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?

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I’d Like to Thank the Academy

Actually, we do get to thank the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for a grant they made to support the Washington Jewish Film Festival. They are just one of the many organizations, embassies, foundations and individuals that provide the necessary funds and services that make the Festival possible. One of the ways we thank them is with a short trailer that plays before every Festival film. Below is this year’s edition, expertly created by the good folks at Seltzer Film and Video.

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….

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