Films that make you go Hmmm â?¦

Two Sundays ago, I was reviewing advance VHS copies of the four films selected for play in the third annual Central Florida Jewish Film Festival, set for Sunday and Monday, Oct. 21 and 22, at Maitland's Enzian Theater. I had just spent 123 minutes in the company of "Kippur," director Amos Gitai's unhurried, naturalistic memoir of the 1973 attack on Israel by Syria. The tape ended, my VCR went into rewind mode, and the display reverted to broadcast TV. What I saw: A graphic reading "America Fights Back." The bombing of Afghanistan had begun.

Don't let anyone tell you that irony is dead. We just don't recognize it because it isn't funny anymore.

As a showcase of Jewish-themed films from around the globe, the festival has never shied away from tragedy. To a certain degree, it comes with the territory. But this year's lineup -- cemented many weeks before the events of Sept. 11 -- is sobering for a whole new set of reasons. Try retaining your emotional distance during "All My Loved Ones," a period tear-jerker that dramatizes one Czech family's confused reaction to the approach of Hitler's armies. And if that film's depiction of false security and military madness doesn't make you squirm in newfound identification, there's always "Yana's Friends," a romantic comedy set in Tel Aviv during the Gulf War. The donning of gas masks is a visual leitmotif; one character, fed up with the violence of the Middle East, plans a life-preserving move to the United States. Oh, dear.

The timing of these images isn't lost on the staff of the Jewish Community Center of Central Florida, which co-sponsors the annual festival and helps select the films. This year, those tasks fell to a three-person team that included Mark Manette, the artistic director of the center's theater department.

"We chose the films we thought would give a little bit of variety and still be strong `artistic` contenders," Manette says. "Obviously, none of the country was prepared for Sept. 11. `But` we have to go through with it like it is. We have contracts and deals on these things. If we knew what was going to happen, we might have made a different decision."

If that sounds like an apology, it isn't, nor should it be. While the festival's audience now finds its constitution well and duly tested, its opportunity for enrichment is enhanced. The sword of black comedy director Arik Kaplun wields in "Yana's Friends" pierces closer to the heart, and Gitai's elegiac "Kippur" is bound to inspire observations that go beyond simple comparisons to "Kadosh," his similarly slow-paced exploration of gender inequities in orthodox Judaism, which closed the festival in 2000. As this year's features remind us, the dread that is now settling in as our national mood is an accepted fact of life elsewhere in the world. (Topicality even touches the one entry that's outwardly innocuous: An undercurrent of racial oppression runs through the documentary "The Komediant," which traces the illustrious career of the Burstyn family, stars of the Yiddish vaudeville circuit.)

Although Manette hopes that viewers will come away with greater insight into Middle Eastern affairs (an ancillary agenda of the festival since its first, single-day edition in 1999), he also believes that the program hasn't forfeited its value as escapism. Unlike the news, these films will end at a specified time, and with no real blood shed.

"It's reality, but it's not reality," he weighs. "If we're too skittish, then were not going on with our life."

Break a leg

Friends of the Orlando International Fringe Festival are invited to a Tuesday, Oct. 23, ice-skating party at the RDV Sportsplex, with the $15 admission fee ($8 for nonskaters) earmarked for the fund-raising coffers of Fringe 2002. It's also a coming-out party for the festival's new executive producer, Chris Gibson, who has moved into the top slot to replace the exiting Brook Hanemann. The reason proffered for Hanemann's departure after a single year as executive director: She was unable to reconcile her duties with her studies at the University of Central Florida.

Gibson says he is "very much in agreement with the way Brook was taking the festival," though he admits that room for improvement remains. ("We brought in more money last year, but not as much as we had hoped," he reflects.) A separate committee has been set up within the Fringe's board of directors to further Hanemann's aggressive pursuit of corporate sponsorships. Another committee will focus on cultivating international participation, long a Fringe weakness.

Gibson will have some extra time in which to work: Fringe 2002 will be presented May 10 to 19, a few weeks later than usual. The shift, he hopes, will bring the event into the orbit of the Canadian festival season, as well as enhancing cross-promotional opportunities with June's Florida Film Festival. (That plan appears to be embryonic at best: Ana Handshuh, president of the 2002 Fringe board, says that no concrete overtures have been made to the film festival's principals about any cooperative activities.)

The main rationale behind the calendar shake-up, however, is to take Fringe out of competition with college exam schedules, allowing for greater volunteer participation by students. Oddly enough, it was for that reason that Hanemann herself pushed for the new timetable, back when she still thought she could juggle the festival with schoolwork.

The house folds

Demonstrating that its future lies with 20-screen megaliths, the Regal Cinemas chain closed its UC7 and Lake Mary 10 theaters Oct. 11, then shuttered its Osceola Square West 6 three days later. Word has it that the latter theater may soon reopen under new management. Next in line for the chopping block is the Fashion Village 8 on East Colonial Drive: Owner AMC has reportedly indicated to its competition in the area that the space will soon be empty. No kidding. The last time I was in that place, the floor was so dingy that it looked like one of the point-of-view shots from "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

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