Brief Reviews: Film Festivals
Movies! Movies! Movies!
Film festivals continue to be a rich showcase for the latest Jewish films—documentaries from around the world, Israeli feature films and Sefardic fare. Judith Gelman Myers gives us a rundown on the 19th Annual New York Jewish Film Festival (January 13-28) presented by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the 24th Annual Israel Film Festival, which takes place in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. Rahel Musleah reports on the 14th New York Sephardic Film Festival (February 4-11).
The 19th Annual New York Jewish Film Festival included a great variety in these works, mostly documentaries from Germany, Poland, Hungary, France and the United States, Although many look at painful episodes of the Holocaust, there are also some touching features from Israel.
Within the Whirlwind
The luminous Emily Watson stars in this well-crafted story about a Jewish Russian poet and Communist Party member who was arrested during the Stalinist purges and sent to Siberia for 10 years. In spite of the Merchant-Ivory look of the film, which was adapted from the memoirs of Evgenia Ginzburg, the horrors of the gulag come across loud and clear—like the incredible fortitude of Ginzburg herself. Directed by Marleen Gorris and written by Nancy Larson. Shot in Germany, Belgium, France and Poland. Cineuropa.
Forgotten Transports to Poland
Many things make this documentary remarkable. Most notable are the stories told by Czech Jews who were transported to little-known camps in Poland and survived through wits and determination. Most of these survivors are recounting their experiences for the first time (of nearly 13,000 Czech and Moravian Jews deported, only 50 survived), making their stories fresh and surprising. Equally amazing, the footage accompanying each story depicts the very person in that moment in time. “For the few authentic minutes that would precisely correspond to the time and place described, I went through 600 hours of footage in the Hungarian archives alone,” says filmmaker Lukas Pribyl, also an historian and political scientist. Ten years in the making; never forgotten (www.forgottentransports.com).
Jazz fans might be surprised to learn that a number of Thelonious Monk’s tunes—“Pannonica,” “Coming on the Hudson” and “Bolivar Blues,” for instance—were written as tributes to his mentor, best friend and guardian angel, Baroness Nica Rothschild (voiced by Helen Mirren). When the baroness first heard a Monk tune on a friend’s phonograph, she became so mesmerized with his music that she left her life of overweening privilege to move to New York, where she became a loyal devotee of bebop and supporter to its leading exponents; Charlie Byrd passed away in her apartment, and she took a jail rap to keep Monk in the clubs rather than behind bars. Her story is told with incredible insight by her great-niece Hannah Rothschild, a woman of considerable talents herself, who examines not only Nica’s relationship with Monk but the remarkable Rothschild legacy as well (www.thejazzbaroness.com).
Erudite, sophisticated Italian journalist Curzio Malaparte was a member of the Italian Fascist Party, the Communist Party, then a deathbed convert to Catholicism. The film follows his search to find Josef Gruber, a Jewish doctor, to get help for his severe allergies. This fictionalized account recalls the day he uncovered the Iasi massacre, during which 10,000 Romanian Jews were exterminated; the real Malaparte wrote about the massacre inKaputt, purportedly the first fictionalized account of the Holocaust, in 1944. The film is full of East European—and Kafkaesque—black humor, which derives not only from its Romanian provenance but also from Malaparte’s writing. Directed by the veteran Radu Gabrea and co-written with Răzvan Rădulescu. új budapest filmstúdió (www.ujbudapestfilmstudio.hu).
Leon Blum: For All Mankind
Throughout his fortunes as prime minister of France, Buchenwald inmate and back again as prime minister, Leon Blum never strayed from his principles. When the Pétain government put Blum on trial, his courageous attack of Vichy so outraged the Nazis that they moved in to stop the proceedings. This loving tribute by filmmaker Jean Bodon pays homage to the man and his ideals.
Einsatzgruppen, the Death Brigades
Eyewitness accounts, brutal footage and personal stories of escape make this documentary about the Einsatzgruppen, German soldiers sent throughout Europe to carry out the extermination of Jews, Gypsies and Soviet prisoners by firing squad, the most horrifying of all Holocaust films. They raise the image of an entire continent gone absolutely mad, from the mass shootings at Babi Yar to reports of cannibalism. The two-part, three-hour documentary is directed by Michaël Prazan. Michel Rotman Production.
This documentary effectively blows apart every myth that separated the average German citizen from the Nazi war machine. Investigating the fate of the possessions left behind by Jews deported to death camps, director Michael Verhoeven uncovers the truly venal mechanism behind Hitler’s final solution: The Nazis distributed Jewish wealth to the German population in the form of food supplements, apartment upgrades and low-cost, public auctions of goods, so that every German man and woman on the street profited by turning in their neighbor. Menemsha Films (www.menemshafilms.com).
With a Little Patience
This 15-minute short dramatizes the mechanism by which the Nazis led the German people into taking an active part in—not merely turning a blind eye to—the extermination of their neighbors, explored at greater length in the documentary Human Failure. Winner of multiple prizes, including Best Short Film at festivals Venice, Montreal, Athens and Hungary, among other events. Directed by Laszlo Nemes (www.withalittlepatience.com).
