Saturday, January 22, 2011

NYJFF ’11: 36 Righteous Men

According to Orthodox Judaism, the Tzadik is a righteous figure who has absolutely no desire to sin. They are so cool, John Zorn named his avant-garde music label after them. Jewish-Argentine filmmaker Daniel Burman (pictured at left) documented the annual pilgrimage of a group of Rabbis and scholars to the tombs of revered Tzaddikim across Russia, Ukraine, and Poland in 36 Righteous Men, which has its world premiere at this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival at the Walter Reade Theater.

References in the Talmud identify thirty-six true Tzaddikim piously exist amongst us, unaware of their own significance or of their thirty-five counterparts. When each dies, they are replaced, lord willing, because it is only due to their presence that the world is spared the destruction it deserves. Not surprisingly, those venerated as Tzaddikim exemplified wisdom, leading instructive lives of enlightenment.

Indeed, it is a potent concept that could be richly explored in another documentary. While Burman includes a number of instructive stories courtesy of the considerable experts on the pilgrimage, the film often more-or-less reverts to travelogue. Also problematically, the audience never gets a particularly strong sense of the varied personalities making the trek with Burman.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of 36 Righteous Men is the way in which the journey spurred Burman to come to terms and finally embrace his own Jewish faith. Frankly, this is somewhat surprising because the Argentine Burman’s previous films are largely thought to be informed by his Polish-Jewish heritage and have frequently played at Jewish films festivals.

People of any faith can definitely learn something from Burman’s documentary. It is informative and ultimately quite life-affirming. Yet, it represents a bit of a lost opportunity, never really engaging viewers on a gut level. That is not necessarily Burman’s fault, since the cameras had to be safely turned off during the heaviest moments of the trek, but he never fills that emotional void. Certainly well intentioned and enormously significant when considering Burman’s own filmography, 36 Righteous Men screens twice this coming Wednesday (1/26) as the 2011 New York Jewish Film Festival continues at the Walter Reade.