- Becoming Part of the Moving StoryJews on the Latin American Screen
Jews were among the pioneers of film and television in most of Latin America. The historiography of cinema, however, does not usually mention the ethnicity or religion of the filmmakers since Latin American intellectuals tend to reject ethnicity as an important analytical category, unless it relates to indigenous groups or people of African descent. This approach is shared by many intellectuals identified with specific ethnic backgrounds, such as Jewish Latin Americans, Arab Latin Americans, and Asian Latin Americans.
Most of the meager information about Jewish contributions to filmmaking in the past can be found in the publications of community institutions, which endeavor to highlight Jewish contributions to various facets of life in Latin America. They are also available in personal memoirs and on websites. Moreover, several authors writing about the Jewish achievement in Latin America have not considered cinema as a worthy enough activity to be mentioned among their accomplishments. In his 1960s book on the Jews of Argentina, for example, José Liberman recounted the history of Jewish agricultural settlement in the country, discussed the establishment of community institutions, and added a long list of Jews active in politics, the economy, and culture,1 but he did not mention Jews active in popular culture, such as movies, television, music, or sports. More than forty years later, Ricardo Feierstein, in his history of Argentinian Jews, devoted only five pages out of 459 to mentioning Jews who were prominent in these fields.2 In both cases, it is impossible to know whether the characterization of certain [End Page 1] people as Jewish relied on research in archives or was merely based on pinpointing names that sounded Jewish or simply on personal acquaintance.
In the past decade methodological and theoretical discussions, however, have encouraged new studies of Jewish Latin American experiences.3 Recent studies are less focused on political aspects, giving more weight to cultural and social facets. Scholars nowadays are less concerned with Jews as victims of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, or racism and more with their place and role as integral parts of society at large. Research is no longer based so much on communal and institutional sources as on testimonies produced by nonaffiliated ethnics, focusing on history from below and on oral testimonies rather than on “official stories.” Many authors currently favor comparative perspectives, both across ethnic divides within the nation and from a transnational viewpoint regarding the Diaspora links to its real or imagined homeland.4 The present issue of Jewish Film & New Media reflects the vitality and innovativeness of Jewish Latin American studies.
When it comes to the bibliography on Latin American cinema, the challenges are no less significant. Since Jews are often identified with the hegemonic white population, the research focused on the Jewish contribution to film and television, or on the representation of Jewish experiences in movies, has been minimal or conspicuously absent until the rise of multicultural perceptions in the late twentieth century. Thus a dictionary of filmmakers published in the late 1990s includes four hundred entries for Latin American directors without mentioning their ethnic identity or religious faith. On the other hand, the dictionary includes special chapters on foreign directors who visited the Latin American continent, and on exiled Spanish filmmakers who found refuge in Argentina and Mexico following the victory of the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39).5 Similarly, a book of interviews with seventy well-known filmmakers from all over Latin America casually mentioned the Jewishness of only one of them, and ignored that of at least one other.6
Moreover, before the upsurge of democratization in the eighties, and the integration of national economies into globalized markets from the early 1990s onward, very few films featured Jewish characters. Despite being a tiny minority demographically, Latin American Jews have been prominent in most walks of life, especially in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. Indeed, there are approximately 500,000 Jews in Latin America today, with the greatest concentration by far in Argentina, with Brazil and Mexico as distant seconds, and a third tier far behind in Venezuela, Chile, and Uruguay. Yet, although...