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NYC Film Festivals

Diversity, History Key to NY Jewish Film Festival

By Karen Kramer

The diversity of international and historic Jewish life will once again presented at Lincoln Center when the 16th annual New York Jewish Film Festival opens Wednesday. Featuring 31 films from 14 countries -- many of which will be seen in New York for the first time -- the festival boasts a program almost as varied as the Jewish experience itself.

"What's striking this year is that there was such a tremendous amount of submissions," said Aviva Weintraub, festival director and associate curator at The Jewish Museum. “I think there’s an unbelievable amount of films that explore Jewish identity in one way or another.”


Selections from the 2007 New York Jewish Film Festival (L-R): The Rape of Europa, Lisa Azuelos' Gorgeous! and Kristi Jacobson's documentary Toots (Photos: Jewish Museum)

To pare down what Weintraub described as a "record-breaking" amount of material, she and her fellow programmers sought a mix of subject and style, incorporating films that either take on a new topic or present a new angle on a topic on which people might assume they’re familiar. “One of the things I most cherish about the New York Jewish Film Festival is its commitment to diversity, in terms of subject matter, cinematic style, politics, etcetera," said Richard Peña, who, as the Film Society of Lincoln Center's programming director, worked with Weintraub to gather works that create a total portrait. "With this year's selection, I think we've taken this commitment to diversity to new heights."

The tones range from films about the Nazi theft of art during World War II (The Rape of Europa) to a pair of light comedies from France (Lisa Azuelos' Gorgeous! / Comme t'y es belle and Lorraine Levy's The First Time I Was Twenty). Director David Noy's Family Matters follows two gay Israeli men through the process of having a baby with a straight woman, while David Gavro’s documentary Sisai chronicles the life of an Ethiopian man and his adopted family in Israel. What a Wonderful Place, by Eyal Halfon, follows foreign workers in a grimy border town near the Negev Desert.

“Every year we have films from all over the world, but this year feels particularly wide-ranging,” Weintraub said. “We’re showing our first feature film from Mexico. There are quite a few Latin American films on Jewish themes, but there aren’t a lot of Mexican films on Jewish themes. That’s an exciting one.” That film, My Mexican Shivah, is a comedic look at the passing of a family patriarch and the eclectic group of mourners who pay tribute to him. (Produced by John Sayles and Maggi Renzi and featuring a musical score by the Klezmatics, Shivah screens as a US premiere.)

New York filmmakers are also well-represented, with two local directors presenting documentaries about relatives they knew only by legend and whose colorful lives had an impact on the culture at large. In Sonia, Director Lucy Kostelanatz explores the life of her aunt, Sonia Dimshitz-Tolstaya -- a Russian avant-garde painter and free-spirited bohemian who continued to make her own personal style of art under the shadow of an oppressive Soviet regime. “She was one of the very few Jewish women involved in the Russian avant-garde," Kostelanatz said. "She was the sister who broke all the rules.”

Comprising interviews and archival footage (and taking 12 years to make), Sonia is one of the festival's two world premiere documentaries. "This will be my first time out in the world seeing how people respond," Kostelanatz told The Reeler. "So I’m very excited and also I’m very terrified.”

Helen Ferguson and Bryant Washburn in a scene from E. Mason Hopper's 1922 film Hungry Hearts

Kristi Jacobson’s documentary Toots, about her grandfather, legendary New York restaurateur Toots Shor, also portrays a relative with whom the director became acquainted with through the filmmaking process. “Growing up I knew I had a grandfather who had a restaurant," said Jacobson, who was born in New York and raised in New Jersey. "One of the things I learned is that Toots embodied New York in the '30s, '40s and '50s. I realized that this was a story that was not only fascinating to me but seemed to hold a lot of New York’s history and American history.”

Weintraub added that the film festival's programming is driven most by its mandate to acquire a mix of documentaries and narrative films, not to mention featuring the work of both established and emerging filmmakers and accommodating as many short films as possible. She also noted the emphasis on archival works like the 1922 silent drama, Hungry Hearts, which focuses on a new immigrant family from Europe and incorporates footage filmed on the Lower East Side. The program also includes The Cantor’s Son, a 1937 Yiddish musical about a wayward youth who tries to make it in America. “Every year we represent something that is newly restored by the National Center for Jewish Film, and The Cantor’s Son was their offering this year," Weintraub said. "So we were happy to include it.”

Posted at January 9, 2007 10:22 AM

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