Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Jewish Film Festival in Boston

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Jewish Film Festival in Boston

(What follows is my full piece, originally written for the Examiner, which was initially linked up at this spot. From now on this will be its home.)

For ten days, the Museum of Fine Arts will hold a festival of nine features and three short films, all following Jewish protagonists and dealing with themes pertaining to Judaism. The festival's proclaimed theme is "home" and indeed, many of the films deal with exile, immigration, and travel - home experienced in absentia, abstractly rather than a constant source of comfort. But an even more pronounced theme of the program is "family." Almost every film deals with rich (and often troubled) relations between parent and child, husband and wife, even surrogate families, often to be found on the stage (see the theatre school in Erga Netz's documentary How to: Be or Not to Be on the evening of November 15, preceeded by Isaac Brown's and Nadia Ramouter's short doc Nes Gadol Project, about a teacher who attempts to set up a performance at a school for the handicapped).

Also climbing the family tree are Ori Ravid's Eli & Ben (Nov. 7 at 7 pm), a coming-of-age tale in which a boy's beloved father is accused of corruption; Axelle Ropert's The Wolberg Family (Nov. 12 at 9 pm) about a mayor and his dysfunctional family in the French provinces; and Jean-Jacques Zilbermann's He's My Girl (Nov. 7 at 9:15 pm) a gender-bending comedy about a naive mother and her gay son, as well as his cross-dressing lover and thespian ex-wife (it's a sequel to Man is a Woman, which screened at the festival in '98). On a light note, Shelly Kling's short film Gefilte Fish (showing before Eli & Ben) examines the relationship of a young woman to her mother, grandmother, and fiancee through her preparation of a fish dinner (or lack thereof, given her humanitarian impulses). Elsewhere, Shai Agosin's To Life (Nov. 15 at 1 pm) follows a Mexican photographer on an ambivalent voyage to reunite with her 80-year-old father; while the protagonist of David Ofek's The Tale of Nicolai and the Law of Return (Nov. 15 at 3:15 pm) is leaving family behind in Romania, while he seeks work - eventually illegal - in Israel.

Some of the festival's films are historical, with World War II and the Holocaust represented by two films. Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis (Nov. 15 at 3:15 pm), by Gaylen Ross, documents the story of a Hungarian Jew who struck a deal with the Nazis; though he saved many fellow Jews with his actions, many despised him - he was assassinated years later and only now has his killer granted an interview, which is included in the documentary. Toyland deals with the Shoah more indirectly, and it puts a dark spin on all the films about adults turning the Holocaust into a tall tale (Life is Beautiful, Jakob the Liar) in an attempt to block its horror. Here, it's a gentile mother telling her son that the Jews are being taken "to Toyland" and this lie - meant to cover up her own passivity as much as anything else - ends up bringing her son closer to the horror rather than further away.

The festival opens and closes with by examining Jews under another dictatorship, in this case the USSR: Andrey Khrzhanovsky's Room and a Half, Nov. 5 at 7 pm, chronicles the life of emigre poet Josef Brodsky. Within the Whirlwind (Nov. 15 at 7 pm), a Marleen Gorris film, wraps things up with another Jewish poet suffering at the hands of Communist officials: Emily Watson plays Evginia Ginzberg, who was sent to the gulag by her husband's betrayal.

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