High Ground, High Anxiety
01/02/2008
Special To The Jewish Week
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Now in its 17th year, the New York Jewish Film Festival, which opens Jan. 9, is truly a fixture on the local film calendar, so much so that this year’s event includes one world premiere, 10 U.S. premieres and 12 New York premieres. If you subtract the seven retrospectives (see sidebar), that means that all but one of the 32 films in this year’s festival are so new that the prints are still wet from the lab. Perhaps more indicative of the growth of the festival’s importance is the presence of several films on this year’s card that will have theatrical releases shortly after the NYJFF ends. That bespeaks a growing clout for the festival.

That growing power is due to a very simple fact: Jewish films from all around the world, Israel in particular, have never been better. That is not to say there aren’t bad movies being made on Jewish topics, but the good outweighs the bad by enough that the Film Society of Lincoln Center and The Jewish Museum can put together a formidable event without sacrificing quality for quantity.

Two of the festival’s opening week offerings are bound for theaters later this month: one fiction, the other documentary. “Beaufort,” the fiction film, is the third feature by Israeli director Joseph Cedar. From his debut film, “Time of Favor,” to his second film, “Campfire,” one could see a major leap in his understanding of the complicated art that is filmmaking. But nothing could have prepared viewers for his next step. Simply put, “Beaufort” is a stunning film, the work of a filmmaker who exhibits a maturity and command of tone and screen space worthy of a veteran far older than his 39 years.

“Beaufort” is the name of a Crusader castle in Lebanon that has changed hands many times over its 800 years of existence. At the time of the 2000 withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon, the Israel Defense Forces held the mountaintop fortress, which has a commanding view and, therefore, strategic importance for the region below it. Cedar’s film is set entirely within the confines of the fort and a couple of the roads around it, focusing on a small Israeli army unit based there.

The universe these young soldiers inhabit is a uniquely claustrophobic one, which Cedar makes clear from the very design of the film’s title in the credits. We never see the enemy, even during a full-out attack, only the after-effects of their assault on the defenders. The result is a powerful, suffocating presentation of the terrors and boredom of combat, perhaps the best war film anyone has made since Samuel Fuller’s “The Big Red One”: funny, profane and violent. Cedar has quickly made good on the promise of his first two films.

With the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel coming this spring, it is appropriate that a lot of the festival’s screen time be given over to new Israeli films. Considering how exciting recent Israeli cinema has been, it’s a good thing, too. In addition to “Beaufort,” two other New York premieres merit a lot of audience attention.

“Tehillim,” a new film by Rafael Nadjari, is startling and stark in its focus on a family imploding in the face of apparent tragedy. Nadjari, whose previous film, “Avanim,” is one of the most unfairly neglected Israeli films in recent years, takes a seemingly ordinary family — an Orthodox father and secular mother and their two sons — and throws them into a shattering crisis when the father disappears after a minor car accident. His family copes by gathering with friends to read Psalms and by trying to hold their spirit together in the context of their community. But the mother is beginning to feel the strain, and her sons are torn between their sense of obligation to both sides of the family and their helplessness in the face of an impenetrable mystery.

Nadjari shoots the entire film with a hand-held camera — he is fortuneate that his camera operator is remarkably steady — and very little actual camera movement. As a result, even static shots have a faintly perceptible instability that amplifies the audience’s sense of a world gone out of kilter. “Tehillim” is probably a little more accessible than the rigor and formal perfection of “Avanim,” and it is a deeply moving and disturbing film.

“Someone to Run With,” directed by Oded Davidoff, is a much more conventional film, based on the novel by David Grossman. A look at the seamy underside of Jerusalem life — a nighttime universe of street hustlers and junkies, beggars and violent con artists — “Someone to Run With” has a rather unusual device to bring audiences into its narrative. The film focuses alternately on Assaf (Yonatan Bar-Or), a gawky 17-year-old whose summer job with the animal control office of the sanitation department calls for him to find the owner of a seemingly abandoned dog and serve a summons for not having a dog license. He finds himself almost literally dragged by Dinka (a handsome Labrador) into her mistress’ life in the city’s underworld.

