March 12-20 at various theaters.
The rap song by the German group Freundeskreis, "Lasst Mich Nicht Alleine" ("Don't Leave Me Alone"), ends with a curious sample from a movie I have yet to determine. In the sample, one man, possibly black, asks, "So, how come you people come to business so naturally?" Taking offense, the other man, who is certainly Jewish, answers, "You people!" What's interesting about this sampled exchange is the expression "you people."
It's fascinating because the Jewish man is first offended by the expression and then, after a moment's thought, accepts it. What the scene reveals is this: For the Jewish man, the expression is at once incorrect and correct. It's incorrect because Jews are more a multitude than a people--a multitude of races, languages, and nationalities; it's correct in that Jews do have a distinct identity, one that is mostly shaped by a very long history of persecution. In the Bible, they were oppressed by Pharaoh; in 19th century Russia, they were menaced by Cossacks; and in 20th century Germany, they were murdered in record numbers. It is this contradiction--being diverse and unified--that structures the debates that are often at the heart of this year's films at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival.
The Last Sephardic Jew, for example, is a beautifully photographed documentary that captures the wild variety of human experiences unified by the faith. In 1692, Sephardic Jews were given the choice of either converting to Christianity or leaving Spain--200,000 Jews left the country, initially settling in Northern Europe and the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), and later in Sarajevo, and the Americas. The documentary follows Eliezer Papo (a rabbi) as he journeys across Europe, visiting what are essentially the ruins of this scattered culture. Each ruin is distinct, a unique cultural island, and what links the Sephardic Jews in Istanbul with those in Sarajevo is the edict that dissolved and dispersed the largest Jewish settlement in Europe in 1692.
In The Tollbooth, a young Jewish girl asks her father, "Why don't we celebrate July 4th?" "Because it is silly patriotism, that's why. It leads to fascism," he answers. "When we Jews hear loud explosions like this, we always think big government is out to get us." The father is sitting on a living room couch with his wife, who is in the habit of telling her daughter the story of how her great grandmother, a Russian Jew, had to hide in a barn when the Cossacks attacked their community. The daughter, a recent college graduate, is remembering these lessons and warnings that her parents planted in her childhood because she's about to make some big life decisions. (Shall she marry her Christian boyfriend? Shall she pursue a line of politics that is aggressively at odds with her parents' faith?) Her father and mother, who give great performances in an average movie, are liberal enough to give her room to make her own choices, but they never want her to forget the past.
In Only Human, a family comedy that's set in Lisbon, the multitude/people dynamic is set in the context of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. But the results are unsatisfying, with no moments or performances that redeem even a small part of it. The Tollbooth has its problems; Only Human has nothing but problems. The failure of the film may have to do with the fact the Palestinian/Israeli experience is still active, still far from resolved. It may also be that the past conflict between, say, Russian Jews and Cossacks, was not structured in the way the present conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is, and so a movie like Only Human asks and answers the wrong questions.
Overall, what's impressive about the 5 films I've seen (out of 32) in this year's festival is that Jewish cinema is still engaged in a meaningful discourse about the identity of a people who are a multitude. CHARLES MUDEDE
Up and Down
dir. Jan Hrebejk
Chalk up yet another case of something being seriously lost in translation: Last year's Foreign Oscar nominee Up and Down, though hyped as a rollicking all-out comedy, emits a far more morose vibe than the screwball "Raising Czechoslovakia" promised by the ads. This isn't to say that the central babynapping scenario doesn't sometimes bring the funny (a mood much enhanced by Ales Brezina's gloriously hokey score, which wouldn't be out of place over Cannonball Run outtakes), but potential viewers should be well prepared to spend the majority of its running time in a decidedly more melancholy vein. Set within a crumbling Prague, the film investigates the accidental theft of a Gypsy infant, the fallout of which causes a slew of folks to intersect in an increasingly chaotic fashion. The concept of narrative multitasking may be a bit played out since the glory days of Short Cuts and Pulp Fiction, but director/cowriter Jan Hrebejk proves a master at making his characters squirm in unpredictable fashions, perhaps best typified in an excruciating centerpiece around the dinner table in which an entire storage facility worth of family skeletons are unearthed. For those with a socio-political bent, there's a number of interesting folks to chew on, but the heart of the film lies in a hulking, semi-reformed soccer goon (Jiri Machacek) who, despite his embracing of family values and the best of intentions, only finds peace when he's beating people to a pulp. Those comfortable with such quickdraw transitions between brief light and heavy grit will find much to dig. ANDREW WRIGHT
dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel
Well, it was only a matter of time (in this case 60 years or so) until a German filmmaker would be allowed to make a film about Hitler's last days in the bunker in which der fuhrer was portrayed as a human being with redeeming qualities. I'm not suggesting that Downfall is an apologia (or a war crime); it just makes a significant effort to portray the villain of the 20th century as a man rather than a monster. Far from diminishing his horrible acts, this approach actually makes them resound more severely than they do in most Nazi-related movies, which typically portray the dissolution of the Third Reich as perverse, psychosexual camp. Instead, Downfall imagines it as the last days of a war, during which the military leaders of the losing side cave to the mounting realization that their cause is unwinnable--though they never grasp that it's also untenable, which is only one among many tragedies.
