Monday, August 4, 2008

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Saturday, August 2

This was the first day this year in Berkeley, and my one and only day to really go all out and just Jew out at that movies all day. 5 movies (well, some were double features of half-length films), let's get to it:

First up, a pair of documentaries by the Heyman brothers, Barak and Tomer, starting with the music doc, "Black Over White". This can fairly be described as a concert tour film about The Idan Raichel Project on their 2006 concert tour to Ethiopia. But it's more that that, as the Idan Raichel Project is hybrid pop/Yemeni/Ethiopian music group, with Israeli, Yemeni, and Ethiopian members. Race issues in Israel are difficult and elusive. Although all the members are talented musicians, there would be no audience without their Israeli front man (who opens the movie comparing his work to a chef, who ignores all the hard work that goes into growing a tomato just to chop it up and make it a side dish). One member is considered black in Israel and white in Ethiopia. Although I assume they're all friends and they make fine music together, these tensions boil over frequently, as the struggle to find a place to fit in is evident.

And the second movie was a hopeful documentary, "Bridge Over the Wadi". Wadi means "valley" in Arabic, and in this case the Bridge is a school--specifically, one of only three bilingual Hebrew-Arabic schools in Israel. Obviously it's brimming with idealism, and it is beautiful to see little Israeli and Palestinian children play together. But tensions of course arise. Mostly, it's when the parents see their children taking on aspects of the other culture--when Palestinians sing Hannukah songs or when Jewish children fast on Ramadan. And, of course, the most difficult date is the 5th of Iyar, also known alternatively as Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) or Palestine Nakba (“catastrophe”) Day. Working that into a dual lesson plan is quite a task for the teachers, who have trouble agreeing on it themselves.

Next up was another pair of documentaries, this time on queer Israeli life. "The Quest for the Missing Piece" is about that little covenant that marks men as Jewish. The most common cosmetic surgery in the world--circumcision. The filmmaker Oded Lotan is a gay Israeli man, who never thought much about his bris until he found out his boyfriend isn't circumcised. He interviews a mohel, talks to Jewish fathers, etc., and approaches it all with a wry sense of humor and absurdity, pointing out things like referring to an "uncircumcised" man would be like referring to an "un-mastectomized" woman (come to think of it, that line might not have been in the movie, that might have been in the introduction). But he does interview groups of "intact" men. Anyway, it was pretty funny.

The second half of this program was "Mother, I did not Kill Your Daughter", a film about a pair of Israeli men who we're born as girls and underwent gender reassignment surgery (one did it a long time ago, one is just starting out). Sometimes funny, but often more serious and somber, as they go through the trials of either getting to procedure or later getting legally recognized as a man. And of course, like in the previous movie, since it's Jewish there are strong opinions, and especially strong opinions from mothers.

So then we continued with the documentary vein, this time delving into a political documentary, "Bi'lin, My Love". Bi'lin is a small Palestinian village on the West Bank, right where the "security fence" is being constructed. Many villages have been bulldozed and relocated to make room for the fence (which is portrayed in the movie as more of a land grab than a security measure). Some have tried to resist, but almost all have failed. Bi'lin looks to be another, but it has some amazing residents. Most notably Mohamed, the leader of the non-violent protest group. Israeli director Shai Carmeli Pollak originally came to Bi'lin as an activist, but found he could not put down his camera. The result is an up close and personal account of the protests, as well as some shockingly candid interviews with Israeli soldiers, who frankly seem so tired of protests they can't care any more, although they do go through the motion of letting the protesters have their say before bulldozing through their olive orchards. More than anything, the soldiers seem numb and almost disinterested in the conflict, like they'd rather just do their job, fulfill their service, and go home. But as I said, the star is Mohamed, and his clever, artistic, and sometimes quite funny forms of protest. The most violent he gets is throwing a water balloon full of sewage, but he gets attention to his cause, and is soon joined by like-minded activists not just from elsewhere in the West Bank, but from Israel and around the world (although I got a sense that a lot of the Americans were there for a week and back home, sort of activist-tourism). A very interesting and moving document.

And then finally we got into narrative films, first with Isaac Bashevis Singer mini-trilogy, "Love Comes Lately" (based on the short stories "The Briefcase", "Old Love", and "Alone". Max Kohn (Otto Tausig) is an elderly writer, absent minded and confused, who travels the northeast giving lectures to small colleges and Jewish groups. His girlfriend Reisel (Rhea Perlman) is tired of his shenanigans (which include some cheating). On a lecture trip he writes a couple of stories (the framing device for two of the stories), meets an old student of his, sleeps with her, leaves, forgets his briefcase, and mostly muses on the nature of old, lonely horniness. There are some fine moments and great performances, but mostly it was slow and almost as confused as Max. I started with high hopes for this film, and it ended up kind of flat.

And finally, the day ended with the truly great (or at least truly beautiful) movie "Emotional Arithmetic", which boasts an excellent cast of Susan Sarandon, Christopher Plummer, Max von Sydow, and Gabriel Byrne. It opens on a shot of a house and windmill by a lake in the northeast (turns out, it was filmed in Quebec) that is so beautiful it could be a nostalgic painting. But instead, it's the home of sorta-crazy Melanie Winters (Sarandon) and her husband David (Plummer). They have a son, and a grandson, but something is amiss. And then she gets a letter from Jakob Bronski (von Sydow), and it's clear that this is someone important from her pass. He shows up to visit with a surprise, Christopher Lewis (Byrne). Turns out, Jakob, Melanie, and Christopher were in Drancy together. Drancy was a transit camp in Paris from which the Nazis shipped people to other camps (e.g., Auschwitz). Chris had a crush on Melanie, but when they were freed and she returned to America and he to Ireland, they fell out of touch. Now she's married and had put that mostly behind her. Jakob, meanwhile, was their mentor and protector in the camp, and taught them to document everything they saw--a notebook that Melanie still keeps. But after the war he was sent to gulags in the Soviet Union, underwent shock treatment, and now barely remembers their time in Drancy. In an odd twist, in some ways they take the reunion much better than does David, who presumably never went through anything so traumatic. David predicts a storm, and to some extent that happens, but in other ways they're still strong survivors. And in the end, it's a story of how time heals all wounds--but leaves scars.

And it's a beautifully photographed movie with some excellent acting. A nice way to end the day.

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