“The Washington Jewish Film Festival”

At the American Film Institute Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, the Avalon Theatre, the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, the Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes, the National Gallery of Art East Building, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to Dec. 14

Because commercial distributors are generally more interested in fictional fare than documentaries, thematic film festivals are often left with an assortment of first-rate documentaries and second-string features. That’s not the case with this year’s Washington Jewish Film Festival, the fest’s 14th annual installment. To judge from slightly less than half the 40 entries, this seems to be an equally fine year for fiction and nonfiction.

A powerful performance by Anouk Aimée and a disturbing sense of place distinguish director (and Holocaust survivor) Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ semi-autobiographical Birch Tree Meadow (Dec. 14 at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center). Aimée plays Myriam, a Franco-Polish survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau who attends a meeting of fellow ex-prisoners in Paris, then on a whim decides to visit Poland. Myriam meets old friends, hostile Poles, and a guilt-wracked German photographer who’s meant to be her dramatic foil. Aimée’s true co-star, however, is bucolic but haunted Birkenau, the horror-fraught landscape whose name translates as “birch tree meadow.”

Polish director Agnieszka Holland is the product of a Jewish-Catholic marriage, and her Julie Walking Home (Dec. 13 at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre and Cultural Center) has an element of spiritual autobiography. Julie (Miranda Otto) is the daughter of an old-fashioned Polish Catholic; her longtime partner, Henry, is Jewish. There’s no conflict, because neither of them is religious. When the couple’s son Nick becomes seriously ill, however, spiritual issues push into their lives, and Julie takes her son to Poland to meet mysterious faith healer Alexei (the ever-messianic Lothaire Bluteau). Characteristically, Holland ultimately ventures into murky narrative territory, but the film raises fascinating issues.

A conventional costume drama except in theme, Secret Passage (Dec. 9 at the Avalon Theatre, Dec. 11 at the DCJCC) follows two Sephardic sisters expelled as children from Spain in 1492. As adults and ostensible converts to Christianity, Clara (Tara Fitzgerald) and Isabel (Catherine Borowitz) arrive in Venice, hoping it will be a way station to more tolerant Istanbul. But when Clara falls in love with a Venetian intriguer (John Turturro), she risks Isabel’s carefully planned escape.

A tangled, playful mix of fiction and documentary, Amie Siegel’s Empathy (Dec. 7 and 8 at the DCJCC) investigates the role-playing involved in life, acting, and especially psychotherapy. In the most Godardian touch, central character Lia—a voice-over actress who fears her facelessness is more than professional—narrates a long passage about the relationship between modernist architecture and psychoanalysis.

In Nicholas Racz’s The Burial Society (Dec. 4 and 6 at the DCJCC), a milquetoasty Canadian banker (rob LaBelle) on the run from mobsters seeks refuge with the three old men who prepare bodies for interment for a small-town synagogue. The thriller aspects of this film are routine, but the portrayal of the burial-society members is more interesting.

Straddling the divide between fiction and, well, scandal is Diane Nerwen’s puckish short, The Great Yiddish Love (Dec. 13 at the DCJCC). Some film historians assume that the only connection between Marlene Dietrich and Zarah Leander was that the latter took Dietrich’s place as Germany’s cinematic sweetheart after the Blue Angel star refused to work for the Nazi movie industry. Weaving scenes from both performers’ films with dialogue from Yiddish pictures of the era, Nerwen shows that the antithetical actresses had—or should have had—a powerful and tragic love affair.

Other interesting fiction offerings include Almost Peaceful (Dec. 11 and 12 at the DCJCC), which centers on a small Jewish garment shop in 1946 Paris; James’ Journey to Jerusalem (Dec. 13 at the AFI Silver, Dec. 14 at the DCJCC), in which a devout pilgrim from Africa is assumed to be an illegal guest worker; Perlasca: The Courage of a Just Man (Dec. 14 at the DCJCC), a docudrama about a businessman who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II; and Under Water (Dec. 7 at the DCJCC, Dec. 9 at the Avalon), the story of a 14-year-old Israeli swimmer torn between her ultra-Orthodox father and her secular mother.

One of the first targets of J. Edgar Hoover, Emma Goldman was deported from the United States in 1919. But as An Exceedingly Dangerous Woman: The Radical Life of Emma Goldman (Dec. 8 at the DCJCC) reveals, the Russian-born Goldman never lost her affection for her adopted country. Harassed throughout the 34 years she lived here, Goldman made many enemies by advocating strikes, pacifism, feminism, free love, and birth control, but she never did anything that wouldn’t be countenanced by today’s interpretation of the First Amendment. This is the world premiere of director Mel Bucklin’s crisp documentary, which includes commentary from E.L. Doctorow, Tony Kushner, Andrei Codrescu, and many others.

Infamous around the world, the concentration camp near Dachau is just another real-estate issue for some residents of the small city that bears the same name. Bernd Fischer’s From Dachau With Love (Dec. 13 at the DCJCC) talks to people who consider the camp a shrine, as well as to those for whom it’s merely an inconvenience. Left-wing punks, right-wing burghers, and the manager of the local McDonald’s are all involved in the ongoing controversy about the site where more than 31,000 died—almost as many people as the population of the city of Dachau today.

Buenos Aires has the largest Jewish community in Latin America, but what seemed a safe haven turned ominous in the ’70s, when a military junta took control. The government torturers and killers didn’t target only Jews, but they did have pro-Nazi sympathies, and of the 30,000 people who were “disappeared,” a tenth were Jewish. Nurit Kedar’s Asesino recounts the horrors and brings the story up to date with footage of demonstrators chanting Asesino! (“Assassin!”) outside the homes of junta enforcers who have not been brought to justice. The film will be shown with Beth Toni Kruvant’s Born in Buenos Aires (Dec. 7 at the DCJCC), which surveys the plight of Jews in that city since the recent collapse of Argentina’s economy.

For more than 80 years, a group of Ugandans, the Abayudaya, have considered themselves observant Jews, even risking persecution by Idi Amin. Debra Gonsher Vinik and David Vinik’s Moving Heaven and Earth (Dec. 10 at the DCJCC, with Shalom Ireland) travels to Uganda for the joyous (and sublimely musical) conversion ceremonies conducted by American rabbis. The filmmakers find not only a sense of community, however—they also discover Jews who refuse to accept the Abayudaya.

Other notable documentaries include Undying Love (Dec. 11 at the DCJCC), Helene Klodawsky’s study of marriages (not all of them happy) between newly liberated concentration-camp survivors; Pearl Gluck’s Divan (Dec. 14 at the DCJCC), the saga of an ancestral sofa and the lives it touched; My Architect (Dec. 14 at the National Gallery of Art), Nathaniel Kahn’s account of his mysterious father, famed architect Louis Kahn; and The Danish Solution: The Rescue of the Jews in Denmark (Dec. 10 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum). CP