Jewish Journal


March 18, 2004

Lessons From a Film Festival


Michael Caine in "The Statement." Photo by Jerome Prebois

Michael Caine in "The Statement." Photo by Jerome Prebois

Three Jews, four opinions -- right? Of course right. Now mix in something as subjective as one's taste in movies. Now imagine the folly of putting together a committee to organize a short Jewish film festival. Crazy. No?

From the plumber to the U.S. Court of Appeals justice, everyone's a movie pundit ready, willing and able to debate the acting style of Sean Penn vs. those Hilton girls with Ebert and Roper.

Nevertheless, and forsaking all rational argument, we decide that what our small Ventura County Temple Beth Torah -- 400 plus families -- really needs is it's very own Jewish Film Festival.

Maybe it was all the ballyhoo over "The Passion," maybe it was that we spend our life writing about movies that are very often antithetical to Jewish values. Or maybe we just ate something that didn't agree with us.

But saying you want a festival and actually pulling it off is a whole different kettle of gefilte fish. When word gets out -- as word is wont to do in our still comparatively small community -- the congregation's movie fans start calling. Everyone has their favorites, and everybody knows exactly what constitutes a Jewish movie, which is more than we do. And everybody wants to put in his or her two cents worth.

We decide we don't want to stage our festival in the local movie palace. We want a state-of-the-art big screen and projector in our very own Meister Hall. The bar and bat mitzvahs, the lady's luncheons and the brotherhood brunch will have to wait as for one glorious weekend only, our social hall becomes The Bijou or The Majestic.

Everyone responds and donations for the new system are swiftly rounded up. Ventura folks support their temple and the Jewish Federation -- bless 'em -- kicks in a small grant.

And then a small problem.

Jews know all about movies, but when it comes to technology -- electronic or otherwise -- we somehow missed those classes in high school.

So when the new projector needs to be lowered, the focus checked and the screen creases removed, who you gonna call? Somehow, with a little help from our friends, we, too, get by.

Now comes the hardest part: Picking the flicks.

This brings up a philosophical question comparable in weight to the nature of matter and the strength of the double helix: Namely, what constitutes a Jewish movie.

Herewith some selected opinions:


• Anything that has at least one Nazi in or out of uniform.


• Anything where somebody wears a kippah or sings "Havah Nagilah."


• Anything set in Israel.


• Anything with an old bubbe -- it could be a zayde but bubbes are better, particularly if they have a smattering of Yiddish.


• Anything that shows us how well we lived in Europe before the Holocaust. (In these films all the Jews lived in grand estates and had concert violinists in the family -- could be a pianist but violins are better -- or learned professors, preferably in the medical field and several extremely competent servants who've been with the family for several generations.)

So everybody lobbies hard, resulting in this dialogue from the film committee archives:

"Haven't we seen enough Holocaust movies already?"

"The Federation gave us money so we'd better show some Israeli films."

"A documentary on the Rosenbergs! Who wants to dig up all that painful stuff again?"

"I loved 'Gloomy Sunday' but the actress is naked and having relationships with two men at the same time. How can we show that in a house of worship?" (Well, strictly speaking the house of worship is across the hall. This is our social hall and people do all sorts of things socially that they wouldn't -- let us hope -- do in front of the Aron Kodesh.)

"I can't sit on those hard seats for two hours." (Of course we sit on them all day every Yom Kippur, but you're supposed to suffer then.)

"What food are we going to serve?"

"For opening night how about a 'Fiddler on the Roof' sing-along?"

Instead, we're opening on Saturday, March 27 with "Fiddler" director Norman Jewison's new thriller, "The Statement," starring Oscar-winner Michael Caine (definitely not Jewish ) -- based on the late Brian Moore's superb short novel (He was also not Jewish but he was practically local since he lived just down the road in Malibu). The subject, however, couldn't be timelier. Caine plays Pierre Brossard, loosely based on the real live Vichy collaborator Paul Touvier, who was responsible for killing French Jews and sending scores to the gas chambers. Before his final capture, decades after his foul deeds, he was hidden in abbeys all over France by ultraconservative elements in the Catholic Church. (See what we mean by timely?)

On Sunday morning we're screening "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary" a provocative documentary about the last hours of Hitler's life as observed by Traudl Junge, one of the Fuhrer's private secretaries. Provocative stuff. And to put it in context we've got a "film scholar in residence": The Journal's own contributing editor, Tom Tugend, who will be with us for the entire weekend, and a visiting scholar, Michael Meyer, professor of history at California State University, Northridge, an expert on Nazi-era Germany, who will participate in a panel discussion following the Hitler documentary. Midday we have a short program for our Torah school teens with titles like "Today, You Are a Fountain Pen" from L.A. filmmaker Dan Katzir and "Bat Mitzvah Blues" by Shira Sergant.

The festival finishes with an Israeli film, "Yana's Friends," which won 10 Israeli awards and is a sad-funny tale of Russian emigrants, gas masks and falling missiles during the first Iraq war.

In the end it was tough, but it was fun.

OK, Mr. De Mille, Ventura is ready for its close-up. Lights, cameras, action -- oh yes, and food, of course.

The festival runs from March 27-28. Tickets are $18 for a festival pass or $10 per film at the door. Call Ventura's Temple Beth Torah at (805) 647-4181 or check out the festival on www.templebethtorah.com .

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