Film Trailer: It All Begins at Sea

Fate plays tricks on the Goldsteins, a typical Israeli family, as they struggle with life’s challenges from day-to-day living to deeper, more emotional issues in this touching, award-winning story of parents and children “coming of age” together.

Tonight at 7:30 pm at the Washington DCJCC. More information here.

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Film Trailer: Maya

Don’t miss this exciting DC premiere tomorrow, followed by a party on the steps!

Ajami’s Foreign Language Oscar Nomination for Israel: Can it win?

The first thing that needs to be said is, “Way to go Israel!” This is the third year in-a-row that an Israeli film is nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. In fact, Ajami  is Israel’s ninth candidate to make the final round of nominees–making Israel the country that has been nominated the most times without a win. They’re turning into the Susan Lucci of foreign films.

I wrote about Ajami back when we premiered the film in DC as part of the 20th Washington Jewish Film Festival. While I don’t think it is as strong a film as Israel’s two prior nominees (Beaufort and Waltz With Bashir), this category is particularly quirky and there are good reasons why this film could be the one to finally take home the golden statuette for Israel.

First, is the film’s subject which is a neighborhood mixed with Jews, Christians and Muslims in the city of Jaffa. It also deals with several characters who have snuck into Israel-proper from the West Bank and are working in Arab businesses illegally. The film provides real humanity to all of its characters without forcing you to choose sides. In this way it pulls off the neat trick of being a film about Arab-Jewish relations in Israel that isn’t chiefly concerned with the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Second, the production team behind the film reflects the mixture of peoples in Jaffa. The film is co-written, co-directed and co-produced by the Yaron Shani, “an Israeli Jew” and Scandar Copti “a Palestinian citizen of the Israeli state” according to their bios on the film’s website. Hollywood likes the warm fuzzies that come from collaborations like these — although the film is by no means warm and fuzzy.

Third, this just might be Israel’s year by sheer fact that they have had a nominated film for the last three years. Oscars are rarely about the quality of the actual films. Sometimes they are about what makes good TV — giving Ajami the Oscar could provide a memorable moment for a Jew and a Palestinian to stand at the podium making a plea for tolerance and communication. 

Finally, Israel can only be nominated so many times without winning before someone begins to cry foul.

This category is notoriously hard to predict, especially with traditional cinema powerhouses like Germany and France present. Ajami is also a difficult film to appreciate with a non-linear story-line, a host of characters to keep track of, and an ending that doesn’t send you out of the theater smiling.  But it is great for Israel to have it in the Oscar mix, and another reminder of what a filmmaking dynamo the state has become.

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Understanding the Misunderstandings of Ajami at the Washington Jewish Film Festival

Last night was one of those nights that remind me of how much I love the Washington Jewish Film Festival. The sold-out screening of the Israeli submission for the foreign language Academy Award, Ajami was the kind of event that kept our lobby full long after the lights came-up.

I am not going to lie: some people hated the film. To them the overlapping story-lines were unclear, the themes overly-grim, the 120 minute runtime unjustified and the ending un-redemptive.

Others were just as equally energized and blown-away by the film and lauded its unbelievably skillful use of non-professional actors, cleverly constructed plot that rewards the careful viewer and the emotional power of the tragedies of misunderstanding that form the core of the film’s themes.

I fall into the latter rather than the former group, but I have sympathy for both takes on the film. What Ajami succeeds best at doing is in portraying the very separate and yet inextricably connected lives that Israeli Arabs, Palestinians and Israeli Jews lead in this one neighborhood in Jaffa.

As for the Rashomon-style storytelling, it ingeniously forces you to reconsider your perception of events based on the biases you bring with you to the theater. I can’t go into too much detail without depriving future viewers of the visceral satisfaction that comes from seeing characters we think we know act in surprising ways — or in ways that we expect but are then forced to reconsider. Additionally, this film accomplished what few films can, which is to say it’s ending genuinely shocked me and left me breathless.

But after a deep inhalation I had the great pleasure of talking with many people outside the theater as we re-pieced the film together, shared details some noticed but others had missed, listened to the negative reviews and countered with our own apologias for a film that had genuinely moved us. It is what great film-going is about (if it can’t always be about universally acknowledged great films).

