Israeli helmer Dan Katzir’s docu revolves around 84-year-old veteran actress Zypora Spaisman’s efforts to keep an Off Broadway production of the venerable 1916 play “Green Fields” running beyond its scheduled closure on the last day of Hanukkah, 2000. At stake, by extension, is the very survival of Yiddish theater. Katzir presents Spaisman and her producer’s desperate attempts to raise money as an eight-day countdown to a possible Hanukkah miracle. Pic opens Nov. 21 at Gotham’s Two Boots Pioneer; its extremely narrow focus on the death throes of an art form, rather than the art itself, limits its appeal.
Spaisman was instrumental in keeping the Folksbiene, the last of New York’s 12 Yiddish theaters, afloat for decades, adamantly refusing to let the language or the culture die. Her conviction inspires her producer, backers and the cast, which comprises the very young and the very old (the latter includes Spaisman herself in a key role).
But paradoxically, after the play receives a rave review and full page write-up in the New York Times, and is voted one of the top 10 Off Broadway plays by the New York Post, the already small audience dwindles further. The untimely arrival of one of the largest snowfalls in the city’s history compounds the troupe’s woes. By the time help arrives some two years later, Spaisman lies in a coma as Gov. George Pataki presents a check in her name for the establishment of a permanent home for the Folksbiene.
Strangely, for a film about the possible last days of a once-flourishing cultural institution, docu contains no archival material from the Yiddish theater’s heyday, sticking doggedly to its eight-days-of-Hanukkah scenario. Even footage of the “Green Fields” production itself is ruthlessly curtailed, as Katzir’s camera busily roams the streets of New York on the slightest pretext or follows its octogenarian heroine into the bowels of the subway for a final elegiac shot.
In examining why the audience is shrinking, professorial and rabbinical talking heads mention not only the extermination of Yiddish speakers in the Holocaust and the desire of immigrant populations to assimilate, but also the ruthless stamping-out of all words Yiddish in Israel.
Indeed, in a telling fact that does not make it into the docu (though it figures prominently in the press notes), Katzir mentions his grandmother was once a member of an Israeli youth squad dedicated to the eradication of Yiddish. Katzir’s ambivalence about the language may partly explain pic’s strange outsider’s view of the play, which is lauded solely as an example of naive innocence in an overly cynical world.
Tech credits are adequate.