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May 17-23, 2006

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Serving Hope

Israeli Film Festival screens four features that take a hard look at the possibilities of hope in a hard world

By Richard von Busack

WHAT COLOR is God's skin? It has to be a trick question—he's invisible. The debate over this matter is a part of one of the four films scheduled for the Second Silicon Valley Israeli Film Festival, May 17 to 24. Live and Become (May 21 at 6pm) is rather the cinematic equivalent of the 600-page coming-of-age novel. Director Radu Mihaileanu based this film on a true story. In 1984, Israel conducted "Operation Moses," airlifting thousands of starving Ethiopian Jews from refugee camps on the grounds that these were the legendary descendants of Solomon and Sheba. When the black Jews arrived in the Holy Land, they faced racism. In the years to come, there were numerous suicides. Finally there were legal trials when it turned out that some of the Ethiopians had posed as Jewish to be saved.

To give this story of cultural collision another twist, it's told from a Gallic perspective. The hero is adopted by a family of French origin, secular Jews living in Israel; they adopt the Ethiopian boy "Schlomo" (Solomon), little knowing his birthmother had counseled him to pretend to be Jewish. Schlomo, played by three actors in youth and adulthood, sees everything from the advent of Pac-Man to the assassination of Rabin. He is wounded during the Palestinian uprising and becomes the victim of a badger game in a storage room outside a disco. Schlomo also goes to Paris to become a doctor sometime after answering the debate about the skin color of God and, thence, Adam. There's a lot of movie here. Some would say too much.

Janem, Janem (May 21, 3pm) has resonance for Americans concerned with immigration issues—it is about illegal aliens working in Israel. Director Haim Bouzaglo follows the course of a 40-year-old burned-out case, Aidi (Danny Rytenberg). He was a soldier whose buddy died in his arms. Presently, he is caught in a stalemated marriage and is working as a history teacher. (Those who can't do, teach; those who teach but know it won't do any good, teach history.) Leaving on a vacation, he sportingly decides to infiltrate a group of guest workers coming into Israel to do some semilegal construction. And he gets his groove back by hanging with fun-loving Turks, Romanians and the kind of Israeli bohemians who live close to the ethnic subcultures.

If the juiciness of Tel Aviv life, with all its carousing, drinking and swearing puts off the genteel, the documentary 39 Pounds of Love (May 17, 7:30pm) is more of a nana-pleaser. Ami Ankilewitz is paralyzed with muscular dystrophy and able only to move one finger—with which he animates computerized cartoons. Director Dani Menkin follows the Israeli Ankilewitz to visit his birth country, America, via motorcycle sidecar. The cartoonist's mission: to confront the doctor who told his mother that he'd never live to be an adult. The Schwartz Dynasty (May 24, 7:30pm) is Shmuel Hasfari and Ori Inbar's story of a half-Christian, half-Jewish girl who comes to an Israeli town seething with prejudice to bury her grandfather, in accordance to his last wish. At their best, Israeli films represent a society that is both pluralistic and pessimistic. If "hope is the thing with feathers," as Emily Dickenson wrote, Israel's filmmakers serve hope up plucked, roasted and with plenty of salt.

The Second Silicon Valley Israeli Film Festival plays May 17-24 at Camera 12 in San Jose.

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