Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Movie Review (Berlinale 2023): ‘The Klezmer Project’ Explores the Erasure of Culture


Directors: Leandro Koch and Paloma Schachmann

Writers: Leandro Koch and Paloma Schachmann

Stars: Rebecca Hanover, Leandro Koch, Cesar Lerner

Synopsis: A sense of humour to flourish and gives rise to a powerful groundswell of emotions that carries us away in music.


The Klezmer Project (‘Adentro mío estoy bailando’) is both a love story and a documentary about lost traditions at the same time, as Leandro Koch and co-director Paloma Schachmann concoct a fascinating, albeit messy (in parts), project that interweaves fictionalized narratives and history of klezmer melodies to heighten the audience’s curiosity. 

Before the Holocaust, Klezmer music dominated the Yiddish-speaking world’s musical expressions, primarily the eastern regions. This traditional folk-like music borrows inspiration from various genres and styles, like classical and synagogue – the title comes from the contraction of two Hebrew words: instrument (kley) and song (zemer). In his documentary debut, The Klezmer Project, Argentinian filmmaker Leandro Koch and co-director Paloma Schachmann try to explore the last glances of this slowly disappearing iconic instrumental tradition. At the beginning of the film, the narrator, whom we later discover is Koch’s grandmother, quotes: “Culture and language never die; it’s not natural. They were assassinated.” That remark is the basis for the documentary’s exploration of culture and rite’s importance in people’s lives through the traces of customary klezmer music. 

There have been many documentaries in which its creators take a more in-depth look at their respective cultures to reflect on the past and how it has influenced them. However, this documentary has many intriguing twists and turns, slowly intertwining fiction and reality. Koch is an Argentinian from a Jewish background, and he’s playing another version of himself. In The Klezmer Project (which recently won the GWFF Best First Feature Award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival), Koch is a frustrated wedding cameraman that isn’t entirely interested in his family’s religion and cultural aspects. But, like all artists, he wants to create something worthwhile, a picture that takes his name into the spotlight. But, when he immediately falls in love with a klezmer music-playing clarinetist named Paloma, Koch starts fabricating a documentary. 

Simply to impress her (and spend some time with her), Koch tells her that the project he is working on is based on his musical heritage, which happens to be the music Paloma loves playing, hence revealing one of the many meanings of its title. Koch and Schachmann take the sensibilities of documentary filmmaking and take us on a journey from Buenos Aires (Argentina) to Eastern Europe in search of identity, passion, and the lost klezmer melodies safeguarded by the Romani before the Second World War. The viewer hears Koch’s story about falling in love via voice-over. But, we never know if all of this actually happened in real life or if it is just a figment of their imagination, just to add to the distortion between fantasy and truth. There’s an element of curiosity pouring out of the screen, both from the leading players in the documentary and us watching. 

Because there are minor details in the overall storyline of its imaginary parts, the audience remains curious about every cinematic turn The Klezmer Project takes. The film interlocks Koch’s personal story about finding his identity by searching for local bands in both South America and Europe. Just by these self-referential descriptions of The Klezmer Project, you should know that this documentary is not, in the least, a straightforward documentary about klezmer music or the musicians behind it. Instead, it is an occasionally confusing, but still amusing and humorous, piece of work forged by two intertwining love stories and the exploration of a lost tradition. This isn’t your regular “run-of-the-mill” presentation and strategy for documentaries. Still, Koch and crew manage to mostly pull it off, taking the viewer on a journey filled with scrutiny and intrigue on a topic most of us know little to nothing about. 

Of course, with all these narrative and storytelling elements, some aspects of The Klezmer Project might seem messy or disorganized. However, whether purposefully or not, the cluttered characteristic adds a creative underlining to the story Koch wants to tell. What the directing duo creates, in the end, is a funny and personal work that slowly unravels itself into a tale about the cross-generational erasure of culture and individualism. And in addition to those personal notes, it is a documentary about making art, in which Koch and Schachmann use The Klezmer Project as a piece of self-reflection regarding their pasts, presents, and futures. This may not be the best documentary I saw at this year’s Berlinale, but I am interested in seeing what the duo does next in their young careers. 

Grade: B

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