Seventh Row

Antisemitism, Letters Home, and more to watch this weekend

publishedabout 1 month ago
5 min read

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This week, we're recommending a couple of illuminating films about Jewish history + a lovely little LGBTQ+ romance. There couldn't be a better time to get a handle on the roots of 21st century antisemitism, so we highly recommend the incisive doc Antisemitism. Meanwhile, fans of Chantal Akerman can rejoice that her previously impossible-to-find gem Letters Home, about letters between Sylvia Plath and her mother, is now streaming on Mubi pretty much everywhere you can get Mubi.

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St. Louis Jewish Film Festival

Antisemitism - available worldwide - until June 14

This was a highlight of last year's Toronto Jewish Film Festival.

Still from Ilan Ziv's Antisemitism, screening at the 2020 Toronto Jewish Film Festival

Here's my review:

Not for the faint of heart, Ilan Ziv’s fascinating and harrowing documentary Antisemitism traces the seeds of antisemitism in France, particularly in the 20th century. Ziv pinpoints the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish general was framed and then publicly humiliated for a crime he didn’t commit, as a turning point in antisemitism, which led an Austrian journalist who covered it to start talking about founding a Jewish state. At the head of Dreyfus’s accusers was Édouard Drumont, a French writer who would define the path of antisemitic thought for the century to come. Ziv shows how medieval ideas about ‘The Jew’ were repurposed to create a kind of boogeyman enemy in Jews who are, as the film’s voiceover describes, ‘like us, but not us’. Most interesting is how Ziv’s subjects differentiate between the mythology of the Jew — often based on stories told by people who had never even met a single Jew — and the lived experience of Jews, and how Jews became a lightning rod for dissatisfaction and hate that had nothing to do with them as people.
Through interviews with Jewish historians and intellectuals, coupled with horrifying images of how Jews have been depicted in France and beyond, Ziv draws a throughline from the Dreyfus Affair to Vichy to more recent antisemitic crimes in France. At the same time, Ziv examines France’s unique history of offering citizenship to its Jewish inhabitants when no other European country would, dating back to the French revolution, and how the anti-discrimination statutes written down in law were not necessarily applied. By setting many of the film’s interviews (and voiceover) in the hallowed halls of courthouses and other institutions, Ziv draws attention to the fallacy of the French national motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité” when basic rights have been and continue to be denied to Jews.

Click here for tickets

Letters Home - Mubi worldwide

This Chantal Akerman film has been nigh impossible to find for a long time, but you can now watch it on Mubi!

Here's Contributing Editor Lindsay Pugh on the film:

Fans of Chantal Akerman (and/or Sylvia Plath) rejoice! Letters Home is finally available on Mubi. After Plath’s suicide in 1963, her mother, Aurelia Schober Plath, published a selection of letters from her daughter called Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963. Playwright Rose Leiman Goldemberg used those letters as the basis for her 1984 off-Broadway play, Letters Home, directed by Françoise Merle during the Paris staging. Akerman filmed an adaptation of Merle’s rendition for French TV in 1986 with the same actors: Delphine Seyrig as Aurelia and her niece, Coralie Seyrig, as Sylvia. As Portland’s NW Film Center describes it, “Letters Home is therefore an object passed from a poet to her mother, from her mother to a woman playwright, then to a woman theatre director, and finally to Akerman, a woman filmmaker.”

It’s impossible to watch this film after Akerman’s death and ignore the parallels between her and Plath. Both vacillated between manic energy for their art/life and a desperate desire to escape it. Both used their mothers as a lens through which to understand their own identities. At one point, Plath writes to Aurelia, “The core of life has fallen apart,” which sounds like something Akerman herself might have said. With minimal staging to serve as a distraction, all attention is on the mother-daughter dynamic. Unlike the common fixation on Plath’s depression and subsequent death, Goldemberg places emphasis on her life. Plath’s letters to her mother show what she was like when she wasn’t in the throes of depression.

It’s hard to find much information on the production of this film, so it’s unclear how much Akerman was able to put her stamp on Merle’s direction. From a technical perspective, Letters Home does not feel like an Akerman film. The content, however, is perfectly aligned with her larger body of work. I suggest pairing your viewing with News from Home (available on the Criterion Channel) to see what Akerman does with similar material when she has full creative control.

Listen to our podcast on Jeanne Dielman and Les Rendez-vous d'Anna

The Strong Ones - Dekkoo and VOD US/Canada

This highlight of the LGBTQ+ festival circuit last year is now on VOD/Dekkoo streaming. It's a lovely little film with gorgeous settings.

Still from Omar Zúñiga’s Chilean-set romance The Strong Ones screening at InsideOut

Here's my review from last year:

Omar Zúñiga’s The Strong Ones is like a Chilean Weekend, with less talking and more physical intimacy, set against the beautiful rural coastline of Chile. The Strong Onesscreens at InsideOut after picking up the Audience Award at LA’s Outfest, and it’s a quiet, romantic, if bittersweet crowdpleaser. The gorgeous, bucolic setting — the rocky ocean beach, the greenery that surrounds them — and the film’s unhurried pace creates a tranquil space to watch two people fall in love who may not be best-suited outside of this idyllic bubble.
When Santiago-based Lucas (Samuel González) heads to the small-town where his sister lives for a visit before leaving for Montreal for graduate studies, he meets boatswain Antonio (Antonio Altamirano) and it’s attraction at first sight that quickly turns into something more. Having fallen out with his bigoted parents, Lucas is desperate for an escape from home and the machismo culture that means it’s not always safe to be out and proud — a danger that’s always just under the surface in the film. Antonio, by contrast, is content living in a small-town, working odd jobs from fishing to historical reenactments, spending time with his grandmother, and keeping his sexuality quiet if not a total secret. In each other, they find tenderness and acceptance, which makes Lucas question whether an escape is really what he needs. While class differences ultimately affect what they want and divide them, the few weeks they spend together in The Strong Ones are sweet and lovely.


Alex Heeney, Editor-in-Chief

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