Like every other year for the past, oh, 5776, there have been weird doings in the Middle East. Naturally, this is reflected in the movies of the 2015 Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, happening November 5 to 12 at the newly renovated Fifth Avenue Cinemas.
The fiction features are a mixed bag, ranging from the delightfully cranky Peter the 3rd to the syrupy Dough, with Romania’s Closer To The Moon (recalling 1968’s tougher Reconstruction) in between.
Some unexpected pleasures come not from drama but from the sitcom realm, Internet division. This year’s fest begins with a big-screen broadcast of excerpts from the web series YidLife Crisis, presented by creators and stars Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion. They’ll also be on stage for a live performance of their shtick, which involves the uneasy but very funny friendship between secular and observant pals.
The best big-screen rewards are found, perhaps as always, in the documentary section, with the following titles singled out for special attention. The rest can be found at vjff.org. What, they want a medal or something?
Raise the Roof
(US/Poland) While it’s no great shakes as filmmaking, this low-key effort follows the loving, international reconstruction of a Polish synagogue typical of the rural marvels eradicated by Nazis early in the Second World War. The result, with a yurt-like exterior and phenomenal ceiling art, conjures the lost, almost animistic world of mystic orientalism that geniuses like Marc Chagall and Ben Shahn came from. Also see Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem for another look at shtetl life. November 8 (3:30 p.m.)
East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem
(Israel) The title could fit dozens of docs, but this one gets to the soul of things as Israeli singer-guitarist David Broza defies boundaries by getting Jewish and Arab teenagers together to make meaningful, sometimes Bob Marley-inflected music. Key song: “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”. November 7 (9 p.m.)
Rock in The Red Zone
(Israel) California filmmaker Laura Bialis, who previously made the Soviet-era-centred doc Refusenik, here travels to the tiny border town of Sderot, established when the newborn and very cash-strapped state of Israel populated its then-sparse borderlands with Sephardic refugees. These frontier folks remained on the fringes of national life and, in recent years, have been subjected to relentless rocket attacks from the Gaza side. But somehow they’ve managed to produced scores of innovative, genre-fusing musicians, including young Ethiopian singer Hagit Yaso and established rocker Avi Vaknin, who gets especially close to the director. Caught in several kinds of crossfire, these tough artists keep their senses, and hearts, open. November 10 (9 p.m.)
The Singing Abortionist
(Canada) The subject of this hour-long doc is, of course, Henry Morgentaler—“A difficult hero,” according to his key biographer and “basically a rebel at heart” in his own words. Surviving Auschwitz as a teenager, he never lost his wit, his accent, or his anger at injustice and arbitrary authority. “I was able to channel that rage into something socially constructive,” he says, during one of many retrospective clips that show him battling for women’s rights in Canada and also musing on uneasy dealings with his own family. Don’t miss it. November 6 (1:30 p.m.)
Partner With the Enemy
(Israel) The future is writ both large and small in this 60-minute look at two women who went against political, religious, and gender norms to become friends and start their own customs-clearance business between Israel and Palestine. Naturally, they are challenged by the system, by their own families (okay, just husbands), and shocking events in Gaza. “In the Middle East, you’re always on shaky ground,” one says before it’s over. Does it matter which one? November 12 (1:30 p.m.)