Now in its fifth year, the Rochester Jewish Film Festival continues its young tradition of combing the globe to present the finest films on the subject of Judaism and the Jewish experience. RJFF screens 17 films --- documentaries, features, and shorts --- at the Little Theatre and the Dryden Theatre.
Highlights of the 2005 installment of RJFF include Vaudevillians on Film, a program of short films featuring the great Jewish comedians of the vaudeville era, and Heir to an Execution, a film by the granddaughter of accused Soviet spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. The movie explores the effect their arrest and execution had on her family.
The opening night film is Marc Levin's fascinating documentary The Protocols of Zion, which finds Levin doing his best Michael Moore as he boldly confronts various practitioners of anti-Semitism. The title of the film refers to an infamous 19th century work called The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, supposedly the outline of a plan by influential Jewish men that would allow them to take over the world.
Levin, probably best known for 1998's critically acclaimed Slam, speaks with people who take the Protocols as gospel, such as a polite yet clueless skinhead, the author of the Jew Watch website, and hotheaded young Palestinian-Americans who probably wouldn't recognize Arafat if he crawled out of the grave and bit them. He also spends time with a few modern-day Jewish leaders who are obviously frustrated that the Protocols continue to garner attention.
I think the more optimistic among us assume that future generations will learn from the mistakes of their fathers and strive for understanding and peace in the world. But when an adorable 3-year-old Muslim girl pops up during Protocols and says she doesn't like Jews because "they're apes and pigs," it's grimly apparent that change is a long ways off.
Margarethe von Trotta's Rosenstrasse is based on true events that occurred in 1943 Berlin. The Jewish spouses and children of non-Jewish Germans were detained by SS in a former Jewish community center, and those on the outside stood staunch curbside vigil in front of gun-wielding Nazis in hopes their loved ones would be released.
The events unfold in flashback as Lena, an Aryan woman who worked to ensure that her Jewish husband and adopted child wouldn't succumb to a concentration camp fate, tells her story to Hannah, who has traveled to Berlin from New York City to learn more about her secretive mother. Hannah has recently unearthed some tidbits about her mother's past, and she's counting on Lena to fill in the blanks.
One pet peeve of mine is movie flashbacks that contain scenes that the person recounting the story was obviously not present for, and I usually only notice this phenomenon when a film drags. At 135 minutes, Rosenstrasse does seem a little long, and its pacing unfortunately works to hamper the emotional impact as well. That's not to say Rosenstrasse isn't affecting --- it's historical fact, so the outcome is already known, yet the suspense is palpable and the actions of these people inspirational.
Eleven-year-old David Wiseman loves the very English sport of cricket despite the fact that he's awful at it. So he's excited to see a cricket-obsessed Jamaican family rent the home next door and turn their stamp-sized backyard into a tiny pitch, but he seems to be the only one in his 1960s working-class neighborhood who feels that way. David's journey from perpetual scorekeeper to skilled batsman fuels the plot of Paul Morrison's sweet yet slight Wondrous Oblivion, though at its core Oblivion is about acceptance.
David's neighbors barely tolerate the Jewish Wiseman family. His mother Ruth feels the brunt of their condescension, while Stanley, her husband, is usually too occupied with his business to notice anything. When Dennis Samuels and his family move in, Ruth feels pressure from her biased neighbors to shun the newcomers. This proves to be impossible, however, as David becomes a permanent fixture in the Samuels' backyard and Ruth finds she is drawn next door as well, though for different reasons than David.
Delroy Lindo is predictably awesome (and totally sexy!) as Dennis, and Emily Woof beautifully portrays Ruth as a woman who yearns to be modern while still respecting the traditions she holds dear. Morrison, whose Solomon & Gaenor was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar a few years back, wraps Oblivion up a little too neatly, but its heart is definitely in the right place.
Rochester Jewish Film Festival runs July 17 through July 24. Tickets are $10, $12 for opening and closing nights. More information, including the full schedule and ticket info, can be found at the festival's website, www.rjff.org. Call 461-2000 extension 235 to buy tickets.