While a strong line-up of movies is the foundation of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, what makes this program unique is the way it tackles topics of importance to the Jewish community.
The film festival presented by the American Jewish Committee is a key component of the AJC’s year round-programming, as the festival themes and programs mirror the mission of the AJC. This year’s program will encompass a variety of subjects with films from around the world. From these selections, three strong themes emerge: “Visions of Utopia: Political Dreams and Nightmares,” “Israel Today: At Peace with Pluralism?” and “The Future of Memory: Vital History, Vibrant Visions.”
Over the past century, Jews have had a tremendous impact on the socio-political events of the world. “Visions of Utopia” emphasizes this with the feature-length documentary “Arguing the World.” Director Joseph Dorman delves into the circle known as the New York intellectuals, a group of writers and critics who began gathering to argue ideas in the 1930s and who remained influential throughout the century. With personal reminiscences, archival footage and the voices of friends and critics, a portrait emerges of four men, Irving Kristol (who became influential in the conservative movement), Irving Howe (a member of the radical left), Daniel Bell (a defender of liberalism) and Nathan Glazer (a powerful critic of liberal social policy).
The impact of Jews in politics, however, reaches beyond the United States, as seen in the films “Dreams and Nightmares” and “Evgueni Khaldei: Photographer Under Stalin.” “Dreams and Nightmares” is the work of Brooklyn-born Seattle resident Abe Osheroff, who, as a member of the International Brigade, which was over 25 percent Jewish, fought the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. This documentary from 1974 has Osheroff returning to Spain to seek validation for what he did. “Evgueni Khaldei” examines the life of the great Russian photographer. At the age of 12, Khaldei, who at the age of one was orphaned by a pogrom, ground an eyeglass lens to form his first camera, marking the beginning of a lifetime of both journalistic and artistic photography. Witness to many of the most important events of the past century — Red Square, the Budapest Ghetto, the fall of the Reichstag, Yalta, the Nuremberg Trials — he recorded history with his camera. In this Belgian film, Khaldei opens his studio for director Marc-Henri Wajnberg, giving us insight into his life and work.
“Israel Today: At Peace with Pluralism?” promises to be provocative theme, as it highlights films about Jews with traditions and practices different from what many American and Israeli Jews understand and are exposed to, as demonstrated by the film “Sister/Wife.” This compelling narrative from Israeli writer-directors Timna Goldstein and Hadar Kleinman is based on a community of African Americans living in the outskirts of Dimona, who believe they are the descendents of one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. The film tells the story of Zipora, a religious woman whose husband, after 21 years of marriage, decides to take on a second, younger wife. Through this community’s interpretation of the Torah, a man is allowed to marry up to seven women. This stunning film will open a window into a community that is virtually unknown to the Jewish world at large.
The films within the “Future of Memory” program has made such a strong impression in previous years that the theme is being revived for this year’s festival with a new set of films. Opening night (Saturday, March 10) features “All My Loved Ones,” a Czech film directed by Matej Minac based on the experiences of the English stockbroker Nicholas Winton, who organized a kindertransport to save hundreds of Jewish Czech children. The opening- night screening will be preceded by the music of Tiferet, a local Jewish chant group from Bet Alef Synagogue. Tiferet will also perform afterward at a dessert reception.
“The Future of Memory: Vital History, Vibrant Visions” also includes the film “Maelstrom,” a 60-minute film from Dutch director Peter Forgacs. Using “found footage” — film already in existence that is given new exposure — Forgacs pieces together the 1933–1942 home movies of the Peerebooms, a Jewish family living in the Netherlands. Their stories unfold vividly through Forgacs’ editing. In between scenes of the family living a normal life — playing, working, getting married, having children — are segments filmed by the family of the Nazi governor of Holland. The bittersweet film portrays the juxtaposition of the two families as well as our knowledge of the fate of the Jewish family; the final scene is of the Peerebooms packing clothing for the journey to the German “labor camps.” At the closing of the festival on Sunday, March 18, “Maelstrom” will be featured with “One Day Crossing,” a short feature about a Jewish mother posing as a Christian to protect her son from Hungarian fascists, and “The March,” an experimental film detailing a 1945 death march through the recollections of the mother of notable filmmaker Abraham Ravett.
A final important film to note under the category of “The Future of Memory” is “The Optimists,” which tells the little-known story of the 50,000 Jews who survived in Bulgaria, as Bulgarian Christians and Muslims found ways to protect them from the Nazis. This powerful documentary will be accompanied by live music performed by Balkan Time Zone during its showing on Saturday, March 10.
Not all of the 30 films in this year’s festival fit neatly into a theme; however, the organizers of the festival promise all of them will be compelling, thought-provoking and, of course, entertaining. Additional programs, such as the VIP reception at Il Fornaio, followed by a general screening of “Sunshine,” starring Ralph Fiennes, and the pre-festival Purim Party on Feb. 24 at Redhook Brewery in Fremont, ensure that this year’s SJFF will have something for everyone.
The film festival runs from March 10 to March18 at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle. For more information, call the AJC at 206-622-6315 or visit www.ajcseattle.org.
Jenny Brown is the editor-in-chief of the DVD and video stores at Amazon.com and a volunteer with the Seattle Jewish Film Festival.