Sunday, August 5, 2007

Jason goes to Jewfest--Saturday, Aug. 4

The festival continues in San Rafael for two more days, but I'm done with it. So here we go, 4 movies yesterday:

The day started with music, with the documentary "Yiddish Soul" and the accompanying concert film, "Concert Yiddish Soul". The first is pretty heavy on the music, with just the bare minimum introduction of the history of Yiddish klezmer music and how it was all but destroyed in the shoah. There's brief introductions of the musicians, Chava Alberstein, Myriam Fuks, Shura Lipovsky, Karsten Troyke (my favorite, he did the best job of mixing comedy into his performance), the KlezRoym. Interestingly, a lot of the newer musicians aren't even Jewish, but Yiddish klezmer has achieved a respected status as "world music" that can be enjoyed by anyone. If "Yiddish Soul" mostly lets the music speak for itself, "Concert Yiddish Soul" does only that. It's just raw concert footage, but after watching the first movie you know all the musicians in the concert, and you can just sit back and enjoy the music. Which is nice because too many music documentaries cut the performances short just when you're getting into it. This isn't really the case with "Yiddish Soul", but it's a good idea for many other music documentaries to include a companion piece with just the concert.

Next up, the musical day continued, moving a little further east to Arabic music in "Between Two Notes". Specifically, it focuses on Arab Jews who played classical Arab music and keep the tradition alive (although under fire) in Israel. Director Florence Strauss (daughter of famous Egyptian born French film producer Robert Hakim) is herself descended from Arab Jews, and used this movie to explore her own roots. There's some obvious points about using music to bridge gaps (a major theme of the festival this year), but again it focuses mostly on the music and lets it speak for itself. It is interesting to hear so many scholars talk about quarter tones and how western ears don't know how to listen to Middle Eastern music. They tend to find it repetitive (and songs allegedly go on for hours), but if you have an ear that can hear the quarter tones you realize that it's not repetition it's variations on a theme. Well, my ears can't hear it, but if that's so this is a case where a documentary cutting performances short is a good thing, because I never really got bored with the music. Oh, and the guy who put an extra valve in his trumpet so he could play those tones, thereby inventing the "Arab Trumpet" was way cool.

Next up was yet another documentary, but his one wasn't about music, it was about crypto-Jews; Jews who were forced to convert during the Spanish Inquisition but secretly kept vestiges of their Jewish heritage (lighting candles on Friday night, not eating pork, etc.). "The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America" looks at some contemporary descendants of crypto-Jews and their journey to convert (or re-convert) back to Judaism and find a sense of community with their fellow Jews. The tragic thing is, the small pockets of established Jewish community that exist are all holocaust survivors and have (understandably) become very insular and distrusting of outsiders. So a reform conversion--performed by Kansas City rabbi and the film's hero Jacques Cuikerkorn--isn't good enough to let them into the synagogue. However, as one subject finds out, neither is an orthodox conversion. Basically, the established Jewish communities come off looking rather bad, and they don't help their cause by mostly refusing to be in the movie. Ultimately the triumph of the conversions is mostly destroyed by the epilogue showing that one year later things are even tougher for them, while they aren't welcomed into the Jewish community but are shunned more by the overwhelming Roman Catholic culture. Another note, the Catholic culture is so ingrained in South America that it's hard to shake, and it's really funny to see someone kiss a mezuzah and then cross herself.

I needed rush tickets to get into the next movie, "Sweet Mud", and so I should have ran out into line right when the credits rolled (un?) fortunately, there was a panel discussion on crypto-Jews after the movie, and darn it if it wasn't so interesting that I decided to stay and listen instead. So by the time I got out the rush line was way too long, and after waiting a bit to see how it might go, I decided to give up. You see, whenever I know I'm going to stand in a rush line, I have a backup plan if I don't get tickets. In this case, my backup was to stroll over to the Shattuck Cinema and see "The Ten" instead. It's a wacky comedy of 10 short stories each based on one of the commandments. So there is a Jewish tie in there, but it's not in the festival and so it's the subject of a different post.

Anyway, it got out just in time for me to wander back and catch the final Jewfest film in Berkeley, "Three Mothers", which was nominated for 9 Ophirs (Israeli Academy Awards) and won 2, but lost best picture to a tie between "Aviva, My Love" and, of all thing, "Sweet Mud" (another reason I figured I could miss it, I'd probably have other chances to see it). "Three Mothers" is about triplets--Flora, Rose, and Yasmin--born in Alexandria, Egypt around 1940. King Farouk himself came to witness the newborns. But they're Jewish, and so they eventually had to leave and go to Israel. The narrative jumps back and forth in time, from their childhood to their young adulthood (marriage, children), to their old age, where Yasmin is dying of kidney failure and is desperately in need of a transplant. This triggers all three of them to go to Rose's daughter Rucha who works at a video production company making video wills for the dying. They each in turn unburden themselves of a terrible event in their past, one that simultaneously strains and strengthens their odd symbiotic relationship. Very emotional, although possibly relying too much on easy emotional shocks (loss of a son, husband, etc), but a very well made movie with some marvelous acting and a great look (cinematography is one of the Ophirs it won).

And that, as far as I'm concerned, is San Francisco Jewfest 2007. As I said, it continues in San Rafael for two more days, but I'm busy today preparing for a business trip to Birmingham, AL early Monday morning. I should be back Wednesday, just in time for Dead Channels on Thursday.

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