One of the key roles of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival is to provide a window into Israeli life and culture, so it’s no surprise that more than a third of the 77 films this year are from Israel or deal with the nation.
But what if you have a job, a family or other responsibilities that prevent you from devoting yourself to the cinema for three weeks in the middle of winter? How do you chart a logical course through your Israeli film options?
Here are a few suggested approaches:
Go for laughs. Amid relentless terrorist attacks, the news out of Israel these days can be depressing, so why not grab every chance to smile? Start with the one outright farce in the festival, “Atomic Falafel,” because once you can laugh about nuclear armageddon between Israel and Iran, you can find humor anywhere. That includes phony Holocaust survivors and murder mysteries, so “Fire Birds” is the perfect next step. “The Kind Words” — France, North Africa and three siblings searching for Dad — complete the feature side of the comedy cycle, but don’t forget the shorts. The first shorts program offers two comic gems: “Kapunka,” in which a farmer’s bid to skirt the shmita laws leads to the Middle East’s largest Buddhist temple popping up on his land overnight; and “The Little Dictator,” in which a browbeaten professor of totalitarianism makes his grandmother-in-law, a Holocaust survivor, happy with a surprising bit of facial hair.
Stick with the shorts. Each of the four shorts programs features six films and runs less than an hour and a half, so they’re a good way to get a nice slice of Israeli cinematic life. In addition to “Kapunka” and “The Little Dictator,” Shorts Program 2 offers “Zone A,” about a boy facing the dual crises of his parents’ marital breakup and Scuds flying from Iraq in 1991; “Etoile,” which presents Israel as a little Moroccan Jewish girl’s refuge from anti-Semitism in the early 1960s; and “A Tale of Slander,” which is Israeli-made but takes place in the lost world of East European shtetls and has a funny, salty finale. Program 3 brings “Within Thy Walls,” a weird, wild, cheerful glimpse at the rush to prepare for Shabbat in Jerusalem, and “Si Minor,” a more serious look at the potential for music to cross the Israeli-Palestinian divide in Nablus. Program 4’s contributions are “Dear G-d,” in which a guard at the Western Wall attempts to fulfill a woman’s requests to a higher power, and “Holy City,” which has a wicked take on Jerusalem’s response to a rabbi’s vigilante efforts to enforce modesty standards.
Listen to the music. “Si Minor,” the longest part of Shorts Program 3, shows an Israeli soldier drawn to Palestinian musicians, and David Broza’s “East Jerusalem West Jerusalem” plays a similarly hopeful note about the power of music to open eyes to the potential for peace. The short “Dear G-d” includes the woman’s sad realization that no one has ever dedicated a song to her and the guard’s epic effort to correct that oversight. “Atomic Falafel” solves that pesky threat of nuclear war in part through the power of Farsi hip-hop, performed by a German actress playing an Iranian teen. “Rock in the Red Zone” reveals the powerful music scene that has developed under rocket fire in the town of Sderot near the Gaza border.
Explore Orthodoxy in unorthodox ways. Israeli society has struggled in recent years with how to integrate the Haredim fully into the responsibilities of citizenship, from military or national service to employment. Several films explore the uncertainty about the ultra-Orthodox, including “Mountain,” in which a wife isolated with her children in a house alongside a cemetery on the Mount of Olives dives into an unexpected nightlife; “Tikkun,” in which saving a life accelerates a cycle of self-doubt for a kosher butcher and his son, a yeshiva boy; and “Holy City.”
Go to the toilet. “Tikkun” is about Haredi life in Jerusalem; “Wedding Doll” addresses secular life in the Negev. They could be different worlds, but both of those worlds include time sitting on the porcelain throne. In “Tikkun,” the father who fears he thwarted G-d’s will by saving his son has dramatic, horrific hallucinations while on the toilet. In “Wedding Doll,” those solitary moments are crucial for the central factory, which produces rolls of toilet paper, and an important scene occurs when the factory owner’s son is stuck in a stall without a roll.
Observe the anniversary. Two films, one a documentary and the other an Oliver Stone-style, conspiracy-minded docudrama, address the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 20 years ago last November. It’s best to start with “Rabin in His Own Words” to see what all the fuss was about regarding the Israeli leader who signed the Oslo Accords, then move on to Amos Gitai’s “Rabin, the Last Day.”
Face the elephant in the room. The Israeli-Arab conflict isn’t a dominant theme in this year’s Israeli offerings, but it’s unavoidable. In addition to the Rabin films, you shouldn’t miss “Censored Voices,” which features interviews of kibbutzniks right after they fought in the Six-Day War, and “Sabena Hijacking: My Version,” which brings more political leaders into the discussion about a 1972 act of terrorism. “East Jerusalem West Jerusalem” and “Si Minor” provide musical glimpses across the Green Line, while “Rock in the Red Zone” offers the Israeli perspective of life under attack. “Our Boys” recalls the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens hitchhiking home, leading soon after to war in Gaza in 2014. “To Step Forward Myself” is one American’s story of making aliyah and serving and dying with the army.
Look nervously eastward. If Iran is Israel’s biggest threat, two films can feed the fear. One is “Atomic Falafel.” The other is “Three Hikers,” a documentary about American backpackers, one of whom was Jewish with Israeli ties, who strayed across the border into Iran in 2009 and wound up being held as spies for 26 months.
And now for something completely different. Three of the most interesting Israeli films don’t fit naturally with anything else, so why not weave them together? “Wedding Doll” is a warm look at a young woman with a mental disability who strives for love and independence amid the stark, beautiful backdrop of the Negev. The key to “JeruZalem” is the “z” and the belief that one of three doors to hell opens in the holy city. And after everything else, a nice nosh and “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” seem like a good way to close the exploration of Israeli film as well as the festival itself.