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Jewish Film Festival offers 30 films from 10 countries
by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

Seattle Jewish Film Festival
March 11-21
Opening ceremony at Palace Ballroom, screenings at various venues


We all have a story. Perhaps the most elemental aspect of being human is the act of telling that story, of creating that narrative. Losing control of your narrative can be devastating.

That's why it's important to tell, and to hear, stories - especially stories that have been commandeered, stolen, or marginalized. Specialized film festivals are an excellent way to tell stories that might otherwise get lost (or be misunderstood) in the chaotic din of the contemporary 140-character media storm.

The 15th annual AJC Seattle Jewish Film Festival (SJFF) returns March 11-21. SJFF, the premiere local public program of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), is well known for offering the best in critically acclaimed, independent Jewish-themed films, Israeli films, special events, and educational programming. Many special guests and filmmakers will also be on hand for the festival.

"At a time when Israel and Israeli cinema finds itself relentlessly under the lens of international scrutiny and criticism, SJFF, as a program of the American Jewish Committee, finds it refreshing and inspiring to see courageous, self-reflective, often critical and at times transcendent films coming out of Israel that capture the complexities of daily life," says SJFF director Pamela Lavitt.

The festival kicks off at the Palace Ballroom on March 11 at 7 p.m. with the Tom Douglas Pre-Opening Party. Along with the requisite feast of food and wine at any Douglas event, there will also be music and an exclusive screening of selected short films.

The SJFF officially opens with a screening of the critically acclaimed film Ajami. Ajami was co-written, directed and edited over eight years by Jewish Israeli, Yaron Shani, and Christian Palestinian Scandar Copti. Winner of the Israeli Academy Award for Best Film and nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language category, Ajami makes its Pacific Northwest debut at SJFF.

While few of us find the Israel/Palestine situation uncomplicated, fewer still truly understand the complex web of identities and historical events that have led to the present circumstances. Ajami, seemingly aimed at an audience outside of Israel, attempts to enlarge our understanding of the complex relationships between the Arab Muslim, Arab Christian, and Jewish communities by telling individual stories. These stories overlap in fascinating and unpredictable ways. The intersection of these narratives is almost always in moments of incomprehensible violence.

Ajami is an urban tale that captures the devastation and oppression wrought by a world that solves its problems officially and unofficially through violence. The looping narrative can be confusing but is an apt reflection of the landscape it lives within.

As a Gay man, I understand what it's like to have my personal narrative hijacked by the broader culture. I also know that my Queer siblings (male, female, and other) endured the dehumanizing Nazi concentration camps alongside the Jewish people. However, this feeling of kinship with the Jewish community isn't the only reason to see these films. These stories help us understand other communities and the people within those communities whose stories we may only think we know.

"You don't have to be Jewish, or Israeli for that matter, to enjoy these great films," Lavitt asserts. "Besides, at SJFF, there is something for everyone and in order for us to accomplish AJC Seattle's mission of building bridges of mutual understanding in our region, we invite audiences to view and discuss 'the world through a vibrant lens' that teaches us something about each other and universal human values."

Not all the films at this year's SJFF are heavy-handed portraits of abject violence. While the diverse slate of 30 films from 10 countries does include films like Ajami, there is also a documentary about a self-aggrandizing gun-running American with ties to the mob and a comedy about an overweight Israeli chef who lives with his mother and learns sumo wrestling from a Japanese Zionist.

For more information, you can visit the SJFF website at www.seattlejewishfilmfestival.org. The festival runs March 11-21 at seven venues around Seattle including SIFF Cinema, Cinerama, The Washington State History Museum, and the Stroum Jewish Community Center.


The Most Dangerous Man in America fascinating history with a provocative story
by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
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Your government lies to you. It doesn't matter if the president is Republican or Democrat; your government lies to you. Each one of us has to decide daily how much lying from our government is tolerable. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg reached his limit. He took action.

Ellsberg was working as a high-level Pentagon official and Vietnam War strategist when he decided the war was based on decades of lies. He proceeded to leak 7,000 pages of top-secret documents to The New York Times - pages the government was none too keen for us to see.

Ellsberg's unprecedented action shook up Washington and turned him into the darling of the anti-war movement. Ellsberg became something he had never been in all his years as a top-level government wonk: a celebrity. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is a conventional documentary that tells Ellsberg's unconventional story. It's so conventional that it could be used to teach documentary filmmaking. These filmmakers know how to get out of the way of a good tale.

And it is a good tale. There is high-level intrigue and clandestine activities. There is a love affair for the ages, and it's all set against the backdrop of an unjust war. The story begs to be made into a feature film starring Tobey Maguire and Michelle Williams if for no other reason than John Williams could write one hell of an over-the-top score.

The biggest question I came away with - and there are many questions I came away with - concerns Ellsberg himself. Who is this guy?

He's not against war. In fact, he was intimately involved with the planning and conduct of the Vietnam War from 1959 on after becoming a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation and consultant to the Defense Department and the White House while working on his Ph.D. in economics at Harvard. He even returned to Vietnam in the late '60s, serving as a "civilian" with the State Department.

