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FOR DECADES, uninformed stereotypes held USC to be a haven for WASPs, not necessarily welcoming to minorities. The men and women at the center of the
Its disproving the decades-old sense that USC is less than hospitable to the Jewish community, says Michael Renov, a professor of critical studies in the School of Cinema-Television, and a member of the institutes core faculty.
Earlier this year, the institute hosted the second installment of Eye and Thou, its film festival and scholarly conference focused on Jewish autobiographical filmmaking. Casden Institute board member Carol Brennglass Spinner 69 provided financial support in memory of her father Edwin Brennglass, longtime publisher of The Jewish Journal. Additional money came from the Righteous Persons Foundation, USC trustee Steven Spielbergs philanthropy funded by his profits from the 1993 Oscar-winning film, Schindlers List.
The first Eye and Thou was held at USC in October 1998, when the institute was just in its infancy. Last March, the festival traveled to New York, in partnership with New York University a significant step for the Casden Institute, by definition a West-focused entity. The collaboration with NYU gave us an opportunity to bring the Casden Institute and its focus to an audience on the East Coast, Glassner says. It also was an opportunity for USC students and faculty to collaborate and be in dialogue with students and faculty at NYU. The USC Hillel Jewish Center and the Casden Institute paid for six of the universitys Jewish film students to travel to New York for the two-day event.
The Jewish community is not inventing anything, but playing out our own issues and journeys in a very comparable way, Renov says. An example is Hungarian director Peter Forgács The Maelstrom (1997), the film which Renov discussed at this years Eye and Thou festival. The award-winning documentary chronicles the life of a Dutch family, eventually murdered in the Holocaust, through home movies shot by family members between 1933 and 1942. With images of the Peereboom family at the dinner table, at the beach, getting married and finally packing suitcases for their deportation to Auschwitz, Forgács pioneering use of found footage becomes a moving photo album that tells the familys story on their own terms.
JEWS ADMITTEDLY, have not always been eager to capture their culture on film. While men like Carl Laemmle, Irving Thalberg and Samuel Goldwyn were creating the major motion picture studios in Hollywood a half-century ago, they meticulously kept their Jewish identity off the screen. The people who ran these studios were very phobic of anything that touched on their ethnicity, Renov says. They were so anxious to assimilate and find the American mainstream that they ran far away from their own stories to a frightening extent.
The focus on autobiographical films, then, can be seen as an evolution of the genre: They strike a different chord, says Renov. By constructing and performing
Many of the stories that todays Jewish filmmakers are telling are about assimilation into mainstream society, coming to terms with the legacy of the Holocaust. They are stories about how a growing community more than 920,000 Jews in California alone copes with, contributes to and, ultimately, changes American life.
An example is Kosher Messiah, a film by Tchavdar Gueorguiev MFA 01. Born in the Ukraine and raised in Bulgaria, Gueorguiev didnt know he was a Jew as a child. His family kept that part of his identity a secret to shelter him from the anti-Semitism that could cost him a happy life in the mainstream. It wasnt until he was 20 and had moved to America that he saw outward expressions of his culture scores of Hasidic Jews walking the streets of Brooklyn.
Kosher Messiah, completed while he was a masters student in film production at USC, is the story of how Gueorguiev came to terms with his Jewishness in America. A clip was screened at the first USC Jewish Student Film Festival, held in January 2000. It was a sense of therapy, he says of making the film. It was my way of dealing with the shock of when I found out I was Jewish.
Many of the entries at the first two Jewish student film festivals have dealt with the filmmakers experience trying to assimilate their Jewishness in an increasingly multicultural society. The common motif is students exploring the question of what it means to be an American Jew, Gueorguiev says.
The second festival, held in February, featured an eclectic group of short films, each addressing questions of assimilation in some way. One of the films The
One of my hopes is to encourage students to put more Jewish themes in their films, says Rabbi Jonathan Klein, director of the USC Hillel Jewish Center, which supervises the Filmmakers Forum. The organizers of next years festival plan to invite film students from New York to participate, and the year after that, they hope to make it a national event and solicit entries from across the country to be screened at USC.
Rabbi Susan Laemmle 61, USC dean of religious life, points to a nascent movement among young Jews toward embracing their culture, not repressing it.
Theres an increasing coming-together on the part of young Jews to explore their Jewish identity in ways that connect to the arts in ways that are imaginative, says Laemmle, whose father and uncle started the independent chain of movie theaters that bears the family name.
While most of the student work to date has focused on secular issues, a film produced this year by a graduate student in broadcast journalism, Keren Markuze
WITH MORE THAN 60 Jewish film festivals in the United States alone, Laemmle believes there has not been a better time to be a Jewish filmmaker in this country.
At USC today, there is a greater appreciation than ever for films with themes of assimilation a fact that, perhaps 50 years ago, would have been unthinkable, Laemmle notes. We cant ignore that part of the background of this university, but we can move beyond it, she says.
The multicultural environment at USC, where the faculty and student body have grown to become among the most diverse in the country, can contribute to a greater sense of self-awareness, Laemmle says.
With all the different ethnic, cultural and religious groups in one place, the particular groups are encouraged to know about themselves, she says. Its seen as OK, that you can be a strong Jew and make a Jewish film and still be a good American.
Photos courtesy of Judy Meisel
Photo courtesy of Golem Films
Photo by Anna Verwaal