How to fiddle when your world is crumbling

‘DO you love me, Golde?’ Chaim Topol is Tevye and Norma Crane is Golde in Norman Jewison’s 1971 film Fiddler on the Roof. Daniel Raim’s documentary on the making of this film features on this year’s Encounters film festival. Photograph courtesy

SAY THE WORD ‘Fiddler’ in the film context to virtually anyone you meet, and they will know exactly what you mean. Fiddler on the Roof is like Van Gogh’s ear or Beethoven’s Fifth, in a broader cultural sphere. It’s also up there as the pinnacle of shlock culture and has been dissected by artists of the ilk of Steven Cohen. In its time, however, the film, directed by Norman Jewison in 1971, reshaped the world of cinematography, musical storytelling and bittersweet humour which will make you cry. Daniel Raim’s extraordinary documentary Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen features on this year’s Encounters South African International Document Film Festival, which runs from 22 June until 2 July in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

With a rash of personal anecdotes and a gust of reflections on what it takes to tell a quintessentially Jewish tale of family, dispossession, circumstance and God to more than a billion international viewers, this documentary is gold. It offers insights into Norman Jewison, the film’s director (who contrary to common perception was not Jewish), as it offers an understanding of transitioning a successful Broadway production to celluloid, with dramatic shifts of choreography and production design, context and history as part of its text.

It’s one of those doccies that is delicious in its sense of detail, as it explores everything from the artist Marc Chagall’s fiddler on a roof to the creation of a wooden synagogue in the former Yugoslavia, to evoking light snowfall with marble dust, and playing on times of day and seasons of the year. In many respects, the documentary brings in the most obvious angles. For instance, how it felt for the three girls (now women in their late middle age) – Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), Hodel (Michele Marsh) and Chava (Neva Small) – to be cast in their respective roles. Another focus is on how the film was received all over the world. But sidestepping these straightforward documentary focuses, there is also a sense of heart and conscience, of human rights, racial violence and the colour of an historical period that pervade the work, making it almost as beautiful as the original film. And richer, for a contemporary viewer.

But, if you were raised on the film either on the silver screen or as an LP record, arguably the most fabulous element of it, Tevye’s dream, an hilarious essay on superstition and chicanery, doesn’t feature in this production. Rather the focus is on the nuts and bolts of the narrative: the liaisons, the rejections, the transitions. Sholem Aleichem’s stories, published in Yiddish in 1894, on which the stage-play that feeds the film is based, present a humble dairyman with five marriageable daughters shifting into a modern era where the concept of a relationship is now coloured by romance, politics and having the audacity to find love beyond the confines of community and culture.

It’s a heart-warming work, which touches on the universal core of Fiddler, and the thing that has made it so well loved, the world over. We get to celebrate all the creative energies behind this iconic film, including that of Chaim Topol and Harry Belafonte, who both passed away this year. This is a must-see for this year’s festival.

Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen is directed by Daniel Raim and written by Daniel Raim and Michael Sragow. Produced by Sasha Berman and Daniel Raim, it is narrated by Jeff Goldblum features creative input by David Lebolt (music) and Aasulv Austad and Sinisa Kukic (cinematography). It features on the Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival which runs from 22 June until 2 July 2023, in Cape Town at the Ster Kinekor V&A Waterfront, the Labia Theatre, the Bertha House in Mowbray and in Johannesburg at Ster Kinekor Rosebank Nouveau, the Goethe-Institut and the Bioscope in Milpark.

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