Above: Featured Image by Saul Sudin
For many, the term ‘punk’ conjures up mental images of disgruntled teens sporting multi-colored mohawks, spiked leather jackets and a fiercely anti-authoritarian attitude. The punk movement, which rose to prominence in the mid-1970’s in the United States and England, is aggressive, in-your-face, and impossible to ignore. It’s probably not a movement you’d associate with Jewish culture, let alone any religious identity.
But perhaps it should be.
“Punk Jews,” a documentary film shot and directed by UW Communication Leadership graduate student Jesse Zook Mann, seeks to redefine what it means to identify as Jewish in the modern world. It explores the Jewish identity through the eyes of those who don’t fit nicely into the typical polite Jewish stereotype, including a Hasidic punk rocker, a gay African-American Jewish rapper and a Yiddish performance group.
The film debuted in December, 2012 and has been shown at festivals and screenings around the world. And now, viewers can watch the entire film for free, along with bonus online content, via the “Punk Jews” website.
New Ways to Explore a Heritage
Mann felt inspired to make the film after shooting lifestyle TV segments for NBC with his co-producer, Evan Kleinman, which focused on extravagant wealth and lavish apartment interiors. While the segments may have paid the bills, they didn’t feel personally gratifying, so Mann and Kleinman began to look for more authentic, creative projects. Both have a Jewish heritage: Kleinman attended a yeshiva, or traditional Jewish school, and Mann’s mother had converted to Judaism. Mann says they both wanted to explore their Jewish heritage for themselves.
“We wanted to explore our identities with a little more vigor than what we were hand fed — or not fed — during our upbringing as kids,” he says.
Filming began in 2009, and took them all over the state of New York. They discovered whole communities and individuals expressing their Judaism in unconventional or controversial ways, including Kal Holczler, founder of Voices of Dignity, which raises sexual assault awareness within Orthodox communities; Yishai, the lead singer of a Jewish punk band; and the Amazing Amy Yoga Yenta, a yoga performance artist.
The film profiles six stories total, and each person or group presents a unique look at how some have melded a very old religion with their modern-day lives. The process of making the film also left Mann and Kleinman with a number of takeaways applicable to storytelling in any medium:
1. Spend Quality Time With Your Subjects
Mann and Kleinman found many of their subjects through Y-Love, a gay African American Jewish rapper. Y-Love introduced them to cholent parties, which are regular, semi-underground gatherings in New York City that invite people to express non-traditional Jewish identities through singing, dancing, poetry reading and music playing.
The parties were safe spaces for those who came from extremely religious families, and many were skeptical — and even afraid — when Mann and Kleinman tried to film. It took an entire year for Mann and Kleinman to gain the trust of party-goers. “The folks there were so guarded, that no one wanted us to shoot at all,” Mann says. “They’d come up to us and say, ‘If you show me on the video, my family will disown me.’ Those are the stakes that people are dealing with — the camera as being a threat to having a family.”
2. Speak Less, Listen More
It may seem obvious, but the key to a good interview is listening. Mann says simply making people feel like they’re being heard can yield to powerful interviews.
“You ask people about themselves, and then you shut up and really listen,” Mann says. “To give to someone who has a story to tell an opportunity in the right circumstance [to tell that story], you’re giving them a huge gift. You can’t do that by trying to finagle anything or being fake, you have to be authentic and you have to listen.”
3. Build a Compelling Arc to Your Story
As they began to find more people to interview, Mann says he started to look for a common thread in everyone’s story: whether or not they had something at stake. He says the stories that made it into the film had drama in that the individual was going against the grain, and forging their own Jewish identity. Ultimately, this makes the story more compelling to watch.
“Whether it was someone risking being alienated from a religious community in Brooklyn by singing in a punk rock band, to raising accusations of child abuse to try to make their community safer, or risking getting arrested on the street by doing Yiddish theatre, everyone had something at stake,” Mann says. “If you have a character who is up against something, then that’s telling a story through that struggle, and that’s stuff I like to watch.”
4. Get Creative With Funding
After being denied for funding by PBS, Mann said he and Kleinman set up countless meetings and filed grants for funding, none of which came through. Frustrated, they took matters into their own hands and posted their project on Kickstarter. The idea of crowdfunding had just begun to take off, and not many were familiar with the process. Mann and Kleinman worked hard to draw people to their page, and when the campaign ended in July 2010, they had raised $10,721 from 206 backers. They shot the entire film in six weeks.
“After waiting so long to shoot the project, we just did it. If we had done that from the beginning, we would have saved so much time — literally years,” Mann says. “We had $10,000, took a few weeks off and did the best we could. We told the story we saw and did it with the most integrity that we could, and it resonates with a lot of people and I’m happy about it.”
You can check out the entire film below, and visit the “Punk Jews” website for more info on the film and its creators.