Gems from the UK Jewish Film Festival

Review: Precious Life, Restoration, How to Rebuild a Vodka Empire, Chariots of Fire, Salsa Tel Aviv


Knowing that the programmers of the UK Jewish Film Festival have done most of the hard work before you, choosing films to see is more a matter of determination to be out and about nearly every night of the week — there are gems available throughout the festival.

One such was the UK premiere of an astonishing documentary, Precious Life. If any commissioning editors from Channel Four or Sky have any sense they will snap up this coruscating film, made by the Israeli tv journalist, Shlomi Eldar.

It is the story of a four-month-old baby from Khan Yunis, in Gaza, Muhammad, who will die if he does not receive a bone marrow transplant, as he suffers from a genetic disease which claimed the lives of two of his sisters.

A team at Tel Aviv's Tel Hashomer Hospital, led by Dr Raz Somech, is treating the baby, and, as becomes apparent, by extension the baby's family. Eldar, with an instinct for a good human story, begins to film the desperate parents, Fauzi and Raeda Abu Mustafa, but is thoroughly taken aback when Raeda claims she would be ready for her baby to grow up to become a shahid, or martyr.

She smiles and tells Eldar: "You [Jews] worship life, but it means nothing to us [Palestinians.] To us, death is normal." We watch in increasing dismay as both Israeli and Palestinian doctors do whatever they can to save Muhammad, while rocket fire escalates from Gaza and Israeli retaliation takes its own toll on the Palestinians.

Today, Eldar told the audience after the screening, Muhammad is a healthy four-year-old and his parents, he believes, are "ambassadors for peace" in Khan Yunis. Nothing, he says, can substitute for meeting the enemy face-to-face. A truly remarkable film.

The Names of Love won the inaugural Sky Film Award at this year's UKJF festival, so "Le Nom des Gens" must be doing something right. It is, however, a very French and Francophone romantic comedy, and requires an embrace of all things Gallic (and an understanding of France's domestic appliance network.)

Arthur Martin, played in sublime Buster Keaton deadpan style by Jacques Gamblin, is an improbable hero. A man who has apparently been middle-aged from birth, he is resigned to people making jokes about his name - Arthur Martin being the brand name of France's biggest make of ovens. It would be like being called Russell Hobbs. Could Arthur be any more boring? Of course. He is an expert on bird flu, and his parents are nursing a grim secret: how Arthur's Jewish mother became a hidden child and her parents were rounded up by the French police and deported to the camps.

Into this rather dismal set-up waltzes Baya (Sara Forestier), daughter of a French hippy and an Algerian immigrant. Baya has an unusual mission: she sleeps with convinced right-wingers in order to change their outlook on life. Arthur looks like a prime target. But he's not a right-winger, he vows earnestly: he is a passionate supporter of Lionel Jospin, once Prime Minister but a failed candidate for the presidency against Nicholas Sarkozy. With immense charm, Jospin himself makes a cameo appearance in the film - invited by Baya for the benefit of a thrilled Arthur.

Each character's identity and their essential Frenchness, or lack of it, is meticulously played out, and though the ending is a tad predictable we cannot help cheering this May/September union.

Director Michel LeClerc, accepting the Sky award, confirmed: "We made this film to explore the obsessions of French society and I am impressed that this film, which for me is so very Francophone and French, has resonances that can speak to people outside of my native country. In our multi-cultural world, where people come from so many different places, questions of identity and origin become a crucial subject, and no more so of course than in England. Personally, in terms of my own Jewish background, the thing which keeps me attached to this culture is humour."

Restoration is for those who like their plot denouements unpeeled slowly, like an onion. It features the veteran Israeli character actor, Sasson Gabai, whose mournful bloodhound features perfectly inhabit the character of Yaakov Fidelman, failed businessman, failed father, and pretty much failed human being when we first meet him.

