Stars of David

The Jewish Film Festival lights up St. Louis

The fifth annual Jewish Film Festival runs June 11-15 at the AMC Creve Coeur 12 Theatre, 10465 Olive Blvd. (An opening-night party is held at 6 p.m. June 11 at the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building, 2 Millstone Campus Dr.; cost is $40.) Tickets for films (except opening night) are $6.50 in advance and $7.50 at the door; cost for the opening-night film is $10. For tickets or more information, call the Jewish Community Center at 432-5700, ext. 3299. Films are in English unless otherwise noted.

Capsule reviews are written by Diane Carson, Cliff Froehlich, Robert Hunt, Melissa Levine and Robert Wilonsky.

June 11

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, the touching, trenchant documentary that opens the fest at 8 p.m. June 11
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, the touching, trenchant documentary that opens the fest at 8 p.m. June 11
Yana's Friends, a quirky, often absurd Israeli comedy, plays at 5:30 p.m. June 13.
Yana's Friends, a quirky, often absurd Israeli comedy, plays at 5:30 p.m. June 13.

6 p.m.: Premiere Party. A summer picnic of ballpark food and treats precedes the screening of the opening film, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, which also features a 7:30 p.m. discussion with panelists Howard Balzer, Bob Broeg and Ken Holtzman. A ticket for the event -- including food, panel, film and ticket for one additional screening -- is $40. The party is held at the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building; the panel and film are held at the Creve Coeur 12 Theatre.

8 p.m.: The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (Aviva Kempner, U.S., 1998, 90 min.). Sixty-two years ago, a Detroit Tigers ballplayer by the name of Henry Benjamin Greenberg came within three homers of breaking Babe Ruth's then-record of 60 homers in a season. And, yes, his chase of history was also the stuff of which hoopla and hype were made. But Greenberg's home-run chase was not celebrated by all those who kept close watch. There were plenty of baseball fans who did not want Greenberg to catch Ruth, to surpass the legend. A Jew had no business owning such an American record. Greenberg, to his credit, never believed that, despite playing ball in one of the most anti-Semitic cities in America, one run by the hateful Henry Ford. Perhaps Greenberg wouldn't allow himself to believe it. His roles as baseball great and Jewish hero were never separated; he was forever known as the first Jew in the major leagues, even though other Jews came before him and played under goyish names. He was, as filmmaker Kempner often reminds us in her touching, trenchant documentary, the Jackie Robinson of the Jews -- the man who withstood hatred on his way to becoming one of the game's best first basemen and power hitters. (The big difference was that after games Greenberg could go wherever he wanted; Robinson, living in a whites-only world, could not.) Greenberg wore his Jewishness on his sleeve; he never hid from his Romanian background or pretended to be a gentile to disappear into the crowd. And Kempner, who grew up in Detroit after Greenberg's heyday (he played there from 1934-46) and spent more than a decade on this film, makes no attempt to separate the Jew from the Tiger. To her, one thing defined the other -- the American League MVP who didn't play on Yom Kippur, the target for anti-Semites who threw pork chops at him, the "Moses ... the messiah" who proudly led Jews into the promised land of baseball. This film is precisely what a documentary ought to be: engaging and revelatory, turning forgotten footnotes and discarded minutiae into the stuff of riveting drama and poignant laughs. (RW)

June 122 p.m.: Autumn Sun (Eduardo Mignogna, Spain, 1996, 103 min.). In this November-December romance, fiftysomething accountant Clara Goldstein advertises in the personals and turns up Raoul Ferraro, a sixtysomething Italian who pretends to be Jewish to be eligible to date her. But Clara susses him out. Instead of dating him, she recruits him to pretend to be her boyfriend -- her brother is coming to visit, and she wants him to think that she's happy in love. Thus ensues a gently humorous (if sometimes agonizingly slow) comedy in which Clara tries to show Raoul how to appear Jewish. In the meantime, they fall in love. The film is dulled by both its pace and its nearly uninterrupted sepia tones (autumn indeed), and it creates a silly conflict at the end, but parts of it are lovely. If nothing else, a love story between two middle-aged-to-older people is heartwarming to see on the big screen. In Spanish with English subtitles. Postfilm discussion with Robert A. Cohn, editor of the Jewish Light. (ML)

5:30 p.m.: The Giraffe (Dani Levy, Germany, 1999, 107 min.). Though confusing plot machinations often distract from its enticing personal and political underpinnings, The Giraffe maneuvers with sufficient conviction to keep implausible events intriguing. New York Daily News coverage of the arson destruction of a German factory launches an investigation by a Holocaust survivor who recognizes her father, thought killed by the Nazis, in a photograph. Soon two women claim the same identity, the son (Dani Levy) of one and the daughter (co-writer Maria Schrader) of the other cooperate after a mysterious murder, a Jewish Defense lawyer (David Strathairn) interferes, a matchmaker intrudes and conflict builds. Purposefully abrupt edits and disjointed events keep us off-balance, and a consistent noir atmosphere conveys a sinister world of psychological turmoil. Although surrendering to some stereotypes, The Giraffe boldly risks a tangled web of events to explore shifting identities and troubled German-Jewish relationships. In German and English with English subtitles. (DC)

