History and Lessons

The balance is starting to shift, or should, between musty old Holocaust movies and present-day Jewish reality on-screen.

Among last Sunday's best foreign-language Oscar nominees, you can get an early look at the German Sophie Scholl: The Final Days during the 11th Seattle Jewish Film Festival. (It plays at 6:30 p.m. Sun., March 12, and 4 p.m. Mon., March 13, at the Museum of History and Industry, the site of all the festival screenings, then begins its commercial run here March 17.) Here, we have the real- life story of the young Protestant martyr executed in 1943 by the Nazis with her comrades in the White Rose student resistance movement, based largely on her letters and actual court transcripts. At the opposite end of the historical spectrum is The Syrian Bride (6:30 p.m. Mon., March 13), set on the border of the occupied Golan Heights, which didn't make it into the final five nominees. One that did is Paradise Now, also previously seen in Seattle, and I wish it had been included in the SJFF lineup. Like Bride, which is more comic and less lethal, it deals directly with the post-1967 history of Israel—a fresh report from the here and now, not a yellowed document of the mid-20th century, like poor, boring Sophie.

So it's the contemporary events in Jewish and Israeli life, both in documentaries and features, that appear most promising at SJFF this year. Have I seen them all? Of course not, but the title that comes closest to Paradise is the doc Diameter of the Bomb (9 p.m. Tues., March 14), since it also concerns a suicide bombing. Unlike Paradise, however, the multifaceted perspective comes from the families of victims and terrorists alike. Twenty died (including the bomber) in a 2002 bus attack in Jerusalem ordered by Hamas. Diameter uses old home movies and photos to profile eight victims, adds interviews with family members and Israeli security agents, and embellishes with morbid details—close-ups of ball bearings and screws (used to make the bomb more lethal), an autopsy table being washed, and one Palestinian relative saying of the tidy and studious young bomber, "He did his own ironing."

Also torn from the headlines (or airwaves) is the hourlong TV special 10 Days in Gaza (1:30 p.m. Sun., March 12), an Israeli news production chronicling the August 2005 removal of 21 settlements in that wretched, contentious strip of land. Here, there is no Palestinian perspective (until the final credits), just Israeli Defense Force soldiers alternately hugging and nudging the settlers to leave; and the Israeli holdouts themselves (many of them ultra-Orthodox), tearfully packing, arguing, and in some cases, requesting the destruction of their homes—so no one can inhabit them later. Also as in Diameter, the now comatose Ariel Sharon makes a somewhat eerie appearance on-screen. "The changing reality in Israel . . . forced me to reconsider" the settlements, he says. Representing the filmmakers, Channel 2 news anchor Gadi Sukenik will discuss the film afterward with the UW's Gadi Barzilai.

But movies can't be all politics and woe. The documentary 39 Pounds of Love (6:30 p.m. Wed., March 15) is basically a feel-good road trip following severely handicapped Ami Ankilewitz from Tel Aviv to Texas (where he was born). "One cannot put a timeline on life," says the stunted and withered 34-year-old, whose spinal muscular atrophy disease led a pediatrician to predict he wouldn't live past age 6. Today he's a computer animator who uses one finger to push a mouse; he's also fond of girls and motorcycles, and has the good fortune of friends and family who support him—mostly—along the way.

Returning after its theatrical run, Ushpizin (6:30 p.m. Thurs., March 16) also has its moments of comedy and warmth, as an Orthodox couple hosts a pair of unruly convicts for Succoth. Michal Bat-Sheva Rand is some kind of marvel as the exasperated housewife who weighs her piety against her desire to drive out the two criminal buffoons with a broom.

And, thankfully, the festival closes with a comedy: the German Go for Zucker (7:45 p.m. Sun., March 19), about a disgraced former East German TV host, now a pool hustler fallen on hard times, who only owns up to his Jewish heritage in order to win his dead mother's estate away from the synagogue. Not only are Zucker's almost estranged wife and positively estranged kids unaware of his Semitic background, they soon become better fake Jews than he when his Orthodox brother and family arrive. Anyone who's ever pretended to know all the rituals or mumbled through the words of a Seder should be able to relate to this good-natured hoax. It's all pretty broad and farcical, and the up-tempo polka-style music gets annoying, but at least the movie reflects how Jews live their lives today—even if it means faking a heart attack at your mother's funeral to get back to a big pool tournament.


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