The Circuit


Film Fest Fun

The succession of subtitles onscreen was riveting and jarring: “The biggest singer in France is Israeli…. Mike Brant looked relaxed and beautiful, except his head was lying in a pool of blood.”

The text flashed across the screen during a teaser for “Mike Brant: Laisse Moi T’aimer,” an Israeli documentary exploring the stormy, short-lived starburst of Brant, an Israeli singer who didn’t even speak fluent French when he took France by storm with his pop hits in the early 1970s. By 1975, at age 28, he fell to his death from the sixth floor of his Paris apartment building in an apparent suicide.

“Mike Brant,” an Israeli 2003 Cannes entry, was one of more than two-dozen cinematic offerings at the 19th Israel Film Festival, a film anthology spotlighting the latest crop of feature-film fiction and documentaries coming out of Israel.

Erez Laufer, director of “Mike Brant,” was one of the honorees at the opening-night gala, held at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. Laufer, during his acceptance speech for the Cinematic Award, told the audience that he was pleased to be at Cannes 33 years to the date of Brant’s first performance on a French TV show.

Israeli filmmakers were, naturally, the focus of the fete, but they weren’t the only ones being honored on opening night. The festival also saluted a couple of local yokels who are doing all right for themselves. Richard Riordan, former L.A. mayor and prospective newspaper publisher, introduced Humanitarian Award-recipient Larry King. Marvel Entertainment’s Avi Arad presented the Visionary Award to Laura Ziskin.

Ziskin, who previously had a hand in “Pretty Woman” and “Fight Club,” said, “I work under the motto that movies aren’t made. They’re forced into existence.”

Meir Fenigstein, festival founder and executive director, shared his incredulity over his event reaching the big 19. He spoke highly of the “challenge bringing the unique films and creativity of Israeli filmmakers to the U.S.A.”

“The festival allows us to see Israel without the politics,” said Kobi Oshrat, the Israel Consulate’s cultural attaché. “It shows what Israeli society is all about.”

This year’s festival, which runs through June 8, highlights films like “Slaves of the Lord,” another Cannes entry; and festival opener “All I’ve Got,” a macabre romantic comedy written and directed by Keren Margalit, which was screened at the gala opening and underscored the special “Reflections of Women” category.

Following the screening of “All I’ve Got,” The Circuit chatted with Ronit Reichman, a Tel Aviv University graduate and the producer of “Under Water,” who is in the process of relocating her Tamuz Productions to Los Angeles, where she will produce a three-part documentary on Islamic terrorism. The Circuit also caught up with Laufer, also a Tel Aviv University alum.

“In France, there’s a big ’70s revival right now, so people were ready for this film,” Laufer said of his Cannes reception. For Laufer, chronicling the life of the late Brant was “a journey to try and piece it together from what people say, from archive footage. You try to find the person.”

Also in attendance: L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; “Wisdom of the Pretzel” producer Shai Werker-Option; “In the Ninth Month” writer-director Ali Nassar and star Nissrin Faour; “Return From India” producer Evgeny Afineevsky; “Local Hero in Jerusalem Beach” director Natali Eskinazim; David Lipkind, Israel Film Fund executive director; Meital Dohan, star of “God’s Sandbox,” and the film’s producer, Yoav Halevy; and Arthur Hiller, director of the original “The In-Laws,” who — with Arnon Milchan, Mike Medavoy, Michael Fuchs, Peter Chernin, Sumner Redstone, Sherry Lansing, Ron Meyer, Joe Roth, Terry Semel, Haim Saban, Steven Spielberg, Ted Turner and Jack Valenti — comprised the impressive roster of honorary chairs and co-chairs for 2003’s Festival.

For more information on the 19th Israel Film Festival, call (877) 966-5566 or visit www.israelfilmfestival.com .

Georgian Life


What is the meaning of courage?

In Hollywood, it is often the brave, handsome soldier who risks his life, or the enterprising businesswoman who succeeds against all odds. The triumph of the individual: that’s the American Way.

But not all cultures glorify that path, and when faced with a character that chooses a different path, we may be hard-pressed to deem that choice "courageous."

