Like the Muppet movies, Jewish films depend largely on their locations to sell themselves. Instead of Manhattan, the Jews in Harley, Son of David take Washington, D.C., on the backs of motorcycles. In Cheese Head — My First Ghetto, it's Kingston, Jamaica; in Cabul in Kabul, it's Afghanistan; and in the documentary Unsettled, they un-take the Gaza Strip. All of which poses an obvious question: If the value of a Muppet movie is that it contains Muppets, is the value of a Jewish film simply that it contains Jews?
Sort of, because the central conflicts of Jewish films tend to derive from the same timeless question: What does it mean to be Jewish? The novelty springs from their locales and cultural context. Hence internationalism reigns in this year's Miami Jewish Film Festival, which gets under way Saturday. In addition to the aforementioned places, settings include Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and, of course, New York and Israel (locales of mythic, and thus unfixed, proportions). In each, the characters struggle with circumstances that challenge their Jewishness and leave them asking, "What would a real Jew do in my situation?"
Nowhere is that question more at the forefront than in Unsettled, a well-made film that every person interested in Israel, the Middle East, and, by extension, world politics, should see. Every documentary wins or loses based on the importance of its sources to its subject, and in that regard, Unsettled wins resoundingly. Shot by young Americans, the film follows Israelis on both sides of the Gaza Strip withdrawal: three settlers of various religious and political stripes, an Israeli soldier brilliantly unfit for the task at hand, and a pro-withdrawal protester whose younger sister was killed by a suicide bomb.
The intimacy of the footage can likely be attributed to the trust between the very young and idealistic filmmakers and their subjects, but also to the mutual desire on both sides of the conflict to preserve the moment for history. The viewer enters homes during forced extractions, marches alongside soldiers, and witnesses, from a more personal angle, moments reminiscent of the evening news. A fictional film couldn't capture the anguish between countrymen on opposite sides of the issue — a settler weeping while burying his paratrooper uniform in protest; another settler leaning on the shoulder of a colonel while being ushered out of his own kitchen for the last time; and the look on the face of a young soldier as an eight-year-old boy asks him: "Are you a real Jew or a robot Jew?"
The question of whether real Jews follow orders or listen to their hearts is also at the forefront of Arranged, a lighthearted take on arranged marriage in modern-day Brooklyn. Rochel Meshenberg (played by Zoë Lister-Jones, who looks like a cross between Funny Girl-era Barbra Streisand and a late-Nineties Jennifer Connolly) is the eldest daughter of Orthodox parents who can't understand why she's being so picky about choosing one of her many disastrous suitors. ("I would love for you to serve me," one says.) At times, the film makes a weak attempt to inject real danger into Rochel's skepticism, as well as into her friendship with fellow elementary schoolteacher Nasira, a Muslim woman in similar circumstances, but the film is much more committed to its feel-good love story and works best when the comically gifted Nasira (Francis Benhamou) poses as Sephardic in order to play matchmaker for Rochel. The sequence, besides being a great Jane Austen imitation, works so well that it calls the rest of the film into question: Why isn't the whole thing an identity-swapping satire about the ethnic similarities between Jews and Muslims?
My Mexican Shivah mixes comedy and tragedy with a little more skill, though the filmmaking itself feels decidedly amateurish. Moishe Tartakovsky has died, so his family and friends pack into his Mexico City apartment for seven days to honor his memory and reopen old wounds among themselves. There's an old adage that says comedies end with weddings, and tragedies end with funerals, but My Mexican Shivah is something in between: a comedy about a funeral that never ends. The film is divided into the seven days of mourning and features two supernatural characters that serve as divine accountants taking score on the proceedings in order to determine whether Moishe's soul goes to Heaven or Hell. They sit off to the side, shaking their heads disapprovingly and making jokes, while the other characters call out to their Maker and ask for answers that rarely arrive. The unstated belief though, as in all Jewish film, is that someone up there is pulling the strings.