Judge Neal Solon presents: Pearl Gluck and the Quest for the Holy Couch!
Everyone has a couch. Not everyone has a couch with a story like this.
As this film begins, we hear the filmmaker: "Everyone has a couch story." Maybe I'm too young, but I can't ever remember hearing such a story. That, however, doesn't make Pearl Gluck's story, Divan, any less interesting. While it may seem an unlikely source of drama and intrigue, the titular piece of furniture leads the filmmaker, her family, and her audience in unexpected and rewarding directions.
Facts of the Case
Pearl Gluck was born into the ultra-orthodox Hasidic sect of Judaism in Borough Park, Brooklyn in 1972. As a young woman, she began to stray and indulge her curiosity, finding textbooks before her elders had censored them. She was finally able to experience the "outside" world on her own when her parents divorced and she and her mother moved to Manhattan.
The outside world treated Gluck well. She earned a college degree that she would never have obtained within the Hasidic community, and she's just been awarded a Fulbright scholarship. Yet, she still mourns the relationship with her father and the past that she was forced to sacrifice to gain these opportunities. The only way she can think to appease her father without giving up her lifestyle is to hunt down an ancestral couch in Hungary, which is venerated by her father because of the learned men (rebbes) who slept on it decades ago.
This story is, superficially, that of a piece of furniture; certainly, the family politics and mythology that surround this particular couch are fascinating. Pearl Gluck's whole family knows that she is both a female and a Hasidic expatriate. If there are individuals who don't know it, Pearl's unkempt curly hair and her bare arms make it painfully apparent the minute she steps into sight. While it may seem unimportant, it matters; because in Pearl's world, no one wants to give a family heirloom to the black sheep of the family—much less a woman—even if this "heirloom" has been locked up inside of a barn since World War II.
Pearl does eventually track down the divan. When she does, she finds herself both frustrated and excited. She's not sure she can ask the man who's keeping it to give it up. He, too, seems to have an emotional attachment to it. Furthering her frustration is the fact that as Pearl becomes increasingly obsessed with this divan, her father becomes disinterested, and returns to his old efforts to find her a "good husband." In truth, nothing works out quite the way Gluck planned.
In much the same way, the film defies our expectations as viewers. A film about a couch ends up being more about a spiritual and familial journey of reconciliation. Pearl is striving to find a peaceful existence that ignores neither her past nor her present, and at the same time, she is working to bring her father back into her life. Her father finds himself torn, as well—he loves his daughter, but can feel the scorn from the Hasidic community for his even associating with such a woman.
In telling these three stories of furniture, faith, and family, Divan switches back and forth between three distinct storylines. In addition to Pearl's search for the divan through her family contacts, the film shows us a number of ex-Hasidim being interviewed on Pearl's antique divan, and the story of the divan's journey to the United States and restoration. In each of these storylines we meet Pearl's idiosyncratic friends, family, and acquaintances. We follow Pearl's progress until ultimately she gets what she may have been looking for all along: her father visits her apartment in Manhattan, outside of the insular world of Borough Park.
By focusing so intently on the divan and allowing these other stories to develop in the background, Gluck is able to throw the viewer a surprising number of curveballs, taking the film places one would never suspect that a couch could lead. It is this intense focus and masterful storytelling that also allow the viewer to unwittingly move beyond the low production values of the film itself. Divan looks exactly like one would expect for what it is—a full-frame documentary shot on digital video. The audio, too, reflects the fact that conversations were often filmed outdoors in the middle of crowds, yet one wouldn't notice unless one was examining just the technical side of the film.
Adding to the presentation, Zeitgeist Films and the filmmakers have included what they call "Odds and Ends"—a collection of extra footage, introduced by relevant questions and answers from film festivals, and brief glimpses at the previews and preparations for the release of the film. It's a well-conceived collection, consisting of four pieces that total just about half an hour. The effort invested in tying the extra clips together thematically in each of the five to ten minute pieces, and in introducing them with question and answer footage from film festivals, pays off, making them more immediately interesting and less tedious to slog through. The most poignant of the clips is from a question-and-answer session at the film forum in New York City, where Gluck talks about the film's reception by both her father and the Hasidic community.
Also included with the disc is a director's statement. This four-paragraph statement contains some background information about the film and how its production began, but it also gives some hints about where the film ended up. As such, one should wait to read it until after seeing the film. It really doesn't reveal much, but Divan is so much about taking a physical and emotional journey with Pearl Gluck that it is best to have no inclination about where it ends.
In the end, Divan is an intensely personal story told by a talented storyteller. It begins in an Hasidic world with which few are familiar, and with a couch obsession to which few can relate, yet it touches on universal themes of family and self-discovery. It's a pleasant and idiosyncratic voyage that I whole-heartedly recommend.
On the recommendation of the filmmaker, the court orders all those in attendance to spend an hour and a half with their couches watching this lady search for hers.
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