Film fest readies for 14th year


The 14th annual St. Louis Jewish Film Festival is bringing some excellent films from all over the world to the area this year.

The 2009 festival, titled “A Cinematic Journey,” kicks off June 14 at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema at Clayton Road and Lindbergh Boulevard. It runs nightly there through June 18, showing 17 films, including dramas, documentaries, comedies and family films from Israel, Spain, France and Germany, among others. The films in this year’s festival include some much talked about narrative films and eye-opening or moving documentaries. Several programs pair shorter documentary features for two-hour events.

“I think this is one of the strongest line ups we have ever had,” said Dee Berman, who is this year’s festival co-chair along with her husband Jack. “We have a wonderful variety of films from over eight countries.”

“Last year was our bar mitzvah year, and we had an opening and a closing film that dealt with a bar mitzvah. Easy,” said Zelda Sparks of the Jewish Community Center Cultural Staff. Again this year the festival committee wanted to have a unifying theme. “The committee came up with ‘A Cinematic Journey.’ The idea is that films come from all over the world. A lot of these films have to do with a search for identity, and finding that in unusual ways. I think that becomes the over-arching connector,” she added.

Many films are linked in other, sometimes surprising ways. There is a documentary about Greek Jews during the Shoah and a narrative film about a Jewish boy hidden by a non-Jewish Greek man. Devy Goldenberg will introduce Waves of Freedom, about the Haganah’s efforts to recruit Americans to help break the 1947 British blockade of Jews wishing to enter Palestine. The film shares the bill with The Journey to Golda’s Balcony, about actress Tovah Feldshuh’s preparation for her one-woman show about legendary Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Goldenberg’s father was both a member of Haganah and attended high school with Golda Meir. Several films focus on experiences in France or little-known WWII stories in various countries.

This year’s festival marks the debut of the St. Louis Film Society of the JCC. For the film buff who finds the festival’s week-long run is not enough, the new Film Society offers a way to extend the film festival run to the whole year. The club will offer special screenings with after-film discussions and/or expert speakers every other month, throughout the year.

“The festival is only a few days and we have been looking for a way to extend the experience year-round,” said Natalie Kauffman, organizer of the Film Society. “The Film Society will also allow us to reach out to other groups in the community and to bring in more challenging or controversial films that may not be appropriate for the festival.”

Joining the Film Society now gives patrons a free ticket to a festival film, a free ticket to a Film Society program (regularly $6), plus membership benefits including free preview screenings, an online newsletter and special screenings not available to the general public. Membership is $36 for individuals, $54 for couples and $18 for students.

Plans are afoot for a Film Society discussion program for the Israeli film Lemon Tree, which opens June 5 at Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

The Jewish Film Festival’s opening gala features two screenings of the widely acclaimed young person’s film Max Minsky and Me, a delightful, family-friendly German film about a bright girl preparing for her bat mitzvah but dreaming of meeting her idol, handsome Prince Edouard, who shares her love of astronomy.

The opening night Premiere Party event includes a kosher international buffet dinner at 6 p.m., with dietary laws observed, and a choice of tickets to either the 4:15 p.m. or 7:45 p.m. screening. The tickets for the Premiere Party are $95 per person and reservations are required.

Most of this year’s festival films include introductions or post-film discussions by people with a special link to the film or it subject. The documentary “In the Shadow of the Acropolis” includes a post-film discussion led by the film’s director Laura Zelle and producer Maxine Davis.

Some highlights of the festival are reviewed separately in this issue of the Jewish Light but additional films deserve special note.

Among them are the opening night “Max Minsky and Me,” a popular hit at festivals of children’s films around the world. This technically-polished comedy features some clever, playful special effects in this tale of studious, socially awkward Nelly, who loves astronomy and has a crush on handsome Prince Eduoard of Luxembourg, a fellow astronomy buff. She strikes a deal with athletic Max Minsky to teach her to play basketball well enough to make the school team before it travels to a meet in Luxembourg hosted by the prince.

