Promised Land 

It's often a state of mind, says the Jewish Film Festival.

Israel is not exactly the homogeneous Jewish homeland -- marching side by side in righteous uniformity toward a common goal -- that many of its adversaries, and some of its most passionate supporters, would have us believe. Nobody knows that better than the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which has provoked a fair amount of ire during its 25 years of film programming by daring to provide a platform to Palestinians, refuseniks, skeptics, and similarly disenchanted segments of Israeli society.

Never afraid of a dustup, the Jewish fest's organizers often seemed to deliberately court controversy -- they would call it a healthy exchange of differing opinions -- in furthering its mission to present all the various facets of Jewish life around the world. The clashes only made the fest more interesting. By almost every measure, the SF Jewish Festival is a smashing success, one of the two absolutely indispensable festivals in the movie-crazy Bay Area and by far the least predictable. It was the first Jewish film festival in the world, and now that there are a hundred more like it, the SF fest refuses to rest on its laurels. The 25th edition, which opens Thursday with a screening of the German comedy Go for Zucker! at SF's Castro Theatre, is as wild and restless as any of its predecessors. And once again, Israel is its Ground Zero.

Perhaps the most powerful of the fifteen Israeli films in this year's lineup is On the Objection Front, the documentary account by Tel Aviv's Shiri Tsur of a group of six reserve members of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) who rebelled against their government's actions in the Occupied Territories and who went public in 2002 with their protest, the "Combatants' Letter." The basis of their complaint is carefully laid out by filmmaker Tsur, who has the six men and their families first explain the military life in contemporary Israel, particularly the officers' training that stresses that Israel must always be a moral nation (as one army man puts it: "An officer with doubts is a good officer"). The Special Unit Refuseniks took that moral condition to heart and refused duty on conscientious grounds, preferring prison sentences and, in one case, exile, to their job of invading homes and torturing Palestinians. Naturally the six men were bitterly reviled by some Israelis, but filmmaker Tsur holds up the idealistic words of Israeli patriot David Ben Gurion as a shield. As a testimony against injustice by men of war, it's a surprisingly peaceful film.

If you think it's tough being an Israeli soldier, you should witness the life of a Tel Aviv hooker. In director Keren Yedaya's narrative feature Or, we're treated to the poetry of everyday despair in the contemporary story of Ruthie, a veteran prostitute who can't or won't see her way out of "the life," and her teenage daughter Or, the glue that keeps this determined little family unit together. Or (played magnificently by Dana Ivgy) is the picture of self-sacrifice, juggling her schoolwork with a hectic string of part-time jobs (dishwasher, janitor, collecting bottles for recycling) and all the while trying to convince her mother (Ronit Elkabetz, in a similarly heartbreaking performance) not to put on the miniskirt and hit the streets to give blow jobs to drunks. The film's sexuality is matter-of-fact but completely joyless. And Or, too, has a sex life, with relationship problems of her own. Her life is a contest, really, between caregiving and living for herself -- a contest that filmmaker Yedaya etches in acid tones of irony.

Sexuality meets the Occupied Territories in Joseph Cedar's 2004 drama Campfire, the appropriately wry-but-soapy story of a widow and her two teenage girls hoping to join a West Bank settlement, circa 1981. What's in it for them? Social acceptance -- but surely none better than that offered by Yossi the bus driver, a fortysomething virgin who nevertheless looks better and better as the story unfolds. The promise of love? Forget about it -- the settler teenage boys are as predatory as their elders. Through the eyes of Rachel, Tami, and Esti, the settler experience is picked apart piece by piece before it even begins for them.

Some Israelis act up for no other reason than that they feel like wearing Mohawks and playing loud music. San Francisco documentarian Liz Nord tells their story in Jericho's Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land, a sort of would-be-Penelope-Spheeris expedition into youthful rebelliousness in a country where everyone, even a punk rocker, has to join the army. Not surprisingly, most of the punks Nord hears from are against the Occupation and the militarization of Israeli society, and most openly wish they were somewhere else ("Israel is really not a punk place, believe it"). One band tells us they sing only in English because "Hebrew is ugly." In the interest of fairness, we also hang out with a right-wing punk band. Israel's punk rockers seem defined by the very thing most Western punks abandoned long ago -- hope for the future.

