The Washington Jewish
Dec. 2-12 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, Cineplex Odeon Foundry, the Lincoln Theatre, and the Goethe-Institut
Reviewing one of the early installments of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, I wondered aloud if there were enough new features about the Jewish experience that would otherwise go unseen here to supply such a fest. Each year since I posed that rash question, the answer has been emphatically affirmative—and not primarily because of the closing of the Biograph, which had smaller Jewish films among its many specialities. This is the fest’s 10th anniversary, and by now it’s become one of the world’s largest Jewish film festivals. With an itinerary that includes Shanghai, Mali, Wales, and Montreal, with of course a few stops in New York and Jerusalem, the program rivals the range and diversity of any of D.C.’s cinematic celebrations.
In the fest’s fledgling years, the documentaries usually upstaged the fiction features, but that’s no longer the case. Among the 17 films I was able to preview, most of the exceptional ones are fiction, although that doesn’t mean they take place in a different universe from the documentaries. Most of them forgo fantasy in favor of history, autobiography, or contemporary social problems, with patriarchy high on the agenda.
As artful as it is candidly self-revelatory, Lea Pool’s semi-autobiographical Emporte-Moi (Dec. 12 at 7 p.m., Foundry) is set in Montreal in the early ’60s, a period that nearly always denotes coming-of-age drama. Thirteen-year-old Hanna (Karine Vanasse) is the sensitive, confused daughter of a domineering unemployed poet (Underground’s Miki Manojlovic), a Jewish refugee haunted by his European experience. Hanna is fiercely attached to her long-suffering mother, a Catholic who supports the family as a seamstress; flustered by her new sexuality, Hanna also develops powerful crushes on several other women. She worships her teacher, experiments with kissing her new friend Laura, and is a regular at the cinema showing Godard’s My Life to Live, whose Anna Karina becomes the girl’s inspiration. Given the familiar terrain, this film is remarkably fresh, and the intercutting of material from the Godard film creates a vibrant visual dialogue between Hanna and her model.
Equally remarkable in a more austere mode is Amos Gitai’s Kadosh (Dec. 9 at 9 p.m., JCC; Dec. 11 at 6 p.m, Foundry), a laconic yet vehement consideration of the role of women in orthodox Judaism. The story follows two sisters: Rivka (Yael Abecassis) is happily married to Meir but threatened with divorce because her 10-year union has yet to produce children, while Malka (Meital Barda) is about to enter an arranged marriage even though she loves another man, one who has left their strict Jerusalem sect. Discussions between the men delineate the circumscribed role of women, although everything they say can be inferred from the opening scene, in which Meir recites the famous prayer thanking God for not making him a woman. For some, this critique will be incendiary, yet Gitai’s deliberate style calmly conveys the ordinariness of Rivka and Malka’s plights.
Set in a secular Israel that will seem more familiar to most Americans, Chronicle of Love (Dec. 9 at 1 p.m., JCC; Dec. 12 at 2 p.m, Foundry) is a made-for-TV film about a widespread form of patriarchal mistreatment: wife-beating. The setup is a little pat: Upscale, educated Nava is a social worker who rescues working-class women like recent Russian immigrant Jenya from their abusive husbands, but her own spouse also has uncontrollable rages during which he beats her. Director Tzipi Trope follows the conventions of melodrama, so the conclusion will come as no surprise, but both the subject matter and the performances raise this film above the standards of scourge-of-the-week American TV-movie fare.
Love also goes wrong in Paul Morrison’s Solomon and Gaenor (Dec. 4 at 6 p.m., Foundry; Dec. 11 at 9 p.m., Foundry), a British-TV flick that offers a previously untried variation on Romeo and Juliet. Solomon (Ioan Gruffuth) is a Jewish traveling salesman in south Wales, circa 1911, who falls for Gaenor (Nia Roberts), the daughter of strict chapelgoing Protestants who are scandalized when she becomes pregnant. Solomon hides his religion and family from Gaenor, who accepts that her lover is Jewish when she finally finds out. Neither family consents to the match, however, and the couple’s relationship is further complicated when out-of-work miners start looting Jewish shops—a development based on actual events. The film is mostly in English, but includes enough Welsh and Yiddish to have been nominated as best foreign film by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Implausibly, romance conquers a different sort of obstacle in Michael Bat-Adam’s Love at Second Sight (Dec. 5 at 5 p.m., Foundry; Dec. 7 at 9:15 p.m., JCC). Pretty young Tel Aviv newspaper photographer Nina (Michal Zuaratz) falls in love with a man whose picture she accidentally took while covering a suicide attempt, and she spends the rest of the movie tracking her mystery dreamboat. This quest is less substantial, however, than the subplot, which involves Nina’s relationship with her heritage, which is embodied by two kindly old men—her grandfather and her landlord—and their treasured snapshots. Ultimately, photography’s power to evoke the past seems more compelling than its ability to pick an ideal lover out of a crowd.
