Food, family and history land on the marquee at the Jewish Film Festival
The Milwaukee Film Festival may have run its end credits earlier this month, but film festival season is far from over. Take, for instance, the Jewish Film Festival, which will yell action on its 18th year of bringing Jewish culture, tradition, history, experiences and perspectives to the big screen this weekend.
"We've seen a change (over 18 years); the movies in Israel, I think, have come a long way," said Micki Seinfeld, special events director for the Jewish Community Center. "They've become better filmmakers, better at creating stories, making the film and getting their messages across. A lot of what they did in the very beginning was parts of TV shows; we were getting excerpts from TV shows to show as movies. That's come a long way."
With Israeli-made films like "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem" standing as one of the year's best reviewed movies, that progress is only becoming more and more apparent. Seinfeld and the rest of the JCC hope to show audiences that creative growth – and, of course, some really entertaining and engaging movies as well, starting Sunday night with its first film, "Mr. Kaplan," at 7:30 p.m. at the Marcus North Shore Cinema.
The Uruguayan dramedy, the country's Best Foreign Film submission for last year's Academy Awards, follows a restless elderly Jewish immigrant who believes he's discovered a Nazi in hiding on a nearby beach and seeks to expose him.
"(Uruguayan cinema) is known for doing a lot of character studies and developing their stories slowly," Seinfeld noted. "('Mr. Kaplan') looks into its lead and unravels slowly, but you get a great character study of this person, what he's thinking and how he handles it."
At face value, Uruguayan cinema and a Jewish film festival may not seem like an obvious combination. However, Seinfeld and the JCC are constantly looking for as many different angles and perspectives for their lineup. This year's seven-movie set reflects that, featuring picks from the aforementioned Uruguay to the United States to Israel to France and the United Kingdom.
"It's really about film through a Jewish lens, whether it's a uniquely Jewish story, a uniquely Israeli story or a universal story that's told through a Jewish or Israeli filmmaker," said Chad Tessmer, chief marketing officer for the JCC. "It's about that lens and how it's unique to the broader community that I think it really interesting and really relevant right now."
"One of the really beautiful things about Judaism is that it's very different throughout the whole world," Tessmer continued. "Being a Jew in Uruguay is different than being a Jew in New York City, which is different than being a Jew in Milwaukee. Shining a light on that and using the film festival as an opportunity to, through those differences, bring us closer to one another is really, really interesting."
That mission extends to the types and genres of movies the Jewish Film Festival schedules. This year's selections range from irreverent romantic comedy, namely the closing night's "Serial Bad Weddings," to drama, like the French stolen art suspense picture "The Art Dealer" and the Israeli play adaptation "Apples From the Desert," to food-themed comedy with the Jonathan Pryce-led "Dough." A duo of documentaries also made the cut this year: "Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem" and "Deli Man," which actually saw a brief theatrical run earlier this year at the Downer as well.
"Normally we don't show movies that have played here in theaters, but we thought that it was such an important movie that part of the audience might have not gotten out to see it," Seinfeld explained.
The food-happy documentary, screening just in time for lunch at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 21, recalls the rich history of the Jewish delicatessen and finds some of the restaurants and owners keeping the classic traditions alive amid a sad modern decline in popularity.
"There used to be thousands of them; now it's down to hundreds," Seinfeld said.
In some ways, "Deli Man" is a nice embodiment of the Jewish Film Festival's mission: sharing a story both specific in its Jewish culture and tradition but also broad in its appeal. And, most importantly, entertaining.
"A film festival should be compelling and engaging, and the work to build a program that balances humor with heartfulness and depth and realness is a big challenge," Tessmer said. "But they've been doing it for 18 years, and they've been doing it exceptionally."
The Jewish Film Festival runs Sunday, Oct. 18-Thursday, Oct. 22 at the Marcus North Shore Cinema. The full lineup and schedule is available at the Jewish Community Center's website.
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