Everything you need to know about the return of the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival


Images courtesy of St. Louis Jewish Film Festival.

Cate Marquis, Special To The Jewish Light

After three years of going virtual, the Jewish Community Center’s 28th Annual St. Louis Jewish Film Festival is returning to an in-person format at the Marcus Des Peres Theater. The festival, which takes place March 12-16, will present 14 Jewish-themed films from the United States and around the world.

There are seven narrative features, ranging from bittersweet comedy to gripping drama. Among these are a gripping tale set in a concentration camp called “Persian Lessons,” the harrowing drama “Farewell Mister Haffman,” set in occupied Paris about a Jewish jeweler and his non-Jewish employee, and the bittersweet Israeli comedy “Karaoke,” about an older middle-class couple who meet a new neighbor who has karaoke nights in his apartment. 

The festival’s seven documentaries include “Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen,” on the making of Norman Jewison’s “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song,” a sort of dual biography of the singer/songwriter/poet and his most famous song “Hallelujah.” 

This year’s festival includes a few major changes: the change in location to Marcus Des Peres Theater (previous in-person film festivals were held at Plaza Frontenac Cinema) as well as a new festival director, John Wilson, director of Cultural Arts at the J, and a new partnership with Cinema St. Louis, the nonprofit presenter of the St. Louis International Film Festival.

The change to Des Peres will give festival patrons stadium/lounge seating and help improve parking access, Wilson said. The Marcus family, which owns the chain, is Jewish, and were very accommodating. 

“We’re very thankful for the partnership, and Marcus wanted to support the festival and sew into our Jewish cultural programming,” Wilson said.

Wilson said when he came on board, the festival’s committee, led by co-chairs Marilyn K. Brown, Jeffrey Korn and Paula Sigel, had already selected the 14 films and created the schedule. He said the festival’s organizers hope to draw in even more attendees than the last in-person festival in 2019.

“There’s just nothing that matches the communal excitement and bonding when we gather in person to take in all the festival has to offer,” Wilson said. “I’m hoping we will not only get our 1,500 previous festival attendees back but go beyond that as more friends and families see the festival as an opportunity for unique community experiences, artistic and intellectual engagement, and the joy of watching cinema in a full auditorium.”

Highlights of the Jewish Film Festival

• “Farewell Mister Haffman” opens the film festival at 4 p.m. March 12. The French-language film stars legendary French actor Daniel Auteuil as a gifted jeweler who owns a small Parisian shop. Haffman planned to escape before the Nazis arrived, and signed over his shop to his non-Jewish employee, with an understanding that it is only temporary. But the Jewish jeweler is unable to get out in time and is now stuck and at the employee’s mercy. 

“Karaoke” is an Israeli comedy, a sort of cautionary tale with wonderful performances, about a middle-class couple in their 60s, played by Sasson Gabay (“The Band’s Visit”) and Rita Shukrun, who befriend a charismatic neighbor (Israeli star Lior Ashkenazi) who holds karaoke nights in his home. 

“Persian Lessons” tells the story of a Jewish man in a concentration camp in 1942 who evades execution by lying to his German captors about his Jewish identity, claiming that he is Persian. The commandant in charge of the kitchen at this concentration camp hopes to open a German restaurant in Persia (Iran) after the war, so he enlists the man to teach him Farsi. However, the man knows only one word of Farsi and has to make up and teach an entire foreign language on his so that his deceit isn’t found out.

 “America” is an affecting drama, from the director of “The Cakemaker,” about a Chicago-based Israeli swimming coach who returns to Israel after 10 years to bury his father but meets a childhood friend, which leads to unexpected consequences. 

• Historical dramas fill out the rest of the narrative features. The Portuguese “1618” is set during the Inquisition, while the Polish “March ’68” centers on two young students falling in love during the social turmoil of Warsaw in 1968. “Schächten” is an Austrian drama set in 1960s Vienna, about a young Jewish businessman outraged when a court fails to convict the Nazi concentration camp commandant who killed his family, whose thoughts turn to revenge.

• Among the documentaries, “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song” is a wonderful exploration of both the life of songwriter/singer/poet Cohen and his song “Hallelujah,” which had a life of its own.

• Other fascinating documentaries include “Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen,” which closes the festival at 7 p.m. March 16 and is about the making of Jewison’s movie “Fiddler on the Roof.” “I Am Here” is a life-affirming biography tracing the remarkable life of Shoah survivor Ella Blumenthal, a 98-year-old South African with an unsinkable spirit. 

“The Levys of Monticello” reveals the surprising story of a Jewish family who bought, and saved, Thomas Jefferson’s home after his death. “Bernstein’s Wall” explores the life and work of composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein, tracing his rise from the son of Russian Jewish immigrants to status as musical icon.

Other documentaries are “The Jews and the Blues,” where a filmmaker/musician travels to Israel to explore how the blues ties into the mix of cultures there. “A Tree of Life” looks at the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, one of the deadliest antisemitic attacks in U.S. history.