Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Quick Hits

Usually, when one sits through a festival's program of short films, 30% of the films will be good, 30% uninteresting and the rest barely average. Much to my surprise, the Jews in Shorts program offered by this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was remarkably strong. Rather than try to tie them together in any particular theme, I'm just going to give some quick impressions of a few films on the program -- all of which are definitely worth watching.

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Lauren Shweder Biel's 888-Go-Kosher offers a peek inside the daily routine of New York City's only "rapid-response koshering service." She interviews Rabbi Sholtiel Lebovic (who founded the nonprofit Go Kosher America) as she follows him on a house call. Lebovic's new client is a young woman who has just moved into a new apartment. Describing how, while attending an orthodox Jewish wedding, she was so impressed by the sense of community and love for tradition that it made her want to be a better Jew, the young wife talks about how keeping a kosher kitchen seemed like the most obvious next step for her. Demonstrating how dishes and silverware are purified in a mikvah, Rabbi Lebovic offers viewers a charming piece of orthodox edutainment.

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Neil Needleman's A Trip to Prague describes how he ended up finding the love of his life. On returning home from a European sojourn to one of their favorite cities, Neil's parents were killed in an accident in which their taxi (driven by a drunk driver), skidded off the road. A freelance commercial graphic artist who had taken on some badly needed work, Neil was unable to pick his parents up at the airport that day. A young Jew with guilt? How could you possibly think such a thing!

On a subsequent flight to Europe to discover why his parents were so in love with Prague, Neil meets a nice Jewish couple headed to the same destination. During the course of their travels, Mr. Goldstein keeps insisting: "You know what a nice Jewish boy needs most? A nice Jewish girl! Let me show you a picture of my daughter, Irene, who is a successful lawyer and extremely eligible."

Mr. Goldstein's efforts to make a shiddach never stop. As they head back to the United States, Neil finally confesses that he is gay and would therefore not have any romantic interest in the Goldsteins' daughter.

Without missing a beat, Mr. Goldstein replies "You know what a nice Jewish boy who is gay needs most in life? Another nice Jewish boy who is gay! Let me show you a picture of my son Gary, who is gay!"

The urge to meddle on behalf of their children cannot be beaten out of Jewish parents. What gives this short film its charm is that the narration is illustrated with Needleman's pen and ink sketches from his trip to Prague. Watch the film's trailer for a sample of his art.

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Lior Geller's 22-minute thriller Roads has the gritty tension of most films which deal with the drug trade. The difference here is that the main runner, Ismayil, is a street-smart 13 year old Arab boy living in an Israeli slum. When Ahmed (the most powerful drug dealer in Lod) tries to recruit Ismayil's younger brother into the business, Ismayil rebels and runs for freedom. While his confused brother refuses to let go of the baby lamb he has been cradling in his arms, the two boys commander the car owned by Daniel (a traumatized Israeli ex-soldier who is one of Ismayil's regular customers).

Ismayil's street instincts tell him that if two Arab boys get shot and killed no one will blink an eye. But if a Jew gets shot, it will make headlines. The boys make a thrilling escape in this wild ride through the drug-infested streets of Lod while Daniel finds a way out of his grief and agony. The strong cast includes Waseem Nur Habshi, Haled Mayer Marwat, Mahmud Mura and Osama Rabaya, with Daniel Chernish as the wasted Jew. Watch the trailer for a taste of the action.

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Nadav Aronowitz's Home Made Hero tells what happens to a cab driver whose fantasy of starring in an action film almost comes true. A handsome, likeable young man, the protagonist picks up a fare who turns out to be a casting director. At the last minute, one of her actors has become unavailable for a shoot, so she tries to audition the cab driver for a speaking role. While this could be a great opportunity for the cab driver to become an actor, he cavalierly insists that he'd only be interested in an action film, not in anything romantic.

No sooner does the casting director exit his cab than a furiously jealous female soldier steps in, points her rifle at him, and hijacks his life. If you think jealous astronauts are crazy, this woman's fury is powerfully deranged.

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Andras Salamon has packed more pathos into his five-minute silent film entitled Tell Your Children than many filmmakers accomplish in a full-length feature. Re-enacting the mass murder of Jews that took place by the Arrow Cross on the banks of the Danube River in January of 1945, his film encapsulates the life of a traumatized young girl who managed to swim to safety.

In a brilliant sequence shot from curb level, Salamon shows the passage of time through the changing fashions of women's dresses until the young girl has finally become an old woman, lugging a small wheeled suitcase, as a gang of youths threaten her and douse her with fluids.

An extremely powerful short, Tell Your Children will leave viewers shaken and stirred.

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