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“Judaism is a system of beliefs, held together by what other people believe about us,” growls the protagonist of Just an Ordinary Jew, a Hamburg journalist who’s angered when invited to a social-studies class to represent a people to whom he feels both dismayingly remote and irksomely close. That’s just his definition, and it’s certainly not the only one offered in the Washington Jewish Film Festival entries I previewed this year. The characters in these movies are shaped by tradition and family as well as history. But some of the most compelling of them define themselves in opposition to these things. They make the choice, difficult under any circumstances, to ignore what other people believe about them.
I saw 15 of this year’s features, including the engagingly uneasy opening-night attraction, Family Law, which you’ve already missed. Of the other 14, I recommend the following seven. They divide fairly equally between fiction and documentary, even if the stories they tell seldom separate that tidily.
The four unhappy Parisian women at the center of You’re So Pretty are hardly revolutionaries. They spend much of their time at the beauty parlor owned by Isa or trying to accommodate themselves to unworthy men. All Sephardic Jews, they celebrate the holidays and go to synagogue—although they gossip in the balcony as the men down below repeatedly try to shush them. During the months chronicled by Lisa Alessandrin’s zippy ensemble comedy, the greatest offense by any of the women is Isa’s quest for a civil union with Latifah, an Arab woman. This isn’t a love match, however. Latifah is Isa’s nanny, who faces deportation without the union. There are no major surprises in this movie—you can probably guess the end-credits song—but lots of warmth, hope, and good humor.
All those qualities are also on display in Blues by the Beach, the most remarkable of the previewed nonfiction films. Being present when the crucial incidents occur is key to making powerful documentaries, but the people who made this film surely would have forfeited that opportunity if given the chance. The movie opens with New York filmmaker Jack Baxter explaining how he decided to chronicle Mike’s Place, a blues bar and apolitical refuge on the beach in Tel Aviv. It’s a venue that offers “no politics, no religion,” and no Hebrew: This cultural neutrality meant nothing, however, to the two suicide bombers who targeted the club in 2003. Twenty minutes into the film, there’s an explosion, and several of the central characters vanish temporarily or permanently from the narrative—including Baxter, whose project is taken over by recently recruited assistant director Joshua Faudem. Faudem and Czech girlfriend Pavla Fleischer continue even as their relationship goes into shock, documenting the aftermath with breathtaking intimacy. Mike’s must reopen, but lives—and a sense of being able to sidestep political crisis—are forever shattered.
The central characters in Close to Home can’t suppose that they’re detached from security issues. After all, they’re Israeli soldiers, patrolling the streets and buses of Jerusalem. Yet these two young women have no overarching sense of duty. Smadar, the more conspicuously insubordinate of the two, likes to go shoplifting with her boyfriend. The quieter, more upscale Mirit doesn’t have a boyfriend, but she develops a crush on a dashing older man who helps her when she’s dazed by a terrorist bombing. Trying to befriend her reluctant partner, Smadar counsels Mirit on how to meet the guy, even tracking him down while Mirit is under detention for the offense of abandoning her post to go dancing. Dalia Hager and Vidi Bilu’s slice-of-life film is no romantic comedy; there’s the possibility of a lethal explosion in every frame. Yet the movie retains a sense of the everyday, showing that even under the most trying circumstances, there’s still time to check out a cute guy or a sale on hats.
The personal also trumps the political in Wide Awake, but then it would, considering it’s the latest film by Alan Berliner, whose humorous first-person documentaries are consistent highlights of the D.C. Jewish Film Festival. This time, the New York–based compulsive autobiographer turns to his own sleep habits, contemplating dreams, insomnia, and the effects of caffeine to the strains of “I’m So Tired” and “Time Has Come Today.” Characteristically, he has a family reason for deciding that now is the time to analyze his longtime problems with slumber: the imminent birth of his first child, Eli. Berliner doesn’t just assemble sleep experts’ remarks, straight-to-the-camera ruminations, night-vision footage of events in his bedroom, and stock footage. He takes viewers on a tour of his obsessively cataloged film and photo archives, which includes the home movies he’s used in such film as Nobody’s Business and images of families he doesn’t know. This overflowing stock of memories is simply the physical manifestation of having too much on his mind. He’ll sleep when he’s dead, Berliner says, but Wide Awake suggests that he’ll sleep only when the world is completely accounted for.
The monologue is more focused in Just an Ordinary Jew. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose Downfall was set mostly in Hitler’s bunker, here restricts himself primarily to the apartment of Emanuel Goldfarb (Gloomy Sunday’s Ben Becker). In the opening sequence, Goldfarb rejects the invitation to represent Hamburg’s Jewish community, and he spends the rest of the film justifying (and second-guessing) his refusal. He paces his few rooms, talking into a miniature tape recorder as the active camera captures this internal discussion. Goldfarb’s arguments include personal recollections, but he keeps returning to the larger issue of his identity as a Jew in a country that tried to exterminate his people. When not quoting Heinrich Heine, Goldfarb proves pretty quotable himself: In addition to the jibe cited above, he remarks that Jews carry “far too much history for too few people.” Just an Ordinary Jew is more a dramatized essay than a full-fledged film, but it’s a fascinating essay, and Becker’s performance is energetic, persuasive, and appropriately vehement.
Documentaries that depict refugees and road trips are common in Jewish film festivals, but as Saved by Deportation demonstrates, there are still unexpected stories within this much-explored territory. The protagonists of this documentary are people who feared they were on the wrong side of the frontier when Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland in 1939. Some 500,000 Poles, about 200,000 of them Jewish, were sent to work camps in Siberia, where life was hard but survivable. In 1941, when the Germans and the Soviets went to war, the latter allied with the Polish government in exile, and the Poles behind Soviet lines were set free. Most headed south, where they made new lives among the predominantly Muslim population of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Director Slawomir Grünberg uses Asher and Schifra Sharf, a couple that eventually settled in Brooklyn, as his guides. Their visit to the lands that sheltered most of the Polish Jews who survived World War II is poignant, yet not without joy. At their 58th wedding anniversary, the Sharfs can show video of the city where they married, which is neither Krakow nor New York but Samarkand.
The festival ends with Four Weeks in June, a drama that could have been merely sentimental and predictable: Angry young woman meets gloomy old woman, and the two bolster each other. Yet the details of Swedish director Henry Meyer’s film are fresh, and the committed performances bring a schematic relationship to life. Sentenced to community service for stabbing her faithless boyfriend with a pair of scissors, Sandra finds herself temporarily domiciled in an apartment building that’s under major renovation. The only other tenant is Lily (the great Ghita Norby), a Jewish woman who was unable to marry the man she loved because his family was anti-Semitic. As Sandra prods Lily to talk about her lost love and reveal her secret to her daughter, Lily encourages Sandra to pursue a thematically parallel romance with a Polish construction worker who may soon be permanently separated from Sandra. Many of the film’s elements are standard-issue, but the connection between the two women feels genuine. The movie’s moral is characteristic of Hollywood movies but takes on a special urgency in this context: Don’t be defined by others.
The 17th Washington Jewish Film Festival runs until Dec. 10 at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center and other venues. Check City Lights for times, dates, and theaters.