SHARON, ABBAS, the Gaza Strip? Let's take a break from all those weighty headlines from the Middle East. Beginning Saturday, March 12, the Seattle Jewish Film Festival pretty much allows you to sidestep politics, if you wish, with a grab bag of 28 shorts, features, and documentaries. Subjects in the fest include French actors attempting to mount a Yiddish adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, a singleton's dating woes in London, and the champion swimmers of an all-Jewish sports club in '30s Vienna. In other words: something for everyone.
From Spain, the opening-night feature Only Human largely defuses politics in favor of family farce. TV newsperson Leni brings her new fiancé home to meet her fairly dysfunctional family. Sister Tania is a single parent and belly dancer, willing to shake more than her belly for the men she meets every night. Younger brother David has gone Orthodox and fastidiously polices every detail of the family's Sabbath observances—or maybe he's just a teenage control freak. Mother Gloria hasn't slept with her husband since David was born; and husband Ernesto, delayed at the office, may be having an affair. There's also a stray duck running around the family apartment. Oh, and one other thing— Leni's fiancé, Rafi, is Palestinian.
Think that's a tough situation for Leni? After a mishap sends a frozen container of soup out the high-rise apartment window, she tells Rafi, "I love you. I want to be with you. Even if you've killed my father." From there, nosy neighbors, kindly hookers, and a vintage rifle wielded by Leni's blind-as- a-bat grandfather figure in the comic fray, all of it framed in the almost real-time setting of a fateful dinner party.
Obviously modeled on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Only Human is one of those rare movies that might benefit from a laugh track, or an American remake, but its potential is largely realized. The last line you'll recognize from Some Like It Hot; likewise, it's a film you'll likely forgive for its shortcomings.
Yes, there must be an obligatory Holocaust documentary, but Imaginary Witnesses: Hollywood and the Holocaust (5 p.m. Sunday, March 13, Cinerama) has less to do with Hitler and Himmler than Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner. Narrated by Gene Hackman, the film lays out how studio bosses, most of them Jewish, were initially reluctant to sacrifice the German market for their wares by mentioning you-know-what in the late '30s. Commentators including Neal Gabler (An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood) describe how newsreels, also produced by Hollywood, were also vetted and censored by the government, which helped keep the Final Solution from becoming big news.
What's news and interesting is how the studio's cheap, quick B-movies were allowed to address the Holocaust; with a wink and a nod, it seems, the studios wanted the truth to sneak out the back doors of their soundstages. Mayer, Warner, and company toured the death camps following World War II, and the harrowing footage that was shot later turned up in an indie feature—Stanley Kramer's 1961 Judgment at Nuremberg.
Perhaps the most fascinating footnote, however, is how the studios' TV operations, like Playhouse 90 and This Is Your Life, actually addressed the Holocaust first and most frankly—before The Pawnbroker or The Diary of Anne Frank. All roads lead inevitably to Schindler's List and Spielberg; both he and Sidney Lumet are among the talking heads here.
DEBRA KIRSCHNER, writer and director of The Tollbooth, is expected to attend the screening of her debut family drama (8:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 16, Broadway Performance Hall). Although the story revolves around young aspiring painter Sarabeth (Marla Sokoloff, The Practice), some of the bigger acting talent lies in supporting roles from Broadway stars—like Tovah Feldshuh (Golda's Balcony) as her mother and Idina Menzel (Wicked) as her older sister. Fresh out of art school, Sarabeth wants to forsake her conservative family and Brooklyn to try her luck in Manhattan. To this, her overbearing mother naturally chides, "Aren't you done yet, rebelling against your parents?"
In addition to the struggling artist heroine, The Tollbooth adds a lesbian subplot, surprise pregnancy, interfaith dating, money woes, and sudden onset of serious illness—all stock plot elements, to be sure. Still, it's not like these things don't happen in real life; the effect is like an entire season of a sitcom (That Girl, perhaps) crammed into 80 minutes of very eventful living for the Cohen family.
Similarly, it's possible to cram in nine full days of filmgoing during the SJFF. Many features will be preceded by shorts. Some have food, music, discussions, and receptions attached. And, yes, you can find politics in there someplace, if you insist.
Seattle Jewish Film Festival, Sat., March 12– Sun., March 20. Venues include Broadway Performance Hall, Cinerama, and Fifth Avenue Theatre. For tickets, schedule, and information: 206-325-6500 and www.ajcseattle.org.