"In Israel, we were asked, 'Do you represent all American Jews or just Bay Area Jews?'" says Berkeley filmmaker Deborah Kaufman. "And we answered, 'We represent two Jews.'"
Kaufman and her husband and filmmaking partner, Alan Snitow, have teamed up to complete their fourth documentary, Between Two Worlds, which opens Friday at the Roxie. It's different from their other films -- which include Thirst and Blacks and Jews -- as it deals with subjects of intense controversy within the Jewish-American community. It features the personal stories of Kaufman, Snitow, and their families as part of its texture.
Between Two Worlds opens with the dispute that enveloped the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in 2009 when it screened Rachel, a documentary about the American protester Rachel Corrie, who was killed by a bulldozer in Israel. That film, considered anti-Israeli by many within the community, led to festival director Peter Stein being pilloried by bloggers and audience members.
Kaufman and Snitow are close to the festival. Kaufman founded it and served as its first director, while Snitow was its first board president. Their film addresses other controversial topics, including what constitutes Jewish authenticity, and it closes with the heated UC Berkeley Student Senate debate about divesting from Israel in 2010.
Kaufman and Snitow recently spoke with us in their office at the Saul Zaentz Media Center in Berkeley.
Are you taking the film to Israel?
Snitow: We're back from two screenings in Jerusalem; the response was very positive. It was less civil in New York. In the U.S., positions are more radically to the right and to the left. We're getting to the truth -- things not talked about over the Passover table.
Kaufman: It's not about balance -- this is about nuance. But that can be too controversial within the Jewish community. It's been rejected by many Jewish film festivals. There's pressure not to show controversy. There's an upwelling of bullying and harassment. Rabbis are afraid to speak out in front of their congregations. People don't talk about the issues, or they toe the line. It's an indication of a crisis within the American Jewish community.
Snitow: We're critical of the left and the right. A key theme of the film is the dangers of fundamentalist right thinking of any sort.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Snitow: Deborah was doing the Jewish film festivals. I was producing radio and TV news. We became interested in making our own films. This was a way for us to work together and declare independence. We went out of the frying pan and into the fire. We had seen independent films and we knew it was going to be hard, but not this hard.
Kaufman: In a way this film was done as a political intervention. We're interested in having a discussion on who represents the community. We wanted to challenge the limits being placed on what could be said or discussed.
Snitow: Identity politics have been focused on victimization, often competition over who was victimized the most. The Holocaust wins that kind of competition, but it's trivializing the meaning of the Holocaust to exploit it that way. It's too important to allow that to happen unchallenged.
Kaufman: It's also important to recognize that anti-Semitism exists today. It exists when you're powerful as well as powerless. Israel has real problems -- you can't isolate them and create a fortress state.
Which came first -- the Rachel Corrie controversy or other events depicted in your film?
Kaufman: This started before we were born. We were always interested in questions of identity -- Jewish identity, American-Jewish identity. We were interested in issues of assimilation, and in the excommunication of dissidents like Spinoza and Hannah Arendt.
Snitow: It was an investigation. This sort of thing [the Corrie controversy] was going to happen. As soon as think tanks in Israel declared that the major problem facing Israel was not the occupation, but groups criticizing the occupation, we knew something like that would happen. Israel now has the most right-wing government in the state's history, and it's been very aggressive about defining what is proper discussion -- in particular, any form of political activism like boycotting products from West Bank settlements.
Kaufman: We're more interested in the bullying than in the martyrdom of the young woman.
What are you working on now?
Snitow: Distribution. It was a really hard production, in fundraising as well as distribution. It may be because it's controversial in subject matter -- a lot of people even now are afraid to talk about these things and show the film for fear of funders or vociferous opponents making their lives miserable and calling them a lot of nasty things. The film also defies genre categories -- it's part personal essay, part standard documentary with talking heads, part vérité; it's a combination of reportage and the deeply personal.
Why did you decide to feature yourselves in the film?
Snitow: We never did before. Using ourselves allows us to address questions of identity. Where are we coming from? It allows people to consider our stories and why we think the way we do.
Are you religious yourselves?
Kaufman: We're pretty secular. We share universal values of community and tribal values of Zionism.
Snitow: We're not God-fearing but we are superstitious.
Between Two Worlds opens at the Roxie Theater on Friday, Aug. 5, and continues through Aug. 11. Admission is $6.50-$10.