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Jewish Journal

Rivers, refuseniks and traitors come together at L.A. Jewish Film Festival

by Tom Tugend

May 1, 2008 | 6:00 pm

*Refusenik* shows the effort to free Soviet Jews

The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival will appropriately mark Israel's 60th anniversary with an opening film on the country's transition from British mandate to independent state.

"The Little Traitor," kicking off the weeklong festival on Thursday, May 8, harkens back to 1947, when "Palestinians" referred to the Jewish inhabitants and the hated enemies were British soldiers wearing red berets.

Throughout the week, until May 15, the festival will present some 30 features, documentaries, short subjects and panel discussions at eight venues on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, announced executive director Hilary Helstein.

Theodore Bikel, who has a small role in the film, will appear live at the opening night screening, along with director-writer Lynn Roth. Israeli Consul General Yaakov Dayan will also address the audience.

In other highlights, Joan Rivers will receive the Marlene Adler Marks Woman of Inspiration Award, named in honor of the late Jewish Journal editor and columnist. The May 13 event at the Skirball Cultural Center will include the premiere of "Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women."

"Refusenik," the story of the international campaign to free Soviet Jews, will have its local premiere on May 14, with Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, one of the movement's pioneer activists, and director Laura Bialis in attendance.


'Sixty-Six' trailer

A sneak preview of the comedy, "Sixty-Six," dealing with the conflict between a British boy's bar mitzvah plans and the World Cup soccer series, closes the festival on May 15.

"Little Traitor," based on the semibiographical novel, "Panther in the Basement" by Israeli author Amos Oz, combines the coming of age story of a young patriot with historical insights on the struggle for a Jewish state.

Proffy (short for "professor") is an 11-year-old Jerusalem boy, who hates the British soldiers who occupy his land, impose strict curfews, and conduct midnight house raids.

With two like-minded playmates, he forms the "underground cell" FOD ("Freedom or Death"), which sprays "British Go Home" graffiti on walls and tries to disable a British convey by scattering nails on the road.

On most evenings, Proffy sneaks up to the rooftop to scan the roads for the British enemy through binoculars. Not infrequently, his attention strays to a lovely young woman in a neighboring apartment in various stages of undress.

One evening, Proffy, played with remarkable authenticity by Ido Port, is caught after curfew hours by British Sgt. Dunlop, played by a sympathetic, if slightly corpulent, Alfred Molina.

An unlikely but warm friendship develops between Proffy and the Bible-reading soldier during mutual language lessons, in which Dunlop explains the meaning of "snooker" and Proffy introduces his friend to the subtleties of "meshugge."

After a short time, Proffy's fellow young freedom fighters discover the relationship and denounce him as a traitor. Proffy is hauled before a Jewish Agency "court" and sternly examined by Bikel as an interrogator.

In one of its most emotional scenes, the film recreates the almost unbearable tension of the November 1947 vote by the United Nations, which will determine the partition of Palestine between Arabs and Jews. Families huddle around the radio, keeping score of each country's vote, and then burst into the street in wild jubilation after the final count.

Lynn Roth, who directed "Little Traitor" and wrote the screenplay, is a veteran Hollywood writer and producer who has won numerous awards, especially as showrunner (executive producer) of the long-running 1980s television series "The Paper Chase."

She has also been a longtime teacher in The Jewish Federation's Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership Program and said that she had dreamt for decades about making a film in Israel.

After extensive preparations, she began filming "Little Traitor" in the old Musrara quarter of Jerusalem in the summer of 2006, and three days into the project the Lebanon War broke out.

"It struck me as ironic that I was making a film about fighting in Palestine in 1947, and now, almost 60 years later, the bullets were flying again," she said.

Despite such distractions, including the army call-up of some of her crewmembers, Roth "miraculously" completed shooting the film in 28 days.

Roth, a New York native, said she is bound to Israel by many ties, not least the graves of all four grandparents in the Jewish state.

For detailed listing of films, dates and locations, call the Westside Jewish Community Center, festival sponsor, at (323) 938-2531.

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