But that’s exactly what Israeli writer-director Dover Kosashvili says of Zaza, the main character in his film "Late Marriage," the winner of nine Israeli academy awards and other world festival awards, which will be shown at the Israel film festival here this week.

Zaza (Lior Loui Ashkenazi) is a 31-year-old Tel Avivian bachelor who humors his parents as they fix him up with "suitable" girls. Zaza is handsome, intelligent and successful, so why are they are so worried about him? They’re Georgian.

Sometimes we forget that the term Israelis includes as great a variety of people and cultures as exists in America. There are the oldtimeAshkenazim and the Sephardim, the religious, the secular, the settlers, then there are also the new immigrants: the Ethiopians, the Russians — and each have their own subculture and traditions. In Hebrew and Georgian, "Marriage," Kosashvili’s first feature film, portrays one of those subcultures, the Georgian community — though certainly not at its best.

Zaza’s parents — his mother is actually played by the director’s mother ("I couldn’t find an actress who could do a convincing Georgian accent," he says) — live across the street from their prized son, and ship him on many interviews of other young Georgian woman of good families. (Ashkenazi studied for five months with the director to learn the language.) But Zaza doesn’t take their concerns seriously, because he is in love with Judith, a divorced mother who is more typically "Tel Avivian."

Zaza’s entire extended family gets involved and forces Zaza to make a choice, one they themselves once had to make, and their fathers before them. But how he chooses isn’t exactly the point; for a foreign audience (and probably most audiences seeing this French-Israeli co-production will be outsiders) it’s the otherworldly values inherent in the relationships in the movie: family loyalty, respect, tradition, community.

Kosashvili, 35, views the world and his film philosophically. "I don’t believe that Zaza even has a choice," he told The Journal in Hebrew from his home in Israel. A Georgian immigrant himself who came to Israel at age 6, Kosashvili says the characters are a composite of his community, though the story is something he heard from a friend. "On the whole, I don’t believe in choice. The freedom to choose is nonexistent in this world," he said. Kosashvili’s worldview is definitely not an American one of manifest destiny.

"Zaza is not seeking the moment when he is supposed to decide. He is searching for the point to which he is suppose to arrive," the director said, noting that his character is not a coward, but one who acts within his own constraints.

But what about love conquering all?

"Zaza is investigating the nature of his great love," Kosashvili explains. "He discovers that his great love is for his parents."

Community Briefs


Even for an international film producer and inveterate traveler, Arthur Cohn has covered a lot of territory recently.

During the last week in October, the winner of a record five Oscars and producer of “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” and “Central Station” was feted in Shanghai at his very own “Arthur Cohn Day” by the Chinese government and film industry.

He used the occasion of a retrospective of his works at the Shanghai International Film Festival to premiere his latest documentary, “Children of the Night.”

Conceived as a cinematic memorial to the 1.3 million Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust — and their rescue from the anonymity of statistics — the film resurrects the faces of its subjects, sometimes at play, more often ragged and starving.

Although the film is only 18-minutes long, Cohn spent three years scouring archives across the world for material, of which only six yielded scraps of usable footage.

For the feature film to follow the documentary at the Shanghai festival, Cohn had originally selected his 1995 movie “Two Bits” with Al Pacino. However, government officials in Beijing insisted on “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” the 1971 classic about an aristocratic Italian-Jewish family that is ultimately destroyed by the fascists.

Cohn says that he took the Beijing fiat as a signal that “the theme of the Holocaust has been openly recognized by the Chinese government for the first time.”

His reception in Shanghai was remarkable, as press and public mobbed him like some rock star. More than 130 journalists covered his press conference, during which a giant banner above his head proclaimed “World Famous Producer Arthur Cohn” in Chinese and English.

For the screening itself, Chinese fans fought for tickets to the 2,000-seat theater. When the two films ended, the audience sat, as if stunned, for three-minutes, before quietly leaving.

For most Chinese, it was their initial introduction to a Holocaust theme. Said a young hotel manager, “Six million dead … that’s as if they murdered every bicyclist in this city.”

A reporter for the Shanghai Star perceived that “Cohn seems to cherish a special feeling for the Jews.” Indeed, the producer’s next release will be “One Day in September,” referring to the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

The production will be a “thriller with documentary footage,” says Cohn, with Michael Douglas in the central role of the commentator.

