Chaim Topol and Norman Jewison on the set of “Fiddler.” Photo: Zeitgeist Films
By Shelley A. Sackett
SALEM — Two Jewish films that run the gamut from life to death – “Fiddler’s Journey to The Big Screen” and “On This Happy Note” – make their way to the Salem Film Fest March 24-April 3. These enjoyable, feel-good movies are the perfect respite from this endless winter.
Salem Film Fest, the all-documentary film festival now in its 15th year, will screen 47 features and shorts during its hybrid 2022 season. From March 24-27, all screenings will be in person only at Cinema Salem, Peabody Essex Museum and The Cabot in Beverly. From March 28-April 3, the fest will be exclusively virtual.
2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the beloved “Fiddler on the Roof,” the film The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael called “the most powerful movie musical ever made.” Narrated by Jeff Goldblum, “Fiddler’s Journey” captures the humor and drama of director Norman Jewison’s quest to re-create the lost world of Jewish life in Tsarist Russia and re-envision the stage hit as a wide-screen epic.
Filmmaker Daniel Raim was most interested in the inner lives of the cinema artists making the film. “Ironically, most of the cinema artists making ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ were not Jewish. And that’s what makes this film that much more interesting – because it explores their approach to authentically re-creating Jewish life in Tzarist Russia in 1905,” Raim said in an email.
“I wanted to learn about their exploration of Jewish identity both in front of and behind the camera,” the native Israeli said. Developing these themes into a concise narrative structure was “probably one of the more challenging and rewarding aspects of making this film.”
He remembers his grandparents, who survived the Holocaust, introducing him to “Fiddler” when he was 13 years old. “It was a window into the world my grandparents came from, which no longer exists,” he said.
“On This Happy Note”
Tamar Tal Anati’s remarkable film, “On This Happy Note,” heralds and honors death by documenting the deliberate and thoughtful way one woman chose to live her last days.
We first meet Anat Gov, one of the most influential playwrights in Israeli theater, as she prepares for her death from cancer just a couple of months away. A chain smoker, she is unafraid of her fate. But when she asks her longtime literary agent, Arik Kneller, to be the executor of her will, he struggles to accept the humor, serenity and grace with which she faces her upcoming end.
Gov believes there is such a thing as a happy ending and that it is possible to die in peace. She wants her death to open doors for others by leaving footprints for them to follow. Gov wishes to leave a spiritual legacy.
As it turned out, she also leaves a cinematic legacy.
“On This Happy Note” was launched when Kneller decided to film his final meeting with Gov. She agreed, and the two longtime colleagues and friends recorded as they talked about her work and hopes for how she will be remembered.
Kneller showed the footage to Israeli-born director Anati, who would work with it to create a film. Two weeks later, Gov died and the project temporarily froze.
In the meantime, Anati dove into Gov’s writings, learning about her creative process. She read Gov’s plays and television scripts and, in the course of doing this research, wrote a new script from the scenes and writings Gov left. The film weaves performances from her plays and footage of her family and political world to create a tapestry that highlights the very thin line between documentary and real life and the stories that connect the two.
For Anati, Gov’s way of thinking and dealing with death was not shocking. “In a way, she gave clear and very accurate words to what I felt. The most important thing to her is that fewer people fear death. She thought that if we talked about death and accepted it as part of life, we would live better,” she said from Florence, Italy, via email.
Like Gov and her writings, the film spotlights black humor to address challenging matters and difficult themes. At the film’s premiere, she was shocked by the number of places where people roared with laughter. “It’s kind of a nice release,” she said.
Gov’s family saw the film, and shared their strong, positive reaction to it. “They said they felt like she had returned to life for an hour,” Anati said.
“Fiddler’s Journey to The Big Screen” will screen in person only at Cinema Salem on March 25, 2:45 p.m. “On This Happy Note” will screen virtually from March 28-April 3. For more information go to salemfilmfest.com