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May 3, 2002

Israel a focus at film festival

The 14th Annual Vancouver Jewish Film Festival gets under way next week and films from Canada, the United States, Argentina, Australia and South Africa will be among the fare offered to viewers. But, with more than 20 entries, films from Israel will be front and centre, especially with more people currently showing an interest in all things Middle East. Among the collection are three world premières and five Canadian premières.

Gloomy Sunday opens the festival May 9, at the Norman Rothstein Theatre. Winner of the best feature film at the 2000 Jerusalem Film Festival, this German/Hungarian production is about love triangles and a haunting melody that causes people to commit suicide. It will be followed by a gala reception.

After the opening night two documentaries about Israel will lead the program: Birthright Israel is a made-in-Canada, hour-long video that follows Birthright participants on their life-changing journeys to Israel. It is a free screening, sponsored by the Israel Experience Centre. In Search of Peace is a feature-length chronicle of the first two decades of Israel's existence. Directed by Richard Trank and narrated by Michael Douglas, Edward Asner and Anne Bancroft, among others, the film offers a fascinating mix of historical narrative, interviews and dramatic story-telling. These two films screen on May 12, 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., respectively, in the Norman Rothstein Theatre.

Also on May 12, at the Pacific Cinémathèque, is The Best of Israel's Film Schools. This is a series of three half-hour works from the students of three different film schools in Israel. These show at 9 p.m.

Other unique Israeli contributions include Komediant: The Comedians – 100 Years of Yiddish Comedy Theatre, which won the 1999 Israeli Academy Award for best documentary; Sadeh Magnetti (May 13), which comprises two episodes of a new TV series that will be broadcast in Israel next fall; A Bomb in the Basement (May 14) discusses Israel's options for nuclear development; and Late Marriage (May 19) is a drama that looks at a Georgian couple in Israel trying to find their son a suitable Jewish bride. It won nine Israeli Academy Awards, including best film. These four films will screen at the Norman Rothstein Theatre.

Female perseverance

One of the more timely showings at the film festival this year is Company Jasmine, about women training for the Israel Defence Force (IDF).

As the film makes evident, training to be an officer in the IDF is a challenging task that has pushed many men to their physical and mental limits. However, due to safety reasons and concerns over strength and stamina, only a small number of women have been allowed to hold that title. Until recently. The success of many female officers has resulted in the opening of a new program of IDF training for women.

In this documentary, Israeli filmmaker Yael Katzir, a former officer in the IDF herself, and her crew, follow the young women in their 17-week venture to graduate as officers.

The film focuses closely on a few of the soldiers through the ups and downs of their training, as well as on the weekends, home with their families.

Company Jasmine addresses the ongoing debate over women serving as officers and the concerns many people voice about the less vigorous training routine through which the women are put in comparison to their male counterparts.

In Hebrew with English subtitles, the 56-minute film will be shown at Norman Rothstein Theatre May 20, 7 p.m.

– Kyle Berger

The true Jewish mother

In her film Mamadrama, Australian director Monique Schwarz examines the portrayal of the Jewish mother in American and Israeli cinema. She draws upon depictions from Hollywood comedies of the 1960s, American Yiddish dramas of the 1930s and contemporary Israeli dramas.

Schwarz has a specific quest: to counteract the Hollywood stereotype of the "demanding" and "manipulative" Jewish mother with portrayals of the mother she knows. She points to the absence in cinema of women like her own "smart" and "sexy" mother, a capable and strong woman who endured both the hardships of oppression in Europe, as well as immigration to America.

We see a glimmer of the mother she seeks in the early depictions and fully fledged in current Israeli portrayals. By the film's end, Schwarz has successfully replaced the well-etched and now banal stereotype of a demanding and manipulative Mrs. Morgenstern (of the '70s sitcom Rhoda) with the mothers of Israel, most notably portrayed by Israeli actress Gila Amagor.

Schwarz interweaves these portrayals with commentary from film historians and critics, and engaging stories from both American and Israeli film directors and actors on how they drew their inspiration for the Jewish mothers they created and portrayed. Historian Patricia Brens and critic Michael Medved provide the narrative thread for this documentary.

Pay close attention to Amagor's and director Paul Mazursky's inspirations. Their accounts make this film a fascinating journey through Jewish motherhood in the cinema.

Mamadrama runs one hour, 13 minutes, and shows at Pacific Cinémathèque May 12, 7 p.m.

– Tim Fuchs

Significance of a song

Singer Billie Holiday made the song "Strange Fruit" famous when she recorded it in 1939. Since that time, perhaps 100 singers have recorded their own interpretation of the song about the lynching of a black man in the American south, which was written by Abel Meeropol, who used the pseudonym Lewis Allen for his compositions.

Born in 1903, Meeropol was the son of Jewish, Russian immigrants. He was a high school teacher before turning to composing full-time. "Strange Fruit" was originally written as a poem in a Teachers Union publication. How Holiday came to record the song, as well as its political and social significance, are the subjects of the documentary Strange Fruit, directed by Joel Katz.

