This year, the Washington Jewish Film Festival opening here tomorrow looks especially enticing, with a wide range of films from a wide range of sources all with some relationship to the experience of Jewish culture and history. The festival, now in its 20th year, is presenting its visionary award to Michael Verhoeven, the director whose film, “The Nasty Girl,” led off the first festival two decades ago. Audiences will get a chance to see that film, based on the true story of a German student who uncovered that her community had suppressed the history of its involvement in Nazi atrocities, and hear Verhoeven in a conversation at the Goethe-Institut about the role of film in the ongoing denial and revelation of history. His latest film, “Human Failure,” will have its North American premiere at the festival. It is a documentary about the organized theft of assets from German Jews by Nazi tax officials, and it is presented in cooperation with the United States Holocaust Museum, The Generation After, and Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Friends of Greater Washington, and sponsored by the Embassy of the Republic of Germany and the Goethe-Institute Washington.
Some of the other highlights of the festival include:
“Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist,” a documentary about the brilliantly influential comic artists and writer, creator of The Spirit and The Contract with God Trilogy,
“A Matter of Size,” an Israeli feature film about four overweight men who discover a place where being big is truly appreciated: the world of sumo wrestling,
“The Worst Company in the World,” a documentary about the film-maker’s father and his inept efforts to run an insurance business,
“Mary and Max,” a claymation feature, based on the true story of a 22-year correspondene between an Australian girl and a New York Jewish man with Asperger’s, featuring the voices of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette,
“Hello Goodbye,” a French feature about a Parisian couple (Gerard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant) who struggle to adjust when they decide to move to Israel,
“For Making Me a Woman,” a documentary about the search for equality in Orthodox observance and community, and
“The Imported Bridegroom,” a 1989 American feature film set in turn-of-the-20th century America, about a Jewish immigrant family whose daughter does not want to marry the man her father has selected for her.
I’ll be reporting more about the festival, so stay tuned.
In the middle of all the special effects and silly fun of the “Night at the Museum” movies is one character who lends the real heart to the story: Sacajawea, played by Mizuo Peck with such sweet, quiet dignity that it is no wonder Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams) falls in love with her. I had a chance to talk with her about my home-town museum, the Smithsonian, and what it’s like to film a love scene with Robin Williams. The movie is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
NM: This may sound silly, but who are you playing, Sacajawea or a statue of Sacajawea?
MP: That was an interesting question that we were thinking about the entire time when we were shooting. Was Teddy Roosevelt in pain? No he isn’t because he is made out of wax. So we don’t really have the history of the actual figure. But I personally as an actress did a lot of research about Sacajawea and approached the role as if I were a wax statute who was identifying with her.
NM: She was such an amazing character!
MP: Doing the research on her life was almost the most amazing part about this! I didn’t know much about her before. In the back of everyone’s mind, there’s Pocahontas and Sacajawea but we don’t learn much about them in school. I got to read and watch really cool documentaries and find out what a powerful and important historical figure she was. I was very, very proud to play someone so exciting. There’s all sorts of fun things to learn about her. The Lewis and Clark expedition might not have been successful without her.
She was not an official member of the Corps of Discovery. She was just the wife of one of the translators. But her contribution was essential. She was able to dig up roots when all the men were just about eating their horses. Her being there, a woman with a baby, made their encounters peaceful because it showed that Lewis and Clark weren’t there for war. There were all these swarthy men doing this expedition in the dead of winter and she was a young woman holding a newborn on her back the entire time, so more power to her!
NM: We in Washington were very excited that the second film was set in the Smithsonian. Did you visit the museum when you were here?
MP: Yes, the premiere was there at the Air and Space Museum so I got there a day early and my boyfriend and I got there and did the whole tourist thing, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Going to the museum is most definitely a different experience after making the movie! And it’s such a great aspect of the movie that it makes kids want to go to the museum and check out all these characters.
NM: What’s it like to play the love interest of Robin Williams?
