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Suggested headline: Boston Jewish Film Festival gets under way at the MFA



Begins Thursday, November 9 at the

Museum of Fine Arts.

Continues through Thursday,

November 16.


THE BOSTON JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL opens this Thursday at the Museum of Fine Arts. The week-long event will feature 19 films and will include a free panel discussion on ethnic stereotypes in American cinema.

As its name implies, the Jewish Film Festival is geared toward an audience consisting of two related but distinct groups: those interested in issues regarding Jewish identity and experience and those interested in works of art that distinguish the cinematic medium.

Obviously, films that might appeal to one group might not appeal to the other. Nevertheless, the two groups are by no means mutually exclusive. Indeed, a "Jewish Film Festival" in its most ideal state should showcase films that can satisfy both groups at the same time, because the most intelligent and articulate exploration of the Jewish experience would have little impact if the film is not well made. Conversely, the most spectacular and impressive feats of filmmaking would have little relevance if the film shies away from probing the Jewish identity in all its nuances and complexity. It is imperative, therefore, that the success of any Jewish film festival (and cultural film festivals in general) be measured by the ability of its films to fulfill their cultural and artistic responsibilities.

From this point of view, it is lamentable that so far only one of the six or seven films screened for the press offers any hope of contributing to the cultural and artistic success of the event. That one film is Axel Corti's An uns glaubt Gott nicht mehr ("God doesn't believe in us anymore"). The film tells a harrowing story about the attempts of a Jewish youth, a reformed German soldier, and a female relief worker to escape from Vienna in the aftermath of the Kristalnacht.

The resonance of the subject matter is what gives the film its emotional power. What intensifies that power -- and gives it a lasting impact -- is the director's sure-handed use of cinema-verit'e shooting techniques, high-contrast black-and-white photography, and old newsreel footage. These give the film a raw, immediate urgency and root the film in its strong historical context at the same time.

Fortunately, An uns glaubt Gott nicht mehr is the first film in a series of three films that have come to be known as the "Where to and Back Trilogy," and the other two films in the trilogy, Santa Fe and Welcome in Vienna, will also be shown in the festival.

In addition to the trilogy, other films in the festival that hold promise or seem intriguing are Pierre Sauvage's Weapons of the Spirit and Orna Ben-Dor Niv's Because of that War. The first examines the motivations and methods of a town of mostly French Christians who decided to shelter and protect Jews from being sent to death camps. This film first received attention in this country with the good reviews it received in the 1987 Seattle Film Festival, and its Boston premiere is long overdue. The second film is touted as breaking "through the silence surrounding the effects on the second generation in Israel."

Another film with potential is Pamela Berger's The Imported Bridegroom, which is a family comedy set in Boston in the early 1900s about an Americanized Jewish woman who rebels against the straitlaced Yeshiva student whom her father wants her to marry. The director, Pamela Berger, was also the scriptwriter and co-producer of last year's Sorceress.

Apart from these films, the festival is offering a number of short documentary films that address more contemporary Israeli issues and themes, and in particular the Palestinian question. Unfortunately, most of the documentaries playing in this festival are less than 60 minutes long, which means that they are all severely restricted in both scope and depth. It is absurd to even pretend that anyone can address issues as volatile as these in films less than an hour long. Reality is far too complicated and messy to be encapsulated so neatly, and it behooves film directors as well as film programmers to remember that these short documentaries belong on television and not in neighborhood theaters -- and they certainly do not belong in an event with as much potential for significance as a Jewish film festival.

In terms of narrative films showing during the week, the festival fares slightly better. Opening the festival on Thursday night at 7:30 pm is Eli Cohen's Hakayitz Shel Aviya ("The Summer of Aviya"). The film is, basically, a typical nostalgic coming-of-age story that focuses on a nine-year-old girl living in Israel in the 1950s. The voice-over narration, acting quality, and subject matter range from average to good, but they never mesh into a compelling whole in the manner that, say, Lasse Halstrom's My Life as a Dog did.

Certainly, those viewers who became isolated from their mothers during childhood may identify strongly with young Aviya, whose mother is emotionally and mentally disturbed. Essentially, however, the film is related to Jewish issues and identity only in the most peripheral way (Aviya's mother is a surviving member of the resistance), and the fact that this film tells the typical coming-of-age story from a female point of view is not sufficient to raise the film above its nostalgic doldrums.

Rivka Hartman's Bachelor Girl is even less related to Jewish issues. Worse yet, it is an idiotic piece of fluff filmmaking that pretends to examine the problems single people have meeting other single people, but it never really bothers to examine it in any meaningful or interesting way. Such a paltry film does not belong in a film festival on its own merits; if the idea behind programming it was to attract a more mainstream audience to the festival, more worthy films could surely have been found.

Uncle Moses is interesting mostly for the historical perspective it provides. The film was made in 1932, and it stars Maurice Schwartz as a Jewish garment manufacturing tycoon in Manhattan who owns a sweatshop. He's also a kind and generous man who acts as a patron for more than half the Jews living in the Lower East Side. He has to face labor agitation against the working conditions as well as the loss of his health and will to live when his young bride decides to leave him.

According to press notes written by the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, which restored the picture, "The restaurant, sweatshop, union-hall, and wedding scenes are priceless encapsulations of the Jewish-immigrant milieu." Be that as it may, the film does not measure up to The Dybbuk, which was also restored by the NCJF and premiered recently.

In summary, the Boston Jewish Film Festival contains a number of films that are worth watching. However, the choice of which films to see should be made with some care, since the festival is unlikely to showcase a timeless masterpiece of Jewish filmmaking. Hopefully, the films that are worth watching will attract enough of an audience to give the hard-working festival programmers a chance to improve the event for next year. If that were to happen, then it would surely be the most important success of all in this year's Boston Jewish Film Festival.