Sunday, July 26, 2009

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 2

First, let me say that the frustration of last Thursday is all in the past, and I'm in full enjoying-the-festival mode.

First up on Saturday, a pair of movies by Israeli director David Ofek, starting with his old short movie, HOME. Set during the 1st gulf war, a family has moved from Iraq to Israel, and watches the war on TV. A fascinating question of what is "home." Is it the building with a sealed room (for Scud missile attacks from Iraq) where they currently live in Israel, or the building they see getting blown up on TV?

Then we saw Ofek's new feature, THE TALE OF NICOLAI & THE LAW OF RETURN. It's told as a fable--it actually starts with "Once upon a time"--about the immigrant laborer experience . The fable starts in Romania with factory worker Nicolai. Actually, it starts with the factory being shut down and Nicolai looking for work. He ends up taking a job as a construction worker in Israel. The Manpower company that hired him and contracts his work out took his passport and most of his paycheck. Basically, he's treated like a slave. That is, until the foreman compliments his floor planning work by saying "you have the brain of a Jew." Turns out, he has a Jewish grandmother--his mother's mother, in fact, making him legally Jewish. He knew nothing about the Law of Return, allowing any Jew to become an Israeli citizen. But this knowledge sets his wife back in Romania on a quest to find some documentary proof. Never before has a simple transcript with the words "Religion: Jewish" brought so much joy. The moral--it's much better to be Romanian with a Jewish grandma than a foreign worker. Later, as a citizen he starts his own renovation business and hires some Romanian workers. And he plasters David Ofek's walls, tells him his story, and Ofek makes this movie. Although it's a recreation, he cast all the real people to play themselves, which makes it almost a documentary. A documentary fable--a really unusual beast, that hides serious questions/critiques of Israel beneath a lighthearted tone.

Next up was apparently a controversial program that ignited calls for boycott of the festival, and I can't really say why. I've seen far more controversial films, both in other festivals and in previous years of SFJFF. Heck, if you're talking about criticizing official Israeli policy, I think the previous film THE TALE OF NICOLAI & THE LAW OF RETURN was more critical in it's attack on the treatment of foreign workers.

But I get ahead of myself. First there was a short, PRRRIDE. An experimental documentary about a drummer/soldier, and his first-person testimony told while he's drumming and with his head just off screen (we see his body drumming, but no head, making him in effect anonymous).

The feature was RACHEL. In March 2003 (days before the Iraq war knocked it out of the headlines), Rachel Corrie was killed by an IDF bulldozer. She was in Gaza with an organization called the International Solidarity Movement (a peace movement or terrorist sympathizers, depending on who you ask), and was there that day specifically to try to stop the bulldozers from destroying Palestinian homes (or terrorist bomb making or weapon smuggling operations, depending on who you ask). Eyewitness testimony from her ISM friends and the Palestinians claims her death was a deliberate, criminal act and she's a martyr (posters of her were plastered everywhere). An official Israeli investigation ruled it an accident, that she was crushed beneath dirt and rubble the bulldozer was pushing, but the crew couldn't see her and the bulldozer blade never touched her. Director Simone Bitton gets remarkable first hand accounts and crafts a cinematic essay that's about as dispassionate as it could possibly be with this incident. She interviews ISM members, her Palestinian host, the Palestinian doctor who first tried to save her. But she also interviews the Israeli side--the IDF spokeswoman, a military investigator, the doctor who did her autopsy (concluding she was suffocated, not crushed by a metal blade), even the bulldozer drivers (who wish they had never been there). She weaves these with passages from Rachel's diary, which are often touching, just as often incredibly naive in their idealism, and at times plain goofy (I didn't know anyone still danced to Pat Benatar songs in 2003).

Before the film, a counterpoint was made by a representative of the San Francisco Voice For Israel, and was sadly too often shouted down by the audience. It made me ashamed and angry to see so many Jews (or anyone) against free speech. And this doesn't mean I agreed with him. I've already said I don't think the film is that controversial and arguments against playing it are pretty weak. But I still wanted to hear what he had to say.

I remember a story I heard in college (possibly apocryphal) about a neo-Nazi group that was denied a permit to hold a rally. So they went to the ACLU for help fighting this in court, thinking if the ACLU wouldn't help, they could at least accuse them of hypocrisy. But he ACLU did help, and provided them with lawyers who won them the right to hold a rally. And then the ACLU revealed to the neo-Nazis that those lawyers who won their case for them were Jewish. This story makes me proud as an American, as a huge believer in free speech, as an ACLU member, and as a Jew.

Afterwards, Rachel's mother spoke and took a few questions, which was fascinating and moving.

I do have to agree with one woman afterward who said it would've been better if both sides had spoken afterward, instead of one first and one after. That is, I think it would've been more interesting (although the screening already had plenty of drama), not that he got of free by speaking first and leaving before hearing the other side.

