Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Film feature: Jewish film festival thriving as it turns 21

A scene from‭ ‬The Debt.

By Hap Erstein

At a time when film festivals are either shrinking or simply disappearing,‭ ‬the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival is expanding as it turns‭ ‬21.‭

The annual celebration of Jewish culture on celluloid from around the world,‭ ‬a program of the Jewish Community Center of the Greater Palm Beaches,‭ ‬unspools beginning‭ ‬this‭ ‬evening,‭ ‬Dec.‭ ‬1,‭ ‬with‭ ‬34‭ ‬films from‭ ‬12‭ ‬different countries,‭ ‬in four sites around the county‭ ‬--‭ ‬mainstay locations Cobb Downtown in Palm Beach Gardens and Regal Delray Beach‭ ‬18,‭ ‬plus two new western outposts at Regal Royal Palm Beach and Movies of Delray.‭

Ask artistic director Karen Davis to explain the festival’s longevity and she will point to its audience.‭ “‬I think that they appreciate quality film programming.‭ ‬One reason for that‭ ‬--‭ ‬the primary reason for that‭ ‬--‭ ‬is that they rarely get it,‭” ‬she says.‭ “‬There are fewer and fewer art movies,‭ ‬fewer and fewer art and independent films and I think that we really make up a substantial gap in the taste of cultured film lovers.‭”

(Full disclosure:‭ ‬For the first time,‭ ‬the festival has a‭ “‬reviewer in residence,‭” ‬a title I will be holding.‭ ‬At several screenings,‭ ‬I will be offering my observations and opinions,‭ ‬fielding audience questions and leading post-showing discussions.‭)

The festival leads off with two screenings of‭ ‬Anita,‭ ‬an involving tale of a young Jewish woman with Down syndrome,‭ ‬separated from her family after a‭ ‬1994‭ ‬terrorist bombing in Buenos Aires.

‭“‬When I saw it,‭ ‬I fell in love with it,‭ ‬as did the screening committee,‭” ‬explains Davis.‭ “‬Choosing an opening night film is always a little problematic.‭ ‬You want a crowd-pleaser,‭ ‬but you don’t want fluff.‭ ‬You don’t want a really sad movie.‭ ‬While this move deals with a serious subject and treats it seriously,‭ ‬I think it paints a very,‭ ‬very upbeat,‭ ‬optimistic picture of society.‭ ‬And I thought the acting and the direction were phenomenal and my screening committee agreed.‭”

Many,‭ ‬if not most,‭ ‬of the films in the festival are unlikely to gain American distribution,‭ ‬so their exposure during the festival‭ ‬--‭ ‬Dec.‭ ‬1‭ ‬-‭ ‬12‭ ‬--‭ ‬will be the only opportunity to see them locally.‭ ‬Two exceptions feature Oscar winners Helen Mirren and Dustin Hoffman.

Mirren stars in‭ ‬The Debt‭ (‬Dec.‭ ‬10,‭ ‬Regal Delray‭ ‬18‭)‬,‭ ‬playing a Mossad agent assigned to capture Nazi war criminals decades earlier,‭ ‬now reliving the trauma of those times and the toll they took on her.‭

Scheduled for commercial release by Miramax Films early in‭ ‬2011,‭ ‬the thriller‭ “‬is a U.S.‭ ‬version of an Israeli film that was made with Gila Almagor about three years ago,‭” ‬notes Davis.‭ ‬Originally,‭ ‬the film was supposed to be released in December,‭ ‬but then it was rescheduled.‭ ‬But because of the original release date,‭ ‬that’s why they were eager to have the film festival launch it.‭”

A scene from‭ ‬Jews and Baseball.

