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The 13th Annual Washington Jewish Film Festival

At the District of Columbia Jewish

Community Center, the National Gallery of Art, and the Goethe-Institut

Washington to Dec. 15

After several years in which fiction and documentary films achieved a rough parity, the latter provide most of the highlights—at least among previewed films—of this year’s Washington Jewish Film Festival. The 13th installment of this ambitious fest includes the expected number of powerful Holocaust testimonies, but it also features the stories of a pioneering female avant-garde filmmaker and a song that challenged American racist brutality.

As little difference as such people ultimately could make against the Nazi murder apparatus, tales of newfound Raoul Wallenbergs or Oskar Schindlers are often fascinating. Britain’s own Schindler, as was revealed only in the late ’80s, was stockbroker Nicholas Winton, who arranged for 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to be transported to the U.K.—and was expecting another 250 when the invasion of Poland ended the rescue project. (Among the evacuees was film director Karel Reisz, who died last week.) Director Matej Minac’s Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good (at 2 p.m. Dec. 8 at the DCJCC) includes some unfortunate touches—notably docudrama footage and a few choruses of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”—but these are upstaged by the remembrances of the survivors (among them narrator Joe Schlesinger, a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. correspondent) and their many offspring.

The stakes were more individualized but no less urgent for Clara Bloom, a Polish-born Canadian citizen who married a Pole, Chaim Blum, during a 1938 trip to her homeland. With the German invasion looming, Clara discovered that Canadian law permitted only men to bring foreign spouses into the country; in fact, by marrying a non-Canadian, Clara risked losing her own legal status. As recounted in Garry Beitel’s urgent documentary My Dear Clara (at 7 p.m. Dec. 12 at the DCJCC), Clara eventually won her battle to equalize Canadian immigration law, but Chaim did something even more remarkable: survive World War II by fleeing into the Soviet realm, finding refuge in Uzbekistan, and ultimately arriving in Canada nine years after his marriage.

In 1939, as horror waited just offstage in Europe, Billie Holiday recorded a harrowing song about an American infamy: lynching. The composer of “Strange Fruit” was listed as Lewis Allan, but that was the pseudonym for a Bronx Jew of Russian extraction, Abel Meeropol. If that name sounds familiar, it might be because Meeropol and his wife, lifetime leftists, adopted the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after the couple was executed for spying in 1953. Joel Katz’s Strange Fruit (at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7 at the DCJCC) tells the story of the song and its writer, not excluding tension between Meeropol and Holiday, whose autobiography claimed partial credit for writing the song. The documentary will be shown with The House I Live In, a 1945 short in which Frank Sinatra sings another Meeropol composition—leaving out the verse about equality between black and white, much to Meeropol’s outrage.

Among Meeropol’s downtown contemporaries was filmmaker Maya Deren, born Eleanora Derenkorsky in Kiev in 1917 but raised largely in upstate New York. As such peers and admirers as Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage recall in Martina Kudlacek’s fascinating In the Mirror of Maya Deren (at 4 p.m. Dec. 15 at the National Gallery of Art), Deren was a pioneering non-narrative filmmaker, as well as a handful. Kudlacek’s documentary features clips from the director’s poetic short films, which often featured modern dance and the striking Deren herself. It also includes snippets of her never-finished opus about one of her obsessions, Haitian voodoo rituals. Deren’s demise in 1961 seems to encapsulate her tumultuous life: She left behind her third husband, a Japanese composer 18 years her junior, and apparently died from the effects of malnutrition and “vitamin” (that is, speed) shots, although some blame a voodoo curse.

A few years ago, the festival presented a documentary about American Jews moving to, of all places, Berlin. But as Exodus to Berlin (at 3:15 p.m. Dec. 8 at the DCJCC) explains, Germany has the second-fastest-growing Jewish population in the world not because of a few Americans, but because German law mandates that it quickly accept Jewish emigres from the former Soviet bloc. Although one recently arrived Jewish woman admits that she and her cohorts don’t feel settled in their new home, Germany does offer economic opportunities, religious freedom, and lower crime rates than either Russia or the Ukraine. The flip side of the country’s advantages, however, is neo-Nazi violence and intimidation. Directors Peter Laufer and Jeff Kamen spend much of their documentary observing fascist marchers and counter-demonstrators, to little effect. The specter of Nazism in Germany is of course unsettling, but the film’s coverage of skinheads and the like is both repetitious and not especially enlightening.

