Jewish Film Fest has special Israeli focus

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

The 18th Annual St. Louis Jewish Film Festival runs June 9-13. It is entitled “A Celebration of Jewish Life in Film” but it has an additional focus this year: Israel.

“This year is Israel’s 65th birthday, so we are doing more films than usual from Israel,” said Zelda Sparks, Director of Arts and Culture at the Jewish Community Center. “And in between the two movies (on opening night), we are having a birthday cake to celebrate Israel’s birthday.” The opening night films are “Hava Nagila” and “Orchestra of Exiles.” 

This year’s festival offers a mix of documentaries, family films, dramas and comedies with Jewish themes from around the world. Many of the films are St. Louis premieres and others offer a second chance to catch good films that played film festivals or theaters here. All films are shown at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

Opening night on Sunday, June 9, brings two strong documentaries with music themes. At 4 p.m., it’s the family-friendly “Hava Nagila,” about the song that everyone knows. Even the film festival describes it as being “to music what the bagel is to food”. At 7 p.m., it is “Orchestra of Exiles,” which debuted here at last fall’s St. Louis International Film Festival as part of its Jewish Sidebar. This moving, well-researched and technically polished film about the founding of Israel’s Philharmonic Orchestra is directed by St. Louis native Josh Aronson, who is scheduled to be in attendance at the festival.  

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Between the two documentaries, festival-goers can enjoy a performance by a Klezmer band as well as a sampling of appetizers from the Brio Tuscan Grill. Brio also donated gift certificates for a raffle drawing before films. “In addition, anybody who shows a ticket to the film festival, gets a free dessert,” Sparks said. Another special offer comes from Red Mango in Kirkwood, which is donating 20 percent of the purchase price when customers buys a nonfat frozen yogurt or smoothie June 9-14.

Music is another theme of this year’s festival because many of the films have music in them, Sparks said. “For this one, ‘Defiant Requiem,’ (June 10 at 5:30 p.m.), Doug Shultz is the St. Louis connection, the director and producer of this film. This one was in the St. Louis International Film Festival last year. It is an excellent film, about people who were at Theresienstadt.” The Nazis used Theresienstadt as a “show” concentration camp to deceive the Red Cross and it housed many musicians. “They did Verdi’s Requiem there, as an act of defiance – ‘Defiant Requiem.’ So (St. Louis) Symphony chorus director, Amy Kaiser, is introducing the film,” Sparks said. 

This year’s Mitzvah Film is “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy” (June 12 at 2 p.m.). “Every year we do a Mitzvah film and we have sponsors who support this for people who have limited means, who can’t afford a ticket on their own or can’t afford transportation,” Sparks said. “It couldn’t be more a more perfect Mitzvah film.”         

Israeli films include “Brothers” (June 11 at 2 p.m.), making its St. Louis premiere, which focuses on goings-on in modern Israel. Another Israeli film, “The Other Son,” debuted here last year but the festival offers a second chance to see this excellent, thought-provoking drama about two young men, one Jewish, one Palestinian, who discover they were accidentally switched at birth. 

Two more Israeli documentaries also debut here, as a double bill (June 13 at 2 p.m.). “Hitler’s Children” interviews descendants of Hitler’s inner circle, such as Himmler and Goering, examining what it is like to come to grips with family connections to some of the most notorious Nazis (see review above). It is shown with “Through The Eye Of The Needle: The Art Of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz,” a film about a Polish Jewish woman who explores her experiences as a “hidden child” in wartime Poland through making tapestries. The film will be introduced by Krinitz’s daughter.

There are films from other nations as well. “One of the things we are trying to do this year, more than ever, (is) get to the communities that are part of the countries of origin,” Sparks said. The festival includes films in Hebrew, Spanish, German and French, as well as English. “So, we are reaching out to Alliance Francais, to this group of German speakers -– we are trying to encourage people to come to a film in their own language. We are really trying to make it more accessible to the broadest community.” 

Sparks said she thinks the fact that it is a Jewish Film Festival might deter people who are not Jewish from coming. “They think ‘Well, I’m not Jewish. Can I come to that?’ The answer is, of course, ‘Yes.’ A good film is a good film. It doesn’t matter – it’s universal,” Sparks said. 

Among the strong dramas is the French “Fill the Void” (June 11 at 8 p.m.) made by a woman who wasn’t originally Orthodox but became so when she married an Orthodox man. The film centers on two sisters, one of whom is married and pregnant but dies in childbirth. As the family deals with its grief, it asks the other sister to “fill the void.” 

 “All In’’ (Monday, June 10 at 8 p.m.), another St. Louis premiere, is an Argentinian comedy. “It is a charming little film, and we have a woman who is from Argentina, who lives locally, (introducing the film),” said Sparks, adding that the film’s director has been called the “Woody Allen of Latin America.”

Speaking of Woody Allen, look for him to play an integral role in the French romantic comedy “Paris – Manhattan” (June 12 at 5:30 p.m., see review on this page).

Documentaries in English include “It Is No Dream: The Life Of Theodor Herzl” (June 10 at 2 p.m.), another local premiere. Director Richard Trank spotlights one of the founding figures who sparked the idea of a Jewish homeland. “Theodor Herzl was thinking, long before there was a State of Israel, that there should be a State of Israel. He was like the father of Zionism,” Sparks said.

There is a bonus film for the festival in July. “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries And Mentors Of Ricky Jay,” about world-renowned magician Ricky Jay. The film is expected to open here in late June but the JFF is hosting a special screening Sunday, July 21, which will also feature an introduction and magic performance by St. Louis magician and motivational speaker Shep Hyken.

The co-chairs of this year’s festival are Jeffrey Korn and Louise Levine. Leslie Waldbaum, Elaine Alexander and Janet Weinberg are in charge of the programs, while Natalie Kauffman handles film selection with input from members of the festival’s committee.