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Since its debut in 1990, when it presented only eight movies, the Washington Jewish Film Festival has maintained a blend of features from Israel, Europe, and North America, with occasional selections from (or at least about) Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This year, the fest marks the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding with a large contingent of movies from that country: Twenty of the fest’s 44 films come from Israeli filmmakers. And of the movies made available for preview, a clear majority of the standouts are Israeli. (See film listings for dates, locations, and times.)
Foremost among them is Beaufort, a powerful soldiers’-eye view of the Israeli army’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. Set mostly inside the 12th-century crusader’s castle from which the film’s title is derived, Beaufort emphasizes the particulars of a small squad’s activities and of the soldiers’ isolation from both their comrades and the logic of their commanders. There’s much talk about the politics of the troops’ position inside Lebanon, but director and co-writer Joseph Cedar (a veteran of the Lebanon campaign) treats the dialogue as idle chatter compared to the immediate concerns of surviving, following orders, and always being ready for the next Hezbollah shelling—all of which are as much emotional issues as practical ones. The convincingly simulated location is crucial to the film’s effect. The fort evokes ancient religious conflicts, but inside the old walls are steel-reinforced corridors that suggest the bowels of a spaceship. In that sense, Beaufort is an existential sci-fi flick, in which a few hardy but disaffected men complete a mission that ground control is no longer sure should ever have been undertaken.
Back on earth, if just barely, is Sara Lamm’s Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox, a wide-ranging examination of Emanuel Bronner, whose Castile soap bears the motto, “All-One-God-Faith.” The descendant of generations of German soap makers, Bronner emigrated to the United States in 1929, just in time for the Great Depression. He and his wife, who died young, had four children, who shuttled from relatives to orphanages while Dad was living in an Illinois mental institution. From there, Bronner escaped—literally—to California, started a new company, and became the favored soap maker of back-to-the-earth types, thanks in part to the amusingly crackpot, text-intensive labels on his product. The eccentric patriarch died in 1997, but the firm remains in the family; despite bitter childhood memories, sons Ralph and Jim maintain their father’s legacy. The empathetic Ralph in particular is his father’s child, traveling the country telling the Bronner story, doing “random acts of kindness” and—on the evidence of this film—attracting incredibly sad people. Meanwhile, Jim’s and Ralph’s sons expand the company and try to determine just how Jewish their grandfather’s one-religion (but anti-Communist and -fluoride) teachings really are.
Work has a rather different role for the protagonists of 9 Star Hotel, who are building in a country they’re officially not allowed to enter. Most of the Palestinian laborers in the Israeli city of Modiin are illegal, but they still come, streaming out of the hills in a sort of neo-feudal rush hour. Ido Haar’s fascinating documentary follows a group of young construction workers who live in an encampment made of crates and rummage through garbage for gifts for their younger siblings. They don’t seethe with resentment toward their employers; when one suggests that they could make big money stealing tools, another replies that he won’t rob people who give him work. The guys matter-of-factly discuss larger issues, from the Holocaust to the Jewish man who randomly killed a Palestinian worker to avenge his son’s death in Lebanon, but they also evaluate the attractiveness of female Israeli checkpoint guards. At various moments, the film’s images swish into near-abstraction as the camera tries to keep the men in focus as they scramble away from cops or soldiers.
A dog sets the pace in Someone to Run With, which takes a series of frantic spins through Jerusalem without encountering many of the usual religious or political subjects. Upon receiving a call for help from a junkie musician, 16-year-old Tamar (Bar Belfer) takes to the street with her guitar and her Labrador, Dinka. She soon finds herself living in a neo-hippie squat run by a threatening overseer who deploys armies of young musicians to perform for small change (a development oddly similar to one in the new August Rush). Two months later, Dinka arrives at the local pound, and a summer employee, 17-year-old Assaf (Yonatan Bar-Or), is assigned to reunite dog and owner. His quest is intercut with flashbacks to Tamar’s travails, as she and Assaf work their way toward meeting at the same place at the same time. Oded Davidoff’s cleverly structured film makes something fresh from such familiar elements as young love, drug gangsters, and a faithful dog. And with all due respect to Dinka, Jerusalem is the star of the movie, and it reveals itself as abundantly multifaceted.
Set in the apparently much quieter city of New York, Arranged examines transreligious rapport through the stories of two young women who face the same problem: their elders’ matchmaking. Rochel (Zoe Lister-Jones), an Orthodox Jew, and Nasira (Francis Benhamou), a traditional Muslim, teach at a Brooklyn public school. The two soon become friends, despite the suspicions of their families and neighbors. They also bond in opposition to the principal, who chides them for being old-fashioned and because they’re each being presented with potential husbands they find unacceptable. Inspired by a true story, Diane Crespo and Stefan Schaefer’s film is a sterling example of the low-budget Amerindie film. Though it’s ultimately a little glib, Arranged is well-made and clearly heartfelt; combined with Jellyfish and Aviva My Love, two Israeli films about the relationships of sisters, friends, and casual acquaintances, it makes this year’s fest an exceptional one for women’s pictures.
The festival also includes two documentaries with attitude by Canadian Jews, Kike Like Me and Charging the Rhino. Where the former’s world tour of anti-Semitism (both alleged and inarguable) often substitutes sanctimony for insight, the latter is as humane as it is angry. Charging the Rhino’s narrator and co-director, Simcha Jacobovici, has an attention-getting real-life story: In the courtyard of a Romanian police station, his father was shot in the chest—and survived, when the bullet missed his heart because it happened to be in contraction at that instant. There’s more: Jacobovici’s uncle Sasha, one of the few other family members to avoid being exterminated by Romania’s fascist Iron Guard, was later forced by the postwar Communist regime to star in a movie that culminated in his execution. Jacobovici travels a little out of his way to reach his film’s title, which is derived from Ionesco’s play about people who suddenly turn into rhinoceroses. But the rest of his essay is as fascinating as it is chilling, and certainly justifies the filmmaker’s final political stunt.