“One Day in September” will have its world premiere on Jan. 18 in Los Angeles, under the auspices of the American Film Institute.

A couple of days later Cohn arrived in Hollywood to report on his Shanghai triumph and participate in the first annual International Jewish Film Festival here.

He officiated at the American premiere of “Children of the Night” and presented an award to veteran actor Gregory Peck.

Cohn, who stands a rangy six-foot, three inches, is a third generation Swiss citizen and resident of Basel.

His father, Marcus, was a respected lawyer and a leader of the Swiss religious Zionist movement. He settled in Israel in 1949, helped to write many of the basic laws of the new state, and served as Israel’s assistant attorney general until his death in 1953.

The family’s Zionist roots go even deeper. The producer’s grandfather and namesake, Rabbi Arthur Cohn, was the chief rabbi of Basel. He was a friend of Theodor Herzl and one of the few leaders in the Orthodox rabbinate to support the founder of modern Zionism.

It was because of this support, says Cohn, that Herzl chose Basel, rather than one of Europe’s more glittering capitals, as the site of the first Zionist Congress in 1897.

Of the filmmaker’s three children, two sons have served in the Israeli army and studied at Israeli universities.

A Cinematic Look at Israel


The Israeli Film Festival, now in it’s 15th year, has, in many ways, come of age — in subject matter, directorial style and sensibility. Some offerings are powerful, lyrical, unflinching. Others are self-conscious, slight, even silly.

Film festivals, after all, by their very definition, are eclectic, uneven affairs, and this one is no exception. But, taken as a whole, it’s a welcome and provocative cultural import from a country that doesn’t lack for complexity and contradictions.

As in years past, the festival highlights are those films that dig deepest into the identity conflicts and cultural quirks that define the country itself. Whether it be a look at how the rigid social mores of a tightly knit Orthodox community affect one of it’s female members, or the dilemma faced by a middle-aged Palestinian man who must decide whether to sell his last family plot of land in order to make way for Israeli developers, the movies that hold our attention most closely are those which allow us into specific, evocative places we may otherwise not be able to go. Once we’re there, we often recognize parts of ourselves in the bargain.

By contrast, the formulaic thrillers and generic romantic comedies that are included here seem derivative and, ultimately, forgettable. We’ve seen this stuff at our local multiplex before, and with far better production values.

Along with the features, there are documentaries presented here that plunge directly into the prickly stuff of contemporary Israeli society. An emerging Sephardic feminism, the tension between religiosity and secularism as played out inside one family, and the final public and private moments of Yitzhak Rabin are all topics given a serious look on the documentary slate.

Some feature highlights from this year’s festival:

* “Mr. Baum” (80 minutes) The third film in a trilogy directed by Assi Dayan, a well-known actor in Israel and the son of the late Moshe Dayan. Through its title character, Mr. Baum poses the age old-question: If you had only a brief time left to live, what would you do? In this case, Mr. Baum has but a mere 92 minutes, which provoke his banal journey through this uneven but macabre comedy. Winner of the 1997 Israeli Academy Award for Best Picture.

Philosophers and Fools


Above, Suheil Hadad (left) and Muhamed Bakri (right) in “TheMilky Way”; Below, Arik Sharon in Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda.

Features

‘The Milky Way’

This earthy, lyrical film by writer-director Ali Nassar is easilyone of the festival’s brightest highlights. Fresh, impassionedperformances and a solid script are enhanced by painterly, almostfable-like images. For the lilting, lovely score, Nahum Haiman’soriginal music is interwoven with traditional Arabic melodies. “TheMilky Way” reinforces some of the best reasons to go to “foreign”films. We’re drawn into an unfamiliar and fascinating world where weend up recognizing large parts of ourselves.

The year is 1964. The setting is an Arab village in the Galileeduring the last year of military rule. There, on rocky, sunlithillsides dotted with goats, and in modest, candlelit rooms, work,love and social ritual coexist with deep unhealed wounds — a legacyfrom the war in 1948, when many of the villagers fled or were killedin the fields where they stood.

