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Spertus to screen tale of two cultures

Nina Metz

Chicago Closeup

5:43 PM EST, November 8, 2012

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College football is played on Saturday. And in the Jewish religion, Saturday is the Sabbath.

That might create some complications if you happen to be an observant Jew as well as the longtime radio voice of the Mississippi State Bulldogs. But in fact: "I don't have a problem with this," broadcaster Jack Cristil says in the documentary "Shalom, Y'all," which screens this weekend at the Spertus center for Jewish learning and culture.

Cristil called games for the university for more than half a century before retiring last year at age 85.

"I think my God is large enough to understand that in a predominantly Christian country, that you still have to earn a living," he says in the film. "You don't have to rationalize things, but you have to understand what your situation is and how can you best comply."

Filmmaker and New Orleans native Brian Bain, inspired by the stories of his grandfather, a traveling salesman who sold men's hats and neckwear to retailers in the South, hit the road 10 years ago to retrace those routes and search for signs of Judaism in the South. (A post-show discussion will be led by North Carolina native Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr. of Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago.)

When I chatted with Bain this week, he cited his grandfather's experiences as the impetus for the film. "He used to tell me about how, when traveling, he would meet Jewish merchants. He wasn't particularly religious, but when he was (on the road) on the Jewish Sabbath, he would get invited to people's houses and have Shabbat dinner with them. That sort of sparked an idea: How cool would it be to explore the paths that he traveled? Beyond that it became about exploring my own cultural identity."

The resulting film is a cursory look at the subject, a survey of sorts gathered from numerous interviews, including historical insights from Eli Evans, author of "The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South."

The film refrains from delving too deeply into the personal stories of the people Bain meets, such as the woman who tells him in her Southern lilt, "I could never be anything but Jewish, but I couldn't be anything but Southern either." A fine statement, but one that feels awfully slight when we know so little about this person.

Bain also tracks down musician and humorist Kinky Friedman, who was born in Chicago but raised in the Lone Star State.

"New York Jews couldn't believe there were Jews in Texas," he says, surrounded by panting dogs as he drives his pickup truck. "They think Jews in Texas are like leprechauns."

Sound bites like this abound, and it's too bad Bain doesn't stick with any one story longer than a few minutes. Within the broader subject of the film itself, he comes across a number of subthemes. A brief section on Jewish participation in the Natchez Confederate Pageant is especially confounding, and Bain acknowledges as much in the film.

"Paying homage to the Civil War seems odd to me, since as Jews we've had to deal with issues of oppression for thousands of years," he says. "Of course, I grew up singing the Confederate anthem 'Dixie' in school without ever understanding that it celebrated an era in which slavery existed in the South."

There's a difficult but worthy story there to be examined by a filmmaker willing to take it on.

Even Cristil himself is deserving of his own documentary. A Memphis, Tenn., native and the son of Russian and Latvian immigrants, he is a lay leader at his temple and performs weddings and funerals on occasion.

"We do those things because it's necessary," he tells the camera. "People don't die when it's convenient for a rabbi to be in northeast Mississippi, and when these things happen, one of us has to accept the responsibility to perform these services."

As it happens, the film performed matchmaking duties as well. Among those Bain interviewed was the sister of a friend. "We were looking for people who were expatriate Southerners to talk about how they felt. So I contacted her, and it was sort of beshert, which means 'meant to be.'"

One of the final scenes in the film takes place at their small wedding. Bain and his wife live in New Orleans with their 7-year-old son.

"Shalom Y'all" screens at 7 p.m. Saturday at Spertus, 610 S. Michigan Ave., followed by a discussion led by Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr. Go to spertus.edu/onebook.

Directing and acting

Chicago-based indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg is in Savannah, Ga., this month working on a new movie, but this time he's just acting. "The Sacrament" is the work of fellow indie director Ti West, who has made a name for himself among underground horror fans. ("The Sacrament" is being touted as his first mainstream effort.)

Swanberg's latest directorial effort, "All the Light in the Sky," starring Jane Adams as a middle-aged actress dealing with career and relationship challenges, debuted at the AFI Fest in Hollywood last week. Swanberg tells me he hopes to set up Chicago screenings for January or February.

Lebowski Fest

Former pro bowler Jim Hoosier had a small role in 1998's "The Big Lebowski" as John Turturro's bowling partner (and expert chamois user) and he is riding that bit of fame all the way to this weekend's Lebowski Fest at the Portage Theater, where he will drop in Friday to see what condition your condition is in. Go to lebowskifest.com or portagetheater.org.

Activism

Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum will discuss the 1985 documentary "You Got to Move" about the Tennessee-based Highlander Folk School (now called the Highlander Research and Education Center), which trains activists to work in fields of social justice and civil rights. It screens Sunday at 6 p.m. and again at 8:30 p.m. at Cinema Borealis, courtesy of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, which calls the doc "ample post-election nourishment for grizzled radicals and wonky bloggers alike."

Rosenbaum will be at the second screening. Go to northwestchicagofilmsociety.org/calendar/ygtm.

Coldplay concert

For one night only, "Coldplay Live," the concert film documenting the band's 2012 Mylo Xyloto tour, screens in Chicago at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Music Box Theatre. Go to musicboxtheatre.com.

nmetz@tribune.com

Twitter @NinaMetzNews