Indeterminate endings and alternative realities betray a sense of existential anxiety at the 24th Annual Israel Film Festival. Exploring God, chance, personal choice, destiny—it is as if these are not enough to cobble together a future that might or might not happen.
Thelma and Louise meets Monster in this ridiculous Israeli feature about a Russian sex worker turned hit woman and the abused wife and Tel Aviv grocery store clerk who befriends her. At least director Danny Lerner had the sense to leave the Monster makeup off the stunning Olga Kurylenko (the Bond girl inQuantum of Solace). But Israeli pop star Ninet Tayeb, the battered wife, ain’t bad to look at either. Still, someone should tell the selection committee of the Israel Film Festival that some mistakes are simply better left at home. Bleiberg Entertainment (www.bleibergent.com).
Would Romeo and Juliet have gotten back together if he had returned in 10-years’ time? With gorgeous performances by a stellar cast, including Dana Ivgy, Mahmud Shalaby, Moni Moshonov and Ronit Elkabetz, this Israeli-Arab twist on the famous love story offers new meaning to the term true love even as it reveals that declaring that one’s destiny is decided less by one’s own actions than by the personal choices of others. What is more, the film, directed by Keren Yadaya, reminds us that political conflict is neither theoretical nor abstract but can create real, overwhelming, personal pain. Bizibi Productions (email@example.com).
7 Minutes in Heaven
Writer-director Omri Givon discovered, after interviewing countless survivors of terrorist bombings, that it is possible to recover from terror but impossible to go back to being the same person as before. Magnetic performances, sexual chemistry, insightful and highly nuanced directing as well as a touch of Kabbala combine to make a feature film that gets into your head and under your skin as you share a victim’s desperate need to confront the past to forge a new future. E-Z Films (www.ez-films.com).
Mrs. Moskowitz and the Cats
A deceptively simple story by Eyal Halfon about a lonely woman of a “certain age” who learns to love again, Mrs. Moskowitz addresses, at its core, the very question of what it means to be human. Irresistible performances from Rita Zohar and Moni Moshonov make watching this quiet but tightly scripted film an experience you will come back to in your own quiet moments. E-Z Films (www.ez-films.com).
The New York Sephardic Film Festival showcases Sefardic history, tradition and culture. This year’s selections—both feature and documentaries—tackle the expected themes of identity, roots, discrimination, self-respect and the conflicts between modernity and tradition. They do so in touching, gruesome, hilarious and engrossing ways that dissect the non-Ashkenazic experience, including Moroccan, Yemenite and Ethiopian.
Coco, a flamboyant, flavored-water mogul with a larger-than-life personality, an exhibitionist’s sense of the outrageous and a Jewish-Moroccan-French heritage, receives the French Légion d’Honneur medal and then outdoes himself by planning the party of the year—his son’s bar mitzva. The “kippa cabana” alienates the family but ultimately deepens the relationship between father and son. This comic farce stars and is directed by Moroccan-born Gad Elmaleh, touted as the Jerry Seinfeld of French comedy and recipient of the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres honor awarded by the French Minister of Culture.
A Matter of Size
In this sweet, funny and poignant film about being fat, Herzel, a 340-pound Israeli chef, finds a job washing dishes at a Japanese restaurant in Ramla. He and a small group of friends discard the relentless pursuit of dieting and discover sumo wrestling as a path to self-acceptance and respect—even stardom and love. Directed by Erez Tadmor and Sharon Maymon. Menemsha Films (www.menemshafilms.com).
Violence, desire and religion collide in this steamy Sefardic Godfather about two Moroccan Israeli organized crime families and the tragedies their conflicts engender. Director Haim Bouzaglo sets vivid ritual celebrations like brit mila next to murder and mayhem. Haim Bouzaglo Productions (www.lunatiquefilms.com).
This heart-wrenching documentary sheds light on the lives of two older women in the Yemenite community who have poured their struggles with love, marriage, sexuality, abuse, children and identity into poetry and song. Winner of the documentary competition at the International Women’s Film Festival in Israel. Directed by Israela Shaer-Meoded. Trabelsi Productions (www.trabelsiproductions.com).
Across the River
Moshe Rachamim lives up to his name—he is a compassionate leader who seeks to lift the veil of secrecy and promote AIDS education within the Israeli Ethiopian community. Rachamim left his Ethiopian village at the age of 12 and walks alone across the river, all the way to Israel. He returns to his native land to learn about the AIDS awareness campaign there and finds yet another tragedy: Ethiopian Jews are encouraged to immigrate to Israel yet spend years waiting in camps, thus increasing their exposure to the virus. Directed by Duki Dror. Produced by Yael Shavit (www.acrosstheriverfilm.com).
Children of the Bible
Israel is hardly the Garden of Eden that Ethiopian Jews envision on their long and often deadly treks to the Promised Land. Instead, in Israel they encounter discrimination, poverty and the stripping away of their proud and ancient identity. Rapper Jeremy “Cool” Habash (Habash means Ethiopia in Hebrew) works with at-risk Israeli Ethiopian youth to restore their pride and bring them closer to their tradition through song, story and dialogue. Directed by Nitza Gonen. Dragoman Films (www.dragomanfilms.com).