Topic of Rancor 

Controversy and the SF Jewish Film Festival go hand in hand.

If we were forced to divide film festivals into two classes based on their offerings — the "art for art's sake" class versus the "real world" class — the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival would definitely head the "real world" category. Most film fests, even those doggedly devoted to covering ethnicities and special interest groups, make an effort to program both types — films that address real-world concerns plus more escapist fare — because even the most dogmatic audiences don't want a steady diet of real life when they go to the movies.

But sometimes reality comes rushing in. Again and again in its 26-year history, the SF Jewish fest has deliberately put itself on the cutting edge of controversy, something that's easy to do when a large percentage of its films deal with two hot-button topics. The Holocaust may not be as topical as it once was, but that doesn't stop filmmakers from churning out documentaries and narratives revisiting that horrible era. Meanwhile, Israel and its never-ending troubles with the Palestinians remain on the front burner. As in previous years, the 2006 fest serves up a full slate of both Israeli-oriented and Holocaust fare, from various political angles, and lets the chips fall where they may. Film festivals just don't get any more newsworthy than this.

Case in point: The Gaza Strip has recently been on front pages everywhere. Israel's ongoing problems there could inspire any number of creative works. Director Yoav Shamir's meticulous documentary 5 Days shows the Israeli government's August 2005 Disengagement Plan operation, in which forty thousand Israel Defense Forces soldiers removed eight thousand Jewish settlers from their homes in Gush Katif to hand the land back to the Palestinians. Extreme emotions and religious fervor add to the pressures faced by General Dan Harel, a calm, thoughtful man forced to negotiate with his own reluctant troops. Shamir, who also shot the doc, equips his account with maps, graphics, a historical briefing, and a narrator to explain things, but the devil is in the details — Israeli soldiers listening to Bob Dylan ("How does it feel?") as they prepare to move out, a man who breaks down and weeps in front of Harel, etc.

Contrast 5 Days with Gil Karni's Troubled Water, which uses an infinitely subtler, under-the-skin approach to essentially the same story. Over five years, from 1999 to 2004, producer-director-writer Karni and his crew lived with the residents of the Gaza beach town of Dugit, a "Mediterranean-style fishing village" promoted by the Israeli government as a means of employing settlers. The plan worked all too well — the two families profiled in Troubled Water integrated so thoroughly with their Palestinian neighbors that it breaks our hearts as well as theirs when the time finally comes to "disengage." The breakup arrives slowly, in degrees. In 1999, the Israeli and Palestinian fishermen hang out with each other and laughingly declare: "To hell with the intifada." But by 2004, after the bombings and bulldozed lemon groves have turned the idyllic village into an armed camp, married couple Tova and Eyal Goren can only reminisce about the time "when there was coexistence." Director Karni appears in person at the festival.

Of course, there's more to contemporary Israel than settlers-versus-Arabs-versus-troops. In the narrative drama Close to Home, we meet two young female IDF soldiers, Smadar and Mirit, whose Private Benjamin-like misadventures on patrol in Jerusalem nevertheless carry a certain life-and-death weight. The film opens tensely with a thorough examination of a Palestinian woman's belongings at a border crossing, but eventually cools down into an ironically funny romantic comedy. Who will capture the handsome man they've noticed on the street? Lazy, sharp-tempered Smadar (played by Gilda Radner look-alike Smadar Sayar) or quieter, more whimsical Mirit (Naama Shendar)? Close to Home has been picked up for theatrical distribution.

Natalie Portman? In Israel? Hollywood movie star Portman — she's Jewish, by the way — meets Israeli star director Amos Gitai in Free Zone, a flat-world shaggy-dog story, heavy on Wim Wenders-style empty spaces, about two women getting lost in the middle of nowhere; that is, in the economic free zone in eastern Jordan where people from all over — Iraq, Syria, Israel — come to buy and sell cars. Rebecca (Portman) is a lovelorn American who has just broken up with her boyfriend and needs an escape. Hanna (Israeli actress Hanna Laslo) is the taxi driver Rebecca flags down in Jerusalem. Hanna is going to the Free Zone? Oh, why the hell not? The trip is full of real-world chills and spills ("She looks like a hooker," observes a Jordanian border guard about Portman), mostly revolving around Hanna's dead-end efforts to recover $30,000 from Leila (Hiam Abbas), a Palestinian woman whose deal with Hanna's husband ... never mind. Better to forget the plot and just watch the scenery, which is fascinating enough.

