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The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival continues its "can't we all get along" ethos

Wednesday, Jul 21 2004
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"We're all blunderers," declares a Palestinian passenger on a West Bank shuttle van, punctuating her disgust with a wave of the hand. Her sweeping indictment, recorded in Hany Abu-Assad's terrific quasi-documentary Ford Transit, includes everyday people on both sides along with their callous leaders. Yet this oddly comforting film doesn't traffic in hopelessness -- except when it pauses to contemplate the tattered posters put up to honor suicide bombers.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process may have fallen off the White House radar, but the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival devotes a chunk of its lineup, as it does every year, to tough-minded, bipartisan docs from the region. The sly, surprising Behind Enemy Lines epitomizes the fest's aim of furthering dialogue, although it serves up a sunnier ending than is perhaps warranted. Director Dov Gil-Har sends a Palestinian journalist and an Israeli policeman on a road trip to show each other the landmarks (the Jenin refugee camp, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum) of their respective national narratives -- a sojourn that unintentionally demonstrates that mutual respect and good intentions only go so far.

Daniel Anker's Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust is an impeccable study of the responsibility (and limitations) of presenting unfathomable experiences to wide audiences. As a bonus, the fest revives three masterpieces of the genre: Ernst Lubitsch's sublime wartime satire To Be or Not to Be, Sidney Lumet's stark Manhattan saga The Pawnbroker, and The Boat Is Full, Markus Imhoof's riveting tale of a group of Jewish refugees desperately seeking asylum in a Swiss village.

The festival's new dramas are nowhere near as compelling. Famed Israeli director Amos Gitai sets a bunch of neurotic, alienated characters loose in a run-down Tel Aviv neighborhood in Alila, then gives them nothing to do. Another Israeli entry, the closing-night film Nina's Tragedies, is a mystifying coming-of-age story that veers from black humor to pathos to sitcom shenanigans. Even the usually reliable Chantal Akerman misfires with the Paris-set mother-daughter farce Tomorrow We Move.

More than any movie in the program, the likable opening-night film Wondrous Oblivion reflects the JFF's "can't we all get along" ethos. A cricket-mad Jewish boy in 1960s London gleans all kinds of lessons when a Jamaican family (headed by Delroy Lindo) moves in next door. Our hero is a bit of a blunderer, but his sense of right and wrong ultimately carries the day -- and that's the quality the Palestinian woman in Ford Transit finds so rare.

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Michael Fox

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