‘Disobedience’: Worthy WWII Portraiture

All is as it should be at the Portuguese Consulate in Bordeaux, France. Consul Aristides de Sousa Mendes is on the political upswing under Portuguese dictator Salazar. In a luxurious room at his spacious estate, Sousa Mendes’ brood of happy youngsters, with neatly combed hair and pressed vests, play flute and French horn. Sousa Mendes has a sturdy and supportive wife, and a beautiful mistress to boot. Such is the opening of Disobedience: The Sousa Mendes Story, at the Temple Emanu-El Kirk Cashmere Jewish Film Festival.

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In World War II occupied France, Portuguese Consul in France, Aristides de Sousa Mendes (Bernard Le Coq), ushers refugees through the Spanish border.

But the pretty picture is about to turn Dorian Gray, as this is 1940 and the Germans come rolling in. Millions of political refugees, a large percentage of them Jews, begin fleeing for the border. Though Salazar has declared Portugal neutral territory, he mandates that visas only be given to upstanding citizens, providing written directives that clearly exclude granting visas to the influx of Holocaust refugees gathering in the consulate courtyard.

Observing the desperate horde, Sousa Mendes is confronted by a quandary that not enough of his fellow men and women bothered addressing when the Nazi juggernaut turned push to shove. Does law and popular belief necessarily make something right, or is there a higher code of ethics that must be attended to? Tapping into a rare vein of humanity, Sousa Mendes finds his answer and subsequently acts in a way that is gentle on his conscience.

Obvious parallels to Oskar Schindler, who saved more than 1,000 Jews, can be made, but Schindler died a hero.

Sousa Mendes signed 30,000 visas, a third of them to Jews, but his political disobedience was severely punished by his government and he died an outcast.

The film shows March 10, 14 and 17, with special guest Dr. Della Peretti of Sousa Mendes Foundation introducing Disobedience March 14. Peretti is able to speak from a personal level, as 10 members of her family were recipients of visas from Sousa Mendes.

As part of the film fest, Casablanca will be screened, as will Phoenix, a slowly simmering German thriller about a concentration-camp survivor who undergoes reconstructive surgery after suffering a facial injury. The ordeal leaves her unrecognizable and on a quest to determine whether her husband really did betray her to the Nazis, as rumored.

A dreamlike road journey unfolds in Magic Men, when a very opposite father-and-son team travel to Greece looking for a magician who sheltered the dad during the Holocaust. In their series of adventures, atheistic dad Avraham takes on a kindly Greek bar girl as a guide, much to his Hassidic son’s chagrin. Directors Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor dedicate the film to their own grandfathers, who took a similar journey to Poland to find people who had helped them survive World War II.

Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem, is a relishable documentary on celebrated Yiddish author Aleichem and actor Bikel. A binding tether is Aleichem’s oft-written-of character Tevya, endearing protagonist of musical Fiddler on the Roof, a role that Bikel has the distinction of playing more times — in the thousands — than any other actor. Aleichem’s pastoral characters, who find joy and humor despite contrary circumstances, have won over readers, moviegoers and theater audiences across cultural and generational lines, and continue to do so.

Powerful 24 Days follows the nail-biting true story of a young French Jew abducted by a vicious anti-Semitic gang. Rounding out the festival are U.S. documentary The Sturgeon Queens, about a New York shop that has flourished for a century, and Israeli film Under the Same Sun, which contemplates an Israeli and a Palestinian becoming business partners. In an unprecedented move, the film was broadcast by Israeli and Palestinian TV networks on the same day.

Also in the lineup is opening-night feature Keeping Up with the Steins, an American comedy about a family set on topping the outrageously extravagant Titanic-themed Bar Mitzvah thrown by a business competitor.

I have the honor of introducing the March 11 screening of 24 Days and March 12 showing of Magic Men.

the TICKET stub
JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL

When: March 7-20
Where: Doris Duke Theatre
Cost: $10 general admission
More Info: 532-8701, honolulumuseum.org