Seattle Jewish Film Festival

Give us a festival—any festival, please!—to avoid Norbit and The Number 23.

We take what we get this time of year at the movies, now being the traditional lull between the holidays' Oscar-bait pictures and summer's blockbusters-for-teens. In which regard, though mixed as ever in its programming, the 12th annual Seattle Jewish Film Festival arrives at just the right time. By now, we've seen or added to our Netflix queue everything honored or overlooked at the Academy Awards, but surely not everything at the Israeli Academy Awards. And many of the 31 titles being screened at the Cinerama and the Museum of History & Industry will likely never make it back to Seattle theaters (or SIFF or or Scarecrow), which can tip a borderline picture into the realm of the must-see (especially when the competition is Nicolas Cage riding around on a motorcycle with his skull on fire).

We haven't previewed everything, of course, but a few themes and favorites do emerge from the lineup.

I recommend you take up smoking for Saturday's festival opener, Brother's Shadow (7:15 p.m), since it'll give you more excuses to duck out of the Cinerama to avoid what is, essentially, a Jewish TV movie of the week starring Judd Hirsch. And, since Hirsch, co-star Scott Cohen, and writer-director Todd Yellin will be in attendance, smoking breaks on the sidewalk will give you more potential opportunities to beg autographs or start conversations. (Or just call friends on your cell phone—it's up to you.) When a black-sheep twin brother (Cohen) returns to Brooklyn to confront his cantankerous pa (Hirsch), his rebellious teen nephew, and the smokin'-hot widow of his dead sibling...well, Nicolas Cage riding around on a motorcycle with his skull on fire suddenly becomes a lot more attractive. Your inevitable family confrontations result, along with terrible twinkly piano music and lots of woodworking. (You knew there'd be a family furniture business, didn't you?) I've seen episodes of This Old House that were more dramatic. Still, the movie's short, and after smoking breaks, autograph hounding, and lots of phone calls—hey, what are your old high-school buddies doing these days?—you can head to the gala after-party a block away at the Palace Ballroom, hosted by celebu-chef Tom Douglas.

Late in the fest is the far superior What a Wonderful Place (10 p.m. Sat., March 24, MOHAI), which won the Israeli Academy Award in 2005 and was submitted in the foreign-language category for last year's Oscars. It didn't make the strong final five—in part, I suspect, because it so resembles Crash. Overlapping stories from different social strata; religious, ethnic, and language barriers between them; a web of chance encounters, random kindness, and unexpected violence—yup, it's the Paul Haggis formula, only less formulaic. The lovely, fragile Evelyne Kaplun (Yana's Friends) plays an illegal Ukrainian immigrant forced into prostitution by a gang that includes kindly ex-cop Uri Gavriel (who also appeared with Kaplun in last year's The Syrian Bride). Around them are unhappy farmers, Thai field hands, and Filipino nursing aides (though surprisingly few Arabs). It's not hard to see how their lives will intersect, but the consistently well-pitched performances never descend to Haggis-level melodrama.

A black-and-white student film that too plainly echoes its influences (chiefly Vertigo and Repulsion), Frozen Days (8 p.m. Sat., March 24, MOHAI) has the virtue of one breakout performance by Anat Klausner—a good thing, since she's in basically every frame of the movie. A forthright, don't-fuck-with-me petty drug runner, her personality is shattered after narrowly escaping a terrorist's bomb. What coalesces in its place—while she lives in a victim's apartment and assumes his identity—isn't exactly compelling, but if they ever decide to remake Run, Lola Run in Hebrew, Klausner's their girl.

Happily, the festival ends on a high note, with documentary subject Ziv Koren expected to attend the closing-night screening of . . . More Than 1,000 Words (8:30 p.m. Sun., March 25, Cinerama). He's one of those chain-smoking, adrenaline-junkie photojournalists who actually run toward gunfire and smoking bomb craters, and his work has made the covers of Time and Newsweek and run Page One, above the fold, in The New York Times. "If I could never sleep, it would be perfect for me," says Koren, who shoots hundreds of images a day—both in the occupied territories and on fashion assignments in Tel Aviv. The video camera frantically trails him as he zips around on his motorcycle (after dropping his daughter at day care), then pauses as he and colleagues occasionally reflect on their dangerous profession.

"I have a social and political agenda," Koren says of his work. "I shoot for the truth." Wrenching images from the Israeli pullout from Gaza, and of violent protests in Jenin, attest to his evenhandedness. Yet, he admits, the very same masked Palestinians who allow him intimate access to their lives—and hence, earn him profitable magazine spreads—are those who plant a bomb in his wife's favorite coffee shop.

The photographer and his work are better than the filmmaking, which strays needlessly to 9/11 in New York City, but 1,000 Words benefits from its on-the-fly structure. It's a compressed view of a man who has to compress his own tumultuous world in a viewfinder. Out of thousands of images a year, Koren estimates, he might capture a half-dozen perfect frames. It's not a bad ratio for any artist—or a film festival, for that matter.

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