Those left behind are a diverse bunch: There’s the opportunisticvillage mukhtar and his brutish, hotheaded son. The film’staciturn hero is a metalsmith named Mahmoud (Muhammed Bakri –chiseled and compelling as always), who shares a tender friendshipwith Mabruq, the town’s tragicomic fool. As the childlike Mabruq,actor Suheil Haddad is incapable of duplicity, and he wears theentire village’s emotional landscape on his rubbery, expressive face.

The central narrative is a neatly developed story about whatensues after the area’s Israeli military command discovers one of thevillagers has been issuing forged work permits. But linear plotsummaries don’t do justice to what filmmaker Nassar has achievedhere. “The Milky Way” is a richly knowing portrait of a worldbrimming with bawdy humor, petty cruelty, derailed dreams and smallsensual pleasures.

The rangy and reserved Mahmoud pokes his head flirtatiouslythrough the classroom window of the village schoolteacher, chidingher for the politically utopian songs she passes along to her youngstudents. Mabruq and a gaggle of boys play raucous games that reflectthe everyday reality of the adults — including the staging of akangaroo trial in which Mabruq, wearing a tattered, makeshiftmilitary uniform and holding one boy by the scruff of the neck, askshis court with mock outrage, “How did this dirty Arab threaten statesecurity?” “He pissed without a permit!” a boy shouts back amid awave of wild giggles.

Several times in the film, Mabruq shares tenderly romantic lookswith the orphaned Jamila, another badly damaged innocent herecognizes as a kindred spirit. The two are emblematic of life inthis village, where brutal realism and impossible poetry are intimateneighbors.

(Screens at the Music Hall on Nov. 9, 13, 15, 16 and 19, and atthe Writers Guild on Nov. 6.)

Documentaries

‘How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon’

Is there a festival award for best title? The ostensible subjectof this video documentary is that (in)famous lightning rod, armygeneral-turned-pol Ariel Sharon. Director-editor-producer Avi Mograbidoggedly follows the rotund ex-general down the Likud campaign trailduring that volatile period between Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination andBinyamin Netanyahu’s election victory.

But as the playful title intimates, the movie is less about Sharonhimself than the place he occupies in the lives of Mograbi and otherdisaffected leftists like him. Mograbi’s eventual “love” for hissubject is, of course, a tongue-in-cheek falsehood. “Arik Sharon,”the filmmaker tells us at the outset, “is the only politician whosedoings, so I felt, had a direct effect over my life. And it wasscary.” Mograbi (who served jail time rather than serve during theLebanon War) proceeds to elaborate on the nature of his lifelongobsession with Sharon and the emotional havoc it has caused him.

It’s a funny, faux confessional delivered gloweringly into thecamera. Mograbi’s lumpy, affable face and bushy eyebrows are apicture of comic intensity as he relates how his childhood heroworship of the daring combat veteran gradually mutated into a fearand loathing that peaked with the bloody episode that occurred at theLebanese refugee camps Sabra and Shatila under Sharon’s indirectwatch. Mograbi’s documentary is film-as-therapy: He hopes to conquerhis complex obsession with the charismatic, seemingly likable manbehind the left-wing’s ongoing nightmare.

His initial failed attempts to gain access to Sharon are funny andtelling. They recall American provocateur Michael Moore’scat-and-mouse battle of wits with the head of General Motors in hisown satiric documentary, “Roger and Me.” Unfortunately, the parallelsend there. Although Mograbi’s resourcefulness and persistenceeventually gain him a limited kind of access to his cagey, powerfulsubject, unlike the brasher Moore, he’s not as certain of what to doonce he gets it. This proves to be the film’s undoing. Sharon’sentourage embraces Mograbi as one of them, and we see that theirdevotion to their leader is simultaneously discomfiting and touching.As for the fox-like Sharon (who repeatedly tells the filmmaker toshut down the cameras when he wants to eat), he tolerates Mograbiwith a wary affability when he’s not handily dismissing him as aminor logistical annoyance.

Mograbi may not love Sharon after all, but the bigger, unintendedirony is that he hasn’t overcome his paralyzing fear of him either.

(Screens at the Music Hall on Nov. 8, 13, 15 and 18.)

