20th Film Fest brings ‘magic,’ variety

Three of the films at this year’s Jewish Film Festival are “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem” (left), “Deli Man” (below right) and “Above and Beyond.”

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

This year marks a milestone for the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival, an annual celebration of Jewish-themed and Israeli films presented by the Jewish Community Center’s arts and culture program.

“This is our 20th year,” said Zelda Sparks, director of arts and culture at the JCC. “We are happy to have reached this season, and we are really excited about this year’s festival.” 

The festival is titled “A Cinemagic Journey,” and the films feature plenty of magic. The festival presents a mix of movies premiering in St. Louis as well as outstanding returning documentaries, dramas and comedies from around the world. All films will be shown at Plaza Frontenac Cinema from June 7 to 11.

The opening night films Sunday, June 7, are “Deli Man” at 4 p.m. and “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem” at 7 p.m. “Deli Man” is an affectionate documentary about that wonderful Jewish American institution, the delicatessen. 

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“ ‘Deli Man’ played right before Passover, when no one is thinking about the deli,” Sparks said about bringing the film back to give audiences another chance to see it. “Lenny Kohn (of Kohn’s Kosher Deli & Market) is introducing the film, and he is donating little deli samples, not a [whole] meal but a taste of deli sliders from Kohn’s.” 

The deli samples will be available to ticket holders at a reception after “Deli Man,” accompanied by music by Shir Ami.  

The second opening-night film brings together two icons of Jewish culture, the legendary Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichemn and actor Theodore Bikel, who brought the writer’s character Tevye to life in “Fiddler on the Roof.”  

Sparks said ticket sales are brisk — the festival is almost at capacity for the opening night films, each screening in two theaters, and the festival’s final film, “Above and Beyond,” is also being shown in two theaters.

“Run Boy Run” and other films are also nearly sold out, but Sparks says that is if patrons buy their tickets early, she can book a second theater so more people can see the film. Once the festival starts, if a film sells out, that is not an option. 

“Get your tickets early,” she said.

Along with “Deli Man,” “Run Boy Run” and  “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” are excellent films that audience get a second chance to see. 

The gripping drama “Run Boy Run” is based on a true story about a Jewish boy evading the Nazis in Poland. 

“It will be introduced by Felicia Wertz, child Holocaust survivor who knows the real person who was the basis of the film,” Sparks said. 

“Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” tells the story of a woman seeking a religious divorce in Israel, where civil divorce does not exist, from her uncooperative husband.      

Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham, a Modern Orthodox congregation, will introduce the film and lead a discussion afterward. Sparks noted that Shafner did a program at his shul where married couples could  make a “post-nuptial” agreement about procedures should a divorce occur, to prevent the wife from becoming an agunah  — a “chained woman” whose husband will not allow a divorce to proceed.  

“24 Days” is a French thriller based on a horrific true-life crime, the kidnapping for ransom of a young French Jewish man. 

“Karen Aroesty of the Anti-Defamation League will introduce the film and discuss global anti-Semitism,” Sparks said. “[The film] really gets you right where you live.

“On the lighter side, we also have some comedies. ‘Dough’ is a British comedy starring Jonathan Pryce, who plays a very observant man with a bakery in a changing neighborhood. His children don’t want to take it over, but he needs help.” 

He hires a young African man, a Muslim, but another man is trying to get him to sell marijuana and some ends up in the dough. Bakery patrons like the change and sales soar.

Other films Sparks highlighted are: “Mr. Kaplan,” from Uruguay, a “sweet film”; “The Art Dealer,” “a new take on the ‘stolen art’ theme”; and the Israeli “Apples from the Desert,” about an Orthodox young woman not content with her life. 

The senior mitzvah film is  “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker,” introduced by Broadway writer, director and choreographer Tony Parise.

“We will have three introductions done via Skype,” Sparks said. “ ‘A Borrowed Identity (Dancing Arabs)’ will be introduced by Sayad Kashua, scriptwriter for the film and visiting scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. ‘The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers,’ the second part of the well-researched documentaries about Israeli history, will be introduced by its director, Richard Trank. And director Roberta Grossman will introduce her documentary ‘Above and Beyond: The Birth of the Israeli Air Force.’ ” 

Sparks praised this year’s festival co-chairs, Marilyn Brown and Jeffrey Korn.