Friday, July 29, 2011

Jason goes to Jewfest--Day 7

I just saw one movie last Thursday, the final night of the festival at the Castro (it continues at the SF Jewish Community Center as well as in Berkeley and Palo Alto, before wrapping up in San Rafael).

Anyway, the one film I saw was perhaps the one I've been most eager to see, BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, made locally and internationally by festival founder Deborah Kaufman and her partner Alan Snitow. It uses as its starting point and infamous screening of RACHEL two years ago. RACHEL, a documentary about an activist who was run over by an Israeli bulldozer, triggered an outcry decrying it as Anti-Semitic/Anti-Israel, and moves to boycott/defund the festival. And it led to a near riot in the theater, and I was there. And yes, I'm in the crowd footage in the movie. They do show me smiling at a witticism Peter Stein made to start of the event, but what they don't capture (and I'm glad they didn't) was my personal feeling of dismay and discomfort as the atmosphere devolved into a shouting match where neither side was allowed to state their case.

So let me break from the film review and just recount some of my feelings being there. First, I wasn't paying attention so I didn't know there was a controversy, much less a near-riot brewing. I was there as a movie fan, and really it just fit in my schedule so I'd see it no matter what it was about. So I was blindsided more than anyone in that theater--thank G-d I wasn't a target of the outcry. And while I have my opinions about the political question (which I'll keep to myself for now), I like to think no matter which side of the debate I came down on I would still be dismayed at the lack of civility and respect on both sides.

I would like to echo the words of this year's Freedom of Expression honoree Kirk Douglas, who said freedom of expression is the most important thing in a democracy. I'll go one step further--freedom of expression is the most important thing in life (Yes, more important than food, or love, or shelter. If you are free to express yourself and have any skills whatsoever, you'll find a way to get everything else).

But as much as the near-riot at RACHEL dismayed me, I am careful to always remember that the festival in 2009 also featured two excellent documentaries about free speech crusaders--WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE and SHOUTING FIRE: STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF FREE SPEECH. And this speaks to the strength of the festival--that if there's one movie (or in this case, one audience) that disturbs me, there are two others ready to affirm and inspire me. Even in 2009, free speech at the festival was alive, well, and celebrated.

Okay, back to this film. While it uses the screening of RACHEL as a jumping off point (and points out that there is always a controversial film or two in the festival--they were truly surprised that the outrage was so much louder than usual this time), it goes many places from there. It goes to the Wiesenthal Center and it's mission at the Museum of Tolerance in L.A. It also goes to their planned Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem--built on the grounds of the largest Arab cemetery in the region. Talk about missing the point of tolerance! (On the other hand, I'm tempted to not comment because I don't know what other sites--if any--were considered, and how hard it would be to find another suitable site). It also shows a brilliantly passionate debate in the UC Berkeley senate talking about divestment from Israel (refusing to do business with any company that provides arms to Israel or any other support for the occupation). And the filmmakers use their personal stories to also explore the meaning and inherent conflicts in Jewish identity. She is the daughter of a proud Zionist. She was politically rebellious, but not as much as her sister who converted to Islam. He is the son of an ex-communist who admitted she could dance on McCarthy's grave. A wonderful film that explores Jewish conflict through stories of personal and global significance. And--I can't stress this enough--I'm in it for a few seconds! (Oh yeah, and it opens at the Roxie in another week)

After the film there was a roundtable discussion hosted by Michael Krasny of KQED Forum (our local NPR station). Both filmmakers were there, as well as a panel of scholars and community leaders. But easily the standout who really resonated with me was Rabbi Irwin Kula. He also spoke before the film about how conflict and debate has always been a part of Judaism and really Jewish continuity is the art of passing down not just the customs but this conflict. And most importantly he spoke about the art of debating fiercely but gracefully. A couple of pearls of wisdom he passed on, that I hope I haven't mangled too badly:

  • Always try to see the partial truth present in the opinion you find most repugnant.
  • It's easy to compare your best argument with your opponent's worst. Try to consider how your worst compares to their best.
Okay, that's enough for now.

Running Time: 70 minutes
My Total Minutes: 245,225

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