Monday, November 7, 2011

Jason goes to Jewfest South, Sunday November 6th

Formally known as the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival, but of course I call it Jewfest South, to distinguish between Jewfests North and East. Anyway, it's already half over and I only finally made it to their films yesterday. Four films, though:

First up, a pretty remarkable documentary A FILM UNFINISHED. In 1942, the Nazis made a propaganda film in the Warsaw Ghetto. The footage, labelled simply "The Ghetto" would've made it the longest Nazi propaganda film ever, if it had been completed. Instead, there are a collection of scenes of daily life--some staged showing Jews living in relative comfort, and others showing abject deprivation. For years the film was used as an "authentic" portrayal of ghetto life (although it's pretty clear when some scenes were staged). In 1998, new outtakes from the film were discovered that shed new light on exactly how much of the footage was staged. That, plus the meticulous diaries of Jewish council leader Adam Czerniakow and testimony of a cameraman show more precisely how much was staged and perhaps lead to clues about what the propagandists were trying to portray. My best guess is that they intended to contrast the privileged Jews living in luxury with the starving Jews on the streets, as some sort of "see, they don't care about their own people" message. Alternatively, perhaps only the luxury/comfort scenes were intended to be shown in one movie, and the scenes of starvation and death were for something else. In any case, there are of course plenty of shocking, horrific Holocaust scenes, and a fascinating inspection of the process of propaganda.

Speaking of propaganda and staged reality, next up was BERLIN '36. As in, the Olympic games in Berlin in 1936. And a major issue of the games--a threatened American boycott over Nazi Germany's racial policies. Specifically, if Jews weren't allowed to compete for the German team, the U.S. was threatening to walk out. Most important was Gretel Bergmann, one of the best female high jumpers in the world. If she wasn't given a chance to make the German team, that was a deal-breaker. So first Germany had to convince her to return from England, where she had fled. A few threats to her family made that happen. Then they had to make sure she didn't qualify. That's the hard part--she was clearly the best of their female high jumpers. So they found a new talent--Marie Ketteler had everything a champion female high jumper needed--strength, stamina, heart, a penis...wait, what?! Raised by her mother who always wanted a daughter, if (s)he hadn't been a useful part in the plan to keep Gretel out of the games (s)he probably would've been exterminated as a "mental defective." Instead, she's brought in as the main competition/Gretel's replacement. But as training is pretty miserable for both of them (Gretel isolated by others, Marie self-isolated), they actually end up becoming friends. The film really builds up the tension well, and leaves you hoping that Gretel will have a chance to compete and show the Nazi dolts how wrong they are. Of course, this is all based on a true story, so even though I won't spoil it here it's pretty trivial to read up and get spoilers from true life.

From a cursory read, it seems the biggest change in the film was that the Marie Ketteler character in real life was named Dora Ratjen. I'm not sure why they changed it for the movie (perhaps rights to her/his life story). The movie actually ends with a brief interview with Gretel, in her 90's and living in New York, and that was pretty cool.

Then the third film of the day, a real comedy treat, THE CONCERT. 30 years ago, Andrei Filipov was the conductor of the Bolshoi symphony. Now he's the janitor. Turns out that's because he stood up for his Jewish musicians against Brezhnev. Fat lot of good it did him, though. But then he intercepts a fax inviting the Bolshoi to play a concert in Paris. So he does what any sane man in a wacky comedy would do--he steals the fax and conspires with his friends to impersonate the Bolshoi and go to Paris and finally finish the Tchaikovsky concerto he was conducting when he was rudely interrupted by a party official. That's right, it's time to get the band (symphony) back together! All the musicians are off in different lives now (an ambulance driver, salesmen, gypsies, etc.) but they all magically pull together to make the impossible happen. A movie with a lot of laughs, a good heart, and I guess under it all a pretty sobering story about the treatment of Jewish musicians in the old Soviet Union.

And finally, we ended the night with the touching documentary PRECIOUS LIFE, which I had seen earlier this year at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Here's what I said back then:
PRECIOUS LIFE by journalist Shlomi Eldar. Shlomi had covered Gaza up until Hamas came to power and Gaza was essentially closed. One of the few remaining connections to Gaza are the hospitals--if a Palestinian in Gaza is sick enough, they will let him through to an Israeli hospital on humanitarian grounds. And that's how he met Mohammad, an immune-compromised infant whose desperate mother takes him to the hospital and tries to raise money for a bone marrow transplant. Shlomi goes on TV with the story and a mysterious anonymous donor offers up all the money needed. Now they just need to find a matching donor. None of Mohammad's siblings are a match, so they have to try to get cousins into Israel, which is no easy feat. There's a really moving comparison with the efforts to save one baby and the military operations that destroy so many people. It's a powerful reminder that when you look into innocent, dying eyes you can't help but see how precious life it. At the same time, conversations about martyrdom, and the family's struggle with scorn back in Gaza underscore how little we truly understand each other.
Yup, that pretty much sums it up. A really powerful movie, and then we followed it with a Skype chat with Shlomi, moderated by Permanente Medical Group CEO Dr. Robert Pearl. It was really great to get to hear from the director. And the best part--when he described how Mohammad's mother and father watched the movie and she was a strong, relatively stoic women (much like how she appears in the movie) but he was crying all the way through. One thing that really struck me seeing the movie again was how the mother really is a strong woman, just put in an awful situation so sometimes she says things she probably wishes she hadn't.

Total Running Time: 401 minutes
My Total Minutes: 255,206
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