The Jewish Film Festival on the other side of the hills

The Jewish Film Festival WinterFest closed only a few days ago, and we already have another Jewish film festival coming up. The East Bay Jewish Film Festival doesn’t take place in Oakland or Berkeley, but much farther east, in the more suburban towns of Pleasant Hill and Livermore.

I’ve seen some of the films – mostly at last year’s Jewish film festivals. Here are the movies I’ve seen, in order from best to worst:

A Who Will Write Our History, Century 16 Downtown Pleasant Hill, Sunday, March 10, 4:00

I’ve seen a lot of films, narrative and documentary, about the Warsaw Ghetto, but I never felt the reality of life in that hellhole until I saw this one. Throughout the Ghetto period, a group of courageous Jews wrote down everything they could. If the Germans had found out what they were doing, they would have been killed and their writings destroyed. To tell this story, director Roberta Grossman broke a lot of rules – mixing narrative and documentary techniques – to create a stronger emotional punch. The effect was stunning.

B+ Disobedience, Century 16 Downtown Pleasant Hill, Monday, March 4, 3:45
A successful New York photographer (Rachel Weisz) returns home to London for her father’s funeral. But it’s complicated. Years ago, she deserted the enclosed world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism in which she was raised. Her father was an important rabbi, and his protégée, an old friend, is his assumed successor. What’s more, the protégée’s new wife is the photographer’s past lesbian lover (Rachel McAdams). A very well-made film, with a great cast, set in a society few people know.

B+ Budapest Noir, Century 16 Downtown Pleasant Hill, Monday, March 4, 7:30; Tuesday, March 5, 1:30

The deep shadows, fedora hats, and the protagonist’s first-person narration tell you immediately that you’re in an homage to ’40s-style detective movies. At times, the film borders on parody, except that it’s entirely serious. This is Budapest, 1936, and Hungary is sliding into fascism. A city square has been renamed after Adolph Hitler. Anti-Semitism is rising. Our hero, a tough reporter on the crime beat, sets out to find out who killed the young woman who just might be Jewish. Some powerful people don’t want him nosing around. An important message wrapped up in an entertaining package.

C- The Waldheim Waltz, Century 16 Downtown Pleasant Hill, Thursday, March 7, 10:00am

How can a film with such a musical name be so emotionally remote? Ruth Beckermann’s documentary examines a fascinating true story: How former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim faced election as Austria’s President in 1986 while news of his Nazi past blew up in his face. The documentary sticks to the events of 1986 and is made up mostly of television news footage. It’s a fascinating and frightening story, and I suspect that Director Ruth Beckermann missed a lot of nuisance. But aside from a few rare moments, Beckermann’s film feels skin deep and emotionally flat. To be fair, I seem to be the only reviewer who didn’t love this film.

D+ The Mossad: Imperfect Spies, Century 16 Downtown Pleasant Hill, Tuesday, March 5, 4:00

Judging from this documentary, made up primarily of interviews, stock footage, and recreations, Israel’s secret service is filled with brilliant James Bonds (minus the sex appeal) who kill just the right people in order to save civilization from the Arab hordes. Every assassination, every dirty trick, is acceptable for the greater cause. True, the Mossad have done some great things (Adolf Eichmann), but this film either avoids or tries to excuse the organization’s atrocities. It’s a flashy movie, with glossy production values and music that belongs in a thriller. It also gets kind of repetitive. When I saw this film, it was simply called The Mossad.