For 16 years, the Washington Jewish Film Festival has attempted to balance fiction and nonfiction movies about the Jewish experience, but one genre has usually outweighed the other. This year, the two finally seem to be in a rough equilibrium, at least among the 13 previewable entries. As always, though, it’s the fiction films that have the commercial edge, with the documentaries unlikely to be seen again locally on the big screen. Indeed, Claude Berri’s semiautobiographical feature The Two of Us begins a one-week run at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center on Dec. 9, unpreviewed German comedy hit Go for Zucker! follows at the E Street Cinema on Dec. 16, and Holocaust coming-of-age tale Fateless arrives in Washington sometime early next year. But two of the best dramas, La Petite Jérusalem and The Last Mitterand, may never come this way again—so catching them now would as prudent as seeing the top doc, The Ritchie Boys.
Screenings take place at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring; the Avalon Theatre, 5612 Connecticut Ave. NW; the Bethesda Row Cinema, 7235 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW; and the Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave. SE. Admission is $10 evenings and weekends and $6 weekdays before 6 p.m. unless otherwise noted. For more information, call (202) 777-3248 or visit www.wjff.org.
La Petite Jérusalem
Laura, an 18-year-old Tunisian-born Jew, is torn between the Torah and Immanuel Kant, but this drama’s opening shots intimate that the conflict won’t be entirely cerebral: With a series of quick close-ups of the young woman dressing, director Karin Albou lets us know that the body will assert itself, too. Laura (Fanny Valette) lives in one of those immigrant-dominated Parisian suburbs that burned recently, where her life is controlled by her superstitious, widowed mother and her conservative brother-in-law. A philosophy student, Laura wants to move into Paris to be closer to her classes; her family, however, expects her to stay home until she marries, which should be soon. Laura ducks matrimonial prospects by explaining, “I’m not giving in to any primary emotions,” then suddenly does—with a cataclysmic choice of potential mate: an unreligious Muslim who was tortured back in Algeria for his troublesome newspaper articles. Albou’s first feature uses Western philosophy as counterpoint to the usual traditional-family/nontraditional-kid and interreligious friction, with consistently provocative results. Surprisingly, the clumsiest moments involve depictions of physical passion, suggesting that the director herself may be something of a rationalist philosophe.
At 7:20 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center.
Widowed with two teenage daughters, Rachel has decided on a new life far from her increasingly rough neighborhood: She and her family will join a religious settlement that’s about to claim a windy chunk of the West Bank. (It’s 1981, a quieter time for settlers than today.) Her daughters, however, don’t want to go. Esti (Maya Maron) has a boyfriend, much to Mom’s disapproval, and Tammy (Hani Furstenberg) is investigating a potential beau who seems nice—or at least nicer than his roughneck friends. Then Rachel (Michaela Eshet) is set up with Yossi (Moshe Ivgy), a 50-ish bus driver who’s never found the right woman. Soon, even she begins to wonder whether she wants to leave—even after Tammy is the victim of a nasty incident at the camp- (or rather, bon-) fire of the title. Writer-director Joseph Cedar’s film is a discreet commentary on the settler movement, as well as a warm tale of emotional uncertainties and mother/teenage-daughter conflict. This was Israel’s 2005 nominee for the foreign-film Oscar, and it’s just the sort of humane, more-sweet-than-bitter drama that often wins that prize.
At 8:15 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, and 9:15 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 6, at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center.
The Last Mitterand
A change of pace (and place) for Marseilles-based filmmaker Robert Guédiguian, this impeccably staged drama is based on a controversial book about the career of French president François Mitterand. As the premier (Michel Bouquet) faces the end of his career and his life, (fictional) biographer Antoine (Jalil Lespert) interviews the dying man. When he’s not in the president’s company, Antoine faces personal conflicts—his pregnant wife leaves him—but he’s more concerned with ideological questions. Did Mitterand betray socialism? Was he too slow to join the resistance during World War II? Too forgiving of collaborators after the war? Mitterand’s grandiosity is evoked brilliantly, notably in two scenes in which he contemplates the ideal burial spot. (Chartres Cathedral is a possibility.) Antoine’s ambivalence toward the subject of his biography is no less convincingly drawn, though the matter of Mitterand might be obscure for viewers who are not steeped in French politics. For Guédiguian, a dedicated Gallic socialist, this is vital and heartfelt stuff, but those viewing from a distance could find it dry.
At 9:20 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center and 8:15 p.m. Monday, Dec. 5, at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center.
Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land
Punk may not be inherently political, but it is to American filmmaker Liz Nord, who divides this documentary into thematic stanzas—and keeps the music in the background, so as to not alienate viewers more interested in Israel than in punk. Cutting frequently between mohawked, shaved, and dreadlocked talking heads, the director asks about the bands’ inspirations (Bad Religion, Minor Threat) and ideologies (left, right, feminist, and nonexistent) and why so many of them sing in English. (When you start out and can barely play, one musician explains, “at least don’t sing in your terrible language, you know?”) The hardcore, pop-punk, ska, and riot-grrrlish music seems quite familiar, so it’s understandable that Nord stresses the social forces that shaped such bands as Useless ID, Punkache, and Lo Kosher (“Not Kosher”). But the lack of a narrative framework yields a frustratingly repetitive rhythm, and the film ends without ever giving much of a sense of such nonpolitical basics as the music’s audience, the scene’s evolution, and practical matters of touring and recording. And as far as punk documentaries go, using studio recordings over live footage is strictly lo kosher.
At 10:15 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center.
A Cantor’s Tale
Fifty years ago in Boro Park, Brooklyn—childhood home of Jackie Mason, Alan Dershowitz, and cantor Jack Mendelson—even the advertising jingles on the local radio station were modeled on Jewish liturgical chanting. Touring the old neighborhood, Mendelson warbles an example and also commands local shopkeepers to demonstrate their skills as amateur cantors. Chazzanut, the style of music that surrounded Mendelson as a boy, “is not in the air anymore,” he laments, but that’s certainly not true whenever he’s onscreen. Whether teaching at Hebrew Union College, singing his way through Jerusalem, or dueting with wife Freida Mendelson—they met at Juilliard—the barrel-chested singer surrounds himself with vocal music. Eric Greenberg Anjou’s documentary is haphazardly structured, and it sometimes loses its direction while following the debate over tradition vs. change, especially regarding female cantors. But it snaps into focus whenever Mendelson reappears, bigger than life and playfully boastful. “I kicked cantorial butt,” he brags at one point, indicating that chazzanut isn’t the only thing he’s retained from his Boro Park youth.
At 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, and 1 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7, at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center.
The Ritchie Boys
The best of the fest’s previewable documentaries shows what can be done with effective storytelling—and when necessary, a little narration. Director Christian Bauer is also assisted by the wit and eloquence of his subjects, late-’30s immigrants from Europe who signed up with the U.S. Army to battle Hitler with their linguistic skills. Trained at Fort Ritchie in Western Maryland, these men didn’t carry guns but signed up for exceptionally dangerous duty as frontline interrogators of German POWs. Most were German Jewish refugees, who if captured could be shot as spies or deported to concentration camps. Some of the “boys” are clearly still traumatized by what they saw of war (and the Nazi death camps), but most display a lively sense of humor. Two guys recall a successful good-cop/bad-cop routine that involved one of them posing as a brutal Russian officer; another remembers that many Germans kept the airdropped propaganda leaflets that purported to be “safe-conduct certificates” because “the official document always has appeal to the German personality.” And so does Marlene Dietrich, who was squired by one of the Ritchie-trained interpreters to a POW camp where defeated German officers were thrilled to meet Nazism’s most glamorous turncoat.
At 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, and 1 p.m. Monday, Dec. 5, at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center.
A Synagogue on Broome Street
The title of local filmmaker Ed Askinazi’s short documentary is all too accurate: This is the story of his family’s onetime synagogue, which is now struggling with anonymity in a section of the Lower East Side where many of the signs are now in Chinese. The Broome Street building is notable as the only surviving synagogue in the Western Hemisphere for Romaniote Jews, who reportedly have 2,000-year-old roots in Greece, and whose traditions are separate from those of both the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe and the Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain in the 1490s. The existence of a lone Romaniote temple could be an opportunity for a larger study of Romaniote culture and history, but this film doesn’t have time for that. Fascinating but glancing, A Synagogue on Broome Street comes across like a sketch for a more satisfying full-length documentary.
At 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 6, at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center.
Sentenced to Marriage
There is no civil divorce in Israel, where men can create new families while denying freedom—not to mention child support—to their estranged wives. Rabbinical courts ultimately rule in such cases—and usually in favor of the men, who sometimes demand large payoffs in exchange for signing divorce papers. This is a subject that potentially calls into question fundamental aspects of the Israeli social system, but director Anat Zuria focuses tightly on three cases, using a fetishistic cinéma vérité approach. Spurned spouses Tamara, Michelle, and Rachel cooperate, of course, as do their female advocates. But the husbands are not to be seen, and filming is banned inside the rabbinical courts. Some of the judicial exchanges are heard in voice-over, but the documentary’s final credit for “illustrated voices” suggests that this dialogue is being performed by actors. Even if that’s not the case, Zuria’s insistence on a minimum of context is self-defeating. The three women’s legitimate outrage wouldn’t have been diluted by a film that was less cryptic and more comprehensive.
At 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 6, at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center.
