“Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen” returns with tenderness and with a fresh look at “Fiddler on the Roof”

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(3 stars)

Last fall marked the 50th anniversary of director Norman Jewison’s release of Fiddler on the Roof, the 1971 film adaptation of the award-winning 1964 musical. An engaging new documentary offers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, which was nominated for eight Oscars and won three. In the words of “Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen,” it’s not just a documentary about the film’s transition from stage to screen, but a “chronicle of a fiery creative quest.”

It’s a mouthful – but perhaps not undeserved. “Fiddler’s Journey” aims to tell a story that delves into more than creative and technical details. Although it is also about these details. Director Daniel Raim was nominated for an Oscar for his 2000 documentary short, “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose,” which featured “Fiddler on the Roof” set designer Robert Boyle (also known for his distinctive work on films such as “North by Nord-Ouest”, “Les Oiseaux” and “Marnie”).

And “Fiddler’s Journey” includes some savory bits, so typical: how the film was shot through nylons stretched over the lens, for example, to create its earth-toned palette; how the look of its shtetl setting, in the fictional village of Anatevka, based on the stories of writer Sholem Aleichem, was inspired by Roman Vishniac’s acclaimed photos of pre-World War II Jewish life in Eastern Europe ; and how the film’s version of Tsarist Russia was completely recreated in the town of Lekenik, in the former Yugoslavia, under Communist President Tito.

Oh, and how the now 95-year-old Jewison — who appears in the film in archival and more recent interviews — isn’t even Jewish.

It’s not that the director of one of the most iconic Jewish films of the 20th century should have been Jewish (or portrayed himself as such). But many people, including some associated with the 1971 film, assumed he was. With a name like his, Jewison jokes, “even I thought I was Jewish.”

There’s a bigger point that “Fiddler’s Journey” is trying to make. On one level, it explores how “Fiddler” fits into Jewison’s career, characterized by a commitment to social justice that took off with his Oscar-winning 1967 film “In the Heat of the Night.” But the heart of the documentary’s message has to do with the film’s universality. ‘Fiddler’s Journey’ won the Audience Award for Documentary at this year’s Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, but its appeal – like the 1971 film’s appeal – extends beyond a niche or a a preconceived demography.

The themes of Fiddler on the Roof are simple: family, tradition and its opposite, change. Also: how life can sometimes feel as precarious as a musician trying to strum a tune on the violin without breaking his neck. These are notions that, as this little winning cinematic reminiscence clearly shows, are common to all of us.

Not rated. At the AFI Silver Theater and the Cinema Arts Theater. Contains nothing objectionable. 88 minutes.

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