DOX met the renowned filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt to speak about traits in his films – like loss, death, Jewish identity and being a filmmaker. Rosenblatt is the programming director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival [See previous article].

– My films are not really narrative, says Jay Rosenblatt in our interview, when we met him last year in Nyon, where Visions du Reel had a retrospective on his films.  “I am using archival shots in my films. I am looking for an arc, a narrative arc, I cut sometimes at the peak of the arc and sometimes where the rhythm stays interesting.”

TRULS LIE: What are your thoughts on using text and commentary in films? Like the text that’s being read, the voices – like your film with the sign “sleep” when you see a dog sleeping?

Jay Rosenblatt
Jay Rosenblatt

JAY ROSENBLATT: In that film called Afraid So some of the images are very literal. Sometimes it is very satisfying for the viewer to see something that corresponds otherwise. I also like to work with metaphor like in Phantom Limb where there are some sections that are completely metaphorical – like the sheep shaving scene in slow motion It is very intense to watch cause the sheep is so vulnerable and we are hearing all these very intense voice-overs. I didn’t know at first that I  would have the comments on the soundtrack, I didn’t know the music I would have, but I knew there must be a slow, extremely slow motion of sheep shaving.

Afraid So
 – The shave represented loss because the wool is being taken off – but not death. It is loss but renewal because the wool grows back. A perfect metaphor for grief. The film ends with birth. It is a film about death that ends with birth.
– Even my films with my daughter – I call them comedies – there is a sense of loss because she is getting older. It’s like they move away from you, she was changing so much. I was falling in love with that age.
First about grief, then about suicide, and emptiness of life. You again and again make films about people dying; why are you so concerned about death? 
– Well, I mean it is obvious, isn’t it? I had this early very dramatic death of my brother in my life, and it marked me forever. But it is something we all deal with – some people by being in complete denial and some people deal with it very directly. A loved one dies, when you are young or older, your parents, your friends. And ultimately our own death – it is the human condition. What else can you deal with? You can deal with love, you can deal with sex, you can deal with a life of forming things, but to me you can’t fully deal with life unless you deal with death. In Phantom Limb one man says when he fully, fully faced death, he had a pure respect for life and really appreciate every moment that he is alive. A lot of us including myself just have not dealt well with death or grieved well enough.

We are disturbed about these existential topics seen in Rosenblatt’s films, and keep on asking:

– In the suicide film, The Darkness of Day, you have some distinctive examples, for example the Sanders couple who kill themselves when they were old, not to bother their children with their life. They just left a message and some burial advice. What do you think about that?

– In that film I wanted to show different types of suicide, like historical moments where all of a sudden a town has a lot of suicides; I have Hemingway with his genetic component of a family often committing suicide; then Primo Levy, making it through the Holocaust, going through all this trauma and then later, maybe because of deep depression, committing suicide. The Sanders couple made a very rational decision, they felt like if they lived a full life – sixty years of marriage. They didn’t like what they saw ahead, they didn’t want to be taken care of by their children and wanted to leave this world together. I thought it was very beautiful. I didn’t want to have any moralistic judgment about suicide, I think the normal judgment around suicide is very damaging, not only to the person that is suicidal but to the survivors also – people are so ashamed. They feel responsible, they make up stories, they don’t tell the truth, they say their loves ones died from some other reason.
– Your films with Holocaust images … Do I see a melancholic thread?
– The film Four Questions for a Rabbi is about Stacy Ross who committed suicide. She was the woman who started a film. Some of her friends were wondering if I would be interested in looking at her proposal to let me end the film. The only thing they had was one interview she did with her mother, one interview she did with a rabbi and they filmed her funeral, that is all they had. They said she was making a film about Jewish identity, and gave me the proposal. She was also very involved in Palestinian issues and felt very deeply about the Palestinian people which a lot of Jews do actually. I wanted to honor her spirit, what she was concerned about –  I didn’t like the rabbi’s answers, but her questions.
Four Questions for a Rabbi

– There are a lot of Jewish people that have a lot of trouble with what is going on in Israel, and I felt like I needed to bring that into this film. With my archives I found footage and I put them together – and yes, it deals with suicide and grief.

– Let me ask you since you are Jewish: In this film the rabbi talks about the soul, the Jewish soul. Do you think that you yourself are placed in a kind of destiny, a kind of fixed tradition, a kind of problematic you cannot get  out of, a fate … do you see this?
– The Jewish people have a very painful history. I think the irony of what is going on in Israel now is that the Jews have been oppressed for so long and in some ways today the jews are the oppressors. For me that is very painful to see. Jews are not different from other people.
– Are you by making all these films trying to convey the soul of the loss of the Jewish people – or do you think you are therapeutically rather trying to get out of a destiny you were born into?
– I am not sure, I am not sure, I don’t know. I can’t say I know the soul of the Jewish people. When you are born Jewish and you have the history of the Holocaust behind you it is a heavy burden on so many levels – whether you are a Holocaust survivor, or a child of a survivor, you are affected by it. I mean it is not just the Jews. There are still different kinds of holocausts happening – but that one was so massive and so beyond comprehension.

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