Saturday, March 22, 2008

Busy, Busy, Busy

No sooner has one festival ended than another one begins. The French series at the Film Society was a bit of a disappointment this year, but New Directors/New Films more than makes up for it. I'll write about the rest of the event in a day or two (it doesn't officially open until the 26th), but for my piece on the Jewish-themed films, go here.

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 Soviet Union began to collapse. The film is simplicity itself: Alexandra Nicolaevna (the magnificent Galina Vishnevskaya) is the grandmother of a Russian officer stationed in Chechnya, not in a combat zone exactly, but close enough for discomfort. She goes to visit her beloved grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), stays for a few days, meets his comrades, goes into town and becomes friendly with a local Chechen woman, then gets back on the train to go home.

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 Chechnya is never stated but always in the air. The result is one of his best films in a long time.

Another local debut takes place on Tuesday evening at the JCC in Manhattan. The film is a new documentary called Cut: Slicing through the Myths of Circumcision, and it is, needless to say, of particular interest to Jewish audiences (and Muslim ones, too, I would surmise). I approached the film with a complex set of preconceptions and, to the filmmaker's great credit, after it was over my certainties were utterly shaken. My review, which appears in this week's issue of Jewish Week but isn't on the website, is as follows:

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.


6 comments:

Mark Lyndon said...

Brit Milah is a Jewish naming ceremony which doesn't involve cutting.

These sites are all run by Jews opposed to circumcision:

http://www.jewishcircumcision.org/
http://www.jewsagainstcircumcision.org/
http://www.circumcision.org/

Anonymous said...

Anti-circumcision one assumes is motivated by the same ethical principle as the anti-immunization movement in that it is the individual person who must be able to decide whether to be immunized. Immunization compromises the individuals immune system and should not be a routine state enforced series of attacks on the bodily integrity of an infant and a child.

GEORGE ROBINSON said...

I hate to disagree with one of my readers, but brit milah specifically refers to the rite of circumcision. I point you to http://aish.com/literacy/lifecycle/bris_milah_beautiful_or_barbaric$.asp
as one reference of hundreds.

As for the pros and cons of the practice, as I indicated in my review of the film, my own previous strong beliefs in favor of circumcision were somewhat shaken by arguments made. Since I don't have any children, it's an area in which I'm not sure my opinion really matters.

Mark Lyndon said...

Sorry, Brit Milah is a normal Bris. I meant to say Brit Shalom:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brit_shalom

For what it's worth, my son is not circumcised, but has been vaccinated several times, as I believe there are convincing medical benefits to immunization.

Working Mommy Bog said...

The majority of the world don't circumcise but they do immunize. Don't try to bring one into the other. There is nothing crunchy about not circumcising in Europe, South America, most of Asia, Canada, and Australia. Why do it since it's not for medical reasons?

Immunizations have a sound medical reason behind them.

A bris shalom sounds like a lovely ceremony, I wish I could broach the subject with Jewish people I know but would be petrified to offend.

Joe said...

I'll have to agree with Mark and disagree with anonymous. There is a world of difference between vaccination and circumcision. The Canadian medical ethicists, Dr. Margaret Somerville, perhaps said it best: "A common error made by those who want to justify infant male circumcision on the basis of medical benefits is that they believe that as long as some such benefits are present, circumcision can be justified as therapeutic, in the sense of preventive health care. This is not correct. A medical-benefits or "therapeutic" justification requires that:

1. The overall the medical benefits should outweigh the risks and harms of the procedure required to obtain them.

2. That this procedure is the only reasonable way to obtain these benefits.

3. That these benefits are necessary to the well-being of the child.

None of these conditions is fulfilled for routine infant male circumcision."


The proported benefits are either a myth or very marginal; any of which can be provided in far less invasive and more effective ways should the need, if ever, arise. Infant circumcision (for non-religious reasons) is very rare outside the US. In Finland, for example, a boy has essentially a 0% change of being circumcised at birth and less than a 1 in 20,000 chance of requiring one later. It is clearly not essential to the welfare of a baby boy.

Immunizations, on the other hand, fit all three criteria. They provide a benefit that often can't be achieved in any other way, are often the least invasive way to gain a specific benefit, and in most cases provide protection against communicable diseases the child could be exposed to simply by being in public.

If an adult, on the other hand, sees some value in circumcision and want to get circumcised that is his choice. There is no immediate need to circumcise boys; they therefore deserve the respect of making that choice for themselves.

With respect to the movie, it was an excellent film that I encourage everyone to see. Your review, George, described it very well.