The very first Jewish Film Festival was held in San Francisco in 1980; today the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival proudly boasts the biggest, oldest, and longest JFF in the world. Held every summer, it’s three weeks long; showcasing the newest and most exciting Jewish films, this is truly the Promised Land for fans of Jewish movies.
But if you cannot get to San Francisco, there is likely a JFF in your hometown; San Francisco led the way, but soon other cities followed suit. Now there are so many JFFs throughout the world, it’s hard to count them all.
Right now I’m very excited because this weekend there is a JFF in my hometown of Orlando, Florida. Now in its fourteenth year, the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival will show four great films this coming Sunday and Monday, December 2 and 3, at the Enzian Theater in Maitland (just north of Orlando). Over 70 films were submitted and a committee of a half-dozen people narrowed that down to four. I was privileged to be given advance screenings to the four movies. So let me tell you, if you live locally, or can make it to Central Florida this weekend, you are in for quite the treat.
The festival opens on Sunday, at 11am, with the Florida premiere of Ela Thier’s autobiographical “Foreign Letters” which tells her personal story. At the age of 12, in 1982, she immigrated to the US from Israel because her father refused to serve in the Lebanon war.
Twelve is an awkward age no matter where you are from, but when you don’t speak the language, have no friends, and suddenly find yourself in a foreign culture, it is particularly challenging. After a rough start, Ellie (Noa Rotstein) manages to bond with her classmate Thuy (Dalena Le), a refugee from Vietnam. A sweet and touching friendship develops but eventually misunderstandings and culture clashes test those bonds.
The film started out dealing with interesting cultural issues, as we see the peculiarities of America through the eyes of an Israeli—such as how grocery stores offer free bags or how world maps slice Asia in half to put the US in the center—but it gradually shifts focus to deal with the issues of Ellie and Thuy’s friendship.
Watching this coming-of-age film, pleasant though it was, made me so glad I was no longer twelve, and would never again have to deal with such pettiness. I had long since forgotten the emotional perils of middle school, where having a crush is something to be made fun of, who you sit with in the cafeteria means the world, and a mean classmate calling you “ugly” can ruin your life. There were times in the movie when the girls acted so petty and immaturely; though I realize it’s unfair, I couldn’t help getting frustrated at these 12-year-olds for acting like 12-year-olds.
There were some particularly beautiful scenes, notably one in which the girls dance on the roof wearing Asian dresses, one where they go ice skating, and one in which they scope out the house of a boy Ellie likes. Also, there is really some amazing music by Israeli musician Chava Alberstein.
It’s also very interesting to discover that writer/director Ela Thier also plays Ellie’s mother in this mostly-true story.
The festival’s second film, “Portrait of Wally,” will be presented at 1:45, immediately following “Foreign Letters.” This documentary chronicles the famous Holocaust art restitution case over the 1912 oil painting “Portrait of Wally” by turn-of-the-century Austrian artist Egon Schiele. The painting was owned by Jewish art dealer Lea Bondi from whom it was stolen by a Nazi in the immediate aftermath of the 1938 “Anschluss” when Hitler took over Austria. Bondi was lucky to escape with her life; after the war, she and her heirs fought a decades-long battle to have the painting returned.
The film follows a strange trail leading from Nazi Frederic Welz to the Austrian National Gallery to collector Rudolph Leopold to New York’s famed Museum of Modern Art to National Public Radio to the Department of Homeland Security and US Customs. Accusations of greed and theft create ill feelings among officials and institutions who, you would think otherwise, would be taking positions of moral high ground. It’s frustrating that what seems to be a relatively simple case of art theft would encounter so many obstacles to justice and the return of the painting to the rightful owner.
This case, which set precedence for many other art restitution cases, is quite interesting, though it’s a bit hard to follow because there are so many players. The editing of the film is poor. Although it is only 90 minutes long, there are quite a few times it feels unnecessarily drawn out, particularly at the beginning and the end. The lack of a narrator doesn’t help. And it’s a bit frustrating when there is a reference to another Schiele painting called “Dead City,” which is fingered as stolen, along with “Portrait of Wally,” but it’s never explained or followed up.
It’s also disappointing that the movie skims over one of the larger issues which this case underscores and that’s the unwillingness of many post-World War II Europeans to take any responsibility for the crimes committed by Nazis and their allies and the ongoing consequences of those crimes. Not once did the film suggest the possibility of anti-Semitism as a motivator for resistance to returning the painting to its Jewish owner. There was only one brief interview of an activist who bemoaned the tendency of many Austrians to deny the role their country and its citizens willingly played in the Holocaust.
