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Seattle Jewish Fest:: Skinheads and holocaust tourism

The Seattle JAC (Jewish Action committee) film Festival entered its second day with a full agenda of seven films including features, documentaries and shorts. Highlight of the day was the new Canadian feature, "Steel Toes"
starring David Straithairn as a liberal minded Jewish attorney engaged to defend an unrepentant skinhead Neo-Nazi in the racist "hate murder" of an Indian storekeeper. This is basically a two-man show somewhat similar to Truman Capote's visitation of one of the killer's of "In Cold Blood", minus the undercurrent of erotic love in the Capote caper. The obsessive dedication to the defense of the would-be killer undermines the lawyer's private life but the skinhead eventually sees the light of his wayward racist ways under the intense (in my view, overly intense) prodding of his trial representative.

Andrew Walker gives a strong performance as the muscular tatooed white supremacist who is convinced that the flood of immigrants is ruining Canada, but Straithairn is rather a pale shadow of the actor who delivered such a convincing portrait of Edward R. Murrow in his last prior outing, "Good Night and Good Luck". The setting is montreal but what we see most of is the inside of the prison where most of the action takes place. Not really a film of great note following in the wake of two recent Truman Capote studies, and interesting mainly to see what Mr. Straithairn would be doing after his Oscar nominated last role. A debut feature co-directed by David Gow and Mark Adam based on Mr. Gow’s successful stage play.

Two documentaries about Concentration camp tourism were really the meat of the day’s agenda. “KZ” (Kah-Tzet, the notorious German initials for the word “Kon-Zentrazions” Lager = Concentration Camp)is a full-length 95 minute tour of one of the lesser-known WW II Concentration Camps, Mathausen, located on the banks of the Blue Danube in Austria. What sets this one off from the usual CC documentaries is the way it shows the effect on people in the present day, 2005 -- busloads of schoolchildren who are truly horrified and bemused by what they see and learn, older residents of the town some of whom are ashamed to admit that they actually live here, and above all, a beefy middle-aged camp tour guide, who after eight years of “giving his all” to keep the memory of what went on here alive has become alcoholic and is on the verge of a breakdown. Particularly hair-raising are the guide’s gruesomely graphic descriptions of the kinds of personal atrocities that went on here (almost too obscene to repeat) delivered in the peculiar Austrian patois of the region. The entire film is, in fact, in German (Austrian German) with English sub-titles, sharply shot on Digital-Beta by filmmaker Rex Bloomstein. This is definitely one for the books, especially because it sheds so much light on a major death camp that is not often the subject of the growing KZ literature on film.

Introducing “KZ” was a brilliant ten minute Documentary by Englishman Jes Benstock (UK, 2005,Beta) pointing a wry finger at the Holocaust Tourist Industry which has emerged in Poland, particularly in the Kazimierz Section of Krakow (the original Jewish Ghetto of this picturesque city) since the runaway success of Spielberg’s “Shindler’s List” which was filmed largely in the vicinity. The colorful rapidly-paced images make such a visual impact that this short film seems much longer than its 10 minute running time. The two films discussed here make a fascinating package which will, hopefully, receive wide distribution on the Jewish festival circuit and documentary fests.

“Wrestling With Angels” is a three part (102 minute) “bio-pic” od a living literary legend, Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner, Tony Kusher. Kushner is out-spokenly political, out-spokenly gay, and makes no bones about his Southern (Louisiana) Jewish origins. I was thinking to myself, “Do I really want to watch a film about a gay Jewish playwright?” but after deciding to stick around to watch ‘just the beginning’ I was caught up in Kushner’s personal charm, his humor, and the high-brow theatrical milieu which is the setting of his day-to-day life, and sat it out easily to the end. Among show biz luminaries who populate the film are actress Marcia Gay Hayden and director Mike Nichols. Among other things this pic shows how a writer really works in daily life and also provides a most interesting take on a Jewish-father son relationship, where papa must finally accept that “my son the writer” is a “feigele” – and so what! Among the surprsises, to my knowledge a first on screen, we also witness a Jewish all-male wedding”, traditional trampled glass and all! Lots of fun and lots of insights into the play writing process and the process of getting a play put on the stage without the Hollywood backstage clichés.

Finally, the loser of the day was “Beethoven’s Hair”, a grotesque pseudo-documentary about what the great composer “really” died of and why he was such raunchy a personality. (He was poisoned slowly and the poison shows up in a strand of his hair snipped off by a hanger-on at his death bed, I reviewed the film at Minneapolis a year ago, and was so put off by it then that I didn’t bother this time around. Canadian, by Larry Weinstein, 20-05, with Danish and German sub-titles. A real mess of a flich but lots of good Beethoven musical excerpts, if you can just close your eyes, grin, and bear it.

Alex, Seattle
March 19

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