One of the strongest documentaries is the eye-opening “Charging the Rhino,” a very polished, skillfully-made and fascinating film that recounts Romania’s untold history of anti-Semitism during both its fascist and Communist regimes, through the director’s personal journey to his father’s homeland. The title refers to Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” in which ordinary people are transformed into marauding monsters, a metaphor for the country’s embrace of fascism. Director Simcha Jacobovici’s father, the son of a successful winemaker, was one of several Romanian Jews shot during an infamous fascist massacre. Although shot in the heart, he survived and years later after his death, his children journeyed to Romania for the first-time. The history of Romania is told as they take that journey, where they discover that while no monument marks the spot of the massacre, statues honoring Romania’s fascist leader still exist, as well as offices for a modern fascist political party. The documentary makes a clear case for Romanian’s place as the most anti-Semitic nation in Europe today. The film is introduced by Romanian Holocaust child survivor Beatrice Wylie.

“Charging the Rhino” is shown with “Woman from Sarajevo,” a documentary about a Moslem woman and her family who sheltered a Jewish family during WWII and was rescued during the Bosnian war by members of that same family. It is a powerful story of giving back, although the film itself focuses more on her daughter, also rescued, and her conversion to Judaism while living is Israel. That film is introduced by Elsie Roth, an international aide nurse who also helped organize a terrorism-preparedness program with St. Louis University.

Another documentary that enlightens with little-known history is “At Home in Utopia,” in which now elderly men return to the Bronx collective apartments called the Coops where they grew up. The documentary recounts the idealism of their parents, East European Jewish immigrants who had fled pogroms and the Russian Czar to find freedom and self-determination in America. With attitudes shaped by oppression under the Czar and by popular political movements of the day, the founders of the collective Coops were among several ideological groups that included Zionists, union organizers, socialists and communists. In the early twentieth century, they saw cooperative housing and collective endeavors as the key to a utopian world. The film details their high ambitions for their children, as well as the Coops struggles through the Great Depression, revelations of Stalin’s abuses in the Soviet Union and the McCarthy era of “red-baiting.” Along the way, they were at the forefront of racial integration efforts. Although the Coops’ utopian dreams failed, they set a standard for cooperative apartment management in New York, and the film delivers an engrossing look at a little-known slice of history. The film is introduced by Phyllis Markus, former editor of Joint Council 13 Teamsters Newspaper.

A thought-provoking documentary is “Praying in Her Own Voice,” a compelling film that follows the efforts of the “Women of the Wall” movement, who seek to pray at the Western Wall in Israel. A post-film discussion of the film will be led by Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation.

Among the narrative films of special note are “Fugitive Pieces” and “Nina’s Home.” “Fugitive Pieces” features fine acting and lush photography in a tale of a survivor rescued as a boy from Poland by a Greek archeologist who raised him, but haunted throughout his life by survivor’s guilt and memories of his teenaged older sister. Post-film discussion is led by Dr. Sylvia Ginsparg of the St. Louis Psychoanalytical Institute. “Nina’s Home” is a dramatic film based on the real-life French group homes that sheltered Jewish children orphaned by the war and later took in the child survivors of the death camps. The film is introduced by Rachel Miller, a French Holocaust child survivor.

Film festival co-chair Jack Berman said that this year the committee was lucky to have a strong turn out of people willing to watch films for the selection process. “Some years we only get a few people to watch the films and we don’t get a cross-section (of the community),” he said. “I feel like we got a better perspective because we had a lot of different opinions. We knew when we had a good film and not such a good film, so it was a lot easier to make what I think are really, really good selections.” The committee started looking at films in late November and was receiving new ones even up to the deadline for selection.

St. Louis Jewish Film Festival

WHAT: The Jewish Community Center’s 14th annual festival features 17 films over five days

When: June 14 to June 18

Where: Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema, Lindbergh Boulevard and Clayton Road

How much: Tickets for films are $10 if purchased by June 13, and $11 after, except for the opening night film which is priced at $15. This year, the festival offers $8 discounted tickets for students, ages 16 and under. As always, there is a “Senior Mitzvah” program to allow seniors with limited resources to see films.

More information: Ticket information is available by calling (314) 442-3179 or from