‘Jenny & Jenny’

Seventeen-year-old cousins Jenny Suissa and Jenny Guetta are bestfriends. They’re also cousins — third-generation North African Jewsgrowing up in the crowded, working-class seaside town of Bat Yam.Both are resolutely bored with high school, charmed by theirprovincial grandmother, exhilarated about boys and mightily alienatedfrom their blunt fathers. With empathy and insight, filmmaker MichalAviad tracks the two as they drift through their lives during thatseminal summer between girlhood and womanhood. The end result is adecidedly unslick video documentary that captures the way growing upfemale is done in this time and place.

This sort of material could easily end up a predictable fugueabout teen angst, sort of a low-budget version of MTV’s “Real World.”But Aviad avoids superficiality. Simple and complex truths emerge ontheir own, recalling the spirit of “Hoop Dreams” and — with itscinéma vérité scenes of domestic conflict– the raw candor of “An American Family.”

Ultimately, this is a very Israeli story. There’s poignancy inwatching these girls negotiate a blue-collar Middle Eastern worldrife with contradictions. Their cultural milieu is steeped inSephardic folkways and saturated with pop Western images. Theirparents invoke tradition but are confused about their ownincreasingly ineffectual familial roles. Religion as a spiritualresource is absent. Despite the Jennys’ penchant for sexy,midriff-baring tops, late-night club-hopping and enough finger andear jewelry to short-circuit a metal detector, their aspirations aresolidly retro: marry young, have kids, fade to black.

At times, their naiveté is painful to watch. Jenny Guetta’splan for the future pretty much consists of escaping from herdomineering father’s house into a husband’s. Her marriage celebrationwill have to be large and lavish, she says, because “if we have anunforgettable wedding, that will make sure we never stop loving eachother.”

It’s her smarter cousin, Jenny Suissa, who expresses a restlesshum of discontent. Her tentative, heartfelt search for the meaning oflife beyond Bat Yam’s figurative parameters provides this film withits best moments. To make that journey, she’ll need extraordinarycourage and imagination. During filming, her father abandoned thefamily for a new life in Las Vegas. Her older female relatives areloving, but of another era. Her swa
ggering male classmates (“My idealspouse? A virgin, a good girl who knows her place,” says one) areunlikely sources of salvation. This Jenny is poised uncertainly onthe brink of self-discovery. How it will all turn out for her is aquestion we’ve come to care about by film’s end.

(Screens at the Music Hall on Nov. 8, 12, 15 and 18.)

Family Business


Seated, the late Max Laemmle, founder of the theater chain, with son Robert, left, and grandson Greg.

Back in the heyday of the self-made Jewish movie moguls, the studios were, to a certain degree, family businesses. For Louis B. Mayer, Jack and Harry Warner, and others, nepotism was standard operating procedure, a way to protectively surround themselves with their own kind and to lend a hand to relatives and friends who otherwise may have had a rockier time of it, particularly during the Depression.

Nepotism reached unprecedented heights at Universal Pictures, which was founded in 1915 by Carl Laemmle, an affable and unpretentious German-Jewish immigrant. According to author Neal Gabler’s “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” Laemmle at one time had more than 70 friends and relatives on the studio payroll. It was a source of amusement within the industry, prompting Jack Warner to quip that Laemmle “was making the world safe for nephews.”

In retrospect, contemporary Los Angeles filmgoers have “Uncle Carl” and his unabashed nepotism to thank for the eventual creation of a lively, eclectic chain of movie theaters.

Two years after the family’s ties to the studio were severed during a 1936 corporate reorganization, Max Laemmle, a nephew who had been an able Universal executive under the elderly Laemmle, co-founded the Laemmle Theatre chain with his brother, Kurt. Today, almost 60 years later, Max’s son, Robert, and grandson, Greg, run the family business as president and vice president, respectively.

Laemmle movie houses — there are eight locations in all — dot the Los Angeles landscape, from Pasadena to the grand Royal in West Los Angeles. On any given weekend, the chain screens a smart and interesting mix of mainstream hits, independent art films, festivals and retrospectives. Foreign-film showcases, revival screenings and campier themes, such as a recent series centered around noir-ish femme fatales, are Laemmle mainstays.

