Speaking in Tongues

A cacophony of accents, from Russian to Arabic, rings through the Jewish Film Festival

Agitated headlines may chart Israel's halting steps toward peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians, but the divisive tensions roiling within the tiny country's borders go mostly unreported. Perceived from outside as a homogenous nation of (white) Jews of European descent, Israel is also home to a sizable population of Sephardic Jews (the branch from Spain and Portugal, and later Greece and Morocco) who are fed up with being treated like second-class citizens. The other wild card is the huge influx of educated Russian immigrants, impatiently campaigning for better jobs and housing and more influence. Disputes may arise over pita crumbs like renaming city streets or divvying up arts grants, but they merely reflect the real battles over power, resources, and the future.

You may not learn how to say "multiculturalism" in Hebrew at the Jewish Film Festival, but you will definitely get plugged into the tenor of the times. Unapologetically left of center and feminist in its stance, the festival assembles an annual snapshot of worldwide Jewish concerns. The ambitious opening-night film, Sh'chur (Magic), for example, sparked a media event in Israel as cultural arbiters on all sides interpreted the film as either a) an overdue self-critique of North African immigrants, or b) exotic nonsense promoting "primitive" stereotypes.

It's neither, of course; a successful, assimilated Sephardic woman recalls her far-from-idyllic childhood as the youngest child of a blind, Bible-quoting father and a weak mother with a passion for ritual magic. Sh'chur offers a rare, welcome glimpse of Sephardic life in a 1970s development town, but ultimately gets sidetracked lavishing too much bitterness on its flawed family.

Another Israeli coming-of-age story, Under the Domim Tree, adopts a sunnier, more forgiving tone. The sequel to Gila Almagor's haunting The Summer of Aviya takes place in the mid-1950s in a state-run youth village for Polish Holocaust survivors and other broken-home casualties whose unlimited futures aren't always enough to fend off nightmares of the past. (Inevitably, the Holocaust and its consequences are a compelling theme of every Jewish Film Festival.) Under the Domim Tree movingly depicts the insecurities and rivalries that charge these adolescents, and their secret but hopeless dreams of family reunions. Unfortunately, around the midway point the film embarks on a new, sentimental course that tramples any rough edges standing in the way of an uplifting, inspiring ending straight out of a Mickey Rooney movie.

As for tales of contemporary life, the festival features Tunisian director Ridha Behi's excellent Swallows Never Die in Jerusalem, an up-to-the-minute political thriller that doubles as an impassioned cry for peace. A French journalist, in the Holy Land to sniff out a story and visit his Israeli girlfriend, joins his Palestinian driver's search for a missing relative; everybody doesn't live happily ever after. Behi is both fair and dexterous in giving voice to all sides without stifling the story; his greatest contribution, however, is showing how the media's coverage of the intifada raised the Palestinians' hopes -- and dashed them when the world took little notice. For the record, Ben Gazzara has a somnambulant cameo (dubbed in Hebrew) as an elderly Holocaust survivor.

I forgot to mention another influential, growing strata of Israeli society -- yuppies. Witty, light on its feet, and refreshingly apolitical, the Israeli romantic comedy Song of the Siren follows a Tel Aviv ad exec's romantic travails against the backdrop of the Persian Gulf War. Our heroine's "drive fast, screw often, heaven can wait" credo is best exemplified by her wisecracking indifference to gas masks, sealed rooms, and the air raid siren that gives the film its title.

Russian Jews garner a major chunk of festival attention this year, headed by the messy, exuberantly downbeat To See Paris and Die. Tatyana Vasilyeva unleashes a take-no-prisoners performance as the overbearing mother of a Moscow piano prodigy, circa 1963. She'll do anything to protect her son, including banishing his Jewish fiancee. Alexander Proshkin's 1993 film breaks new ground on at least one count: As nearly as I can recollect, To See Paris and Die is the first film ever shown by the festival with an oral-sex scene. Is there a blessing for that?

Not to be missed are two exemplary works reprised from previous Bay Area festivals. Bye Bye America by German filmmaker Jan Schutte is a marvelously droll portrait of three Eastern European emigres in Brooklyn that is as generous toward its characters as it is lacerating of capitalism (both American and Polish varieties). Inside God's Bunker, Micha Peled's shocking profile of Jewish fundamentalist settlers in Hebron, pulls back the curtain on yet another faction of Israeli society determined to be heard -- even if they have to use an Uzi tone of voice.

The Jewish
Film Festival
runs July 20-27
at the Castro
in S.F. and July
29-Aug. 3 at
U.C. Theatre
in Berekely.

 
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