8 p.m.: A Prime Minister's Schedule (Shahar Segal, Israel, 1999, 80 min.). This riveting, intense documentary chronicles the final two months of Yitzhak Rabin's life -- almost entirely through interviews with his family, friends and close political associates. We see face after face against a black backdrop, recalling in detail where Rabin went, what he did and whom he saw, all while confronting immense political pressure from every side of the peace issue. (Some of the most moving testimony comes from Rabin's driver, clearly totally enamored of his boss.) So many interviews are spliced together so rapidly that it becomes exhausting -- the film would have benefited from more images and news footage, if only to let us rest our attention for a moment. But intensity is part of the point, and it builds to quite a pitch: By the end, Rabin's assassination is as shocking and as painful as it was five years ago, when it happened. In Hebrew with English subtitles. Postfilm discussion with Dan Bielski, a former Israeli-newspaper editor. (ML)

June 132 p.m.: "The Personals"(Keiko Ibi, U.S., 1998, 37 min.) and Lies My Father Told Me (Jan Kadar, Canada, 1975, 102 min.) "The Personals" records a group of 12 Jewish senior citizens taking part in an acting workshop at a New York community center as they create and perform a play about personal ads. By the time of the first performance, Ibi has followed them through personal crises and become a friend, provoking them to offer insightful and often disarmingly frank comments on the past, their ambitions, their health and their sexuality. The unpreviewed Lies My Father Told Me, directed by Czech refugee Kadar but set in Montreal's Jewish community of the 1920s, details the moving relationship between a 6-year-old and his Orthodox grandfather. (RH)

5:30 p.m.: Yana's Friends (Eric Kaplun, Israel, 1998, 90 min.). Russians Yana and her husband have just immigrated to Israel, where they settle into an apartment with a sex-obsessed (or maybe just male) filmmaker. Before you can say nyet, Yana's husband abandons her, with debt and a pregnancy in its third month. Then she must fend for herself, among odd neighbors, a new language and the air raids of the Gulf War. This quirky, often absurd Israeli comedy is pretty lovable: It's got a dachshund, lots of greasy hair, a very sexy person (the filmmaker) and a really compelling protagonist. Yana is richly drawn: She brings complex emotions to every difficult decision she must make. And, in what seems to be becoming a comedic trope in Israeli film, the ironization of the Gulf War is delightful, too. In Hebrew with English subtitles. (ML)

8 p.m.: After the End of the World (Ivan Nichev, Germany/Bulgaria/Greece, 1999, 108 min.). After nearly a half-century in Israel, Professor Alberto Cohen returns to his native Bulgaria to give a lecture at a local monastery, where as a boy he was blamed for Jesus' death. That accusation turns out to have been the beginning of a heap of troubles, as the communist promise turned violent and Armenians, Jews and Gypsies were driven out of Bulgaria. The film shifts from present to past, as Alberto reconnects with his old flame and they remember, together and apart, their lives as children. It sounds good, doesn't it? And it is -- it's elegant and patient and meaningful -- until about halfway through, when it loses momentum and nearly grinds to a halt. Is the film really only 108 minutes? The constant flashbacks end up sapping the present of its power -- just when a scene is getting good and messy (including the film's only sex scene!), the focus shifts. By the end, I was feeling more than ready to move on. In Bulgarian, Greek and Turkish with English subtitles. Postfilm discussion with Dr. Sylvia Ginsparg. (ML)

June 142 p.m.: Jew-Boy Levi (Didi Danquart, Germany, 1999, 94 min.). Set in a small town in the Black Forest in 1935, Jew-Boy Levi, based on a play by Thomas Strittmatter, finds a new, understated way to re-create the often-told story of Nazi Germany. There are none of the usual scenes of riots, rallies or breaking glass in this bucolic tragicomedy, but the gradual triumph of wickedness is subtle and chilling. The Nazi influence comes in the form of railway engineers from Berlin who slowly and almost unconsciously use violence and terror to bring the once-peaceful village under their control. No heavy-handed thugs or ideologues, these villains are casually amoral and tipsy with power. They're led, fittingly, by an amateur magician whose greatest trick is to turn the entire community -- middle class, poor, right, left -- against each other, leaving the title character, a gentle lovestruck cattle dealer, stuck helplessly in the middle. Well acted and beautifully photographed, Jew-Boy Levi looks at the moral damage wreaked by fascism from a surprisingly fresh perspective. In German with English subtitles. (RH)

5:30 p.m.: Women. (Rami Na'aman, Israel, 1994, 95 min.). This film opens with a happy event -- a marriage -- but it's pretty much downhill from there. In a Sephardic community in turn-of-the-century Jerusalem, lovely Rachel marries the pious and respected rabbi. But 14 years later, they're still without children, and Rachel is oppressed. Her husband is patient and pious -- "Did Abraham leave Sarah?" -- but Rachel takes matters into her own hands, insisting that her husband take another, younger wife. Brilliant, huh? And that's the problem with this film: We can see it all coming. Even though we sympathize with Rachel's pain, it's hard to stand behind her when she concocts this terribly misconstrued plan. So where does that leave us? With her blaming mother-in-law? ("Satan knocked on the door, and we welcomed him in.") Some of the shots are lovely, but the movie is generally maudlin and monotonous -- literally, the same flute motif is repeated in nearly every scene. In Hebrew with English subtitles. (ML)