Last week’s movie listings are a case in point. Along with commercial flicks such as “Volcano,” “Father’s Day,” “Breakdown” and Bruce Willis’ new sci-fi epic, “The Fifth Element,” Laemmles also screened “Gray’s Anatomy,” “Das Boot,” “Ridicule,” “Pink Flamingos” and “I Was a Jewish Sex Worker.” As a result, the chain attracts a diverse audience — from the popcorn-munching masses to the culture vultures and film-school wonks who patronize such nonprofit venues as UCLA’s Melnitz Theater, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Bing Theater.

To a great degree, the bigger, slicker pictures at the chain’s multiple screen houses pay for the more marginal movies, including titles of Jewish interest such as “Carpati” and “Anne Frank Remembered.”

“In some respects, the special series that we do exist because of the multiplex phenomenon,” said Greg Laemmle, during a recent interview. “We couldn’t do this kind of programming without them.”

Greg Laemmle’s latest project is the Jewish Cinema Series, which begins on Friday, May 23, and runs through June 26. He also programs the company’s wintertime Cinema Judaica festival. Partly because of those efforts, the theater chain has become an important part of the local Jewish cultural landscape.

For Laemmle, a thirtysomething graduate of UC Berkeley and a onetime administrator at Brandeis-Bardin, it’s a role that he particularly enjoys.

“It was a lot of fun putting [the Jewish Cinema Series] together,” he said. “I remember being taken as a child to see ‘Hester Street’ and ‘Lies My Father Told Me.’ Movies aren’t the same as going to day school or to synagogue, but Jewish film is a fun, recognizable experience. You see your experiences documented up on the screen, and it puts them in a context.”

The series opens with “Like a Bride,” a Mexican production that chronicles the coming-of-age of two Jewish girls in 1960s Mexico City: One is from a traditional, marriage-minded family of Turkish-Jewish immigrants in the garment business. Her friend is the daughter of intellectual Eastern European Holocaust refugees.

“Saint Clara,” an offbeat Israeli-Czech production, follows with a one-week run, beginning on May 30. Opening on June 6 is the memorable klezmer documentary “A Tickle in the Heart,” the story of the “rediscovered” Epstein brothers. Interestingly, it was jointly produced by the German government and a Brooklyn yeshiva.

While all three films have made the rounds of the festival circuit — including previous stops in Los Angeles — they merit a second look.

A scene from “Mamele.”

Also getting some much-needed exposure are the 23 films from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s that constitute the “Yiddish Film Festival,” the final portion of the Laemmle series. These films first premièred as a major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1991, before traveling to the Soviet Union, Europe and other American cities. They were restored and presented at MOMA by Brandeis University’s National Center for Jewish Film, which is co-presenting their Los Angeles première on June 14.

Several Yiddish actors featured in the series are tentatively scheduled to attend local screenings. For older moviegoers, titles such as “Mamele,” “The Light Ahead,” “Without a Home” and “Yiddle With a Fiddle” may bring back a welcome rush of half-remembered sounds and images. For the rest of us, they represent a rare chance to see up on the screen an earthy, witty and vital world that mostly vanished with the Holocaust.

As for the current state of “Jewish film,” Greg Laemmle finds the field of American independent features to be a bit discouraging.

“Jewish cinema may be all over the place in terms of directorial style, language, etc., but what the films have in common is that they address the Jewish experience,” he said. “The next question, of course, is quality. Unfortunately, I see a lot of stuff that may address Jewish content but doesn’t deserve to be in the theater.”

Laemmle pointed to a dependence on schmaltzy clichés as one example. Superficial, juvenile treatment of subject matter is another.

“What I see mostly is angry and dealing in stereotypes — usually revolving around the bar mitzvah experience,” he said, with a laugh. “Documentaries, on the other hand, have been a rich field. In a sense, this is really a great age for cinema, in that anyone with a camera can make a film. I’ve seen such compelling, authentic stories about Jewish subjects…but, unfortunately, if it’s a documentary, the public still regards it as academic, educational — something that will be ‘good for them’ like eating vegetables.”

Laemmle, who is married and the father of young triplets, maintains that despite their iffy profitability, Jewish film festivals provide an important cultural contribution in an era of rapid assimilation.

