Jewish Film Festival known for its lively controversy

Part social gathering, part cultural happening, and always politically controversial, the annual Jewish Film Festival, opening its eighth edition here tomorrow, is expected to bring together a diverse crowd to see high-quality films with Jewish themes. ``Perhaps there's an impression that the Jewish community speaks with one voice,'' says festival co-director Deborah Kaufman. ``We believe that's not true. There's all kinds of opinions about the Middle East, ... Jewish religion, [and] the involvement of women in Judaism.''

This year's festival features 24 films from 12 countries. More than 12,000 are expected to attend the showings at San Francisco's Castro Theater (through Aug. 4) and University of California Theater in Berkeley (Aug. 6-11).

The most interesting and most politically controversial films portray the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

``Talking to the Enemy,'' a stark and moving documentary by British-Jewish director Mira Hammermesh, crackles with sharp dialogue and juxtaposed photographic images as pro-PLO Palestinian journalist Muna Hamzeh and a dovish Zionist magazine editor, Chaim Shur, express their opposing views.

``Talking to the Enemy'' offers no political solution, only a plea to recognize one another's humanity. Nevertheless, the film will be controversial among some supporters of Israel because of its sympathetic portrayal of Palestinian nationalism and its concentration only on Israeli doves.

``Unsettled Land,'' a new dramatic feature film from Israel, also portrays a controversial period in Middle East history.

Israeli director Uri Barbash and American stars Kelly McGillis and John Shea attempt to re-create the harsh times of an egalitarian Zionist commune in 1919 Palestine. The film portrays the conflicts these early European immigrants had with Palestinians, with indigenous Sephardic Jews, and among themselves.

The festival will also present a number of newly or re-released Soviet films with Jewish themes. ``Professor Mamlock,'' made in 1937, portrays an apolitical Jewish surgeon who is hounded by the Nazis in 1933 Berlin. His son leads the resistance, joining German workers who oppose the fascists.

In 1938, Chicago authorities banned ``Professor Mamlock'' as ``purely Jewish and Communist propaganda against Germany.'' The well-directed and finely acted film could receive a more favorable reaction today.

Famous Jewish Soviet filmmaker Mikhael Romm directed ``Dream,'' another drama that holds up well after 45 years. A Jewish mother and her son run the House of Dreams boardinghouse in the Ukraine when it was part of Poland in the 1930s. Each boarder has his dream shattered as the depression-ridden economy crumbles.

The film festival will feature a panel discussion with Soviet filmmaker Alexander Askoldov (who directed the recently released ``Commissar''), as well as other actors and producers.

The panel discussions on Soviet anti-Semitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will likely include passionate arguments on all sides. But to judge from the festival's history, there will be no impasse. Everyone will be more than eager to come back next year and plunge back into controversy.

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