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The New York 2008 Jewish Film Festival

Considered to be with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival among the most important Jewish Film Festivals in the United States, the New York Jewish Film Festival provides a significant platform for new features and documentaries about and from Jewish life in and outside of Israel. Held this year from January 9th to 24th it has retained its importance among the close to 60 US Jewish film festivals staged currently in the United States(not counting those specifically focused on the Holocaust and Israel). The advantage arises from the New York location, the association with the Lincoln Center Film Society whose director Richard Pena is one of the curators of the NYJFF, the concentration of film distribution and production in New York, and ready access to new films.

As an ethnic film fest with a captive and enthusiastic audience, screenings for most films were sold out with occasional long waiting lines for scarce tickets. Given its strong ties the Jewish community and the large segment of older people the festival appeals to, the program constitutes balancing act of truly artistic productions and those films dealing with the "Jewish experience", rarely shown outside the Jewish film festival circuit.

Since 2008 is the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel;, about one third of the 32 features, documentaries and shorts shown this year originated in Israel, with the remainder coming from Europe, Latin America and the US. For the spectator virtually all productions provided new insights into the problems faced by Jewish communities transcending the issues touched by films on the holocaust and related issues, which are always part of Jewish film festivals. Thus issues of identity, adaptation to secular life, and the role of religion are in the center.

The extensively reviewed Israeli feature film BEAUFORT by Joseph Cedar, nominated for the foreign language Academy awards, stands out as the best film of this year's NYJFF selection. Posing questions about the futility of war it depicts the survival attempt by a small group of Israeli soldiers in a fortress in Southern Lebanon that is about to be abandoned. As shown by demoralized soldiers, the struggle against an unseen enemy has no luster and is difficult to motivate. Beaufort vastly surpasses in content and production
quality another feature SOMEONE TO RUN WITH by Oded Davidoff which
depicts struggle and salvation of young addicts in Jerusalem.

Both documentaries JERUSALEM IS PROUD TO PRESENT by Nitzab Gilady and STEFAN BRAUN by Itamar Alcalay focus on the seemingly irrational intolerance of gay sexual identities by religious community groups. .
In this documentary street riots by orthodox Jews and support from their political and religious allies forced organizers of the World Pride celebration of tolerance in Jerusalem to compromise the event.
The depth of the resentment and probable hate of lesbians and gays, not to speak of transgendered people shown here is utterly amazing. In STEFAN BRAUN members of the family of a glamorous and swinging furrier cannot come to terms with his last will leaving his wealth to his life-long gay companion. Orthodox religion plays also in the appealing feature TEHILIM by Raphael Nadjari where traditional rituals fail to console the wife and children of a father who suddenly disappears. The circumcision ritual is in the center of QUEST FOR THE MISSING PIECE, a light hearted documentary with the director Oded Lotan trying to understand the meaning of his circumcision. In another self-centered but rather self indulgent and sophomoric documentary THE UNCOSHER TRUTH, the filmmaker Chana Zalissk tries to tell her rigid orthodox rabbi father that she is living with a gentile German man. In FILM FANATIC an Ultra Orthodox film maker, Shlomo Hazan, uses digital production technologies for o(rhtodox)llywood blockbusters overcoming the secular culture
establishment. A HEBREW LESSON by David Ofek, the festival's
opening film depicts how immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Latin America learn Hebrew in an urban Ulpam (intensive immersion school), a charming documentary that fails, however, to contextualize the people it presents though the film runs two hours.

Nadav Schirman's award winning THE CHAMPAGNE SPY to the contrary is a thorough documentary of Israel's most famous spy story as seen through the eyes of the son. Using interviews with his handlers, senior Mossad officers and rare archival material and photos the documentary reconstructs the glamorous rise and fall of Wolfgang Lotz, an Israeli citizen and army officer, who worked in Egypt for the Israeli secret service in the early 1960s. Stationed in Cairo using the cover of a wealthy West German horse breeder who formerly served as a Nazi Wehrmacht officer he reported for several years on Egyptian weaponry and the activities of German scientists who helped building rockets for use against Israel. Arrested in 1965 Lotz was swapped in 1968 with several Israeli captives for thousands of Egyptian prisoners and some generals. He had a hard time adjusting from his champagne lifestyle as a spy to the modest retirement in his rank as Israeli air force major. Wolfgang Lotz moved with his German wife whom he had married in Cairo to Germany where he died as a pauper. After his return from Egypt, he never acknowledged or faced his Israeli wife. His Israeli son felt that Lotz had brought suffering to those surrounding him, yet this suffering was instrumental for the Mossad to manage Lotz' extraordinary success as a spy.

Claus Mueller
New York Correspondent


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