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The 15th Annual Washington Jewish Film Festival

At the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, the Avalon Theatre, the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, the Goethe-Institut, La Maison Française, and the National Gallery of Art to Dec. 12

Last year’s Washington Jewish Film Festival was unusually strong on fiction films, offering a half-dozen that deserved wider local exposure. This edition includes several dramas or docudramas from noteworthy directors, including the unpreviewable Tomorrow We Move (Dec. 3 and 5 at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center), by the always interesting Chantal Akerman. To judge by the screenable entries, however, the 2004 lineup is more notable for documentaries, the best of them deeply personal.

In ’50s America, the name Rosenberg was infamous, but anyone who’s followed the family’s subsequent history also knows the surname Meeropol. The two young sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the husband and wife executed as “A-bomb spies,” were adopted by Ann and Abel Meeropol (who figured prominently in a documentary shown in the 2002 fest, Strange Fruit). That makes Ivy Meeropol, who directed the poignant Heir to an Execution (Dec. 4 at the DCJCC), the granddaughter of the Rosenbergs, whose guilt or innocence is just one of the threads of her wide-ranging yet well-organized documentary. From Red-obsessed public officials to the relatives who betrayed or shunned her grandparents, Meeropol expertly balances her story, which is framed by the search for Julius and Ethel’s grave.

Danae Elon’s Another Road Home (Dec. 12 at the DCJCC) is an equally moving first-person film and, in a way, a companion piece. The filmmaker, who grew up in East Jerusalem, was largely raised by a Palestinian man, Musa Obeidallah, who spent his days with Elon although he had 11 children of his own. With her parents relocated to Italy and herself in New York, the director lost touch with Musa and his family. Knowing that her former caregiver sent his sons to Paterson, N.J., to make their fortunes, Elon manages to pick up Musa’s trail, which leads to a reunion of the Elons and many of the Obeidallahs (including an appearance by the filmmaker’s father, historian Amos Elon, at Politics & Prose). The rapport between one Israeli and one Palestinian family, however, is harshly contrasted by the way Musa is treated when the director accompanies him home.

Relationships between Israelis and Palestinians are chillier in Behind Enemy Lines (Dec. 6 at the DCJCC), in which two men who bonded on neutral territory—a 1999 group trip to Japan—meet again on the dividing line. While director Dov Gil-Har and his crew observe, Palestinian journalist Adnan and Israeli policeman Benny take each other on tours of their peoples’ respective experiences. They don’t change each other’s minds, of course, and are unlikely to convert many viewers. Though Adnan appears the more thoughtful of the two, neither is prepared to surrender any ideological territory.

The conventionality of Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 (Dec. 12 at the National Gallery of Art) is ironic; its subject was a tireless advocate of avant-garde film. Paul Cronin’s documentary is an informative tribute to the Vienna-born Vogel, who introduced experimental filmmakers and European art directors to New York audiences beginning in 1947. “My intention at all times was to subvert audience expectations,” says Vogel; the motive inspired him to show Nazi propaganda, science films, abstract works, and The Private Life of Cats, which was judged “obscene” by New York state censors for documenting the birth of kittens. This study is much less provocative, but it’s still a useful bit of artistic (and social) history.

Equally commonplace in form is Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust (Dec. 5 at the DCJCC), which surveys the subject from ’30s newsreels to Schindler’s List. The first half of Daniel Anker’s documentary is the more interesting, revisiting largely forgotten B pictures that portrayed Nazi horrors more vividly than the studios’ carefully considered A movies. On TV in the ’50s and ’60s, the Holocaust was also sugarcoated and sanitized—Anker’s examples include a survivor’s appearance on This Is Your Life and a production of Judgment at Nuremberg in which the term “gas chamber” was excised to please a sponsor, the American Gas Board. Some of the documentary’s talking heads are dubious about depicting a crime of such enormity on film, but the absence of outspoken European directors and critics keeps the discussion tepid. The film’s biggest name, Steven Spielberg, never has to face his bitterest detractor, Jean-Luc Godard, who has argued that only Hollywood filmmakers would dare rebuild Auschwitz.

European and American sensibilities also fail to harmonize in Return of the Tüdelband (Dec. 12 at the Goethe-Institut), Jens Huckereide’s account of a successful Hamburg vaudeville act whose career was ended by the Nazis. The four Wolf brothers, working as a trio or a duo, performed in the ’20s and ’30s, and their “Tüdelband” remains a standard in their hometown. The film’s tour guide is Dan Wolf, a California-bred grandson who tries to connect his own hiphop music to the Wolf Brothers’ style. It’s a bad idea, and Wolf is an unimpressive rapper. The brothers’ saga is intriguing, but the narrator’s presence adds little, and his music even less.