Davidoff and screenwriter Noah Stollman keep the narrative shifting nervously between Assaf’s search and recent events surrounding Tamar (Bar Belfer), the dog’s owner, a 16-year-old singer who is busking on the streets of Jerusalem and seemingly involved with a sinister group of drug dealers who use a small army of begging street musicians as couriers for their dope. Inevitably, the storylines finally collide with not unexpected results. Davidoff’s anything-for-an-effect visual style, which uses everything from fisheye lenses to speeded-up backward motion to indicate the beginning of a flashback, detracts from otherwise excellent performances by the two leads, particularly the self-assured Belfer, who brings a real gravity to her character.

“Orthodox Stance,” the documentary that is opening in theaters later this month, is a portrait of Dmitriy Salita, a Ukraine-born Jew now living in Brooklyn who has a highly unusual occupation for a nice Jewish boy in the 21st century: he is a welterweight prizefighter, slowly rising in the world rankings. (He is currently 27-0 with 15 knockouts.) Filmmaker Jason Hutt spent three years following Salita around, watching him train and fight, pray and eat on the road with his manager and spiritual adviser Israel Liberow, a Lubavitcher chasid, hang with his homies like the reggae star Matisyahu, and, among other things, get invited to the White House for Chanukah.

Salita is an interesting kid who has the potential to unlock a highly unlikely audience for boxing: Orthodox Jews. He is shomer Shabbos and says that he “came to God through boxing.” He readily admits that he uses the gym as a place to “take out all [his] anger,” and in the fights included in the film, he looks polished, a classic stand-up fighter with a stiff jab and an “orthodox stance,” meaning he fights right-handed. But, as the film title suggests, in Salita’s case, that phrase has more than one meaning. Has his insistence on observing the Sabbath and festivals cost him in his boxing career? Apparently not, particularly since most boxing matches these days take place on Saturday nights.

“Orthodox Stance” is a brisk 82 minutes, and one cannot watch it without thinking about other recent sports documentaries that explored the issues that underlie the games. There is some talk about Salita’s position as an immigrant in the United States, but in such a short film, there just isn’t enough time to explore the question. By rights, “Orthodox Stance” should be at least twice as long. Because it isn’t, audiences will be entertained but not much enlightened.

The same problem afflicts “A Hebrew Lesson,” a new documentary by David Ofek (“Number 17,” “The Barbecue People”) and Ron Rotem. Ofek, who is quickly becoming a filmmaker to be reckoned with, and Rotem focus on six months in a class at Ulpan Gordon, where new immigrants and others planning on an extended stay in Israel are taught Hebrew through total language immersion. As in “Orthodox Stance,” the primary theme is the place of immigrants in a seemingly stable society, and the film is frequently quite mordant in its understated approach to the subject.

The film follows the lives of several students in the class. Annabel is a German living with an Israeli, Yoav, who she met in New York. Dong Dong and Chin are Chinese women who have married Israelis. Marisol, who arrives halfway through the film, is a tough-minded Peruvian Jew who is pregnant and alone in Israel. Sasha is a slightly dissolute Russian immigrant, formerly a lawyer who is now working odd jobs and battling his ex-wife for custody of their daughter. And Ofek and Rotem are deft at juggling the storylines. But even at 123 minutes, “A Hebrew Lesson” is simply too short to digest all the material presented. The result is a frequently funny and moving film, but one that never gets to the heart of any of its conflicts because there’s always another story to rush back to.

The 17th New York Jewish Film Festival runs from Jan. 9-24. Almost all the films will be screened at the Walter Reade Theater (70 Lincoln Center Plaza), but there are a handful of screenings at the Jewish Museum and the JCC in Manhattan. For information, call (212) 875-5600 or (212) 423-3337, or go to www.filmlinc.com or www.thejewishmuseum.org.

“Beaufort” opens Jan. 18 at the Lincoln Plaza and the Quad Cinemas. “Orthodox Stance” opens on Jan. 25 at the Cinema Village.

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