Nashville Jewish Film Festival
Nov. 3-5 at the Belcourt
Why start a film festival now? Or, more to the point, do movies still matter? It’s a question that must be asked by everyone who believes in the power of filmto effect change, to build bridges between cultures instead of walls. Without being stated explicitly, the questionand perhaps the answersurfaces in a documentary called Peace of Mind.
>O?Peace of Mind was shot by seven teenage filmmakers in conjunction with Seeds of Peace, an organization that brings together Israeli and Palestinian teens at a Maine summer camp. Not surprisingly, the kids form tentative friendships, even bonds as campers. The difficulty comes when they return with cameras to their respective communities. They quickly learn how tough it is to maintain their tenuous cross-cultural connections when surrounded by pressure, anger and mistrust. Yet such a connection is possible. The film itself is proof.
“We thought it was an important film to show, especially now,” Laurie Eskind says. Along with co-chair Kathy Gutow, Eskind programmed the city’s inaugural Nashville Jewish Film Festival, starting Saturday at the Belcourt. Peace of Mind joins a three-day slate of features, cartoons, comedies and documentaries devoted to the many facets of the Jewish experience.
The festival has been planned since last year, as part of the 150th anniversary celebration of The Temple, Congregation Ohabai Shalom. More than 60 Jewish film festivals take place annually in the U.S. and Canada, offering filmmakers what amounts to an alternate distribution network. Gutow and Eskind did their homework by attending the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which at age 21 is the country’s oldest and best-known film fest of its kind.
They came away with scores of contacts, a thick book of the SFJFF’s past selections and some practical organizing tips. “They suggested we keep the selection committee small and manageable. You’re looking at it,” Gutow says with a laugh, as she sorts through press releases with Eskind at the Green Hills Starbucks. On a budget of $18,000, the two were able to book six screenings and invite guest actors and filmmakers to attend.
Saturday’s opening-night selection is The 3 Little Wolfs, an indie comedy set during a disastrous Passover seder at the Wolf family’s Long Island home. Its crude home-movie look makes it one of the festival’s weaker entries; but it has some bright lines, and some of the details of family life (like the obsessively immaculate housekeeping) smack of firsthand observation. Star Tovah Feldshuh, a familiar face to Law and Order fans, and director Joey Craine will attend.
Sunday’s highlight is The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Aviva Kempner’s engrossing tribute to the Major League slugger who defied widespread anti-Semitism to become an enduring sports hero. It caps a day of programming that starts with Peace of Mind and the handsomely mounted drama All My Loved Ones, a fictionalized account of one family’s experiences with the Kindertransport that passed Jewish children to safety in England during World War II. Jeroen Krabbe’s Left Luggage, with Rachel Weisz and Isabella Rossellini, is the matinee selection.
The festival closes Monday night with A Letter Without Words, in which director Lisa Lewenz pieces together extraordinary home movies shot in the 1920s and ’30s by her German grandmother, Ella Lewenz, whose circle of acquaintances included Albert Einstein and actress Brigitte Helm. The rise of Nazism seeps like a stain into her footage, as swastikas and insignias begin to dot the cityscapes. Director Lewenz will be on hand to discuss the film, which is preceded by the animated short “Silence.”
For their first festival, Gutow and Eskind said they didn’t want to focus exclusively on the Holocaust, and they wanted to pick films that wouldn’t offend most viewers. If reaction is strong, perhaps future fests will take advantage of the riskier material available. The circuit has room for films as diverse as Trembling Before G-d, the acclaimed new documentary about gays and Judaism; Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah follow-up A Visitor From the Living; and even The Believer, Henry Bean’s Sundance prizewinner about a Talmud scholar turned neo-Nazi skinhead.
For now, though, the founders of the first Nashville Jewish Film Festival are keeping their expectations modest. When will they consider it a success? “If it brings in people who wouldn’t ordinarily go to something Jewish,” says Kathy Gutow. “If they want to come back,” says Laurie Eskind. Tickets are $7, with additional fees for receptions and dinners; contact 356-1322 for more information.
The graphic novel From Hellwritten by Alan Moore and illustrated by Eddie Campbellfeatures two key scenes that didn’t make it into the film version. In the first, Jack the Ripper has his coachman travel around London while the infamous serial killer explains the secret history of the city, connecting the architecture with Masonic rites and a centuries-long struggle between patriarchy and matriarchy. Later, while flaying a group of Whitechapel prostitutes who are blackmailing the royal family, Jack has visions of the industrialized wonders and mechanized manslaughter to come in the next century.
The movie From Hell was directed by brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, from a screenplay by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, and the reason it doesn’t contain the Ripper’s guided tour is because the filmmakers don’t reveal who Jack the Ripper is until late in the picture. Their focus is on police inspector Abberline (played by Johnny Depp), an actual historical figure whom the Hughes brothers and their screenwriters have merged with another historical figurea psychic named Robert Leesto create a dreamy shamanic superhero. They’ve also keyed on potential Ripper victim Mary Kelly (played by Heather Graham), toward whom Abberline feels both protective and amorous.
As an especially bloody mystery-romance with a dose of class and gender consciousness, From Hell has some entertainment value. The love story gets a little draggy, but Abberline’s investigation achieves a kind of gore-splattered delirium, and his insistence that his quarry must be an aristocrat leads him from London’s most squalid spots to its most palatial. The Hughes brothers have made a great-looking film, with involving lead performances and some visceral shocks.
But the why of the movie remains buried in the far superior source material. It’s not entirely fair to compare a movie with the book from which it’s adapted, but so much of the cinematic From Hellglimpses of daily life in Victorian England, a tone of clinical curiositycomes from Moore and Campbell. The attempt to transmute these elements into a thriller requires so much awkward narrative maneuvering that one wishes the filmmakers had been more faithful to the book, even if that meant writing off the conventional action-horror audience.
Toward the climax of the film, after Abberline reveals the killer, the Hugheses do allow a little room for Jack the Ripper to espouse his theories of evil. They also have Jack utter, “Men will say I gave birth to the 20th century,” a provocative line that means almost nothing in this framework. But then, in their previous films Menace II Society, Dead Presidents and American Pimp, the Hughes brothers have shown their ability to rouse, and their disinclination to follow challenging trains of thought to their logical conclusions, lest they get in the way of wicked kicks. A tour of London arcana such as appears in the book From Hell would not be the Hughes’ style; it’s too dry and too philosophically assured.
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