The Salem Film Fest began yesterday, marking its fifth year. It’s an all-documentary festival with screenings at three downtown venues (Cinema Salem, the Peabody Essex Museum, and Salem Maritime’s Visitor Center) spread out over a week. This is a nice Salem event: well-organized, well-timed, and increasingly well-attended. I’m very pressed for time this week as somehow I find myself putting together an exhibit of the literary and historical sources of steampunk culture at the Salem Athenaeum (more later–am I qualified to do this? no) among other more academic obligations, so I’m probably going to be able to see only one film. Therefore I must choose well. Last year, I saw some ok films but missed the big hit of the festival (and the year): Bill Cunningham New York. I saw it later on television but Mr. Cunningham was so charming I would have liked to have seen him on the big screen.
So what do I have to choose from? Films which examine: a matchmaking mayor in Slovakia, trying to reinvigorate his demographically-challenged town, the architecture of the Cuban Revolution, Native American ironworkers, the making of a Santa Claus, the artistic process of Gerhard Richter, Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs in New Orleans (which I really would like to see, as I do like the HBO series Treme but can never figure out where the Indian Chief is coming from), the transformation of a western feminist into a devoted Muslim in Yemen, and the world of romance novels, just to name a few of the diverse offerings. The Festival’s theme is see the world, and these are certainly very different worlds.
All (well, most) of the films on the schedule sound interesting, but the two that I am particularly drawn to are Battle for Brooklyn, about one man’s battle against the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, and In Heaven, Underground, about the 130-year-old Weissensee Cemetery, one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe, located in one of the northeastern suburbs of Berlin. The former film appeals to me because I’ve seen my share of downtown development battles (albeit on a much smaller scale) here in Salem, and I love films that look at a big issue from a very personal perspective. Also, my brother lives in Brooklyn and I think it’s amazing. In order to make my decision, I looked up some reviews of the film (all of which were very good) and found myself on the Develop don’t Destroy. Brooklyn site, which has a header quote by Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner that made me really want to see the film: “Why should people get to see plans? This isn’t a public project”.
But as compelling as Battle for Brooklyn sounds, I think I’m going to have to go for In Heaven, Underground. I’ve got to find out how this amazing cemetery, framed by art nouveau mausoleums, survived the Nazi Regime. Apparently more grave sites were lost to incidental allied bombings! The Weissensee Cemetery survived more than the Nazi Regime however; it also survived 40+ years of neglect under the German Democratic Republic, because (of course) there were no German Jews left to safeguard it.
Tough choice; maybe I can make both, or more.
Still photograph from In Heaven, Underground; Albert Eisenstadt, A Girl in the Jewish Cemetery, Weissensee, East Berlin, 1979. International Center of Photography’s eMuseum.