Amidah (2017) – 1 star
Director: Gene Bernofsky
Writers: Gene Bernofsky
Running time: 39 mins
Despite its noble goal, Amidah was rather difficult to watch. I don’t say that lightly. A good cause can go a long way to making a number of cinematic sins forgivable – but the best intentions ultimately only go so far when making a film.
The goal for any documentary is to make something grounded in reality into compelling viewing. If you cannot do that, whatever you have to say won’t reach a broader audience, and in that case, there isn’t much point in going to the trouble of making a film.
Unfortunately, Gene Benofsky’s paradoxically drawn out short documentary falls into this camp. What is essentially a 40 minute documentary on human cruelty is a hard sell, you could argue, but the lack of creative flair and slap-dash nature of this film’s editing are really what render it unwatchable, not its disturbing subject matter.
That is a crying shame for the most part, because the raw materials are here for something truly extraordinary. Bernofsky has assembled an incredible array of talking heads, a collective of oppressed peoples who have suffered at the hands of different tyrants at one time or another, to speak candidly about their experiences, or the experiences of their forebears. The film cuts back and forth between people sharing memories, stories told to them by their fathers, or reading diary entries, chiefly revolving around two main historical themes: World War II, and the genocide of Native Americans by the European settlers.
It is my best guess that the film is trying to make a point of this contrast; and I say that I guess because the film was extremely difficult to follow. Without a coherent narrative strand to draw the proceedings together and form some kind of order, the message here will be lost on the majority of audiences, if they are willing to put up with the poor quality of the recording and the slap-dash editing to stick around for the duration of the running time.
Bernofsky is trying to create a correlation between the genocide of Native Americans by European imperialists and Third Reich’s Germany. It seems this could have many dangerously varied meanings. Given the testimonials shared during the documentary, should we assume that the viewer is supposed to be led to the realisation that humans are just inherently vile and blood thirsty? Or that the problem is how whites have always believed in their superiority? Maybe we are supposed to scrutinise the hypocritical way we will eulogise one manner of historical nightmare somewhere far across the earth while ignoring similar atrocities closer to home?
Honestly, we can never be sure without knowing first hand from the director what the goal was – making this documentary incapable of doing anything more than preaching to the converted. Perhaps the addition of a narrator would have helped with unfolding the mystery of the correlation between these two historic episodes.
As mentioned earlier, in addition to the incomprehensible parallelism of the two historic chapters, there are too many technical issues that establish Amidah very unwelcoming and tiring to the viewer. The whole film feels as if it has been shot with a low definition cellphone camera. Sound meanwhile is also extremely unclear and of poor quality, with outside noises not having been edited off at all times, causing the monologs to be even more difficult to follow.
The worst trait of film, however, is its lack of cohesive editing. Cuts are too sharp and without any apparent order. Some lithographs are used as imagery in between testimonies, sometimes accompanied by music, sometimes not, which makes it hard to understand the director’s aesthetics. Did Bernofsky have a change of heart half way through editing that actually he should add some music to heighten the impact of the testimony on film? If so, why did he not think to go back and apply this to the earlier acts of the film?
Being a self-taught filmmaker may well account for some of this. Bernofsky may have been aware that he had attained some excellent insights via his interviews, and been overcome with desperation to get them out there, now. The problem with that is that without honing his craft by working on smaller, less intensive projects first, he demonstrates a complete lack of discipline and concentration in his filmmaking, which in the end does a great disservice to the content the director wanted to promote in the first place. If that is the case, this should stand as testament to all budding documentarians; learn to walk before you try to run.
All in all, Amidah fails to deliver. It seems like an amateur effort, without a clear goal. It relies almost exclusively on emotion and it is very difficult to follow. This film is less a documentary than an ‘essay’, as it lacks emotional punch and the warmth of a human touch. Having a single narrative presence to walk the viewer through this world would have helped on this front, while helping to draw some semblance of a lesson the two unquestionably dark chapters in human history covered.