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Thread: WINTERFEST (Jewish Film Institute) Feb. 25-26, 2023

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    WINTERFEST (Jewish Film Institute) Feb. 25-26, 2023

    WinterFest (Jewish Film Institute) FEB. 25-26, 2023 AT THE VOGUE THEATER, SAN FRANCISCO


    WinterFest THREAD

    THE FORGER (Maggie Peren) (in German)
    True story, of a dashing young Jew who survived the War in Berlin while working in a little weapons factory and secretly making fake IDs. "A ponderous, ordinary film about an exciting, extraordinary life." This comment by a German film blogger is, unfortunately, substantially true. It has been commented that the filmmakers were hampered in trying to depict everyday life in Germany during the war by a budget that didn't cover a great deal in the way of exteriors, vehicles, or special effects. The main actor Louis Hofmann, some say, smiles too much. (But he's 21; that's when you smile.) Sure, this Jewish Felix Kroll has panache, though he may not know it. He has decent features and floppy blond hair: that seems enough. He hides in plain sight, dining for free in a nice restaurant posing as a soldier on leave. But he doesn't seem in enough palpable danger in the film as shot and edited to make his remarkable deceptions properly exciting. The editing makes the run-time tend to plod more than it runs. Nonetheless there is enough around the edges of this based-on-true story of Cioma Schönhaus to create a haunting WWII atmosphere and remind us that during the War, even in Berlin, there were many lives, including pockets of security and obliviousness. If WWII stories are your thing, this may frustrate you, but you may gobble it up anyway. Inside this mediocre story of a Jew hiding from the Nazis in plain sight there is a compulsively watchable one wildly signaling to be let out that you will imagine. The Forger/Der Passfälscher, 116 mins., debuted at the Berlinale Feb. 13, 2022. US theatrical release by Kino Lorber begins Mar. 3, 2023 at Quad Cinema in NYC .

    DO I NEED THIS (Kate Schermerhorn)
    In this non-fiction film, the chatty American filmmaker, who narrates, is mainly concerned with her own tendencies as a clutterer. But she connects these with the wider issue of determining what really matters. Then she shifts to her parents and their final years, which involve paring down and giving up their beautiful island Pacific Northwest house - twice, because the retirement high rise in San Francisco turns out to be unappealing, and its approach to the mother's oncoming dementia she and the family find inhospitable. The director solicits various experts as talking heads to expound on the issues touched on, including a Tibetan buddhist monk and a French woman who has written a book called Zero House. This winds up being the portrait of a generation and a contemplation of the end of life. Schermerhorn has a terrific subject here, and is thorough and selfless in dissecting her own behavior, but her filmmaking isn't quite distinctive enough to do justice to her material. Despite a full professional crew, a lot of the footage sometimes feels like a home movie.

    THE CAMERA OF DR. MORRIS (Itamar Alcaley, Meital Zvieli)
    An eccentric pilot in the British Armed Forces and his young wife flee a devastated post-WWII Europe and arrive in Eilat, the newly-founded Israel’s southernmost town. Then occupied by soldiers, port workers, and released prisoners, he was free to make his own life. This is the rich account of the family compiled from 8mm film shot by Dr. Morris and narrated by his widow and the surviving children. Much time is spent on the first born, Aviva, who had Down Syndrome and died at the age of nine, and Dolly, also English, but of poor family, adopted very informally at age nine shortly after Aviva's death when her mother died. Much narration comes from Uni, born a year and a half after Aviva. There is also a son, Andrew, third born, very handsome, but seldom seen (though he occasionally speaks too, in Hebrew). They lived as English and the children were rigorously forced to speak only English at home. The mother confesses toward the end that she was a cold person, with little feeling about anything. That might have been the real story. Some of the editing is out of order, including some shots of Andrew at nine or ten, shown just after the account of his birth, without explanation: this film reads like a rough draft. There are parties, animals in the garden including two crocodiles, and vacations in Europe, all seen through the remote narration and the controlled filmmaking of Dr. Morris, who dressed up Aviva and Uni in local costumes in European countries and made them feed the swans over and over till they got it right. Dr. Morris died ten years ago, but Fay, his wife, dnd the surviving children, Uni, Andrew, and Dolly, flourish, as endnotes tell us. The surviving crocodile, Clarence, lives in a zoo in Jerusalem. Has he had a happy life?

    BARREN (Mordechai Vardi)
    Back to the curiously cinematic world of Ultra-Orthodox Jews. A twenty-something Heredi couple in Safed, unable to conceive children, find their lives upended in this provocative drama about faith and sexual exploitation. After husband Naftali (Yovat Rothman) travels to Ukraine during Rosh Hashanah to pray for a child, his wife, Feigi ((Mili Eshet), is left alone with her in-laws, who invite Elijah (Gil Frank), a homeless rabbi met at the synagogue, to their house for the Rosh Hashanah holiday. Claiming to be a healer of barren women, Elijah convinces Feigi to undergo his "treatment." We can guess what it is. And then the elders must decide how to deal with this situation: has she been raped? The Jewish analysis of this plot is concerned with the religious aspects more than the psychological ones. But what about the fact that Naftali, the sweet young husband, might be the one responsible for Feigi's failure to conceive? And the rambling rabbi "healer" - might he not make her pregnant, if he weren't so old? There is plenty of serious stuff here and the cast, cinematography, mise-en-scène and editing are all fine if you accept that in the Heredi world things tend to move deliberately. The director is a rabbi, a documentarian, and the director of a screenwriting school. Other cast members are good, especially Frank, as the disreputable "healing" rabbi, and Ilanit Ben-Yaakov, as the mother-in-law.

