Mamele & Cupcakes at the 22nd Portland Jewish Film Festival
Two films and seventy-five years can make for two experiences a world apart from each other. I watched two films back to back at Whitsell Auditorium on Sunday as part of the 22nd Portland Jewish Film Festival presented by NWFC and the Institute for Judaic Studies.
Mamele (1938) takes place in an urban, Yiddish-speaking neighborhood of Lodz, Poland. It shows a glimpse of industrial Jewish society prior to the Second World War, and of course before the creation of Israel. It challenges traditional patriarchy and evolves the art of film. Cupcakes (2013) on the other hand is about native Israelites in contemporary society and pokes fun at their social mores. It manages to hold fast to the main stream while diluting the culture.
Actually, with Cupcakes, I was a bit bothered by the only moment the word “Arab” was used. It is that familiar awkward silence on screen intended to reflect at once two contrary assumptions. In this case, that Arabs are being accepted in to Israeli society but obviously they are not yet acceptable with Israeli society. The perpetual war of Israel is probably not discussed all that much in real life, much like America’s blind eye to proxy wars and covert operations. I guess I’m just saying that the moment is clever but it punctuates a lack of self-awareness that this film suffers from.
I felt Cupcakes could have been a British feel-good flick if it were set in London. It’s about a relatively diverse (entirely Jewish) gang of friends who accidentally enter themselves in to the satirical “Universong Contest”. They gain the interest of Israel’s selection committee who go about developing the unknown group in to stars. The story line doesn’t find any difficult ways in and out of conflict, so it all pleasantly rolls along. Everyone with new homes, cars and Apple products, it seems that life in Tel Aviv is like life in Los Angeles (minus ethnic & religious diversity).
There is one challenge in the film. The protagonist is a confident homosexual dealing with public image issues. But today that is merely a conservative talking point, not a deep discussion. This forgiving Guardian review tells you, for reasons that I agree with, why you shouldn’t be disappointed by the film. Mostly, just don’t expect anything.
Mamele focuses on a single woman who takes over household duties for her deceased Mother. As Khavtshi aka Mamele (meaning little Mother) becomes increasingly frustrated with taking care of her father and siblings as if they were her own children, the lack of teamwork from her sisters and poor leadership of the men, she finds relief and love in her neighbor. The gentleman offers a break from the mutiny in her life and she struggles to rise to the occasion. Sympathy undoubtedly goes to Mamele, who is adorable and fierce with the sharpness of her tongue. Yet, despite being improper, she is keeping the moral compass pointed north and carrying on tradition. The men of her household are demanding, far from helpful if not demotivated, self-absorbed. Her love interest portrays a man who is balanced and good-natured.
I believe Mamele was a progressive film for its time and I enjoyed it fully. I could not help but notice sound-stage design, use of tracking shots and carefully framed images. It uses modern camera technique to punctuate every dramatic moment, indeed, the overall presentation is strong. Directed and Produced by Joseph Green, all other credits can be viewed here.
Dimensions in storytelling, I would observe, expanded after World War II. Capturing several story lines in to a single narrative wasn’t important, neither was a diversity of locations. Mamele is non-descript and simple in staging but rich in its depiction, in that it could be a Jewish neighborhood anywhere but in fact it is set in Poland. Unpaved sidewalks and courtyards, unpainted walls, open kitchens with fire stoves, these are the old times for a discriminated ethnic class. Cupcakes enjoys a luxurious spin through Paris and scuttles around several Tel Aviv sites throughout the plot.
Both films are musical in nature. Cupcakes is not a musical, but it did feature a musical group as the collective protagonist. But I learned nothing about Yiddish music. Mamele, however is great for gaining traditional Jewish attitudes through song. Featuring “Queen of the Yiddish Musical”, actress Molly Picon delivers a loveable character and several delightful song and dance scenes, as well as strong comedic slapstick choreographed to music.
Film is a great way to study culture as it depicts social behavior, assumptions, attitudes. Film speaks to the challenges of an era. It is hard not to notice how much has changed for humankind in the last hundred years. One wonders what our culture really is at this point. As I looked in to the audience, I saw a theater full of very Jewish people, mostly grey heads. I would encourage anyone who is not one of them to attend a screening at this festival before it ends this Sunday, June 29th. For more information, visit www.nwfilm.org.