Ceasefire at the Cinema 

The Jewish Film Fest is back, doing what it does best -- crossing boundaries.

This year, when Israelis and Palestinians are trapped in a worse-than-usual cycle of devastating violence and Americans are reassessing their relationship with the Mideast, is a particularly apt time for the Jewish Film Festival's special brand of cultural peacekeeping.

The festival, now in its 22nd season, has often taken heat for what was perceived as its pro-Palestinian programming. In fact, its even-handed, multicultural approach to mirroring the complexities of the Jewish experience around the world is closer to street-level, human-to-human reality than many politicians would like to admit. One of the things that makes the Jewish Film Festival the most consistently intelligent and engaging of the Bay Area's many film fests is its penchant for no-holds-barred dialogue on touchy subjects. As fest director Janis Plotkin and film-fest board president Dan Wohlfeiler affirm in the festival program's introduction, "We are proud to give voice to questions which many have been hesitant to ask, to raise issues which are confusing to broach, and to put human faces on the opposing sides of the conflict."

Take Yellow Asphalt, one of the festival's best films. Israeli writer-director Danny Verete, backed by the Israel Film Fund, sets his contemporary trilogy of narratives in the harsh, gorgeous Judean Desert, where the presuppositions of modern, "civilized" Westerners run headlong into the ancient traditions of the Bedouins, who once -- as a title card carefully points out -- owned this land. The three stories are arranged in escalating order of intensity. In the first, "Black Spot," a semi-truck driven by a pair of Israelis accidentally hits and kills an Arab boy in the road in the middle of nowhere. They try to hide the body and get away quickly, but suddenly the boy's family appears. "We're going to get killed," mutters one of the truck drivers. But that doesn't exactly happen. "Here Is Not There" opens with an ethnographic sequence in which a Bedouin woman beseeches her village's council of elders for a divorce from her husband. Her request is denied, and later that night she and her two young daughters sneak out of the house and flee across the desert on foot. The husband pursues, demanding that his wife conform to Bedouin and Muslim traditions. But the wife is not who she seems.

The third story, "Red Roofs," is the most harrowing, a nervous tale of marital infidelity and cultural arrogance involving an Israeli settler/farmer and his wife, the family's Bedouin housekeeper, and the farmer's Bedouin hired hand. Actors Motti Katz (as Shmuel the farmer), Sami Samir (as Abed the hired hand), and Raida Adon (Suhilla, the housekeeper) are especially sharp in this pressure cooker of a drama. Filmmaker Verete manages to encapsulate the injustices of the Israeli settler movement, the sexism and medieval intransigence of the Bedouins, and a large helping of plain old human frailty in one rotting package -- told in a suspenseful style Claude Chabrol would be proud of. If you only see one film at this year's Jewish fest, see Yellow Asphalt. It screens Tuesday, August 6 (7:15 p.m.) at UC Berkeley's Wheeler Auditorium, after a July 28 showing at the Castro.

But why would anyone only see one movie at this fest? Two other films set on the firing line between Jewish and Arab cultures are also recommended, both of them documentaries. Director Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's The Inner Tour, shot on Beta SP video for Israeli TV in 2001, shows us things a narrative couldn't, demonstrating the power of skillful documentary filmmaking to telegraph ideas and emotions in their rawest, most elemental form. The setup is a heartbreaker: Palestinians from the West Bank are forbidden to cross the border into Israel unless they do so as tourists with the proper visa. This rule has given rise to a business, as Palestinians who were displaced from their homes by Israel years before now have to board buses for an organized tour of their former homeland. Filmmaker Alexandrowicz and his camera tag along on one such sentimental journey and capture some rare moments. People seeing the sea for the first time, even though they have always lived only a short drive away. Snide comments from the Israeli civilians they encounter: "Checking out the area so we can give it to them?" A visit to the historical museum of a kibbutz. The quick, tearful reunion of a son with his mother, conducted across a barbed-wire barrier on the Israeli-Lebanese border (travel is not permitted between Lebanon and the West Bank, so mother and son are separated).

