For those of you who live on Long Island and routinely complain about the lack of cultural opportunities but have yet to check out the annual summer Stony Brook University (SBU) Film Festival, stop whining and buy your pass for next year’s festival as soon as they go on sale. I’m sad to say it’s too late for this year.
The ten day, 37 feature and short film marathon concluded on August 1 with the screening of The Little Traitor, a clever and touching story of the unlikely friendship between an adolescent Jewish boy and a British soldier in occupied Palestine shortly before the declaration of the Israeli state. The soldier (Alfred Molina) happens upon 11 year old Proffy (Ido Port) out after curfew and sees him safely home. Despite the overwhelming popular resentment of the occupation (Proffy and his friends fantasize about destroying the British enemy forces), the two manage to get to know one another, forging an innocent friendship and thus break through the stereotypes imposed by the conflict. As is the case for most of the SBU screenings, someone connected with the film, e.g., actors, producers, directors, speaks afterwards to provide some behind-the-scenes insight and takes questions from the audience. For example, in this case, writer/director Lynn Roth described the delays they encountered when the war in Lebanon erupted during the filming. She and star Alfred Molina, the only westerners in the production were quite concerned (she feared that with a potentially prolonged delay Ido Port’s voice would drop an octave as he hit puberty before they got to finish shooting) but the Israeli crew was hardly phased and returned to work well before the conflict was resolved.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was well represented in the choice of films for this year’s festival. Another standout was For My Father, which expanded the limits of credulity even further than The Little Traitor to explore the human spirit as it is both molded by and in defiance of the conflicts that society imposes. The film opens with Tarek, a Palestinian terrorist (Shredi Jabarin) on his way to a suicide mission in Tel Aviv. The senseless violence in the Middle East is exposed through the telling of the story but many of the complexities that we experience in “real life” are reflected as well. On one hand, the filmmakers poke fun at the terrorists as Tarek’s handlers are discussing the mundane, e.g., what to have for lunch as he prepares to end his life. The film also provides balance (without excusing his actions) by trying to shine a light on what might possess a human to blow himself to smithereens. In Tarek’s case it was about love for his family and an attempt to restore his father’s honor in the community. But Tarek’s mission is delayed by technical difficulties and over the course of the next 48 hours, he is thrust into the lives of several Tel Aviv citizens: He meets and falls for Keren (Hili Yalon) a young Jewish woman rebelling against her stifling Orthodox upbringing and Katz (Shlomo Vishinsky), an electrical appliance repairman (to whom he turns for help to repair his bomb) and his wife who take him in. Tarek struggles to come to terms with the battle between his human spirit, love of family, loyalty to the movement for Palestinian equality and the influence of extremist politics, as we wonder if he can derail his path to destruction. Keren, too, reaches for humanity in her rejection of the narrow-minded blind faith she is expected to unquestioningly pursue by her family and community. And Katz and his wife are battling the ever present memory of their only son’s death due to over vigilant training in the Israeli army. For My Father is a modern day fairy tale that engages on many levels but whose primary message targets extremism in all forms.
The beauty of the SBU festival is that part of its mission is to push the envelope – bringing indie and foreign films you would not see elsewhere, and films that tell their stories in unconventional ways. So it’s no surprise that not all eighteen feature length and short films I managed to see were gems. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead is one memorable disaster. The film, starring Dustin Hoffman’s son Jake is a twisted, dark comedy, vampire adaptation of Hamlet that goes straight for the bizarre and just hangs around until they ran out of film and/or money. It is a rather conspicuous attempt to appeal to the cult market and is a not too subtle rip off of the cult “classic”, Night of the Living Dead. The cast and crew even showed up with a bunch of their adolescent friends in suitable vampire attire in a lame attempt at simulating a cult following. The written synopsis for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead in the festival guidebook calls it “an amusing combination of low-brow humor and high-brow aesthetics…” That’s way too generous. One can easily imagine that the genesis for the film was a bunch of stoners hanging out and stumbling on the witty title and unfortunately decided to build a film around it. The production company, who perhaps not so ironically, call themselves C Plus Pictures ought to consider renaming it D Minus Pictures.
So that’s a snapshot of the good, the great and the ugly from this year’s SBU Film Festival. It’s not an easy feat to digest 37 films in 10 days but its lots of fun trying. Hopefully this and other similar screenings will facilitate broader distribution of these works – kudos to festival director Alan Inkles and his staff for another year of creative and provocative films.