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The 2009 New York Jewish Film Festival conclusion

Concluding on January 29th after a two week run at Lincoln's Center Walter Read Theater and other venues, the 18th annual Jewish Film Festival presented 32 features and shorts from 17 countries. Covering aspects of past and present Jewish (and Israeli) experience, most of these productions had their New York premiere.
Among the about 60 Jewish Film Festivals in the United States, the New York festival is rather influential and trend setting given its location and a captive Jewish audience. The Jewish experience encompasses a broad spectrum from productions reconstructing the perennial and seemingly unending holocaust theme to films dealing with contemporary Israeli issues, as defined by internal fractures and conflicts with Palestinians.
Between superb documentaries at this festival and few outstanding features are interspersed productions mirroring the biographical or semi-biographical experience of the director frequently moving on the surface only and short on reflexive value. (to name but some STUMBLING STONE, KREDENS, THE WOMAN FROM SARAJEVO, DRIVING MEN, OUR DISAPPEARED, IN SEARCH OF BENE ISRAEL, CAMP GIRLS) . These productions will probably be shown on the Jewish Film Festival circuit to a responsive audience yet fail to evoke afterthoughts or leave an imprint on the documentary landscape. Others such as the
appealing documentary WAITING FOR ARMAGEDDOn on radical US
fundamentalists and their apocalyptic vision of the future including the destruction of Israel lacked a clear focus. In several charming feature films being Jewish or the Jewish experience took second place to the story line. In the marvelously photographed EMPTY NEST from Argentine by Daniel Burman the midlife crisis of a couple prevails over the daughter getting involved with an Israeli writer. Likewise in Anna Justice film MAX MINSKI AND ME adolescent infatuation and coming of age leaves the protagonist's bat mitzvah in the background.
Pasolo Barzman's EMOTIONAL ARITHMETIC is here the exception with superb performances by a stellar cast (including Max von Sydow and Susan Sarandon). In this film about three former inmates of the dreaded French Drancy transit camp to Auschwitz reunite 35 years later and are faced with their escape from the cage of past memories.
As in past editions the 2009 festival delivered quality by including
some extraordinary productions in the program' documentary
section. AT HOME IN UTOPIA by Michal Goldman depicts for the first time "Moscow in the Bronx", the establishment of working class cooperative housing in the Bronx permitting escapes from tenement life during the twenties. These member driven Jewish grass root movements relied heavily on communists and those sympathetic to the Communist movement. AT HOME IN UTOPIA will be screened on PBS on April 28, 2009. BEING JEWISH IN FRANCE is probably the most comprehensive and definite presentation of the relation between Jewish communities in France and the French people and state covering the period of the Dreyfus affair through contemporary acts of violence against Jews living in France. There is probably no better documentation and interpretation of the long tradition of French anti-Semitism and its roots in the conservative and catholic movements and growing violence fueled by the conflicts between Israel and Palestine. Few of the 80 000 Jews delivered by the French police to the Germans survived the camps with the historical memory repressed for fifty years. Alain Resnais included photographs of French officers in his classic 1955 documentary NIGHT AND FOG who
were guarding Jews from France before their shipment to the death
camps. Censorship forced him to cover up the French uniforms. It
took forty years until president Chirac acknowledged for the first time in 1995 the cooperation the French state, people and Vichy provided to the Germans. The same Chirac befriended until his death the former police chief of the Vichy police. Renais' film was not restored to its original form until 2003. France has the largest population of Jews and Muslims in Europe and French public support for Israel manifest in earlier wars between Israel and Arab countries has become weak. Nowadays a growing proportion of the French population hold Jews accountable for Israel's actions and, for some observers, the malaise of French Jewish relations has morphed into significant anti Semitism. Unfortunately running over three hours, this superb documentary will be difficult to place into distribution.

The Czech FORGOTTEN TRANSPORTS: TO ESTONIA by Lukas Pribyl is equally important. Portraying the odyssey of a group of Czech women from Prague through numerous concentration camps, this documentary is extremely well structured and edited. As a veritable Fleissarbeit, it presents archival footage and photographs with the images of these women leaving the viewer with the impression that cameras accompanied them. The images in FORGOTTEN TRANSPORTS are also significant since the torturers, Kapos, and camp guards victimizing the women come alive. From Israel comes Nir Toib's incisive investigation EVERY MOTHER SHOULD KNOW funded by the Israel public broadcasting system focusing on the second Lebanon war and the failure of the Israeli political and military leadership. Based on extensive interviews with high ranking officers who served in earlier wars and officer and reservists from one platoon that fought the summer 2006 war, a distressing scenario emerges. This includes the moral failure of senior staff following the war from a safe distance, reservists who are not prepared to fight a guerilla war against Hezbollah, denial and mystification up to the ministerial level, confusion as to tactics and strategy, and avoidance of any close fights to minimize casualties at all costs. Viewing this documentary makes the mixed results of the last Gaza venture more comprehensible. A MOTHER OF A REFUSNIK by Ori Ben Dov offers us a different perspective on Israel's army and wars. Here we have Marit Zameret who refuses to join with some others "the army of occupation" acting counter to the values his family. Yet during the film his courage and ability of saying "No"
shows another aspect of Israel, the reassertion of autonomy and moral judgment by opponents official policies . Marit pays by serving two years of civil and military imprisonment.
The Swedish documentary YOUNG FREUD IN GAZA by Pea Holmquist and Suzanne Khardalian depicts the absurdity of the killings in Gaza as seen through the eyes of children and adolescents treated by the field psychotherapist Ayed. He works at the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza with patients who range from traumatized members of Hamas to children reporting that their parents and siblings were killed before them. The politics of Palestinians and Israelis involved in the slaughter of civilians become irrelevant when trying to help these children to somehow function again.

To program this festival is not an easy task. Memories of the past and fear of the future frequently immure the meaning of 'being Jewish' or of the 'Jewish experience' yet need to be transcended.
Otherwise the appeal of the festival cannot be maintained nor contemporary issues addressed.


Claus Mueller
New York Correspondent
filmexchange@gmail.com

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