Seattle Jewish Film Festival
The 13th Annual Seattle Jewish Film Festival, like every festival on earth, has its high points and low ones. Any judgment of what is high or low must be determined by a film's artistic and political worth. With this in mind, I will look at two films: One, Orthodox Stance, is a documentary, and the other, Sixty Six, is a narrative feature. Let's begin with narrative film, as it opens the festival and provides the festival with its theme: Bar Mitzvah Bash.
Set in the mid-'60s in London, Sixty Six is a comedy (or is intended to be a comedy—more on that in a minute) about the Rubenses, a Jewish family going through a difficult period. On a macro level, the difficulty is the consequence of a shift in the economy. By the '60s, small, family-owned businesses are threatened by the rise of the supermarket, which can offer customers more variety and lower prices. The financial certainty that the middle-class Rubens family enjoyed for many years is lost when a supermarket opens next to their small market. This instability is worsened by a freak accident that burns to ashes hard cash that Manny Rubens (Eddie Marsan)—the father of the movie's narrator and subject, Bernie (Gregg Sulkin)—had stashed in the family's attic. The first thing hit by the financial difficulties is Bernie's bar mitzvah. As if that were not enough, Bernie's downsized bar mitzvah happens to fall on the day of the 1966 World Cup final. Life could not be harder on a boy with big man dreams.
As a work of art, Sixty Six does not succeed—there is nothing original or striking about its editing, set designs, writing, direction, and cinematography. The content of the film, however, has its strong points. What Sixty Six ultimately communicates is the difficult situation of being outside while inside of a culture. Bernie is an outsider in terms of faith and an insider in terms of national experience. The film wants to find a point at which one can meet the other, where being Jewish, being a minority, can connect with the larger and secular reality of being a subject of the state.
Documentaries thrive in cultural film festivals, and so it is not surprising that the best films in SJFF are documentaries. One of the best of the best is a documentary called Orthodox Stance. At the center of the film is a young boxer, Dmitriy Salita, who is a Ukrainian immigrant, an Orthodox Jew, and a Brooklyn celebrity. The greatness of the documentary is found in the greatness of its subject. The director, Jason Hutt, realized that Salita is at once in the process of inventing himself and reinforcing the ancient traditions of his faith. Salita is going forward and backward, and the amazing thing is that the motion is not tearing him apart. We must for a moment recall The Jazz Singer, the way Al Jolson's passion for the new world of jazz and the demands of the old world of the temple refuse to become one. The tension nearly destroys Jolson. Salita is in a similar situation—his own rabbi is not entirely pleased with his line of work—but he remains completely cool, together, and proud of his profession.
The climax of the documentary is a boxing match in his hometown, New York. As he walks to the ring, reggae booms across the stadium. His praise singer, Matisyahu the Hasidic rapper, is ahead of Salita; also ahead of him are his new Latino trainer and his old African-American trainer. He is a walking contradiction. CHARLES MUDEDE
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait
dir. Douglas Gordon, Philippe Parreno
Adam Sekuler, the program director at Northwest Film Forum, introduced the 2006 documentary about Zinedine Zidane last week by describing it as a nature film about a footballer in his native habitat. He's absolutely right. Zidane comes across as a creature on the prowl. He has a loping gait, characterized by mindless toe tapping. He spits like he's hissing, and he sweats profusely. When he breaks into a run, the camera struggles to follow his unpredictable motion. His stony expression changes only once the entire 95-minute film, into a smile directed at fellow player Ronaldo. Instead of following the ball, the film sets all cameras—17 of them—on Zidane for the duration of a match that took place in Madrid on April 23, 2005. The cameras' devotion to Zidane is total; it's hard to tell what's going on in the game.
The makers of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait are conceptual artists Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno. (Gordon's earlier work includes 24 Hour Psycho, in which he stretched the Hitchcock movie so it takes a full day to screen.) They weren't the first to have the idea: In the 1970 movie Football as Never Before, which Northwest Film Forum is also screening this week, German director Hellmuth Costard trained eight cameras on the Northern Irish player George Best for a whole match.