And finally, to the woman up front who kept yelling "We have a right to criticize Israeli policy!" (as if official Israeli policy was "We must kill Rachel Corrie")--I agree with you. But just because you have the right to criticize a policy, it doesn't mean nobody has the right to defend it. With all that shouting down your enemy, you're worse than Fox News.

We stuck with Israel and drama one more movie, ZRUBAVEL (incidentally, my 300th feature-length movie program of the year). It's a beautiful slice of life of an Ethiopian Jewish family in Israel--an under-represented group. Made with all non-actors (the female lead, who was there for the screening, is a singer). Like most slice-of-life movies, it's hard to summarize a plot. There's a family. A youngest boy who wants to be filmmaker (the next Spike Lee). An older brother who (kinda) wants to be a fighter pilot, but really just gets into trouble a lot. There's a daughter sneaking off to the roof with her boyfriend Tupac, who's actually a distant relative which is okay with him but the family is a stickler for the 7 generations removed rule (not sure where the rule comes from). And there's a proud patriarch holding the family together while working as a street sweeper and learning Hebrew. There's also seemingly racist cops, a good mix of joy and tragedy, and some great music.

Then we finally got into lighter fare for the evening, starting with the Natalie Portman's directorial debut, the short film EVE. A young woman goes to visit her grandmother, who's a bit of a hard-drinking broad and has a hot date tonight. So the young woman ends up being a chaperone while desperately trying to talk about her mother (about what is never really clear, although hints are dropped that she's hooked on speed). It was great to see classic actors Lauren Bacall and Ben Gazzara stealing some scenes (as the grandmother and her date, of course).

And appropriately, EVE was paired with the feature film ADAM. This has a release from Fox Searchlight, and I've been seeing the trailers pretty regularly at the Landmark Theaters. I'm happy to say that the movie itself is not as cliche as the trailers make it seem. It's a movie that Nancy Fishman programmed as "Jewish because I said so"--the female lead's family is Jewish, but it's not really a plot or character point in the movie. It's about science (which gets my interest) and about love and the difficult process of trying to get out of your own head and make a connection with someone else, which I can certainly relate to even if I don't have Asperger's syndrome. Oh yeah, Adam is an astronomy fanatic with Asperger's. His father just died, and he has no one to take care of him. He has a job designing microchips for talking dolls, but is too much of a geek and makes chips with too many features (voice recognition that adapts the doll's speech to whoever talks to it). Beth moves into his apartment complex, and there's instantly some chemistry. He's taken with her, and she thinks he's sweet but weird. When he reveals and explains his condition, she becomes more patient, and eventually they do become a couple. Of course, his Asperger's makes things difficult, but the big wrench in the works is her father. He's an accountant who's going on trial for some fraud he might have committed to help out the daughter of an old family friend. Interesting contrast, while Adam can basically never lie, the father seems to always be lying. Anyway, this isn't really a romantic comedy, although the trailer might make you think so. It has it's comic moments, and it has it's romantic moments, but it's really about interesting characters and how they struggle. I'll say again, I liked this much more than I thought I would from the trailer.

And finally, we ended the night with some claymation twisted comedy, MARY AND MAX, by Academy Award winning animator Adam Elliot (HARVIE KRUMPET). Mary Daisy Dinkle (voice of Toni Collette) is a little girl in a small Australian town. She's teased a lot because of her brown birthmark on her forehead, her mom's an alcoholic, and her father works in a factory attaching strings to teabags and then stuffs roadkill birds when he gets home. She writes a letter at random to an American she finds in the phone book. That American is Max Jerry Horovitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman)--a loner New Yorker who was born Jewish (hence it fits into the festival) but is now an atheist. And, we find out eventually, has Asperger's, matching it well with the previous film. They remain pen pals, mailing different chocolate treats and letters back and forth, and alleviating their own loneliness, although Max has a panic attack with every letter he receives. As Mary grows up, goes to University, uses Max as her thesis project on Asperger's, and marries the greek gay-boy next door (voice of Eric Bana), Max has his own adventures. He spends some time in the loony bin, is acquitted of manslaughter when his AC unit falls and crushes a mime (he's ruled mentally deficient and incapable of having a motive for killing a mime--unlike everyone else), and wins the lottery (and spends his winnings on a lifetime supply of chocolate before giving the rest to his neighbor). Whether silly or tragic, Adam Elliot has a twisted sense of humor that teases the best laugh out of every situation. This is not a safe, gentle comedy, this is a comedy where jokes are made about people dying. Although I hesitate to call it "dark" comedy. There's a lightness to the touch, even when people die. I don't know how to put my finger on it. Maybe it's just Australian (Barry Humphries narrates, and probably has the most to do voice-wise with keeping the tone where it is). Anyway, I loved it.

And that's the end of the first full day of Jewfest North. Just in time for me to catch BART back up for today.

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