Hoffman narrates a documentary with plenty of built-in appeal,‭ ‬Jews and Baseball:‭ ‬An American Love Story‭ ‬(Dec,‭ ‬7,‭ ‬Regal Delray‭ ‬18‭; ‬Dec.‭ ‬12,‭ ‬Cobb Downtown‭)‬.‭ “‬It’s a wonderful film,‭ ‬better than‭ ‬‘The Hank Greenberg Story‭’‬ because it has a broader historical scope and perspective.‭ ‬Did you know that the first Jewish baseball players began playing in the late‭ ‬19th century‭?‬,‭” ‬asks Davis.‭ “‬I’m not a sports fan,‭ ‬but there was just something so engaging about this film.‭”

The opening night of the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival coincides with the beginning of Hanukkah.‭ ‬As Davis explains,‭ “‬We chose December for the festival,‭ ‬because back in its early days,‭ ‬there was very little here for Jews because the month was so dominated by Christmas.‭ ‬So the Jewish Arts Foundation,‭ ‬which began the festival,‭ ‬decided to offer it as sort of a Hanukkah gift to the Jewish community.‭ ‬And we do have people buy tickets as Hanukkah gifts.‭ ‬Most of all,‭ ‬they buy the passes to gift themselves.‭”

Davis and her screening committee are content to bring to the area the best films from around the globe on Jewish subjects.‭ ‬But invariably,‭ ‬by serendipity,‭ ‬common themes tend to emerge from their choices.‭

“There are several small themes.‭ ‬One is the idea of forbidden or thwarted love.‭ ‬Three films fall into that category‭ ‬– ‘Oh,‭ ‬What a Mess,‭’‬ ‘He’s My Girl,‭’‬ and‭ ‬‘Adam’s Wall.‭’‬ Then there’s a broader theme,‭ ‬which has to do with the conflict between assimilation and identity.‭ ‬Both‭ ‬‘Bridge Over Wadi‭’‬ and‭ ‬‘World Class Kids,‭’ ‬as well as‭ ‬‘Lone Samaritan‭’‬ and‭ ‬‘Sayed Kashua‭’‬ deal with issues of multi-culturalism in Israel,‭ ‬how to be an Israeli citizen and still maintain your character,‭ ‬your identity.

‭“‬There’s a sub-theme which I call‭ ‘‬gutsy women.‭’ ‬One of them is‭ ‬‘Berlin‭ ’‬36,‭’‬ which is about the women Olympic high jumper.‭ ‬The other is‭ ‬‘Sixty in the City,‭’‬ a documentary about the‭ ‬60-year-old filmmaker who documents her experiences with on-line dating.‭ ‬‘Ahead of Time,‭’‬ a terrific documentary about the life of Ruth Gruber.‭”

Asked to single out five films that are must-sees‭ ‬--‭ ‬a request that Davis hates‭ ‬--‭ ‬she nonetheless gives in and agrees to cooperate.‭ “‬I would say‭ ‬‘The Matchmaker,‭’‬ because it‭’‬s an outstanding Israeli film that covers a historical period of time‭ ‬--‭ ‬the early‭ ‬'50s‭ ‬--‭ ‬that is not normally covered in Israel cinema.‭

“I would say‭ ‬‘The Round Up,‭’‬ a French film that deals with the French round-up of Jews.‭ ‬They were sent to this cycling ring,‭ ‬the Vel d’Hiv,‭ ‬in a sweltering summer.‭ ‬It was sort of like the situation after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.‭ ‬And then the Jews were all put on trains and sent to work camps and death camps.

‭“‬I would say‭ ‬‘Saviors in the Night‭’‬ is another outstanding film.‭ ‬Of course‭ ‬‘Jews and Baseball,‭’‬ but that doesn’t need any publicity.‭ ‬People will just see the title and come.‭ ‬And we have a very sweet historical drama called‭ ‬‘Gei-Oni‭ (‬Valley of Fortitude‭)‬’,‭ ‬about the founding of an Israeli town called Rosh Pina in the‭ ‬19th century.‭ ‬That’s five,‭ ‬but there are so many more good films in this festival,‭ ‬it’s really unfair to ask me to choose.‭”

THE‭ ‬21ST ANNUAL PALM BEACH JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL,‭ ‬Dec.‭ ‬1-12.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$8-$10,‭ ‬


Alejandra Manzo in‭ ‬Anita.

