A Crime on the Bayou
For the 16th installment of the annual Baton Rouge Jewish Film Festival, the festival is looking locally for its programming.
At press time, just days before the festival was to return with in-person screenings this year, the Omicron variant outbreak forced a postponement. The festival will still be held in person, but at dates that will be announced later.
The festival’s run of four films was to debut on Jan. 12 at 7 p.m. with the 2021 documentary “A Crime on the Bayou,” the story of Gary Duncan, a Black teen from Plaquemines Parish, and Jewish attorney Richard Sobol, who leaves a prestigious Washington law firm and volunteers in New Orleans.
In October 1966, Duncan was 19 when he was driving through Plaquemines Parish and saw his nephew and cousin surrounded by white teens. The parish had just fought a bruising battle over school desegregation and tensions were high.
Duncan approached and introduced himself, touching one of the white teens on the arm. That night, Duncan was arrested for assaulting a minor. Leander Perez, a powerful segregationist who ruled the area from his position as district attorney, prosecuted Duncan as part of his effort to maintain de facto segregation. In the film’s trailer, Duncan said Perez “wanted to use me as an example for the rest of the Blacks.”
Duncan was denied a jury trial and sentenced to 60 days in prison and a $150 fine.
Sobol had arrived in Louisiana in 1966 as a volunteer for the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee. He became a leading figure in civil rights litigation, and took on Duncan’s case, leading to a 7-2 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968 that Louisiana was fundamentally obligated to provide a trial by jury, a ruling that rippled nationwide.
Director Nancy Buirski said the film shows how the legal system was used to oppress minority groups in America, a problem that has not been completely eliminated.
“A Crime on the Bayou” is the third in Buirski’s trilogy of films profiling individuals who fought for justice during the Civil Rights Era. The first two films were “The Loving Story” and “The Rape of Recy Taylor.”
When Sobol died in March 2020, Duncan said “I lost part of myself,” as Sobol “was one of the greatest people in the world.”
In 2016, Sobol wrote that his work with the LCDC brought him to “a new world from which I have never returned.” He was jailed for representing Duncan, and after the 1968 Supreme Court ruling, he returned to Washington to practice law. In 1971 he returned to Louisiana, then set up a civil rights law firm in Washington, and in 1991 returned to Louisiana for two decades. He was involved in an employment discrimination class action lawsuit against a Bogalusa paper mill, and many other cases.
Retired Columbia Law School professor George Cooper told the Associated Press that Sobol “was one of those men for whom civil rights and justice, particularly justice for black people, was the cause to which he devoted his life. And he faced a lot of danger because of that.”
“In Louisiana, people who needed help would be depending on my work,” Sobol wrote. “Whether I did it and did it quickly and successfully meant the difference between jail or not jail; integrated or segregated education; fair or discriminatory employment practices; the right to demonstrate or the denial of that right; access to public accommodations or the denial of access; the right to vote or tricks to nullify that right; and so on.”
The festival continues with “Born in Auschwitz,” the story of Vera, who arrived in Auschwitz in May 1944 and was selected for medical experiments run by Josef Mengele. Her daughter, Angela, was born in the camp and hidden for five weeks before liberation.
The film explores healing in a parent-child relationship, as Angela passed on the trauma of the Holocaust to her daughter, Kati, an ultra-Orthodox cancer researcher who is determined to keep from passing that trauma to her children. While trying to free themselves from the Holocaust’s long shadow, they visit places they never wanted to return to, and meet people they never would have expected, including German psychotherapists and Pope Francis.
The romantic comedy “Honeymood” is next in the lineup. In the Israeli film, a newlywed couple arrives at their hotel suite in Jerusalem after the wedding, but instead of a relaxing, romantic night together, a gift from an ex-girlfriend launches them into a fight that leads to a dazed all-night urban journey, confronting past loves, repressed doubts and the lives they left behind.
This is the second film by director Talya Lavie, following her breakout hit “Zero Motivation.”
The festival concludes with “The Light Ahead,” a 1939 film that the National Center for Jewish Film considers one of the most important films in its archive collection. This showing is the Louisiana premiere of its 4K digital restoration.
Audaciously adapted from the work of novelist S. Y. Abramovitch, whom Sholem Aleichem dubbed the grandfather of Yiddish literature, this luminous allegory of escape marries Edgar Ulmer’s masterful direction with superb acting by members of New York’s Artef and Yiddish Art Theaters. Film historian J. Hoberman calls Helen Beverley and David Opatoshu “perhaps the most beautiful couple in the history of Yiddish cinema…their scenes have a touching erotic chemistry.”
The film is about a lame young man who is in love with a blind orphan girl in a cholera-obsessed town. They long to escape to Odessa, the big city, and an enlightened bookseller uses small-town superstitions to their advantage. The film, made on the eve of World War II, is “painfully conscious of the danger about to engulf European Jews.”
All screenings will be at the Manship Theatre. Individual tickets are available on the Manship Theatre website. The film festival website has a sign-up for a VIP club that includes two tickets to opening night, discounts to all other nights, and food and drink coupons.