Ann Hornaday on the Capital Irish Film Festival and the Washington Jewish Film Festival
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 10:40 PM
Washington audiences can chalk it up to happy accident that two well-curated film festivals open Thursday in the District: the Washington Jewish Film Festival, a respected fixture on the local film scene that is now in its 21st year, and the newcomer Capital Irish Film Festival, presented by the theater group Solas Nua. For the second consecutive year, they share an opening night - and the result is a fascinating snapshot of communities in which stories play an especially crucial role in forging identity and culture.
"My Brothers," which opens the Irish festival, epitomizes the longing, melancholy and mordant humor of that country's narrative tradition. In the bargain, filmmaker Paul Fraser introduces promising new actors in the role of three siblings who embark on an ill-advised road trip to avoid the impending death of their father.
The teenaged Noel (Timmy Creed) takes a bread van on the lam with his little brothers Paudie (Paul Courtney) and the "Star Wars"-obsessed Scwally (T.J. Griffin) in tow. The ensuing journey is filled with squabbles and mishaps and hilarity (the latter mostly at the hands of Courtney, who delivers a startlingly assured performance). There's at least one troubling encounter as well, and Fraser executes the tonal shift with admirable aplomb, just as he holds back the bathos when the brothers engage in the expected bonding.
This is that rare coming-of-age film that evinces sensitivity and emotion without cheap shots or excess.
With its warmth and intimate, novelistic tone, "My Brothers" strikes something of a departure from a program that in many ways reflects Ireland's most recent economic troubles. "Pyjama Girls" (screening Dec. 11), a striking documentary by Maya Derrington, paints a cheerless picture of contemporary urban life in Dublin, following two teenaged girls living "in the flats" (housing projects) with poverty, ruptured families and dead-end dreams.
Like their friends, protagonists Lauren Dempsey and Tara Salinger work hard at crafting personae of hard-bitten toughness; they also dress in pajamas during the day, a sartorial trend that denotes laziness and exhibitionism to some, but clearly allows a degree of nurturing that's missing from their lives.
For Lauren and Tara, who admit that they have gone "pure wild," the "pyjama generation" is about rebellion; as one of them says, "If society doesn't give a toss about us, why should we give a toss about society?"
Aisling O'Sullivan's character in "Snap" (Dec. 11) might be a grown-up, slightly shaped-up version of Tara or Lauren, for all her sharp edges and bitter tirades. O'Sullivan plays Sandra, the troubled mother of a troubled son, in Carmel Winters's crime thriller-slash-domestic drama. Structured as a documentary, this stark tale exposes the cycle of abuse at its most insidious and unsettling.
The joys of "Snap" are purposefully meager; the most cheering take-away is the discovery of O'Sullivan, an actress willing to forgo viewers' sympathy in her fierce portrayal of creeping pathology.
A similarly assured performance drives the studied, finally hysterically pitched urban melodrama "Savage" (Saturday). The film stars Darren Healy as a photographer who begins to come apart after he's brutally attacked. Brendan Muldowney's psychological melodrama depends too heavily on "Taxi Driver" for its mood and troubled loner antihero, but Healy is a young star to watch (think what would happen if Jake Gyllenhaal and Colin Farrell magically reproduced and you get the idea).
"La Rafle" ("The Roundup"), which opens the Washington Jewish Film Festival, will open in theaters next year and wasn't available for screening. The films that follow it over the next nine days demonstrate a variety of Jewish experience that, in at least one fascinating case, isn't even nominally Jewish.
In the documentary "2 or 3 Things I Know About Him" (Tuesday), filmmaker Malte Ludin explores his father's role in the Holocaust as the Third Reich's ambassador to Slovakia, where the elder Ludin signed orders for thousands of Jews to be deported. In other words, as Ludin relates in his voice-over, "a typically German story."
Indeed, "2 or 3 Things I Know About Him" possesses the power of firsthand witnesses, even when some of them are unwilling to ascribe blame - like Ludin's older sister, who refuses to see their idyllic early life as predicated on the suffering and dispossession of others. As Ludin interviews his siblings about their conflicting views of their childhood, he also finds the now-grown Jewish children whose lives were irrevocably changed by his father's complicity.
The film grapples with the same issues of guilt, memory and history tackled in "The Reader" and the upcoming "Sarah's Key," with the added intimacy and authority the finest film essays possess. (Ludin's film also features rare footage of Nazi-era Germany shot on color film, which still delivers the shock of the new.)
Guilt, memory and history also drive "The Infidel" (Dec. 11), albeit with lightly satiric effect. In this arch British satire, comedian Omid Djalili plays London mini-cab company owner Mahmud Nasir, a moderate Muslim who learns that his son wants to marry into the family of a famous fundamentalist imam - just as he discovers he was born Jewish and adopted by his Muslim family. Filmmaker Josh Appignanesi sometimes forces the farce, but Djalili's scenes with a Jewish cabbie played by Richard Schiff are priceless; the always terrific Archie Panjabi (lately of "The Good Wife") plays Mahmud's wise and sensuous wife.
Not surprisingly, many of the features at this year's Jewish Film Festival revolve around issues of identity and community and the tension between them. Another nonfiction essay, "Next Year in . . . Argentina" (Dec. 12), features filmmakers Jorge Gurvich and Shlomo Slutzky on a return visit to their native Argentina, which they left for Israel in the 1970s.
As the Latin American economy nose-dives, they wonder why more of their friends and relatives don't join them; gradually, though, they begin to question their own conception of home as they interrogate notions of Zionism, assimilation, anti-Semitism and colonial reach.
If anyone explored identity and community with vigor and joy, it was the short story author Grace Paley, who died in 2007. In the documentary "Grace Paley: Collected Shorts" (Sunday), Lilly Rivlin creates a lively, affectionate tribute to Paley as a writer, mother, leftist, daughter of the Bronx, feminist, teacher, wife, pacifist, troublemaker - who was, incidentally, Jewish.
Paley helped forge new possibilities for women when she published the collection "The Little Disturbances of Man" in 1959. With lines like "There's a whole college of feeling between my corset and me," she made her own immigrant Bronx vernacular worthy of literary respect, and later had the guts to call out Norman Mailer when he organized a scandalously sexist PEN conference.
"Grace Paley: Collected Shorts" has already begun to win prizes on the festival circuit. It includes interviews with Alice Walker, Allan Gurganus and, most rewarding, the indomitable Paley herself, who emerges here not just as a consummate storyteller, but an eminently worthy subject herself.
Capital Irish Film Festival Opens Thursday with "My Brothers" at 8 p.m. at Landmark's E Street Cinema; continues through Dec. 11 at E Street and the Goethe-Institut. All screenings are $10. For more information, call 202-315-1317 or visit www.irishfilmdc.org.
21st Washington Jewish Film Festival Opens Thursday with "La Rafle" at 7:45 p.m. at the Avalon; closes Dec. 12 with the music documentary "The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground." Opening and closing night tickets are $25; evening and weekend screenings are $10. For more information, call 202-777-3231 or visit www.wjff.org.