Jewish women persevere behind the camera

Jewish women persevere behind the camera

“The Red Tent” is just one recent vehicle for Jewish women on screens large and small. (Photo provided)
“The Red Tent” is just one recent vehicle for Jewish women on screens large and small. (Photo provided)

Surpassing $3 million in box office receipts, writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s feature debut “Obvious Child” was one of the surprise indie hits of last year.

Not bad for a low-budget movie about a struggling New York Jewish comic (played by Jenny Slate) who mines her awkward personal life — including the decision to have an abortion — for material.

Funny and poignant, “Obvious Child” marked a rare breakthrough for a female Jewish director. Remarkably, it wasn’t the only one in 2014.

Israeli writer-director Talya Lavie’s marvelous debut, “Zero Motivation,” won six Israeli Film Academy Awards, toured the U.S. film festival circuit and is in the midst of a limited theatrical run. A satiric and biting saga of female friendship, support and sabotage among admins on an army base in the middle of nowhere, “Zero Motivation” announces a significant talent.

It scarcely needs to be noted that narrative feature filmmaking remains an overwhelmingly male domain. Even young women directors with certified success and talent, like Robespierre and Lavie, have a tougher time developing (that is, funding) their next features than promising male directors.

It’s not fair, nor is it new. But it does explain why women filmmakers gravitate to documentaries, and cable television.

Lena Dunham continues to acquire acolytes and detractors with “Girls,” which begins its fourth season this month on HBO (and has just been given the okay for a fifth). Creative freedom was likewise an incentive for Jill Soloway (the 2013 feature “Afternoon Delight”) to write and produce her well-reviewed new series, “Transparent,” for Amazon Prime.

You’ll note that the common thread running through these projects, in addition to female creators, is irreverent comedy. Humor does not receive the respect (and budgets) that serious drama enjoys, but Robespierre and company no doubt sustained by the fact that it is often more subversive, effective and influential.

If we include Jewish women in front of the camera, television also gave us “The Red Tent,” a Lifetime miniseries that placed the peripheral Biblical figure Dinah at the center of a certain eventful period in Jewish history.

On the big screen, Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski’s wrenching black-and-white “Ida” (a near-certainty for an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film, and now streaming on Netflix) follows a cynical Polish judge and her convent-raised niece, who’s just been told she’s Jewish, on a road trip in the 1960s.

The talented Argentine novelist and filmmaker Lucia Puenzo enjoyed almost as much international acclaim with “The German Doctor,” a restrained thriller that imagines Josef Mengele on the loose in the early ‘60s.

The riveting Israeli courtroom drama “Gett: The Trial of Vivian Absalem” premiered at Cannes last year but will hit most Americans’ radar when it rolls into theatres in February and March. Siblings Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz (she also stars) portray the often-torturous process through which an Israeli woman obtains a divorce in this masterful, minimalist work.

As we close the book on 2014, let’s long remember Lauren Bacall, Joan Rivers and Polly Bergen. Raise a glass, as well, to the late pianist and Holocaust survivor Alice Herz-Sommer, the subject of the Academy Award winner for Documentary Short Subject, “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life.”

Turning our gaze to 2015, Israeli actress Natalie Portman makes her feature directorial debut with “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” adapted from her countryman Amos Oz’s memoir. Writer-director Rebecca Miller directs Greta Gerwig, Julianne Moore and Clive Owen in the young-woman-in-the-city drama “Maggie’s Plan.” (The accomplished Miller is still described occasionally as the daughter of the late playwright Arthur Miller and the wife of Daniel Day-Lewis.)

Keep an eye out for Sarah Silverman’s dramatic turn as a spiraling, out-of-control suburban mother in “I Smile Back,” premiering at Sundance. Writer-director Amy Heckerling, a Hollywood Jewish icon although her work doesn’t explore Jewish characters or themes, returns in the fall with “The Intern,” a comedy with Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo and Robert DeNiro about a fashion website that hires an elderly intern.

Finally, in the I’ll Believe It When I See It category, Barbara Streisand is supposedly planning to direct a drama about the relationship between Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell.

The list of documentaries by or about Jewish women in 2014 is lengthy and impressive, though I’ll single out two currently available on Netflix: Israeli director Hilla Medalia’s cross-cultural and cross-generational “Dancing in Jaffa” and Cecilia Peck’s memorable character study “Brave Miss World.” The latter film, about an Israeli beauty queen turned anti-rape activist, will screen at the Air Force Academy in the spring.

Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based film critic and journalist.