Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - July 27, 2012

Comedy in conflict

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival explores the humor in tough topics

by Maytal Mark

It might seem impossible to find humor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but at least one comedy being shown in this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival challenges that notion.

Along with a slew of powerful dramas, several comedies screening this summer in Palo Alto, San Francisco and other cities will tackle a range of issues with a tongue-in-cheek approach, including the conflict, Jewish identity and family dynamics. All have "strains of something we recognize as a Jewish sensibility, of a people who love to laugh and make others laugh with them," according to a festival press release.

The Israeli sitcom "Arab Labor" faces Israeli and Palestinian stereotypes head-on. A festival screening in Palo Alto on July 30 will feature episodes from the third season, written by Sayeed Kashua and directed by Shai Capon. Billed as the first Israeli show to center on a Palestinian-Israeli family, "Arab Labor" follows protagonist Amjad (Norman Issa), an Arab-Israeli journalist, and is shown in Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles.

In one of the episodes, Amjad joins the cast of the (fictional) Israeli version of the reality TV show "Big Brother" in an attempt to prove that Arabs and Jews can live peacefully together. Tension rises when the "Big Brother" producers ask Amjad to pass as a Jew and challenge the competitors to guess who in the house is secretly Arab, in order to be safe from elimination.

Stereotypes erupt both in the "Big Brother" house and in Amjad's own home when the reality-TV residents buy the cover story that Amjad (now "Danny Epstein") has created, and decide that another competitor, Itzik, is the secret Arab. Itzik's fellow Jewish competitors single him out for acting in such an obviously "Arab" manner: He wants cardamom in his coffee, and he's bored by old army stories. The girls in the house become squeamish when they are in their bathing suits, claiming, "He's not used to seeing girls like this; he might get ideas." They become incredibly offended when he attempts to perform the Sabbath prayer.

The judgmental glances exchanged after every word Itzik says create an aura of absurdism, as the residents feel themselves proven correct at every turn.

"Arab Labor" is not alone in the mission to reflect Jewish conflicts and issues in a humorous light. Other comedies to be featured this year include "Dorfman," a template romantic comedy about an awkward and quiet young woman (Sara Rue of TV's "Less Than Perfect") living in Los Angeles. She undergoes a surface-level makeover as she begins to speak her mind for the first time, realizing that her role as a doormat for those around her has left her unsatisfied. Her family also undergoes a transformation when her widowed father and irresponsible brother must confront their own personal issues.

Playing the father is veteran actor Elliott Gould, who is also being honored by the festival with its annual Freedom of Expression Award at a ceremony at San Francisco's Castro Theatre.

Other comedies that will be shown this year in Palo Alto include "My Dad is Baryshnikov," the story of a young boy in the last days of the Soviet Union who is training to be a ballet dancer, despite his lack of talent. "In Case I Never Win the Golden Palm" is a film-within-a-film directed by and starring Renaud Cohen, based on the ups and downs of his own career as a filmmaker.

This year's festival will also include several documentaries, many centering on music. "Under African Skies" follows the musician Paul Simon as he returns to South Africa for a reunion concert for his "Graceland" albums. "Hava Nagila (The Movie)" follows the traditional "Hava Nagila" melody around the world, where it's been performed at countless bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings.

The Palo Alto lineup also features the Sam Ball film "Joann Sfar Draws From Memory," which paints a portrait of the French graphic novelist Sfar. Palo Alto resident Valerie Joseph is the film's executive producer.

This year is the 32nd for the festival. Running from July 28 through Aug. 6, it will make the rounds at theaters in San Francisco, Berkeley, Palo Alto, San Rafael and Oakland. Most of the films are set to have at least one screening in Palo Alto.

What: The 32nd annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, with screenings of shorts and feature-length films in Palo Alto and other cities

Where: Local screenings are at the CineArts movie theater at Palo Alto Square, 3000 El Camino Real.

When: Palo Alto screenings are July 28 through Aug. 2, with screenings from the late morning through the evening.

Cost: Individual screening programs are $12 general, $11 for seniors and students, and $10 for Jewish Film Forum members. Matinees (weekdays through 4 p.m.) are $10 general and $9 for members. Ticket packages are available, including a $25 pass for ages 30 and under; it can be used at all regularly priced screenings (not special events).

Info: Go to http://sfjff.org or call 415-621-0523.

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