The chief asset in the strategy is the casting of Bruno Ganz in the lead role. Most screen portrayals of Hitler turn on impersonation based on photographs and ideology, with the end result always basically being a cartoon. Ganz does look the part, but he also plays it, inhabiting both his insane rage and his insane grace in measures that allow both facets to be part of the same madness. The performance manages to show us something new about a figure about whom we know almost everything, the most loaded icon in modern history. It's a massive accomplishment in a great career. Too bad the movie isn't quite worthy of it.
There are a lot of sentimental war moments in Downfall, and the conceit that we are watching through the eyes of Hitler's sheltered and therefore ignorant (and therefore blameless) secretary, is flimsy on many levels. Because the characters are Nazis, their panic and its subsequent rash of suicides and murders are deeply satisfying. Because it's a movie, however, you're left with the unpleasant prospect of watching a bunch of rats slowly drowning for two and a half hours. There are better ways to go. SEAN NELSON
dirs. Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker
The past couple of years have seen a vast proliferation of digital video documentaries made by liberal documentarians in an attempt to shed light on the harsh realities of our modern political nightmare world. Gunner Palace is distinguished among them for, above all, its guts. Shot on the ground in Baghdad, the directors stand shoulder to shoulder-mount camera with American troops, capturing the crazy combination of terror, anger, stupidity, and cockiness in their young eyes as they patrol a city whose residents are either openly hostile to, or cravenly terrified of them. For its footage of the city itself, which we are used to seeing primarily through cable-news-adapted night-vision goggles or through smoky rubble littered with bodies, Gunner Palace is an invaluable aid in imagining the reality of the current war. But as a chronicle of its subjects as people, as an investigation into the psyche or even the behavior of soldiers, the film is a lot more problematic. As the filmmakers grow increasingly attached to these soldiers, who brag, smoke, rap, shoot, swim, eat, fart, dominate, curse, cruise, and otherwise assert their personalities for the camera, the less sympathetic the soldiers actually become. They're such vulgar bullies that it's impossible to sign off on the unstated premise that they're somehow victims of the war effort, or even of class war. They're just a bunch of slow-eyed fucks, and when the film switches gears midway to become a first-person chronicle of the directors' concern for the boys, it's hard not to lose all sympathy for either party. SEAN NELSON
dir. Shona Auerbach
The premise of Dear Frankie, the latest lightly accented and life-affirming import from the good folks at Miramax, is enough to make the wary reach for the insulin: a stalled-in-neutral woman with a mysterious past (Emily Mortimer) hires a strong and silent sailor (Gerard Butler) to impersonate her deaf son's long-absent father for a weekend. Romance blossoms, life lessons are learned, shaky family ties are strengthened, etc. While it certainly sounds precious enough, it is to the film's credit that things never quite develop in the way expected, and with a mildly bittersweet resolution unusual to the genre. Give props to debuting director Shona Auerbach, who has a definite eye for the quietly striking composition, and who makes outstanding use of her lonely Scottish fishing village locale. Her assured visual sense and pacing, combined with the strong performances of Mortimer and Butler, hits enough genuine grace notes to excuse the occasional full-body dip into treacle. While perhaps ultimately a tad too complacent to amount to a full Frankensteinian revival of the Weepie (there's no getting around the wisecracking grandmother and impromptu family sing-along), it trods gently enough around most of the standard clichés to well warrant a viewing. ANDREW WRIGHT
dirs. Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha
Robots may seem like a heartwarming children's flick that relies on dazzling animation to cover up a predictable storyline and not-as-funny-as-it-should-be dialogue, but really it's the most PUNK ROCK MOVIE ON EARTH.
To the average (read: stupid) mind of an 8 year old, it's nothing more than a cartoon featuring dozens of Happy Meal toys doing totally awesome tricks and telling lame jokes about big butts. And an 8 year old doesn't care, because to an 8 year old, that's the shit. But to me, one of high (some could even say genius) intelligence, what's really happening in Robots is very clear: subversion.
Young Rodney Copperbottom gives a big fuck you to his parents by shrugging off their advice to safely remain at home, and instead runs away to find a life better than the mundane, small-town existence he's currently drowning in. He gets to the big Robot City just in time to see it's being taken over by brainwashing, money-grubbing assholes. Copperbottom, though, ain't havin' that crap, so him and his new social-reject friends start to question authority and fight the shallow status quo. Fuck yeah!
Kiddies take note: Success is right around the corner if you run away from home as soon as you can and tear apart the mainstream. Once this movie hits, third graders across the nation are sure to start flipping their teachers the finger, and recess supervisors everywhere will be fleeing to emergency rooms to get those goddamn funtime-ending whistles removed from their sphincters. MEGAN SELING