- The Washington Times - Friday, December 5, 2003

Documentaries usually are the strong suit of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, which has returned for a 14th annual showcase at a number of participating theaters and cultural institutions. The pattern is likely to repeat itself, judging from a preview sample of this year’s 40 titles.

Dispossession and exile are themes that connect some titles across the demarcation line between fiction and fact. A European-made but English-language historical drama titled “Secret Passage” exploits Venice for scenic backgrounds to its tale of two aristocratic sisters in conflict in the early part of the 16th century.

Played by Catherine Borowitz and Tara FitzGerald, the sisters are nominally converted Jews who move from Amsterdam to Venice in an effort to elude the Spanish Inquisition. The elder sister, Isabel, played by Miss Borowitz, regards Venice as a stopover on the way to a more secure haven in Istanbul. Miss FitzGerald’s Clara, smitten with a government official played by John Turturro, would prefer to remain. Their failure to resolve this dispute ends in calamity.

“Choosing Exile” is the title of a video memoir from a South African filmmaker, Marc Radomsky, who chronicles the self-conscious agonizing that attended the decision of his wife, Vivienne, and himself to leave their home in Johannesburg and migrate to Sydney, Australia. The Radomskys may have had valid reasons for their departure, but perhaps some people should be discouraged from sharing their woes and rationales with the world at large.

There is sufficient anecdotal evidence to suggest that crime and declining economic prospects might propel younger South Africans into exile. Other members of the family who plan to stay don’t dispute the motives but are mystified at the destination because they regard North America as a far more plausible and convenient refuge. Mrs. Radomsky explains that this option was foreclosed because, “We didn’t like the American consciousness.”

Not the most charismatic of camera subjects, she tends to resort to cant when defending her tough decisions. For example, the news must be broken to a 7-year-old son that the family dog, Oskie, will be unable to accompany the family to Australia. “He’s gonna take a long time to process the information,” mom confides — superfluously, because dad already has been ruthless enough to record the moment of traumatic revelation.

Two documentaries illustrate the advantages of reaching out beyond the immediate family and one’s own defensive vanities. Bernd Fischer’s “From Dachau With Love” is a genuinely absorbing, affable and penetrating portrait of an attractive hometown with an abiding image problem. “Paper Clips,” co-directed by Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab, tells the story of eighth-grade students in small Whitwell, Tenn., whose efforts to learn about the Holocaust attracted national press attention and resulted in the creation of a Holocaust memorial on school grounds.

Mr. Fischer’s movie revolves, scenically and thematically, around the grounds of the former concentration camp, now an extensive historical site and prominent tourist attraction, bordered by a small Carmelite convent and a provincial training center for police. These neighbors seem to have an impeccably sincere sense of custodianship. Other Dachau residents, however, consider it unfair for the city to remain a byword for Nazi brutality three generations after the defeat of Adolf Hitler.

Two of the key guardians of remembrance, Carmelite Sister Elia and Holocaust survivor Max Mannheimer, suggest the vulnerabilities that soon will confront people who want to preserve the death camp site more or less intact. They’re getting on, and perhaps they’re irreplaceable. Mr. Mannheimer, who owns a vintage art-deco car, a Tatra, a scenic curiosity in its own right, volunteers at Dachau as a tour guide, but his personal perspective ultimately will be easier to evoke in Mr. Fischer’s movie than at Dachau itself.

“Paper Clips” is also dignified by the appearance of a group of elderly survivors who learn of the students’ project — initially, to collect 6 million paper clips as a symbolic remembrance of the numbers massacred by the Hitler regime — and endorse it personally. Theirs is an indispensable reinforcement, perhaps, because the well-meaning school officials who encourage the project lack comparable emotional authority when doing or saying the right things.

Within a short period of time, the people with personal links to the survivors will need to decide how much support they can spare for similarly earnest educational endeavors, four or five generations after the initial calamity. The eyewitnesses will be gone. Compensating for their loss will be difficult.

WHAT: Washington Jewish Film Festival

WHEN: Through Dec. 14

WHERE: Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center; American Film Institute Silver Theatre; Avalon Theatre; East Building of the National Gallery of Art; Goethe-Institut Washington; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

CONTENT: Documentary and fictional movies from several countries on themes of Jewish history and culture

TICKETS: Admission for most evening programs is $9, $6 for matinees (earlier than 6 p.m.). Tickets are priced higher for opening and closing events. Students and seniors qualify for $1 discounts. Advance tickets can be purchased at 800/494-8497 or www.boxofficetickets.com

PHONE: 202/777-3248

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