Though it affords the Jewish community an invaluable opportunity to codify its image before the general public, the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival has always been at least as useful as a forum for self-examination. The four full-length films that the event's co-sponsors, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Orlando and the Enzian Theater, have selected for the sixth annual festival pose reflexive (and reflective) questions as old as time itself: Who are we as a people? And what are we capable of both good and bad?
Those questions are framed in the most personal of ways in Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi (11:30 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 7), a coming-of-age tale that was nominated for 11 Israeli Academy Awards. Filmmaker Shami Zarhin personifies identity confusion in the character of Shlomi (Oshri Cohen), a misunderstood teenager whose intellectual and sexual growth are impeded by the constant bickering of his wildly dysfunctional relatives. Consistently surprising and with only a hint of American-style maudlinness tainting its be-all-you-can-be motif the movie is best appreciated as an intimate family portrait, chock-full of truthful details that are alternately poignant and hilarious. Note how writer/director Zarhin avoids stereotype in delineating the potentially problematic character of Shlomi's outspoken grandfather (Arie Ellias), a deceptively crusty household presence who humorously rails against the myriad experiences he's "had enough of" in his lifetime. Yet for all the rich character comedy, there's a strong antibigotry subtext to the film, with Shlomi's embittered mother using her sad romantic history as an excuse to preach distrust of all Moroccans. (Her husband was one, see, and what he did to her … well, you shouldn't know from it.) Zarhin's film never even nods toward anti-Semitism, instead using its headiest moments to skillfully lambaste the divisive attitudes that can pollute Jewry from within.
Internal conflict runs rampant in Nina's Tragedies (7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 8), a smart and sophisticated comedy-drama narrated by another conflicted teen (Aviv Elkabets). But here, the wide-eyed Nadav is mostly an observer to the awful tribulations suffered by his Aunt Nina (Ayelet July Zurer), a stunningly beautiful young woman who's not only a beloved relative, but the object of his emerging schoolboy desires. A challenging conflation of sexuality and mortality pervades the film, with the overwrought Nina first losing her husband in a terrorist incident and then experiencing erotic feelings for a military photographer (Alon Aboutboul) a too-soon attraction that's veritable sacrilege to the quietly jealous Nadav. Director Savi Gavbizon, working from his own script, eschews traditional politics to assemble a powerful argument that being at war with ourselves is a fight none of us can ever completely avoid. He also exhibits an enviable gift for black humor, as indulged in dialogue exchanges that ring slightly Tarantino-esque. ("A banana milkshake? Fuck you, you motherfucker.") The result won 11 Israeli Oscars and was the country's highest-grossing film of 2003.
The two documentaries picked for this festival, however, are its most overt examples of inward-directed wisdom. Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust (1:45 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 7) explodes the myth that Tinseltown has always loved a good Hitler flick. As we learn from a treasure trove of archival clips and present-day interviews, the movie industry's initial response to Nazism was to ignore, not pillory, it. That was the decision of Jewish moguls who would do anything to whitewash their backgrounds in the hopes of being accepted as "ordinary Americans." As World War II loomed, their resolve began to crumble, but the doc shows that the film medium's treatment of Third Reich atrocities remained skittish and inconsistent for decades to come. A climactic analysis of Schindler's List points up the irony that the best-received Holocaust film ever made is really the story of a crusading gentile, not a Jewish survivor or casualty of the camps. Oh, well. Anything for a happy ending.
The Holocaust fallout is 100 percent real in Hiding and Seeking (5 p.m. Monday, Nov. 8), a doc that confronts the influence of extremism on the current generation. Worried that his religious-student sons are being indoctrinated into blind hatred of the goyim, Polish-born Jew Menachem Daum takes the two young men on a pilgrimage to meet the farming family that hid their grandfather and great-uncles from Hitler's forces for two long years. Given the modern-day upsurge of religious fanaticism across the globe, Daum's odyssey has ramifications that extend beyond the boundaries of his own faith and culture. So it would be reassuring to report that his planned excursion translates into immediate group-hug epiphanies on the part of everyone involved. But while common bonds are discovered, there's also a suggestion that the saviors' motives weren't entirely altruistic, and that the Daum boys may need more than one lesson to quell their religious xenophobia. The message conveyed is that, no matter who you are, keeping your better nature alive requires perpetual vigilance. But that's what self-awareness is all about.