Jewish highlights of the St. Louis International Film Festival

Zero Motivation

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Every summer, the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival brings to town a plethora of Israeli or Jewish-interest films. In late fall, we get a second round of Jewish cinematic gems as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), which runs this year from Nov. 13 to Nov. 23.

SLIFF always includes Israeli and Jewish films, both narrative features and documentaries. This year, the lineup includes the Israeli musical comedy Cupcakes, which played at the Jewish Film Festival earlier this year (see a  review from the Light at In addition, six other films of Jewish interest are making their local debut. 

Among the best is a taut yet uplifting Polish drama, Run Boy Run, based on the novelization of a true story of a Jewish boy’s survival during World War II (see separate review on page 13). 

Other offerings are the Israeli comedy Zero Motivation, family-friendly French film Belle and Sebastian and the Venezuelan thriller God’s Slave. Two biographical documentaries, Zemene and L’Chaim: To Life!, also are featured.

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Belle and Sebastian and Zemene are free screenings, among many at the festival. 

Besides 89 narrative films and 76 documentaries, feature-length or shorts, from 69 countries, the festival also offers parties, panel discussions and filmmaker workshops. 

God’s Slave (Esclavo de Dios) is a thriller based on a true story, and a spectacular debut for Venezuelan director Joel Novoa. The film played several festivals, including Cannes, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and Palm Beach International Film Festival, garnering seven awards and rave reviews. 

Filmed on location, the story is set against the backdrop of the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Community Centre in Buenos Aires and focuses on a Muslim terrorist and the Mossad agent pursuing him. 

Ahmed (Mohammed Al-Khaldi), is a doctor in Caracas who is actually a Muslim militant living undercover. Posing for years as a native Venezuelan, he was awaiting his assignment: one of a series of suicide bombings. David (Vando Villamil), a Buenos Aires-stationed Mossad agent with a knack for tracking terrorists, will do anything to stop another attack. 

The spy thriller outline may sound famiiar, but this film is much more, diving below the surface to weave a complex, nuanced and absorbing tale. It combines pulse-pounding suspense, a great score, thought-provoking looks inside both men’s families, and explorations of religious fanaticism and terrorism. God’s Slave will be shown at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 18, and 4:45 p.m. Friday, Nov. 21,  at Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

In Belle and Sebastian, a lonely 6-year-old boy named Sebastian (Felix Bossuet) and his giant white mountain sheepdog Belle help thwart Nazis who are hunting partisans aiding Jewish refugees trying to cross into Switzerland from occupied France during World War II. 

Sebastian is living with his adoptive grandfather in the rural French Alps when he befriends the enormous sheepdog, which becomes his protector and companion. This family film is based on a popular French 1960s TV series and embraces a sweet and simple style of storytelling, which is emotionally affecting. Belle and Sebastian will be shown free at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 23, at Washington University’s Brown Hall.

The Israeli dark comedy Zero Motivation (Bez motivacije) focuses on a unit of young female Israeli soldiers serving at a remote desert base. In the human resources office where they work, they spend time pushing paper, playing computer games and generally goofing off, just waiting until their term of service is up. 

Playing with the humor of routine military life, the basis for countless Army comedies, Zero Motivation turns the gender tables on this genre, as the young women trade quips and barbs, talk about life and ambitions, and discuss controversial topics. 

Written and directed by Talya Lavie, this comedy, packed with sharply honed wit, won the Best Narrative Feature award and Nora Ephron Prize at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. In Hebrew with English subtitles, Zero Motivation will be shown at 4:15 p.m. Friday, Nov. 21, and at noon on Sunday, Nov. 23, at Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

The two documentaries are Zemene and L’Chaim: To Life.” 

“Zemene” tells of a 10-year-old Ethiopian girl with an irrepressible spirit who is battling kyphosis, a life-threatening curvature of the spine. She travels from her rural village in search of medical care to the city of Gondar, where she meets an American Jewish doctor who helps her.

As an adult, she returns to her village to promote health care and education, both of which changed her life. 

The film will be shown free at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 15, at Washington University’s Brown Hall Auditorium.

In L’Chaim: To Life, a successful New York businessman, one-time jet-setter and Jewish scholar gives up his lavish life to care for his aging mother, a survivor of the concentration camps, in her home in Antwerp. 

This touching, joy-filled film, in German with English subtitles, will be shown at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 19, at Plaza Frontenac Cinema, along with the Israeli short film The Lamplighter.