A product of X-Filme, the young German filmmakers group best known for Run Lola Run, The Giraffe (Dec. 4 at 8:45 p.m., Foundry; Dec. 5 at 7:15 p.m., Foundry) introduces two lovers who have both less and more in common that it initially seems. Lena (co-writer Maria Schrader) meets David (director and co-writer Dani Levy) after she happens to find his badly injured mother in the corridor of a Manhattan hotel. Then they learn that her mother and his share the same birthday and a confusingly overlapping German-Jewish heritage. This is a stylish thriller, but the convoluted plot seems a little too frivolous to carry the film’s Holocaust and neo-Nazi references.
Didi Danquart’s Jew Boy Levi (Dec. 8 at 8:45 p.m., JCC; Dec. 9 at 6:15 p.m., JCC) takes the Holocaust more seriously, although the story’s full implications are left suggestively foreboding. The film is set in the Black Forest region in 1935, a time and place remote from the growth of Nazism in Germany’s cities. Gentle cattle trader Levi is accepted by the locals until the arrival of a railroad repair crew headed by Kohler, an imperious Nazi who is also an amateur magician. Under Kohler’s pressure, Levi’s former friends gradually turn on him, leaving only local waitress Lisbeth and malcontent Paul, Levi’s longtime rival for Lisbeth’s affections, to challenge the Nazis.
Because the film is derived from Chapters 23 through 37 of the Bible’s first book, true believers could argue that Genesis (Dec. 5 at 7:15 p.m., JCC; Dec. 6 at 8:45 p.m., JCC) doesn’t qualify as a fiction film. Yet Cheick Oumar Sissoko’s interpretation of the tale of Jacob and Esau will likely seem as alien as a sci-fi fantasy to Americans who learned their Bible stories from church, synagogue, or Hollywood. Transplanted to Mali, where the part of Esau is played by Afro-pop singer Salif Keita, this film captures the tribal savagery that more decorous versions exclude. The movie is stronger on exotic atmosphere and pageantry than storytelling, however, so potential viewers might want to reacquaint themselves with the relevant verses before seeing it.
The documentaries explore some familiar terrain, but the best of them uncover new aspects of oft-told stories. Port of Last Resort (Dec. 5 at 2:30 p.m., JCC) is hardly the first Washington Jewish Film Festival entry to travel to Shanghai, where nearly 20,000 European Jews found refuge in the late ’30s. Using battered old footage, period letters and photographs, and contemporary reminiscences, directors Joan Grossman and Paul Rosdy create a more complete portrait of Jewish life in China under Japanese rule and the threat of American bombers.
Jeff Bieber’s There Was Once a Town (Dec. 5 at 4:45 p.m., JCC) revisits Eishyshok, the former shtetl documented by a room of photographs at the Holocaust Museum. Some of the recollections by the few former residents who make the journey are riveting, but the voice-over by Ed Asner (whose family is from Eishyshok) tends toward the sententious.
Survivors of a smaller but no less brutal bloodbath tell What I Saw in Hebron (Dec. 7 at 6:15 p.m., JCC) in Dan and Noit Geva’s film about the 1929 pogrom in that unhappy town. The account of the slaughter loses its power with repetition, but it provides a suitably chilling preface to the film’s treatment of tense relations between Arabs and Jewish settlers in contemporary Hebron.
Based in part on Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb’s book, Lori Cheatle and Martin D. Toub’s From Swastika to Jim Crow (Dec. 12 at 2:45 p.m., JCC) tells the forgotten story of Jewish refugees who became professors at American black colleges. Some of these teachers and their students testify to the impact of such emigre scholars as Ernst Borinski, who received the ultimate accolade from Mississippi state investigators: They labeled him a “race agitator.”
Kurt Gerron’s Karussell (Dec. 12 at 5:15 p.m., JCC) follows the doomed career of the German-Jewish cabaret star and director whose final gig was supervising the notorious Nazi propaganda film The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews. Gerron hoped the job would save his life, but he was deported to Auschwitz soon after. The documentary will be screened with the Nazi film.
Two other documentaries may interest devotees of their subjects, but both just skim the surface: Julien Benedikt’s Blue Note: A Story of Modern Jazz (Dec. 4 at 10:15 p.m., JCC; Dec. 5 at 3 p.m., Foundry) features Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Max Roach, and more, but offers little insight into the labels’ founders, German-Jewish emigres Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. Christa Maerker’s The Roth Explosion: Confessions of a Writer (Dec. 5 at 12 p.m.; Dec. 6 at 1 p.m., JCC) follows Philip Roth around his native Newark and his country house, obtaining a few reminiscences but nothing resembling a confession.
Among the many other attractions are a free screening of the 1974 East German, Mork-free version of Jacob the Liar (Dec. 12, 5 p.m., Goethe-Institut) and a reprise of The Photographer (Dec. 5, 12:15 p.m., Foundry), a documentary based on home movies made by a German accountant at the Lodz ghetto (which previously screened at the Hirshhorn and the National Archives). The fest is also marking its 10th anniversary with encores of such films as the droll Leon the Pig Farmer (Dec. 3, 1 p.m., JCC), in which a Jewish Londoner discovers that his biological father is a Yorkshire pig farmer; Me Ivan, You Abraham (Dec. 12, 12 p.m., Foundry), an evocative tale of best friends, a Jewish and a gentile boy, who together flee the chaos of late-’30s Poland; and Martha and I (Dec. 12, 8 p.m., JCC), the story of a prominent freethinking Jewish obstetrician who marries his gentile housekeeper. CP