If you were at the screening on Saturday night at the Washington DCJCC or have seen Ajami elsewhere in our Festival or other Festival screenings around the country or in Israel, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Am I giving the filmmakers too much credit? Was their subtlety too subtle to the point of obfuscation? Or was it, as I believe, an eloquent if challenging picture of  a community where small conflicts and misunderstandings too often have tragic consequences?

Size Matters on the Opening Night of the WJFF

From today’s Express:

THE ACTORS INA Matter of Size,” which kicks off the Washington Jewish Film Festival (Wjff.org) this Thursday night, wrestled with their body issues in a way they never had before: in a sumo ring. It’s the unlikely tale of four guys who realize they can finally stop fighting with their bodies and instead embrace what makes them different.

And it’s an even unlikelier movie to come out of body-conscious Israel, where the pickings are particularly slim when it comes to overweight actors. Producers were originally unconvinced that they could find men who had the, um, guts to take on the parts. “But then we came into the room in our underwear and they changed their minds,” says Dvir Benedek, who’s flying in for the WJFF screening and estimates his weight at 145 kilos (or 319 pounds). He snagged the part of Aharon, a guy worried about losing his thin wife.

You can read the rest of the article here, and come and meet Dvir in-person at the screening of A Matter of Size this Thursday night — but tickets are going quickly!

The Washington Jewish Film Festival is Happening Now (and always)

by Susan H. Barocas, Director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival

Most people don’t know this, but as one Washington Jewish Film Festival ends, preparation for the next is already happening with films in production being “tracked,” filmmakers submitting new work and lots of thinking about a place for some of the many good films we just couldn’t find room for in the Festival wrapping up.  And now, unbelievably, last year’s “next” is almost “now”!

After watching someplace around 300 features, documentaries and shorts plus scouring the Jerusalem and Berlin film festivals – I know, tough job – the program is set, catalog out there in public, new website up and running AND tickets selling.  It’s so exciting to see that after just three days, over 800 tickets have already been sold!  In fact, Festival coordinator Josh Gardner commented today that checking the ticket sales numbers is like a new drug!  He’s right.  Watching the numbers, seeing what the favorites are during one of our many checks, guessing which film will sell out first…Okay, no betting money has changed hands yet, but we each have our favorites!

I do have to say that it’s so encouraging to know that the program is being received well.  This year we are showing more films than ever before – 62 films from 20 countries including perennial favorite sources Israel, France, Germany, Argentina, the US, Switzerland, Canada…as well as some more unusual film sources such as Tunisia, Slovakia, Russia, Ireland, Denmark and Kazakhstan.

Check out our opening night film, A Matter of Size, Israel’s award-winning romantic comedy about four very overweight guys ditching their diets in favor of becoming of sumo wrestling stars.  Just click below to see the film’s trailer.  But keep in mind that this film on December 3 with a matinee on the 4th and the closing night film on December 13, The Gift to Stalin, are both selling very well.  So take a look and then get busy and buy your tickets sooner than later by going to WJFF.ORG.  Lots of info about the schedule, venues, all the films, guests, special receptions and parties plus links to buy tickets. You can even sign up online to VOLUNTEER for the Festival.  Great fun, and that’s how I got started with the WJFF way back in 1994, but that’s another story….

“Be’Tipul” in Hebrew that Means “Emmy”

Three cheers and a hip-hip hooray for HBO’s In Treatment which picked up three Emmy Award nominations this past week. The series is based on the Israeli television sensation “Be’Tipul” starring Assi Dayan, which by coincidence is screening episodes Monday, July 28, 7:30 pm at the Washington DCJCC.

Your assignment is to answer the following questions:

1) Who does the more convincing “index finger on the forehead pose”– Gabriel Byrne or Assi Dayan?

2) Which actress is potentially more tempting for a therapist in a midlife crisis afraid of violating the ethical bounds of his profession–Melissa George or  (Tom Hanks sidekick) Ayelet Zurer?

3) Who would win in a dogfight: Blair Underwood or Lior Ashkenazi?

4) Which actress is not an English speaker: Alma Zack or Embeth Davidtz?

5) The original or the remake?

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