MJFF Tribute: Jewish Director Made Strides for Women and Jewish Culture

Posted on 01/08/2021 @ 07:00 AM

Tags: Miami Jewish Film Festival

Joan Micklin Silver (z”l), the groundbreaking filmmaker and Miami Jewish Film Festival alum (Hester Street -MJFF 2007), passed away December 31. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Micklin Silver was a trailblazer for women directors and created proud depictions of Jewish culture in cinema.
As a pioneer in the independent film industry, she forged a path in an industry where women “had absolutely no chance of getting work as a director.” [1] In an interview in 1979, Silver recalled that a studio big wig told her, “Feature films are very expensive to mount and distribute, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.” [2]
Her first feature film Hester Street was produced in 1975 on a modest budget and funded by Joan Micklin herself and her husband Raphael Silver because studios refused to consider the film due to its “ethnic content.” One prospective investor asked her if the characters could be made Italian (like The Godfather). So the Silvers created their own production company “Midwest Films” when independently produced cinema was rare.
The source material for Hester Street was taken from Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novella, Yekl: A Tale of a New York Ghetto about the challenges of assimilation for immigrant Jews. But in the book, the story was told from the husband’s perspective; whereas, in Micklin Silver’s film, the point of view shifts to that of the wife. The film presents a very Jewish female immigrant character who wears a sheitel (wig) and modest clothing, and speaks Yiddish (Gitl) empathetically, behaving modestly, rationally and with dignity.
In a world where Jewish women in film were often treated as caricatures by such directors as Mel Brooks or Neil Simon, it was a revelation to see a woman named Gitl with curly, frizzy hair, who didn’t feel she needed to change or acculturate to be respectedIn 2011, Hester Street was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
Hester Street was also the first time that an American director shot entire scenes in grammatically correct Yiddish pronounced with the proper accent and intonation, which brought a sense of authenticity and historic accuracy. Few people are aware that the film’s stars did not know Yiddish before starring in the movie. The film went on to became an international and commercial success. Actress Carol Kane was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in her role as Gitl-- the first time a woman had directed a Best Actress nominee in 45 years!
Micklin Silver’s later film Crossing Delancey, about a thirty-something Jewish woman from the Lower East Side, went on to be a big commercial success and was also passed up by studios because of its “ethnic content.” It only got made because the film’s co-star, Amy Irving, was married to Steven Spielberg who used his connections with a top executive at Warner Bros. The New York Times noted, “It is difficult to say which was Ms. Silver’s most vicious antagonist, anti-Semitism or misogyny.”
Carol Kane told the Associated Press, “Joan Micklin Silver was one of the most courageous artists I ever knew… She knew she could prevail at a time when women were not being taken seriously as film directors.
Because of discrimination in the film industry, most of Micklin Silver’s work was in television and naturally focused on women’s stories. She told Film Comment, “I didn’t want to feel like the woman director. I wanted to feel like one of many women directors.
[1] Cole, Janis; Dale, Holly (1993). "Joan Micklin Silver". Calling the Shots: Profiles of Women Filmmakers. Quarry Press. pp. 203–213ISBN 1-55082-085-0OCLC 39763692.
[2] Gates, Anita (January 1, 2021). "Joan Micklin Silver, Director of 'Crossing Delancey,' Dies at 85"The New York TimesISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved January 2, 2021.

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