Jewish-interest, Israeli films are among film festival highlights

Gina Rodriguez (left) w ith Ana Ortiz In ‘Sleeping With The Fishes,’ part of the St. Louis Inter-national Film Fest 

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

St. Louis film buffs are treated annually to an array of Jewish-themed and Israeli films during summer’s St. Louis Jewish Film Festival. But come fall, they get an extra helping of cinema treats with the 10-day long St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), which kicks off Nov. 14. 

The festival always includes a good grouping of Israeli and/or Jewish interest films and this year the festival offers several: two feature-length comedies, a historical drama, one feature-length documentary and two short Israeli documentaries. There is also another documentary co-produced by an Israeli.

Nicole Gomez Fisher is a Latina-Jewish comedienne who wrote and directed the family comedy “Sleeping with the Fishes,” which will be shown Nov. 23 at 7 p.m. at the Tivoli Theater. Fisher will attend the screening for a Q &A afterward. Her film is nominated for the festival’s New Filmmakers Forum “Emerging Filmmaker Award.” 

In the film, Alexis Fish (Gina Rodriguez) and her Latina mother (Priscilla Lopez) have a prickly relationship. Her perfectionist mother is critical of her slightly chubby daughter, who is struggling with her new party planning business as well as her finances a year after the death of her husband. Fortunately Alexis’ ditzy, upbeat sister (Ana Ortiz of “Devious Maids”) and affectionate dentist father (Tibor Feldman) help her cope when she comes back to her Brooklyn home for a relative’s funeral. As it turns out, Alexis winds up staying a bit longer when she lands a job planning a neighbor’s bat mitzvah.  

Advertisement: The Grande at Chesterfield

“The film is semi-autobiographical,” Fisher said in a recent phone interview. “The characters are loosely-based on my family but the story itself is pretty much, with the exception of the relationship between the mother and the daughter, fictitious.” 

She says that Tibor Feldman, the actor who plays the father, mirrored Fisher’s own. “My father is a dentist. (Feldman) had a very calming sense about him, always wanting the best for his children – that is very much (the) truth,” she said. 

Fisher also wanted to spotlight the challenges for families that are both Jewish and Hispanic. Coming from a family where her Latina mother had converted to marry her Jewish father, Fisher and her sister were sometimes teased in Hebrew classes. 

Writer/director Marc Halberstadt will also be in town for a Q&A at the screening of his film “CowJews and Indians,” on Sunday, Nov. 17 at 6:30 p.m. at Plaza Frontenac. This quirky serio-comic documentary follows an American Jewish man whose family home in Germany was seized by the Nazis. He travels back to that family home in the company of a group of American Indians to ask for back rent so he can then pay the Native Americans, whose land he occupies now, the rent he owes them. In Germany, his grandfather was a cattle dealer, which translates from German to “cow Jew.” The film, whose subtitle is “How Hitler Scared My Family, and I Woke Up in an Iroquois Longhouse with a Picture of Jesus, Reminding Me, for the Wrong Reason, that I Owe the Mohawks Rent,” has been nominated for the Interfaith Award.

Embracing the idea of the Lakota Trickster, a mythological character that uses tricks and foolishness to reveal the truth, Halberstadt’s film shines a spotlight on both the treatment of Native Americans and parallels to Germany’s treatment of the Jews. 

The idea began when a neighbor recounted a conversation she had with Halberstadt’s mother. “My mother was talking about her childhood in Germany, which she never did,” he said in a phone interview. “My mother described (their) house as shabby on the outside but inside it was terrazzo tiles, Tudor-style, velvet…(and the neighbor said) ‘you should get it back.’” 

Halberstadt’s mother and family had received $2,000 in reparations after the war. Halberstadt at first thought to give the money back and demand the return of his mother’s house. However, he then realized his mother’s present home in upstate New York sits on land claimed by the Mohawk nation. “Then the thought occurred to me, ‘The Germans owe me reparations for years, (but) I owe the Native Americans for living on their land for those years. Why not let the Native Americans collect directly from Germany — cut out the middle man,” he said. 

The film follows Halberstadt as he sells this odd idea to skeptical American Indians, then pays their way to Germany where they encounter a German powwow and set up a collection agency to demand back rent for land taken from Jews. By turns comic and thought provoking, the film strikes at hidden truths and parallels between the two peoples’ experiences.

“The Jewish Cardinal” is a French drama based on real-life Jean-Marie Lustiger, a Polish-Jewish immigrant who maintained his Jewish cultural identity despite having converted to Catholicism at age 14 and later joining the priesthood. Lustiger (Laurent Lucas) hoped for a parish in Israel but was instead assigned as a community intermediary when a group of nuns planned to build a convent at Auschwitz. The experience forces a choice between two identities. Directed by Ilan Duran Cohen, “The Jewish Cardinal” will be shown Nov. 21 at 9:15 p.m. and Nov. 22 at 2 p.m. at Plaza Frontenac Cinema

“Putzel” is a comedy about a man afraid to step outside the boundaries of the delivery area of his grandfather’s smoked fish store, Himmelstein’s, in New York City’s Upper West Side. Nicknamed Putzel (little fool) as a kid, his life-long ambition has been to inherit the store now owned by his uncle. But Putzel’s plans, and indeed everyone’s plans, are upended by the arrival of Sally, a beautiful dancer who loves lox but hopscotches around the country for theater jobs. This comic tale deals with life’s surprises and moving outside one’s comfort zone. It will be shown Nov. 19 at 4:30 p.m. and Nov. 22 at 6:30 p.m. at Plaza Frontenac.

“Tales from the Organ Trade” is a partly Israeli documentary in which writer/director Ric Esther Bienstock and narrator David Cronenberg explore the shadowy world of international organ trafficking. It includes the story of a desperately-ill Jewish Canadian man who uses an Israeli broker to obtain a kidney from a woman in Moldova and becomes embroiled in an international court case. The documentary explores the moral and ethical conundrum around this illegal but life-saving trade. Part of the festival’s Human Rights Spotlight, it will be shown Nov. 16 at 6 p.m. at Washington University’s Brown Auditorium.

SLIFF also offers three short Israeli films. “Made You Look” follows two street artists who transform ordinary objects into art works. It will be shown as part of the Doc Shorts: Artists’ Lives program on Nov. 18 at 5 p.m. at the Tivoli. The “Shorts 12: International Drama” program features two Israeli films, “Deserted” about two female soldiers who are left in the desert as part of their officer’s exam, and “Matat” about a religious couple facing a relationship crisis. The films are shown Nov. 24 at 9 p.m. at the Tivoli.

Finally, the festival also includes the Midrash St. Louis Film Award, presented by Midrash St. Louis to honor St. Louis-connected films “of honesty and artistry that portray the need or the hope for reconciliation or redemption,” with the belief that these are “among the most powerful and worthy themes to explore in film.”