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The 22nd Annual Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival

La Petite Jerusalem

Buffalo’s longest-lived such event, the Jewish Film Festival celebrates its 22nd year with a week’s worth of films from around the world, including seven features and eight documentaries. Saturday and Sunday screenings will be held at the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center, after which the series moves to the Amherst Theater for the remainder of the week. A special screening of the art documentary The Rape of Europa will close the festival on Sunday at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Full screening information is available at www.bijff.com. Among the films to be screened:

LA PETITE JERUSALEM

Sex is complicated enough without religion. Add the two together, pour them into the body and mind of an 18-year-old girl from an Orthodox Jewish family living in a tense Paris suburb, and you’ll find it easy to empathize with her for falling apart. Laura (Fanny Valette) is both connected to her family’s religious traditions and ambivalent about them. Deeply committed to her study of philosophy, Laura has the world all figured out in theory. One small problem: She’s had no life experience. Modeling herself after her idol, the celibate philosopher Kant, she rejects all prospects of romantic love. And then one day, she falls hard for an Arab youth. Karin Albou won a Best Screenplay award at the Cannes film festival for La Petite Jerusalem two years ago. She is part of a strong line of contemporary filmmakers influenced by Claire Denis. Like Denis, she often shoots in intimate close-up, concentrating as much on bodies and gestures as dialogue. This movie could easily have ended up as a satire of religion, sex or philosophy, but Albou doesn’t allow that. That would be too easy. Instead, using close physical observation, this sensitive film shows both compassion and critique for Laura’s choices.

girish shambu

(France, 2005, 94 minutes. In French and Hebrew with English subtitles.)

Sun, June 3, 5pm at the Market Arcade and Thu, June 7, 7pm at the Amherst Theatre.

Live and Become

LIVE AND BECOME

The piercingly sad scene near the beginning of Radu Mihaileanu’s Live and Become resonates with the very ill tidings of contemporary news reports: An African woman cradles a child, who expires in her arms. A white doctor closes its eyes. This might be in Darfur, Congo, or Sierra Leone in recent years.

It comes as a jarring reminder of the awful continuity of mass human misery over decades to realize that this scene is set in a refugee camp in Sudan in 1984, during yet another of the terrible political upheavals and humanitarian crises of post-colonial Africa. The mother, her just-deceased child and another son are part of the terrified migration from Ethiopia, hundreds of thousands trying to escape the predatory ravages of civil war in their country, but finding little safety or sustenance in the overcrowded camps in Sudan’s wastelands.

This mother steels herself to take drastic measures in a desperate attempt to ensure her remaining son’s survival. In a humanely and religiously motivated undertaking, Israel is rescuing and taking in Jewish refugees from Ethiopia (supposedly descendents of the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon’s visitor). This Christian woman sends her nine-year-old off with an assumed Jewish identity and the admonition, “Live and become.”

Newly named Schlomo by the admitting authorities, the boy, beset by fear, anger and a melancholy longing for his mother, is eventually adopted by a liberal, French-speaking white Jewish couple. But he slowly, painfully becomes part of a sometimes bewilderingly new existence, trying to achieve his mother’s desperate hopes.

Mihaileanu’s long (at nearly two and one-half hours) film is most successful in its first half, as the very young Schlomo resourcefully adapts to this life’s challenges, to contrive a new identity, an effort that he’ll have to continue into young adulthood.

This French-Israel production is enhanced by the performance of Moshe Agazai as the nine-year-old Schlomo (he’s also portrayed by Moshe Abebe as the boy at 13 and Sirak M. Sabahat as the 18- to 24-year-old). Young Agazai is one of the most impressive youngsters to be encountered in film, subtle yet often acutely affecting. He persuasively communicates the almost indescribable strangeness and pain of Schlomo’s odyssey.

