Film fest features stellar lineup of Jewish-interest and Israeli cinema

‘Cloudy Sunday’

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Beginning Nov. 3, the St. Louis International Film Festival celebrates its 25th year with a sterling 10-day lineup that includes something for nearly everyone. 

SLIFF, presented by Cinema St. Louis, annually gives movie fans a sneak peak at upcoming big studio releases and Oscar contenders. One such film this year stars Israeli-American Natalie Portman, who plays Jacqueline Kennedy soon after JFK’s assassination, in director Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie” (6 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13 at the Tivoli).

The festival also offers documentaries on subjects ranging from human rights to St. Louis beers; an array of narrative films, silent films and classics, shorts, locally made films, and films for children; plus seminars for filmmakers, parties, awards and special events. Several SLIFF events are free.

Among these cinema treats are some wonderful Israeli and Jewish-interest films. This year, there are six each of Jewish-themed narrative features and feature-length documentaries, plus at least five short films, including one by a local Jewish film professor. 

Several films touch on the Shoah. 

“Most people make the mistake to think that the Holocaust is a finite subject,” said Pier Marton, a member of the SLIFF Interfaith Award jury and a frequent speaker at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center’s Sandra and Mendel Rosenberg Sunday Afternoon Film Series. “In fact … it is inexhaustible, just like life. In that sense, this year’s SLIFF excels again. We have here seven outstanding and unique Holocaust-themed films.” 

Marton is the son of Hungarian Jews who were in the French Resistance, and he grew up in Paris among other survivor families.

One of the festival’s special events is “An Evening with Jerry Lewis” (8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12, at the St. Charles Family Arena, tickets $50-$80). Earlier that day, the festival is presenting a free double feature of the documentary “Jerry Lewis: The Man Behind the Clown” and Lewis’ comedy “The Nutty Professor” (1 p.m. at Webster University’s Moore auditorium). The screening will feature a video introduction by Lewis, one of SLIFF’s  Lifetime Achievement Award honorees this year.

A rare clip from Lewis’ unreleased 1972 film “The Day the Clown Cried” is included in “The Last Laugh” (3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13, at .ZACK, 3224 Locust Ave.), a documentary that looks at whether the Shoah should always be off-limits for humor. 

It is not a new subject, but this documentary approaches it from the perspective of Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone. It also features clips from Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried and other comedians, as well as comments from former Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman. It is shown with a short film, “Bacon and God’s Wrath,” about a 90-year-old Jewish woman about to try bacon for the first time. 

Among other strong Jewish/Israeli documentaries is “The Yatzkans” (noon Sunday, Nov. 13, at Plaza Frontenac; in French and English), which will be introduced by Marton. Director Anna-Célia Kendall uses inventive techniques to relate the story of receiving a box of letters from a Lithuanian museum director after her mother’s death. The letters revealed that she is related to the Yatzkans, a family who founded Warsaw’s Yiddish daily newspaper.

“Nana” (12:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6, at Plaza Frontenac; in French and English) is getting its world premiere at SLIFF. Director Serena Dykman was aware that her grandmother had been at Auschwitz but knew few details until, as an adult, she read her memoir. The director will introduce the documentary.

“Germans & Jews” (2:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13, at Plaza Frontenac; in German and English) explores how Berlin has come to have the fastest-growing Jewish population in Europe and how Germany has remade itself into one of Europe’s most democratic and tolerant countries, something inconceivable in 1945. It will be shown with the short “Munich 72 and Beyond.” 

A free offering is the documentary “Bogdan’s Journey” (3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13, at the Missouri History Museum; in English and Polish). The film is set in Kielce, Poland, where Europe’s last pogrom occurred in 1946 when 40 Shoah survivors were murdered by townspeople, an event covered up by Poland’s Communist government. The film follows Bogdan Bialek, a Christian Pole deeply opposed to anti-Semitism, as he works for years to get the townspeople to acknowledge the massacre and to reconcile with the international Jewish community. 

The Israeli documentary “Mr. Gaga” (7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6, at .ZACK; in English and Hebrew) has nothing to do with pop singer Lady Gaga. It is the nickname of Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, who pioneered a striking style of dance called “gaga.” 

