02 February, 2013

AJFF Review: "Hava Nagila (The Movie)" (****)

A scene from "Hava Nagila (The Movie)"

The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival is celebrating its bar/bat mitzvah this year! Thirteen years old, the festival is truly on the edge of adulthood. Still young, sure, but this year's ticket sales have already exceeded 30,000 and will inch closer to 40,000 by the end of the 22-day event, making it the largest Jewish film festival on the planet. Long having been a well-oiled machine– known for its organization and hospitality, the AJFF is becoming a destination film festival for Israeli and European fare as well as world-class documentaries.

Roberta Grossman's "Hava Nagila (The Movie)" continues on an expansive festival run and was chosen to kick off this year's festivities. Much more exciting than it sounds, the movie goes deeper than just the song itself– exploring not only the origins, evolution and decline of the cultural phenomenon, but also the diaspora and evolution of Jewish culture before and after Israeli statehood. Grossman incorporates a lot of wit into her curriculum and never takes the quest to unearth the famed song's pedigree more seriously than need be. This was a perfect film to jumpstart the year.

From its origin as a nigun (Hebrew melody without words) to two variations on who penned the lyrics, the early years of "Hava Nagila" are covered with an investigative fervor. We watch as the song is reborn from an unknown Eastern European tune into an Israeli national anthem, overcooked in America as a piece of pop culture iconography, finally left behind by Israel and forgotten in its Ukrainian homeland. There is still value to be found, however. It's no longer a song of Israeli patriotism, but a song representing the diaspora, specifically that of American Jews and the culture they built at their new home from pieces of their old.

Beyond how comprehensive the picture is, it's also very funny. Grossman, as evidenced in her introduction and post-screening Q&A, is quite the comedienne. Combining her comedic prowess with those of producer Marta Kauffman (of "Friends" fame) and writer/producer Sophie Sartain, the audience erupted in loud laughter so many times, I missed some of what we were being taught. One of the leading contributors, Josh Kun, and narrator Rusty Schwimmer each provide a great presence. Harry Belafonte, Glen Campbell, Connie Francis, Leonard Nimoy and Regina Spektor all show up with interesting, and occasionally, touching accounts of their experiences with the song.

Grossman and company go deep, exploring every facet of the "Hava Nagila" sensation. The movie makes the most of its brisk 75 minutes, with only a slight dip in the middle of an otherwise absorbing piece of work. You won't be able to resist humming and toe-tapping along.

4 out of 5 stars.

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