY MOMA. This year, they present an immense and ambitious project, developed through social media, which will show at the upcoming 30th SFJFF, from July 24 to August 9. Called "Half-Remembered Stories," and with 50 pieces total, it is a multi-media exhibit showing simultaneously online, on kiosks, in the lobbies of the Castro and San Rafael theaters, and, last but least, on screens.
Sam Ball, of Citizen Film, which produces the New Jewish Filmmaking Project. photo: courtesy of Citizen Film
"The project works with ethnically diverse kids who self-identify as Jews," Ball said by phone. "One piece, 'Potchki Press,' is on Yiddish. The filmmaker asked people what they think a word means, to show how [Yiddish] has influenced American speech. On the site, you can take a quiz to improve your Yiddish. It's a very different filmmaking form."
Directed by Corey Abraham out of Orinda, "Potchki Press" illuminates the American use of Yiddish, which is surprisingly broad (pretty much all "sch" words: schlep, schmo, schlemiel, schmata). Abraham also uses his own stumbling study of the almost (but never quite) dead language for the videos, cartoons, and quizzes. See
"Another entry, 'Memory's Echo,' is by a very talented young writer who is half Chinese and half Jewish but grew up speaking Chinese," Ball continued, referring to Yenny Martin from San Francisco's Castro District. "By happy accident, she stumbled on boxes of diaries her Jewish grandma wrote when she was 18. Well, [Yenny] is 18 now and has started a series of essays on memory. She has amazing insight into how families work - how one generation affects the next. We had her work this out on a blog." Martin's piece combines a prose memoir, family heirlooms, and photos, all interactive, as well as a regular print article published in Zeek magazine.
"So, she's blogging away about her grandmother, and this reporter from Prague - Yenny's grandmother is from Brno, in the Czech Republic - is surfing the Web and comes across her stuff about Brno. The reporter translated some for her Czech readers, and suddenly we're getting 1000 hits in one week. They were fascinated by this half-Chinese granddaughter of a family that fled the Nazis. This is just one of the cool things about these social networks. Imagine! To reconnect to these people in a town that was ethnically cleansed!"
Martin's grandmother fled with her family to San Francisco via Manchuria. A generation later, her father met her mother, a Chinese woman. Now she identifies as Chinese, Jewish and American.
"That is something we encourage," Ball explained. "Anyone is Jewish who says they are - there is no litmus test. For us, being Jewish is about telling stories that ask questions about history and identity. That is the essentially Jewish thing to do" And this is where Citizen Film hits pay dirt.
"Jews were writing books when da rest of ya where swinging from da trees," as this author's father-in-law, a small, speakeasy-owning, New York Jew used to say. But many Jews (including this author and his father-in-law) are/were agnostics. They often regard the Bible as a complex drama of compound metaphors that tells a story of moral evolution - God as narrative trope. Naturally, the tribe's new generation would take to Facebook for their structure. "We are learning from this generation how to use the online environment," Ball said. "If you want to speak to this generation, you have to use that space - and use that space to create art."
Quite a few of the pieces reflect the Western US Jewish experience, which is very different from that of Jews raised in Israel or New York. For example, Hannah Lesser of Berkeley untangles secrets about her family, the only Jews in Mitchell, South Dakota. In "Gambling Mensch," Jason Zavaleta of the Sunset neighborhood makes a startling discovery - is beloved grandfather is a gamblaholic
Others pieces are more esoteric, like "Memories Past" by Zoe Pollak, which uses online films to inquire about the nature of time. "'Memories Past' shows that identity is a fluid thing and always was," Ball explained. "People who follow the messianic side of the religion harken back to a reality that, in fact, did not exist, while Maimonides [the great medieval rationalist] claimed a different basis for his identity. There are also passages from Einstein which, if you put them side by side with Maimonides, are saying the same thing. This project would be impossible without the Internet - not just the content, but the form, too. 'Memories' has 36 little videos, all on YouTube."
Citizen Film was able to mount this ambitious experiment after receiving a $250,000 grant from James Joseph Foundation. In addition to the 50 films, it has accumulated a lot of online multimedia experience. "Engaging in social media artistically, trying to use the Web, as this messy canvas to make art on, or rather in, is fascinating." To round out the multimedia-ness, all the pieces are published in some form in Zeek magazine, which is part of The Jewish Daily Forward, the legendary New York Yiddish magazine, still going since 1897.
"We are also using the oldest Jewish technology, words on paper," Ball concluded. "Yes, this generation is mind-boggling, but in some ways, there are parallels to older generations."
The project, which went online the first week of July, also includes: "A Zombie Day of Atonement," a search for Jewish meaning online; "Escape from Suburbia," Mayana Bonapart's meditation on the death of her uncle; "The Lost Play," by Lee Goldin, about trying to realize his grandfather's dreams of becoming a playwright.
Perhaps the most crazy, "Fiddler-on-the-Roof" piece is "Leap of Fate" by Klaira Markenzon of San Francisco. It concerns a suitor of the director's great-grandmother. When she told the Romeo good-bye, like any good impassioned Slav, he threatened to throw himself under the very train that was to carry her out of the Ukraine. This incident starts an interactive "choose-your-own-adventure" story combining photos, text, and video.
The filmmakers kicked off at the Castro Theatre on Saturday, July 24, with live spoken-word performances. "It's been gratifying to see this latest evolution of Citizen Film's work," said Peter Stein, the executive director of SFJFF. "Their stories are a fresh voice, a wonderful expression of how today's younger generations are embracing and reshaping contemporary Jewish identity."
Considering the immense problems of competing narratives, notably in the Middle East, those who wield the power of the pen must hone their stories and storytelling to show that it is, in fact, mightier than the sword.
Posted on Aug 12, 2010 - 08:08 PM