“So far, I’ve gotten very positive feedback,” he said, “but we’ve only put this festival on for two years now, and these things grow very slowly…. We do this without any financial support from the Jewish community. We don’t go out and solicit grants and donations or anything like that. We’re prepared to do it and perhaps lose a little money. But audience attendance and support will justify this program. If people think this is worthwhile, they have to get up off their butts and go buy tickets.”

Uncle Carl couldn’t have said it better.

The Jewish Cinema Series runs from May 23 to June 26 at Laemmle’s Music Hall Theatre, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Some movies from the Yiddish Film Festival will also screen at the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino. For a festival schedule or other information, call (310) 274-6869.


Three Films to See


“Like a Bride” (“Novia Que Te Vea”)

Filmmaker Guita Schyfter presents us with a rich, sharply rendered portrait of Mexico City’s Jewish enclave during the 1960s with this quiet, coming-of-age movie, based on a novel by Rosa Nissan. Through her two female protagonists — Oshinica Mataroso (Claudette Maille) and Rifke Groman (Maya Mishalska) — Schyfter explores the tensions between a Jewish minority and a Catholic majority, tradition and modernity, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, and men and women.

Oshinica, the dark-eyed daughter of Turkish-Jewish immigrants, dreams of studying to become a painter, a notion that her wedding-minded family finds ridiculous. She is groomed for marriage from such an early age that she recalls cavorting in the gowns from her trousseau as a young girl. Her best friend, Rifke, a firebrand and the daughter of intellectual Holocaust refugees, finds her own Zionist identity rocked by a love affair with a handsome, non-Jewish political rebel, the son of a right-wing politician.

The struggles of both friends to define their place in the shifting sands of the 1960s defines the narrative of this freshly told wry tale, but it’s the larger emotional crosscurrents and visual details of Jewish Mexico City that Schyfter nails with affectionate relish. Oshinica’s father conducts his Luganilla market shmatte business with appropriate theatrics. The local Jewish youth group is flush with Spanish-accented kibbutz idealism. The older women set the tone at home during their sewing circles and canasta games.

The direction is sometimes plodding, and Maille, best known here for her role in “Like Water for Chocolate,” delivers a rather stolid performance, but “Like A Bride” is ultimately a treat — restrained, funny, moody and brimming with la vida.

English subtitles. Opens on May 23.

“Saint Clara”

A quirky blend of Israeli attitude and Czech surrealism, “Saint Clara” is set in the Golda Meir junior high school of a remote Israeli industrial town. The eponymous Clara, a Russian immigrant and a wide-eyed teen psychic, falls in with a group of scruffy, punkish classmates who suddenly begin acing their math tests with the aid of her clairvoyant powers.

The movie, directed by Ari Folman and Ori Sivan and based on a novel by Czech dissident Pavel Kohout, veers between amateurish stabs at realism and delightful forays into dark absurdity reminiscent of “Montenegro” or the films of Jim Jarmusch. Despite uneven performances and the self-conscious hipness, there are some things to like about “Saint Clara.” Well-known stage actor Yigal Naor’s portrayal of Headmaster Tissona, a pompous and passionate Francophile with lonely delusions of Edith Piaf, is a central highlight. His character deserves a movie of his own. Israel Damidov is also fine as Elvis, Clara’s tragicomic Russian uncle. And for moviegoers who still entertain images of Israeli youths as the straight-arrow, ballad-singing kibbutzniks of old travel posters, this film should give them a bit of a surprise.

English subtitles. Opens on May 30.

“A Tickle in the Heart”

The engaging title refers to the emotions evoked by Yiddish music, and, happily, it’s also an apt description for the overall effect wrought by this beautifully photographed documentary. It tells the story of Max (on clarinet), Willie (on trumpet) and Julius (on drums) Epstein, three brothers who began playing klezmer music 60 years ago, only to watch it die out from the vantage point of their retirement community in Florida. To their astonishment and delight, the music’s resurgent popularity among a new generation leads them back out on the road, playing to affectionate crowds in Germany, along with gigs in Poland, Brooklyn and Florida.

Along the way, director Stefan Schweitert captures poignant, revealing and funny visual details. With the buoyant, elderly Epstein brothers as his subject, Schweitert has created a love letter to klezmer music and its bittersweet history that is infused with sensitivity and good humor.

Opens on June 6. — Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor