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Watching Jewishly: Who Knew?

By Cynthia Close

First Person Jewish
by Alisa Lebow
Volume 22 in the Visible Evidence Series
Edited by Michael Renov, Faye Ginsburg and Jane Gaines

At 203 pages, the last 41 of which are the annotations to the previous 159, First Person Jewish tells the reader that, despite its slimness and modest black-and-white cover design, this book is not for the faint of heart.

Imbrications, the public imaginary, autoenunciative, situatedness, positionality, subaltern's arrogation, polysemous, disaggregatedness, syntagmatic, hermeneutical, autobiothantoheterographies (yes, one word), double-voicedness, multivocality, ineluctable, revenant...These are just a few of the words and phrases that hit me in the head in the first few pages of the introduction alone. I ran for my dictionary knowing that I faced a challenge.

We can safely infer from the writing style that Alisa Lebow is an academic: She is a lecturer in film and TV studies at Brunel University. She also informs us early on in the book that she is a filmmaker and will include her own film, Treyf (1998), as part of her analysis. Initially, I found this approach a bit suspect. Is Lebow using the writing of this book as a thinly disguised vehicle for promoting her own film? Perhaps elevating it to a position on the same level as the other, more recognizable films and filmmakers she covers in her analysis--filmmakers with whose work I'm familiar, such as Barbara Myerhoff, Chantal Akerman, Alan Berliner and Jonathan Caouette?

Lebow admits that the films she has chosen to focus on in this study--D'Est (1993) by Akerman, Everything's for You (1989) by Abraham Ravett, Thank You and Goodnight (1991) by Jan Oxenberg, Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993) by Gregg Bordowitz, Rootless Cosmopolitans (1990) and Cheap Philosophy (1993) by Ruth Novaczek, Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter (1994) by Deborah Hoffmann, Nobody's Business (1997) by Berliner; Daughter Rite (1979) by Michelle Citron; Tarnation (2004) by Caouette, Phantom Limb (2005) by Jay Rosenblatt; In Her Own Time (1985) by Lynne Littman, and Lebow's Treyf (1998), made in collaboration with Cynthia Madansky--are not "blockbusters," not widely seen and not easy to find--even if one goes looking. One of her stated goals is to make them more familiar to the reader by the end of the book.

What makes a film "Jewish?" It seems that this simple question does not have a simple answer, although Lebow attempts to define it. Even the "First Person" part of the book title turns out to be debatable, difficult to categorize. While admitting that there is a "crisis of definition and categorization that plagues documentary," Lebow proceeds to tell us her five key criteria in selecting the films in this study:

  1. Independent Films
  2. Documentaries
  3. Autobiographical
  4. Made by Diasporic Jewish filmmakers (In trying to further describe the "Jewish" criterion, Lebow admits this is "highly problematic.")
  5. Aesthetically innovative.

It is the answer to the "Jewish" question that seems the most amorphous. I found one of the most revealing statements addressing this issue is made by Lebow in the introduction. She states, "Regardless of how the filmmaker wants to position a given film in relation to Jewish identity, I discuss each film with regard to a set of reading practices. In practical terms, this means that the Jewishness of the film may inhere more in my reading of it than in the film's or filmmaker's own insistence." "Watching Jewishly" sounds absurd to my ears; then Lebow goes on to redeem herself, which she frequently does throughout the book, by stating, "There is no one way to watch Jewishly, and in the course of this book, I hope to propose alternative approaches to the encounter." Here Lebow has revealed the helplessness of "the Artist" to control the interpretation or reading of his or her work, once it is "out there" at the mercy of the audience, the critic and the academic, who will chose to ignore how (in this case, "the filmmaker") wants to position her/himself.

I found myself arguing with Lebow throughout the book. As I encountered phrases like "an oxymoronic methodology of acute indirectness," the words acquired an abstract poetic resonance that existed on their own plane, quite separate from me gaining any insight into the works under discussion. However, in spite of these distractions, each chapter had its moments of superb insight that made slogging along well worth it. In the first chapter, reference to Akerman as the artist who is "condemned to repeat one's obsessions ad infinitum" seemed not only particularly astute and particular to Akerman, but indeed encapsulates the fate of all those who pursue the making of "Art."

By the time I hit page 39, Lebow had won me over. It is here where she starts to make reference to domestic ethnography and anthropological relevance. Now this is an area of film discourse that I do know something about.

In dealing with the minefield of the Jewish nuclear family as presented in such films as Thank You and Good Night and Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter, it is again the "Jewishness" part of the equation that "comes to the fore as more of a mystery than a question in many of these family films." Identity appears to elude us.

In her concluding chapter, Lebow looks at the film In Her Own Time: The Final Fieldwork of Barbara Myerhoff by Littmann. I found this to be the most satisfying--perhaps, again, due to my penchant for ethnographic films and Myerhoff's own work being clearly situated in the world of cultural anthropology. It is in Lebow's analysis of this film that she provides the clearest answers. She also answers the question of her own identity near the end of the book, when she states, "in the absence of compelling evidence to dissuade us from our path, we, the filmmakers of this study..."

Lebow, in the end, sides with the filmmakers. And, if given a choice between reading this book and watching those films, so do I.


Cynthia Close is executive director of Documentary Educational Resources.