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The Film Program at AJS Evolves

Olga Gershenson

In the early 2000s, advances in technology and distribution made possible a vibrant new wave of Jewish and Israeli films. Around the same time, films started making appearances at major academic conventions, as scholars recognized their importance as teaching tools. In 2007, in light of these developments, AJS held our first film festival, initiated by Bernard Cooperman. Later, several film scholars came together to form the Film Committee to select films, negotiate with distributors, and organize film events.

Over the years, the AJS film program has evolved considerably. While initially we screened only modest documentaries, we now show some of the most exciting films coming out of the Jewish world. Still, we found that not enough attendees had a chance to see the films during the day. There was also no forum to address pedagogical applications of film. As a result, this year the Film Committee is pleased to introduce the next stage in our evolution—a formatting change that we believe will significantly improve attendees’ experience of the film program.

The film program will now consist of two separate parts. The first part will be evening screenings of films of significant interest and entertainment value to the AJS constituency. The second part will be a pedagogical session on teaching with film.

Each evening screening will be introduced by a relevant scholar. At the upcoming AJS in Boston, the program will include: 18 Voices Sing Kol Nidre, a US documentary that tells the prayer's rich story; The Guardians of Remembrance, a new documentary filmed in Belarus, commemorating the Holocaust victims in the former Soviet areas; and two Israeli feature films: A Borrowed Identity, a new Israeli drama delving into the issues surrounding Palestinian identity in Israel; and The Dove Flyer, a rare tribute to the Jewish community of Iraq. The Kol Nidre documentary is introduced by a musician and singer, Jewlia Eisenberg, and the other films by scholars in the field. Keeping up with the task of providing AJS participants with materials for their own programming, we include distributor information for every film, including contacts for obtaining public performance rights.

For the pedagogy session, the Film Committee collaborated with the Pedagogy Division to develop a panel on teaching with film, where committee members will showcase both new films and their teaching methods. We will focus our inaugural session on pedagogical opportunities and strategies for using film to teach about the Holocaust. The session will consist of hands-on, practical demonstrations suggesting ways in which to select and present a film clip and facilitate classroom discussion. Each presenter will follow the same format: a brief introduction to the subject and the film, followed by a film clip, and a 10-minute discussion modelling a classroom discussion. Presentations will conclude with recommendations for accompanying readings and assignments. The goal of the session is to provide participants with a useful toolbox for instruction in the field of Jewish history and culture, Film Studies, and Hebrew.

The session will progress chronologically, opening with a presentation on The Unvanquished (1945, USSR), one of the first Holocaust films worldwide. The presenter, Olga Gershenson, will share her experience in using this film to teach about the history of the Holocaust in the occupied Soviet Union. The screening of a film excerpt (available online with English subtitles), will be followed by a model classroom discussion. Questions for discussion will include historical context of the events, modes of representation, and challenges to the mediation of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union.

The next presentation will focus on one of the films in the series The Decalogue: VIII – Thou Shalt not Bear False Witness (1989, Poland) by Krzysztof Kieslowski. This film is among the earliest Polish cinematic representations of the Holocaust, and raises questions about Polish non-Jewish attitudes towards Jews and the moral ambiguities of behavior during the war. The presenter, Sara R. Horowitz, will discuss how the film can be used in complicating discussions of rescue behaviors during the war, and the evolution of Polish wartime memory, placing it in the context of later Polish films about rescue.

Fateless (Hungary, 2005) is a focus of a presentation by Catherine Portuges. She will examine an excerpt from this story of a Hungarian Jewish adolescent deported to Auschwitz, and his return from the camps. Among the topics for discussion are: the language and style of the trauma representation; alienation of survivors; Hungarian responses to film, as well as current debates on antisemitism in Hungary.

The session will conclude with a discussion of an Israeli documentary Six Million and One (2011), presenting a family journey to retrace their father’s remarkable life during the Holocaust based on his diary which they found after his death. The presenter, Dalit Katz, will explore the possible uses of the film in Hebrew classes, including discussion of colloquial Hebrew and explanation of Israeli cultural concepts.

We hope that you will join us both for the film screenings and for our first ever pedagogy session, and provide us with feedback. What we are most interested in hearing is what movies you want to see and in which formats.

Olga Gershenson is chair of the AJS Conference Film Committee and professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.