Stories of tolerance and identity
Exploring the range of Jewish culture at the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival
Wed, Feb 3, 2010 (5:15 p.m.)
The ninth edition of the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival featured an expanded slate of films (17) but managed to keep up its high level of quality and attendance. Although the programming relied a little too heavily on dry, talking-head documentaries, it nevertheless demonstrated the diversity of films about Jewish culture and history, and lived up to the festival's post-CineVegas position as the largest and longest-running in town.
There are always a large number of films dealing with the Holocaust and the Jewish experience during World War II, and the well-worn subject matter inevitably means that some will tread familiar ground without much new insight. Documentaries like the sentimental Inside Hana's Suitcase, with its cheesy reenactments and simplistic tone, or the dull, academic Against the Tide, which plays like something to show students on mandated field trips, don't really add anything valuable to the clutter of Holocaust filmmaking.
But there are still worthwhile stories from that time period to be told in interesting ways: Gaylen Ross' messy but compelling documentary Killing Kasztner shines a light on Dr. Israel Kasztner, a Hungarian who negotiated directly with Nazi leaders for the lives of his fellow Jews, and was eventually assassinated by members of a radical underground group in Israel in 1957. Ross captures the continuing conflict in Israel over honoring Kasztner's name, raising questions about Jewish identity and talking to both Kasztner's family and his pardoned assassin, who's a fascinating mix of remorse and defiance.
The best narrative film I saw at the festival, The Wedding Song, also takes place during the Holocaust, following the friendship between two teenage girls in Tunisia, one Jew and one Arab, as the war slowly pulls them apart culturally and emotionally. Karin Albou's film takes on issues of gender and how it relates to religious traditions, and uses the increasing presence of the Nazis to explore how heightened circumstances bring out hidden prejudices. She also crafts lyrical moments of unspoken kinship between the two girls.
There were more mainstream, crowd-pleasing efforts as well, including the tame comedies A Matter of Size (about an Israeli sumo wrestler) and The Yankles (about an Orthodox Jewish baseball team), proof that feel-good underdog sports stories can be translated to any cultural milieu. The documentary Four Seasons Lodge, about a group of Holocaust survivors who convene every year in the Catskills, provided a warm, humanistic counterpoint to grim stories of extermination.
The festival closed with The Little Traitor, a small, occasionally sappy but mostly satisfying story about a young Israeli boy befriending a British soldier during the post-WWII occupation of Palestine. With a lovely performance from Alfred Molina and gentle messages about tolerance and cultural understanding, it exemplified the best of what the LVJFF has to offer.