For the next six days the American Film Institute Theater will be presenting an assortment of features and shorts grouped under the title "Jewish Film Festival--Independent Filmmakers: Looking at Ourselves." Oy!
This awkward handle gets in the way of some interesting work. "Aspects of Jewish Life" or "Jewish Self-Images" might have expressed the theme more concisely, but the organizers probably felt obliged to emphasize the "independent" angle, lest the collection be confused with Hollywood movies or theatrical movie entertainment in general. After all, it would be virtually impossible to assemble any group of movies worth seeing that didn't qualify for a "Jewish Film Festival," given the indispensable contributions of Jewish performers, filmmakers and business executives to the entire medium.
Before approaching the specific selections it's also necessary to hurdle a cumbersome system of topical subheadings. There are 10 programs, organized under such stilted, inadequate and sometimes interchangeable topics as "Politics, Labor and Social Experiment," "Youth, Conflict and Consciousness," "Aging and the Immigrant Experience," "Jewish Identity: A Prelude to Change," "Maturity and Independence" and--the ultimate weapon--"Redefining Our Roles as Women." This apparatus leads one to suspect that the series was put together by people uniquely qualified to edit unreadable sociology textbooks or moderate interminable symposiums.
Nevertheless, the series does promise to transcend its self-consciousness and provide a useful showcase for a number of fascinating and compelling movies, most of them new to the Washington public. In fact, one of the most ambitious selections, "Routes of Exile," a feature-length documentary by Eugene Rosow and Howard Dratch surveying the history of Moroccan Jewry, may arrive fresh from the lab for its premiere showing tomorrow at 6 p.m., on a bill with "Sosua," a documentary short by Harriet Taub and Harry Kafka about the Jewish community founded in the Dominican Republic by refugees from Nazi Europe.
The subheading for this program actually comes close to summarizing the series: "The Diversity of Jewish Culture." The subject matter of a majority of the films is the Jewish immigrant experience and the consequences of assimilation in new homelands. As a rule, the new homeland was the United States, recalled through the recollections of elderly men and women like the pensioners now residing in Venice, Calif., in Lynne Littman's Oscar-winning short, "Number Our Days"; the members of a socialist summer colony in New York in Marlene Booth's short "Raananah: A World of Our Own"; or the former anarchists interviewed by Steven Fischler and Joel Sucher in their documentary feature, "Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists," a nostalgic tribute prompted by the termination of the Yiddish anarchist paper Freie Arbeiter Shtimme in 1977, after 80 years of publication.
In addition to the diverse American experience and the exotic impressions from far-flung outposts like Morocco and the Dominican Republic, the series includes poignant evocations of Jewish cultures that were destroyed--the teeming, vibrant Polish setting reconstructed in the remarkable documentary feature "Image Before My Eyes," which opens the series tonight, or the private, doomed German setting glimpsed in the short "Our Time in the Garden," which shares a bill with the recent Swiss drama "The Boat Is Full" tomorrow and Thursday. The most revealing and impressive selection may be the 1979 Israeli feature "The Wooden Gun," scheduled for a single showing on Monday at 8:30 p.m. Set in 1950, it's an unusually perceptive study of the potentially dangerous animosities harbored by adolescent boys--and of how they confuse these rivalries with the martial values needed by their country and extolled by their elders. At the same time, director Ilan Moshenson treats the social tensions and prejudices existing in Israel soon after independence with surprising and gratifying candor. There's no attempt to conceal the conflicts and contradictions within the emerging Jewish state in the interests of patriotism. Moshenson seems emotionally secure enough to recall the recent past without too many comforting, distorting illusions.