Monday, January 21, 2013

NYJFF ’13: Life in Stills

Though it dates back centuries, the modern State of Israel has only been recognized internationally for the last sixty-four plus years.  Yet, Israelis are justifiably proud of their relatively short history.  That is one reason why the Photohouse in Tel Aviv became such an institution selling prints of Rudi Weissenstein’s photos documenting the country’s founding era.  However, Weissenstein’s ninety-six year old widow Miriam and her superhumanly indulgent grandson will have a fight on their hands to carry on in their current location.  Tamar Tal documents their efforts as well as their complicated relationship in Life in Stills (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 New York Jewish Film Festival, co-presented by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

One has to admire Weissenstein’s approach to customer service.   To her, a potential patron is just another “pain in the ass.”  That clearly frustrates her grandson Ben, the family diplomat and business manager.  While their bond is strong, there are tensions between them, stemming from some painful family history.  When Ben was a just boy, his father killed his mother and then committed suicide.  The young man always grieved both his parents, but Weissenstein’s bitter words directed at his father makes that difficult.

Rudi Weissenstein’s photos are both aesthetically pleasing and historically significant.  He had an eye and happened to be present at landmark events, including the signing of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  Unfortunately, it seems the Mayor of Tel Aviv is determined to force out Photohouse for the sake of a large development.  Grandmother and grandson will not leave without a fight though, launching petition campaigns and accepting high profile invitations to exhibit Weissenstein’s work abroad.  Actually, Miriam Weissenstein needed a bit of convincing on the latter.  Poor Ben is a real trooper alright.

Stills tellingly illustrates the tolerance Tel Aviv is so well known for, both in Weissenstein’s acceptance of her grandson’s private life and Tal’s conscious decision not to make too big a deal of it.  Yet, given the power of Rudi Weissenstein’s images, viewers might feel shortchanged by the somewhat limited coverage of his career in the film.  Nonetheless, those who appreciate photography as a form of art and a means of recording history will find the many stills illustrating Tal’s documentary quite fascinating. 

Sadly Miriam Weissenstein passed away several months after Stills’ premiere, but Tal’s film should further codify her husband’s international reputation.  Recommended for photography buffs and Israeli cinema patrons, the hour-long Life in Still screens twice with Let’s Dance this Thursday (1/24) as the 2013 NYJFF continues at the Walter Reade Theater.