Media Stars of David

The fifth annual Jewish Film Festival shines in the SA firmament

If I had a dime for every time the word “Jew” appears in a Hollywood film released between 1927, when The Jazz Singer made movies talk, with a Yiddish inflection, and 1947, when a journalist (Gregory Peck) in Gentleman’s Agreement pretends to be Jewish in order to expose anti-Semitism, I could barely buy a bagel. Though Jews ran most studios, it was bad for business to call attention to themselves by marketing a product alien to Christian America.

Classics and rare new releases will be featured at the San Antonio Jewish Film Festival, February 18-22 at Santikos Northwest 14, including 10 Days in Gaza, top left, Yossi and Jagger, bottom left, Shalom Y’all, center, Fiddler on the Roof, top right, and Watermarks, bottom right.

After the murder of 6 million made anti-Semitism — taken for granted in employment, housing, and education — seem uncouth, movies began to feature Jewish themes. By 2006, you could assemble a splendid Jewish festival just from films that ran in local theaters in recent months: Munich, Ushpizin, Jesus Is Magic, The Squid and the Whale, The Producers, Bee Season, Everything Is Illuminated, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Lord of War, and The Merchant of Venice.

But the San Antonio Jewish Film Festival was created to showcase films by or about Jews that are otherwise unavailable here. Its fifth annual edition, offering 19 films in five days, February 18-22, does just that. Gentleman’s Agreement also shows up on the program, along with five other films labeled “classics,” though they hardly date to antiquity. Sponsored by the Jewish Community Center, the festival moves this year to the Annex of the Santikos Northwest Theater, where four auditoriums provide the opportunity for simultaneous and repeat screenings.

Director Brian Bain will introduce his funky nonfiction feature, Shalom Y’all, on opening night, Saturday. “Jews are certainly not the first thing you think of when you think of the American South,” says Bain at the outset of his personalized ethnic travelogue. Thinking of Jews, Bain, a native of New Orleans, visits Memphis, home of the largest Orthodox congregation in the United States, and Atlanta, where kosher products cater to a burgeoning constituency. The Dixie Diaspora once boasted the largest Jewish population in North America, but Bain visits small towns in Mississippi and Alabama where synagogues have become hardware stores and churches. He interviews Reuben Greenberg, the Jewish-African-American police chief of Charleston, Jack Cristall, longtime football announcer at Mississippi State, and Elliott Levitas, Georgia’s first Jewish Congressman since Reconstruction.

With nary a mention of Judah P. Benjamin, Confederate secretary of state, or Leo Frank, the Georgia businessman killed by a lynch mob, Shalom Y’all cannot claim to be systematic history, but among its compensations is a Kerrville sequence in which Kinky Friedman sings “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore.”

San Antonio Jewish Film Festival

Feb 18-22
$7 single admission;
$35 flex pass

Santikos Northwest 14
I-10 West and Callaghan

Info: 302-6828

Protocols of Zion is another cinematic essay, in which Marc Levin investigates the insidious afterlife of a preposterous forgery designed to prove that Jews conspire to control the world. Levin finds a bull market for anti-Semitic bullspit, a thriving trade not only in copies of the Protocols but also books, magazines, and CDs that peddle vile canards. It is hard to determine whether people he meets who insist on Jewish responsibility for 9/11 and much else are naive or cunning — or which possibility is more disturbing.

The Jew responsible for Watermarks, Yaron Zilberman, has created a moving record of an extraordinary reunion. Excluded from Austrian sports clubs, Jews formed their own. Watermarks brings together seven octogenarian women who once were champion swimmers. Returning to the Vienna they fled for Britain, Palestine, and the United States, they reflect on the joys and sorrows of lives sundered by bigotry in what was once their gemütlich homeland.

A fictional feature, La Petite Jèrusalem tells the story of a family of Jews from North Africa who settle in a suburb of Paris. Laura, the younger of two daughters, is a brilliant philosophy student whose aspiration toward a Kantian life of pure reason is challenged by her passion for a local Muslim man. Karin Albou’s film is an intricate study in individual and communal identities. Another fiction film, Yossi and Jagger, is the story of two Israeli military officers stationed along the border with Lebanon who struggle with infiltrators and their passion for each other. It is Brokeback Mountain with Hebrew dialogue and without subtlety.

Fateless adapts a novel by Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, which was in turn based on the experiences of a boy who was rounded up in Budapest and sent to a Nazi labor camp. Much turns on chance in a film that follows György through his harrowing ordeal and ultimate liberation, into a world that seems to him even stranger than Buchenwald.

Two short films on Monday night take their measure of current woes. Diameter of the Bomb examines the lives of several passengers who were on a Jerusalem bus on June 18, 2002, when a suicide attack killed 20. Like The Bridge of San Luis Rey, it is a meditation on happenstance. Like its companion film, 10 Days in Gaza, TV coverage of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, it offers compelling testimony to the realities of life and death for contemporary Israelis and Palestinians. Tuesday’s package of shorts — Tijuana Jews, Yidishe Gauchos, and Born in Buenos Aires — documents the experiences of Jewish Latinos. The films would not be out of place in CineFestival, even as they are a perfect fit for a Jewish film festival in San Antonio.

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