Fidelman's furniture restoration partner of 40 years, the bon viveur Max Malamud, has died in flagrante, but leaves his share of the business not to Yaakov but to his on-the-make son, Noah. All Noah wants is to sell the business, but Yaakov stubbornly digs his heels in. Salvation of a sort comes in the form of the taciturn new employee, Anton (Henry David), who discovers an 1882 Steinway piano in the back of the shop.

Selling it might save the business, and for a time, we are seduced, as is Fidelman, into this dream. But neither Anton nor the piano are what they seem, and matters are further complicated when Anton finds himself falling in love with Noah's wife, eight months pregnant with the next generation of Fidelmans. A Sundance Festival winnner, this film is slow but ultimately rewarding.

Dan Edelstyn's How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire is a wild ride, part documentary, part loopy Purim spiel complete with daft costumes, but ultimately extremely endearing. Edelstyn's grandmother, Maroussia, was the daughter of an aristocratic Ukrainian Jewish family, who fell on hard times when the Bolshevik Revolution began. Maroussia, ever flamboyant and artistic, became a dancer, ran away from home, and finally ended up, improbably, living in Belfast, where, presumably to thwart her husband Max, who had become very cosy with the Protestant Orange Order, she converted to Catholicism.

It was the discovery of his grandmother's papers charting her bohemian life that led Edelstyn, a film-maker by profession, to the Ukrainian village in which Maroussia's rich father, Zorokovich, had once owned the vodka distillery which employed most of the citizenry. Inspired, Edelstyn, who makes it clear he knew nothing about the alcohol business, decided to re-launch the vodka. Zorokovich 1917 Vodka is now available at some very select outlets in the UK, although Dan Edelstyn still has many, many cases of the stuff to flog... stick to filmmaking, Dan.

Chariots of Fire is the 1981 movie that surely everyone, at some time or another, has seen. Really? You haven't seen it? Next year being Olympics year, we will be awash with Chariots, but the UKJFF got in a sneak 30th anniversary special preview and it was soul-wallowingly enjoyable. As director Hugh Hudson acknowledged in his post-screening Q&A, it was a difficult film to pitch to potential investors: the parallel stories of two British runners in the 1920s, one a tormented Jew and the other a committed Christian. Fascinatingly, as Hudson revealed, half the money for the film came from a Muslim — none other than Mohammed al-Fayed.

Much of the enjoyment of watching Chariots these days centres on spotting the who's who, those at the start of their careers and those who had the odd delicious cameo. It was an astonishing cast: Sir John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson, Richard Griffiths, and I even spotted Ruby Wax, besides the principals, Nigel Havers, Ben Cross, and the late and much lamented Ian Charleson. A chocolate-box delight and one not to be missed next year when the film comes out on DVD in a newly digitised print.

Salsa Tel Aviv is a laugh-out-loud comedy with an enjoyable — though preposterous — beginning and a slightly incredible conclusion, ticking all the comedy boxes of prejudice and stupidity that are apparently rampant in present-day Tel Aviv.

Vicky, played with some gusto by the Mexican TV star Angelica Vale, is a broke single mother who abandons her warm, lovely, etc family in Mexico in order to locate her low-life ex-boyfriend Beto, the father of her dentally challenged five-year-old son. So far, so believable. But why, except for comedy reasons, would Vicky, who can plainly afford a plane ticket from Mexico to Tel Aviv, dress up as a nun to enter Israel?

Probably better not to ask. Even better not to question why she fastens on to university lecturer Yoni, played with steadfast woodenness by model-turned-actor Angel Bonani, in order to help her through passport control.

Yoni's vile girlfriend Dafna, all hard edges and vicious smiles, is soon edged out of the picture when compared with Vicky's pillowy voluptuousness. But the new situation, degenerating into a darker story about Israeli attitudes to foreign workers, can't help providing caricature laughs at the expense of Yoni's "typical Jewish mother", who faints and all but puts her head in the oven at the suggestion that her boy could end up with a Mexican Catholic single mother.

Yes, all ends happily (unless you are Yoni's mother) provided you are ready to suspend your belief. The music, however, is great.

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