Another family chronicle, Red Diaper Baby (Dec. 7 at the DCJCC and Dec. 9 at the Avalon Theatre) is a movie of Josh Kornbluth’s one-man show about his childhood as the son of divorced parents of different temperaments but similar politics. Both were Communists, although Kornbluth’s father was more flamboyant about it. In fact, he was more flamboyant about everything. This performance, rendered with just a few cinematic tricks by director Doug Pray, comes to life whenever Kornbluth turns from routine coming-of-age anecdotes to tales of his profane, overwhelming dad.

It’s Mom who was too much in Shivah for My Mother: Seven Days of Mourning (Dec. 8 at the DCJCC), which is not primarily about the grieving process. Israeli director Yael Katzir’s video diary, shot by her son Dan, focuses on the strong personality of Katzir’s mother, Ziona, and on newly awakened fears that the filmmaker has treated her own children much the way Ziona did her. Some viewers may relate to this family’s issues, but most of them seem all too specific to a particular time and place.

The least enlightening of the previewed documentaries are Igal Hecht’s The Chosen People (Dec. 9 at the DCJCC), which is about Messianic Jews (aka Jews for Jesus), and Jennifer Kaplan’s Mixed Blessings: The Challenges of Raising Children in a Jewish-Christian Family (Dec. 8 at the DCJCC). Neither film provides much context, so the stories its subjects tell don’t achieve wider pertinence. If Mixed Blessings seems merely narrow, The Chosen People verges on the pointless. When its pro- and anti-Jesus factions snipe at each other, they resemble partisans of pro sports teams, arguing the virtues of their interchangeable favorites.

Of the fiction entries, the standout is not strictly fictional. Princesse Marie (Dec. 5 at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center and Dec. 6 at the DCJCC) concerns the relationship between Princess Marie Bonaparte (Catherine Deneuve) and Sigmund Freud. Initially a pampered, “frigid” dilettante, Marie becomes a devotee and patron of Freud (Heinz Bennent), and eventually a psychoanalyst herself. After Germany annexes Austria in 1938, Marie uses her clout—and her money—to rescue Freud, his family, and other members of the doctor’s inner circle. Director Benoît Jacquot has made more distinctive films than this talky three-hour biopic, which enlists customary made-for-TV ploys. Newsreel footage fills in the historical blanks, and most of the scenes are interiors with a few characters. But the performances are solid, and both the central characters and the ominous context are compelling.

With its preadolescent protagonist and ethnic-tolerance moral, Wondrous Oblivion (Dec. 9 at the Avalon and Dec. 11 at the DCJCC) is after-school-special material. It’s a worthy example of the genre, though, with vivid local color: In 1960 South London, David Wiseman is a hopeless cricket player and a member of the only Jewish family on his block. Then a Jamaican couple and their three daughters move in next door, and high-spirited patriarch Dennis (Delroy Lindo) proves to be just the coach David needs. As the boy’s status at school improves, however, tensions on the street increase. Director Paul Morrison, who did his bit for Jewish-Welsh relations with Solomon and Gaenor, has a weakness for such cutesy touches as cricket players’ cards that come to life, but most of the film is crisp and clear-eyed.

Two funerals and a wedding feature in The Rashevski’s Tango (Dec. 9 at the Avalon and Dec. 12 at the DCJCC); it’s the first death that sets the many subplots in motion. A Polish-rooted, Paris-based Jewish clan, the Rashevskis are mostly unreligious. When their rabbi-phobic grandma dies, however, it’s revealed that she bought a plot in a Jewish cemetery. Three generations of survivors react to this news variously: One granddaughter decides to seek a devoutly Jewish husband; a gentile daughter-in-law wonders if she’s truly accepted; and a grandson decides to marry his Arab girlfriend. Director Sam Garbarski’s film is neatly constructed, with smart transitions and clever rhyming shots. Still, its consideration of death and life choices tends toward the glib.

Director Sean Walsh has devised a strategy for getting James Joyce’s Ulysses on film: With Stephen Rea playing the title character, Walsh’s Bloom (Dec. 6 and 7 at the DCJCC) distills the epic work mostly to matters of sex, excretion, and anti-Semitism. The result is more pungent than the novel but unfair to its author’s range and mastery; this movie reduces Ulysses to the book that prudish censors once thought they were banning. As the best of this fest’s films demonstrates, such oversimplification is neither necessary nor satisfying.CP