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Documentaries Farther Away From Home

'Martha & Ethel'' is the latest in a recent spate of documentaries to enter the theatrical circuit.

Easily the most ambitious among them is Tsahal, directed by Claude Lanzmann, whose nine-hour epic, ''Shoah,'' is regarded by many as the definitive film on the Holocaust.

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His new picture looks at the defense forces of Israel, both a product of the Holocaust's horrors and a new incarnation of the military might by which nations enforce their views.

Most of the picture is given over to careful interviews with everyone from top military and government officials to ordinary soldiers and veterans. At about five hours long, it's both exhaustive and exhausting, reconfirming Lanzmann as one of the most penetrating filmic moralists of our time.

In the Land of the Deaf focuses not so much on hearing-impaired individuals as on the expressiveness available to them by unspoken means. Dir ected by Nicolas Philibert, this French production is upbeat and engrossing.

Equally energetic is Frosh: Nine Months in a Freshman Dorm, which visits a coed Stanford University residence hall during the 1990-91 academic year. Based on interviews with 10 students, the film is stronger on surface details than on meaningful insights. Its ''characters'' are fun to meet, though, and the best sequences are alternately touching and amusing. Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller directed.

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