The Boston Jewish Film Festival and 'The Office,' Israeli-style

Okay, so perhaps I’m a little slow on the uptake since it’s been around since 1989, but I’m finally discovering that the Boston Jewish Film Festival is one of the coolest cinematic experiences in town. It officially runs November 2-13, but some early suburban screenings are starting as soon as next Tuesday, and tickets have already been on sale for a while. With 32 films short and long, fictional and true-life, from the U.S. and Israel and Germany and France and South Africa, it bodes a rewarding experience for any film fan. In addition there are various premieres of the U.S., East Coast, and New England variety, so it’s not like you’ll see many of these films anywhere else.

That being said, I have to admit what first roped me in was the news that the BJFF would be screening the Israeli version of The Office. It’s performed in Hebrew, which means the actual name is thus HaMisrad, and it takes place in Yehud, a dreary Tel Aviv suburb. Yes, the Holy Land went all Dunder Mifflin when it aired last year (it was shot in 2009), following not only the U.K. original and U.S. hit, but also remakes in France and in Russia. And indeed it works, both proving that the show is a very durable concept, but also that Israeli humor manages to be both dry as dust and black as pitch.

Part of the fun is recognizing the analogues: Avi Meshulam is the David Brent/Michael Scott character, the crass jerk of a regional manager. Played by character actor Dvir Bendik, Avi is a more realistic character than the others, which makes his behavior less uproarious but more darkly satirical. Salesman Yossi and receptionist Dana play platonically cute, much like Tim and Dawn or Jim and Pam. Goofy toady Yariv may look a dead ringer for actor Ed Helms from the U.S. version, but his character sucks up to Avi and flaunts his military readiness in ways that are pure Gareth Keenan or Dwight Schrute. And yet that fetishism of the military has a far tougher edge in the Israeli version, when he proclaims himself ready to go into Gaza because he figured out how to tie his combat boots properly.

Ah yes, even if many of the cultural references are unfamilar, any Brit or Yank will recognize how The Office skewers modern white-collar society from every direction. And yet this version pulls no punches in a far more deadpan way, much more like the British version than the American–sometimes even going further than both of those predecessors. Avi will absurdly use references to the Holocaust to try to win arguments (yes, the show goes there), while a prim and pregnant Orthodox woman named Leah (think: Angela from the U.S. version) secretly sings along to graphically racy pop songs. Then there’s Avi’s offensively awkward attempts to be politically correct by singling out how much he loves his Ethiopian warehouse workers and his Arab employee, Abed. My favorite single line so far? Leah complains to Yossi that Abed–one of the kindest characters on the show–shouldn’t be talking to his friends on the phone in Arabic, because you know, national security. To which a sardonic Yossi replies, “Yeah, he can be sending Hamas all kinds of prices on office supplies.” Sure some of the show’s format may be overfamiliar at first, but it’s soon filled with bracing humor that’s daring and welcome. (It shows at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Sunday, November 6, at 1 p.m.)

Other movies that the BJFF let me preview are similarly refreshing. The opening night film, at 7:30 p.m. at the Coolidge, is Kaddish for a Friend, a German film that takes place in the teeming melting pot that is the Kreuzberg district of Berlin. Based on a real story, a Lebanese teen learns to befriend an old Russian Jew whose home he vandalized. Sounds sentimental? Well, the characters are not so the story is not, and the street-level shots combining handheld moves and sweeping pans keep it visually engrossing. The same goes for Dolphin Boy, a documentary about an Arab Israeli who is beaten so severely that he only regains his speech by swimming with dolphins, and Zubin and I, a doc about legendary conductor Zubin Mehta. And though I wasn’t able to preview the “centerpiece” film, Deaf Jam, about a deaf Israeli teen in Queens who uses American Sign Language to compete in New York poetry slams, I feel confident that it just may be the hippest movie premiere in Massachusetts this year.

So there you have just a taste of what the BJFF is serving up for you Boston film fans. But even a cursory glance at the festival program shows that there’s a much heartier lineup beyond these few mentions. And even better, you can use the iPhone’s Festival Genius app to keep track of the whole thing. So there’s no excuse for being as ignorant as I was before this year. Go.

The Boston Jewish Film Festival runs from November 2 to November 13, with some earlier screenings starting on Tuesday, October 25. Primary venues include the MFA, Coolidge Corner Theater, and West Newton Cinema, along with some suburban theaters like the AMC Framingham and the Cinema de Lux at Patriot Place.