Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Jason goes to SJ Jewfest--Sun. Nov. 11

Last Sunday was the final weekend of the San Jose Jewish Film Festival. Since I'm behind in my updates, I'll just jump right in.

First up was a fascinating and tragic documentary, "Sentenced to Marriage". In Israel, marriage--and especially divorce--between Jews is controlled by rabbinic courts, not civil court. As a result, divorces must be in accordance with Torah law. In a nutshell, this means that the husband must write up a document of divorce and give it to the wife. If he doesn't write up the document (or if she doesn't accept it), they are not divorced. Furthermore, children born of a married woman who are fathered by someone other than her husband are banned from Judaism for 10 generations (their descendants can't even convert, but oddly children of an unmarried woman are just fine. Also, men can have multiple wives, although that's frowned on). If the husband refuses to divorce, the ancient tradition was to beat the crap out of him until he did. Sadly, that's no longer the case, and unhappy wives have only the court, which can be a traumatizing, drawn-out process. 3,000 years ago, these rules might've made sense (forcing a man to draw up a document of divorce at a time when few people were literate actually protected the wife from being thrown out), but nowadays there are potential problems. This movie follows three unhappy wives whose respective husbands refuse to divorce them (even as he has children by another woman). It's a pretty tragic situation. There was a speaker afterwards, Nitzhia Shaked, an Israeli lawyer who explained the marriage laws in more detail including the historic context (the movie made them just seem barbaric) and shed some light on how rare these cases were. It was very interesting. Here's a blurry picture of her:

Next up was a German monologue, "Just an Ordinary Jew". Ben Becker (“Gloomy Sunday”) stars as a Jewish German journalist (how's that for alliteration?) who receives a letter forwarded to him from the local Jewish community center. A social studies teacher is teaching about Judaism, and wanted the class to meet a Jew. Since he didn't know any himself, he sent an invitation to the Jewish community center, who asked him since he's a journalist and hence likes to tell stories. Well, he's at best uncomfortable (more like appalled), and sits down to write a polite letter declining the offer. But he has trouble crafting the letter, and in the solitude of his home he launches into an extended and scathing monologue on what it means to be a Jew in Germany today--much of which is equally applicable in any predominantly gentile country. It's pretty strange to see a 90 minute monologue as a movie (at least, now that Spalding Gray is dead), but about 20 minutes in when I came to terms with the fact that there would be no action, it got pretty good. I could totally see this as a stage performance, and I think it would work very well.

Next up was an even more intense movie, this one from Canada (I know, quiet northern neighbor my ass!). "Steel Toes" stars David Straithairn as Danny Dunkleman, a liberal Jewish lawyer and Andrew Walker as his client Mike Downey, a neo-nazi skinhead who kicked a Pakistani man to death with his steel-toed shoes. Obviously it's more than a little awkward. In fact, it's really fucking tense. In their first meeting, the skinhead says that "in a perfect world, I'd have you killed. In this world, you're my only hope". It's that attitude, and Danny's memory of his father teaching him to fight against that hate in both himself and others, that drives Danny. He quickly realizes that unless he can make Mike show remorse, he has no chance, and so that becomes Danny's goal. Meanwhile at home and at work it's creating tension, as he's mocked as "super liberal" and his wife threatens to leave him unless he spends a little less time with the skinhead and more time with his family. Over the months leading up to the trial, Danny works constantly to break down Mike, and explore the horrible influences of racism. It's not always easy to watch, but the acting is incredible. In fact, if this were handled with anything less than expert care on all counts, it would become unwatchable. As it is, it's intense.

And finally, the last movie on the night, was "Sweet Mud", the Israeli Academy Award winner for best picture. I missed this when it played at the SF Jewfest, but I told myself back then in August that it'll almost certainly come to San Jose, and I was right. It's a wonderfully weird coming of age story set on a dysfunctional kibbutz in the 70's. Dvir is 12 years old, the year when you study for you Bar Mitzvah. His mom is recently out of a sanatorium, his dad is dead, and he lives in the communal children's house on the kibbutz. It opens with Dvir witnessing kibbutz leader Avraham feeding the calves in the barn, including one feeding that becomes sort of unorthodox--in a bestiality sort of way (um...gross!) Well, that's the kind of kibbutz this is, although it doesn't quite get that perverse the rest of the way. When Dvir's mom's boyfriend (and Swiss Judo champion...about 30 years ago) comes to visit, at first Dvir is cautious but quickly he becomes a real and loving father figure. That is, until he defends Dvir--breaking Avraham's arm in the process--and gets kicked out of the kibbutz. The central conflict is Dvir trying to get them back together. But there's also a little girl as a love interest for Dvir, and older brother in the army, and a whole dysfunctional gang of characters. But in the end, it's a sweet story of growing up and escaping your upbringing.

And that was SJ Jewfest for me. There's one more movie, a Wednesday night screening of "Black Book", but I've already seen it so I'll skip it (although it is a fantastic movie).

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