The Fourth Annual Washington Jewish Film Festival

December 4 to 12 at the Biograph Theater

The Washington Jewish Film Festival I previewed last year (which, of course, didn’t include all of the offerings) was Western and bourgeois—and potentially marketable. Two of the previewed films—Liv Ullman’s domestic-dissatisfaction drama, Sofie, and Gary Sinyor’s mistaken-sperm-identity comedy, Leon the Pig Farmer—have subsequently received commercial bookings in this country, although only the former has reappeared locally. The five films made available for preview this year, however, are more difficult. Set in such locations as a dismal Israeli trailer park, Nazi-occupied Paris, and a ’20s Polish village, they’re darker, harsher, more remote. That doesn’t necessarily make them better.

The most successful of the five is Life According to Agfa (Dec. 11, 7 & 9:45 p.m.), which captures the Tel Aviv demimonde centering on a pub called Barbie. The sort of place where Leonard Cohen is always on the tape deck except when the resident singer/songwriter is at the piano singing anti- government ditties, the bar is—as one disgusted Israeli soldier tells his buddies—“the rectum of the defeatist left.”

Among those who visit the premises this particular evening are the proprietor, who’s having an affair with a married movie distributor who she doesn’t believe is dying of cancer; a suicidal woman wandering the city awaiting her imminent institutionalization; a macho, philandering drug-squad cop; a cokehead waitress exulting over her newly acquired U.S. visa; an Arab-Christian kitchen worker who has a new explanation for each person who asks why his head is bandaged; and the bartender, who lives with the cop and takes black-and-white snaps of celebrities who wander into the place for a local newspaper nightlife columnist. (Her photos, which punctuate the almost entirely b&w film, explain the title).

It’s hard to tell if director Assaf Dayan is attempting allegory or if he just wants a big finish, but two groups that aren’t accepted at the pub come back for a major confrontation as the night is waning. This final blowout clashes with the rest of the film, transforming the bittersweet tone to one of sheer bitterness. Perhaps that’s what was intended, but it’s maladroit nonetheless.

Even bleaker is Docteur Petiot (Dec. 5, 7:40 p.m.), the account of a well-regarded, seemingly kindhearted French physician who used the clandestine underground networks of German-occupied Paris to lure victims; he robbed and murdered some 30 people, at least half of them Jews who thought the doctor would smuggle them out of the country rather than inject them with poison (under the pretext of a vaccination required by Argentine immigration) and then burn their hacked-up bodies in a furnace.

Director Christian de Chalonge also plays with the transition from black-and-white to color, although the film’s mostly in the latter; he depicts a shadowy world in chiaroscuro compositions that will surely be more effective on-screen than they were in the murky video I saw. The film opens with a bit of German expressionism, and employs Nosferatulike shadows while drawing visual parallels between Petiot and the infamous Dr. Caligari. Despite the ominously black-shadowed eyes, though, the doctor is a man, not a demon, and the film fails to make much sense of him. Despite being “based on true events,” Petiot is not especially convincing.

Where Petiot occasionally blurs the border between cinema and reality—twice, a character travels through the screen—The Man Without a World (Dec. 4, 9:45 p.m.; Dec. 5, 2:45 p.m.) steps right over. This 1991 black-and-white silent pretends to be a Yiddish shtetl film made by a (fictional) Russian director in Poland in 1928. Director Eleanor Antin doesn’t take her stylistic burlesque quite so far as does Guy Maddin, whose Careful looks as if the print really was some 65 years old. Still, she clearly works from knowledge of both the genre and the period.

A mock melodrama about frustrated love between a tailor’s daughter and a would-be poet, this is populated by Zionists, communists, anarchists, bohemians, Gypsies, circus folk, cabbalists, exor cists, rapists, madwomen, dybbuks, and an aggrieved butcher. Antin exhausts the possibilities of her stunt well before the film’s 98 minutes are up, yet she does succeed in evoking the richness of Jewish life in pre-World War II Poland. It doesn’t seem inappropriate when the film ends with a brief note on Hitler’s destruction of the world conjured here.

Ethiopian and Russian Jews coexist uncomfortably with the stray Argentinian in St. Jean (shown with The Gesher Family, Dec. 12, 2:15 p.m.), a documentary about an Israeli trailer park that inhabitants call a “ghetto.” It’s interesting, if dismaying, to learn that the Russians hate the Ethiopians—asked if she has Ethiopian friends, a Russian girl snaps, “Are you crazy?”—and that the Israelis consider both to be “trash.” Director Jules Shles’ attempt to capture the quotidian soon turns repetitive, though, and the members of his narrow cast of characters don’t reveal themselves any further as he repeatedly returns to them.

The Gesher Family comprises Russian actors who’ve established a new theater company in Israel, performing everything from Dostoevski to Stoppard in what appears to be a strenuous, absurdist style. Boris Maftsir’s documentary shows the performers during rehearsal, in performance, and in brief talking-head interviews—and then repeats the cycle again and again. Indeed, the film is edited like a TV commercial or a music video, to frustrating and tiresome effect; the actors, presumably, have longer attention spans than does this breathless portrait.

The festival includes six more, unpreviewable features, and numerous shorts. Among the ones that seem most promising on paper are The Shvitz, a look at “the last of New York’s Russian-Jewish steambaths,” and The King of Crown Heights, a study of Lubavitcher Rebbe (and putative messiah) Menahem Mendel Schneerson (both on the same program, Dec. 5, 11:45 a.m.); Memoirs of a River, an account of a contrived 1882 Austro-Hungarian murder case that led to “the last “Jewish ritual murder’ court trial” (Dec. 6, 6:30 & 9:50 p.m.); Wall of Silence, a comic thriller about the murder of a Hasidic butcher in London (Dec. 7, 6:30 & 9:25 p.m.); Speak Up, It’s So Dark, an account of a young Swedish neo-Nazi’s sessions with his Jewish therapist (Dec. 8, 6:30 & 8:50 p.m.); and Zohar: Mediterranean Blues, about the rise and fall of a Moroccan-Israeli rocker who “spearheaded the struggle for acceptance of Sephardi artists in an Ashkenazi-dominated culture” (Dec. 9, 6:30 & 9:35 p.m.). Most of the programs are followed by discussions, and the directors, producers, or stars will be on hand for many of them.