New Yorkers returning to the city after the holidays were treated to a variety of events around town. The Museum of the Moving Image hosted a conversation with critic J. Hoberman, moderated by New York Times critic A.O. Scott, that remained unabashedly intellectual. Documentary filmmaker Bill Haney held a special screening of his film "The Price of Sugar" at the Bryant Park Hotel, and the 17th annual Jewish Film Festival got its Hebraic start at the Walter Reade Theater.
Hoberman takes the spotlight
There is no film critic whose writing and attitude are more specific to New York City than Jim "J." Hoberman, who on Saturday night celebrated his 30 years as film critic for the Village Voice with a tribute from the Museum of the Moving Image (followed by a screening of one of the critic's favorite films of 2007, Julia Loktev's vague suicide-bomber thriller "Day Night, Day Night").
In his introduction, MoMI chief curator David Schwartz recited a "Top Ten Things we Like About Jim Hoberman," in deference to the critic's wildly esoteric annual Top 10 lists (which once included "Game 6 of the 1986 World Series"), arriving at the central reason the critic has been such a vital force in the New York film community: "Jim doesn't mind being an intellectual. There has been a long anti-intellectual streak in our culture, including many film critics, who are dismissive of movies that ask the audience to think."
New York Times film critic A.O. Scott moderated the Q&A, saying "there's perhaps no other active film critic who has taught as much by example and by precept about how to think seriously, clearly, coherently and bravely about film." Scott marveled at Hoberman's ability to tackle the central dilemma of a film critic's job "to gesture toward political, social meanings while evaluating the object itself and coming to some judgment on it," a task he sees as "sometimes overwhelmingly contradictory".
Hoberman discussed some of the changes in the cultural landscape from when he started writing for the Voice, in 1977. "There were more venues for film criticism, and there were in New York more venues where movies were shown, revival theaters and so on... Theaters were a social environment. In fact, Lenin once said, 'if you want a revolution, you start not with the newspapers, but with the movie houses,' that's the social potential they had."
Hoberman illustrated his own feelings of film aesthetics with several of the higher profile films released this year, stating that "'No Country for Old Men' is a very academic film, it's constructed to bring the audience along and deliver a certain amount of thrills and excitement and surprises on schedule, very mechanical." In contrast, his favorite film of the year, Todd Haynes' "I'm Not There" (a film which, Scott prompted, "has an academic pedigree in the Brown semiotics department") "is Academic in a good way: it's scholarly."
Hoberman's 30 years at the Village Voice will be celebrated again in March, when BAM hosts a month-long series curated by the critic.
"Sugar" subsidies, slavery and a priest...
On Monday night, documentary filmmaker Bill Haney screened his SXSW audience award-winning film "The Price of Sugar," a sobering look at the sugarcane industry in the Dominican Republic. It's a terrific film, beautifully shot and remarkably focused, telling the story of Catholic priest Christopher Hartley (descended from Spanish royalty), who works with Haitian immigrants lured under false pretenses into the Dominican sugarcane fields, where they are forced to work grueling hours for 90 cents a day, stripped of national identification and contained by armed guards in shanty-towns (or 'Bateyes') without access to medical care, safe drinking water, or more than one meal a day. When Father Christopher attempts to help them secure some basic human rights, he is demonized by many of the local Dominicans, whose long-standing tension with Haiti is manipulated by the plantation owners.
After the film, Haney said "Christianity was introduced into this hemisphere in the Dominican Republic almost 500 years ago, and so was slavery in the sugar cane fields. The conditions then are something like the conditions today."
Throughout the film, Haney reminds the viewer the extent that the U.S. government subsidizes slavery in its aggressive aide to the Dominican sugarcane industry. "Frankly, there's very few Americans who can understand why the U.S. would subsidize, for a billion dollars a year, conditions like this. What possible social purpose is served by the fact that the Dominican Republic is the largest foreign supplier of sugar to the United States? We pay them two, three, sometimes five times the world price, and the effect doesn't seem to be in any way beneficial to anybody except the owners of the plantations."
Haney did have practical advice for those who wanted to avoid buying Dominican sugar. "Use raw sugar from Hawaii, which is great and doesn't have any of these issues. And there's Fair Trade sugar, which is just like fair trade coffee."
"The Price of Sugar" remains undistributed in the United States.
Film Society of Lincoln Center fetes Jewish film
The 17th annual Jewish Film Festival opened Tuesday, a collaboration between the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, at the Walter Reade Theater, which will include, in its two-week run, one world, 10 U.S. and 12 New York premieres, as well as four restorations (including Carl Dreyer's 1922 film "Love One Another").
"This is probably one of the longest-running hits, the longest collaborations of any two arts institutions in New York," said Film Society programmer Joanna Ney, and sponsor Martin Payson recalled its genesis. "The first few years were a struggle, we started with 11 films and a lot of empty seats. Now we have 32 films, and most of them are sold out. It's become an institution in New York, and we are delighted."
The opening night film was David Ofek and Ron Rotem's documentary "A Hebrew Lesson," the story of an intensive Hebrew language program in Tel Aviv for recent immigrants. The film examines what brought the culturally mixed group to the country, and exactly what it means to be an immigrant in the current state of Israel.
It's one of nine Israeli films playing at the festival. Israeli Cultural Attache Yoram Morad introduced the film with several "reasons to be cheerful," starting out that "a few days ago, we have started the celebrations of the 60th anniversary for the state of Israel. I think there is no better way to open them than here, at the Film Society's home... We're promoting and advancing a cultural dialogue with the Jewish people between Israel and the Jewish community in the U.S. and we're enhancing the intercultural dialogue between Israel and the rest of the world."
The festival continues through January 24, and includes such films as Claude Miller's "A Secret," starring Mathieu Almaric, Julie Depardieu and Ludivine Sagnier. Nadav Schirman's documentary "Champagne Sky," about a boy who discovers his father has a double life as a secret agent in Egypt is also on tap as well as Philippe Faucon's "Two Ladies," the story of a friendship between an Algerian nurse and a French holocaust survivor, (the only film here to also play at the recent Dubai International Film Festival).