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Ripe for the Picking

12th annual Santa Cruz Jewish Film Festival presents mixed bag of thought-provoking cinema

There are few locations in the world where you can find Muslim freedom fighters, a high jumper, a Holocaust survivor, a Catholic priest, a human rights lawyer, and a music producer, all in one place—aside from a “walks into a bar” joke, that is. But all of the aforementioned characters have a chance to shine at the 12th annual Santa Cruz Jewish Film Festival, which kicks off on March 24 and runs through April 5.

Featuring 11 films—both fiction and documentary—from around the world, the festival is a treasure trove of thought-provoking cinema. An opening night reception will precede a screening of Ismaël Ferroukhi’s Free Men, followed by a special concert with Babel-Ashenaz; and on April 5, a double feature of Gordon Grinberg’s short film, The Tailor, and Jerry Zacks’s Who Do You Love?, followed by a Q&A session with the film’s producer, Jonathan Mitchell, will bring the festival to a close.

While there are many eclectic films to choose from, here are four that caught our eye …

FREE MEN (France, 2011, 99 minutes) This year’s opening night selection arrives in Santa Cruz with a distinguished résumé, after appearing at major festivals including Toronto and Cannes, and it deserves credit for presenting Nazi-occupied Paris from a perspective that is not French, German, or American. Inspired by actual events, Free Men follows an Algerian immigrant who is arrested, and, in return for his freedom, agrees to spy on the Paris Grand Mosque, which is suspected of harboring Resistance fighters and Jews. But the apolitical protagonist begins to have second thoughts about this arrangement upon befriending a cabaret singer during the course of his surveillance assignment.

The above all happens within the film’s first act, and there is plenty more plot to come. The espionage drama is executed with handsome production value, though the film may have benefited from a narrative that is less expository and more analytical. At times, Free Men massages the viewer’s comfort zone when it should actively stretch it, painting character motivation and its resulting plot consequence in broad strokes—that is until its curiously ambiguous coda. All the more reason to respect the lead performance from Tahar Rahim—his big screen debut two years ago in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is about as good as it gets—who provides nuance that is lacking in the screenplay (or at least, the subtitled translation).

TORN (Israel/Poland, 2011, 72 minutes) Offered as a double feature along with Andrew Wainrib’s animated documentary Cohen On The Bridge, Ronit Kertsner’s Torn is a documentary that poses a religious conundrum. It profiles one Romuald Waszkinel, who learns that he was born to Jewish parents—12 years after being ordained as a Polish Catholic priest. In his subsequent identity crisis, he faces rejection from both religions, as well as the state of Israel, and is ultimately forced to choose between the two.

The film is fairly rough around the edges, and it never quite decides exactly what kind of documentary it wants to be; it forfeits its fly-on-the-wall license with a couple of meta-narrative tangents, but is not personal enough to merit those digressions. That said, it covers legitimately worthy subject matter and thematic terrain, and it conjures up a well-drawn portrait of a man at a difficult crossroads. Moreover, it’s guaranteed to spark many a lively discussion about religion and its elasticity—or lack thereof—in the modern world.

A SMALL ACT (USA, 2010, 88 minutes) A documentary of various bruised-but-not-broken lives in an impoverished, rural Kenyan village, A Small Act is intelligent, graceful, heartbreaking, and finally inspirational—one of those go-to critical terms that is rarely as well-earned as it is here. This Emmy-nominated Sundance alum and feature debut from writer-director-producer Jennifer Arnold, actually begins in Sweden, with a Holocaust survivor named Hilde Back, who donated a small monthly sum to sponsor the education of a child in Kenya. The beneficiary of her generosity, Chris Mburu, grew up to become a Harvard-educated human rights lawyer, who hopes to repeat her kindness by founding his own scholarship fund in her name.

Beyond the film’s narrative, which chronicles the relationship between Back and Mburu, as well as a new generation of Kenyan youth, there are isolated images from Patricia Lee’s seamless, rural-textured cinematography and other poignant archival footage: soldiers and rioters clashing violently in Kenya’s capital, a single tear of quiet disappointment rolling down a child’s face, an elderly white woman dancing in a run-down Nairobi, Kenyan dwelling. But describing these individual snapshots does not do justice to the whole, which is best discovered with fresh eyes—this is life-affirming cinema, and its subjects are deserving of the spotlight.

BERLIN 36 (Germany, 2009, 110 minutes) An intriguing premise on paper that turns out to be a well-intentioned miss in execution, Berlin 36 has a few attractive parts, but not enough to make a successful whole. Inspired by a true story, the drama focuses on the 1936 Summer Olympics in Nazi-controlled Berlin, where German-Jewish high jumper Gretel Bergmann hopes to contend for the gold medal. But her own country’s government engineers a plan to impede her chances, inviting a competitor named Marie Kettler to the team. The two rivals develop a friendship, and Bergmann eventually learns a serious secret about Kettler. This revelation is considerably more surprising to Bergmann than it is to the viewer, and so the plot twist lands rather awkwardly. Most of the film’s problems derive from its weak screenplay, which is ineffectually built upon one-dimensional characters, and it never seems to figure out what it wants to say. The craft elements are a mixed bag; Achim Poulheim’s lensing utilizes a well-balanced color palette to capture Götz Weidner’s artfully utilitarian production design, but elsewhere a series of ill-advised editing cues mars the climax. However, the film’s leading lady emerges unscathed. As Bergmann, Karoline Herfurth is intelligent and strong-willed, making the most out of inconsistent material.

The Santa Cruz Jewish Film Festival runs March 24-April 5. All film screenings take place at Temple Beth El, 3055 Porter Gulch Road, Aptos, with the exception of the double-feature on April 5, which takes place at the Del Mar Theater, 1124 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. For a complete schedule of film screenings and more details, visit santacruzjewishfilmfestival.com.

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