‘Sukkah City’ experience reconstructed in new film

By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: Inside the construction of "Fractured Bubble," the "people's choice" winner at the 2010 Sukkah City competition. Credit: Christopher Farber.

The Sukkah City exhibition in September 2010, much like the temporary dwellings that it showcased, came and went. But a new documentary might make its legacy more permanent.

Director Jason Hutt’s “Sukkah City” chronicles the event in phases, including the “jury” debate on more than 600 creative sukkah designs, construction of the 12 winning designs, and a two-day exhibition in New York City’s Union Square.

Several years after Sukkah City, Hutt says his 67-minute film provides a new angle for those who experienced the event in varying degrees.

“This was only a two-day event, so there are people that simply never heard of this event,” he says. “There are people that read about it, but didn’t get a chance to come down and see the event. And then there are people who attended the event but still didn’t get the level of depth of knowledge and insight that the film provides. The film has a lot to offer to everyone, whether you were there or not.”

Click photo to download. Caption: The "Gathering" sukkah, one of 12 winning designs at the 2010 Sukkah City competition. Credit: Michael Surtees.

Screenings of “Sukkah City” are being planned for the fall in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and other cities in North America and Australia. The New York City premiere will be a free, outdoor screening in Union Square’s North Plaza on Sunday, Sept. 22 at 7 p.m. Leading up to Sukkot this year, Hutt discussed the film in the following interview with JNS.org.

JNS.org: Why did you choose the Sukkah City competition as the subject for a film?

Jason Hutt: “Basically I learned about [Sukkah City] as [competition organizers] were seeking out applications and entries, submissions and designs. I met [Sukkah City co-creator] Josh Foer in Park Slope (a section of Brooklyn) years back. It sounded like it was going to be both an interesting artistic adventure in terms of trying to reimagine the traditional sukkah, and it also seemed like this dramatic experience: putting together this competition with a ‘jury,’ discussing and debating the merits of these submissions, and then the process of these architects building these structures and then having them exhibited to the public. With all of these different components, it seemed like coming together would make an interesting documentary film.”

What about the holiday of Sukkot makes it appealing for the medium of film?

“The sukkah is something that is described in the liturgy. I would say that it definitely provides a nice visual component to a film. But for me it was more about this creativity, this process of the design community, the architecture community, the skill set of this creativity being applied to this tradition. The sukkah has b

ecome a very generic box structure, literally a pop-up tent.

Click photo to download. Caption: "Sukkah City" director Jason Hutt. Credit: Oxbow Lake Films. 

“The fact that [Sukkah City] was going to be a design competition to completely reimagine the way [a sukkah] was possible was definitely exciting to me. And in the film it does become a very interesting visual story, in the sense that you’re seeing these architects and designers—most of them not Jewish—applying their knowledge, intelligence, creativity, and resources to coming up with these amazing designs, 12 of which are realized in the film.”

Which phase of the Sukkah City event represents the climax of your film?

“I think the different parts of the film are all equally interesting. The ‘jury’ section is fascinating because you get some of the most intelligent and creative architects, academics and critics, in the architecture, design and art world, debating these submissions. You don't often see such intellectuals having such a passionate debate about anything, because that’s usually behind closed doors, especially if it’s a serious competition.

“Second, what you didn’t get by attending the Sukkah City exhibition were all these background stories from the architects on how they came up with the designs, what sparked their interest in even applying for this competition. They read the original rules from the Talmud on what the sukkah can be and what it can’t be. All of these designers, they were all intrigued and inspired by different aspects of the rules.

Click photo to download. Caption: "Fractured Bubble," the "people's choice winner at the 2010 Sukkah City competition. Credit: Matthew McDermott via Wikimedia Commons.

“The third piece, the installation and the exhibition, that’s sort of more a capturing of this event that was only two days long in Union Square, one of the busiest spaces in North America, and just to see what happened. Seeing the people of New York and elsewhere coming here and interacting with these structures, and with each other, learning about the sukkah and choosing their favorite.

“As a film, it’s offering these different pieces of this one project, and I think it’s really interesting from start to finish because of that.”

You previously directed “Orthodox Stance,” the documentary on Orthodox Jewish boxer Dmitry Salita. What has drawn you to make films on Jewish topics?

“Jewish culture and Jewish life have always been important to me, ever since I was a little kid. I grew up as an athlete, and hearing stories about [Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher] Sandy Koufax was really important. Always knowing who is Jewish and involved in this film, or in this business, or in this baseball team—it’s something that we as Jews always do. We take pride in the accomplishments of fellow Jews, and of Jewish life, and Jewish civilization. As I got into documentary filmmaking, and I look around, and I see some very interesting aspects, some characters, some subjects in the contemporary Jewish experience, it makes me want to learn more about them, whether it’s Dmitry Salita or the Sukkah City design competition and exhibition. It’s just me really following my curiosity to learn about what I think are interesting projects, and to ultimately share them with an audience.”

What insight do you hope for viewers of the film to gain on both the holiday of Sukkot and on the competition?

“The film is not just about the holiday of Sukkot, it’s not simply about the sukkah. It’s also about creativity. It’s also about how we as Jews continue to find meaning in ancient tradition, and how Judaism is what seems like an endless desk for interpretation and reinterpretation. And sort of the ways that we can continue to draw meaning and inspiration, and relevance, from a tradition that is thousands and thousands of years old. And that’s what I think people can get from this film. I think it’s a film that on the one hand is informative, and then also inspirational.”

The trailer for Jason Hutt's "Sukkah City" can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/73655224 .

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Posted on September 18, 2013 and filed under Sukkot, Special Sections, Features.