Congratulations are certainly due to the Boston Jewish Film Festival for its longevity and the general quality of its presentations.
By Joann Green Breuer
“Neighbors Near and Far” is this year’s cut line for the 23rd Boston Jewish Film Festival (BJFF). Congratulations are certainly due for its longevity and general quality, along with sympathy for its effort to come up with a new cut line, even if it makes more politically correct sense than it does semantic sense.
I will offer an overview of the festival fare so far. As it continues, I will comment briefly on several of the films in the series. My comments will be brusque, partly because the BJFF no longer supplies a program with attributions to artistic contributors to the films: casts, designers, editors, etc. Financial contributors to the festival, however, are clearly listed.
Credit must be given to Leo Khasin, director of the opening night selection, Kaddish for a Friend. He is willing to give away the ending of the movie in the title. And why not? We all know it immediately. Someone will die. Since Kaddish will be said, there is no need to ponder for whom.
This story revolves around an old, Jewish immigrant living in the apartment above a young, Arab boy and his immigrant family in Berlin’s dicey Turkish (Kreuzberg) area. Each inhabitant deals with loss and resentment, or worse, in the new country. One, aged, actually is alone, while the other, on the cusp of adulthood, feels alone. His father, the only other male in his household, is, for the moment, unsatisfactory as a model, his financial desperation driving him to brutality. Of course, the two neighbors will find a way, through sketches, song, and sparring, to bridge generations and ethnicity, to form a bond, thus making their new world less alien and themselves less bitter. The story is clichéd. The telling of it, however, is admirable.
Ali Messalam, a slim teen with soft fur of a mustache, and Alexander Samskoy, craggy and crusty, fill the screen irresistibly. These two and Ali’s father are the only trained actors. The others, so far as I know, are local residents. Director Khasin has been, by profession, an oral surgeon. He loves looking closely, lingeringly, and makes us love the gaze. His camera focuses on boxes, clutter, graffiti, detritus of lives lived in scraps, a moment here or there adding up only to moments, no one moment seeming to matter more than any other until the plot intrudes, with the excuse having to push along a movie.
Perhaps because all those tiny moments—featuring seniors and amateurs in old clothes newly ironed, folk dancing almost in rhythm, children passing time by passing time—are so believable, the wordless scenes, sometimes a single word spoken, not acted, become enormously meaningful. The horrors of past losses remain as ineffable background, the template through which the now, however petty, matters. We are moved at the ending we predicted, partly because we were unable to mourn the monumental past.
Fracture, a French film directed by Alain Tasma, has the feel of Francois Truffaut, with whom he worked, in its 400 Blows trajectory. As in Khasin’s film, the Arab boy is an artist; here his hand is paralyzed by Volkmann’s syndrome caused by a combination of a Jewish doctor’s pressure cast and his own father’s inattention. Lakdar’s days of drawing are over. What life is there for him? The maturity of Lakdar’s decision making is tenderly, tragically far beneath that of Samy Seghir’s mature complexity in portraying him.
The film tells a parallel story of a young, Jewish teacher in a rough, to say the least, junior high school, where one particular and large bully, Moussa, dominates the classroom. Additional buffeting is provided by the poverty of the district and the teacher’s existential question about the meaning of her life in such a job. The latter’s father, like Lakdar’s, cannot appreciate the path she has chosen. Lakdar’s father sees no future in his son’s cartooning, her father none in the classroom. He is a university professor, clearly a worthier job than that of a schoolteacher’s. An undeveloped situation of her connection with her Christian boyfriend generates an unnecessary complication, but this is as much a film of social layers as it is one of character. The juxtapositions may be a bit obvious, but nonetheless they are engaging.
The cast is universally excellent, that classroom is truly frightening in its chaotic challenge, the families of both doctor and Lakdar are wrenchingly realistic in their sad silences, and the few serous occasions of reasoning are neither moralistic nor judgmental. Occasionally Tasma inserts his messages into unnecessary dialogue. No need. We get it, and its not just antisemitism. We are painfully aware that we cannot solve the problems, political and personal, that are both cinematic and, unfortunately, actual.
A short documentary, Beating Time, directed by Odette Orr and sponsored by PRIZE4LIFE, an organization searching for the cause and cure of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, “Lou Gehrig’s disease”—although he probably did not have it), follows incidents in the life of Avi Kremer, an Israeli diagnosed with the dread disease while attending Harvard Business School. He is as brave as one can be and rapidly deteriorating as one must.
The film is a series of sketches, interspersed with on-screen, typed narration filling in the months not photographed. I felt this was lazy filmmaking until the post-film panel discussion. There was Avi, immobile, unable to raise his head, bound to his wheel chair, a computer facing him on which he somehow by infra-red indicated the letters of the alphabet that spelled out his responses to questions posed by Sara L. Rubin, Artistic Director of the festival and audience members. The answers were read by Dr. Bob Brown, Avi’s American physician. Suddenly having had to read the silent screen made poignant sense.
Avi’s contribution to the investigation of ALS seems to have been inspired by Harvard Business School and Prize4Life’s emphasis on the value of money as much as by his own difficult situation. Avi’s scheme was to find 10 million dollars for the cure. The raising of funds and the race in the lab continue. One thing the film misses in its portrait of Avi is the grace of his English. His laryngeal voice is gone, but the elegance of his language is undeniable.