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The New York Jewish Film Festival: A Catered Affair For All Tastes

Tuesday, January 9----It is often said, and I would be a fool to disagree, that anyone who lives in New York City long enough becomes a kind of “honorary Jew”. Whether it is an uncontrollable yen for matzoh ball soup, a love of klezmer (Jewish soul) music, or a few Yiddishims creeping into everyday speech, New Yorkers are in spirit, if not in reality, more than just a little bit Jewish. Therefore, the 16th Annual New York Jewish Film Festival, which opens tomorrow and runs through January 25th, is an event that every New Yorker, Jewish or otherwise, can call their own.

The Festival is a collaboration between The Jewish Museum, the venerable New York art institution devoted to Jewish history and contemporary culture, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, one of the city’s most diverse and prolific film organizations. Thirty-one films, many of them US or New York premieres, will be presented at the Walter Reade Theater and the Jewish Museum. Countries represented in the international program include Canada, Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Finland, Israel, Mexico, The Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.

The Festival covers a multitude of genres….everything from dramas to documentaries to comedies, illuminating the diverse culture of contemporary Jewish life in all corners of the globe. Many of the filmmakers will be present at the screenings to discuss their films and answer questions from the audience.

The Festival begins on January 10th with Mexican director Alejandro Springall’s charming comedy MY MEXICAN SHIVAH, which will receive its US Premiere. In this heartwarming story about family ties, mourners of a much beloved patriarch, including his relatives, a Catholic ex-lover, an Orthodox grandson and a troupe of mariachi players, descend on the family wake, a “shivah”, with hilarious results. The film is co-produced by independent director John Sayles and his producing partner Maggie Renzi, and features a high-spirited klezmer score by The Klezmatics.

The Festival will present two world premiere screenings. SONIA, by director Lucy Kostelanetz, is an intimate portrait of her aunt Sofia (Sonia) Dimshitz-Tolstaya, a Russian avant-garde painter and utopian visionary inspired by the promise of the Russian Revolution. THE FORGOTTEN JEWS OF SOUTH AMERICA, by Gabriela Bohm, is a moving study of a group of South American Catholics who discover their Jewish ancestry and must contend with traditional Jewish law when they wish to convert back to the Jewish faith.

Films commenting on the on-going Middle East struggle between Israel and its neighbors is a strong theme in the program. NEWS FROM HOME/NEWS FROM HOUSE, by acclaimed Israeli director Amos Gitai, is the story of a West Jerusalem house that is inhabited by both Israeli and Palestinian neighbors. In the powerful documentary 5 DAYS, director Yoav Shamir chronicles the forced evacuation of 8,000 Jewish settlers from their Gaza Strip homes as part of an action by Israeli soldiers in August 2005.

The transformation of Israeli society is documented in three startling films. FAMILY MATTERS, by director David Noy, describes an Israeli alternative family of two gay men and a straight woman, who choose to have a baby. SISAI, by director David Gavro, is the portrait of an Ethiopian man and his newly adopted Israeli family. Director Eyal Halfon’s WHAT A WONDERFUL PLACE, set in a dreary border town in the Negev Desert, interweaves an ensemble of characters in a multi-layered narrative concerning foreign workers who are looking for Israel's equivalent of the “American dream”.

The Holocaust continues to be an inexhaustible subject for Jewish filmmakers and their audiences. Several films in the Festival further illuminate this tragic milestone in Jewish history, as they explore the echoes of those horrific times. Christian Delage’s documentary, NUREMBURG: THE NAZIS FACING THEIR CRIMES, receiving its United States premiere, reconstructs the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany, using rare footage and contemporary interviews with survivors and former prosecutors. The film is movingly narrated by actor Christopher Plummer.

THE RAPE OF EUROPA, based on Lynn Nicholas’ award-winning book, traces the amazing story of the destruction and rediscovery of Europe’s art treasures, looted by the Nazis for their own use. The film highlights the unheralded contribution of the “monuments men”, Army soldiers who safeguarded and returned displaced artworks, and their little-known gift to European culture.

In director Henry Meyer’s FOUR WEEKS IN JUNE, a troubled young woman in a remote Swedish town develops an unexpected friendship with a Holocaust survivor, who holds on to a secret of a forbidden love during wartime. In the narrative film NINA’S HOME, acclaimed French actress Agnès Jaoui stars as the tireless director of a children’s shelter in France after World War II, which housed Polish and Russian concentration camp survivors. The anti-semitism that followed “victory” is a telling story of courage and the will to survive.

Unfortunately, the spectre of anti-semitism continues to rear its ugly head in our own times. In the documentary WHITE TERROR, also receiving its US Premiere, a disturbing portrait emerges of a new generation of anti-Semitic publishers, music producers and Internet entrepreneurs, from Stockholm to Dallas to Moscow.

Fortunately, not all the films deal with the dark shadows, and two of the Festival’s best films are more lighthearted in tone. GORGEOUS! (Comme t’y es belle!) is a hip comedy by director Lisa Azuelos, set in contemporary Paris. In a kind of “Sex and The City” with a Sephardic twist, four women from North African backgrounds meet regularly for frank discussions about men, marriage and children. Their smart talk reveals their struggle to balance their needs, careers, traditional families and love lives. In director Lorraine Levy’s THE FIRST TIME I WAS TWENTY, the setting is 1960s Paris, as the film follows a zaftig 16 year old who auditions for her school’s all-male jazz band, overcoming both sexism and anti-semitism by using her brains and talent.

What would a festival be without a retrospective program, and this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival presents a trio of remarkable “lost works”. In the 1922 silent film, HUNGRY HEARTS, based on the short stories of Anzia Yezeierska, the scene is New York’s Lower East Side, and the drama centers on a family newly arrived from Europe to find the streets of the New World not exactly paved with gold. In 1937’s THE CANTOR’S SON, a kind of Yiddish version of THE JAZZ SINGER, Yiddish superstar Moshe Oysher makes his screen debut as a cantor who yearns for a career in show business. In LOVE AND SACRIFICE, a 1939 Yiddish melodrama directed by George Roland, a middle class matron goes to jail for shooting the man who compromises her. The film’s star, Esta Salzman, will make a special appearance at the film's screening (its first in almost 50 years).

For a complete program, film descriptions and screenings schedule, visit the websites:
Film Society of Lincoln Center or The Jewish Museum or come to the Walter Reade Theater box office. Go and enjoy in good health…..


Sandy Mandelberger
Film New York Editor

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