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September 19, 2013 - Image 51

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2013-09-19

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Sieger5Deti

3426 E. West Maple Rd. at Haggerty Rd. (248) 926-9555

Personal filmmaker
universalizes Jewish-
American experience.

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ne of the highest compli-
ments to Alan Berliner's
skill is that no one has ever
described his revealing personal docu-
mentaries as "home movies:'
From Intimate Stranger (1991), a
fascinating family portrait centered
on his maternal grandfather, to First
Cousin Once Removed, his incisive new
ode to the memory-robbed final years
of beloved poet and mentor Edwin
Honig, the New York filmmaker's
meticulously crafted portraits of
American Jews also are brilliant evoca-
tions of universal experiences.
Berliner's documentaries are chock-
a-block with love, disappointment,
tough decisions, failed relationships,
curdled resentment and underly-
ing compassion. Humor and irony
abound, especially in his profound
1996 interview/boxing match with his
father, Nobody's Business.
"Because I travel around the world
with my films, I often feel like an
emissary for Judaism:' Berliner says on
the phone from his Lower Manhattan
studio. "I'm not an exemplary Jewish
filmmaker, but my films are Jewish in
subtext and by innuendo. My father
doesn't talk much about religion in
Nobody's Business, but he couldn't
be anything but Jewish. I've received
more than one email [over the years]
that said, 'Your film made me want to
be Jewish7
So much for the old fear that expos-
ing such conflicts was "bad for the
Jews:' Berliner's films, all of which
have aired on PBS or HBO, have con-
tributed to a wider appreciation of
Jews as part of the fabric of America.
First Cousin Once Removed received
the top prize at last winter's presti-
gious International Documentary Film
Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).
An unflinching and often uncom-
fortable look at a man of letters (and
words) overtaken by Alzheimer's, it is
the most demanding of Berliner's trio
of films about his family.
"You could say it's raw and honest,
but First Cousin Once Removed espe-
cially is a labor of love:' Berliner says.
"I'm daring to show the love, daring to
go where the love and the care allows
me to go. If that's Jewishness, OK, cap-

ital T I'm not in someone else's family
universe. I'm not a visitor in someone
else's house here. I'm inside the culture
of my family:'
That dynamic allows for ready iden-
tification by Jewish audiences with the
people in Berliner's films. From the
filmmaker's standpoint, the territory is
fraught with a certain freedom — and
enormous responsibility
"Each film reflects my comfort level
and the culture of intimacy and the
culture of communication and the
culture of caring and investigation:'
Berliner explains. "I'm investigating
the ethos of my family — and, by
implication, its Jewishness. And that
gives me the courage and the confi-
dence and the strength to make these
kinds of investigations regardless of
where they go:'
Berliner started out making experi-
mental nonfiction shorts in the mid-
1970s. His first long-form work, The
Family Album (1986), constructed a
birth-to-death collage of American
lives out of old home movies and audio
interviews. He made the leap to turning
the camera on himself in The Sweetest
Sound (2001), which dealt with names
and identity, and Wide Awake (2007),
in which Berliner catalogs and con-
fronts his lifelong insomnia.
"My whole artistic life has been ded-
icated to trying to find extraordinary
opportunities to get to the bottom
of things, to approach the essence of
human fragility:' the filmmaker says.
In First Cousin Once Removed,
Berliner flips between the present, the
recent past and the distant past, con-
tinually peeling back layers of Edwin
Honig's identity. It's a true character
study, encompassing the poet, transla-
tor and professor's accomplishments
and failings.
"If there's another imperative that
guides me more than anything, it's
the pursuit of irony:' Berliner says. "I
thought I was making a film about
Alzheimer's and memory loss, but I
was making a film about a man who
has a lot to forget. It's really about the
importance of forgetting.
"I think there's something Jewish
about that:'

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September 19 • 2013

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