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At the Movies: 15th Annual Sacramento Jewish Film Festival

15th Annual Sacramento Jewish Film Festival
March 10-11, 2012

The Crest Theatre again plays host to the Sacramento Jewish Film Festival this weekend, with two feature films and one short film on Saturday evening and two features and two more shorts on Sunday afternoon.  This year’s films are diverse in both subject matter and tone.

Opening Night Films

“Holy Land Hardball”

This feature length documentary (screened with a supporting short film) recounts the challenges associated with one man’s dream to introduce professional baseball to Israel.  This might have been an easier task if it didn’t also involve introducing Israel to professional baseball, as it’s a sport that many Israelis simply aren’t familiar with.  As the opening frame of the film points out, Israel has professional soccer, basketball, and hockey leagues – it isn’t a country devoid of sports.  And while it might be tempting to compare this enterprise with the history of bringing soccer to the USA, it’s probably more akin to what might happen if one attempted to very suddenly introduce cricket on a national level in this country. 

Larry Baras made his fortune manufacturing hole-less bagels, pre-impregnated with cream cheese – an idea that came to him after a messy encounter with a more normal bagel while driving his car.  But after a particularly bad year, filled with family and business difficulties, he decided he needed a new venture and wanted to do something that might, in his perception, benefit Israel.  And thus the plan for baseball in Israel was born.

However, building an entire professional sports league from the ground up is difficult – apparently considerably more difficult than Larry and his team expected.  Assorted difficulties included, for example, recruiting a league’s worth of players who could compete professionally, yet who weren’t already engaged in pro-sports.  Tryouts attracted both viable players, and dreamers who seemed more likely to pass out during speed trials.  They also had to face the fact that Israel, at the time, had only two ball fields in the whole country, one of which was little more than a community softball field on a kibbutz.  As is said by one of the organizers during the film “except for players, fields, and fans, we’ve got everything all set!”

They also encounter multiple cultural divides and misconceptions.  At one point, while recruiting players in the Dominican Republic, it becomes clear than several of the athletes are convinced that everybody in Israel is a devout Christian.  They have an American base camp with a cook who has never served kosher food and they encounter an Israeli press corps who seemingly have no reticence about expressing their skepticism about the league and its players, with one saying “I don’t want to be pessimistic but I’m a Jew and I have to be pessimistic.”

Overall it’s a fascinating portrayal of one man’s dream and the manner in which it coalesces with the dreams of others.  This is a league made up of past managers enjoying a last hurrah, college players who never made the majors, and older guys living out the fantasies of their youth – plus a bunch of very talented Dominicans.  But the commonality for most of them is the idea and the central mission, as it’s clear they’re not going to get rich from the experience – they might not even get air conditioning or ice – but they will have stories to tell their children and grandchildren.

“This is Sodom”

In a bold departure from their normal programming, “This is Sodom” takes the Jewish Film festival firmly into later night, risqué content.  Billed as “for mature audiences only,” this is a film that takes an irreverent look at a city whose name itself has entered the lexicon in a manner that perhaps only Rick Santorum might fully appreciate.

It’s clear very early on that the story is going to play fast and loose with tradition, as God appears in the form of a traveling salesman who’s trying to sell Abraham on a neat, one stop shopping, packaged new religion.  Skeptical about the deal, Abraham in turn negotiates a demonstration of the awesomeness of the power he’s about to buy into.

Meanwhile, the angels sent to deal with the Sodomites are portrayed as motorcycle cops, one of whom is intent on filming their experiences for his own deeply meaningful documentary.  This helps make the film feel like the lovechild of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” and something more like “Reno 911.”  And if Kevin Johnson still has an interest in the “Strong Mayor” idea, he could learn a thing or three from the Mayor of Sodom, including decapitation techniques for uncooperative councilmembers.

It’s worth noting that, along with the lighthearted trampling of religious sensibilities, the film also throws in sexual paraphernalia, related sight gags, and at least one masturbation joke.  But it also plays true to much of the original story – that Sodom’s crimes weren’t all associated with excess and debauchery, but also with a lack of traditionally expected hospitality.  Beware the wedding guest who isn’t kept well fed.

The full festival schedule can be found online at www.sacjff.com including links to the film’s own homepages and descriptions. 

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