Mihaileanu seems to have had problems encompassing all the various aspects and implications of the film’s story. The problem, especially in the later scenes and episodes, is of personal and historical events a little awkwardly combined, and of material telescoped to fit into the film’s scope. Perhaps because of these results, his film becomes at least a little hurried and leans too heavily on domestic melodrama.

It does touch on Israel’s often bitterly contested place in the Middle East, and its sympathies come across as lying with left-liberal Israeli peace seekers, but to its credit, it doesn’t make a simplistic heavy-handed appeal. And it includes a few looks at the uglier, bigoted aspects of Israeli life, as well as the Rabbinate’s sometimes primitive religiosity.

The film is less successful in resolving Schlomo’s quest and fate. The Jewish Film Festival program notes that he “finds an identity and a happiness all his own.” These seem more imposed than satisfying, but Live and Become is effective enough to produce some sobering reflections.

george sax

(France & Israel, 2005, 140 minutes. In Hebrew, French and Amharic with English subtitles.)

Sun, June 3 7:00 pm at the Market Arcade and Mon, June 4 7:30 pm at the Amherst Theatre.

WHISKY

The title of this laconic comedy comes from a scene in which a photographer tries to get a glum, middle-aged couple to smile for their wedding portrait. (Some photographers prefer “cheese,” some “whisky.”) Some audiences may need to take this as advice from the filmmakers: As grim as it may appear through much of its running time, this is indeed a comedy, albeit one drier than an Arizona rest home. The couple are Jacobo, the owner of a small, run-down sock factory, and his secretary Marta, and they’re not really getting married. It’s a ruse for the benefit of Jacobo’s visiting brother Herman, who has been rather more successful in Brazil. Viewers familiar with the work of the Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, from whom firsttime filmmakers Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll openly borrow, will know how to take this: the camera never moves, the actors work in the smallest of gestures, never wasting a breath on unnecessary dialogue, and if you’re not on its wavelength it can all seem maddeningly opaque. But it’s hard to look at this mismatched couple (she might reach his chin if she wore heels, but that would never happen) and not laugh, as you eventually have to at Jacobo’s much-cherished depression. Though it’s set in Montevideo, Uruguay, Whisky has a middle European feeling to it: These are people who seemed pressed down by the weight of history, and if the only thing to give them away as not living in Budapest or Crakow is the Spanish language they speak, there isn’t even all that much talking.

m. faust

(Uruguay, 2004, 94 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles.)

Mon, June 4, 12:30pm and Wed, June 6, 9pm, both at the Amherst Theatre.

DIAMETER OF THE BOMB

Andrew Quigley and Steven Silver’s 2005 Canadian Film Board documentary, Diameter of the Bomb, examines the ramifying and terrible consequences of a particularly terrible suicide bombing on a public bus in Jerusalem on June 18, 2002. Including the self-sacrificed young Palestinian who triggered the explosion, 20 people died and 50 were injured.

The bombing’s “diameter” is the expanding perimeter of effects from this deadly detonation in the lives of the murdered victims’ families and friends, and on people peripherally affected by this contrived disaster.

But the filmmakers’ vision and industry are more impressive than their results. Their film too often achieves a jumbled, shifting collage of impressions and information.

The film’s personalization of the event centers on four victims and their surviving family members and friends. In doing so, it persistently relies on a visual and aural busyness. The directors have persisted in employing a slickly punched-up style: Rapid-fire montages are supplemented with slow-motion and superimposition, all of it charged with an electronically throbbing New Agish score. The results are modishly muddled. Even the identity of speakers on the voiceovers is sometimes unclear because of choppy editing.

Some of the comments of the bereaved are undeniably poignant as they remember those suddenly ripped from others’ lives, or how the victims might have been prevented from boarding that bus. But the film’s failure to effectively confront the enormity of the disaster, or its context, is typified in the excerpt of politically sanctimonious comments by the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and the brief selection from the passionately hateful testamentary video of the bomber.

