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Jewish film from all the unfamiliar places


It all started with Shoestring, and the 2004 installment of the Rochester Jewish Film Festival, July 11 through July 18, means that festival season is officially underway. Over 100 films were considered in the festival's fourth year; 16 made the final cut. The majority of the selections are documentaries that look at the Jewish experience the world over, stopping in places that might not spring to mind when you think about Judaism, such as Argentina (Born in Buenos Aires), Australia (Welcome to the Waks Family), Ireland (Shalom Ireland), and Tennessee (Paper Clips).

            There are also a handful of feature films, including 1936's Yidl Mitn Fidl, the most commercially successful musical in the history of Yiddish cinema. A couple of filmmakers will stop by to present their films, and a number of the documentary subjects will be on hand as well. More information, including ticket prices and the festival schedule, is available in the RJFF program as well as at the festival's website, But the folks over at the JCC, who are presenting the festival, were kind enough to let me get a peek at a few of this year's selections.

            Opening night will see the unspooling of Divan, a charming and touching documentary that on its surface recounts the search for a sofa in Eastern Europe. But it actually tells the more personal story of one young woman's quest for understanding and acceptance. That woman is filmmaker Pearl Gluck, a self-described "second-generation outcast" who heads to Hungary and the Ukraine in hopes of tracking down her great-great-grandfather's couch that legend has it was slept on by a number of important Kossony rebbes.

            She does this in hopes of pleasing her father, from whom she has grown slightly estranged since her parents' divorce, but the one thing her father desires is for her to marry and rejoin the Hasidic fold in Borough Park, Brooklyn. The film takes an insider's look at the Hasidic community, and specifically the lot of Hasidic women, who are saddled with expectations and restrictions that might seem antiquated to the outside world but give many Hasidim security and tradition to rely upon.

            Not Ms. Gluck, however --- through her very personal narration we learn that once she began to question tradition as a teenager, she "slipped," resulting in the distance between her and her dad. So does she find the divan and win the approval of her father? Maybe. Ms. Gluck will be here to introduce Divan and, if her on-camera persona is indicative of her off-camera personality, lead a lively and intelligent discussion following the film.

            Amos Gitai is arguably the best-known Israeli filmmaker working today. He's been nominated a couple times for the Palme d'Or and makes critically acclaimed art-house offerings with Woody Allen-like regularity. His latest film, Alila, takes an Altman-esque look at the intertwined lives of the residents of a Tel Aviv apartment building. We meet a constantly bickering divorced couple and their AWOL son, a shady older man and his sad young mistress, a Holocaust survivor and his Filipina housekeeper, as well as a number of peripheral characters that help to move the plot along.

            Though its title means "story plot" in Hebrew, Alila is more a slice of life than an actual story with a beginning and an end. It drops in on daily life in the big city and makes no attempt to downplay the differences between people living among such volatility, both within themselves and in their ramshackle surroundings. The work by Gitai and his crew behind the camera is exceptional and accomplished enough to distract you from the occasional melodramatic misstep in front of it.

            The festival's Saturday night offering is Jonathan Kesselman's The Hebrew Hammer, a delightfully profane and often funny film about "the baddest Hebe this side of Tel Aviv," Mordecai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg), and his struggle to save Hanukkah. Santa Claus had been working closely with the Jewish community, but after being offed by a couple of his reindeer ("Et tu, Blitzen?") his evil son Damien (Andy Dick) decides to rid the world of the other December holidays.

            The Hebrew Hammer, backed up by his own Shaft theme rip-off, joins forces with the head of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front (Mario Van Peebles) to combat the new Santa's megalomania. Total and obvious Borscht Belt humor rules the day, and hopefully you like swearing --- all profanity, in its many compound variations, is accounted for. But don't worry --- the only people likely to be offended by this film are Jews, Christians, and African-Americans.

            And when the Hebrew Hammer threatens to use the most powerful weapon in a Jew's arsenal, you know exactly what he's talking about. But as a certain Jewish woman I know would have reminded Damien, you can only feel guilty if you have something to feel guilty about. This woman also claims I'm not so big that she can't put me over her knee, so I had better be a good semi-shikseh tochter and lay off.

The Rochester Jewish Film Festival, July 11 through 18, presented by the Jewish Community Center, screens at the Little and Dryden Theatres. $9, $12 for opening and closing night features. Check, 461-2000 ext 235 for schedules.