Helmer wears religion on his sleeveAre you a Jew? Don't ask Jamie Kastner. The question annoys the Canadian documentarymaker. He gets asked it a lot.
So Kastner shot "Kike Like Me," a road movie bowing at Toronto's Hot Docs documentary festival on April 24. In the film, Kastner answers a hypothetical "yes" when asked whether he's Jewish, followed by an equally terse "Why do you want to know?" to gauge how friend and foe reacts.
"I saw theatrical possibility from seeing how Jewish identity plays out in so-called civilized cultures where we've gotten over all 'that,'" Kastner explains.
The results are revealing. Kastner underwent a shotgun bar mitzvah from proselytizing Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn asking passersby "Are you Jewish?"; got turfed from Pat Buchanan's living room after asking why the TV pundit attacks Neocons for being Jewish; debated Israeli-born Jew Gilad Atzmon who served in the Israeli Defence Force and who now lives in "self-exile" in Britain, and partied with Amsterdam soccer hooligans proudly calling themselves "Joden" (Jews).
The film's title is a play on "Black Like Me," John Howard Griffin's classic 1961 book about a white reporter dying his skin black to experience bigotry first-hand.
But there's more of a connection with Elia Kazan's 1947 movie "Gentleman's Agreement," where Gregory Peck plays a crusading reporter pretending to be Jewish for a magazine article exposing racial intolerance.
Kastner does the same for his documentary. Like Peck's character, he is at first peeved by early prejudice, until Kastner gets more than he bargained for when asking Parisians of Middle Eastern background what they think about Jews. And his breaking point comes at Auschwitz in Poland when Kastner abruptly tells his cameraman they won't be joining the tourist hordes visiting the original ovens, and instead will just go home.
"They were perceived as Jews, and died for it. And I'm perceived as a Jew, and it suddenly doesn't sound like ancient history," Kastner says at the end of a personal journey in which he appears aloof and wise-cracking as the film begins, to experiencing profound menace at its end.
Not surprisingly, the 10 broadcasters who prelicensed "Kike Life Me" — including BBC Storyville, the U.S. Sundance Channel, Canada's TVOntario, AVRO in Holland, Denmark's TV2, YLE in Finland and Australia's SBS — felt equal menace over the film's title.
But Kastner says only one broadcaster, Toronto-based Chum Ltd., rejected the "Kike Like Me" title and chose instead "Jew Like Me."
Chum production executive Charlotte Engel insists the word "Kike," while suitably in context in the film, might be considered discriminatory by some.
So, is Kastner Jewish?
"Why do you want to know?" he shoots back, with the barest trace of a smile.