The bulk of Rochester's film festival season doesn't begin until October with the ImageOut and High Falls fests, but if you just can't wait until the leaves change color, you're in luck. The second annual Rochester Jewish Film Festival kicks off this Sunday, offering a diverse batch of features and shorts that will appeal to anybody, regardless of religious background. Eleven of the 16 features are Rochester premieres, and one is making its US debut.
If you plan on attending more than just a few films, there is a $99 festival pass available that grants you access to all screenings and parties, and even gets you first crack at the best seats in the Little Theatre, which is where each film will be shown this year. If you only want to see a couple of festival pictures, let this guide help you pick the winners and losers.
The festival makes an auspicious debut with Yana's Friends (2 p.m. Sunday, July 21), Arik Kaplun's attention-grabbing debut that won seven categories in Israel's version of the Academy Awards back in 1999. Friends is set in a 1991 Russian enclave of Tel Aviv and its story features three uniquely interesting threads. One depicts the titular and pregnant Yana (Evelyn Kaplun, the director's wife) being ditched by a sleazy boyfriend who takes their government stipend and hightails it back to Moscow, leaving her to fend off the unwanted advances of her sex-crazed neighbor Eli (Nir Levy), who has a habit of videotaping people without their knowledge.
Another family of recent immigrants accidentally finds out their war-hero grandfather (Moscu Alcalay) is a cash cow when they leave him outside for a few moments, only to return and find his hat has been filled with the coins of passersby. Eli's mother, the building's landlord, finds a long-lost love in the most unexpected place. And then Saddam's scuds start flying through the air, leading to one of the most original sex scenes in recent memory.
Jan Hrebejk's Divided We Fall (6:30 p.m. Monday, July 22), the Czech Republic's Oscar nominee from 2001 (it lost to a little picture having to do with tigers and dragons), has already had a theatrical run in Rochester, but if you missed it, here's another chance to see it on the big screen. It's a very dark comedy about a young couple who take in a concentration-camp escapee named David in 1943 Czechoslovakia and cram him, Anne Frank-style, into a room smaller than a prison cell. Despite the dreary setting and precariously close calls with Nazi soldiers, hilarity ensues, but not in an over-the-top kind of way a la Life is Beautiful.
Late Marriage (9 p.m. Monday, July 22), which will begin a regular theatrical run at the Little on July 26, is Dover Koshashvili's directorial debut, and it's a very funny look at how another culture handles the process of courting and marriage. We've seen similar comedies, like East is East (about Pakistanis in England) and the upcoming Jalla! Jalla! (about Lebanese in Sweden), and Marriage is just as entertaining.
Zaza (Lior Ashkenazi) is a 31-year-old about to receive both his doctorate in philosophy and his father's boot up his ass because he keeps finding ways to wriggle his way out of every uncomfortable attempt his family makes to marry him off to a hot young filly. That's what we see in Marriage's opening scene, with Zaza's potential bride, a 17-year-old who looks like she stepped out of a Victoria's Secret catalogue. Surprisingly, Zaza is not interested, but that's because he's secretly been dating an older, divorced woman with a kid (all big no-nos). When his parents find out, just sit back and watch the fireworks.
A 2002 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary, Promises (6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 24) shows how the perpetual conflict in the Middle East affects the children in that area. Former Jerusalem resident B.Z. Goldberg returned home with a film crew in 1997 and spent nearly four years documenting seven children, ranging in age from nine to 13, who have substantially diverse backgrounds despite living literally a stone's throw from each other. A discussion moderated by Rochester Jewish Community Federation executive director Larry Fine will follow the film.
Later that evening, Time of Favor (9 p.m. Wednesday, July 24) hits the screen with a provocative and controversial twist on terrorism in the Middle East via a Pearl Harbor-type love triangle.
Here, a group of yeshiva students in a West Bank settlement are whipped into a frenzy by Rabbi Meltzer (Assi Dayan), who rallies his impressionable students into becoming soldiers in an elite religious army. The good-looking Menachem (Aki Avni) is picked to lead said militia, and his brainy, bespectacled pal Pini (Edan Alterman) is tapped to marry the Rabbi's pouty daughter Michal (a role originally intended for Natalie Portman, but played here by an actress named Tinkerbell). Trouble is Michal doesn't like Pini and starts cozying up to Menacham, leading to both a sensuous scene in which Michal and Menacham make shadow-puppet love, as well as Pini's scary plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock Mosque on the Temple Mount.
The pick of the RJFF litter is Henry Bean's The Believer (6:30 and 10 p.m. Saturday, July 27), which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2001 and is due at the Little on August 2 for a regular run. If you noticed Ryan Gosling's performance in Murder 8y Num8ers (it was actually the only thing worth noticing), you'll be blown away by his smoldering turn here as Danny Balint, a Jew-hating skinhead extremist who just happened to have been raised and educated in the Orthodox community.
When Danny falls in with the ambitious leaders of an upstart underground fascist movement, he finds himself drawn closer and closer to his religious roots, kicking off an inner battle that grows more intense as his anti-Semitic activities become increasingly militant. Of course, nobody understands why Danny knows so much about the "enemy" --- they just assume he's really smart and hope to exploit his knowledge to raise money on the Nazi lecture circuit.
In addition to the inner turmoil, Danny also begins a bizarre masochistic relationship (read: mad Aryan love) with the daughter of one of the fascist leaders (Summer Phoenix), reconnects with one of his former yeshiva classmates, and becomes the interview subject of a newspaper reporter who has somehow pieced together Danny's religious background and threatens to expose it in a piece he's writing.
After The Believer, you'll need a nice dose of comedy, which you just might find in Schmelvis: Searching for the King's Jewish Roots (2 p.m. Sunday, July 28), a documentary about a Canadian who wants to prove Elvis was really a Jew. So he gets some friends together (including a Jewish Elvis impersonator), hops into a Winnebago and drives down to Tupelo, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee (read: non-Jew-friendly country) in hopes of ambushing The King's fans --- Tom Green-style --- with the shocking news about the religious background of their idol. Surprisingly, not many of them care. We learn two things: Elvis transcends religion, and the filmmaker's interesting idea didn't really pan out.
Tickets for each festival screening, other than the opening and closing night events, are $8 ($7 for students and seniors) and can be purchased by phone, fax or in person at the JCC Art Department. (Please note: advance tickets are NOT available at the Little Theatre). For more information, call 461-2000 x235, or visit www.rjff.org.
For more of Jon's movie ramblings, visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.