Film festival features 10 Jewish-interest productions


Once again, Jewish and Israeli films are a significant part of the annual St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), taking place Nov. 2-12. Ten Israeli or Jewish-themed films — six narrative features and three documentary films, plus one Israeli short film, “Girl’s Life” — are sprinkled throughout the festival. 

Three feature films — “Fanny’s Journey,” “The Testament” and “In Between” — and the documentaries “The Smuggler and Her Charges” and “The Field” are among five nominees in each category  for the festival’s Interfaith Awards. Two directors of Jewish-interest films are also receiving awards.

“Fanny’s Journey” made its St. Louis debut at the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival earlier this year (see sidebar for a short review). 

Chris Clark, artistic director of Cinema St. Louis, the organization that presents SLIFF, said his top picks among the festival’s Jewish-themed films are “1945” and “The Testament.”

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“I really was quite moved … by the intensity of the stories,” he said.

The powerful Hungarian historic drama “1945,” a submission for the upcoming Oscars in the Best Foreign-Language Film category, takes place in a small Hungarian town shortly after the end of World War II. 

The town is preparing for the wedding of its town clerk when the unexpected arrival of two Jewish men with large boxes sends residents into a frenzy of guilt and greed. Rumors spread that the two men are there to reclaim property seized from Jews during the war, property the local non-Jews do not wish to give up. The men actually simply want to bury the remains of their loved ones.

Clark said the film, which is presented in black and white, had particular resonance with Pier Marton, a member of the festival’s Interfaith Award jury and the Paris-born son of Hungarian Jews. 

“[Marton’s family] experienced that very same thing that happened in that film,” Clark said. “These are stories that need to be told.”

“The Testament” is a searing Israeli drama/mystery that takes place years after World War II in Austria but touches on the issue of wartime secrets. 

A Shoah researcher is involved in a high-profile legal battle with an influential family of industrialists in Austria over their plans to build a development on a site where Jews were massacred near the war’s end. The researcher suspects the plan is partly intended to erase evidence. As he looks into Shoah survivors’ accounts, he turns up a startling, long-kept secret about his mother. 

“In Between” is something unusual, a drama Clark describes as “ a very interesting, provocative film.” Director Maysaloun Hamoud was born to Palestinian communists in Hungary but grew up in Israel and is an Israeli citizen. Her film features three Palestinian women sharing an apartment in Tel Aviv. One is a secular Muslim, another is from a Christian family and the third is from a family of observant Muslims. The film explores women’s rights and gay issues against a backdrop of life for Palestinian Israelis.

Not all of the films are dramas. “Bye Bye Germany” is a dramedy about a group of Jews in postwar Germany scheming to make money so they can move to America. Moritz Bleibtreu (featured in “Run, Lola, Run” and “Munich”) plays a Jewish charmer leading this group, who may have secrets from the war preventing him from leaving. Clark said the film is a “unique thread of a story from postwar, post-Holocaust Germany, about what these people had to do to survive.” 

“Let Yourself Go” is a kind of Italian screwball comedy about a middle-age, separated Jewish psychiatrist and a ditsy, younger single mother who becomes his personal trainer. 

The documentaries include “The Field,” an Israeli film about a Palestinian man who dedicates a portion of his family’s land near Gush Etzion in the West Bank for a Palestinian Center for Non-Violence. Despite having spent four years in an Israeli prison, Ali Abu Awwad is committed to finding peace between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. The film is directed by Rabbi Mordechai Vardi, who will attend the screening at the film festival. Clark said the “terrific” film is “very provocative and very timely.”

“Sammy Davis Jr.: I Gotta Be Me” is the first documentary to examine the life of the multitalented Davis in the context of changing attitudes on race and religion in the 20th century. Davis described himself as “Jewish, black, Puerto Rican” and quipped that he could clear whole neighborhoods single-handedly in the era of “white flight” and “restricted” neighborhoods. Director Sam Pollard will receive SLIFF’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the festival.

“The Smuggler and Her Charges” is a French-language documentary that highlights the limits of personal memories. Director Michaël Prazan’s father told him how, as orphaned Jewish children, he and others were smuggled out of occupied France by a woman who had collaborated with the Gestapo but had a sudden change of heart. When the filmmaker investigated 70 years later, he found a different story, one recounted in this compelling documentary.

Other Jewish connections in the festival: Director/writer Dan Mirvish, co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival and a Washington University alum, will receive the Charles Guggenheim Cinema St. Louis Award. The festival includes his film “Bernard and Huey,” written by Oscar and Pulitzer-winning satirist/cartoonist Jules Feiffer, based on characters from his Village Voice cartoons. 

Jill Rosenblum Tidman, who grew up in Olivette and celebrated her bat mitzvah at Traditional Congregation, will appear for a Q&A after  the documentary “Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution,” which she co-produced.