Recently I accompanied a group of 7th and 8th graders from The Davis Academy to see the film Kaddish for a Friend at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. I want to share a bit about the experience because I think it’s worth emulating. First, here’s an official description of the film:
Russian Jewish WWII veteran and Palestinian teen form an unlikely friendship in the tragicomic KADDISH FOR A FRIEND, a stirring debut by Moscow-born German filmmaker Leo Khasin. Growing up in a Lebanese refugee camp, 14-year-old Ali (Neil Belakhdar) has learned to hate Jews before escaping with his family and relocating to public housing in Berlin’s Kreuzberg quarter. He tries to gain acceptance among his Arab peers by targeting an elderly Russian Jew, Alexander (Ryszard Ronczewski), vandalizing the old man’s apartment and defacing the walls with anti-Semitic graffiti. Threatened with deportation, the teen is forced to apologize, sparking a feisty relationship with Alexander, which evolves from mutual distrust to codependence. Based on actual events and embodying the spirit of building bridges of understanding, KADDISH FOR A FRIEND unfolds with gritty realism and a light touch.
1) Support your local Jewish film festival. We are blessed to live in a city with a world-class Jewish film festival. If the same is true for you, then I strongly suggest finding a way to expose your students not only to Jewish cinema, but to the Jewish Film Festival itself. First, cinema is an incredibly powerful artistic medium. Everyone loves a good movie, and many enjoy the experience of sitting in a darkened theater and watching a film on the big screen. Going to the film festival (rather than simply screening a film on campus) has a few additional benefits: a) you get to watch a film with other patrons of the film festival. It’s important for kids to know that lots of different types of people (not just Jews) appreciate films with engaging Jewish content; b) you get to impress upon the kids that Judaism isn’t only something that happens at school or shul but through all sorts of different types of cultural events and institutions– many of our kids had never heard of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and many were asking where they could learn more about it; c) it says a lot about your school if you’re willing to invest the time and energy to bring a group of students to your local Jewish film festival. The other patrons in the theater were very happy to have a group of middle school students watching a film with them and were very curious to know more about our school, curriculum, and students. I know our students were suprised that they were greeted with such interest and enthusiasm.
If you do go to the film festival, here are a couple of pointers:
1. Buy tickets early, they tend to sell out.
2. request an advance copy of the film prior so you can pre-screen it. Many foreign films don’t have ratings and there’s often mature content. Best not to get surprised!
3. Ask if you can arrange a panel discussion in the theater at the conclusion of the film. This gives students a chance to debrief the film while it’s fresh in their minds and also allows you to engage community leaders. We had a panel of community rabbis and it was absolutely awesome.
2) Show more movies. I’ll admit it, I’m partial to cinema as an artistic medium. I think it’s incredibly powerful to see the human face blown up on a screen. In a short amount of time a good film can change a viewer’s outlook and even their life. Films are particularly good at creating empathy and conveying different points of view. I’m fairly certain that ten years from now there will be students who remember seeing Kaddish for a Friend because of the impression it made. I’d never say that film is more powerful than literature or even visual art, but I do feel that it has the unique advantage of being a genre that is very accessible to different kinds of learners. Whereas it might take days or weeks to read a compelling novel, a film can tell an equally complex and memorable story in 90 minutes give or take.
If anyone wants additional info about Jewish cinema (beyond The Frisco Kid) or has experience sharing film with their students I’d love to hear from you!