Monday, January 12, 2009

Atlanta Jewish Film Festival 2009 - Highlights, Part 1

This was a temporary posting of a report submitted to Southern Screen Report. It can be read here. I will begin posting a daily festival "journal" here on Thursday, January 15th.

We offered a preview of the opening night last week of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. Today, is a selection of highlights of the first five days of the festival. (The second half will post later in the week.) Though the programming may not be as breathtaking as last year, one is always aware that a festival is dependent upon the work that is available. Though I am unable to find a "virtual sidebar" of programming that compares to the films for families and young audiences that screened last year for instance, there is still some exceptional work that is standing alone.

The Opening Nights (yes, plural!) selections, HELLO GOODBYE and STRANGERS, which I spoke of in some detail here, are given encore screenings on the afternoon of Friday, January 16th, and STRANGERS has an additional screening on Saturday evening, January 17th. Both films deserve these additional opportunities! One could hope that HELLO GOODBYE will receive distribution, but that is never a guarantee. STRANGERS is perfectly set in a festival screening, and this will probably be your only chance to catch it.

Additionally on Saturday evening is a great performance from Hiam Abbass (the love interest in The Visitor) in LEMON TREE, directed by Eran Riklis, whose earlier work includes The Syrian Bride. Again, Riklis deals with the frustrations of the people facing Israel's bureaucracy. One of the remarkable aspects of Riklis' work (based upon these two films), is that the perspective is inclusive of both cultures that are in conflict, though there is a definite lean against the government. Hiam Abbass' work keeps her character from becoming pathetic and she shoulders a great deal of responsibility in veering the film from wallowing in cheap sentiment. The cinematography is as clear and simple as the fable it is telling. Considering some of the complex narratives that attempt to tackle Israel's policies, Riklis is able to break it down to a human and emotionally accessible level.

Scheduled at the same time on Saturday is a film that could not be more opposite of LEMON TREE in its complexity. A SECRET, directed by Claude Miller, is a nearly Proustian exercise in a man's exploring his childhood and the lives of his parents, extending his journey to before he was born. It is an exceptional piece, describing the generational effects of The Holocaust. The first act of the film is a mystery that is brilliantly structured. In fact, the cinematic and scripted gymnastics of that first hour can be so thrilling that it leaves the second act to wander a bit, however dramatically justified that might be. It features a large, all star, French cast, including Mattieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), as the biographic explorer. The film's production values are all exceptional! The periods that it crosses are all well defined, which is extremely important considering that first hour of non-linear narrative.

Both LEMON TREE and A SECRET have later screenings, so do not panic about the schedule conflict that they have on their premieres on Saturday night.

The diverse selection on Sunday may make heads spin! There are several documentaries and a pair of "chick flicks" that I would overwhelmingly recommend!

Of the documentaries, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, directed by Judd Ehrlich, is the warmest and "easiest" one of the day. It documents the life of Fred Lebow, the creator of the NYC Marathon. The amount of historical footage, most of it from those fabulously geeky 1970's, is fascinating. The "talking heads" warmly remember the times and the man for the party that the era was. Once it goes into the third act, which focuses on the controversy that the almost TOO successful marathon ran into, it feels forced and drags a bit. It is as if the director felt the need to create some sort of drama within the piece, where it could have remained a cinematic love letter to Lebow. And for those first two thirds of the film, as well as its exceptional soundtrack and sound design, it is a really nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

The other two documentaries screening Sunday are particularly heavy, especially considering the news events in Gaza these past couple of weeks. MY FIRST WAR is director Yariv Mozer's first person account of the frontlines of the 2006 war in Lebanon. Mozer's dry narration only intensifies the objectivity of the piece. He was allowed an outrageous amount of access and candor from his fellow soldiers. Even though we know what his thesis is going to eventually state, his clear and emotionally detached and paced editing is nothing less than extraordinary! At no point do you feel lectured to, unlike the third documentary of the day, THE CASE FOR ISRAEL: DEMOCRACY'S OUTPOST. Frankly, I would not normally recommend this film, as it isn't so much a "film" as it is a recorded lecture, this being given by Alan Dershowitz, as a rebuttal to Jimmy Carter's book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. In fact, even as recorded lectures go, this is pretty dry stuff, not to mention, as indicated by its title, it is pretty much on the defensive. I include it as a recommendation here, mostly due to how it will play against the current events in Gaza and how this film is guaranteed to spur an enthusiastic Q&A afterwards.

