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Raising the Roof

This year's San Jose Jewish Film Festival begins an eclectic mix of features with a singalong 'Fiddler'

By Richard von Busack

YOU DRIVE on a parkway, park on a driveway and Norman Jewison wasn't a Jewish son. Oddly, this Methodist Canadian director doesn't get his props as a ministering religious figure to Jews and Christians alike, even after making both Jesus Christ Superstar and Fiddler on the Roof. If only he'd lived to do some hills-are-alive-with-the-sound-of-Muslims songfest. The as-always eclectic San Jose Jewish Film Festival opens Oct. 17 at 1:30pm at Camera 12 in San Jose with the "Tradition"-al family singalong version of Jewison's 1971 Fiddler, akin to the yodel-along version of The Sound of Music. In this case, the crowd accompanies Topol—doleful, soulful, schmaltz by the bowlful—in his immortal role as Tevye the milkman.

But the Jewish Film Festival isn't all warmhearted shrugging. After the opening crowd-pleaser, the festival (which plays Wednesdays and Sundays through Nov. 17) is loaded with risky cinema. Nothing demonstrates this better than Hany Abu-Assad's documentary Ford Transit (Oct. 17, 5:30pm). The all-knowing, street-wise taxi driver is a cliché of the foreign correspondent. Still, Abu-Assad's ride-alongs with Rajai, a jitney driver working between checkpoints in Ramallah and Jerusalem, provides insight into everyday life in the Holy Land.

The driver rolls around the half-peopled Israeli desert, with its white rocks that look like crushed bones. He's under constant pressure by the Israeli military and sometimes takes moonshinerlike evasive routes to keep from being caught in yet another barricade. Rajai's fellow drivers become increasingly suspicious of the camera crew in his white Ford van. The passengers are seen in the midst of the mostly friendly squabbling and political discussion; they argue that the checkpoint policy hasn't done very much to stop suicide bombings.

The most chilling moments come when we glimpse over Rajai's shoulder, when he's watching TV at home. It's an excerpt from an Arabic television broadcast of a suicide bomber's final statement before he went off on his "mission." Seeing the face of the poor, frightened and half-educated would-be martyr tells you volumes about the Mideast situation.

Wondrous Oblivion (Oct. 20, 7:30pm and Oct. 24, 3pm) is by contrast a feel-good movie about a Jewish refugee boy in London in the 1950s. He has aspirations to make it as a cricket star, but doesn't learn how it's done. Then he gets a new neighbor, a West Indian fanatic for the game (Oakland actor Delroy Lindo with a euphonious Caribbean accent). The game, which has been described by Robin Williams as "baseball on valium," is obviously secondary to the essential message of brotherhood.

There's much to choose from, and the festival includes one of the best movies I've seen this year. That's James' Journey to Jerusalem (Nov. 7, 5:30pm), about a Christian African guest worker experiencing the underside of Israeli life. As every defender of Israel is quick to say, this nation is the only democracy in the Mideast, and yet, when filmmaker Ra'anan Alexandrowicz made the kind of movie people in a democracy ought to make (that is, a sharp critique of officially sanctioned greed) you could hear the protests 10,000 miles away. More about this film later; and capsules on this festival will be appearing weekly in Metro.

The San Jose Jewish Film Festival plays Wednesdays and Sundays from Oct. 17 to Nov. 17. See www.sjjff.org for exact schedule.

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From the October 13-19, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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