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Silent film screening to feature live performance by famous klezmer musician

Yellow Ticket boston jewish music festival.jpg
Boston Jewish Music Festival

During this year’s Jewish Film Festival in Kalamazoo, movie-goers will get a chance to see the 1918 silent film, The Yellow Ticket. Most films in the festival will be shown at Celebration Cinema this weekend.

“It’s talking about a young Jewish woman who emigrates from Poland to Russia to study medicine, which is quite a progressive concept I think for a film that was made in the early 1900s,” says organizer Naomi Morse of the Jewish Federation of Kalamazoo and Southwest Michigan.

During the screening, viewers will get to hear the film’s score performed live by famous klezmer musician Alicia Svigals and pianist Marilyn Lerner. Klezmer is a type of Jewish folk music that originated in Eastern Europe.

Klezmer musician and composer Alicia Svigals.
Credit Tina Chaden
Klezmer musician and composer Alicia Svigals.

The score Svigals wrote is inspired by klezmer, as well as classical composer BélaBartók, European dance hall music, and other styles. While writing the score, Svigals got a grant to do a high-quality reproduction of the film—one with better English translations and less ‘rushing around.’

“People don’t have the equipment to do the right speed. They don’t have that old-fashioned, de-funked equipment. So they’re often projected too fast, which is why people have an idea of silent film that is people scurrying around really quickly. But that’s just because it’s being projected at the wrong speed," Svigals says. "So the copy I had to work with was 47 minutes long and I wrote a 47-minute score. And then when we go the 35 millimeter print from Berlin, it turned out it was over an hour. So I had to quickly re-work the score.”

Svigals says she’s written film scores before but composing for The Yellow Ticket wasn’t easy.

“It’s about a young woman who wants to go to medical school, but to survive she has to move into a brothel and teeters on the edge of becoming a prostitute," she says. "And there’s a lot of shame evoked in the film, in PolaNegri’s facial expressions. So I had to find music for shame, which is different from finding…creating music that is happy or sad. Shame is a little bit more abstract and yet it’s not, it’s a powerful emotion. And it’s not…it’s an emotion that’s not a big theme in contemporary culture, but in traditional culture it’s a giant theme.”

After the screening, University of Michigan Professor Johannes von Moltke will talk about the historical aspects of the film.

But The Yellow Ticket is only the Jewish Film Fest finale. There’s also the upbeat film HavaNagila.

“It basically follows Jewish culture from Eastern Europe and Russia as people emigrated to Isreal and then came to the United States," says Morse. "So it’s not just a movie about the song HavaNagila, although that kind of brings the story together. It really is a way to talk about Jewish emigration and how Jewish culture changed over time."

More than one film at the festival deals with the Isreali-Palestinian conflict. One Day After Peace, for example, discusses the conflict in relation to apartheid.

“It’s a documentary about an Isreali mother whose son was killed in the line of duty. And she goes searching for answers about how to forgive the people who killed her son and also to move on herself and also to move on Isreal as a country,” Morse says. “So what she’s trying to find is perhaps some things that the country of Isreal could learn from South Africa. Now that’s not saying that the situation in those countries can be equated, they’re really not too similar. But I think it’s really trying to go through process of overcoming decades of strife and achieving peace and forgiveness.”

Western Michigan University political science professor Jim Butterfield will answer questions about that film. The Jewish Film Festival starts Saturday night at 8 p.m.

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