The festival continues on Monday, at 4:30pm, with an amazing documentary called “Nicky’s Family.” Using not only newsreel footage but elaborate dramatic recreations on the scale of a feature film, this movie tells the story of Nicholas Winton, now known as “The British Schindler.” On the eve of World War II, he was a stockbroker who was moved by the plight of Czechoslovakian Jews whose lives were threatened under Nazi occupation. He organized a series of “kindertransport” and managed to save the lives of 669 Jewish children, getting them out of Czechoslovakia to foster families in Britain. (Interestingly, a recent episode of the new “Upstairs Downstairs” TV show, in which fictional characters participate in real historical events, dealt with this very issue.)
“Nicky’s family,” made two years ago, brings together Winton and many of the children whose lives he saved. They are now adults in their 70s and 80s; Winton is currently 103. I don’t know which is more amazing—the original story of how Winton managed to save the children from the Nazis, or the story of how it all came to light, a lifetime later. The children never knew who it was who saved them until the late 1980s—the scenes where they meet the man to whom they owe their lives are tear-jerking.
Also incredibly moving are many of the dramatic recreations which show how a young Winton came to identify with the plight of the Czechoslovakian Jews, how hard he worked to find foster families, the actual train rides through Germany and Holland and the ship to England, and how warmly and generously the children were greeted by their foster families.
The most heart-wrenching scene is the one where the parents are putting their children on the train at the station in Prague. They know they are doomed and the only way to save their children is to send them away; not unlike the men on the Titanic who put their wives and children in the lifeboats. One mother pulls her young daughter off the train because she cannot bear to part from her; yet somehow finds the inner strength to put the child back on the train.
“Nicky’s Family” is an extremely moving and well put together documentary. Much of the history dealing with the prelude to World War II is quite familiar; however, this film shows it through the eyes of innocent people whose lives were changed by these events, giving it a very personal perspective.
Of the four films at this year’s festival, this one is, in my view, by far the best. If you only have time for one movie, make it this one.
The final film of the festival, the Israeli feature “Mabul” (The Flood) will play at 7:00 on Monday. This powerful family drama, which opened last year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and was nominated for a number of Ophir Awards (Israel’s Academy Awards), is a great way to conclude.
The story centers around a 13-year-old boy named Yoni (Yoav Rotman) who has problems a bit beyond his years. As his Bar Mitzvah approaches, his parents’ relationship is deteriorating, he’s dominated by bullies at school, and his physical maturation is far slower than he’d like. His father (Tzahi Grad) is a pilot who has lost his license and is afraid to tell his family; his mother (Ronit Elkabetz, “The Band’s Visit”) runs a daycare center and is carrying on an affair with the father of one of her charges.
Without warning the family is suddenly forced to take on a major new responsibility with the return of the older son Tomer (Michael Moshonov in an award-winning performance) who suffers from severe mental retardation. He has spent most of his life in a private institution which specializes in the care of such patients, but they have now gone out of business. While the two parents struggle—somewhat unsuccessfully—to care for Tomer who is incapable of going to the bathroom or taking off his shirt, let alone communicating, Yoni finds his older brother’s presence extremely embarrassing. As time goes on, however, he better appreciates his role as his brother’s keeper.
Yoni’s Torah portion for his Bar Mitzvah is the first several verses of “Noach,” and so he practices chanting, over and over again, the Biblical phrase about the entire earth becoming corrupted and God pledging to destroy the earth. For some reason, Tomer is able to mimic Yoni’s Torah chants—it’s the only thing he vocalizes in the whole movie—although it is unclear if he actually understand what he is saying or is merely repeating sounds. One thing Tomer does have in common with Noah, though, is a love for animals—they seem to bring out a little more interaction from him.
Real conflict comes when the bullies who have been tormenting Yoni find him alone with Tomer. They lock up Yoni in a barn and set Tomer adrift in a boat. Tomer doesn’t seem to have any idea of the peril he is in, let alone how to get out of it.
The movie is stunningly filmed—it is filled with beautiful images of boats and the ocean and rain and animals. And the acting, from all four main actors, is just incredible. It may not be a “fun” film, but it is certainly moving; you feel for the characters and you are overcome by a flood of emotions.
Festival tickets will be available at the door, but you may want to get them in advance because it’s possible the screenings will sell out. In the past, there has always been an extremely positive response from the community. Tickets to individual screenings are only $10, but you can buy a “series pass” for $35, which gets you into all four films with second-priority seating. (That’s less than you would pay for a mainstream movie at the local Cineplex.) There is also a “mench pass” for $60 which gives you first-priority seating to all four films.
In addition to the box office, tickets can be purchased directly through the festival’s website. The festival is a non-profit joint venture between the Enzian Theatre and the Roth Jewish Community Center of Greater Orlando.
If you cannot make it to Central Florida this weekend, do not fret. There are plenty of JFFs around the world showcasing the latest and greatest Jewish films. Check out my list of other links and festivals to find one close to you.
Enjoy! And if you discover a new Jewish film, or festival, you think I should know about, please drop me a line. I cannot wait to hear all about it. What could be more exciting?
Maybe next summer we’ll make it to San Francisco.