Spotlight on the National Center for Jewish Film
Helen Beverley and David Opatoshu as the star-crossed lovers in the Edgar G. Ulmer directed 1939 American Yiddish film classic The Light Ahead. Restored and with new English subtitles by The National Center for Jewish Film
"[Yiddish films] preserve an invaluable “family album” which captures the vibrancy of Jewish life and culture." --- Lisa Rivo
Founded in 1976, the Massachusetts-based National Center for Jewish Film (NCJF) boasts a collection of 15,000 reels, making it the largest archive of Jewish films outside of Israel. NCJF’s diverse holdings include not only feature films, but also documentaries, home movies, travelogues, anti-Jewish propaganda, among other motion picture media. According to NCJF Associate Director Lisa Rivo, the center’s mission is to “rescue, restore, and distribute films that document the diversity and vibrancy of Jewish life around the world.”
NCJF recently received an Art Works grant of $75,000 to support its upcoming festival of Yiddish cinema. As Rivo explained, “More than three decades ago, NCJF undertook the rescue of a languishing collection of Yiddish films…. Today, NCJF is recognized as the world leader in the revival of what we now call Yiddish cinema. The Center has preserved and restored 43 Yiddish films using archive-approved, film-to-film restoration from their original nitrate, making new negatives and prints with new English translations and subtitles.”
We spoke with Rivo via e-mail to learn more about Yiddish cinema, what participants can expect from the festival, and why it’s important to preserve this genre of film.
NEA: What's the mission of the NCJF, and what are some of the signature activities that support that mission?
LISA RIVO: NCJF is a unique, independent, nonprofit film archive, distributor, resource center, and exhibitor. The mission of NCJF is to collect, preserve, restore and exhibit films with artistic and historical value referable to the Jewish experience and to disseminate these materials to the largest possible audience. NCJF’s priority is the preservation and restoration of rare and endangered nitrate and acetate films.
In the depth of its archival collection and the range of its activities, NCJF is the only organization of its kind. NCJF provides programming and research consultation to more than 7,000 artists, educators, and curators each year. The center was an early advocate for the inclusion of film in study of history and culture, for the historically accurate use of visual materials, and for the development of Jewish and ethnic film as a subject for academic study and public exhibition.
NCJF is a major distributor of new films with Jewish content, with more than 300 films in active distribution. In addition to its restored archival films, NCJF distributes the films of dozens of contemporary, independent filmmakers. Each year, NCJF films screen at more than 400 venues worldwide. NCJF is also an exhibitor, producing programs for the public.
Individually and collectively, the films in NCJF’s archive dispel stereotypes about Jews and educate audiences about the diversity and cultural richness of Jewish life. NCJF’s films address a wide range of topics including: the immigrant experience in America, Yiddish theater and cinema, Jewish communities around the world, the Holocaust, women’s issues, Judaism and the arts, relations between Jews and other groups, Sephardic culture, and Israeli history…. Early silent films like Edwin S. Porter’s Cohen's Advertising Scheme (1904) and D.W. Griffith’s Romance of a Jewess (1908) place images of Jews in the continuum of the history of American cinema and the evolution of ethnic stereotypes in popular culture.
NEA: Your Art Works grant is to support a festival of Yiddish cinema. What characterizes Yiddish cinema as a genre? What's its historical context?
RIVO: Made far outside of Hollywood, the Yiddish films are true independent cinema. Yiddish films were produced in four countries in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The Polish, Russian, and Austrian films provide rare documentation of a vibrant world destroyed in the Holocaust. In America, Yiddish films were made in and around New York. The films were made by Jews for Jewish audiences, and they occupy an important place in the history of cinema as well as in Jewish and cultural history. Yiddish films and African-American “race films” were the only indigenously-produced ethnic cinema produced in the United States. What many of the films lack in polish and budget they make up for in their uncensored tackling of issues still relevant today---family and generational conflict, gender roles, identity, assimilation, immigration, and capitalism.
Prior to NCJF’s aggregation, restoration, and dissemination of these films, there was no such genre known as “Yiddish cinema.” NCJF advocated for these films’ place in film and cultural history. NCJF’s rigorous distribution, education, and outreach activities introduced these unique cultural treasures to modern audiences. A benchmark was reached in 1991 when Tevye (1939) was selected for the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, the first non-English language film to be so honored. Today, Yiddish film now enjoys critical acceptance as a unique chapter in World Cinema.
We believe that approximately 100 Yiddish films were produced. Only 50 percent have survived. These films provide a glimpse of the richness and diversity of the Yiddish-speaking communities of Europe and America during the first half of the 20th century. They preserve an invaluable “family album” that captures the vibrancy of Jewish life and culture.
