A huge gulf must exist between what we hear of Israel in the United States, and what we actually know of the country. News reports and conversations about Israel invariably involve the Middle Eastern political conflicts, with the controversy over Jimmy Carter's recent book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid offering just the latest example. But just because such tensions shape the nation, that doesn't mean they define Israel's character.
The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival offers an invaluable chance to discover different facets of one of the most influential nations in the world (particularly in the post-9/11 landscape). By no means is the festival limited to Israel, given that it presents 38 documentaries, feature films and shorts from 13 different countries. While other screenings ranged from the Holocaust documentary The Rape of Europa to a comedy from Argentina called Jews in Space, the Israeli offerings hooked me.
The documentary 5 Days (3 stars, Jan. 24, 6:50 p.m., Lefont Sandy Springs) narrows the focus on the country's long-standing conflicts and helps you appreciate their complexity. Director Yoav Shamir and multiple film crews follow the players in the five days of Aug. 14-19, during which the Jewish military forcibly evacuated 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. 5 Days briefly touches on the contentious history of the Gaza Strip and occasionally mentions the complications of a Palestinian refugee camp near the events, but almost exclusively dramatizes the conflict of Jews against Jews.
Shamir's narration tends to offer high-handed pronouncements about the events as theater, but he also strives to fairly present the contrasting points of view. Maj. Gen. Dan Harel serves as a commanding but sensitive protagonist, aware of the difficulties Jewish soldiers face while evicting Jews from their own land. On the other side, activists such as family man Noam Shapira seem unshakable in their beliefs, but take pains to avoid actual violence while resisting. Ultimately, the lack of bloodshed offers a hopeful sign in an incident that initially resembles the irresistible force vs. the immovable object.
A terrorist bombing in Tel Aviv provides a key scene in the black-and-white psychological thriller Frozen Days (3 stars, Jan. 27, 6:50 p.m., Atlantic Station; Jan. 28, 5:40 p.m., Lefont Sandy Springs). Otherwise, the film could take place in any major city with both an underground drug trade and white-collar professionals. Possibly the immediacy of the terror threat shapes the character of people such as Miao (Anat Klausner), a small-time drug dealer who's tough, reclusive and emotionally closed-off.
Miao flirts with a stranger in an online chat room, but when he's rendered comatose by the bombing, Miao moves into his apartment and increasingly assumes his identity. Klausner's sexy, brooding performance suggests Winona Ryder with gravitas, particularly as Miao begins losing track of who she really is and worries for her own sanity. Frozen Days marks the debut film of Danny Lerner, and despite its near-nonexistent budget and brief shooting schedule, proves to be a surprisingly accomplished film with sharp, stylish echoes of Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski.
Color intrudes in Frozen Days' otherwise black-and-white cinematography in one remarkably effective sequence, while splashy primary hues flare from seemingly every frame of the comedy Joy (3 stars, Jan. 23, 9:10 p.m., Lefont Sandy Springs; Jan. 26, 2:20 p.m., Lefont Sandy Springs). With a visual flair reminiscent of Pedro Almodóvar, the hit comedy follows lonely, zaftig Simcha (Sigalit Fuchs), who secretly auditions her family to be in the reality show "Gotta Be Happy." The program throws surprise parties for the unsuspecting, but Simcha's TV-related plans for her parents' wedding anniversary turn out to be more complicated than she expects.
Fuchs offers a terrific, award-winning performance as she struggles to keep from sinking into depression. Simcha, whose name translates as "Joy," wears garish clothes, rather than fading into the background. Joy's charms eventually give way to self-conscious quirkiness in subplots such as Simcha's mismatched romance with a diminutive, Chaplinesque street performer, but it's a persistently pleasing film.
Joy also offers a reminder that reality shows are an international phenomenon, although "Gotta Be Happy" includes an Israeli variation by linking itself to Yom Kippur and forgiveness. In such scenes as kids riding bicycles on deserted streets during the holiday, Joy captures the uniquely Israeli flavor of holidays as well as TV programming. Joy and Frozen Days convey the common ground Israel shares with other nations, while Five Days clarifies just how deep the country's distinctive problems can go.