Faced with a world overwhelmed by injustice and misery, where ideals and efforts to bring about change or to right wrongs are routinely crushed, some withdraw into apathy, denial, and despair. Not so the subjects of several documentaries in this year’s Boston Jewish Film Festival (Nov. 6-17). They persevere despite long odds against them and the sacrifices and frustrations they must endure.
Lea Tsemel, an Israeli human-rights lawyer who’s the subject of Phillipe Bellaïche and Rachel Leah Jones’s “Advocate” (Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre) has for nearly 50 years been defending clients ranging from peaceful demonstrators to armed militants accused of terrorist acts.
Bellaïche and Jones focus on two cases in progress – that of a 13-year-old Palestinian boy accused of attempted murder in a knife-wielding terrorist attack perpetrated by his cousin and that of a Palestinian woman, whose botched bombing attempt may have been motivated by suicidal depression. The filmmakers intercut these with key moments in Tsemel’s career, going from disillusioned veteran of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War who thought victory meant peace to advocate for Palestinians and others prosecuted for political reasons.
On a TV show in 1999 an interviewer says that she can’t understand Tsemel’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause. “You should try to understand [me] because I am the future.” That future has yet to come. Near the film’s end, as her current cases come to an uncertain close, Tsemel says, “I live with the illusion I can do something in the world, make an impact, that there is someone to reason with.”
As noted at the beginning of Ramy Katz’s “Cause of Death” (Nov. 8 at 12 p.m. Coolidge Corner, and Nov. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre; a conversation with the director follows the screenings) the Druze, more so than many Arabs, have found a secure and respected place in Israeli society, serving often in the military or police force. So when Salim Barakat, a Druze sergeant in the Tel Aviv police, was killed while confronting a terrorist shooter in 2002, his fellow officers offered their support and condolences to Salim’s brother Jamal.
But someone tipped off Jamal that the official report on his brother’s death was false, and he was determined to uncover the truth. Katz’s compelling account of his investigation unfolds like a detective thriller, though a tragic one. As Jamal gets closer to solving the mystery, he wrestles with the dismaying possibility that in Israel, regardless of what they do, Arabs will ultimately be considered second-class citizens.
A member of Brooklyn’s Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community, Rabbi Chaim Bruk was sent to Bozeman, Mont., with a mission to put a mezuzah on the doorposts of every one of the state’s 2000 Jewish residents (“If you have a mezuzah and a gun you’re guaranteed to be safe and secure,” he jokingly tells one recipient). In their balanced, thorough, and wry “The Rabbi Goes West” (Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre; the filmmakers and Rabbi Bruk will participate in a Q&A after the screening) Cambridge filmmakers Gerald Peary and Amy Geller follow Bruk as he pursues this mission. He seems a jovial, charismatic leader with admirable motives, but it becomes apparent that his agenda is not limited to adorning doorways.
Other Montana rabbis who are interviewed express uneasiness about Bruk’s efforts to lure away members of their congregations and have reservations about the fundamentalist form of Judaism he is preaching. And though Bruk’s ideals and good intentions seem genuine, he is also candid about his sexism, messianism, and the inflexibility of his beliefs.
Peary and Geller avoid taking sides as they intimately engage with the rabbi at home with his equally committed wife and their adopted children. They join him at his Scotch and Sushi Sukkot celebration, at a shooting range as he fires an AR-15 with his 12-year-old daughter, and on the road as he tirelessly drives across the state in search of new believers. Only occasionally, as when he fails to counter a talk radio show caller’s anti-Semitic remarks about George Soros (most Jews, Bruk tells him, “aren’t like George Soros”), does his jovial, seductive zeal falter.
Deborah Feldman, one of the five determined women profiled in Barbara Miller’s “#Female Pleasure” (Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. at Emerson Paramount Bright Family Screening Room and Nov. 17 at 2:30 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts; a panel discussion follows the screenings), would not be impressed by Rabbi Bruk. Driving by the Brooklyn Hasidic community where she was born, raised, and from which she fled at 23. she asks her son, “You wouldn’t want to grow up there, would you?” As a dogged critic of the sect’s treatment of women, she has expressed her views in best-selling memoirs.
Miller contends that Feldman’s case demonstrates how religion instigates sexist attitudes, and in addition to this example from Judaism she also examines the impact of Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism on the role and treatment of women.
In Japan, where Buddhist tradition forbids women to become sushi chefs, Rokudenashiko (Japanese for “naughty girl”), a Tokyo feminist animé artist, is arrested for using 3-D printing to make a boat in the shape of her vagina. Using a large clay model, Leyla Hussein, a Somali-British activist, makes an audience of young men cringe with disbelief and horror as she demonstrates the practice of female genital mutilation performed on young girls in some Muslim societies. Doris Wagner, a German ex-nun who was sexually abused by a priest, takes her case to the pope himself. And Vithika Yadav confronts her country’s Hindu-inspired misogyny with street theater and a popular website. For them the struggle for women’s rights begins with control over their own bodies.