There are more Odessas in this lyrical documentary than in its title. The film opens with blue-tinted tracking shots of the Ukrainian port, where Jewish residents lament the city’s current circumstances. “Odessa is losing itself,” says a man; “I believe in the Messiah,” explains a woman, because “times are dark.” With a suitcase in the foreground, the camera then bobbles on a small boat to Brighton Beach’s lively Little Odessa, where people sing in tribute to their former home and endurance: “I will survive” is one woman’s Russian-accented chorus. Then another symbolic travel sequence introduces Ashdod, Israel, where the mood is darker. “We were Jews there,” one Odessan immigrant gripes. “Here we are Russians.” Director Michale Boganim attempts to create a sense of timelessness and tribulation—notably with radio broadcasts announcing Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union—but the result is overly abstract. The briefly introduced characters, who get to tell only fragments of their stories, are far more interesting than the film’s attempt to conjure an overarching Odessan “nationality.”
At 5 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7, at the Bethesda Row Cinema and 1 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8, at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center.
The First Time I Was Twenty
Teenage stand-up bassist Hannah may well be the best jazz musician in her high school, but in ’60s France, she has three things going against her: She’s pudgy, Jewish, and female. No girl has ever played in her school’s acclaimed jazz combo, and after Hannah (Marilou Berry) makes the cut, the boys cut the strings on her bass, frame her as a shoplifter, and draw swastikas on her sheet music. (And they’re not the only ones who make tasteless references to the Holocaust; to discourage Hannah from eating, her mom snaps that “they had no fatties in Auschwitz.”) But one of her bandmates eventually comes around, and by the time Hannah decides to banish adolescent agony by skipping her 17th birthday and going straight to 20, it’s clear that she’ll be OK. Lorraine Levy’s dramedy may not be set in the ’80s in a Chicago suburb, but it’s as predictable as a John Hughes teen flick. A minor character even dies on cue to provide a brief melancholy countermelody before the upbeat final voice-over.
At 6:45 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8, at the Bethesda Row Cinema and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center.
Keep Not Silent: Ortho-Dykes
Like Sentenced to Marriage, Ilil Alexander’s documentary demonstrates a quixotic dedication to cinéma vérité—and its subject is even more difficult to film than rabbinical courts. Israeli lesbians who wish to remain in their Orthodox communities and marriages can hardly show their faces to the camera, although some are seen as silhouettes behind a curtain or digitally distorted on a computer screen. Whether the speakers are veiled or not, the male opinions are unsurprisingly dismissive: A rabbi compares same-sex love to kleptomania, and a lesbian’s husband says that her desire is forbidden but only a minor sin. Two women do appear onscreen at their commitment ceremony, but even this openness doesn’t lead to a serious consideration of the conflict between lesbianism and a patriarchal religion. Instead, Alexander’s film merely opens the discussion.
At 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7, at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center.
The Two of Us
French director Claude Berri has always preferred heartwarming to harrowing, even in this recently restored 1967 film that recounts his own childhood in Nazi-occupied France. Berri’s own voice—“I was 8 years old and already a Jew”—introduces the story of mischievous young Parisian Claude Langmann, Berri’s name at birth. Claude (Alain Cohen) is sent by his anxious parents to live on a farm in the mountains, where his protector is Pepe (celebrated character actor Michel Simon in one of his last roles). The old farmer, a blustering anti-Semite, quickly comes to love Claude, who’s posing clumsily as a Catholic. (His preparations consist of learning the Lord’s Prayer and being warned to keep his circumcised penis hidden.) Claude and Pepe sometimes discuss Jews, and the boy’s seemingly innocent questions show up the old man. But The Two of Us never smugly endows the boy with the sensibility of his adult counterpart. Sweetly and persuasively, it stays true to the child and his love for a well-meaning old man who happens to be wrong about almost everything.
At 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
Films directed by veteran cinematographers are usually beautiful, and Lajos Koltai’s adaptation of Imre Kertész’s semiautobiographical novel is no exception. Indeed, the widescreen images devised by Koltai (a longtime collaborator of Hungarian director István Szabó) seem a little too lovely, and Ennio Morricone’s music a bit too lyrical for a story that largely transpires at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. In 1944, after being barred from his factory job at home, Jewish 14-year-old Gyurka (Marcell Nagy) is one of many young Hungarians who agree to go to Germany to work, only to arrive at a concentration camp. There, the director desaturates the colors to an almost monochromatic scheme, save for the pink of maltreated flesh. When nearly dead, Gyurka unexpectedly finds himself in the care of American soldiers who have taken control of the camp. He returns to Hungary, where surviving Jews are not welcomed, and discovers a startling contrast between life in his hometown and life in a Nazi camp. Koltai’s pictorial mastery does not extend to psychology, but then Fateless seems like a very difficult novel to film. Its existential perspective on a monumental infamy requires a more radically subjective—and probably far less lovely—technique than most directors could contrive.
At 6:45 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 11, at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center; $20.CP