Best became a violent, alcoholic celebrity of dubious distinction after the film about him was made. Zidane, a highly decorated French player of Algerian descent, exploded into worldwide infamy. In the 2006 World Cup final against Italy, seemingly out of the blue, Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi in the chest, throwing the Italian player to the ground and provoking cries of "Why?" from French commentators. (Materazzi later admitted to insulting Zidane.) Zidane was kicked out of the game. He had already announced his retirement; this was his last act on the field. The French lost, 5–3, in a penalty shootout.
In retrospect, Zidane becomes unintentionally loaded, like the mundane details of a school shooter's life. It adds another dimension to an already complex portrayal—in which the halftime show is a montage of what else happened in addition to the filmed match on April 23, 2005, from the director's son coming down with a fever to an Iraqi bombing at which a survivor is wearing a Zidane jersey—of Zidane as philosophical as well as animal. The few words that scroll silently across the screen are from interviews with him.
"The game is not experienced or remembered in real time," he says. Neither is the film, with its range of visual depth and its mesmerizing manipulations of the sounds in the stadium, its sonic zooms. It breaks through its only restriction—real time—and flows. JEN GRAVES
dir. Nadine Labaki
A group of young to middle-aged Lebanese women work in or around a beauty salon in the center of Beirut. For the most part, the women are loud, wear tight clothes, and seem to live outside of the old order of submission and obedience. To give the film a look that captures this sense of freedom, the set design and wardrobe emphasizes bright and lively colors. On the surface, the movie is a festival of gorgeous women, sparkling hair, olive skin, and ornate wallpaper. We feel that the world we are watching is one that was liberated from the monochromic world of male domination.
But this is just an illusion. The women in the beauty salon are free to wear what their hearts (and bodies) desire, but the freedom ends there. Beyond that line begins the repressive order, which has the bedroom as its ultimate arena of control. Caramel is really about state- and family-enforced sexual repression. The women want to have sex without fear, sex in the open, sex with other women, but the society blocks the fulfillment of their hunger. And the blockage is all the crueler because the women dress to kill.
One woman, who has been dumped by her husband, struggles not only to find a new man but maintain what remains of her youth; another, a lesbian, has fallen in love with a beautiful stranger with long black hair, and the only way she can express her desire/hunger is to wash the stranger's long hair slowly, lovingly, sexually. Another woman (played by the director, Nadine Labaki) is in love with a married man, and because she cannot have him, she tortures his wife. These women know how to mimic the look of sexual freedom, but they cannot enjoy its fruits. At the end of the movie, you want nothing more than to see them have their fill. CHARLES MUDEDE
Shine a Light
dir. Martin Scorsese
Even among the most Zen of film and music enthusiasts, the idea of the director of the greatest concert film ever (The Last Waltz) tackling the subjects of the most sinister concert film ever (Gimme Shelter) was enough to make heads start popping off, GWAR-style. Perhaps thankfully then, Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese's documentary about a 2006 Rolling Stones benefit concert at NYC's legendary Beacon Theatre, never aims for transcendence, settling instead for really, really good. Featuring a user-friendly setlist of hits and semirarities, the overriding impression is of a bunch of legendary deviants content to remain in showman mode. The decision to perform a song titled "Champagne and Reefer" in front of an audience that includes Bill and Hillary does offer a glimpse of their old skeevy satanic majesty, however.
Save for a few frantic preshow moments, Scorsese tones down his onscreen persona familiar from previous docs, concentrating instead on putting the camera at absolutely the right place at any given moment. As for the band themselves, they're tighter than even a truckload of Botox could account for. Mick at 63 is still, well, Mick, pulling off a series of struts and poses that would look ludicrous on any other human being. Charlie Watts actually smiles at one point. And then there's Keith Richards. The contrast between his current shambling appearance and his relatively nondessicated '60s self glimpsed in archival clips is breathtaking—at this point he resembles a really good Ray Harryhausen special effect—but the simple fact that he's still up there semiupright absolutely nails both the total absurdity and utter awesomeness of rock. Watching him grin delightedly after acing a riff is enough to temporarily obliterate all memories of Winger, Sanjaya, and custom ring tones. That old joke about Keith and cockroaches surviving a nuclear war? Believe it. ANDREW WRIGHT
Under the Same Moon
dir. Patricia Riggen
Issue films, always teetering on the brink between documentaries and Hallmark television specials, can be hard to love. Plenty of viewers will enjoy Under the Same Moon because they sympathize with the politics of the Disney-does-immigration plot, but having one's ideology stroked isn't everyone's idea of a satisfying night at the movies.
