If the first 17 years of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival were its childhood, its 18th “chai” year is the time for it to spread its wings.
“We sort of feel a little bit like a teenager going off to college,” said festival director Pamela Lavitt. “We were raised by [the American Jewish Committee], we got our foundation, our values, and a lot of purpose from that…parenting relationship. Now it’s sort of taking that next step out of the home.”
That next step is the festival’s move this past fall from the AJC to its new home within the Stroum Jewish Community Center.
Aside from an unusually Francophile-heavy lineup, most attendees won’t see a huge difference from past festivals — films will again be screened March 2–10, mainly at the SIFF Cinema Uptown and AMC’s Pacific Place — but people paying attention will see new integration with many of the other programs the JCC already offers.
Part of growing up is the gift of reflection: The arts theme the festival has embraced, “Not a Lawyer, Not a Doctor? Jews in the Arts,” is just self-deprecating enough to channel the festival’s inner Woody Allen, and Lavitt hopes those selections can be a draw for people both in and outside of the Jewish community.
The lineup includes a step inside the studio of renowned graphic novelist Art Spiegelman in Clara Kuperberg and Joelle Oosterlinck’s documentary “The Art of Spiegelman.” Michael Kantor’s “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy” tells the stories of popular luminaries such as composer Irving Berlin, which Lavitt calls “star-studded and schmaltz in one fell swoop.” That film, incidentally, takes advantage of the festival’s new home: It screens in the Stroum JCC’s Mercer Island auditorium at noon on March 6.
In what could be a controversial but eye-opening selection, the story of disgraced Polish-French filmmaker Roman Polanski is told in “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.” The director fled the U.S. in 1977 after being convicted of statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl, yet not many people know about his having lived in the Krakow ghetto or the hardships he
suffered as a child.
The film “really humanizes his life a great deal, and I think people will find it gripping,” Lavitt said. “Some may come for the train wreck effect, others might find that he’s a fascinating human being and has endured a great deal.”
One feature that should have wide family appeal is the film version of French cartoonist Joann Sfar’s “The Rabbi’s Cat.” The adaptation of Sfar’s two graphic novels based in pre-war Algeria, which show that Jewish community from the eyes of a talking cat, should be appropriate for kids age 9 and up. And yes, it’s animated, so no live cats were injured in the making of this production.
Sfar actually appears twice in the film festival: The documentary “Joann Sfar Draws from Memory” looks into the prolific 41-year-old artist’s inspiration and the 150 graphic novels he has written.
Opening-day film “Hava Nagila” is a documentary about just that: The popular dance that flares up at every Jewish wedding and Bar Mitzvah, and has been sung by the likes of Harry Belafonte, Elvis Presley, and…wait for it…Leonard Nimoy. The screening coincides with the annual Matzoh Momma Sunday brunch, so come hungry and wear comfortable shoes, as there will be dancing. Local klezmer band The Klez Katz will perform on-site before the show for a hora to snake all the way through the Pacific Place theater.
“It is going to be quite the event,” Lavitt said.
While the festival’s original parent, AJC, has let its child leave the nest, the human-rights organization still plays a role with its annual Bridge Series. This year, “Bottle in the Gaza Sea” depicts a budding but uncomfortable friendship between an Israeli teen and a Gazan Palestinian, while the Spanish film “Angel of Budapest” tells the story of Spanish diplomat Ángel Sanz Briz, who did for Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust what Oskar Schindler did for Polish Jews. Both that film’s producer, José Manuel Lorenzo, and Luis Fernando Esteban, honorary consul of Spain, will speak at the screening.
If there’s a highlight to the festival, it will be closing night. For the first time in its 18 years, the festival will have a free community-wide screening. “The Words,” starring Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana, was produced by homegrown up-and-comer Michael Benaroya. Benaroya, 31, whose most recent film “Kill Your Darlings” premiered last month at the Sundance Film Festival, will receive the SJFF’s “Reel Difference” award for his already-expansive accomplishments in film.
“This is truly the combination of community building, celebrating and arts festival,” Lavitt said.