Film festival celebrates Jewish life

St. Louis Jewish Film Festival

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

The 19th annual St. Louis Jewish Film Festival, running June 8-12 at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema, offers 15 films — a mix of documentaries, dramas and comedies — with Jewish themes from nations around the world.

Zelda Sparks, director of arts and culture at the Jewish Community Center, said this was a particularly good year for the festival’s film selection committee.

“There are some years where we search and search for films,” Sparks said. “This year, there was so much that was so good. People usually say to me, ‘What films should I go to see, what should I make time for?’ And (this year) I would say to people, ‘Depending on your schedule, you can’t go wrong with any of the films.’ “

This year’s festival, entitled “Celebrating Jewish Life in Film,” is co-chaired by Marilyn Brown and Jeffrey Korn. A committee of more than 40 people helped select the films.

Kicking off the festival are “The Zigzag Kid,” a heartfelt and humorous, family-friendly film starring Isabella Rossellini; as well as “The Return of the Violin” (see related review), an inspiring Israeli documentary about a 1731 Stradivarius violin stolen from Israeli Philharmonic founder Bronislaw Huberman in 1936 and which remained lost for 50 years. 

Huberman’s struggle to get Jewish musicians out of Nazi-controlled Europe and his founding of the orchestra in Israel was the subject of “Orchestra of Exiles,” a film included in last year’s festival. 

Other highlights of the festival include: 

•  A documentatry double feature. “Dove’s Cry,” about an Arab-Israeli teacher  teaching Arabic in a Jewish elementary school. “Dove’s Cry” is at times “troubling, but at the same time it is very hopeful,” Sparks said. “The Israeli Arab situation is a problem not easily solved, and you look for rays of hope.” The second documentary, “Before the Revolution,” is about Israelis working in Iran during the time of the Shah. When the revolution began and life there became dan gerous, the Israelis worked to get their families out. 

•  The festival’s first Serbian film, “When Day Breaks,” a drama about a music teacher who learns his real parents were Jewish after he receives a box from a Holocaust museum containing an unfinished composition by his musician father. 

• “Süskind” (see related review), a true-story drama about Jewish industrialist Walter Süskind, who worked on the Nazi-organized Jewish Council in Amsterdam in World War II. While arranging for the deportation of fellow Jewish adults, he was able to use his position to save almost a thousand children from deportation. 

On the lighter side, Sparks suggests the documentaries “Marvin Hamlisch: What I Did for Love” and “Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story,” (see related reviews) about the comedian and writer whose edgy work led to the cancellation of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” by CBS in 1969. She also recommends “Cupcakes,” (see related review) about a group of Israeli friends who set out to win a popular international songwriting contest.

Although the festival week ends June 12, JFF is offering a pair of bonus films July 20 at the JCC: the documentary “Joe Papp in Five Acts,” about the founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater; and “Gelfite Fish,” a drama about an unlikely connection between a widowed Russian Jewish immigrant and a young man from the inner city.