Israeli turns lens on his own family in absorbing documentary

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When Jorge Weller and his sister Ines immigrated to Israel from Argentina as teenagers in 1978, they left behind their parents and two sisters. They established solid lives for themselves as Israelis, rarely visiting their Argentinean family.

Some 22 years later, Jorge, an Israeli film producer, gets an urgent call from his sister Graciela, who lives in Buenos Aires with his father and their other sister, Clarisa. Graciela wants Jorge and Ines to come back to Argentina and share the burden of caring for their aging, nearly blind, widowed father, and Clarisa, 31 and “mildly retarded.”

Faced with a family crisis, Jorge decides to film the attempt to resolve it. The result is “My Own Telenovela,” an absorbing documentary that shows the complexity and challenges that reside in the relationships of ordinary families.

As part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the film will be shown at the Screening Room of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Wednesday, Feb. 25. The film is in Hebrew and Spanish, with English subtitles.

We are drawn into the telenovela (soap opera) because it’s easy to identify with the issues it presents: care of an aging, infirm parent; a family separated by thousands of miles; the resentment of a sibling who sacrificed her personal life to care for her father and sister; and the guilt feelings of the others. Not a pretty picture, but one that will resonate with many.

The family reunion in Argentina is mixed with joy and torment as Jorge and Ines try to convince their sisters and father to immigrate to Israel. The family is delighted to be together again, visiting childhood haunts, looking at old family photos and renewing emotional ties with one another. But the frustrations of the family’s predicament weigh heavily on all of them.

The story continues as the Argentinean contingent returns with Jorge and Ines to Israel to investigate the possibilities of immigration. The father, an amiable dreamer, is enthusiastic about it, dismissing the idea that a 78-year-old blind man who knows no Hebrew would have a difficult adjustment. Immigration, he believes, is his destiny.

But at this point, Clarisa becomes the pivotal character. During the reunion, she and Jorge have established a close relationship. In the film he shows her endearing qualities, her “wisdom,” and the limitations that make it impossible for her to live independently and happily in a strange country where she can’t speak a word of the language.

In an Israeli facility for the mentally challenged, she meets an Argentinean man about her own age. In three years he has not learned any Hebrew and has no friends. For Clarisa as well, her family’s decision to pull her away from a stable and content life in Argentina seems cruel.

The filmmaker in Jorge sees a family melodrama playing out, a telenovela of his own. As such it has an immediacy and intimacy that soaps lack. It is, after all, real life, happening as it is filmed without script or direction.

But that is also its dramatic failing. There are poignant moments, such as the family’s visit to the mother’s grave in Buenos Aires where Jorge is able finally to experience the emotional release he’s been suppressing for years. But the film occasionally wanders aimlessly, as does life, and appears at times to be little more than a well-made home movie.

Because “My Own Telenovela” is a film about a real family with real issues, there is no neat solution at the end — no happy ending, no tragedy. As with all of life, there is an implicit “To be continued” sign at its conclusion.

My Own Telenovela” plays 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25, in the Screening Room of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., S.F. Admission $6; seniors, students and center members $5. Information: (415) 978-2787.