SLIFF also will offer Jewish narrative feature films. Among the strongest is another Israeli film, “Kapo in Jerusalem” (5 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9, and 2:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11, at Plaza Frontenac; in Hebrew). A pair of Auschwitz survivors, a doctor named Bruno and a pianist named Sarah, arrive in Israel in 1946, but rumors soon surface that Bruno was a kapo at the camp, one of those chosen by the Nazis to enforce their rules. The truth that emerges is complex in this powerful drama. 

“Fever at Dawn” (6:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7, and 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9, at Plaza Frontenac; in Hungarian) is a hopeful film based on director Peter Gardos’ parents’ unlikely romance. A young Hungarian man, who has survived a concentration camp and is  recovering at a hospital in Sweden, is told he has only six months to live. Determined to live and even to marry, he writes letters to the 117 Hungarian Jewish women also hospitalized in Sweden, hoping one will become his bride. 

“Cloudy Sunday” (8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6, and 2 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7, at Plaza Frontenac; in Greek) is director Manousos Manousakis’ music-filled historical drama about a young Jewish woman who falls in love with a non-Jewish resistance fighter during the Nazi occupation of Thessaloniki in 1942. The film, a hit in Greece, features tunes by the late songwriter Vassilis Tsitsanis as well as classic Sephardic Jewish music.

Other Jewish narrative films include:

• “The Rendezvous” (7:15 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11 at the Tivoli) is an action/adventure film shot in Jordan starring Stana Katic (from TV’s “Castle”) as a Jewish American doctor and Raza Jaffrey as an Arab government official helping her uncover what happened to her brother. 

• “Blush” (5 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 8, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13, at Hi-Pointe Backlot; in Hebrew and Arabic), a frank Israeli drama about a high school girl with a troubled home life, coming of age and coming out as gay.

• “Moos” (4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5, and noon Monday, Nov. 7, at Plaza Frontenac; in Dutch), a dramedy in which a young woman named Moos, who stayed home to care for her widower father, has her dull life changed when a childhood friend arrives with a visitor from Israel.

• “The Tenth Man” (4:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11, and 12:15 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13, at Plaza Frontenac; in Spanish, Hebrew and Yiddish), a film from Argentine director Daniel Burman that explores the meaning of identity and home, and a father-son relationship. 

Identity and home are also the themes in a short documentary from University of Missouri-St. Louis film  professor Rita M. Csapó-Sweet. In “All That Remains,” Csapó-Sweet takes us on a “house tour from hell” revisiting her historic Dogtown home, which was destroyed by fire a few months before her husband, Frederick Sweet, a professor at Washington University, suddenly died. 

“I realized that the interior of the house after the fire was like being in the center of my own artwork,” she says. 

The couple had been working on a project about doctors who cooperated with the Nazis during the Shoah and those who behaved similarly during the genocide in Bosnia. 

“Although our house fire was a tragedy, our neighbors saved our lives by getting us out of the house in time,” Csapó-Sweet says. “How different that was than what happened to the Bosnians, and Jews, where the neighbors were trying to kill them. We lost everything in the fire, and my husband died four months later. But what we went through paled by comparison. 

“Many have characterized events in Bosnia and Herzegovina as the worst genocide in Europe since the Holocaust. The Holocaust Museum and Learning Center has worked for years with the Bosnian community in St. Louis and UMSL.” 

Csapó-Sweet’s short documentary is part of a free program, “Searching for Home and Identity” (6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5, and 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12, at UMSL’s Gallery 210), which includes a feature documentary “Searching for Home” and the short “Stairwell,” by Bosnian Muslim filmmakers who were once Csapó-Sweet’s students. 

“All the films in this sidebar ‘Searching for Home and Identity’ deal with postwar trauma and coping with life in the face of almost insurmountable tragedy,” Csapó-Sweet says. “While many of the films are directed by [Bosnians] or about events in Bosnia and Herzegovina, other films deal with disruption after trauma. These themes are universal and timeless.”

“And Then, Violence” (Jordan Goldnadel, in English) is a short film that is part of the program “Narrative Shorts: HerStory” (9:20 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9, at the Tivoli), which SLIFF bills as “a program dedicated to women in funny, challenging and introspective situations.” In the film, “a secular Jewish law student in Paris has her daily life constantly interrupted by the anti-Semitism that has infiltrated French society over the past few years.” 

Another short is “The Egg “(Nadav Direktor; in Hebrew), which is part of “Narrative Shorts: Horror” (1:05 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5, at the Tivoli), described as “a collection of stories that will have you squirming with fear and covering your eyes.”