Diameter of the Bomb is inadequate to the daunting task its creators set out to accomplish.

george sax

(England & Canada, 2005, 86 minutes. In Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles.)

Tue, June 5, 3pm and Wed, June 6, 12:30pm, both at the Amherst Theatre.

Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School

HINEINI: COMING OUT IN

A JEWISH HIGH SCHOOL

When 15-year-old Shulamit Izen set out to establish a gay-straight alliance group at her Boston-area high school, she faced a set of circumstances different than those confronting most other students who have undertaken to do this. She was a student at a private Jewish school, many of whose students, along with families and board members, have religious objections to homosexuality.

As Irena Fayngold’s documentary shows, Shulamit was confronted with particular difficulties, but also with special opportunities. Because her school was founded to foster Jewish diversity, from strictly Orthodox to Liberal Judaism, the reflections and agonizing of faculty, staff and students took on a complexity unusual in a religious institution.

Shulamit’s campaign not only attracted some gay students, it precipitated the coming-out of several teachers and the school’s headmaster, a rabbi, had to navigate his own faith-based and personal reservations, as well as those of his community.

Hineini (Hebrew for “Here I am”} offers sometimes absorbing glimpses of a special, but also broadly relevant, process of conscience, creed, love and friendship interacting. When a teacher asks, rhetorically, “Where does authority lie? Why are some texts interpreted literally and others aren’t?,” the implications should reach a great many more than the people in this documentary.

george sax

(USA, 2005, 60 minutes.)

Tue, June 5, 5pm at the Amherst Theatre.

The Rape of Europa

THE RAPE OF EUROPA

The paradox behind this riveting documentary is voiced during the film by a soldier, a member of the infantry unit that discovered Hitler’s hidden cache of stolen art deep in a salt mine after World War II: “All of this accumulated beauty had been stolen by the most murderous thieves that ever existed…How they could retain the nicety of appreciation of great art and be exterminating millions nearby in concentration camps I couldn’t understand then and I can’t understand it today.”

The Rape of Europa explores these and other contradictions inherent in Hitler’s plunder of European art collections with narrative clarity and in great detail. The portrait of Hitler the film presents—as frustrated artist turned murderous museum curator—would sound comical if it weren’t for the very real exterminations of lives and cultures attending his “love” of art.

We learn through Nazi documents, for instance, that Hitler and fellow art collector Hermann Goering drew up lists of artworks they intended to steal before they invaded each country. Even more chilling are their aesthetic preferences. After invading Poland, they chose to level Warsaw, in the process destroying as much Polish art and architecture as possible. This because they saw Slavic culture, as they did Jewish culture, as “impure” and therefore worthy of annihilation.

Meanwhile, the “Germanic” Krakow was spared, and much of its art carried off to Germany. These and other pilfered works were then stored in anticipation of the never-realized Fuhrermuseum, an Albert Speer-designed über-gallery of plundered art intended as a lasting monument to Aryan supremacy in the aftermath of world conquest.

Equally compelling are the stories of art lovers worldwide who worked to hide, track, preserve and restore stolen collections, bombed-out monuments, and lost masterpieces during and after the war. Minor museum functionaries in France, American art experts at the frontlines, and hundreds of nameless workers contributed to this effort, without which many of the great works of world art might have been lost.

Which leads us back to that nagging question of why art, the so-called pinnacle of human endeavor, should find itself at the center of such a barbaric undertaking. One answer the film provides is that a great work of art is a living symbol, whose destruction is as real as a human being’s, and therefore worth dying (or killing) for. The other, which the film hints at, but perhaps underemphasizes, is that works of art are also treasure in the most literal sense, and that this is the thing for which all wars are fought.

michael kelleher

(USA, 2006, 117 minutes.)

Wed, June 6, 6:30pm at the Amherst Theatre and Sun, June 10, 2pm at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. For the Sunday screening only, a special ticket price of $10 also includes all day gallery admittance.