Windows on the World
by M. Faust & George Sax
In its 24th year, the Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival continues to break down cultural barriers
Forgive me for resurrecting a hoary old cliché, but it’s true: You don’t have to be Jewish to love the Jewish Film Festival. Now in its 24th year, it is the area’s most reliable annual presentation of quality world cinema. Formally the Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival, it is second only to San Francisco as the nation’s oldest festival of its kind. It may have shrunk somewhat, and offer fewer premieres than in years past, but the new films are first-rate and the revivals worthy of a second chance for audiences to see them on the big screen. Running from Saturday through Thursday at the Amherst Theater, it offers a dozen feature films, most of which will be screened twice. Full information and a schedule is available at www.bijff.com
Among the highlights:
ARRANGED—In a festival like this, you are never surprised to come across a movie about two people who become friends in spite of their religious or ethnic differences. As someone who likes to believe that watching stories about people overcoming their prejudices and suspicions helps us to do the same, I admit that I have a weakness for movies like Arranged. But obviousness aside it’s still a well-made little film, with appealing performances and some witty scripting. The odd couple here is two young women who meet while working as teachers at a Brooklyn grade school. Rochel (Zoe Lister Jones) is an Orthodox Jew, while Nasira (Francis Benhamou) is a Syrian Muslim. They have something more in common than their occupation: Both women’s families are arranging marriages for them. Neither wants to break away from their traditional cultures—if anything, they would like a little respect from those who assume that smart women like them are aching to ditch their conservative outfits and beliefs. They simply want a few tweaks in the way things have always been done. Independent filmmakers Diane Crespo and Stefan C. Schaefer, who shot this in a few weeks in their own homes and neighborhoods, aren’t unaware of the hurdles placed by this well-worn story: Responding to Rochel’s attempts to get their respective younger siblings to play together, Nasira quips, “Someone should be shooting a commercial for world peace.” On the same program is “Nice Jewish Boys,” an animated short film giving a modern Jewish woman’s perspective on dating. (M. Faust) Mon 6pm, Thurs 6pm.
THE BAND’S VISIT—A military band comprising Egyptian policemen gets lost on the way to a gig at an Arab cultural center, and its members find themselves stranded in a dusty Israeli desert town. Famously ruled ineligible for consideration for the Best Foreign Language Oscar because it has too much English dialogue, Eran Kolirin’s comedy initially plays like a collaboration between Garrison Keillor and Samuel Beckett as the musicians are forced to rely on the initially reluctant hospitality of the townsfolk. As they interact over a 24-hour period, the film softens into a bittersweet comedy. Temporary connections are made, personal revelations given, insights drawn. Kolirin has crafted these elements into a quietly engaging little movie filled with moments of dry wit, albeit one that avoids larger political difficulties in its urging, in the words of E.M. Forster, to “only connect.” (George Sax) Tue 8pm, Wed 1:30pm.
BLACK BOOK—Best known in America for luridly trashy movies like Robocop and Basic Instinct, Paul Verhoeven for years was a respected director of arthouse films in his native Holland. This World War II drama, his first film made in the Netherlands since the mid-1980s, grew out of research he did for his 1977 film Soldier of Orange, showing that the Dutch resistance was substantially less heroic than history would like to portray it. The central character is Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), daughter of a once-wealthy Jewish family who joins the resistance to avenge the murder of her parents by the Nazis. When some of her collaborators are captured by the Nazis, she hatches a plan to save them which involves seducing a prominent Gestapo officer. Fans of Verhoeven’s Hollywood movies won’t be disappointed by Black Book, even if it does take three-fifths of its 145-minute length to kick into high gear. Spinning out an increasingly complex story of deceptions and double-crosses, Verhoeven and co-writer Gerard Soeteman use historical revelations to question every assumption we’ve made about the nature of every side of this conflict. Painted on a broad, cinematic canvas, with suitably outsized music and performances, it’s a big engrossing movie for audiences who yearn for more depth in this kind of story than they get in the standard Hollywood blockbuster. (MF) Sun 8pm, Thu 8pm.
CHILDREN OF THE SUN—One of the best films at last year’s BIJFF was Sweet Mud, an autobiographical drama about growing up on a kibbutz. This unconventional documentary shines an objective like on the cooperative settlements entirely through the use of home movie footage shot on various kibbutzim, accompanied by commentary from adults who grew up on them in the early years. They speak with mixed emotions as they discuss the utopian nature of the organizations in which children were raised in communal nurseries and only permitted a few hours per day with their parents. (One recalls how his parents were allowed to name him as they wanted only after a group vote was taken.) The sparse music works to keep you from forming any conventional emotional responses, and the result is a fascinating and occasionally unsettling experience. (MF) Mon 4pm.
