Next week also sees the debut of some non-Festival offerings worth your time. Well, actually, Alexandra, the excellent new Alexander Sokurov film, played the New York Film Festival last fall. It's opening at Film Forum on Wednesday. When it played the festival, I wrote this:
Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov). After his last couple of films, I began to fear that Sokurov had lost his way. I have a sense that Russian Ark represented more of an epistemological break than even he had intended and films like Father and Son feel distinctly like the work of someone treading water until he figures out his next move. (I, for one, wouldn’t be heartbroken if he never completed that trilogy.) In fact, Alexandra feels like a deliberate and refreshing throwback to the political films that Sokurov made around the time the
Sokurov deliberately avoids every temptation of melodrama and the film’s palette (it was shot by Alexander Burov) is similarly muted, seemingly coated with a patina of brown dust. Vishnevskaya is commanding as the old woman, bringing all her diva-ness to bear with a delicious show of dignity and self-assurance. Although nothing much happens during the film’s 92 minutes, there is an air of impending violence hanging over events and the town itself is seen as a dilapidated, bullet-riddled wreck, punctuated by a bedraggled open-air market filled with Russian military gear that soldiers have bartered away. With their omnipresent cellphones, the Russians are apparently seldom out of contact with home, but the result is not solace but a sullen dissatisfaction. Like the violence that never happens, the Sokurov’s deep distaste for Vladimir Putin’s imperial venture in
It would be entirely too easy to make a joke about the subject of Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s thoughtful new documentary, “Cut:Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision.” After all, Jewish comedians have been doing that for decades. And at the beginning of his film, one expects from its tone that Ungar-Sargon may be planning to do the same.
But “Cut” is a deadly serious and admirably balanced look at the medical, sociological, ethical and religious aspects of male circumcision. The filmmaker interviews a profusion of doctors, activists and rabbis, returning periodically to a non-observant Jewish couple who are preparing for the brit milah of their second son, which we see towards the end of the film.
Ungar-Sargon was himself raised as an Orthodox Jew, and describes his uneasy investigation of this issue as one more step in his “lifelong struggle with Jewish tradition.” As his father notes, he was circumcised by the same mohel who had performed the rite on the filmmaker’s grandfather and father, a detail that underlines the significance of circumcision as a practice that unites Jewish men across generations.
Despite his own misgivings about circumcision, Ungar-Sargon is admirably even-handed in his choice of witnesses and the use of their statements. It would be very easy to caricature some of the odder “intactivist” activists, and one cannot help but bristle a little at the non-Jewish anti-circumcision organizer who says, “I don’t prescribe for Jews at all,” with a certain air of disdain, or the non-observant Jewish anthropologist who takes obvious delight in pointing out the preponderance of Jewish physicians doing research to support the purported medical benefits of the procedure.
Yet it is hard not to be moved when both a midwife and anti-circumcision speaker and the woman rabbi who runs the Reform movement’s Berit Milah program speaking passionately about the responsibility to protect our children. The question remains, of course, whether that is best done by circumcising the male infants or eschewing that practice.
In a sense, the entire film is leading up to the final scene between the director and his father, who has been a highly articulate but intransigent defender of Orthodox ritual. Over the course of making the film, Ungar-Sargon returns to his father in his home study repeatedly, but it is only in their final chat that the older man admits that even he is prepared to acknowledge that the question is a fraught one and that he can live with his son’s answer (or lack thereof).
The questions surrounding male circumcision do not admit of any easy answers but, to his credit, Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon has resisted the easy laugh and the pat response to convey something of the thorniness of the issue. He has confronted in a specifically and intensely Jewish way, and that is all you could possibly ask of a filmmaker under these circumstances.
Cut is a sound piece of documentary filmmaking on a difficult issue. If you want to see it, go here for more information.