A different sort of Jewish immigration is the focus of Adio Kerida (at 5:45 p.m. Dec. 8 at the DCJCC), American anthropologist Ruth Behar’s investigation of her own Cuban (and Sephardic-Ashkenazi) background. Adio’s emphasis on Cuban music and the shots of picturesquely dilapidated Havana recall Buena Vista Social Club, but ultimately the film is limited by Behar’s narrow focus on her own family’s story. The interesting people she meets in Havana, where only about 1,000 Jews remain, seem to deserve a broader context. Still, Behar’s film isn’t as irksome as A Match Made in Seven (at 11 p.m. Dec. 14 at the DCJCC), Ilan Saragosti’s documentary about SpeedDating in Vancouver. Designed to encourage North American Jews to marry within their own tradition, SpeedDating arranges a series of seven-minute chats with possible mates, promising a 50 percent “meaningful relationship” rate. No sparks fly among this particular batch of not-very-interesting SpeedDaters, however—which should have been Saragosti’s cue to find another group of singles to videotape.

Of the previewed fiction films, the most ambitious is Esther Khan (at 8:15 p.m. Dec 10 and 1 p.m. Dec. 12 at the DCJCC), an adaptation of an Arthur Symons story by French director Arnaud Desplechin, who made 1996’s novelistic My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument. Esther (Summer Phoenix) is an emotionally blank girl living in Victorian London’s East End who wants to escape from her Jewish-immigrant family and onto the stage. Thanks to two mentors (Ian Holm and Fabrice Desplechin), she succeeds. Yet Esther still lacks the emotional depth of a great actor—until the hallucinatory final sequence, when she portrays Hedda Gabler in the throes of a jealousy-induced breakdown. The gaslight hues of 19th-century London are evocatively conjured, but the performances are variable. You have to wonder if Desplechin’s unwillingness to show Esther’s acting is an alienation effect or just an admission that Phoenix can’t convincingly impersonate a Victorian stage performer.

A 1939 product of the American Yiddish film industry, Motel the Operator (at 8:45 p.m Dec. 9 and 1 p.m. Dec. 11 at the DCJCC) is part melodrama, part musical, part social-protest document. The title character (Chaim Tauber) is a sweatshop garment worker who joins a strike only to be severely injured by a strikebreaker, leaving his wife and infant son without any means of support. Years later, Motel is given the opportunity to prove that his great loss has not impaired his nobility. Joseph Seiden’s film offers an intriguing look at a vanished demimonde, even while celebrating a self-sacrificing notion of virtue that few today would accept.

Just after World War II, in an area whose residents variously speak German, Russian, and Polish, the sole survivor of a massacred Jewish family talks to a chicken and waits for the Messiah. Though Arkady Yakhnis’ Shoes From America (at 2 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Goethe-Institut Washington and 1 p.m. Dec. 10 at the DCJCC) has its poignant moments, it conjures the aimlessness of postwar limbo a little too effectively. Slightly more successful is God Is Great, I’m Not (at 1 p.m. Dec. 6 at the DCJCC), in which a flighty Parisian fashion model (Audrey Tautou, aka Amelie) decides to convert to Judaism—which doesn’t please her new beau, a not especially observant Jewish veterinarian. Director Pascale Bailly’s intermittently appealing romantic comedy is scheduled to open at Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge soon. The fest also provides a reprise of The Discovery of Heaven (at 1 p.m. Dec. 13 at the DCJCC), a labored, leaden cosmic fantasy that showed in the American Film Institute’s European Union Film Showcase last month. Angels hatch an overcomplicated plot to retrieve the Ten Commandments in this English-language Dutch film, which adherents of three major religions could deem blasphemous and nearly everyone will find tasteless.

Among the unpreviewed films that appear most promising are Hitmakers: The Teens Who Stole Pop Music (at 9 p.m. Dec. 12 at the DCJCC), the tale of the Jewish producers and songwriters who shaped pop music in the early ’60s; Shanghai Ghetto (at 1:30 p.m. Dec. 15 at the DCJCC), an account of an unlikely refuge for European Jews that’s also booked for a run at Visions; Unfair Competition (at 8:15 p.m. Dec. 8 and 1 p.m. Dec. 9 at the DCJCC), Ettore Scola’s film about two feuding Italian tailors, only one of whom is affected by Mussolini’s anti-Jewish laws; and Nowhere in Africa (at 5:45 p.m. Dec. 14 and 7 p.m. Dec. 15), based on the autobiography of a woman whose family escaped Nazi Germany for Kenya. CP