The unique and profound contributions of Yiddish film are expertly discussed by J. Hoberman in his book based on the films in NCJF’s collection, Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds: “Novel for its audience, that broad, shifting spectrum of Jewish life between orthodoxy and assimilation, the Yiddish cinema is also novel in the history of cinema. Drawing upon an established dramatic and literary tradition, yet employing a language virtually unknown to the Gentile world…this was not just a national cinema without a nation-state, but a national cinema that, with every presentation, created its own ephemeral nation-state…Yiddish cinema addressed the dislocation between the Old Country and the New World, parent and child, folk community and industrial society, worker and allrightnik, that existed within each member of the audience.”
Writing about NCJF’s recent Yiddish film restoration Bar Mitzvah, Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker that the film, "…pays tribute to religious and theatrical traditions while surprisingly bursting their bonds in moments of cinematic inspiration...lightning bolts of cinematic revelation suggest the pliable, accessible modernism of the cinema."
NEA: How did you decide which films to include in the retrospective? And what are some of those films?
RIVO: Important to mention that all of these Yiddish-language films (a few are silent films with Yiddish intertitles or original scripts) have been restored by NCJF and all have new English subtitles.
We are still developing the line-up, and the selections will highlight the diversity of the genre. Some of the films [we plan to screen are] Edgar G. Ulmer’s American Matchmaker (Amerikaner Shakdhn), an American-made, 1940, Yiddish take on an Art Deco musical comedy starring Leo Fuchs, the "Yiddish Fred Astaire," Michael Waszynski’s The Dybbuk (Der Dibuk), a Polish Yiddish film classic from 1937 in which the boundaries separating the natural from the supernatural dissolve, and Jewish Luck (Menakhem Mendl), a 1925 Russian silent film directed by Alexnader Granovsky and starring Solomon Mikhoels.
NEA: In addition to film screenings, what can attendees expect from the festival?
RIVO: Essential Yiddish Cinema, a film retrospective of restored Yiddish films from the collection of The National Center for Jewish Film, will be mounted at the Film Forum in New York City. A national and international tour will follow to cities including London, Vienna, Tel Aviv and Haifa, and Chicago, among many others.
The project will include the creation of film and digital exhibition materials, special edition Blu-ray discs, an exhibition program brochure, a robust website, and commissioned scores for silent films. If the budget allows, live performances by Yiddish actors, musicians, and singers will be incorporated. The retrospective exhibition is the culmination of 36 years of NCJF’s work in reviving and celebrating Yiddish cinema.
NEA: Why is it important to the film community to have a festival like this one? How about to the general public?
RIVO: These films have a unique and important place in the history of cinema. Certainly, they are of great ethnographic and historical value. In many cases, the films also capture the only surviving performances of great actors and performers, scriptwriters, and directors from the Yiddish theaters, cabarets, and performance halls of pre-war Europe and America.
NEA: What do you hope audience members take away from the festival?
RIVO: In their heyday, these films packed theaters across the U.S. and Europe. They were shown to appreciative audiences in communities in Latin America, Russia, and Australia. By restoring these films and commissioning new English translations and subtitles, these films are now available to---and drawing---contemporary audiences.
We show these films to audiences around the world, Jewish and not Jewish---we have shown Yiddish films in more than 30 countries. Audiences leave the theater tapping their toes, humming a tune, and wiping tears from their eyes---sometimes all at once. Seeing these films--- especially as they were meant to be seen---transports audiences.
NEA: What will the NEA grant make possible that you might not have been able to do?
RIVO: Simply put, the NEA grant makes the retrospective possible. Funds will pay for the creation of film and digital exhibition materials and program materials. The NEA imprimatur will encourage other funders.
We are profoundly grateful to the NEA. Many of the films to be exhibited were restored with support from the NEA. Since the founding of our center, NEA has supported our archival work. We count the NEA as a key partner in the success of our center’s restoration efforts.
NEA: At the NEA, we say "Art works" meaning the art work itself, that art works to transform individuals and communities, and that artists are also workers. What does "art works" mean to NCJF in terms of this project?
RIVO: With this grant and its previous support, NEA has directly and significantly contributed to the work of our center in collecting, researching, restoring, and distributing unique, important, and endangered Jewish material film culture. Saving and reintroducing the Yiddish language films---with the great support of NEA---has been transformative, adding a chapter to the history of world cinema. We are also fans of the previous NEA declaration---“A great nation deserves great art!”
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