- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 4, 2002

The 13th annual renewal of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, a pioneer in its area of specialization, returns tomorrow at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, beginning an 11-day stand and provisioned with about three dozen titles from 16 countries. The opening selection would appear to set a becoming note of humility: God Is Great, I'm Not.
Screening tomorrow at 6:45 p.m. and repeated Friday at 1 p.m., it is in fact a legitimate art-house attraction, currently booked at the Paris in Manhattan. A French romantic-social comedy, "Great Not" is about a 20-year-old model whose search for happiness and meaning have led her into the arms of a Jewish boyfriend and awakened a desire for instruction in the Jewish faith. The heroine is played by last year's sweetheart of the French cinema, Audrey Tatou of "Amelie."
The entertainment industry will be a recurrent backdrop during this year's festival. The first documentary feature on the schedule, Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song, gets a single showing tomorrow at 8:15 p.m. It is a career retrospective compiled by J. David Riva, the grandson of the late actress and chanteuse. While not specifically concerned with Jewish topics, the chronicle recalls Miss Dietrich's staunch anti-Nazi position during the 1930s and World War II, which probably hastened her transformation into an American citizen. As a result, she remained a traitor in the eyes of unforgiving or unreconstructed Germans after the war.
The Goethe-Institut will host a double bill this Sunday at 4 p.m. of two of the silent comedies that starred Ernst Lubitsch in Germany during World War I. The titles are Shoe Palace Pinkus and Meyer From Berlin, made in 1916 and 1918, respectively. The latter also boasts location footage in the Bavarian Alps. These star vehicles were also directed by Lubitsch, who entered the film industry in 1912 and became a fixture in comedy shorts before solidifying his popularity as a versatile manipulator of the medium. This bill offers a rare opportunity to catch up with the "early" or "lost" Lubitsch.
The British feature Esther Kahn deals with an aspiring actress, the quiet one in a brood that assists a London tailor and his wife in a family business in the latter part of the 19th century. Summer Phoenix seems to have a difficult time making Esther's reserve and pride look sympathetic, and director Arnaud Desplechin is more dependent than he should be on narration borrowed from the source material (a story by Arthur Symons), but the period theatrical atmosphere has its allure, and the talk about acting acquires some genuine distinction when Ian Holm turns up as a minor actor who becomes the heroine's coach and mentor.
Hitmakers: The Teens Who Stole Pop Music, a video documentary compiled by Morgan Neville, recalls the aspiring young songwriters who hung around the Brill Building in New York City in the middle 1950s and eventually began racking up pop hits. The subjects include Carole King, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus, Ellie Greenwich, Barry Mann and Dionne Warwick.
The Jewish singing cowboy Scott Gerber, whose repertoire includes Yiddish and labor-agitation songs learned from his parents and grandparents in Petaluma, Calif., is the subject of a short profile, Song of a Jewish Cowboy, by Bonnie Burt. It shares a bill with her video featurette A Home on the Range: The Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma. Mr. Gerber's forebears were among those ranchers, many of them secular and left-wing, who thrived with smallish chicken farms during the decades between the world wars.
A famous abstract filmmaker of the 1940s, Maya Deren, born Elenora Devenkorsky in Kiev, is the subject of a documentary feature, In the Mirror of Maya Deren, which will be shown free in the auditorium of the National Gallery of Art's East Building on the final day of the festival. Miss Deren collaborated with the Czech emigre Alexander Hammid on a series of abstract shorts with poetic titles, such as "Meshes of the Afternoon" and "Ritual in Transfigured Time," that remained staples of the avant-garde repertory for several years.
Authentic and cliched images of the Jewish mother are examined in Monique Schwartz's Mamadrama: The Jewish Mother in Cinema; interview subjects include film directors Paul Mazursky, Larry Peerce and Paul Bogart.
One delirious example of "mamadrama" turns up in this year's entry from the Yiddish film archives, Motel the Operator, circa 1939. In it, Malvina Rappel plays the suffering mama Esther Freedman, forced to surrender her baby for adoption when her spouse, the supremely ineffectual Motel of the title, takes a bump on the head and remains in a coma for several years. Upon recovering, he spends another two decades evolving into a street-singer-flower-seller, giving the adopted infant ample time to grow up, become a lawyer and help redeem the derelict father he never knew.
"Motel" definitely is one for the books. It's doubtful the movies have ever pretended to shed tears over a more hapless father figure. Motel's most forceful line, uttered from a hospital bed: "Oi, mein kopf."

WHAT:
The Washington Jewish Film Festival
WHEN:
Tomorrow through Dec. 15
WHERE:
Most programs at the Goldman Theater of the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW; additional programs at the National Gallery of Art's East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, and the Goethe-Insititut Washington, 814 Seventh St. NW.
TICKETS:
Opening and closing night $15; other programs $9 evenings and weekends, $5.50 weekday matinees before 6 p.m. $1 discount for seniors and students.
PHONE:
202/777-3248 for information, 800/494-8497 for advance tickets

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