Ellsberg joined the Defense Department in 1964 as Special Assistant to Assistant Secretary of Defense (International Security Affairs) John McNaughton, working on the escalation of the war in Vietnam. It seems Ellsberg knew a lot about the lies because he had a pivotal role in their creation.

Ellsberg was an artist. As a teenager, he was on track to be a concert pianist until the untimely death of his mother, after which he stopped playing altogether (Ellsberg considers the same incident formative in his decision to spill the beans in 1971).

He's a romantic. After a failed first marriage, Ellsberg found the love of his life in Patricia. After dating briefly, they are reunited years later amid the chaos of the anti-war movement. Patricia was a lefty and a staunch supporter of the anti-war movement, leading me to believe Ellsberg might have done it for love.

He also liked the camera turned on him. I get the feeling he relishes the spotlight and seeks it out. My suspicions about his appetite for celebrity force me to consider just how altruistic his motivations were.

Ellsberg's story also prompts comparisons to contemporary politics. In the late '60s, a Democratic president at war was replaced by a Republican who promised to "end the war and win the peace." Forty years later, a Republican president at war was replaced by a Democrat who promised, "I will end this war; I will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq."

Not much changed after the election - not in 1968 and not in 2008.

Another interesting aspect of this story is how the free press stood up to government bullying and won. The New York Times was effectively censored when Nixon obtained a federal court injunction forcing the Times to cease publication. Other papers jumped into the breach and began printing excerpts from the leaked papers. The Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of The New York Times, but the ruling was 6-3 and vigorously debated afterward.

The entire episode speaks to the importance of a free press in a democracy. With print journalism under pressure to find a new economic model in this digital age, lessons like these become vital for a new generation to understand.

And as disconcerting as the search for a new economic model for print journalism is, perhaps more troubling is the consolidation of media ownership. When fewer people control information and less reporting takes place locally, we all lose.

This Oscar-nominated film lost to The Cove for best feature-length documentary this year, and I can agree with that outcome. That's not to say, however, that The Most Dangerous Man in America isn't a fascinating film. As you can see from this review, it made my brain hurt. The story is amazing and its cultural moment will speak for centuries to come. You should definitely see The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.


Remember Me unforgettable for all the wrong reasons
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Remember Me
Opening March 12


There is a moment in the new melodrama Remember Me starring Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson where the oxygen drains completely out of the theater in a way I can say I have never seen before. It is the penultimate scene of the film; the scene where everything comes to a head and one that is I guess designed to reduce its audience into a frantic flurry of cascading tears.

Except this doesn't happen. Instead, everyone looks to their left and to their right, muttering to their friends and asking one another if what they think is about to happen really is going to take place. When it does, you can then hear them all gasp - not in emotional overload, but in un-amused befuddlement. All the heart and soul the audience invested in these characters because of the strength of the writing and the performances is - and excuse me for saying this - reduced to rubble. The only thing left behind is the sound of a strong movie falling to pieces right before your very eyes.

I'm finding this all exceedingly difficult to talk about, mainly because I don't want to deliver a spoiler and reveal the climax of the film - though every fiber of my being really, truly wants to. The screenplay - the first produced by writer Will Fetters (no relation, for those few wondering) - introduces a twist that adds nothing to the proceedings and, worse, infuriated me to such an extent I'm almost beside myself with rage. Not because I don't think the subject matter should be broached in a feature film - a 2006 Paul Greengrass flick was in my top 10 of the past decade - but more because it's so out of left field it feels like a device meant to pander to people's collective memories (and miseries) in hopes of producing emotional devastation.

I don't know what else there is to say. I should probably talk about the plot, but because of the way the script pulls the rug out from underneath its narrative, I kind of wonder what the point of that would be. I should also probably speak to the acting, mainly because Pattinson shows some serious thespian chops that his signature role of Twilight's Edward Cullen doesn't allow for, but again I'm feeling so freakishly let down that I don't particularly care that Emilie de Ravin is fantastic or that Tate Ellington steals every scene he's in.

None of it matters; not a stunning opening scene of breathtaking tragedy that director Allen Coulter (Hollywoodland) stages brilliantly, not a performance from Chris Cooper that's worthy of a second Oscar, and not some beautifully nuanced work from Pierce Brosnan that caught me by surprise. The simple truth is that this is a movie that took everything away from me and left me grasping for straws as to what it all meant - and why I should even care in the first place. It wrecks itself, as if the filmmakers were doing it on purpose, ruining what could have been a wonderful early-millennia star-crossed romance and transforming it instead into a total waste of time and talent the likes of which I've never experienced.

I will say one thing for Remember Me: they certainly got the title right. No matter how hard I try, no matter how long I work to do it, no matter what else I see this year, this is one movie I can honestly say I will never, ever forget.