Anita‭ ‬(Cobb Downtown,‭ ‬Dec.‭ ‬1,‭ ‬7:20‭ ‬p.m.‭; ‬Regal Delray‭ ‬18,‭ ‬Dec.‭ ‬2,‭ ‬7:20‭ ‬p.m.‭) ‬--‭ ‬In a simple apartment in Buenos Aires,‭ ‬Dora‭ (‬played by Oscar-nominated Norma Aleandro of‭ ‬Gaby:‭ ‬A True Story‭) ‬lives with her daughter Anita‭ (‬the remarkable Alejandra Manzo‭)‬,‭ ‬who has Down syndrome.‭ ‬Anita’s life revolves around her endlessly patient mother,‭ ‬as well as her brother Ariel,‭ ‬who arrives with his wife for his ritual Sunday visit,‭ ‬but is too preoccupied with the World Cup soccer match to take Anita on a promised trip to the zoo.

That casual neglect comes back to haunt Ariel,‭ ‬for when Dora leaves Anita alone in the family stationery store to visit a Jewish charity to collect some subsidy money,‭ ‬a terrorist bomb explodes,‭ ‬leaving an uncomprehending,‭ ‬but trusting Anita to wander the streets in search of food and shelter.‭ ‬The city becomes one of the characters,‭ ‬as she receives help from unexpected sources,‭ ‬like a grizzled rummy and an Asian immigrant family that are each disarmed by this pudgy-faced child-woman.

The film’s success hinges on the role of Anita and Manzo gives an extraordinary,‭ ‬natural performance calculated to melt hearts.‭ ‬Director-writer Marcos Carnevale guides the film with assurance,‭ ‬capturing the chaos following the urban bombing,‭ ‬but never straying far from a close-up of Manzo.

‭ * * *

Bat-el Papura and Tuval Shafir in‭ ‬The Matchmaker.

The Matchmaker‭ (‬Cobb Downtown,‭ ‬Dec.‭ ‬4,‭ ‬7:20‭ ‬p.m.‭) ‬--‭ ‬Move over,‭ ‬Dolly Gallagher Levi.‭ ‬Make way for Yankele Bride,‭ ‬the title character in director Avi Nesher’s sweet memory tale of a youth named Arik Burstein who comes of age in Haifa,‭ ‬circa‭ ‬1968,‭ ‬under the tutelage of the pragmatic,‭ ‬professional romantic who dedicates himself to matching up clients with‭ “‬what they need,‭ ‬not what they want.‭”

The world that opens itself to Arik‭ (‬Tuval Shafir‭) ‬is populated with highly colorful characters.‭ ‬Foremost is Yankele,‭ ‬whose scarred face suggests a mysterious,‭ ‬dark past,‭ ‬yet as played by Israeli stand-up comic Adir Mller,‭ ‬he is gentle and brimming with wry wisdom.‭ ‬There’s alluring blonde Clara‭ (‬Maya Dagan‭)‬,‭ ‬who assists Yankele in preparing his clients for romance that they tend to fall madly in love with her instead of the intended match.‭ ‬One such eager bride is the sassy dwarf Sylvia‭ (‬delicately featured,‭ ‬diminutive Bat-el Papura‭)‬,‭ ‬the proprietress of a movie theater within Haifa’s red light district.

While these lovelorn adults sort out their stunted emotions,‭ ‬Arik is coming under the spell of a teenager vixen named Tamara‭ (‬Neta Porat‭)‬,‭ ‬who knows how to string the defenseless lad along.‭ ‬Deftly set against the turmoil of the outside world,‭ ‬this fable-like saga walks a tricky tightrope between sentiment and sentimentality.‭

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