War, peace, love star in 42 films from 9 countries

Journalist-turned-film director Claude Lanzmann uses a reporter's eye and a survivor's heart to probe the Israeli Army in his new film, "Tsahal."

The five-hour documentary is a follow-up to his renowned, extensive 1985 Holocaust documentary, "Shoah."

The new film, which will have its West Coast premiere at this year's Jewish Film Festival, is bound to stir controversy, according to Janis Plotkin, festival director, and Caroline Libresco, associate director.

For one thing, among the throngs of soldiers featured, few women are interviewed. What's more, say the festival directors, the voices of Palestinians are rarely heard.

The director, however, does include the input of high-profile, progressive Israeli authors Amos Oz and David Grossman as he examines the questions of torture, settlement and the viability of a Jewish army.

"Whether people like it or not, they'll get to see it and have the discussion. That's really what the film festival is all about," says Plotkin, who has been with the festival since its beginnings 15 years ago.

With the local festival setting the standard, other Jewish film programs have opened from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to Hong Kong, but Plotkin is pleased that the Bay Area event remains the world's largest.

This year, 42 films from nine countries will be shown at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, from July 20 to 27, and at the U.C. Theatre in Berkeley from July 29 to Aug. 3.

War and peace pull Lanzmann and his camera through the mountains and deserts of Israel on a journey for truths. But several features in this year's festival undertake the same exploration through fiction.

Audiences can see the first Arab-made film inspired by the peace process, "Swallows Never Die in Jerusalem." To create it, a crew of Israeli and Arab filmmakers joined to show a French journalist in pursuit of a political story, and his Palestinian guide, who is searching for a long-lost grandmother.

The film, says Plotkin, is "beautifully shot and very kind in its representation of all the positions."

On a less serious note, the Gulf War is the backdrop for a romantic comedy in the Israeli film "Song of the Siren."

On the eve of the war, a smart, sassy female advertising executive looks for love as bombs drop and neighbors don gas masks. The heroine, created by best-selling Israeli author Irit Linur, represents the coming of age of women in Israeli cinema, according to Libresco.

"Her character is allowed to be funny and smart at the same time. She's clever, acerbic, challenges everyone. She has her own job and apartment," Libresco says.

The film also marks "a whole new level of Israeli cinema," she adds. "It's very high quality, very fresh. You can feel that this is a whole new generation of filmmakers."

"Song of the Siren" was a box-office hit in Israel, attracting a larger audience than all other Israeli films of 1994 combined. Libresco — in her second season with the festival — jokes that the slick new film is also "a great date movie."

Another romantic evening at the festival will be "American Love Stories," six short films about love, lust and loss. They mine the talents of up-and-coming actors and directors, as well as more well-known stars such as Wallace Shawn and B.D. Wong.

For a date with Jews in exotic foreign lands, this year's festival is also the place to be. There is a trio of films about Spanish- and Ladino-speaking Jews, several films exploring Moroccan Jewry, and seven films about Russian Jews in Israel, Germany and America.

As in other years, festival organizers want to reach the widest audience, so they will offer free or $1 matinees for several of the movies, as well as reduced prices for seniors.

And for the first time, the festival will also have a site on the World Wide Web, where Internet surfers will have access to film schedules and other information.

During the past year of scouring international film festivals for the most powerful Jewish films, the festival directors often were moved by unlikely stories.

Like parents, they are hesitant to pick favorites. But they need not be pressed hard before spilling over with praise for "Adam's Circus," whose North American premiere will be at the festival.

It's a story about a group of Russian actors who have fled their country for the Jewish state. There, the troupe performs a cabaret show about a group of German-Jewish actors who traveled to Israel after the Holocaust.

"It's one of the most brilliant works in the festival, a feature film that uses documentary tools," says Plotkin.

Libresco adds, "It's completely unique. It's very special."

Another film the team calls "completely out of the ordinary" is "September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill," a sort of feature-length music video featuring contemporary musicians Lou Reed, P.J. Harvey, opera singer Teresa Stratas and Elvis Costello with the Brotksy String Quartet. The reinterpretations in the Canadian film give new life to Weill's music, which Hitler termed degenerate "Jewish jazz."

"September Songs" will be a late show, and the festival directors agree it will be one of the series' highlights.

As in the past, however, the Jewish Film Festival is throwing opening-night parties in both the San Francisco and Berkeley venues.

And for movie buffs who don't want to miss anything — from a silent 1918 Polish film ("The Yellow Ticket") to "Comrade Stalin's Trip to Africa" (a black comedy about a Jew who works as a Stalin double) — $100 buys a festival pass and a panorama of Jewish life on celluloid.