After his grandmother dies of the ubiquitous, unnamed movie illness whose primary symptom is coughing fits at convenient plot points, a charming young boy named Carlitos (Adrian Alonso) fears that he might wind up in the custody of a smarmy evil uncle. Instead, the boy flees to America to find his undocumented-worker mom (Kate del Castillo) who has been saving money for four years to earn citizenship for herself and her son.
Over the course of five days' travel in the southwestern United States, Carlitos, who has just turned 9, somehow manages to escape an automobile impound lot, narrowly avoids capture by demonic INS agents, and works as an organic-tomato picker and a dishwasher. Over the same five days, his mom is unjustly fired by her wealthy, inexplicably shrewish American employer and considers entering a loveless marriage in order to gain United States citizenship.
Under the Same Moon tries to claim the black-and-white morality of a fairy tale, but it so studiously reports on all the pertinent facts on immigration—issues like driver's licenses and unsafe living and working conditions are all dutifully addressed—that the story of a son questing for his mother gets buried. A moving, heartfelt film that humanizes illegal immigrants would be welcome, even politically desirable. But this manipulative mess, which markets itself as having "an ending so touching, it could make Lou Dobbs cry," is a blunted dart aimed at hearts that already bleed. PAUL CONSTANT
dir. Zak Penn
The word “mediocre” comes from Middle French and literally means “halfway up a jagged mountain.” Not just any mountain—a jagged one, implying that the mediocre have struggled and sweated and cursed to get where they are. But they’re sitting on a rock, panting, and can’t go any higher.
The Grand, then, is mediocre. It wants to be an improvised mockumentary, in the style of Christopher Guest, about a Vegas poker tournament and the eccentrics who play in it. But it is too pat—too obviously the product of minds struggling to be funny—to pass as candid. Woody Harrelson stars as a drug addict who inherits a Vegas casino, loses it to a real-estate vulture, and enters a $10 million poker tournament to win it back. He plays against a procession of gambling clichés: the Asperger’s guy, the aggressive jerk, the goofball from Minnesota, the woman, and the old-timer who mourns for the Vegas of his youth, with its underage hookers, parking-lot violence, and racism.
And then there’s “the German,” played by Werner Herzog, the best thing about The Grand. The German is as much a cliché as the rest: an inscrutable Teutonic aesthete and sadist who has traveled the world, gambled with yak bones in the African desert, and played Russian roulette with slave traders. But Herzog brings heat and effortlessness—a comical life—to his scenes. (Maybe because it’s not so hard to imagine Herzog actually gambling with actual yak bones.)
Imagine Woody Harrelson with muttonchops talking about his life as a stoned ne’er-do-well. Yawn. Now imagine Herzog, stroking a bunny, staring into the camera, saying in his flat Herzogian accent: “Most people drink coffee, but I sink of sis as se beverage of se cowards,” and explaining how, as a pick-me-up, he kills a small animal each day with his bare hands. That moment stands up and grows wings. It soars above mediocrity, up the jagged mountain, all the way to its peak. BRENDAN KILEY
The Singing Revolution
dir. James Tusty, Maureen Castle Tusty
The rousing story of a nation that was, according to the press notes, "quite literally saved by song," The Singing Revolution is quite literally prone to hyperbole. "Can culture hold a people together?" the voiceover (Linda Hunt) asks breathlessly, as if anything but culture could define "a people." A few moments later she gushes, "Estonians fought... and sang... and survived!" All right. So Estonians used their massive annual song festival, Laulupidu, to assert a national identity in the face of Soviet attempts to quash it. Even the policy of "Russification," thanks to which the population of Estonia is now a quarter ethnic Russian, failed to prevent the development of a lovely national anthem under Soviet rule. But as this deeply conventional documentary illustrates, it also took lots of protests, rallies, political organization, baby-blue clothing, and informal militia resistance to the Soviet army to effect Estonian independence. Would it have been so hard to tone down the "saved by song" rhetoric just a little? ANNIE WAGNER