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Israeli comedies add zest to Warsaw Jewish Motifs Fest

In the past two years the subject matter of this festival concentrated heavily on themes of the Holocaust and Polish-Jewish relations. This year the program is of a spicier variety with a heavier than usual input of films from Israel. The big discovery and surprise so far has been a rib-tickling comedy from Israel entitled "Like a Fish Out of Water" (RT, 56 minutes) by 28 year old helmer Leon Pudovsky. The story centers on a freewheeling Argentine immigrant to Israel, a thoroughly unkosher Latin Jew, and his affair with a seemingly straightlaced religious young lady from an orthodox family who happens to be his Hebrew language teacher. This immature, wise-guy lothario from lower South America (good comedian but his name was not listed in the catalogue), is a widower with a ten year old daughter who basically runs his life and is determined to find a new wife for him. Back home in Buenos Aires our hero was an actor in Argentine soap operas. In Israel he's working in a gas station while trying to learn enough Hebrew to land an acting job in Israeli TV. When the religious, sexually frustrated, apple of his eye falls for his clumsy but sincere advances, this leads to one hilarious scene after another with her own strictly orthodox parents trying to make sense of this unexpected madness. Leon Pudovsky is already a veteran of Israeli TV series and this looks like it might be his breakthrough to bigger things -- no doubt with humor as the keynote. For all we know, a budding Israeli Woody Allen.

Another film with an Argentine accent is Alejandro Vagnenkos' study of "Jevel Katz", a Lithuanian Jewish singer and comedian who was so popular in the thriving Jewish community of Buenos Aires in the thirties that he was dubbed "the Jewish Gardel". ( Gardel was the legendary Tango singer of the same era). Jevel dies suddenly in 1940 at the age of 39 and in this film Vagnenkos interviews very eldely people, in their eighties and nineties, who still remember Jevel or knew him personally. A most captivating, lively,
and, at times comical, 72 minute documentary with an amusing mixture of Argentine Spanish and Yiddish accents, and a cast of senior citizens playing themselves with obvious gusto. Bravo!

"Cheftzi on Air" (18 minutes) is a romantic comedy of sorts loosely based on the "Miss Lonelyhearts" theme with a most charming leading lady, Cheftzi (the name itself is funny) in the role of an all-night radio adviser to the love-lorn. Though she gives no-nonsense advice to her mostly female listeners --("If the guy stands you up, dump him -- he doesn't deserve you!") -- she can't handle her own love love life, and her bitter-sweet romance with a no-good twerp leaves her in the lurch. The film is so well handled from beginning to end that one wishes it were longer, while the whole idea and conceptualization shows how much of a western nation Israel is. One can hardly imagine a film with such a theme coming from any other Middle Eastern country. Young director Dalit Eliraz is a graduate of the Ma'aleh school of Television and the Arts and has directed several other short films, but the assuredness of her directorial style indicates that she will be making features in the very near future. Dalit was not available for a post screening Q and A as she had to catch a plane to Cannes where "Chetzi" is being shown in a special short film section. Mazel Tov, Cheftzi!

Still another most politically incorrect short comedy is the 19 minute rip-roarer entitled "Stand At Ease" combining rock-and-roll with avoidance of military service. Director is 26 year old Ben Katz who came to Israel with his family at age 11 from Brooklyn, N.Y. and is equally fluent in Hebrew and English. In one sequence, the young hero of the film, in an effort at having himself declared unfit for military service, does an elaborate dress-up as a woman with heavy lipstick and presents himself to the draft board in this outrageous getup. The psychiatrist in charge tells him "This ploy isn't going to work, buddy -- we've had 18 cases like this in the last two weeks ...". Says Katz, the offspring of dedicated American Zionists; "I'm just interested in making films people will enjoy whether they're Israeli or not". From the films described above and a number of others, it's beginning to look like there is a very strong youth movement afoot in Israel -- young directors of both sexes with talent to burn -- such that Hebrew language cinema may soon emerge from its Kosher Jewish niche to become a recognized player on the international film scene.

From the other side of the globe, of all places, Dallas Texas comes, Robert "Roc" Curry's Torah oddyssey "Dancing with Torah", 55 minutes. Mr. Curry is a former catholic priest, turned actor, and now filmmaker. His film tells the story of Torahs hidden from the Nazi invaders during the war in
Czechoslovakia, and of one particular Torah which was brought to Dallas, largely through the intercession of a religious Jewish boy, a Barmitzvah bukher by the name of Zack. From his priestly days in south Texas director Curry realized the importance of the Torah,(The "Old" testament) not only to Judaism but to Christianity as well. He was particularly intrigued by the fact that orthodox Jews regard the Torah as a living being and, therefore, he sees the Torah of the title as a leading character in his film. The title comes from the joy that fervently religious Jews experience in certain ecstatic religious ceremonies when they literally dance with the Torah.
This is a complex, visually rich film, spanning half the globe and especially interesting in that it comes to us from a devout Christian gentleman.

