Lou Reed’s Red Shirley Highlights NY Jewish Film Festival

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The NY Jewish Film Festival, an annual preeminent showcase for world cinema exploring the Diaspora Jewish experience, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Screenings will take place at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, The Jewish Museum, and The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, January 12th through 27th.

This year’s Festival will present thirty-six features and shorts from fourteen countries, thirty-one of them either national, international or New York premieres. Several of the screenings will be also be followed by filmmakers and special guests in onstage discussions and performances.

An outstanding highlight of the Festival is the NY premiere of the fascinating and charming Lou Reed documentary short, Red Shirley. The biopic is a conversation with Reed’s amazingly vibrant, eloquent and humorous 100 year old cousin, during which the famed Velvet Underground performer momentarily steps out of the spotlight himself to defer to an unsung woman whose own rich buried history as a union activist and movement builder during the dismal days of garment sweatshops in 1930s New York, is allowed to shine forth.

Gently guided by Reed’s intimate and sensitively conveyed approach to eliciting that political moment in the film through a keen grasp of the notion of oral history, Shirley recounts an often solemn, at times frightening but never vanquished life story. Including arriving quite alone in Canada from Poland as a young girl, and later smuggled across the border into this country nearly a century ago, with only her beloved mandolin and a few of her own crafted handmade embroidered pillows she still cherishes and displays for the camera.

Beaming with pride from her living room in her Manhattan apartment located in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union housing project, and attired appropriately enough in a bright red dress, Shirley relates finding work in the grueling garment center sweatshops of Manhattan, And eventually mobilizing the women seamstresses into the union movement, an activity which got her condemned by the bosses and reviled in the press as Red Shirley, but a name which she embraces with pride to this day. Along with nostalgia for the dress she made on the sweatshop factory floor, that she’s certain came to later be worn by Liza Minelli.

Red Shirley will be screened at the Festival on January 15th, and Lou Reed and cinematographer Ralph Gibson will be present for a follow-up discussion.

Other highlights of the NY Jewish Film Festival include Mahler on the Couch, a whimsical musical biopic touching on the encounter based somewhat on real events, between the renowned late 19th century German Jewish composer and leading conductors of his generation, and his emergency contentious session with an exasperated shrink known as Sigmund Freud. Also, Jonathan Gruber’s Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray, the first film to address the struggles that American Jews faced on the battlefield and at the home front on both sides in the Civil War, and featuring the voice of Sam Waterston as Abraham Lincoln. And, Joseph Dorman’s Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, a moving portrait of the great Yiddish writer, whose stories inspired Fiddler on the Roof.

More information about the Festival and a complete schedule, are online at filmlinc.com, thejewishmuseum.org and jccmanhattan.org/film.

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.