Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 3

Sunday was another long day in the Castro. Let's do this thing.

First up was a program celebrating the Ma'aleh Film School's 20th Anniversary. Ma'aleh is a film school in Jerusalem for (mostly) orthodox Jewish students. That is, it's set up to practice orthodox Judaism there, although there are secular students there, too (and recently, ultra-orthodox as well). The important thing is it encourages the students
to make films exploring their Jewish identity.

The program was a selection of 4 longish shorts as sort of a highlight reel from the school. And I'd add that I know that 20-30 minute shorts are often hard to program in a festival. They're too short to program alone, but a little long to play with an 80 minute feature. So it's nice to see a program giving space to these "mini movies".

SEPARATION: A portrait of a family falling apart, shown from the child's point of view. They keep bringing "weekday talk" to the sabbath dinner table. Mom and dad fight. The daughter tries to bring them together by using her little brother, but his asthma is a tragic complication.

A SHABBOS MOTHER: This is certainly not a very restful Sabbath. A chaotic family gets a new member on Shabbos.

ROSENZWEIG--BORN TO DANCE: A beautiful, fascinating documentary about an old man (Avigdor Rosenzweig) who as a twenty year old survived the Holocaust by dancing to entertain the Germans. And he still dances today.

AND THOU SHALT LOVE: A gripping drama of a Yeshiva student trying to "cure" his homosexuality. He's doing well (40 days gay-free), until the object of his affection returns from the army.

Next up was the first half of a social justice double bill, WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE. So far, my surprise hit of the festival. Co-directing sisters Emily and Sarah can be excused for having a bit of hero worship for Bill Kunstler--he is, after all, their dad. But they take an interesting approach to this activist lawyer's career, starting at the end, when they remember him defending some pretty nasty people (John Gotti, the first World Trade Center Bombers, a guy who murdered a racist rabbi, the Central Park "wolfpack" rapist/killers, etc.) He had been a man of great conscience, but had he become just a notoriety hound? Did he relish defending the worst just to stand up with the most hated? It's a difficult question, but used as a jumping off point to go back to his earlier career. When he defended the Chicago 7 (or 8, if you count right. BTW, Bobby Seale is supposed to be at the Berkeley screening on August 2). When he unsuccessfully tried to negotiate an end to the standoff at Attica (a failure he seemed to take very personally), or his success at defusing the standoff at Wounded Knee (a success that he also seemed to take personally, and was a very close friend and ally of the American Indian community). The film has some amazing archival footage, including some very sweet home movies of the directors as children. It shows Bill Kunstler as a driven, idealistic workaholic and as a merry prankster who turned the courtroom into a comic theatre (and who was very engaging and loving in his home life, too). Reconciling his 60's and 70's career with his later life defending scum is the big challenge of the movie, and one I'm tempted to say is only partly met. But with a man as complicated as him, perhaps a partial understanding is all we'll ever get, even members of his own family.

Afterwards, rather than a traditional Q&A, there was a panel discussion on Social Justice in Jewish culture with Emily and Sarah Kunstler, Andy Bichlbaum (from the next movie), and spokespeople for various bay area social justice organizations. It was an interesting, engaging discussion that's been going on for thousands of years, so of course it wasn't all solve last night. But I did learn my favorite new factoid--in apartheid South Africa, Jews were voted as white by just one vote is the legislature.

The next film was a hilarious take on social activism, THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD. I really need to go rewatch the first YES MEN movie (from back in 2004 or so). Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are up to their tricks, setting up fake websites and posing as corporate spokesman to mock and disrupt their targets with outrageous stunts. They open as Dow Chemical spokesman, first at a trade show on risk explaining how skeletons in their closets, if profitable enough, should be thought of as "golden skeletons", literally linking death t profit. They also go on BBC worldwide to announce that Dow, three years after buying Union Carbide, will finally take full responsibility for the Bhopal disaster, liquidating the Union Carbide assets and using it to pay $12 billion to the victims (and causing their stock to lose $2 billion in value). They take the gross route by making human flesh candles (no, not really) as the fuel solution of the future. They even print their own newspaper--which they call The New York Times--announcing news in the future they hope to see (banner headline: Iraq War Ends). I even got a copy of that paper for a small donation afterwards. The fascinating part is how far they can get before people find them out (Reuters had picked up their Bhopal story before anyone found out it was a hoax). When they present patently ridiculous ideas like a Halliburton "survival ball", industry people love it. Another interesting point was the question of "false hope" that's raised. After the Bhopal story was revealed to be a hoax, a BBC interviewer asked if that wasn't more cruel. So they went to Bhopal and found...everyone loved them for what they did, showing just how easy it would be for Dow to do the right thing. At least, everyone they showed on camera loved them. But if you think for a freakin' second, of course they'd be more loved than Dow spokesmen who brush Bhopal aside. A funny movie that doesn't quite fix the world, but gives it a pretty good shot.