Now, if the grim reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict is not your cup of tea, the festival is featuring one of the most peculiar and invention films you will see at this, or any other year. A LIGHT FOR GREYTOWERS, is a musical comedy directed by Robin Garbose, and is the first theatrical release by Kol Neshama, an all-female performing arts conservatory. The film unashamedly, if not proudly, relies on the musical theater constructs that Disney (if not Charles Dickens) has perfected. A young girl of orthodox Jewish background, finds herself in a Victorian England orphanage, and... well, hilarity, self affirmation and reunion ensue! Now, if you are NOT of the musical-theater inclined, you'll probably hate this. But I LOVED this! The performances are duly large and there is an unassuming innocence that treads perilously close to "cute", without falling into that. The production values and particularly the orchestrations are surprisingly polished! As a note that did concern me for a moment, the film's producers advise "the film adheres to traditional Jewish values of modesty and is intended for female audiences only. Appropriate for ages 8 and up." Now, I don't know whether that is tongue-in-cheek, and I even checked with the festival organizers, but it is safe to say that its intended audience IS young girls, though I doubt that males will be turned away.

Later that evening is another film about young Jewish women, but definitely intended for adults. THE SECRETS, directed by Avi Nesher, has a slightly alarming first five or ten minutes, in which I thought the film was going to be a bomb. However, one must be patient and really concentrate on getting past the story's prologue before it continues into a series of unexpected and beautifully portrayed characters and situations, most notably the second appearance in this year's festival of Fanny Ardant! It is beautifully filmed and once the actual plot begins, the pacing is fabulously mysterious and sensual. It is an exceptional portrait of femininity, feminism, sensuality and mysticism in an Orthodox Jewish world. it's an outstanding experience.

Monday features a number of encore screenings from the weekend, and also a pair of exceptional documentaries. WE WERE EXODUS, directed by Jean-Michel Vecchiet, is a collection of interviews of passengers, crewmen and other witnesses to the voyage of Exodus, which attempted to transport 4,500 "illegal" emigrants to Palestine, in July 1947. The story itself is dramatic enough that the reliance on "talking heads" is not as ineffective as it might have been.

Later that evening, an exceptionally offbeat subject is profiled in WILL EISNER: PORTRAIT OF A SEQUENTIAL ARTIST, directed by Andrew D. Cooke. Will Eisner is one of the groundbreaking, if not the grandfather of the "graphic novel", aka comic books, his masterpiece being "The Spirit". The film is a bit busy with narration and graphics, as nearly everybody who is anybody in the comics world are interviewed about Eisner's contribution to the art and the industry. To avoid the "talking head syndrome", director Cooke has illustrated the interviews with examples of Eisner's art. (This would be the best opportunity for a DVD that should have a "photo gallery" in its extra features!)

There is a bit of a lull at the half-way point on Tuesday, as I can only recommend one feature, and that is with some reservation. ONE DAY YOU'LL UNDERSTAND, directed by Amos Gitaï, is an exceptionally complex, if not deliberately paced film about a man and his mother (played by Jeanne Moreau!) coming to grips with their experience during the Nazi occupation, as triggered by the broadcast trial of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie. The production design and cinematography capture a bleak and bleached out country caught in self doubt, in the 1980's. The structure of the film is unusually challenging, as it is nearly impressionistic and requires some patience and concentration. It is a worthwhile exercise, but not for the passive viewer.

Highlights for the second half of the festival as the week progresses and I will be posting more detailed, daily capsule reviews (including warts and all) on my blogspot:, beginning Thursday and running concurrently with the festival. Tickets are available through the festival website and at the box office of the respective theaters, a the Lamont Sandy Springs and the Regal Atlantic Station.

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