East Bay International Jewish Film Festival runs March 5-13
By Lou Fancher
True-life stories in cinematic, larger-than-life format dominate the lineup for the 21st annual East Bay International Jewish Film Festival. Perhaps a reflection of the social media era that customarily broadcasts personal stories as share-it-all dramas or comedies, the 30 films screening March 5-13, at Century Theatres in Pleasant Hill demonstrate filmmakers' interest in real-life incidents and historic events.
"There are excellent films every year," says steering committee member Efi Lubliner, "but this year, true stories are astounding. Truth gets incredibly to the value of film: the educational, informative strength of something that happened is undeniable."
Festival director Riva Gambert says the committee screened more than 130 films and the selections predominantly focus on human interest stories.
"Our closing film on March 13th, 'Baba Joon,' explores intergenerational conflicts as does the March 8th sweet drama, 'Apples from the Desert.' On March 10th, 'Gett' is about one woman's long struggle to receive a divorce from her husband. Most of our Israeli films are stories about people who have everyday challenges to overcome."
Lubliner notes, "It's true that the festival is named "Jewish," but if people look at Jewish as only a religion, that's a mistake. The films we show are of Jewish people's interest: films about race or hate themes, universal societal themes. The general public must be aware."
And the films are by no means entirely grim depictions of individual, political, or family strife.
"5 to 7" is a romantic comedy. The 2015 film for adult audiences tells the story of a young writer who enters a liaison with a married French ex-model 10 years his senior and features Frank Langella and Glenn Close as the young man's bickering, but in-love parents. Even here, real life intervenes as a number of well-known celebrities play themselves in the 95-minute film.
Other standouts for their storytelling: "Very Semi-Serious," a 2015 documentary about New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff that's packed with laugh-worthy cartoons and cartoonists; "The Search for Israeli Cuisine," a 97-minute documentary chronicling the more than 70 cultures that contribute to Israel's foodie empire; and "Serial (Bad) Weddings," a French comedy about interracial marriages that strikes a double-edged laugh-with-regret tone.
One of the festival's most powerful and moving films, according to Gambert, is a drama about a Kurdish teenager who crosses borders illegally and engages a swimming coach in order to swim the English Channel to reach a girlfriend in England.
"Welcome" was nominated for 10 Cesars at the Lumiere Awards (a French film award equivalent to Hollywood's Golden Globe Awards).
"While none of its characters are Jewish, its message against stereotyping is a universal one and we are proud to show it," says Gambert.
This year's festival will offer more guest speakers than in prior years. An introduction and Q&A with Consul General Stefan Schlueter, the German Consulate General in San Francisco, accompanies the opening night film, "Labyrinth of Lies."
The 2015 historical drama, "The Experimenter," about a Yale University researcher's controversial "obedience experiments" involving subjects giving electrical shocks to a stranger will host guest speaker Elaine Guarnieri-Nunn, director of Oakland-based Facing History and Ourselves.
Donny Inbar, a graduate of the California Culinary Academy currently writing a book about food in the Bible will offer insights at the March 7 screening of "The Search for Israeli Cuisine," and more.
One film, "Best of Men," arguably encapsulates the festival's varied offerings. The BBC 2012 television drama tells the true story of Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, who founded the Paralympic Games.
Pioneering the treatment of British soldiers with spinal injuries by placing them in wheelchairs and sending them out to play hockey and other sports, Guttmann's legacy story is told with uplifting sweep and good humor.
"As has been said, truth is sometimes more fascinating than fiction," says Lubliner.