Next we dove into the world of anti-semitism with DEFAMATION. Israeli director Yoav Shamir has always lived in Israel, and never experienced anti-semitism. But he was accused of anti-semitism (i.e., being a self-hating Jew) for his 2004 film CHECKPOINT. So he picked up his camera and decided to make a film about how contemporary Jews in Israel. Europe, and America perceive anti-semitism. He goes straight to the leading light, Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, and follows their mission. He tries desperately to get on a case, but doesn't really find much (despite a reported rise in anti-semitism in recent years). A talk with black youth living near a Jewish neighborhood in New York either reveals anti-semitism, or the difficulties of living in a multi-cultural society. Meanwhile, back in Israel a youth group travels to Auschwitz (just before joining the army), torn between a cathartic desire to feel the
pain and anger their parents and grandparents feel and wanting to look forward. He also interviews prominent Jewish critics, such as Norm Finklestein who argues that Holocaust obsession is unhealthy (he's on the ADL's list of anti-semites for that) or professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt who wrote "The Israel Lobby". And those are the two topics that keep coming up. First, is an obsession with fighting anti-semitism (and Holocaust obsession) and seeing it in the smallest thing really healthy? An Orthodox rabbi observes that while fighting anti-semitism is good, it seems that secular Jews seem more attuned to it than religious Jews, as if seeing and fighting anti-semitism is an important part of their Jewish identity that religious Jews don't need. And the second, humongous question is whether criticizing Israel is anti-semitism. Perhaps it is, perhaps (probably) it isn't, and perhaps (almost surely) it's a mix of both. It's a question the film raises, but never really answers (as I've heard in other movies, ask 3 Jews a question and you'll get 5 answers). Still, it's engaging enough just to ask the question.

I have to say, this movie and it's questions resonated with me on a personal level. I'm a half Jew. My dad is Jewish, my mother isn't, so I'm not a "really real" Jew (even ignoring the fact that I'm not at all religious). Still, I'm proud of my Jewish heritage, and honor it in my own way (I fast on Yom Kippur, but break the fast with bacon). I've never been the victim of anti-semitism (that I can recall), but when my Jewish "credentials" are challenged, I fall back on the fact that those who want to kill all Jews, both today and in history, would count me as a Jew. Only in recent years have I come to an understanding of how much of my Jewish identification has to do with persecution and victim culture. And I'm really coming to not like that (I suppose that makes me a self hating Jew, and will put me on the ADL's shit list). I'd rather express my Jewish-ness by, say, supporting the SF Jewish Film Festival (and also the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival, or Jewfest South), than by pretending to be a victim of something I've never really experienced.

Anyway, I was pretty loopy by the time we got to the final program, which started with a short, SIDNEY TURTLEBAUM. In more of a character study than a story, Derek Jacobi plays a bitter, lonely old homosexual who scans the London Jewish Post and finds obituary listing. Then he goes to the grieving families sitting shiv, comforts them (pretending to be an old family friend), sings for them, and robs from them. The filmmakers hope to turn this character into a feature film, and I'd want to see that film.

And finally, a very French romantic comedy with Jewish (and Israeli) trappings, HELLO GOODBYE. Gerard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant play a very secular french couple. Gisele is a lawyer who converted to Judaism to marry Alain, a gynecologist who hardly knows how to wear a yarmulke or say a prayer. But when their son marries a non-Jew (in a church!), they decide to move to the holy land. She's enraptured immediately and throws herself into creating their new Israeli life, not even blinking at hardships like when all their belongings are lost at sea while being shipped over. He, on the other hand, hates it. His job falls through and he ends up cleaning cars. He's constantly "not Jewish enough". She even convinces him to finally get circumcised. He accuses her of having an affair with her teacher (and she considers it--she is catching on in class very quickly). Meanwhile, has barely learned a few words of Hebrew. Their marriage was already missing a spark, but now Israel might tear them apart. The acting, of course, was great--two masters working their craft effortlessly. But I thought the story was just okay. There were funny bits, but in the end it's just a standard French romantic comedy with "Jewish" as the twist. It could've been anything to create a "fish out of water" setup. I don't know, maybe I was just tired after two long days watching movies. I didn't even have time to eat anything but a bag of popcorn on Sunday.

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