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28th November 2016

Review: The 20th UK International Jewish Film Festival

The Kind Words and Moos stand out as eye-opening insights into modern Jewish life

A few days ago, the 20th annual Jewish Film Festival took place in Manchester. A variety of diverse films were shown at HOME.

Attentive to family dynamics, Shemi Zarhin’s latest film The Kind Words is a story set in Jerusalem. Based around two brothers and a sister, who each discover in their own ways that any notion of identity they have is in fact a lie. Each of the siblings are dealing with their own individual issues: the first scene introduces Dorona, the female lead played by Rotem Zissman-Cohen, a young woman that has given up on motherhood, having suffered multiple miscarriages; the eldest brother of the trio, Nethanel (Roy Assaf) has recently become religious to please his new wife’s standards and raise his triplets, although he seems conflicted about this decision; and Shai, the youngest (Assaf Ben-Shimon), is dealing with a recent breakup, and trying to balance fathering his son via Skype, who lives in Hungary with his ex-partner.

A death in the family is followed by a startling discovery, that brings the siblings to an impromptu trip to Paris, then to Marseille, in search for answers to questions that shed new light onto their perceptions of themselves and each other. Although the plot has potential and shows us the storytelling talents of the Israeli director, its development lacks density. The complexity of the protagonists’ relationships to any other character builds the viewer’s interest in the many layers of the film, but the conclusion is vague and unresolved, the story’s buzz falls flat.

The film’s serious core matter is balanced out with underlying dry sarcasm, jokes and digs about religion, sexuality, and identity in general is a refreshing touch in the tense current socio-political climate of the world. This does not make the film light-hearted as such, as the gently thought-provoking script reminds us how Israelis are perceived by the world and how they perceive it in return.

The Kind Words does not distinguish itself from the customary cluster of melodramas, as we follow once again a linear progression of events with some heated fights, witty jokes, and romantic interests. This is Zarhin’s sixth feature film, and one can’t help but feel somewhat dissatisfied in his failure, this far into his career, to exhaust the full potential of his very real talents.

In the same milieu of melodrama, coming to us from the Netherlands is a sweet Jewish comedy entitled Moos. As one can guess, the central character’s name is Moos (Jip Smit), a young woman who aspires to be accepted into the most influential, well regarded drama school in Amsterdam, yet fails miserably at the auditions due to her song being in Hebrew. The story begins on the first night of Hanukkah — everything is ritualistic and familiar. Childhood friend Sam (Daniel Cornelissen) shakes up the monotony by returning from Israel, surprising Moos and witnesses the series of peculiar events that take place in Moos’ life.

Director, Job Gosschalk, explained his idea for the movie to originally focus on two protagonists, Sam and Moos, the story shifting its point of view from one to the other. Though the film now only focuses on Moos as the main protagonist, the title — a sort of inside joke amongst Dutch Jewish people specifically, who are generally familiar with the stories of fictional figures Samuel and Moses, “Sam and Moos” for short — hints at the origins of the script. Samuel and Moses are renowned for dealing with their daily mishaps through self-mockery and sarcasm, a trait we pick up on between the characters Sam and Moos in the film. Other typical Jewish stereotypes come forth, as many scenes take place in the loud, bustling and almost always busy family delicatessen, the centre of gossip and life in the movie.

The film is heart-warming, with the typical rise and fall and rise again of the main character, as she overcomes her fears and faces her problems, mixed with the traditional Jewish rituals such as a young boy’s Bar mitzvah or the circumcision of a new born baby, and with the guest appearance of small Hebrew-singing sensation Asaf Hertz, the guilty pleasure felt whilst watching Love Actually is not experienced when the credits roll on screen.

Kind words aside, this is no Hollywood film. Intended for television, not for cinema release, the director’s standards are not aiming for highbrow cinema. Moos is not your typical heroine, she is unpolished, clumsy, lost. By no means is she the family’s pride and joy, although the ending obviously fixes that with a touching Father-Daughter scene. Gosschalk stated that his aim was to feature ordinary people with everyday issues, steering clear of anything excessively grave or that required intensive reflexion, so the wider public could relate in some way to one or multiple characters and situations.

These are merely two of many other films presented during the 20th annual Jewish Film Festival in Manchester, but definitely worth seeing. Managing to take away from the taboos and blindness to a heritage that is widely overlooked and skirted around by the media, it is refreshing to observe in the modern daily life of Jewish people in different parts of the globe, in the form of melodramas, which simultaneously celebrate and offer a new perspective of this rich culture.

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