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05.13.09

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Phaedra

FAMILY DISUNITY: Everybody shows up, but nobody can agree at the mourning ritual in 'Shiva.'

Lions and Goats

The Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival offers sitcoms and sit-down tragedies

By Richard von Busack


THIS WEEK at the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival: The Book of Ecclesiastics warns that it is better to go to the house of mourning than the house of feasting, but the family in Shiva (May 16, 8:30pm) finds it would have been better to stay at home in the first place. Here's Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz's drama about the unwinding of a mixed family of Moroccan and Iraqi Jews during the forced seven days of mourning. The rituals involve, shudder, a familywide slumber party, the covering of mirrors and the forbidding of meat, jewelry and laughter. The family here is observed in long, Ozu-level shots, since they're supposed to sit on the floor if they can. They discover that the passing of the departed brother—he dropped dead at a party at 4am—removes the keystone that held them all together. Things get ugly and then uglier, with the revelation of the rivalries, of collapsing businesses and suppurating resentment; meanwhile the older relatives are breast-beating and ululating to beat the band. Meir (Albert Iluz) can't budget the time for mourning because he's in a hard-fought mayoral election; Vivianne (co-director Ronit Elkabetz, who was the co-star of the not-to-be-forgotten Late Marriage) can't wait to confront her spineless husband. And meanwhile—since Shiva is set in 1991—Iraqi Scud missiles are striking Israel. "I wish a missile would fall on this family," prays one of the bent-out-of-shape members of the family.

On May 17 at 7pm, the festival presents four episodes of the witty, fast and laugh-track-free situation comedy/drama Arab Labor. This show needs no intro if you're Israeli; the Chronicle's Jonathan Curiel has called it "The Palestinian Seinfeld." The title Arab Labor is a common slur, meaning the same thing as "jerry-built." Novelist and ex-Ha'aretz reporter Sayed Kashua's show does approximately what the Norman Lear era of sitcoms did in America in the 1970s—takes controversial issues of prejudice and put a human face on them, representing a people who are usually presented only as a problem. Bemused reporter Amjad Amian (Norman Issa) is a secular, thoroughly assimilated Arab, working as a journalist and living in his lifelong home in Israel with his family. Prickly Granddad (Salim Dao, very reminiscent of Alan Arkin) provides the salt, and precocious daughter Maya (the delightful Fatimah Yihie) brings on the sugar. One episode to be screened at the festival regards the problems of finding a school for Maya, who goes to an Islamic kindergarten and pretends to have grown fanatically pious to get out of school; but the alternative, a Jewish-run "Peace School," isn't interested in Arab children whatsoever. Amjad's wife, Bushra (Clara Khoury), comments that Amjad is bound for disappointment in a fractured society: "You have a big heart, you think everyone is like you."

Playing May 20 at 7pm as part of this Israel 61st-birthday celebration is It's Now or Never, Eitan Londner's historical drama concerning the declaration of statehood of Israel in November 1949, despite the foreboding of David Ben-Gurion (Yossi Kantz) about the future of the country.


Movie Times THE SILICON VALLEY JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL takes place May 16–17 and 20 at Cubberley Theater in Palo Alto. For details, see www.svjff.org.


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