Sunday, October 21, 2007

Jason goes to SJJFF--Sunday, Oct. 21

That's the San Jose Jewish Film Festival, as opposed to the SF Jewfest, which I also attended. Three movies last Sunday, all of which were pretty darn good.

First up was the documentary "Blues on the Beach". In 2003 New York documentary filmmaker Jack Baxter went to Israel looking for a story. He thought at first he'd do a story on a terrorist who was going to trial. In the past he had worked closely with Israeli peace activists, and he thought there was a story about how he turned to terrorism instead. But after meeting with families of the victims, Jack decided that this terrorist was not a good hero for his film, and decided to pack it in and go home early. Walking on the beach that night, he heard Blues music and found Mike's Place, a friendly neighborhood bar and restaurant with live Blues on the beach in Tel Aviv. He decided this was his story. Getting help from local filmmaker Joshua Faudem (who is credited as director) and his girlfriend Pavla Fleishcer (who just recently moved with him to Israel from Prague) he sets about documenting the wonderful, friendly, colorful people who work and hang out there. It's a non-political place, an Anglo-friendly place (even if you order in Hebrew, the waiters will answer in English), and a place where Israeli Jews, Arabs, Christians, atheists, foreigners, whatever hang out and enjoy life. Because, I thought to myself, if there's one thing people of all faiths can agree on, it's stealing Black people's music.

Now I'll have to give a major spoiler, but it's really the whole point of the movie. So if you don't like spoilers skip this paragraph and just continue thinking it's a nice documentary about a cool blues bar in Tel Aviv. Okay, everybody gone? Here we go. Suddenly a suicide bomb attack rips through the bar. The movie is suddenly about that attack and the aftermath. I've seen plenty of movies--fictional and documentary--about terrorist attacks, not to mention all the news coverage. I've never seen anything that captures the absolute shocking suddenness and devastation of an attack. One minute everyone is dancing, the next moment everyone is bloody and three people are dead. I've also never seen a movie that lets you fall so much in love with the victims before the attack. I'm still a little broken up about Dom, the waitress who'd moved there just months ago from Paris and died in the attack--and I'd only known her (on film) for about 20 minutes. Or the friendly doorman who apparently prevented a much worse attack by turning the terrorist away and preventing him from detonating in the middle of the crowd (he survived, but was in critical condition for a long time). The filmmakers are by no means immune. They all survive but Baxter is in the hospital for a long time. Joshua and Pavla break up in the stress of the aftermath, and she returns to Prague. But through it all, there's also a spirit of survival, as Mike's Place works to re-open (despite finding new bits of human flesh in the nooks and crannies every few days) and finally does. Security is of course tighter now, but it's still the popular hangout and inclusive escape from the outside world. An excellent movie, but tough to watch.

Next up was the award-winning Israeli film "Aviva, My Love". The title character is your typical busy woman, torn among roles as mother (to her variously troubled children), daughter (to her crazy mother), sister (to her wild sister), hotel chef, and aspiring writer. Writer is what she really wants to be, what she should be, but what she has no time and no self-confidence to be. Her sister finds a great solution, when an established writer friend of hers agrees to help read Aviva's writing. At first it's a good coaching relationship, but eventually ulterior motives creep in. Seems he hasn't written anything in a while, and has lost inspiration. He proposes that he re-writes Aviva's stories, publishes them as his work, and gives her some ambiguous "stories by" credit. It's a story of a woman being pulled in all directions at once, and the compromises she makes for her family and for herself. Assi Levy completely earns the Ophir (Israeli Oscar) she won for her work. This movie also won several more Ophirs, including sharing Best Picture with "Sweet Mud", which plays later in the festival.

And the final movie of the night was "Olga", a biopic on Olga Benário, the German Jewish communist in the 30's who fell in love with the Brazilian communist rebel Luís Carlos Prestes (while serving as his bodyguard on a circuitous trip from Moscow to Rio de Janeiro), became his common-law wife, and helped him lead an unsuccessful revolution attempt. When the revolution failed, President Getúlio Vargas deported her to Germany, where she died Ravensbrück concentration camp, but not after giving birth to a daughter in prison (a daughter whom she never knew was actually adopted by her mother-in-law). This is a sprawling epic biography, 2 hours and 20 minutes long, but it's surprisingly good at maintaining energy. And it wisely lets the politics of communism fall into the background and focuses on the humanitarian side. Communism might be bad, but gassing people is much, much worse (and deporting someone to a country where you know they'll be executed is just as bad).

And that was last Sunday at the SJ Jewfest.
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