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“The Macaroon King”, A Documentary Portrait Nears Completion

by John Mendelsohn

 

“The Macaroon King” is an engaging new documentary by filmmaker Elka Gould. The film, which is now in its final stages of completion, focuses on Arnold Badner, the owner of a struggling macaroon bakery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Shot in gritty, cinema verite style, the film is an intimate portrait of a quixotic, determined man trying to keep his small enterprise afloat. But it also examines the larger issues of family, Jewish identity, small business, union labor, and the fate of manufacturing in New York City.

In 2009, Gould was shopping for macaroons with her partner on the kosher foods aisle of a Brooklyn supermarket. Ami remarked that she knew a daughter of the baker, Arnold Badner, and Elka had found the subject of her first film. She notes, “What I perceived as forbidden or unknown territory – entering a world of a kosher for Passover cookie – instantly captivated me. I perceived this as a way to understand something about my religion.”

“I grew up knowing I was Jewish, but was exposed to very little about the religion and culture. My parents may have been afraid of being too openly Jewish, as my mother had fled France as a young girl due to the Nazis and my father rejected organized religion…”

Gould began shooting “The Macaroon King” in 2009, and for the next seven years she followed Arnold Badner’s shifting fortunes, and the reactions of his two daughters, and his employees. In particular, his eldest daughter Lisa provides an acerbic, but loving commentary on her father’s efforts to maintain the business. She gives both a critique of his missteps and insights into her warm, if often enigmatic parent.

Gould describes the process of getting to know Badner: “It was awkward at first and years later still a little awkward. That has much to do with his personality and mine. Arnold is a man of few words – but always smart and to the point.”

As the film opens, the viewer is in the run-down factory that Arnold Badger took over from his father in 1970. He is a hands-on boss in black shorts and a cut-off t-shirt, a solitary figure stubbornly trying to just keep things going. In the former home of Spilke’s, a commercial bakery, Badner began producing cakes and cookies, specializing in macaroons, the traditional Passover treat. Made from just coconut, egg whites, and sugar, Badner’s macaroons were a success, with wide distribution both under his own label and produced for other companies. Arnold marketed the macaroons as a health food that was gluten-free, long before it was fashionable.

But by 2009, the financial crisis had taken a toll on sales and on Badner’s aging factory, as labor costs continued to rise. As Lisa Badner points out, her father’s marketing of his macaroons was inconsistent, choosing not to focus on their Jewish origins. Both she and her father stress how health care costs for the company’s union workers were overwhelming, the result of the lack of a comprehensive national heath insurance policy. With the business losing money (and secretly supported by infusions of Badner’s own funds), he had reached a turning point. The film follows his personal drama, deciding whether to stick it out or sell the business.

While trying to go it alone, Arnold Badner is surrounded by a cast of characters that provide a counterpoint to his own testimony. Lisa, the eldest daughter, reads from her confessional poetry that humorously reveals the strained dynamics of the Badner family. Badner’s secretary of thirty years, recounts what it is like to experience a failing business. The company’s accountant gives his perspective on how the macaroon business has changed, with big manufacturers taking over, and the Badner factory building, located in the gentrified Williamsburg neighborhood, becoming more valuable than the business itself. Badner’s younger daughter Jenny, and the namesake of his Jennies Macaroons, attests to her father’s obsessive devotion to the business.

An executive of Streit’s Matzo, once a customer of Badner’s, talks about becoming his competitor by introducing his own line of macaroons, and is an example of the producers of Jewish foods, such as matzo, wine, and smoked fish, who have either gone out of business or who have relocated outside of New York City.

“The Macaroon King” ends on an appropriately complex chord of emotions. A sense of personal liberation mixes with the bittersweet realization that hope and survival often require sacrificing what you have always held onto most fiercely.