“A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff,” a feature-length hybrid of docudrama and musical memoir co-adapted and directed by Alicia J. Rose (The Benefits of Gusbandry), based on the original one-woman show by poet and composer Alicia Jo Rabins, is set to make its U.S. premiere at the Portland International Film Festival and will be screening virtually from March 5th – 14th, 2021 nationwide, with more festival screening dates to be announced. Directed and edited by Rose and produced by Lara Cuddy (Lorelei), the film stars Rabins playing herself as well as a host of colorful character roles. A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff tells the story of Madoff and the system that allowed him to function for decades through the eyes of Rabins, who watches the financial crash from her ninth-floor studio in an abandoned office building on Wall Street. Fueled by her growing obsession, real-life interviews transform into music videos, ancient spiritual texts become fevered fantasies of synchronized swimming, and a vivid, vulnerable work of art is born from the unique perspective of an artist watching the global financial collapse up close.
The film is inspired by a true story: in 2009, Alicia Jo Rabins was an artist-in-residence through the LMCC (Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)’s Workspace residency – which made use of vacant office space in lower Manhattan, giving it to artists for one year. Rabins and her fellow residents set up their studios on the ninth floor of a building in the financial district, a dilapidated and eerily empty space that bore the remnants of its previous function. Bits of paper with account statements and forgotten whiteboards, along with the outlines of where cubicles had once been, gave the space a haunted quality. Says Rabins: “It felt like the world was turned upside down as we made art separately, side by side, in this post-apocalyptic space as the financial world collapsed around us.” When Bernie Madoff was arrested for perpetuating the largest Ponzi scheme in history, the fact that Madoff himself and many of his victims were Jewish struck Rabins, as a Jewish person herself whose work deeply engages with her culture’s texts and traditions. Says Rabins, “I felt a strong calling to think about what it meant that this person from my own tribe had committed this huge crime.”
When a friend told Rabins that the Mourner’s Kaddish had been recited for Madoff at a synagogue where many of his investors were members, she became inspired to create a modern version of the ancient ex-communication tradition, a ritual which would signify that Madoff had crossed the line and was no longer part of the Jewish community. As she explored this idea, she learned of her personal connections to people who had been affected by Madoff’s crimes. As she spoke with them, she began to turn their stories into songs, which grew into a rock opera, in which Madoff himself did not appear, but his transgressive act functioned as the center of the story. The resulting work ran at Joe’s Pub in New York, as well as three short runs in theatrical venues in Portland, Oregon, and touring performances in three additional states.
Rabins and director/photographer Alicia J. Rose met by chance when their similar names resulted in a misdirected email received by Rabins that planted Rose on her radar. After meeting to discuss documenting the stage show, Rose pitched the idea of turning A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff into a feature film, one that would combine musical memoir with bright-edged fantasia and put the viewer in Rabins’ shoes on Wall Street. Rabins was convinced, and only three years later, the film version is ready to be shared with film festivals. Rose’s team – working on a micro-budget and led almost entirely by women and non-binary artists – reconstructed Rabins’ ninth floor NYC office in the Falcon office building in downtown Portland. Combined with exterior footage shot in various iconic locations in Manhattan, the result is at once concrete and dreamlike.