8 p.m.: There Once Was a Town (Jeff Bieber, U.S., 1999, 85 min.). Shot in a conventional talking-heads-and-home-movies documentary style, There Once Was a Town follows a group of Holocaust survivors and their family members to Eishyshok, a Polish shtetl whose thousands of Jewish citizens were massacred during World War II. The offscreen narration (by Ed Asner, whose own family came from Eishyshok) is more than a little heavy-handed at times and the archival footage isn't always clearly identified, but the film's history lesson stands on its own. Not surprisingly, the most touching moments come from the survivors and their memories, as when a now-elderly man doggedly locates the woman who, at the age of 6, brought him food every day while he hid in her family's barn. As he embraces the now-stocky and middle-aged peasant woman, you can almost see the frightened teenager and confused child of a half-century ago, so strong are the memories evoked. In Polish and English with English subtitles. Postfilm discussion with director Bieber and Dr. Judith Doneson. (RH)

June 152 p.m.: "god@heaven" (Joseph Neulight, U.S., 1998, 20 min.) and "The Fifth Commandment: Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother" (Simon Azulay, Israel, 1998, 45 min.). It's hard to know precisely what to make of the little short "god@heaven," in which a young boy e-mails God (at Heaven.net and not Heaven.com -- God forbid that God should make a profit from this) and gets an answer. The shots are lovely, the spirits high, but I think the film may actually be suggesting that the boy's dog is God (?). The film is also oddly silent because so much occurs over e-mail, and the boy seems eerily isolated. The unintentional message -- about what computers are doing to us -- may be more powerful than the intended one (whatever that is). In the heartbreaking documentary "The Fifth Commandment," a Moroccan Israeli family struggles with a big change: One of their sons has become a devout Jew. As the Baal Tshuvah movement grows, it's a struggle that many Jewish families are facing, and the film makes clear that what may seem a blessing in some cultures is deeply challenging for nonobservant Jews. The parents, retired, get their greatest (and seemingly only) pleasure from bringing the family together for holiday meals. But the children are grown and leading their own lives, so it's a pleasure that's harder and harder to come by. When their son Ofer becomes Hasidic, he removes himself from the family to study and live among other Hasids, becoming the thorn in his family's side -- the one who's missing at all the meals. To make matters worse, Ofer is critical of his parents and demands that they adhere strictly to the Jewish laws when he visits -- quite a chore. The parents want the family together; Ofer wants to follow his spiritual path. Oy, I tell you. It's a heartbreaker. In Hebrew with English subtitles. Postfilm discussion with Rabbi Jeffrey Bienenfeld. (ML)

5:30 p.m.: Man Is Woman (Jean-Jacques Zilberman, France, 1997, 96 min.). Yet another example of the untranslatability of French -- the language and the sensibility. There's something slightly off here, though other than the title, it's hard to say exactly what. Simon, a gay Jewish French guy (with all of those signifiers, he should definitely dress better than he does), is in love with his best friend, who's straight and married to a woman. Meanwhile, Simon's uncle promises him 10 million francs if he marries a woman. Simon's out and proud and not interested in money, but when his uncle cuts off his bank account and locks him out of his apartment, it's only natural that Simon spend the night with Rosalie, a lovely, pious American Jew who sings Yiddish opera. They fall in love (sort of) and get married, and yup -- it's downhill from there. Problem: There are many opportunities for Simon to back out, and he never does, so we watch him careen toward disaster for most of the film. It's uncomfortable, especially because the film seems to view itself as a comedy. Oh, those crazy French! In French with English subtitles. (ML)

8 p.m.: All My Loved Ones (Matej Minác, Czech Republic/Slovakia/Poland, 1999, 90 min.) This gentle, discursive drama nostalgically recalls a large Czech Jewish clan on the cusp of Germany's invasion. Portents of war periodically intrude -- newsreels of Hitler and goose-stepping troops unspool in the local cinema, a seemingly benign German gardener bellows Nazi anthems with scary exuberance -- but the Silbersteins cling to the mistaken belief that trouble will stop short of their door. The story is told to a large degree from the perspective of David, the youngest family member, who is at last packed off to English safety when his parents belatedly acknowledge the dire precariousness of their situation. All My Loved Ones thus essentially memorializes David's lost relatives, but the film derives its emotional power not by showing their extermination -- it stops before the overt violence begins -- but by recording the small, telling details of their prewar lives: The mundane is made glorious and unbearably poignant by our knowledge of the imminent horror. The movie also pays moving tribute to the real-life savior of children such as David: Nicholas Winton (Rupert Graves), an Englishman who spirited 669 young Czech Jews out of the country before World War II's outbreak. (The actual Winton is seen in documentary footage that opens and closes the film.) In Czech, Polish, German and English with English subtitles. Postfilm discussion with director Minác. (CF)

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