Jewish International Film Fest opens March 1
By Lou Fancher
Active tolerance is the top theme at the 23rd Annual East Bay International Jewish Film Festival. Opening March 1 at Orinda Theatre in Orinda and continuing for 10 days at Century 16 in Pleasant Hill before winding up in Livermore with three days at Vine Cinema, the hyper-mobile festival is anything but passive.
While past film collections have explored anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and other stories primarily reflecting Jewish experiences and perspectives, this year’s docket displays a global focus. In documentaries, biopics, comedies, short- and feature-length movies, the approximately 39 films selected by committee from roughly 120 submissions deliver a stand up, say-no-to-hate-everywhere message.
Marginalization doesn’t belong to one ethnicity, race or social class, but is a terrible problem of contemporary times, suggests Festival Director Riva Gambert in an interview.
“We wanted to do something to emphasize the need to be more civil and more aware that many people are being what I call “otherwise-d,” People who have been marginalized or stigmatized across the globe are reflected in films that deal with many groups of people. We thought it was especially important now because the tone in conversations has ratcheted up.”
Furthermore, being complicit by walking past someone suffering prejudice or being a bystander, is no longer to be tolerated, she says. An individual’s duty may not be to jump into a lake to save someone, but it might be to call 911.
“We all have the ability to make small changes for the better,” Gambert says.
Of course, the festival’s tradition of presenting films with substance doesn’t preclude there being room for jolly laughter and entertainment. Opening night’s “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” dances from lively portrayal of the Black, Jewish, Puerto Rican performer on stage to darker scenes illustrating the racism he endured.
“We like opening night to have a film with depth,” says Gambert, “but also one that’s not violent or too dark. The film deals with American life and society through his genius as an entertainer, it deals with difficult subjects but it’s also a film that has balance.”
Hardest to find, according to the selection committee, are documentaries with broad appeal and comedies. Gambert has been watching movies — film watching was a favorite activity for her parents — since age 3.
“I’m not a filmmaker, but I’ve sat through countless movies. Documentaries are harder to produce than features. Often, the topic is more important to the documentarian than to a general audience, people removed from the event or subject.”
With comedies, the problem is vulgarity. “Lately, too many filmmakers use embarrassment as a means of humor. I long for the day when filmmakers return to comedies like ‘To Be or Not to Be’ with Jack Benny or ‘Some Like it Hot,’ films like that.”
Fortunately, along with a slim selection of witty, well-written comedies, there’s a solid supply of films that offer standout performances, tender tributes, or fresh perspectives on famous people or events in history. “In the Fade,” a Golden Globe nominee and Bay Area premiere, features Diane Kruger (Inglorious Bastards, National Treasure). The 106-minute film told in German and Turkish with subtitles follows a woman’s troubled journey after her husband and 6-year-old son are killed in a bombing. Gabert says audiences might be surprised, as she was, to learn that Kruger is not an American-born actor.
“She’s actually a native German and this is her first German-speaking film. She’s extraordinary in this contemporary tale.”
Surprising also is discovering in “Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story,” that the glamorous Hollywood star had a scientific mind. Her theories and inventions were precursors to today’s Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS technology.
Films that re-frame history and emphasize the festival’s “don’t be a bystander to hate” theme include “Riphagen.” Based on a true story that includes a real-life, evil protagonist, the focus shifts to the young policeman who stands up to the horrible con man, despite the danger to his life.
Gabert is often asked to define what constitutes a Jewish film. “I ask people the same thing. I suppose what we prioritize in Judaism is doing deeds of righteousness, remembering we were also strangers. We are to be empathetic because many times over history, people turned their backs on us.” It’s a good lesson to learn and applied to life — and filmmaking —messages encouraging active tolerance and increased peace are the end results.