To its credit, the Wisconsin Film Festival, which unspools April 4-7, has become too far-reaching to corral into a single column. But I was especially impressed with how quickly the festival's organizers responded to the events of Sept. 11, zeroing in on Afghanistan, Iran and, especially, Israel in their foreign-film lineup. Amos GitaÃ, who has long served as Israel's cinematic gadfly, gets an eight-film retrospective. And several documentaries take on various aspects of contemporary Jewish life, including what it means to be both gay/lesbian and an orthodox Jew. Despite what Walt Disney would have us believe, the festival's foreign films suggest it's not a small world after all. Here are short reviews of some of them.
Trembling Before G-d (April 7, Majestic Theatre, 3 p.m.): Is homosexuality a lifestyle? Is Judaism? Sandi Simcha DuBowski's absorbing documentary suggests that the answer to both questions is a sad no. The men and women DuBowski interviews could no more choose their sexuality than they've chosen their spirituality; they're stuck being gay/lesbian orthodox Jews. Alas, a strict interpretation of the Torah forbids men lying with other men, or women rubbing up against each other. What to do? To its credit, Trembling Before G-d (in orthodox tradition, the name of the deity is never written in full) doesn't come up with an answer to that question. Instead, it shows the devotees metaphorically beating their heads against the Wailing Wall and somehow getting at least a smidgen of spiritual sustenance from the act. "They're caught in a logical contradiction," a sympathetic psychiatrist says about these ultimate wandering Jews, beside whom Barbra Streisand in Yentl was a veritable shoo-in for rabbi.
Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujaheddin (April 6, Bartell Theatre, 8 p.m.): Back before Afghanistan was on everybody's mind, it was on nobody's mind, according to this Italian documentary, which was shot in 1999 and 2000. At that point, the country had been at war, either with itself or with the Soviet Union, for over 20 years. But after the Soviets were sent home, licking their wounds, the West turned its back on this war-torn, poverty-stricken nation. Enter the Taliban and, a few years later, a doctor and nurse representing Emergency, an Italian relief organization. Their efforts to set up a surgical hospital for land-mine victims in territory controlled by the Northern Alliance are faithfully recorded in Jung, and the story becomes one of life refusing to give death dominion.
There are countless scenes of men, women and children who have lost an arm, a leg or an eye. And you shouldn't even go to the movie unless you're prepared to watch major surgery performed under the direst circumstances. But if you can make it through that, Jung will show you a side of Afghanistan that the Western media haven't found much time for ' a rubble-strewn landscape where tanks and helicopters are part of the flora and fauna. So devastated are the people of Afghanistan that, when a man whose face has been eaten away by cancer dies, it's considered a victory. At least he died of natural causes.
Djomeh (April 5, Orpheum Theatre, 5 p.m.): In this deceptively simple Iranian film, Djomeh (Jalil Nazari) is "the milk boy," an Afghan teenager who's come to a remote Iranian village seeking neither fame nor fortune, just love. And between shifts at a small rural dairy, he thinks he may have found it. Alas, the locals treat him like one of the cows ' i.e., a foreigner, which means that marriage is out of the question. Or is it? With help from his boss, the middle-aged but friendly Mr. Mahmoud (Mahmoud Behraznia), Djomeh sets his sights on a grocer's daughter who spends most of the movie hiding behind her chador. And one of the wonderful things about this discreet first feature from writer-director Hassan Yektapanah is that we're not told what becomes of Djomeh's wedding proposal, although we have our suspicions. He may not be engaging anyone, but the movie certainly does.
Promises (April 5, Majestic Theatre, 5 p.m.): Kids say the darnedest things, of course, but I wasn't quite prepared for the preteens who appear in this Oscar-nominated documentary. Representing all the major ethnic and religious groups that live in Jerusalem and its surrounding territories, these seven youngsters (only one girl, alas) have been schooled in hate and resentment, and they bring to their disquisitions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the kind of passion that American kids reserve for, say, the Nintendo-Sony PlayStation conflict. Directors Justine Shapiro, B.Z. Goldberg and Carlos Bolado followed them around between 1997 and 2000, even tried to get a few of them together in the same room, and the seeming hopelessness of the situation ' the inability to leave history behind ' would be enough to break our hearts were it not for scenes like the one where a Palestinian child and a rabbi's son hold an impromptu burping contest. We're not shown which side wins.
Daresalem (April 4, Majestic Theatre, 7 p.m.): In the God-and-Allah-forsaken land of Chad, civil war has been raging since the country won its independence from France, back in 1960. And Daresalem, which is the first feature directed by Issa Serge Coelo, provides a window into this conflict without explicitly taking sides. Djimi (Haikail Zakaria) and Koni (Abdoulaye Ahmat) grew up in the same remote village, but when the government troops show up to collect taxes, disagreement leads to disaster, and the two best friends are thrust into the arms of rebel forces. Neither of them stays there very long, but their separate paths reveal just what this poor nation is up against. Surprisingly well put together, Daresalem manages to provide a ray of hope, if only through its very existence.
La Ciénaga (April 6, Orpheum Theatre, 3:15 p.m.): A Chekhovian spirit hangs over this movie, like a front moving in from the mountains. And the air is so thick with heat and humidity that you can practically slice it with a knife. At a summer house in northwest Argentina, near the Bolivian border, a family has gathered to while away its summer vacation. But don't expect backyard barbecues and rainy-day card games, because this particular family, like the one in The Cherry Orchard, is in an advanced stage of decay. Mom and Dad appear to be alcoholics, and the kids keep sinking into the swamp of boredom and lust, most of the day being spent in bed. Writer-director Lucrecia Martel has said she wanted to capture "the flux of sexual desire within a family," but she may be selling herself short. This lazy, hazy family ' I had trouble telling them all apart, so incestuously do they blend into one another ' may represent a whole country that's been letting itself go for far too long. La CiÃnaga cries for you, Argentina.