One old Palestinian man delivers an impassioned, impromptu speech after visiting a mosque. Later, he gets the bus to stop on the highway while he searches out a particular piece of ground. There, in an open wasteland of scrub brush, lies the grave of his father alongside their former village, emptied out and abandoned by the victorious Israelis in 1948. The film is a succinct history lesson. We come face to face with the notion that, to Palestinians, the Israelis are invaders who have been occupying their country for fifty-four years. Another man makes a point of taking a taxi to the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial in Tel Aviv, where he recounts meeting the assassinated Israeli leader when Rabin visited the prison he was in. Emotions pour out of the Palestinians, even the younger ones, in a flood. Exclaims one: "I never thought I would walk among the Jews." The film is described in the closing titles as comprising "two parallel and conflicting books, which reflect the history of our land." The Inner Tour shows Sunday, July 28 at the Castro, and comes to Wheeler on Tuesday, August 6, at 5 p.m.

Michal Aviad's 2001 documentary Ramleh opens with an anecdote about the ancient (seemingly everything in Israel is ancient) city in "the heartland of Israel." Napoleon spent a night in Ramleh during his conquests, and while there he demanded the prettiest woman in town brought to his tent. Early the next morning the muezzin, making his call to prayer, disturbed the French conqueror. Napoleon shot the muezzin and threw the woman out of the tent before she had time to put on her veil, whereupon she was killed by the Arabs for disobeying religious law. This grim little slice of history sets the tone for a peek into the daily lives of four women -- one a Palestinian schoolteacher and law student, one a Bukharian Jew who immigrated from Uzbekistan with her two daughters, and two from the Shas sect of Orthodox Judaism -- at the dawn of the 21st century, in which not all that much has changed for women since Napoleon's time. The four women live within easy walking distance of each other, but they stay within their groups and don't cross the lines. Everywhere they go is the unseen but clearly felt presence of the power of men and patriarchal religion over their lives. After spending only an hour with them, we're ready to escape. It's interesting to note that the unmarried Palestinian teacher, Gehad, is the most liberated of the film's subjects, even though she lives at home with her parents at age 31.

The fest is not without its disappointments. Those hoping that the new film starring Amélie's Audrey Tautou might capture some of the spirit of that huge French art-house hit will find Pascale Bailly's God Is Great and I'm Not (2001) kind of a bore, a generally likable nonentity about a ditzy Parisian model and her new Jewish boyfriend. Same Tautou eyes, same fizzy personality, but here attached to a marginally endearing airhead on a wince-producing "spiritual quest" to fit in with her neurotic, nonreligious veterinarian boyfriend. In common with all too many French movies, it's a Gallic imitation of a throwaway, two-weeks-at-the-multiplex Hollywood romantic comedy. Be that as it may, God Is Great opens the festival tomorrow night at the Castro. It plays Wheeler Thursday, August 8.

A better bet is another French production, Arnaud Desplechin's Esther Kahn, which stars Summer Phoenix in the English-language fictional story of a poor young Jewish woman of London, raised in an East End dockside tailor shop circa 1900, who struggles along familiar lines ("I want to be revenged," she declares) to become a successful stage actress. Phoenix's portrayal of the headstrong, inwardly smoldering Esther, the "girl of the heifer eyes" in her father's words, is well worth seeing, as is Ian Holm as Esther's actor mentor. It shows at Wheeler on Monday, August 5.

Documentaries are always a strong suit at the Jewish fest. Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann (Shoah) continues his Holocaust investigations in the patented Lanzmann style -- voiceover by witnesses, shots of contemporary settings, no historical footage -- in Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 P.M., the tense account of an inmates' uprising in a Nazi death camp told by a man, Yehuda Lerner, whose initiation into military combat was splitting open a German officer's head with an axe. Also worthwhile is Strange Fruit by Joel Katz, the behind-the-scenes story of the Bronx schoolteacher who wrote one of Billie Holiday's best-known songs -- a moving musical indictment of lynching. Another unforgettable piece of Jewish history is L'Chayim Comrade Stalin, frequent Jewish festival contributor Yale Strom's bittersweet account of Birobidzhan, the pre-Israel "Jewish homeland" in frozen Siberia -- actually Stalin's dumping ground for Jews in WWII. On the lighter side but still suitably sobering is Blue Vinyl, an entertaining all-American ecological wake-up call by Daniel Gold and Judith Helfand, in which Helfand's efforts to prevent her parents from putting up vinyl siding on their suburban home lead to an investigation into the vinyl chloride industry and toxic chemical exposure.

The above are only a sampling from this year's Jewish Film Festival. Take a chance and choose a film at random (a strategy not recommended at any other festival), but whatever you do, see Yellow Asphalt. Tickets (most programs are $9) are available at www.sfjff.org or by phoning 925-866-9559.


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