A new feature from Israeli director Amos Gitai has become something of a tradition at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival (which runs Saturday, March 13–Sunday, March 21 at the Cinerama and Pacific Place). And his latest, Alila (9:30 p.m. Saturday, March 20, at Pacific Place), is just as admirable, and thoroughly frustrating, as its predecessors. While Kadosh examined the out-of-time ultra-Orthodox, Kippur chronicled the 1973 war, and Kedma portrayed postwar Zionist pioneers, Alila is set very much in an Israeli present, where disenchanted youth might actually say "Fuck the army" and where Tel Aviv's working-class society has become a rich stew of immigrants, including illegals from China.
The story, such as it is, revolves around a group of characters residing in one rather dingy apartment building: a haunted Holocaust survivor; a young hottie caught up in a faintly abusive love affair; a divorcée whose morose ex-husband sleeps in a van outside her door, etc. Their paths only lightly intersect; the proximity and utter separateness of the unfolding lives seem to be part of the point. Gitai has spent much of his career making documentaries, and as usual, he brings that same supernaturalistic style to his fiction: There are just 40 takes in the entire two hours, as Gitai's camera simply stares at each scene, occasionally panning to follow his characters from room to room, with a mutable urban noise-scape of background sound.
The performances are fine, but Gitai's emotional intensity becomes wearying after a while, particularly when his themes are so underdeveloped and meandering. Still, we can always use an honest, apolitical view into Israeli society, however haphazard.
On the way, way lighter side is Two Minutes From Faradis (6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 18, at Pacific Place), the comic tale of a teenage Israeli girl so desperate to rebel against her ultraliberal, pot-smoking parents that she starts dating the son of her family's Arab maid. Do madcap complications and true love ensue? I wonder! The teen is basically a sluttier version of Lizzie McGuire, complete with exasperated direct address to the camera, and this TV-produced shortie is sitcom all the way. Yet it's undeniably cute and funny, and there's something weirdly cathartic in hearing intifada/occupation jokes: At dinner, a soldier recalls spending the day "beating the shit out of" a Palestinian. His groovy father asks, "Pumpkin, was this a raid or a targeted assassination?" (Unfortunately Faradis is part of a double bill with the unfunny, unwatchable Foolish Me.)
Then there's the serious stuff. In the current climate of one-sided screeds about the Middle East, the French documentary Decryptage (6 p.m. Monday, March 15, at Pacific Place) delivers some real value, even as it explicitly renounces balance and objectivity. Filmmakers Jacques Tarnero and Philippe Bensoussan examine the techniques and origins underlying the French media's wildly unbalanced coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even if you don't watch a lot of French TV, interviews with a long line of academic, media, and political figures paint a convincing picture of post-Holocaust, postcolonial guilt that feeds French (and European) desire to see Israel as an unmitigated villain. While a few highly dubious assertions go unquestioned, Decryptage is an eye-opener. One gets the damning picture of an army of foreign correspondents traipsing around the occupied territories, eager to broadcast a David vs. Goliath story line, savoring the excitement of a Third World battle zone, then retiring to their four-star Western hotels in Israel.
Oh, and here's the obligatory Holocaust- related documentary. In Hiding and Seeking (6 p.m. Tuesday, March 16, at Pacific Place), New York–based co-director Menachem Daum takes his two grown sons—both of them Orthodox yeshiva students living in Israel—to Poland, despite their profound misgivings. "I think this is nuts . . . like the film," whines one son. "You can't go home again," chimes the other. These separatists want nothing to do with gentiles—much less Poles. But mellower, more tolerant Menachem has dragged them there to find the Polish family that hid their maternal grandfather (and his two brothers) from the Nazis for 28 months. Incredibly, they do (there wouldn't be a movie otherwise, right?), resulting in some powerfully moving scenes. To its credit, the doc doesn't neatly settle the interfamily debate. Do all goyim want to kill the Jews? There are "exceptions," the younger son grudgingly concedes, but his faith still seems to be in rules.
A little duller for its lack of family bickering, but still worthwhile, Forget Baghdad (2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 14, Pacific Place) concerns the forced '50s diaspora of Iraq's Arabic Jews; of particular note are the assimilation problems later faced by these "Mizrahim," who were not exactly received with open arms in Israel. Overnight, one subject recalls, they went from being "good Arabs" to "bad Jews." This cultural gulf—echoed by Israel's ongoing demographic issues today—is wonderfully illustrated by clips from the Oscar-nominated 1964 Sallah Shabati, which made a star of Fiddler on the Roof's Topol. And in a nice bit of intrafest arcana, Fiddler is being screened as a family sing-along (1 p.m. Sunday, March 21, at the Cinerama), which helps to leaven the fest from strictly serious fare.
For information, tickets, and schedule: 206-325-6500 and www.ajcseattle.org.