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The Fifth Annual Washington Jewish Film Festival

At the Biograph December 3-11

All four of the films made available for preview from this year’s Washington Jewish Film Festival are based in fact, and two are documentaries. The latter, which are less likely to screen commercially, are frequently the gems of festivals like this, and one of these, When Shirley Met Florence, is entirely satisfying. The highlight of the selection, though, is an autobiographical fiction feature, Martha and I (Dec. 10, 7 p.m.; Dec. 11, 7:15 p.m.).

Narrated by director Jiri Weiss, Martha begins with the travails of Emil, a ’30s Jewish-Czech teenager who’s at that awkward age when he wants to screw the maid. Having interrupted him while he’s partway to that goal, his mother sends Emil off to visit his uncle, freethinking small-town obstetrician Dr. Ernst Fuchs (Michel Piccoli). Emil (whose fictional role parallels Weiss’ real-life one) doesn’t drop out of the story, but the focus shifts to Ernst, who feels he has no choice but to divorce his attractive young wife after coming home unexpectedly to find her in bed with a lover.

Concluding that loyalty is preferable to beauty, Ernst decides to marry his longtime German-Czech maid, Martha (Marianne Sagebrecht). Though Ernst and Martha have little in common, and his family rejects her as a peasant, the two grow together gracefully into a loving, if not exactly equal, relationship. As Hitler’s imminent arrival inflames Czechs of German descent, however, members of Martha’s family are emboldened to question their sister’s having wedded a Jew. Soon both the marriage and Ernst’s livelihood—and ultimately much more—are threatened.

Viewers will hardly be surprised that the specter of war separates Ernst, Martha, and Emil, yet even the final scenes of this drama are compelling; though many similar stories have been told, this film is too rich to ever seem generic. And, if Martha’s fate is perhaps a little too poetic, Weiss undercuts it with a postwar epilogue that’s bitterly bracing.

A less cataclysmic yet equally human story is told by Ronit Bezalal’s When Shirley Met Florence (Dec. 4, 2:45 p.m.), a short account of two longtime Montreal friends. “Fundamentally, we had everything in common,” they note, even though Shirley is straight and Florence is gay. (Seeking a mate acceptable to her sometimes jealous friend, Shirley eventually married Florence’s brother.) Music brought the two together, and this portrait shows the friends, 55 years later, performing at a gay rights rally.

The fest also features three other short films on gay themes: Chicks in White Satin (shown with When Shirley…) is about two lesbians who grapple with traditional problems as they plan an untraditional wedding, while Oy Gay (Dec. 8, 6:30 p.m.) interviews young Brits about maintaining both their gay and Jewish identities; the latter is shown with Harry Weinberg’s Notebook, in which an older man’s self-understanding is stimulated by the assignments given by a lesbian writing teacher.

Of the previewed films, the least revealing was Gefilte Fish and the Ghost of Germany: Jewish American Artists in the New Berlin (Dec. 11, 1:45 p.m.), director Holly-Jane Rahlens’ largely superficial and sometimes actively cutesy introduction to six American Jews who make art in Berlin. Most of the analysis offered by these actors, dancers, and musicians is slight; only an East Berlin-resident photographer who set out to document “the last Jews” of Eastern Europe has much perspective.

Also on this program is Without Me, Dani Levy’s impressionistic short about Simon, a Jewish filmmaker in Germany who feels at risk from rising neofascism yet wonders if he’s overreacting. This 20-minute anxiety attack includes TV footage of the war in Bosnia, members of a women’s self-defense class who see Simon as an oppressor rather than a victim, defiant Turkish-German youths, and a Wim Wenders cameo, all stitched together with a Bobby McFerrin score.

Among the other films that look promising are Bye Bye America, in which three Polish-born Jews return “home” after 30 years in New York (Dec. 3, 7 & 9:30 p.m.); Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising According to Marek Edelman, which combines Nazi-shot footage with the testimony of Jewish-underground leader Edelman (Dec. 4, noon); I, Bajou, Ariel Zeitoun’s account of a Tunisian-Jewish businessman, based on his father (Dec. 4, 8:15 p.m.; Dec. 10, 9:50 p.m.); and Everything Is Fine, a “bittersweet” picture of Jewish life in the Ukraine today (Dec. 11, 4:15 p.m.).