Seattle Jewish Film Festival (2000)
feature by Patty-Lynne Herlevi, 17 March 2000


Seattle Jewish Film FestivalDocumentaries abounded at the 5th Annual Seattle Jewish Film Festival ranging from the academic From Swastikas to Jim Crow to the poignant legend within a story Menelik to the entertaining Hollywoodism. 16 documentaries in all with various themes revolving around Jewish culture and cultural diversity allowed viewers to revisit issue that effect them directly or open their minds to other points of view. The Academy Award-winning The Personals and Children of Chabannes rounded out the thematic group of documentaries, proving that documentaries can be both entertaining and enlightening. (Note: Only a few of the documentaries are reviewed).

The first two documentaries screened, The Color of Jewish and Menelik revealed problems associated with Ethiopian Jews assimilating into modern life in Tel-Aviv. The Color of Jewish, directed and narrated by Pamela Love featured interviews with average Israelites voicing their opinions about the authenticity of the Ethiopiansí claim to Judaism. A few of the Israelites interviewed call the Ethiopians barbarians, a sentiment that also appears in Delta Jews when the Southern Jews claim that the Northeastern Jews are unclean troublemakers. However, name-calling is the least of the Falashas' (Ethiopian Jews') concerns. Issues revolving around adapting into Tel-Avivís cultural and economic environment have proved to be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the Ethiopian elders (men) have lost their leadership roles, but the Ethiopian women have been allowed to pursue careers outside of the home bringing them a new sense of independence in the bustling market place of Tel-Aviv. The Color of Jewish explores these issues through electrifying photographic images and candid interviews with individuals directly influenced by changing times.

While Menelik deals with similar issues, Daniel Waschmanís documentary revolves around one young man, Gadi as he searches for his cultural identity and roots. Gadi, a Falasha refugee migrated to Tel-Aviv where he found a home in a subway station. Gadi proves to be a proud man, dressing in fashionable clothing and at times, lying to the film director by saying that he never slept in the subway. Far away from his mother and village, his proud act does not hide Gadiís loneliness. In the second half of the film, Gadi returns to Ethiopia in search of his mother and where he finds himself treated as an outsider. Always an outsider, Gadiís identity problem does not resolve itself and viewers might be left wondering what ever happen to the young man.

Gadiís story parallels with the legend of the black prince Menelik adding a beautiful texture to similar to the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbafís fable-like film Gabbeh. Both poignant and informative, viewers find themselves educated about the plight of Falasha refugees through Gadiís eyes.

Simcha Jacoboviciís Hollywoodism (Jews, Movies and the American Dream) and Mike Dewittís Delta Jews explore Jews assimilating into the American mainstream culture and turning their back on their ethnic origin. However, while Hollywoodism entertained with sound bites from key performers in Hollywoodís Jewish community and film clips from classic American films, Delta Jewsí Jewish southern belles and leading men dimmed in comparison. Both films reflect on cultural events in American history and viewers might actually feel enlightened after seeing the films, but Delta Jews would fit better on a PBS station than the big screen.

Racism reared its ugly head in Steven Fischler and Joel Sucherís film, From Swastikas to Jim Crow as well as in the Swedish film entitled Anti-Racism. From Swastikas to Jim Crow reveals the relationship between German Jewish professors and their students at the black universities in the American South. While the film plays with the irony that the oppressed, Jewish professors find themselves alongside the white oppressors in the South the professors encouraged black students to pursue careers never thought possible. The bond that formed between the various professors featured in the film and their students elicits remarkable drama often not found in dramatic feature films. Beyond the drama exist remarkable individuals who participated in a little-known event in American history.

Remarkable people appear in the Swedish director Liv Weisbergís Anti-Racism. Among those educating youth about racial diversity and anti-racism are a former Neo-Nazi member, an immigrant woman from Uruguay and a crew of Viking shipbuilders. Some of the interview subjects believed that educating others about racial diversity will not end racism, but at least itís a good start and a provocative reminder that racial tensions still exists in the world.

Anyone who watched the 1999 Oscar Awards will recall that tearful moment when the young Japanese filmmaker Keiko Ibi received an Oscar for her short film, The Personals. Equally memorable and charming are the elderly improvisational actors that appear in Ms Ibiís documentary. The sprite and witty performers speak candidly about dating, sex and loneliness that they transformed into a delightful comedy about romance in the golden years. Director Ibi created a gem that paralleled the lives of the performers with rehearsals of their theatrical performance, The Personals. Falling somewhere in between the TV show, The Golden Girls and the Broadway musical, The Chorus Line, viewers can witness a film worthy of its Oscar.

From the golden years to the bris ceremony, director David Bezmozgis explores the lives of 3 mohels in Los Angeles that perform circumcisions on the infants of wealthy Jewish and Moslem clients. As these poor infants are subjected to a painful ceremony in front of, well, everyone that they will come to know, the mohels remind us that they feel pride to participate in an ancient ceremony. LA Mohels might be entertaining to those familiar with the tradition, but the film emits a mushy sentimentality that could turn off those seeking intellectual nourishment. And itís a bit painful to watch.

The double bill that included the films, Zyklon Portrait and Children Of Chabannes proved to be the most memorable in the festival. Both films dealt with the annihilation of the Jewish populations in Europe during the Holocaust and acted as a reminder of the destructive abilities of humans. Toronto-based filmmaker Elida Schogt explored the history of and how Zyklon B gas was used to exterminate Jews. Through a montage of underwater photography, family portraits mixed with footage of a public shower and buzzing insects, Ms Schogt told the story that her mother could never tell. Only 13 minutes long, Zyklon Portrait portrays one of the most powerful moments in the history of cinema. This film breaks hearts in ways never thought imaginable and by zeroing on one component of the Holocaust, the filmmaker makes her point in an unforgettable, yet strangely poetic fashion.

Beginning with German Jewish children refugees arriving at Felix Chevrierís chateau in Chabannes (southern France), Lisa Gossel and Dean Wetherellís Children Of Chabannes commemorates the 1996 reunion of the refugees and their teachers. Through interviews with the Holocaust survivors, archival photographs, Felix Chevrierís journal entries and the childrenís drawings from their stay at the chateau, participantsí lives between 1939 and 1944 are chronicled.

Although Children Of Chabannes provides lively interviews, (especially with a woman teacher who provided a hilarious description of the rats in the dormitories) and gorgeous pastoral photography, it is the humanity of the film that stands out. As noted in the filmís press kit, ordinary people performed extraordinary deeds to save the Jewish children from death because it was the right thing to do. And while this sentiment has already been played out in other films about the Holocaust, this time the viewers find themselves drawn into the story through comic moments and are left with a compassionate image of human beings.

However, even though the interviewees appear to be charming and their stories heartwarming, Children Of Chabannes carries its own baggage of clichťs. Yes, this story needs to be told and yes; we can learn a lot from historical events, but it is a filmmakerís job to tell the story in a way that it hasnít been told before. Any adult viewer of this film will already be familiar with (although often not first hand), the atrocities of World War II. The film would have been more interesting had they focused on how the children were safely exported to safer countries rather than the events that led up to their departure. By showing us one French village and the villagersí contribution to the safe deportation of 400 Jewish children (4 died in concentration camps), the filmmakers were at least off to a good start, but the film lacks originality and it tends to be uneven.

The goal of the festival, revolving around the promotion of cultural diversity via the movie screen, seemed to have been accomplished with SJFF programmersí selection of documentaries and the features (not reviewed in this article). Hopefully, eyes were opened and minds enlighten at this yearís festival.

Please be sure to read our reports from these other film festivals as well:

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