Gitai, perhaps Israel's most famous filmmaker, makes a personal appearance at this year's fest, bringing a few of his forty features with him, including the brilliant 1980 documentary, House. Ostensibly a vérité profile of a West Jerusalem dwelling passed from owner to owner, it's really a skeptical capsule history of ownership in Israel. The film's opening statement sets the tone: "This film was censored by Israeli TV. The print you are seeing was made from a video cassette version." And indeed, it's a pretty muddy print. This film must have made Israeli authorities uneasy, because the house's history mirrors the back-and-forth story of the land, where "new owners" arrive with big plans and the old ones are pushed out. The house's original owner, Dr. Mahmoud Dajani, a cultured Palestinian, gives his tour in English: He grew up there, one of nine sons, but had to leave because of "the shooting between the Arabs and the Jews." Then the Israeli government seized the "absentee property." Gitai's remarkable documentary exemplifies the questioning, social-justice-seeking stance not only of the filmmaker but of the film festival, which is never one to shrink from showing both sides of the complicated conflict. House is a must-see. Even the true-life "dialogue" is poetic: "This tree the Arab planted is like a wild animal. But the figs are good."

Just when we thought we'd seen every possible way of telling the Holocaust story, along come a pair of films like Rex Bloomstein's KZ and Bob Hercules and Cheri Pugh's Forgiving Dr. Mengele. The British production KZ pays a contemporary visit, using no archival footage, to the WWII Austrian concentration camp Mauthausen (the movie's title is the German abbreviation for Konzentrationslager) notorious for its "Stairs of Death" and the "Death Bath," in which prisoners were killed by pouring water over them, for hours, outside in freezing temperatures. Director Bloomstein, in the manner of Shoah, mostly just watches and listens as tour groups, grown suddenly silent at the enormity of the horror, file through the restored camp. A teenage girl becomes ill. A gaunt, somber tour guide, who took the job to avoid enlisting in the Austrian army, admits he is the grandson of an SS trooper. Meanwhile at a nearby beer garden, the jollity is unbearable. All the camp's modern-day staffers are depressed and haunted, especially the man who locks up the place at night. He mentions that it's odd, but no animals and birds come near the camp — they can sense death in the place.

Alongside Bloomstein's eerie Holocaust vision, the world of Eva Moses Kor, subject of Forgiving Dr. Mengele, is like stepping into a dream of peace. Kor, now a real-estate agent in Terre Haute, Indiana, was one of the infamous "Mengele twins" of Auschwitz, selected with her sister as ten-year-olds by the Nazi doctor for hideous medical experiments. She survived, married, had children, made many return pilgrimages to Auschwitz, and now devotes herself to healing the scars by forgiving the Nazis — a stance outrageous to the revenge-minded. But anyone who could convince a former SS doctor to revisit the camp with her in order to sign a confession, then start her own Holocaust museum in Indiana (it was burned down, but quickly rebuilt), is a force to be reckoned with. Such a person is Eva Kor. Her motto: "Forgive your worst enemy. It will heal your soul and set you free."

After opening at the Castro Thursday, July 20 with a screening of the sly Swedish character study Four Weeks in June, the Jewish fest plays seven days at the Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre, July 29 through August 5. Among the films at the Roda, four are especially recommended: Dan Katzir's New Yorkish doc, Yiddish Theater: A Love Story; Doug Block's congenial thumbsucker 51 Birch Street, an autobio doc about the director's family; and two cross-cultural glimpses into French life: Local Call!, the story of a lovable schnook named Felix, and La Petite Jerusalem, a roundelay drama of sexual dysfunction in a Tunisian Jewish immigrant family in the contemporary Paris suburbs. Once again, it's around the world with the Jewish Film Festival.

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