    THE LEVYS OF MONTICELLO (Steven Pressman 2022)
    This little film (70 minutes) explains how the Levy family, among the first Jews in colonial America, held the Thomas Jefferson estate of Monticello for 89 years, preserving the property and saving it from ruin twice. Jefferson had died heavily in debt in 1826 and the house was in a dire state when Capt. Uriah Phillips Levy, a retired naval officer and reformer of punishment practices, as well as a philanthropist and real estate investor and admirer of the Jeffersons, bought the place from a Charlottesville druggist in 1834. Slavery and anti-semitism play key roles in this story. The building and maintenance of the property under Jefferson and its restoration under Uriah Levy were both carried out using enslaved people. Control of the property was lost during the Civil war. Uriah's nephew Jefferson Monroe Levy, a Congressman and wealthy businessman, got it back. Ironies abound. We learn that the statue of Jefferson white racists rallied around in front of the University of Virginia in 2017 chanting "Jews will not replace us" was the work of a Jewish sculptor, Moses Ezekiel. When Monticello went into public care we learn every effort was made to erase all signs of the Levys' already self-effacing stewardship despite their having lived there longer than the Jeffersons. During Jefferson Levy's lifetime a woman called Maud Littleton waged a national campaign to wrest Monticello from "alien" and "oriental" hands. More recently tour guides at Monticello, director Pressman found, still did not mention the Levy family: their narrative jumped from Jefferson's era to 1923, when Monticello was purchased by the private nonprofit Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Nor did they dwell on the role of Jefferson's slaves; but a large number of their descendants have reunions at Monticello: we see a still photograph. (Sadly, many are overweight.) Talking heads of this excellent, if conventional, film include Melvin Urofsky, author of The Levy Family and Monticello, and Niya Bates, Senior Fellow of African American History of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

    Forty-two-year-old French director Rebecca Zlotkowski (Belle Épine, Grand Central, An Easy Girl) focuses this time on a contemporary issue she had thought underrepresented in films. When a woman getting beyond childbearing age is still childless and single, she may connect with a married man with a young child and that child "of others" may become, by use and by dedication, the closest thing to a child of her own. So it is with Rachel Friedmann (Virginie Effira) and Leila (Callie Ferreira-Goncalves), the little girl of her boyfriend Ali Ben Attia (Roschdy Zem), whose mother Alice (Chiara Mastroianni) is also in the picture. Ali obviously is of Arab descent. Rachel, like the filmmaker, is an ethnic Jew. This is not dwelt upon or seen as an issue. The real trouble is that Ali's is not a forever commitment to Rachel, as develops after Rachel has given a lot of time and emotional commitment to Leila. What is Leila's position? Well, Leila is a young girl: she must go with the flow. She warms to Rachel. But she holds her feelings in check for a while; it's complicated. But while this is an engaging and well-acted drama, it may feel somewhat programmatic, and yet, paradoxically, a bit too vague and fluid, never quite hitting upon a decisive scene, its process not helped by loud periodic American-style song interludes. This film features some of French cinema's most admired and popular stars. According to the standard French film website AlloCiné, this is the best received by both critics and public of Zlotkowskis five features. It may likewise be the most appealing French film of the year for the Anglophone audience - till they see Mia Hansen-Løve's One Fine Morning.

    SHTTL (Ady Walter 2022)
    Some see this as an elegiac, Shoah piece: We who are about to die pose in all our colorful and tragic variety for you. But it's full of lively conflict. Its protagonist is a young Jewish filmmaker, Mendele, who returns from two years in Kiev, to find his aging father considers him a "luftmensch," a useless dreamer - who should have stayed and studied the Talmud. The single-shot technique indeed works lyrically and thus elegiacally, but also has the mark of a stunt by now. It gives the film the quality of a guided tour, a mockup of tableaux. Which it is, given that its sets, as is revealed in a making-of in Deadline, will be kept up as an open air exhibition to show what the prewar Jewish ghatto-towns were like. The film as it unreels, while lively and informative, and argumentative and talky, also feels stagey and self-conscious. Nora Lee Mandel writes in Maven's Nest: "Debut French director Ady Walter brilliantly immerses the audience into what was once Galicia" (now Ukraine) "on June 21, 1941. The camera walks through a vivid crowd of pressures and antagonisms" (which she meticulously lists) "not usually seen in more typical schmaltzy remembrances of such shtetls." Yes, and this is a successful work of archeology: but for all the antagonisms, there is no overriding dramatic conflict to make this an exciting film. Nonetheless, Jews and non-Jews alike would do well to learn about the Russian shtetls, because from their populations derive most of America's Ashkenazi Jews, who have been identified as the genetic strain with the world's statistically highest IQs.

    A HOUSE MADE OF SPLINTERS (Simon Lereng Wilmont 2022)
    Not as haunting as the doc maker's 2017 Distant Barking of Dogs, this one focuses on a kind of halfway house for orphaned or homeless Ukrainian kids seeking foster car or re-adoption is nonetheless astonishingly delicate and touching, hopeful and sad by turns. As with the earlier film, war is somewhere around all the time, with its destruction of families and disruption of normal life, though neglect and abandonment are the usual causes: the parents have been judged unfit. Again Wilmont provides wonderful cinematography and remarkable fly-on-the-wall access. A little girl keeps calling her grandmother. Eventually the grandmother makes the effort to take over and the child gets to leave to be in her care. A boy called Kolya is in danger of turning to criminality with his siblings: he's already posing as a tough guy. This film is wonderful too, and Oscar-nominated too, but seems less subtle than Wilmont's debut, more explanatory, more overtly sentimental. As Guy Lodge's Sundance [I]Variety[/I] review pointed out, a running voiceover by one of the home's proprietors "perhaps over-describes the anguish that Lereng Wilmont’s perceptive camera already quite plainly captures." Still, finely crafted and amazing nonetheless.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-23-2023 at 03:55 PM.


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