The 12th Washington Jewish Film Festival

At the District of Columbia Jewish

Community Center, the Lincoln Theatre, Loews Cineplex Wisconsin Avenue, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to Dec. 9

Sometimes, the previewable entries offer a misleading view of a film festival. This can be simply a matter of logistics, or it can reflect the fact that the fest includes many films that distributors hope will get commercial bookings. (Some distributors fear that a festival review will preclude further coverage at the time of the commercial opening.) The latter seems to be the case with this year’s Washington Jewish Film Festival. It promises 39 films from 22 countries—and five venues from U Street to Tenleytown—but has kept some of the most interesting ones a mystery. That diminishes the value of this overview, but it’s probably a good sign: It means that this year’s lineup includes a significant number of movies that are expected to get longer D.C. runs in the future.

Only a few of the fiction films were made available, including the opening-night feature, Gripsholm, which has already screened. The closing-night attraction, Once We Grow Up (Dec. 9 at the Lincoln Theatre), is a French circle-of-friends dramedy whose central character is Paris tobacco-trade-journal editor Simon. Obsessed with his inability to conceive a child with girlfriend Christine, Simon is fascinated when pregnant Claire and her uptight husband Thomas move in next door. Simon’s group of acquaintances is impeccably diverse: Léa is sort of a lesbian, José is “sick of being Portuguese,” and Fabrice dumps his Franco-Asian girlfriend for a woman he meets in Senegal. And then there’s Simon’s senile grandmother, who’s convinced she’s in Algeria, which the Sephardic Jewish family fled in the ’60s. Renaud Cohen’s film has some amusing episodes, but its tone wavers, and Simon’s meddling in other people’s lives ranges from altruistic to cruel.

In Rolf Schübel’s Gloomy Sunday (Dec. 8 at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center and Dec. 9 at Loews Cineplex Wisconsin Avenue), three Hungarians—a Jewish restaurateur, a beautiful waitress, and a moody pianist—experiment with a ménage à trois while waiting for the Nazis to take full control of Budapest. Inspired by a melancholy ’30s tune that’s recently been rediscovered by the Kronos Quartet (among others), the story links the three characters with a German businessman who loves the melody—and the waitress—and returns during the war as an SS officer with the power to save or destroy lives. The plot is contrived, but the characters are engaging, and the film ultimately contrasts its Old World mode with an ironic (if obvious) contemporary kicker.

In essence, Dany Wachsmann’s Facing the Forest (Dec. 3 and 9 at the DCJCC) is a conventional mystery-thriller, but it’s been outfitted with historical and political themes that are more interesting than the central story. While working on a Ph.D. dissertation about the Crusades, Alex takes a job as a forest ranger. He soon stumbles onto mysteries both contemporary (what happened to his predecessor?) and historical (does the forest, conveniently enough, contain a tomb that casts new light on the subject of Alex’s paper?). The forest Alex observes is a busy place, populated by Palestinian peasants whose village was torched in 1948, a mysterious Arab caretaker who clearly knows more than he’s telling, and a Jewish co-worker who’s recently become deeply religious, perhaps out of guilt. Portents of doom include a nearby bar where the jukebox seems to contain songs only from Leonard Cohen’s The Future and a woman who drops by to read Alex’s fate with tarot cards, but ultimately everything ends tidily.

The rest of the previewed films are documentaries, and most of them are about the Holocaust or its aftermath. According to Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans (Dec. 4 at the DCJCC), as many as 30,000 Jewish resistance fighters battled the Nazis, and nearly all of them died in the struggle. This makes the film’s testimonies of veterans—who include United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Chair Emeritus Miles Lerman—particularly powerful. Unfortunately, director Seth Kramer didn’t put the interviews in a strong historical context, so the poignant individual recollections don’t add up to a comprehensive treatment of the subject.