In the hour-long film, Katz explores the incredible story of how a song that was banned by radio stations reached 16th spot on the popular music charts within three months of its release, and how it played a huge role in the anti-lynching and civil rights movements. Strange Fruit also provides insight into Meeropol – he and his wife adopted the two sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg – and discusses how "Strange Fruit" differed from other "black sounding" music written by Jewish composers.

Strange Fruit
screens May 13, 8 p.m., at Pacific Cinémathèque.

– Cynthia Ramsay

A case of espionage

What most people agree on regarding the case of Jonathan Pollard is that Pollard spied on behalf of Israel. Whether or not his spying put the United States at risk is another matter. And, in a catch-22 situation, lawyers cannot assess that risk because they are denied access to the classified documents that Pollard took. This, at least, is one premise put forward in the film The Case of Jonathan Pollard as to why Pollard still sits in jail for spying activities he began in 1984.

This film does an excellent job in documenting the life of Pollard, his commitment to Israel and the events leading up to his being caught copying secret U.S. intelligence files on behalf of Israel. It then uses a series of re-enactments, historical footage and interviews with friends, relatives, lawyers and army officials to bring to the surface all the issues being discussed around freeing Pollard. These include the topic of anti-Semitism, the fact that he took money in exchange for the documents and the argument that he was promised a shorter sentence in exchange for pleading guilty.

For those who are very familiar with the Pollard story, much of the film will not add any new light on the circumstances. But there are bound to be some items brought up in the interviews that you've never heard. For those with only a general knowledge about Pollard's case, this is a great way to get as complete a version as you're going to get in 71 minutes.

The Case of Jonathan Pollard has its world première May 15, 7 p.m., at the Norman Rothstein Theatre. Producer Amiran Amitai will attend.

– Baila Lazarus

Venice's Jewish history

Depending on which historian you ask, the first Jews arrived in Venice in 1152, 1290, 1314 or 1366. Regardless of the exact date, the Jewish people have a long and rich history in the Italian city, one that viewers can sample in the Swiss documentary Ghetto: The Heart of Memory, directed by Mateo Bellinelli.
Moni Ovadia, who narrates the documentary and re-enacts some historical scenes in Ghetto, is melodramatic and this is an unfortunate aspect of the film.

However, the story of the Venice ghetto is intriguing and the visual images of the area as it is today are unforgettable. Its buildings – some as high as seven storeys - are in severe disrepair after centuries of water and salt damage, but its five synagogues retain their beauty. Restoration of some of the buildings and the Lido cemetery has commenced but much more needs to be done in order to preserve this important part of Jewish and Italian history.

The Ghetto Novo was the first ghetto ever created. In 1516, the Jewish and general communities were separated from each other and the area selected for the Jews was that of a once-active foundry; the word ghetto means foundry.

Bellinelli's documentary briefly surveys the economic, social, cultural and religious elements of Venice's Jewish population from 1516 to today. At its peak, the community numbered as many as 5,000; now 400 Jews live there. Viewers will leave Ghetto wishing they could see this amazing historical site in person.

Ghetto runs one hour and is in Italian with English subtitles. It is presented in association with the Instituto Italiano di Cultura in Vancouver and plays at the Pacific Cinémathèque May 15, 7 p.m. Dr. Abraham Rogatnick will be a guest at the screening.

– Cynthia Ramsay

History meets mystery

Crusader history intertwines with modern-day drama when a mild-mannered archeologist makes some "groundbreaking" discoveries. In Face the Forest, an Israeli archeologist doing a PhD on the Crusaders takes a job as a fire spotter in northern Israel. Walking in the forest one day, he finds an odd coin that suggests a different version of history than the one commonly held. Recognizing the important ramifications of his discovery, he starts to investigate the source of the coin, which gets him deeply involved in a dangerous mystery.

A fun adventure, with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure, Face the Forest is Indiana Jones meets Columbo.

The acting is good and the plot is easy enough to follow. The only drawback is that several questions go unanswered in the film and a few of the circumstances seem implausible. (What is the "accident" everyone in the movie keeps referring to and where did that body come from? If you figure it out after seeing the film, please let us know.) But it's not hard to get over these minor hurdles and leave the film feeling satisfied. Besides, it's worth it just to see the bar-room scene in which the sound of Leonard Cohen's voice is heard on the soundtrack singing, "I've seen the future, brother. It is murder."

Face the Forest runs 97 minutes. It will be shown in Hebrew with English subtitles at the Norman Rothstein Theatre May 22, 9 p.m.

– Baila Lazarus

The Norman Rothstein Theatre is located at 950 West 41st Ave. Pacific Cinémathèque is located at 1131 Howe St. Ticket prices for regular screenings are $9/adult, $7/students and seniors. Matinées are $5. For those on a limited income, call the JFSA at 604-257-5105. Advance tickets are available at the Vancouver JCC reception desk and may be purchased with a credit card by calling 604-723-1461. For further information, call 604-266-0245 or visit