Keep Not Silent
The fourth annual Austin Jewish Film Festival
Before Marc Levin embarked on the series of confrontations with anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists of various colors, faiths, and political affiliations that resulted in his documentary Protocols of Zion, I wonder if anyone ever told him that old thing about arguments, how if you wrestle with a pig, you both get muddy and the pig likes it. When told with some confidence that Jews control the entire mass media apparatus, Levin counters with the example of Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch. So then Murdoch must be secretly Jewish, comes the reply. Of course.
If at times the effect is like a Jackass stunt in rhetoric, the purpose couldn't be more serious. The post-9/11 myth that no Jews died in the World Trade Center attack led Levin to consider that pernicious Queen Mother of conspiracy theories, the mischievously hoaxed "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a document purporting to be the minutes of the grand Jewish plot for world takeover. The remarkable thing is how much time and attention Levin gives most of his Protocols-influenced opponents, and how calm and comfortable many of them appear to feel explaining their intolerant positions to someone they must consider the devil.
While many of the arguments devolve into muddy frustration and self-confident tautology, (don't get any of these guys started on Rudolph "Jew-liani"), Levin's generosity offers less a plea for tolerance than a forthright demonstration of it. Politics and history aside, that in itself offers an audience a lot to talk about.
Now in its fourth year, the Austin Jewish Film Festival arrives in 2006 with a generous slate of films to get an audience talking, from the inflammatory (see above) to what could be the most purely cheerful film you might see this year. Ushpizin (which translates roughly as "the holy guest"), the first fiction film made within Israel's Orthodox Jewish community, is a rare sort of comedy less intent on belly laughs than on exuding and inspiring a winning ebullience. Yet this down-to-earth parable on the understanding and misunderstanding of miracles offers a thoughtful consideration of faith that is very much worth chewing on.
It's of paramount importance to the festival's organizers for the films to cover a lot of ground. "Our audience is changing, communitywide, and it's not just Jewish," says Festival Co-Chair Cindy Pinto. "As we think of our audience, you know, who would this film be for, we've really gone into contacting other groups and communities."
"We really have to think about how the films fit into the big picture as well," adds Co-Chair David Goldblatt, "because there's a large portion of the Jewish community that's not affiliated. This might be one of the only things that they do in a year that's really Jewish." And the festival is expanding a bit this year, with screenings taking place at the Hideout in hopes of appealing to an even wider audience.
As is the case for most Jewish film festivals, the slate is somewhat heavier on documentaries than on fictional narratives, covering subject matter that can be literally all over the map. AJFF is proud to be only the second film festival in the U.S. to screen Dov Gil-Har's 10 Days in Gaza, which follows Israel's recent pullout of settlers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a tactically and emotionally difficult operation in which the Israeli army had to forcibly remove Israeli citizens as peacefully as possible. "With what's happening right now, with Sharon and everything, this film is obviously topical," notes Goldblatt, "but what's really special here is getting to see the real emotional life of this event in Israel. That's something you can't get on the news. And I think it's really pressing, because even though it's already done, there's that question, 'What does it mean?'"
Keep Not Silent: Orthodykes engages a very different sort of delicate negotiation, one between community and self, for women struggling to remain true to both their sexuality and their deeply held religious faith. "They really want to be in both worlds," remarks Goldblatt. "They're in a very difficult situation. The orthodox world doesn't really have any tolerance for them. And the stories that are told in that film are staggering."
Goodbye Holland contends with the personal and historical fallout of Dutch anti-Semitism and the complicity of some of Holland's citizens in the Holocaust, while 39 Pounds of Love follows a man in his 30s with muscular dystrophy on his odyssey to find the doctor who told his mother he wouldn't live past age 3. Says Pinto, "It's the biggest 'I told you so' movie ever!"
"Our audience in Austin is so open-minded," Pinto says, "really ready to discuss the work, and you know that's the great thing about a film festival. It's not like when you go to see a movie in the theatre and when the credits roll, you go home." Of course, filmmakers will be in attendance to discuss their work (such as 10 Days in Gaza director Gil-Har), and following the screening of Mixed Blessings, which concerns interfaith marriages, for instance, a discussion will be moderated by a rabbi and a priest.
"We've had just amazing experiences in discussions over the last couple years," reflects Pinto, "with people coming to see the movie, and then having a chance to speak publicly about their own experiences." Perhaps what it adds up to is that there's nothing so universal as the particular? "Yeah. Films are so wonderful. So meaningful. You can just enjoy them. Nobody's pressuring you to take a stand. And then when it's over you can think on it and decide."