Seattle Jewish Film Festival doesn’t skirt around issues

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, March 11, 2010 2:18pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Although there’s no “Fiddler on the Roof” sing-along event as there has been in previous years, the 15th annual Seattle Jewish Film Festival has the next best thing. But more on that later.

This wide-ranging, well-run festival, which doesn’t shy away from complex issues, officially opens Saturday night. Most of the events are divided between SIFF Cinema and the Cinerama theater.

Saturday’s opener is “Ajami,” which was nominated for the foreign-language Oscar this year (representing Israel). It didn’t win, but the nomination is enough to create advance interest in this study of a culturally diverse neighborhood in the city of Jaffa, a movie created by Jewish and Arab filmmakers working together.

The same city serves as the setting for another drama of the Arab-Israeli troubles, “Jaffa.” And “Seven Minutes in Heaven” looks at a Jerusalem woman’s recovery from her injuries at the hands of a suicide bomber.

The fest’s most prominent guest is director Michael Verhoeven, probably best known for his 1990 film “The Nasty Girl” (which he will discuss at a special screening). Verhoeven brings a recent documentary, “Human Failure,” and will be given the festival’s first “Reel Difference” Award.

“Human Failure” is a mesmerizing look back at a particular question raised in the aftermath of the Holocaust: When Jews were driven out or murdered by the Nazis, what became of all they left behind — the homes, the furniture, the keepsakes?

Verhoeven finds a uniquely queasy answer: Because of meticulous recordkeeping on the part of German authorities, many transactions involving those stolen things are preserved.

Documentaries offer some interesting profiles, a couple of which I previewed. “The Jazz Baroness” looks at a fascinating lady from the great age of bebop, Pannonica Rothschild (a member, albeit wayward, of the billionaire Rothschild family), who befriended and tended the erratic genius Thelonius Monk for many years.

Adding another layer to the saga is that “The Jazz Baroness” is directed by Hannah Rothschild, a relative of its subject. It’s a fine slice of music history — a particularly rich period in jazz.

“Where I Stand: The Hank Greenspun Story” tracks the career of the feisty publisher of the Las Vegas Sun — an apparently remote outpost that nevertheless allowed Greenspun to cross paths with Howard Hughes, Bugsy Siegel and Joseph McCarthy.

Oh, and he also ran arms to Israel in the late 1940s and ran afoul of the Watergate burglars. More than enough life to fill a feature-length movie.

The “Fiddler on the Roof” connection is a rare screening of a 1939 U.S. film, “Tevye,” which is based on the same Sholem Aleichem stories that produced the famed Broadway musical. This special brunch presentation will be preceded by food and klezmer music.

As though to lighten the generally serious tone of the festival, the March 21 closing night film brings in a comedy of considerable heft: “A Matter of Size” looks at a group of chunky Israelis who decide they will throw their weight behind sumo wrestling. It’s not exactly a cinematic breakthrough, but the fun idea has already resulted in a proposed Hollywood remake.

More information and the festival calendar can be browsed at SeattleJewish FilmFestival.org. For tickets, call 206-324-9996.

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