"Ballad of a Weeping Spring" is one of the films playing at the Winnipeg International Jewish Film Fest. (Eyal Fisher)
The 2013 edition of the Winnipeg International Jewish Film Festival starts this week with a roster of documentaries, contemporary comedies and period dramas from Israel, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, the UK and the US.
It's an eclectic lineup, and you don't have to be Jewish to go. The films may have Jewish inflections, but the themes are universal--history and memory, family and identity, music and the human spirit.
Here are a few highlights:
Hitler's Children (in German and Hebrew, with subtitles)
Friday, May 24th, 5:00 PM
Yes, there is always a Holocaust documentary in the Jewish Film Fest, but this one comes from a very unusual angle. Israeli filmmaker Chanoch Ze'evi interviews five descendants of high-ranking Nazis, men and women who bear the names Goering and Himmler and Hoess.
We see Rainer Hoess, grandson of Rudolf Hoess, the man who ran Auschwitz, looking at what seem to be idyllic family photos of his father and aunts and uncles as young children--except that the children are playing in a walled garden just outside the most infamous concentration camp in history.
We listen to Monika Goeth relate how she went to a theatre to watch Schindler's List, knowing that the sadistic commandant played by Ralph Fiennes is a portrait of her father. These men and women deal with the burden of their family histories in different ways. All of them believe it is necessary to confront the past and contend with it. Most of them believe that their pasts don't determine their futures.
Katrin Himmler, the great-niece of one of the chief planners of the Holocaust, is married to an Israeli Jew who is the descendent of concentration camp survivors. She points out that to believe there is some kind of inherited taint in her blood would be to subscribe to the "ridiculous ideology" of the Nazis themselves.
This unsettling film raises some questions that aren't answered, but with its difficult subject matter that's perhaps inevitable.
The Ballad of the Weeping Spring (in Hebrew with subtitles)
Saturday, May 25th, 8:00 PM
This wonderfully odd film is a highly stylized, absolutely deadpan homage to the spaghetti western, except that the cowboys carry musical instruments instead of guns.
Set in a mythical time and place, the story starts with an old musician (Uri Gavriel) brought out of retirement for one final gig. On a long, strange, intermittently musical road trip, he must face his tragic past and pick up a few session men along the way.
This film isn't for everyone. The atmosphere is tantalizingly weird, the dialogue often deliberately clichéd, and the pacing slow. But fans of Mizrahi music--which combines Middle Eastern and North African influences and shares many of the haunting, ancient strains heard in Roma and klezmer music--are in for a treat.
The World is Funny (in Hebrew with subtitles)
Saturday, June 1st, 8:00PM
You'll laugh. You'll cry. This quintessentially Israeli combination of absurdist comedy and bighearted sentimental drama was a huge box office hit in its native country last year, also earning a record-setting 15 Israeli Academy Award nominations.
Following a group of eccentric and interconnected characters in the northern city of Tiberias, the film moves from almost cartoony comedy to a deeper emotional climax. With fluid direction from Shemi Zarhin and strong work from the ensemble of Israeli actors, the film evokes a vivid sense of daily life in Israel and faces tragedy with a bracing does of comedy. (The title is taken from a real-life Israeli comedy trio, The Gashash, who liked to say, "The world is funny, so I laugh.")
Other films include a biopic about American songwriter Jerome Felder, better known as Doc Pomus, and an entire music documentary devoted to the song "Hava Nagila", the Jewish wedding and bar mitzvah staple that's been sung by everyone from Bob Dylan to Elvis.
Torn is a challenging documentary about a Polish Catholic priest who finds that he was born to Jewish parents and struggles to reconcile his two faiths, and Free Men is an historical thriller based on true but little known story of World War Two, in which French Muslims saved French Jews from the Nazis. (Free Men has played at film festivals in both Abu Dhabi and Haifa - that's not something you can say about many films, and it's worth celebrating.)
A couple of notes: Some shows are already sold out, so check for availability and reserve tickets ahead if you can. Also, most screenings are at 7:30 p.m., but showtimes on Friday and Saturday are different, to work around the Jewish Sabbath.
To paraphrase The Big Lebowski, another great Jewish film, the Jewish Film fest doesn't roll on Shabbos!
The Winnipeg International Jewish Film Festival runs May 21-June 1, 2013 at the Berney Theatre.