‘Sukkah City’ experience reconstructed in new film, which comes to Boston this fall

An interview with ‘Sukkah City’ director
An interview with ‘Sukkah City’ director


Sukkah of the Signs by Ronald Rael, Virginia San FratelloThe 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 the event.

“This was only a two-day event, so there are people … [who] read about it, but didn’t get a chance to … see the event … The film has a lot to offer to everyone.”

Screenings of “Sukkah City” are being planned for the fall in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and other cities in North America and Australia. Hutt discussed the film in the following interview with JNS.org.

Q: Why did you choose the Sukkah City competition as the subject for a film?

A: “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 [in 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 [it] would make an interesting documentary film.”

Q: What makes [Sukkot] appealing for the medium of film?

A: “The sukkah is something that is ascribed in the liturgy; 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 become a very generic box structure, literally a pop-up tent.

“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.”

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

A: “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.

“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 and can’t be. These designers were all intrigued and inspired by different aspects of the rules.

“The third piece, the installation and the exhibition, that’s … capturing this event that was … in Union Square, one of the busiest spaces in North America.  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.”

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

A: “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, of Jewish life and Jewish civilization. As I got into documentary filmmaking, …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 following my curiosity to learn about … interesting projects, and to ultimately share them with an audience.”

Q: What insight do you hope viewers gain on Sukkot and the competition?

A: “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.”