Overview of the S.F. Jewish Film Festival

Michael Fox July 20, 2006

Some Israeli political observers have suggested in recent years that the major threat to the nation’s survival isn’t the Palestinians, Syria, or Iran, but the widening gulf between secular and ultra-religious Jews. Needless to say, the current conflagration with Hamas and Hezbollah has quashed that debate for the moment.

The sudden climate change in the Middle East has likewise had a tone-altering effect on the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, opening tonight with the Swedish coming-of-age drama “Four Weeks in June.” Sure, the lineup comprises the usual globetrotting survey of the contemporary Jewish experience — a French father-son farce, a Russian father-son melodrama, a first-person doc by a romantically challenged Iranian-American woman, a Yiddish revival, a doc centered on an Ethiopian-Israeli’s reunion with his birth father, an ephemeral portrait of a short-lived concentration camp — but the war will be Topic A.

Vidi Bilu and Dalia Hager’s bracing “Close to Home” is one of the strongest films in the fest, and timely to boot. The Israeli co-directors drew on their own military service for this deftly modulated story of two dissimilar 18-year-old soldiers paired up for their first mission — checking the IDs of Palestinians on the streets of Jerusalem. When’s the last time you saw a movie about teenage girls, uh, in the army? Exactly.

“La Petite Jerusalem” centers on another young woman, living with her Orthodox Jewish family on the outskirts of Paris. Laura is a philosophy major and the prism through which director Karin Albou coolly contemplates the relationship between reason, faith, and emotion. You may find Fanny Valette’s performance forceful enough to overlook the slender, schematic plot and Albou’s unconvincing invocation of French anti-Semitism as a narrative device.

While “Close to Home” goes for handheld immediacy and “La Petite Jerusalem” favors meticulous, modernist compositions, “Papa” is a feast of polished, classical filmmaking. Vladimir Mashkov’s tour de force (as both director and title character) follows a violin prodigy from a gray Russian village in the 1920s to glamorous Moscow a decade later, from boyhood to the cusp of greatness. But he can’t escape the reaches of his crude, unsophisticated father or, for that matter, Stalin.

Since we’re in the neighborhood (sort of), let’s go to Poland. The Nazis murdered more than 600,000 people in Belzec in just nine months of 1942, then dismantled the camp and planted trees to camouflage and conceal the site’s sinister history. The amorphous documentary “Belzec,” by its very existence, thwarts their attempt to erase a criminal legacy. But it leaves us in a disconsolate state, wondering if the admonition “never forget” is really sufficient.

Memory is also a theme of the omnibus film “18-J,” which revisits the unsolved blast that killed dozens of people at a Buenos Aires Jewish community center on the 18th of July, 1994. The work consists of 10 short narratives, docs and meditations by Argentine directors and, like most omnibus films, is a mix of standouts and misfires. The general tone is personal rather than political, with the best pieces movingly evoking grief and loss. Frankly, I was amazed at the overall glossiness, as well as the lack of insight into terrorism.

In a bid to inject some levity, I direct your attention to “The First Zionist Bunny,” a skin-deep record of the competition to become the first on-air hostess of Israel’s debuting Playboy Channel. Yes, sex sells in Israel, like everywhere else, and our contestants are happy to flaunt it in hopes of landing that life-transforming TV gig. This glitzy flick is more reality TV than social-issue documentary, but it provokes intriguing questions with its depiction of the melancholy winner barfing outside her limo after a Playboy bash in L.A.

A far more illuminating documentary is David Gavro’s “Sisai,” part of the fest’s sidebar on Ethiopian Jews. Both the 20-something director and his adoptive brother, Sisai, were born in Ethiopia and raised in Israel, and this intimate yet subtle film reveals much about the creation of identity and the difficulty of assimilation. “Sisai” is an eye-opener, especially for those who think all Israelis are white people descended from Europeans.

The fest’s big honor is its relatively new Freedom of Expression Award, and it goes this year to veteran Israeli director Amos Gitai. Plot is never the point with Gitai, who makes moody, existential explorations of the connection between place (often represented by his characters’ personal space) and self-image. Natalie Portman fans are already lining up for “Free Zone,” an enigmatic tale of three women driving from Tel Aviv to the no-man’s land on the Jordan-Iraq border, but Israeli Hanna Laslo took best actress honors at Cannes 2005.

Gitai is also represented by “House” (1980), which opens an unusual window on the Israeli-Palestinian problem via the various people who had lived in a West Jerusalem residence. In his latest, “News From Home/News From House,” Gitai tracks down the children and grandchildren of the house’s original Arab owners.

While the Palestinian-Israeli hostilities are front-page news, the secular-Orthodox conflict (as I noted at the top) is not. But last August, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the army to evict 8,000 Orthodox Jews who refused to leave their settlements in the Gaza Strip, the prospect of Jew-on-Jew violence was quite conceivable. Yoav Shamir (“Checkpoint”) obtained incredible access to document the showdown, and came back with the fascinating “5 Days.”

The most memorable character is Major Gen. Dan Harel, the soft-spoken yet unwavering officer in charge of the operation. He is both compassionate and candid, and a revelation to those who see generals as a combination of cowboy, hawk, puppet and propagandist. “5 Days” (which airs in August on the Sundance Channel, if you miss it during the festival) suggests, among other things, that there’s at least one Israeli capable of bridging the divide between religious and secular Jews.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens Thursday, July 20.