The selection committee of the International Jewish Film Festival has been hard at work since January and the result is a menu of films with something to satisfy every taste. From the serious (women’s roles in Orthodox Judaism, politics, the Holocaust) to the whimsical (Mah-jongg) and beyond (Star Trek’s Mr. Spock), this year’s line up features films from Israel, U.S., the Netherlands, France and Hungary.
The festival is part of the JCC of the North Shore’s adult programming. It runs from Monday, May 8 through Thursday, May 18. Films are screened at Salem Visitor Center, Warwick Cinema in Marblehead and the JCCNS. Several films are screened twice with both evening and matinée offerings. A full schedule is available at the JCCNS reception desk or at jccns.org.
Izzi Abrams has chaired the committee since the festival’s inaugural year in 2014. “Our biggest challenge this year was to present a diverse sampling of films,” she said. A glance at the festival schedule indicates she and her committee succeeded, with a balance of history, politics, drama, comedy and documentary films.
“The Women’s Balcony” (Israel, 2016) kicks off the 10-day festival with an Opening Night screening and dessert and coffee reception at the Salem Visitors Center on Monday, May 8 at 7:00 p.m. Nominated for an Ophir Award (Israeli Academy Award), the popular movie centers on a devout Jerusalem Orthodox community and the conflict that ensues after an accident occurs during a bar mitzvah. While a comedy, the film addresses the more serious issue of women speaking truth to patriarchal power. Rabbi Lila Kagedan of the Walnut Street Synagogue in Chelsea will lead a post-screening discussion.
“Life Animated” (USA 2016) was nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary category. It tells the inspiring story of how an autistic young man who is unable to speak and his family discovered a way to communicate through immersion in classic Disney animated films. The film screens Monday, May 15 at 7 p.m. at the Salem Visitor Center and is followed by a discussion led by Jo Ann Simons, CEO of Northeast ARC.
Two films describe the life-altering surprise and inconvenience of uncovering one’s Jewish roots in post-Nazi Europe. A stylish thriller, “The Origin of Violence” (France, 2016) is about a young Catholic teacher who stumbles on a picture of a Jewish holocaust prisoner with a striking resemblance to his father. “Keep Quiet” (Hungary, 2016) is the true story of an anti-Semitic politician’s discovery that he is, in fact, Jewish and his confrontation with the painful truths about his family’s – and his country’s – wrong doings. Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez of Temple Sinai will lead a discussion following the Tuesday, May 16 screening at 7:30 p.m. at Warwick Cinema.
On a lighter note, North Shore Mah-jongg fans and players are in for a literal treat when “The Tiles That Bind” (USA 1998) screens at the JCCNS on Wednesday, May 17 at 6:30 p.m. The documentary lovingly explores the history of the ancient game, which has been played by the Chinese since the time of Confucius. The film chronicles its continued hold on the social and culinary experiences of Chinese and Jewish-American families and friends. After a sumptuous vegetarian Chinese food dinner, filmgoers are invited to play Mah-jongg.
Closing out the festival is “Harmonia” (Israel 2016), a contemporary adaptation of the biblical story of Sarah and Abraham set inside the inner sanctum of a symphony hall. The harpist Sarah and her husband, conductor Abraham, yearn to have a baby. Enter Hagar, a young horn player, whose friendship with Sarah results in a surprise contemporary twist to the Genesis story. The Thursday, May 18 screening at the Salem Visitor Center at 6:30 p.m. will be preceded by live harp music and hors d’oeuvres and followed by a discussion led by Cantor Elana Rozenfeld of Congregation Shirat Hayam.
Sara Ewing, the festival’s Program Director and curator, explained the selection process. Each committee member picks one or two Jewish Film Festivals to research for ideas on films currently making the “festival circuit.” After reviewing the line up and speaking with the program director about fan favorites, the committee members recommend films for consideration by the group, and a list is compiled. The full committee previews all films and makes its final decision based on artistic quality, a balance of different genres, and representation from diverse countries.
“Film selection is always one of the biggest challenges,” said Susan Steigman, who has served on the committee since 2014 and is responsible, in addition, for engaging some speakers for different films. “Sometimes it’s pretty clear which ones do not make the cut, but there are also so many, many very good films,” she added.
According to Ewing, last year’s festival sold 1,600 tickets with many shows selling out. She expects to sell even more this year.
Asked how she responds to friends who ask her for recommendations of which films they should see, Steigman laughs and says, “I say they are all good. Otherwise they would not have been selected!”
Tickets and more information available at the JCCNS, 4 Community Road, Marblehead or by calling 781-631-8330 or visiting jccns.org.