The documentary Professor is the third in director Daniel Kraus' ongoing series on the subject of work in America. In this, as with his other two films of the series (Sheriff and Musician) Kraus chooses an exemplary person in commonplace field to explore the nature of work and the drive that transforms a job into a vocation. The subject of the doc, Rabbi Jay Holstein, describes himself to his students as a liar, as irascible, as annoyed, but what we see most is his questioning: he questions the university that employs him; he questions the intentions of students to follow in his footsteps; he questions the goal of teaching powder-keg subjects like the Holocaust to freshmen in a secular college in Iowa. Professor premiered at CineQuest 20 and, at the time of this publishing, does not have distribution, but given time and growing word of mouth smart boutique distributors will court and educational markets are a sure thing. The subject's wholesome message along with the film's dynamism are an easy sell to most any readymade doc audience, and crossover crowds will love it, too.
"This (referring to himself) might be the first Jew these kids have ever seen." It's an incredible thought that, if true, should mean those culturally deflowered students would think him a commonplace representative of his culture. However ordinary working as a professor may be, this Professor is anything but.
We meet Holstein during the first class of his "Quest for Human Destiny" lecture at the University of Iowa. His class of predominantly white freshmen sits in a well-apportioned lecture hall. Holstein is brusque, speaks with a twang and litters his profound assertions with colloquialisms and profanity. In close-up we see his posturing, how he assaults the class with his half-threats and yelling: "Either you got discipline to weather the storm...it is NOT exciting what we do here!" But even amidst his complaints about the university establishment (the publish or perish policies, the soul-sucking student ennui, the lack of attention his secular university affords the religion department) and his repeated assertions that he'd stop teaching tomorrow if he could, the truth is something he says on the first day of class: "I lie like a rug...sometimes to confuse you." Holstein's energy is magnetic. Captured in a long take (one of two that bookend a film told largely in confining close-ups), Holstein's first address sets up a picture that looks at the work a person does to keep a family, and just like his family, his work is a force for personal identification. When this irascible teacher meets with his students in office hour, they reveal and they trust and confide and he, without a shred of sentimentality, guides them. Professor, as a job, and Professor, as a movie, accomplish very clean and unified goals this way.
Work and identity have a poetically tense relationship in film, as audiences generally use a character's action to define him/her. This tension is part of why Kraus' Work Series has a solvency outside of the province of documentary. Working class dramas like Saturday Night Fever and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning explore characters who work a soulless grind to fund the weekend activities that define them. Workplace docs like The September Issue or Fast, Cheap and Out of Control are about people who are great at their jobs but those jobs serve to set the characters apart, whether by oddity (Fast, Cheap) or by prestige (September Issue). Holstein's work is service oriented, which means his toils are constant, provide him no tactile "fruit" for his labor and offer fleeting rewards: moreover, so much as the work can identify him, it's not the final word. This provides a complex philosophy on work as a subject, which would appear to be the point of Kraus' series. That Holstein is relentless when he's at the point most faculty "enjoy" tenure malaise more than inspires hope: that he's such a community shaking powerhouse is proof that one man can change the world, even from the cell he calls an office.
Contact: Daniel Kraus, (312) 375-7429, email@example.com
Director/Producer: Daniel Kraus
Running time: 75 min
Release date: TBD