Friends and filmmakers Jesse Zook Mann and Evan Kleinman decided to go deeper into Judaism, in search of the more edgy side of contemporary Jewish life, and the result was the documentary Punk Jews. It's a sixty-minute, multi-faceted portrait of a global community, told in six stories, including that of a rapper, a yoga guru and a child sex-abuse survivor.
In advance of the film's first Colorado screening set for this Saturday, August 24, at the Elaine Wolf Theatre, Kleinman spoke with Westword about how he came across the subjects for this fascinating film on twenty-first century Judaism.
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Westword: Was there one particular person or story that sparked the creation of this documentary?
Evan Kleinman: The way the documentary came about was pretty organically -- we didn't actually set out to make a film at first. Myself and the director Jesse (Zook Mann) were working together at NBC at the time. We came from pretty opposing Jewish backgrounds -- myself being the more traditional, him being the more non-traditional or (less) observant. We had gone to college together and then in working together, we bounced around different questions, like, what would be the more edgy side of Judaism and Jewish culture?
We came to discover a guy named Y-Love -- who's in the film -- and he took us to Cholent [a regular, semi-underground gathering in New York City that invites people expressing non-traditional Jewish identities] for the first time. When we went to Cholent, we ended up spending a lot of time there. It was kind of like the first space where we felt comfortable expressing ourselves freely within a Jewish context. There were no boundaries, no labels, no organization, no institution. It was all loose and kind of anarchist.
We spent a bit of time there and met a lot of people and made a lot of friends. At a certain point, we decided that we wanted to make a film about this underground Jewish culture.
In the film, Cholent's resilience as a community is shown to be pretty amazing -- the group stays together, even though the gathering has been evicted from spaces throughout its lifespan.
For some people, that is their only real outlet. Sometimes I feel the same way, a bit -- (though) I'm not coming out of the Hasidic world and I didn't grow up as strictly Orthodox as a lot of those people did. I have a life outside of the Jewish community. But people who do come from that world and are stepping out for the first time, Cholent may be their only outlet. That's why it keeps going -- it is a big part of their lives.
From all of the people you met at Cholent, how did you choose which stories you wanted to tell in Punk Jews?
We actually filmed with twelve different people, but there are only six people in the film -- the remaining six will be bonus features on the DVD. But they were basically segments that didn't really integrate seamlessly into the story. All of the people were people we met at Cholent and we just decided whom to work with based on their story, what they were doing, what they were fighting for, working towards or exploring.
It was a tough decision to not include everyone in the film, because everyone was really dynamic. But at the same time, we had to kind of figure out how this would work as a seamless narrative within the period of an hour.
The word "punk" in this documentary's context encompasses many different kinds of people. Why or how did you find Punk Jews to be a fitting title?
Punk is the label that defies all labels, and that's what we're looking to do: break down the stereotypes that poison cultural integration and cultural communication and life. Jesse and I both grew up in punk-rock scenes in New York, and it was always a part of our identities. I think our Jewish identities kind of fell by the wayside -- probably right around adolescence -- and the DIY punk ethic is what filled that void.
We've always kind of identified with that label and I think it relates to Jews in a way -- Judaism has, at many points in history, been the underdog. As far as "punk" the title or the label, we thought that punk encompasses more than just a musical genre -- in the film, we talk about punk being more than just a genre or fashion statement. That in itself is a stereotype. What we're trying to embody is the spirit of punk, and broaden it to include the other aspects that fit into this punk culture, but are not necessarily the visual that may accompany punk.
When I was playing in punk-rock bands, it wasn't just about the music; there was a message to the music and there was an activist element and a Do-It-Yourself work ethic. It may not have appealed to the mainstream, but it still had its niche. That was kind of the same idea, as far as trying to capture the ethos with Punk Jews.
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Punk Jews screens Saturday, August 24, at the Elaine Wolf Theatre; doors open at 8:30 p.m. and the show begins at 9 p.m. A Q&A with the film's producer and director will follow, and a food-truck street party, free beer and a live performance by Moshiach Oi! will round out the festivities. Party-goers are encouraged to wear costumes, with prizes given for the best punk attire. Tickets are $18 in advance, $25 at the door; for more information, visit the theater's website.