Best of the Jewish Film Fest

* The Jewish Film Festival opens Thursday and runs through next Thursday, July 24, at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro (at Market). It continues July 26-31 at the UC Theater in Berkeley, July 27-31 at the Spangenberg Theater in Palo Alto, and Aug. 2-4 at the Lark Theater in Larkspur.

* See Reps Etc. for a complete schedule of films this week.
* Tickets are $7.50 for most shows, $6 for seniors, students, and the disabled. Opening- and closing-night screenings are more; call 553-4567 for details.

* Commentary on the following films is by Michael Fox. All showings this week are at the Castro.

Chronicle of a Disappearance
Droll, irreverent, and oblique, Palestinian director Elia Suleiman's extraordinary first feature is a devastating political critique of the state of the people without a state. Using montage grammar from experimental films to explore themes of family and identity favored by personal-documentary makers, Suleiman captures a sunbaked picture of alienation and inertia. Fact and fiction become indistinguishable, even after the filmmaker (who lives in Paris, Jerusalem, and New York) locates a narrative structure around the film's midpoint. A subtle, rewarding, and utterly atypical view of the Middle East, Chronicle introduces an observant, acerbic, and very, very smart filmmaker. Tuesday, July 22, at 10:15 p.m.

How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon/ Song of Galilee
One of the festival's wittiest and most provocative programs opens with a first-person documentary by Avi Mograbi, an old Israeli lefty who once did time for refusing to serve in the army in Lebanon. Mograbi sets out to film Sharon, the most despised politician on the right, campaigning for Netanyahu before the 1996 election. The former general and his aides refuse to cooperate at first (shades of Michael Moore's Roger & Me); once Sharon acquiesces to being filmed he proves to be a charming, funny man -- which proves even more disorienting to Mograbi. He's left to wonder, When you no longer see your bitterest enemy as a monster, do you risk being seduced into joining his side? On the second half of the bill, Daniel Wachsman (The Appointed) proves a master of the mockumentary form with his fascinating, note-perfect Song of Galilee. The spoof begins with a poet's body found in a field in mystical northern Israel. The official explanation is suicide. Wachsman investigates, and encounters a conspiracy of silence and obfuscation. Through the use of artfully placed hidden cameras and concealed microphones, Wachsman eventually uncovers an armed, religiously observant cult. Song of Galilee is a beautifully constructed and riveting satire of self-obsessed documentary filmmakers and right-wing militants. Tuesday, July 22, at 7:45 p.m.

Nothing to Be Written Here
Canadian videomaker Wendy Oberlander's attempt to understand her father's wartime experience is admirable but frustratingly shallow. The father's tale is remarkable: He fled Hitler's Europe for England, only to be shipped with 2,000 other Jewish refugees to a British internment camp in Canada in 1940. This is a fascinating, unknown chapter in history, but Oberlander sucks out all the drama with images of waves and other visual bric-a-brac; the poetry never takes us beyond the surface. The 47-minute piece has won a couple of awards and was chosen last fall for the Mill Valley Film Festival; I'm apparently alone in being immune to its charms. Plays with the short Ein Stehaufmann-Chen. Sunday, July 20, at 11 a.m.

The Return of Sarah's Daughters
The constraints of patriarchal Orthodox Judaism are completely at odds with feminism -- or are they? Through the eyes and lives of two unique and quite different women, San Francisco filmmaker Marcia Jarmel contemplates the appeal of ritual observance among a growing number of educated, intelligent Jewish women. This consistently involving doc (which aired last month on KCSM's "Women of Vision" series) gives us neither stereotypes nor mushheaded proselytizing; the result is a far more compelling and relevant exploration of the overstated conflict between secularism and God (spirituality, if you prefer) than you'll get in a dozen viewings of Contact. A very personal and generous film about the search for meaning. Plays with the short Nick and Rachel. Sunday, July 20, at 1 p.m.

"Trailers Schmailers"
Trailers are often the best part of the moviegoing experience; because of what they reveal unintentionally about their era, there's an extra fillip in viewing old ones. This marvelously idiosyncratic collection of Jewish-themed film previews offers a heaping helping of nostalgia shock, courtesy of San Francisco curator and trailer guru Jenni Olson. Half of the 30 clips collected here are from the '70s, so be prepared for Woody, Barbra, and Shelley Winters running their nails across the blackboard of your psyche. I found myself unexpectedly buffeted by emotions -- choked up by Fiddler on the Roof, repulsed by the undiluted neurosis of Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, stunned by the absurd audacity of Harry Belafonte and Zero Mostel in The Angel Levine. Infinitely more fun than therapy. Saturday, July 19, at 10 p.m.

Under Western Eyes
Movie genres rarely get shuffled with such confidence and poignancy as they do in Israeli Joseph Pitchadze's droll, resonant nouveau noir. A chain-smoking architect (played by Israeli rock star Eyal Schehter, who looks like Jim Morrison) reluctantly hunts his despised father, an escaped con jailed for treason. A pair of deranged government agents join the surreal pursuit, which ends in the Zabriskie Point-like moonscape of the Negev Desert. In his black-and-white debut feature, Pitchadze has great fun mocking the tired poses of existential heroes and hard-boiled spies, but his real accomplishment is imperceptibly building an intense emotional connection to his characters. In a neat twist on the scheming femme fatale, the hero's moll is the moral center in this odyssey of forgiveness. Plays with the short Allen Ginsberg's "Ballad of the Skeletons." Saturday, July 19, at 8 p.m.

 
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