Another film about a Christian involved with Jews is "Parish Priest of Majdanek", a 50 minute documentary about the life and martyrdom in the Majdanek death camp of Greek Catholic priest Emilian Kowcz who protected Jews during the German occupation and paid for it with his life. Kocz's parish was in a border area populated by Jews, Ukranians and Poles. Through the force of his personality and Christ like simplicity he was able to reconcile the conflicts between his parishoners and, in order to save Jews from death, issued hundreds of certicates of Baptism to them. The Germans gave him an unequivocal alternative: stop issuing fake baptismal certificates or go to the gas in Majdanek with his "precious Jews". Of course, Kowcz chose the latter path and stated that he was ecstatically happy in Majdanek where he was able to minister to the dreadful psychological needs of the condemned, on a daily basis. In the course of the film many survivors of that horrid era attest to the absolute saintliness of Father Kowcz in a film which is really more of a Christian hagiography than a film about Jews. The director, Grzegorz Linkowski is a Polish film producer and cultural activist in Lublin where the Majdanek camp is located -- the best preserved of all large death factories it may be noted, and the only one that was located in the vicinity of a major city.

"Guide for the Perplexed" is a 55 minute documentary on the famous Medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who evolved a middle path between traditional Judaism and Arab rationalism by way of Aristotle. Moses ben Maimon (often referred to as the "RAMBAM" but conventionally by his Greek
appelation "Maimonides") was born in Cordoba, Spain in 1135, then under Arab occupation, and died in Cairo,Egypt in 1204, after many perpitations across North Africa and the Holy Land. He was also a respected physician and wrote mainly in Arabic. "Guide for the Perplexed' is the best known of his many religious treatises. The film by veteran director Igal Bursztyn (born 1946) he calls "filmed research" reflecting upon contemporary political events played against the Maimonides biography, commenting on
these events in his own ironic words. A very well constructed historical film with contemporary echoes.

There was no lack of somber films to bombard the senses with memories of the barbarous destruction of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. I had to take refuge and walk out of a few as waves of depression began to eat away at my brain. One such, called oddly the"Joy of Saturday" had to do with a failed attempt to recover (with advanced archeological methods) the third buried box of horrifying Ghetto testimonies called the "Ringlbaum Archive". Emmanuel Ringlbaum was a trained Jewish Historian who kept a daily record, written in Yiddish, of the day to day agony of living death in the Ghetto.
He and other contributors knew they would never survive, but it was their last desperate hope that these buried manuscipts would be found, so that later generations would know how they lived and that they had lived -- that all trace of them would not disappear into oblivion. Two boxes of these death writings in Yiddish were dug up from the ruins and are now regarded as a UNESCO treasure. The search for the third one, conducted near what is now the Chinese embassy, ended in frustration, and even the searchers acknowledge that, even if found, these additional documents would still not be able to answer the ultimate questions -- How could so-called civilized Germans perpetrate such inhuman crimes -- and how could millions of Jews accept their dehumanization and fate so passively... Leaves me asking why make a film about a lost box of papers that will add nothing to what we already know?
Directed by Ryszard Kaczynski in 2005, RT 45 minutes.

"The Ritchie Boys", a Canadian/German co-production, directed by German Christian Bauer (obviously not Jewish with a name like that) is a feature length documentary running 95 minutes which tells the story of a group of German immigrants to America (mostly Jewish) who arrived in the thirties and were then pressed into service as Military Intelligence interrogators because of their native fluency in German. They were trained for their mission at a secret base in Maryland called "Camp Ritchie", hence they became known as "The Richie Boys". Using some archival footage enhanced by commentary from the survivors now in their eighties, the film follows their strange adventures through all the major campaigns of World War II. Their job was to get vital military information from German POWs and, since most were Jewish, they threw themselves into their work zealously and with a vengeance. In one rather amusing sequence one of the boys dresses up as a Russian officer to frighten hardened German soldiers into cooperating. It seems the one thing the Germans feared more than death itself was to be turned over to the Russians whom they saw as merciless, vengeful savages. Of course it was all a sham, but certain German prisoners were told that if they didn't cooperate with their American interrogators they would be handed over to the Russians, foirthwith! The dressed up Jewish "Russian" even spoke German with a Russian accent to strike further fear into these German hearts. Apparently the tactic was successful in many cases. Most of the movie is, however, dead serious as these old timers -- all now highly successful American citizens in retirement, recount this little-known episode of the war years.

