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Recognizing Ourselves on Film

Cinema Judaica '98 offers a look at where we are now

by Diane Arieff

October 29, 1998 | 7:00 pm

For those Angelenos looking for a respite from million-dollar hype and "Happy Meal" tie-ins to studio blockbusters, late autumn is also a time when a flurry of small, offbeat film festivals grace local movie screens. Among them is the modest but engaging, Cinema Judaica: The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. Now in its fourth year, it's an annual mixed-bag collection of independent features, documentaries, revival screenings and short films with Jewish-related themes.

The event, which runs from Nov. 1-12, is presented by Laemmle Theatres, and will screen at Beverly Hills' Music Hall and the Town Center in Encino. As in years past, the festival reaches out beyond American borders and blends together a mix of directorial styles.

Laemmle's Vice President Greg Laemmle touts the festival as an entertaining way to take the cultural and emotional pulse of the Jewish community, and, after a look at some of the films available for preview, some themes do emerge.

Documentaries outnumber independent features, an accurate reflection, according to Laemmle, of the Jewish filmmaking world at large. Interestingly, women filmmakers dominate the festival slate, in everything from highly personal documentaries to romantic comedies.

The Holocaust is still a powerful draw as subject matter, but the films here are less concerned with telling the larger, historical narrative of the Holocaust than with using it as a launching pad for examining personal identity, relationships with older survivors and second- and third-generation fallout. Being Jewish in America may no longer be the marginalizing experience it once was, but combine it with homosexuality and it becomes a provocatively contemporary subject. Several films -- most notably "Treyf," a documentary by Alisa Lebow and Cynthia Madansky -- address the experience of being both gay and Jewish.

Finally, whether intentionally or not, several films reveal the depth and breadth of American-Jewish assimilation. Young filmmakers look back wonderingly at their own Jewish elders (both living and long-dead) with a mixture of yearning, bemusement and a very modern hunger for connection. As a result, the subjects of their longing emerge less as authoritative, everyday voices of a living tradition than as precious, cultural exotica.

Some festival highlights:

Documentaries

* "The Jew in the Lotus" A cinematic companion to Roger Kamenetz's absorbing book of the same title, this new documentary by award-winning filmmaker Laurel Chiten chronicles the meeting of eight Jewish delegates with the Dalai Lama. At the Music Hall Nov. 5 and at the Town Center Nov. 12.

* "In Our Own Hands" The Jewish Brigade fought Germans in Italy during WWII, and helped smuggle European Jewish survivors to Palestine. Filmmaker Chuck Olin presents the Brigadiers dramatic story through archival footage and interviews with surviving veterans. Olin will be present for a director Q&A session at the film's first festival screening. Music Hall, Nov. 1 and at the Town Center Nov. 4 .

* "Mah Jongg and Memories" The son of a dedicated mah jongg player, Alan H. Rosenberg has created a good-humored and loving tribute to its legions of elderly, Jewish female aficionados. Nov. 1 at the Music Hall.

Features

* "Awakening" Judit Elek's brooding touching tale of a young Hungarian girl's coming-of-age is set in Budapest after the 1956 Communist takeover. (The director will be present for a Q&A at selected screenings.) Music Hall, Nov. 1 and Nov. 7, and at the Town Center Nov. 4.

* "Autumn Sun" Two of Argentina's most well-known stars are wonderful in Eduardo Mignogna's charming crowd-pleaser. (After screening at the festival, the film begins a brief, regular theatrical engagement at the Music Hall on Nov. 13.) Music Hall on Nov. 1 and Town Center Nov. 12.

* "The Revolt of Job" A Hungarian Jewish farmer finds a way to outwit his Job-like fate in this powerful film. Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film of 1984. Music Hall Nov. 1, 7, and 11 and at the Town Center Nov. 11.

* "The Truce" Having made a brief round of the theaters earlier this year, Francesco Rosi's uncompromising film about Italian author and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi, makes a welcome reappearance at the festival. Starring John Turturro. Recipient of four Italian Cinema Awards. Nov. 2 at the Music Hall.

Laemmle's Music Hall is located at 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 274-6869. Tickets are $8 at the Music Hall and $5 for seniors and children. Laemmle's Town Center is at 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818)981-9811. General admission is $7.50 at the Town Center, and $4.50 for seniors and children. Special festival passes are also available. For more information and for a complete festival schedule, call the theaters or visit the Laemmle internet website at www.laemmle.com

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