MP: Extremely bizarre, I must say! One of the first scenes we did, he’s looking at me through the glass and I’m still getting over that there’s a huge giant star in front of me and then the fact that he is doting on me? And in the second one, I had a scene on a horse with him. I’m just like “pinch me” because it was incredibly surreal! We had a lot of down tme together so we got to joke around a bunch. One scene started with us in an embrace. We would get into position and be hugging and then there would be a wait before “action” and there were so many funny moments where we would be talking while we were in this hug! It is impossible not to enjoy him.
NM: Did you have a lot of special effects work?
MP: I didn’t have to do as much as the other characters like Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan. In the first one, Robin Williams was wearing green tights in the scene where he was in two pieces and it was funny to see him like that.
NM: What are you doing next?
MP: Nothing like this giant blockbuster! Some independent movies and my own script.
NM: What makes you laugh?
MP: When people do silly things, and when my boyfriend tickles me. The movie “Nacho Libre” — it’s so silly, but Jack Black makes me laugh.
NM: What’s your dream role?
MP: I always like it when a woman starts off vulnerable and gains strength, a really intense arc — I like complex characters. I’ve always been attracted to the role in “La Femme Nikita.” She starts at such a low point and keeps her vulnerability but becomes a real bad ass!
NM: What inspires you?
MP: You find inspiration all over the place. I’m a born New Yorker so just the people on the street give me inspiration, being exposed to so many different kinds of people. We all are so different but we all want the same thing, love, trying to make a living. We’re all so different and diverse but it boils down to a certain sense of love and happiness. That’s kind of inspirational to me.
On Thursday December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress and a volunteer secretary for the NAACP, was sitting in the section of a public bus reserved for black passengers. As she rode, the seats designated for white riders were filled and the driver told her and three other seated black passengers to get up so the whites could sit. She refused and she was arrested.
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired,” she wrote, “but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
A young minister, new in town, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, led the bus boycott in protest of her arrest. It is important to remember how modest the demands were. King’s group did not ask that the buses be fully integrated. They only asked that the black riders should not have to move. When the segregation was ruled unconstitutional, Dr. King circulated a memo to remind the black community that not all white people supported segregation and that they should be courteous, even in the face of insults. He urged them to maintain “a calm and loving dignity” and to “pray for the oppressor and use moral and spiritual force to carry on the struggle for justice.”
Scholastic has some good teaching materials on Rosa Parks and the boycott. Older children and adults will appreciate Angela Basset’s performance in The Rosa Parks Story and Iris Little-Thomas as Mrs. Parks in Boycott.
How can you have a war between humans and machines when the line between them is hard to find?
In the first three Terminator movies, cyborgs from the future were sent back in time to prevent future leader of the resistance John Connor from being born and then from surviving. But in the fourth installment, set in a bleak, apocalyptic landscape of bleached-out rubble and belching fires (but apparently excellent dental care), the time that was foretold has arrived. The Skynet computer network has achieved self-awareness and now sees humans as a threat to its continued existence.
Connor (now played by Christian Bale) is a charismatic rebel who does not work well with the chain of command. He knows that his future will require him to send a man named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) back in time to protect a young waitress named Sarah Connor, who will become his mother, from the Terminator sent to kill her. He knows that Reese, now a teenager, must not just rescue Sarah; he will fall in love with her and become John’s father. A bit of an ontological paradox, but if we were going to worry about that, we’d never get to the explosions and shoot-outs, so on we go.
The machines’ “awareness” and instinct for independence achieves a kind of humanity as the humans’ ruthlessness and desperation makes them increasingly mechanistic. Life is Hobbsian, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The people and the machines are more alike than different — they can think of little but self-preservation, and humanity is defined not by how something or someone is created but by the capacity to sacrifice for others.
It does not live up to the first two films, which had astonishing special effects, arresting characters, and some emotional resonance. But it does have some enormously cool machines (what I would like to see is these guys up against the Transformers, now that would be a movie!), and an Australian actor named Sam Worthington, an enormously magnetic performer who will also be featured in the upcoming “Avatar” movie (coincidentally directed by James Cameron, who directed the first two “Terminator” films). Worthington is electrifying. He plays Marcus, a character who raises questions about what it means to be human but provides a definitive answer about what it means to be a star.