One of the few actual non-documentary feature films on view was "Daddy" (Tata) by Vladimir Mashkov, Russia, RT 94 min., a film about a Jewish-Russian violin prodigy, David Shvartz, with a timid clinging-vine
Russian Jew of a father, of whom he is deeply ashamed. In a way this is an inside-out version of the 1996 Australian film "Shine" in which Geoffrey Rush played a piano prodigy intimidated into schizophrenic silence by an overbearingly dominating father. David's father embarrasses him before his colleagues at the music conservatory where he is a star violinist, by showing up in ragged clothes and a scraggly beard. Later, however, when David learns his father has been killed by the advancing Germans he comes to appreciate his father's pitiful affection -- "for paternal love knows no offences and never dies". Well shot but a bit on the shmaltzy side. Not recommended except for those who still put shmaltz on their bread.

An afternoon devoted to very short animation films turned out to be one of the festival highlights. "Back Seat Bingo" by Liz Blazer, USA, 5 good minutes. The subject is Sex and the single senior citizen and it's a winner! -- Animation with a special style based on scanning the photos of the still horny oldsters who are the protagonists of this delightful piece of work. I would love to see a whole feature made in this style.

"God on our Side" from the Netherlands, co-directed by Uri Kranot and Michal Pfeffer, is a seven minute animation employing imagery directly based on Picasso's "Guernica", but adressing itself to the Israeli-Arab conflict. In the name of God people are infused with rage and violence. What hope is there for a child born into this cycle of death? Picasso would have loved this and so did I. Both directors were born in Israel in 1975, but are now studying in the 'Artists in Residence' program at the Netherland Institution
for Animation Film. Must be one helluvan institute!

"Homing", a nine minute animation by Jonah Bleicher, USA, 8 minutes. A green pigeon with flapping yellow wings takes you into the mind of a suicide bomber approaching a bus stop where he will blow himself and some Jews to Kingdom Come -- but will he? -- Told in the first person -- we follow the tracks, the interior view, and the thoughts of one of these young Arab "martyrs" during his last moments on earth. The author of this hypnotic piece of work was born in Los Angeles in 1978, then raised in Jerusalem and now lives in New York. "Homing' was his thesis film at the Rhode Island School of Design.

"Covenant" -- The Briss -- Mothers suffer during the eight days between birth and Briss (Brith), the circumcision schntizl ritual which it is unthinkable not to put your male baby through, in all forms of judaism.
Seen from the point of view of the mother who's instinct it is to protect her child from pain, this bizarre ritual can be very unnerving and painful for the mother. --A number of Israeli women are observed during this painful period where faith in God and maternal instinct come into direct conflict. A very well observed film on a very touchy subject by Director Nurit Jacobs-Yinon, a lovely young lady with curly black hair who has two sons of her own, and thus speaks from personal experience as well. 52 min.

"Va, Vis, et Deviens" (Go there, Live, and make something of yourself) -- 2005 -- 140 MIN. Radu Mihaileanu -- no show by director, but a film which has been making the rounds world-wide. -- A very powerful film about a non-Jewish Ethiopian kid who is adopted by a French-speaking Israeli family and grows up obliged to live the lie that he is as Jewish as everyone else -- only moreso! This is, of course, a film about racial discrimination in Israel, but it's also a lot more. Superb performances all around, especially the Moroccan parents and the three juvenile actors who play "Shlomo", the hero, at different stages of his life. Romanian/French director Radu Mihaileanu is clearly one of the best helmers around anywhere these days.

"TEL AVIV" by Richard Goldgewicht --USA -- 10 MIN. Stranded in the desert when his car breaks down an American Yid in a suit gets a lift to Tel Aviv from funky Arabs in a seedy van -- On the way, since they only speak Arabic, he doesn't know whether they intend to kill him or get him to Tel Aviv. -- A comedy with a message. Love thy neighbors, and maybe they won't kill you -- or, not all Arabs are bad.

All in all, there was more variety this year than in the previous two, though not necessarily an upgrade in quality of films shown. The first two years would be pretty hard to beat. There were a goodly number of films by non-Jewish directors which I personally see as a favorable sign for widening of the angle of perception. My only complaint is that the schedule is so compact that I had to pass up many films I would like to have seen. Even so, it was five days of information overload with many documentaries of near feature length. In any case, Mirek Chojecki and his team are to be complimented for playing a great role in making their fellow Polish citizens more aware -- at times painfully aware -- of a culture which disappeared from their very midst, in an unprecedented wave of collective brutality, not so very long ago -- indeed, within the living memory of many.

by Chaim Pevner, Warsaw


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