What exactly makes a documentary? I’ve had this discussion about essays (what separates an essay from mere reportage is an idea or argument) and fiction (what separates a story from a scene is a change in the characters’ circumstances), but I’d never considered the issue of documentaries until I watched Irit Reinheimer and Konnie Chameides’s documentary on the new generation of Jewish identity and activism, Young, Jewish and Left. I learned the lesson that I’m sure is taught to every freshman film student on the first day of class: a documentary needs a narrative. A documentary can’t just be a long string of information; it needs some sort of story to propel it along.
Of course, the term “narrative” is pretty flexible. Take Michael Moore’s Sicko. There’s no one overarching storyline, but the series of anecdotes throughout the film – the widow’s fight to save her husband’s life by getting his cancer treatment funded, the 9/11 rescue workers’ trip to Cuba to seek affordable treatment – are focused enough to create a larger narrative about the American healthcare system. Or Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth – the presentation is interspersed with stories from Gore’s childhood and career. There has to be something there, though; otherwise, the film lacks coherency.
Unfortunately, much like realizing you forgot the salt only after you dig into a tasteless dinner, I only discovered the importance of narrative the moment I realized that Young, Jewish and Left doesn’t have it. The documentary is basically one long string of interview snippets, in which rabbis, writers, artists, and activists discuss… well, whatever seems to be on their minds, really. Some talk about anti-Semitism; others discuss ethnocentrism among Ashkenazim; others simply reflect on the ways they’ve built their own identities as Jews. If you examine the subject matter closely, you can see that the interviews are loosely organized by topic, but the structure’s not all that apparent. Each person’s experience, taken by itself, is very interesting; Loolwa Khazoom, editor of the essay collection The Flying Camel, describes the day her Ashkenazi rabbi told her class it was a sin to read from Sephardic prayer books, and all her classmates turned to chant “Shame, shame, shame!” at her. Jna Shelomith’s story of her fellow revolutionaries’ betrayal at Auschwitz is one of the most significant moments in the film. You get the sense that each interview could have been expanded into its own documentary. But overall, the interviews don’t seem to add up to anything; “Leftist Jewish Identity” is much too broad an umbrella to serve as a unifying element, and the film feels disjointed and incoherent.
Exacerbating the lack of focus and story is the fact that we see barely any footage of what these people are doing. Aside from a few brief breaks from the interviews – a clip from an old propaganda film, a Purim performance – we don’t get any sense of what’s going on when the interviewees aren’t sitting on their couches talking to a camera. Even when we do break from the interviews, the events the filmmakers choose to document are often banal at best; while it certainly is cool that one participant honors a relative by dressing up like her for a portrait, viewers experience the event by watching her fix her hair for what feels like an hour.
What’s funny is that the entire film is only fifty-five minutes long. If the filmmakers had gotten out of those living rooms and spent more time seeing what was going on in these communities – or, better yet, if they’d narrowed their focus and chosen to really follow the lives of a few of these individuals – perhaps they would have found more material to flesh out the film. As it is, while the film attempts to assure viewers that yes, there really is a vibrant young Jewish community in contemporary American society, the brevity only reinforced my fears that there isn’t.
Now, at the risk of sounding noncommittal, I actually do recommend that you see it. Despite its flaws, the documentary serves as a good overview of what’s going on in liberal and radical Jewish circles, and works quite well as an invitation to search for more. I can see it functioning as a way to jump start questions about Jewish identity: What do I want my Jewishness to look like? What subtle or overt resistance am I facing – and how can I do and feel more?
If you want to take a deeper drink of that Jewish identity, though, you’re going to have to look for it yourself.