THE COUNTERFEITERS—An Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, this Austrian movie is based on the true story of Salomon Sorowitsch, a skilled forger and cynical bon vivant in the Berlin underworld of the 1930s. A Russo-German Jew, he misgauged the Nazi menace and found himself in a concentration camp. Determined to survive at all costs, his salvation arrives when he is recruited to put his skills to work on a Nazi plan to flood the Allied economies with counterfeit currency. But is it noble or even justifiable to survive if it requires collaboration with such immense evil? The other position is represented by a fellow prisoner, a Communist who decides to sabotage the plan even at the risk of his own life. Stefan Ruzowitzky’s film is both a suspenseful war drama and a somberly disturbing representation of a world of hellish choices. (GS) Tue 6pm, Wed 8pm.
MAKING TROUBLE—Jewish comedians are no rare breed. Nor are Jewish comediennes, as shown in this film that recalls the lives and careers of a half dozen funny women. Rachel Talbot structures an impressive amount of archival footage into six entertaining mini-documentaries about Yiddish theater star Molly Picon; Broadway’s Fanny Brice; the bawdy singer Sophie Tucker; Joan Rivers, the first female standup star; Saturday Night Live’s beloved Gilda Radner; and playwright Wendy Wasserstein. Along the way it’s a virtual encyclopedia of both modern feminism and 20th-century show business, linked by commentary from four current female comediennes (Judy Gold, Jackie Hoffman, Cory Kahaney, Jessica Kirson) who discuss their influences over pickles and cream soda at Katz’s Deli. With “888-GO-KOSHER,” a short documentary about New York City’s only rapid-response kitchen koshering service. (MF) Mon 8pm, Wed 4pm.
THE SECRETS (HA-SODOT)—The festival’s opening night presentation is also one of its strongest, an emotional drama that is at once both respectful and critical of orthodox Jewish traditions. The setting is a seminary for women in Safed, the birthplace of the Kabbalah. Naomi (Ania Bukstein), the daughter of a prominent rabbi, has come here to study, ostensibly to recover from the death of her mother but also to put off a dutiful marriage to her father’s condescending and humorless star pupil. Naomi would like to become the first female Orthodox rabbi, a dream she has no way of achieving. But she finds a way to put her learning to practice when, as part of the school’s policy of doing good works, she is assigned to aid Anouk (the great French actress Fanny Ardant), a mysterious woman who has moved to the area to die. With the help of another student, the rebellious French-schooled Michelle (Michal Shtamler), Naomi devises a series of Kabbalistic cleansing rites to prepare Anouk to meet her God. But the process wrings as many changes in the two girls as it does in the older woman trying to deal with a scandalous past. Addressing themes of religion, passion and feminism, this French/Israeli co-production has struck some commentators as a bit overstuffed. While I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that, this film by Avi Nesher, a veteran filmmaker who cut his teeth in low-budget action films, is compelling enough to keep your attention for a touch over two hours. This is the one to see if you can only make it to one film at the Festival. (MF) Sat 8pm, Mon 1:30pm.
UNSETTLED—This documentary follows crucial events from 2005 as Israel withdrew from the Gaza strip both its armed forces and thousands of Jewish settlers, some of whom had been there for decades. Filmmaker Adam Hootnick, a Israeli resident and MTV News producer, returned to Israel to film both both the preparation for the Israeli pullback and its execution. He accompanies five young soldiers of various backgrounds and political tendencies (three of them Gaza residents), and the heart of the movie is the difficult, sometimes anguishing mission of tens of thousands of soldiers to persuade their countrymen and women to leave peacefully. His coverage from the very center of the confrontation between soldiers and settlers is remarkable, but the film begs the monster problem no Israeli government has had the will or desire to address: the quarter-million Jewish settlers in the contested West Bank. (GS) Sun 6pm, Tue 4pm.
Also screening at the Festival are LA FRANCE DIVISÉE (Sun 1:30 pm), a documentary about the French resistance in World War II; PRAYING WITH LIOR (Sun 4 pm), portrait of a devout young Jew with Down syndrome as he prepares for his Bar Mitzvah; REFUSENIK (Tue 1:30pm, Thu 1:30pm), a chronicle of the 30-year international movement to free Soviet Jews; and LOVE COMES LATELY (Wed 6pm, Thu 6pm), a drama about the real and fictional love lives of an aging writer incorporating three short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, starring Otto Tausig, Barbara Hershey, Rhea Perlman, Tovah Feldshuh, Caroline Aaron, and Elizabeth Peña,blog comments powered by Disqus
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