The 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps inside Israeli-occupied Lebanon is still a touchy subject, and Massacre puts our faces squarely into the notorious "blood orgy," if only in firsthand recollection. The killing was done by Lebanese Christian militiamen, many of whom testify in front of the camera with their faces obscured, in this German-Lebanese-Swiss-French production. Seldom has the banality of evil been quite so banal: "We were just kids." "We thought the people would get up again." Etc. One killer even sings his version of Elvis Presley's "It's Now or Never." Our eyes begin to glaze over and horror leads to boredom. This is a film project that probably sounded much better in outline.

Of course, the endless turmoil in the Middle East is only one part of the world Jewish experience. The Jewish Festival's other big centerpiece this year is the role of Jews in the Hollywood "red scare" in the late 1940s and early '50s, and the resultant blacklisting of entertainment figures whose loyalty to the US government was publicly questioned. The fest dug up a print of Peter Godfrey's Hotel Berlin, a wartime (1945) potboiler set in a hotel full of German officers, hangers-on, spies, and sneaky bellboys, à la Grand Hotel. The screenplay was written by Alvah Bessie, who was later blacklisted as a suspected communist. Peter Lorre, Raymond Massey, and vampy Andrea King are entertaining enough as nutty, naughty Nazis, but the festival's big payoff on the blacklist theme is The Front. That 1976 release deals directly with the moral turpitude of the commie-baiting American scene of the early '50s, in the story of one Howard Prince (Woody Allen, fine in a relatively straight role), who becomes a "front," taking screen credit -- and 10 percent of the fee -- for a friend whose TV writing career is threatened by FBI investigations and network acquiescence in the witch hunt. The Front is thickly populated with real-life blacklist victims, behind and in front of the camera: director-producer Martin Ritt, writer Walter Bernstein, actors Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough, et al.

Beside fractious Israel and the blacklist years, the German sitcom Go for Zucker! is a walk in the park. This particular park contains lapsed-Jewish Berliner Jackie Zucker (played by Rodney Dangerfield look-alike Henry Hübchen), a gambler and pool hustler who owns a sex club and has a goyish wife and a lesbian daughter. As in Dangerfield's Easy Money, Jackie is presented with a dilemma: He must cozy up with his orthodox-Jewish estranged brother and maintain strict religious observance of their mother's recent death, or lose his inheritance. Comic shtupping and heart attacks ensue. The warmly sexy sitcom is directed gleefully by Dani Levy. European cross-culturalism takes a similar shellacking in Sam Garbarski's broad-reaching Belgian family comedy The Rashevski Tango, in which eccentric family members fumble with conversion, circumcision, marrying an Arab, etc. One question: Why does every European movie about Jewish cross-culturalism have a ghost in it?

Other films of note in this year's Jewish: Marc (Slam) Levin's doc Protocols of Zion, a sardonic trip through the byways of anti-Semitism (if you think West Bank Jewish settlers are crazy, you should see American neo-Nazi anti-Semites); Marian Mazynski's cross-cultural documentary essay Anya (In and Out of Focus), the home movies everyone would love to have made about his or her daughter's childhood; Judy Montell's documentary bio of lifelong Brooklyn-Detroit labor organizer Saul Wellman, Professional Revolutionary; and Isn't This a Time!, a folk-music-filled tribute (Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie; Peter, Paul and Mary, et al.) to folkie impresario Harold Leventhal, famous for throwing an annual Thanksgiving hootenanny at New York's Carnegie Hall. It's the real-life version of A Mighty Wind.

The fest has scheduled 29 programs at the Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre, beginning Sunday, July 31. Info: SFJFF.com

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