Alisa S. Lebow, First Person Jewish, University of Minnesota Press, (2008) 240 pp., $22.50
In 1979, Ira Wohl produced the documentary “Best Boy” about his 52-year-old, mentally handicapped cousin, Philly. The film charts Wohl’s mission to convince Philly’s aging parents, with whom their son was still living, to begin the emotionally painful process of setting Philly on a course toward independent living.
“Best Boy” was striking not only for the loving portrayal of its characters, but also for the filmmaker’s choice to be a protagonist in his film. In literally stepping from behind the camera to participate in and even to help determine the course of events he was filming, Wohl was violating a version of documentary’s fourth wall — the one to which the filmmaker is metaphorically affixed, as a fly, strictly to observe and record. Wohl’s use of the medium to perform a very personal act of chesed, or loving-kindness, proved intensely moving, and the film went on to win an Oscar.
I thought of “Best Boy” while reading film theorist and filmmaker Alisa S. Lebow’s book, First Person Jewish, which explores the relationship between the first-person documentary film and the collective Jewish identity.
Until the last quarter of the 20th century, documentaries were synonymous with nonfiction films purporting to have a disinterested or “objective” point of view. The notion of introducing a first-person — or subjective — frame of reference would have been seen as corrupting the integrity of the documentary.
But the New Journalism movement of the latter part of the 20th century rejected the very possibility of the objective, and expanded the notion of the permissible “I” in a variety of non-fiction media. Lebow notes that it was often secular Jews who embraced this New Journalism and made many of the early first-person documentary films. She theorizes, “As the immigrant and the survivor generations pass on, younger Jews, born after WW II, have been searching for ways to articulate Jewishness in their own terms.”
A champion of the New Autobiography, inspired by Jacques Derrida’s emphasis on a dynamic border between “work” and “life,” Lebow believes that many first-person Jewish filmmakers are seeking to “enact the very Jewishness that eludes [them].” As such, she situates the filmmakers she studies — most of them gay — within the battleground of identity politics, seeing them as reappropriating antisemitism, homophobic typologies and tropes, and inhabiting a landscape of incompleteness and alienation.
This interpretive focus is intriguing but narrow, perhaps uniquely suited to the convergence of queer and Jewish identities. Regarding Jewish identity, it is reactive and in direct tension with a radically different, proactive Jewish tradition of purpose and selflessness — the lens, obviously, through which “Best Boy,”a pioneer of first-person Jewish filmmaking, can best be viewed.
In fact, there is a large well of values drawn from Jewish tradition that could expand and enrich our reading of Jewish documentary films, both subjective and nonsubjective, and that could prove meaningful even in the context of shaping a nonobservant, cultural Jewish life.
For example, the secular Wohl — through his film — managed a remarkable feat of rescue, and he performed a mitzvah. There is also tzniut, or modesty, which transcends the usual definition of religious women covering up to suggest a general posture in the world. It’s an attitude in which the “I” is not central, a stance that strives not for visibility, but for invisibility — a gift to filmmakers seeking to act as midwife to a story, rather than to take a starring role.
This is relevant as Lebow, in the spirit of New Journalism, upholds the superiority of the first-person, subjective film over the traditional “objective” documentary, dismissing the latter as a burden representing “an impossible ideal…”
And yet, this conflation of nonsubjective with objective is misleading. Nonsubjective films are not necessarily disinterested or even objective ones. Rather, they reflect a point of view through what’s presented; what’s elided; the characters, locations, cameras and lenses chosen; the way frames are composed and scenes are edited; and the use — or avoidance of — music and graphics, etc. What they omit is a first-person voice at the heart of the film.
Lebow’s provocative and scholarly guidance informs the genre of Jewish first-person filmmaking and prompts a renewed appreciation for the subjective voice in nonfiction films. But nonsubjective documentaries remain, for me, beloved and essential, giving filmmakers a wide berth for creative expression and freedom to bring critical and substantive issues to light. They also reflect a curiously Jewish spirit. After all, chronicling and interpreting history, illuminating complex subjects, and sparking lively debate fall squarely within the tradition. And, in an exhibitionist age offering multi-platform channels for self-expression, any medium in which the self is not featured should be celebrated.email print