Filmmaker David DeCoteau perfects the Gay thriller
by Gary M. Kramer - SGN Contributing Writer

Prolific out filmmaker David DeCoteau has two films on DVD this month: The Pit and the Pendulum, his latest Queer re-imagining/adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe's story (after film versions of The Raven and The House of Usher) and Brotherhood V: Alumni, the newest installment of another series he helms. On the phone from his home in Los Angeles, DeCoteau spoke about his genre films, which focus less on plot and more on hot guys in their underwear.

The director's films, for the uninitiated, are B-grade thrillers where sinister things happen to beautiful people. In Pit, seven gorgeous, athletic college students agree to allow JB (Lorielle New) to hypnotize them. Alas, several of characters meet horrible ends. In Alumni, a handful of high school friends are reunited a year after a murder to ferret out the killer.

The filmmaker insists his genre entries are thrillers, not horror movies, because there is little blood and no gore. "They are not terrifying. I'm very squeamish and proper. I'm not into extreme violence, and gore, I've done vampire movies without blood and fangs. They are the opposite of true horror films - rarely are there naked women, coarse language and [graphic violence]."

Likewise, his Poe adaptations put a new twist on an old master and eschew suspense for sensuality. "We used the original text as inspiration, and [added] Gay and Bisexual characters," DeCoteau says, joking that the scariest thing in his films are when straight guys "see two guys in their underwear & touching and not knowing what will happen next."

The filmmaker has developed a cult following for featuring sexy studs in their skivvies. DeCoteau started out his career making erotic films (under a female pseudonym, back when he was closeted, but that's another story). These days, however, his skin quotient is low. "Nudity is a taboo, even rear nudity," he exclaims, adding, "There's nothing very erotic about a flaccid penis." Although he made the 1997 Gay romance Leather Jacket Love Story, which featured full frontal male nudity and sex, DeCoteau has moved away from explicit cinema, concentrating instead on homoeroticism.

And DeCoteau is all about the tease. "I push the limits, and I respect the limits, and there is a lot of negotiation - how tight and what color the underwear is," he reveals. "It's in the contract! Guys want black, not white because of VPL - visible penis lines - especially if they get wet."

Pit has a lengthy scene of two hot guys wrestling in their black briefs, while Alumni has a lengthy love scene between two underwear-clad men. The filmmaker describes these moments as "over the top" plot elements meant to change the audience's expectations, not shock them. He admits that these scenes and his films are campy. "I don't like to wink at the audience. They are a bit ridiculous, but I try to do something different with each one and have an outrageous moment."

The love scene in Alumni is the first same-sex kiss and cuddle scene in the Brotherhood series, and DeCoteau is proud of this, even if he claims that it is difficult to get actors to do "boy-boy intimacy" onscreen.

Likewise, getting the actors he wants to do nudity is an uphill battle he chooses not to undertake. "People are not willing to drop trou just to be in a movie. The minute the underwear comes off, 99% of the actors would run. The actors who want to be stars get paranoid [about nudity] unless Gun Van Sant asks them to do it in an important big-budgeted project."

As such, DeCoteau focuses his energy on casting, selecting talent by personally reviewing the 5,000-7,000 submissions he gets for a film. He recalls producers criticizing his actors for being "too pretty" and he acknowledges that some guys who come in are so striking, "the straight guys in the office are checking them out."

DeCoteau says that the actors he discovers and casts - such as Jason Shane-Scott (One Life to Live) in Pit and Nathan Parsons (General Hospital) from Alumni - trust him because they know he will make them look beautiful, not foolish.

What is more, the filmmaker is careful about how he portrays his characters - especially the Gay and Bisexual ones. Both Pit and Alumni feature Queer characters that are both good and evil. DeCoteau says that evil Gay characters provide "a dilemma" - citing Sharon Stone's "killer Lesbian" from Basic Instinct - but emphasizes that, "The characters' being bad has nothing to do with them being Gay." One solution he has found is to level the playing field by introducing many Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual characters in his films.

If the filmmaker's style is not for everyone, he has amassed legions of fans. "It's a weird subgenre," DeCoteau admits. "There's a niche out there that likes my films. Otherwise I wouldn't be making them."

Or so many of them.

© 2010 Gary M. Kramer


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Kathryn Bigelow, Hurt Locker make Oscar history
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Deep Inside Hollywood
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Cherry Orchard focuses on funny side of foreclosure
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Little Boots charms at Neighbours afterparty
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Mavis Staples soars at Jazz Alley before sister faints onstage
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VIDEO - Teen Sues District for Discrimination
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Solo Performance Festival offers 30 solo shows
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Jewish Film Festival offers 30 films from 10 countries
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The Most Dangerous Man in America fascinating history with a provocative story
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Remember Me unforgettable for all the wrong reasons
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Where It's At: March Shorts - Staples, Handler and Mayer on deck for March
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Q-Scopes by Jack Fertig
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Jaguar Love's Cody Votolato gets a second chance
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Northwest News
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Letters
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A Dyke About Town: Kate Clinton, Rain Festival and the Oscars
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Deep Inside Hollywood - Romeo San Vicente
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Filmmaker David DeCoteau perfects the Gay thriller
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Book Marks
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Jesse's Journal: The historic lessons of Gay resistance
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