Abraham Ravett -- Memory Out of Art

[This piece was written for and appears in this week's Jewish Week, but it didn't make it onto the paper's website. I consider Ravett an enormously significant filmmaker and urge you to get down to Anthology if you can.]

Abraham Ravett is unmistakably a Jewish filmmaker and a filmmaker whose films are frequently about Jewish subjects. But when you ask him about the eight films he has made about his family, highlighting fatal interludes in the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz, he is reluctant to allow himself to be typed. Even with his most recent film, “Lunch With Fela,” an elegiac tribute to his late mother, which will be playing Sunday at Anthology Film Archives, Ravett is frank about his unease at being thought of as a Holocaust documentarian.

“A while ago, I showed one of my films and had a dialogue afterwards with a British writer comparing our work,” he says. “A woman was videotaping the event . . . and I got to chatting with her. She told me, ‘I really liked your film. I thought I was going to see another Holocaust film, but that’s not what it was like.’”

Ravett is not being defensive when he tells this story. He admits, “People have a certain image of what they’re going to see. I know the work that’s out there, and I have a certain resistance to having the work confined to certain areas. I’d like it to be thought of as a film that has an ethnic quality, rather than as a statement of ethnicity that almost incidentally has a certain filmic quality.”

A filmmaker who is Jewish rather than a Jewish filmmaker?

He sighs and says, “I guess it’s a question of how one describes the films without making it sound like a disclaimer and without assuming a worst-case scenario about people’s expectations.”

Let’s be frank about Abraham Ravett’s work. He is a highly gifted and accomplished filmmaker, but he is not making conventional non-fiction films. From the first of the films about his family, made in 1978, up to “Lunch With Fela,” his films have been as much about film form as Jewish content. These films – indeed, most of Ravett’s films – are about the way we remember, especially the way that art and love drive memory and the way that inanimate objects by their mere presence invoke the recollection of loved ones.

To that end, some of the most emotionally affecting moments in “Lunch with Fela” are lengthy stationery shots of objects that Fela Ravett, the filmmaker’s late mother, had collected over her years in the United States – a bright plaid change purse, a fistful of mismatched buttons, a small red transistor radio. To any viewer of a certain age, these otherwise worthless artifacts of the 1950s and ‘60s will evoke their own lost relatives.

Understandably, “Lunch with Fela” was a difficult film for Ravett to make.

“It took a lot out of me,” he admits. “I’m glad I was able to complete it.”

Audiences should feel the same way.

“Lunch with Fela” will be shown at Anthology Film Archives (2nd Avenue and 2nd St.) on Sunday, August 27 at 7 p.m. For information, phone 212-505-5181 or go to Anthology Film Archives