Jacky Comforty’s The Optimists: The Story of the Rescue of the Jews of Bulgaria (Dec. 2 at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) tells an equally compelling—and more coherent—story. None of Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps, but not because the country’s government (which was allied with Germany for most of the war) resisted the Holocaust. The constitutional monarchy instituted Nazi-style anti-Semitic laws and at one point secretly rounded up Jews for transport to Treblinka. The objections of some prominent members of parliament and the patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, however, stopped the planned deportation. Named for a Bulgarian Jewish jazz band that began playing again in 1944, this documentary has many piquant anecdotes, including one about the time racial “experts” measured the skulls of students at a teacher’s college in search of illegally enrolled Jews. One of the women whose head was calibrated remembers that the measurers identified four “Jews,” none of whom happened to be among the four Jews actually attending the school.

Two other documentaries plumb Eastern Europe for contemporary echoes of the Holocaust. Ronit Kertsner’s A Family Secret (Dec. 4 and 6 at the DCJCC) introduces several Polish men and women—including a Catholic priest—who have been profoundly affected by the discovery that their parents or grandparents were Jewish. Poland remains an inhospitable place for Jews, but the people profiled here have no intention of losing their heritage a second time. Interestingly, most of them speak English. In what was once the center of European Jewry, Judaism is now something that’s imported from the United States. Australian director Rod Freedman’s Uncle Chatzkel (Dec. 2 at the DCJCC) is about his own great-uncle, the only member of the family to remain in Lithuania, where he survived World War II while working as a cataloger of books seized from other Jews. He and his wife were both eventually sent to concentration camps, but they arrived there just a few months before Allied troops did. The film will be shown with Still, Wendy Oberlander’s memory piece about her mother’s Berlin childhood, which links the filmmaker’s voice-over musings to an impressionistic montage of old footage.

Ruth Walk’s The Balcony (Dec. 5 and 6 at the DCJCC) is a somewhat less evanescent reminiscence: It’s the tale of actor and painter Israel Becker, who appeared in a pioneering Holocaust film, 1947’s Long Is the Road. Walk tries to build a metaphorical link between the balconies of Becker’s Tel Aviv apartment and his old family home in Bialystock, but the facts of the man’s life are more compelling than the film’s symbolic elements.

The one documentary on a purely contemporary topic is Company Jasmine (Dec. 5 at the DCJCC), which follows a 17-week training course for potential Israeli army officers. The twist is that these candidates are all women, who may someday give orders to men but are not allowed to lead them into battle. That situation is a matter of discussion, but director Yael Katzir mostly concentrates on more concrete topics, from kitchen duty to long marches to home visits. One instructor says that women recruits are more likely to cry, yet the film’s greatest moment of emotional communion comes during an inspection when many of the trainees break into giggles.

Choosing the most interesting films from a list of unseen ones is a dubious task, but one of the entries is preceded by considerable acclaim: Trembling Before G-d (Dec. 9 at Loews Cineplex Wisconsin Avenue) is a documentary about Orthodox gays that is reportedly bold and moving. Other promising possibilities include Dad on the Run (Dec. 2 at Loews Cineplex Wisconsin Avenue), a French farce about a Parisian’s wild search for his newly circumcised son’s foreskin, and Louba’s Ghosts (Dec. 2 at Loews Cineplex Wisconsin Avenue and Dec. 4 at the DCJCC), a drama about a young woman (Jewish Film Fest regular Elsa Zylberstein) who becomes reacquainted with the man she considers her lost love—and the former friend she thinks stole him. Jeff Goldblum plays director Herbert Biberman, who was blacklisted and jailed during the ’50s, in the docudrama One of the Hollywood Ten (Dec. 2 at the DCJCC and Dec. 5 at Loews Cineplex Wisconsin Avenue). Waiting for the Messiah (Dec. 1 at the DCJCC and Dec. 3 at Loews Cineplex Wisconsin Avenue) is a romantic comedy set in Buenos Aires’ Jewish community. Finally, The Vow (Dec. 2 and 5 at the DCJCC) is another telling of the legend of the dybbuk; filmed in Poland in 1937, it was one of the last Yiddish movies made in Europe before World War II. CP

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