Citizen Staff Writer
If this is January, it must be time for the 18th annual Tucson Jewish Film Festival.
Dedicated to discovering unusual documentaries and narrative features that open unexpected doors to the Jewish culture, this year’s lineup ranges from the mysticism of circumcision to daily life in a 350-year-old Sephardic Jewish community in Jamaica. Along the way are such movie stops as “The Greatest Jewish Basketball Documentary Film in the World!” evaluating the impact of Jewish basketball players in the National Basketball Association (it started with the New York Knickerbockers) and “Refusenik,” chronicling the 30-year international movement to free Jews held in the Soviet Union.
As always this magic carpet of cinema adventures at the local Jewish Community Center is accompanied by free popcorn.
“It’s our trademark,” says Susan Silverman with a laugh. This is her sixth year as director of the Tucson Jewish Film Festival.
“The festival’s been growing exponentially,” she says, meaning both the size of the audience and the quality of the film program. “I already have a stack of films ready to preview for next year’s festival. But that will wait until we finish this one.”
At the heart of each year’s program is the TJFF Volunteer Steering Committee. This standing group with 20 active members picks all the pictures every year.
“We’re pushing this year, our 18th year, as our coming of age year,” Silverman explains. “There is the bar mitzvah film, ‘Sixty Six,’ and also “Eyewitness, 60 Years” commemorating Israel being 60 years old.
“But more than having a theme, what drives our film selection choice every year is excellence.”
A lot of the clues for finding the good stuff come from watching what is successful at other Jewish film festivals around the world. Thanks to the Internet, this isn’t as difficult as it used to be.
“There are over 250 Jewish film festivals around the world now,” Silverman says. “If you are a Jewish filmmaker, it is niche.”
This weekend and next weekend are the scheduling high points, with comedians and musicians, film directors and guest speakers filling the bill.
Opening night on Saturday should be a real laugher with an international flavor. They are calling the event Tucson’s version of Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, with the kosher part handled by San Francisco comic Lisa Geduldig. For several years she has pondered in public the 2,000-year-old question “What’s a Jew supposed to do on Christmas?” Her answer? Do a comedy show in a Chinese restaurant.
After the comedy comes the Israeli comedy-drama “Noodle,” about a twice-widowed El Al flight attendant who helps a confused Chinese boy whose migrant-worker mother has been summarily deported from Israel. Both the flight attendant and the boy have their lives changed forever.
But that’s not all. After the movie comes the capper some are calling the Kung Pao Kosher Ori-yenta Dessert Reception.
Sunday is a bit more serious, given over to the program “Embracing Special Needs Through the Arts.” The film centerpiece is “Praying With Lior,” a documentary about a boy with Down syndrome who is considered a “spiritual genius” by some. But the comments of others are not so respectful. Also attending is the film’s director Ilana Trachtman. An afternoon workshop on sensitivity awareness for special needs children is also planned. The Arts for All Adult Dance Ensemble will perform at 6 p.m.
The short film “Leaving Paradise: The Jews of Jamaica” will be presented along with the evening screening of “Praying With Lion.”
Next weekend warms up on Thursday, Jan. 15, with a pair of quite personal documentaries relating to the religious tradition of circumcision. After the nice Catholic boy Chris Campbell converts to Judaism he becomes a stand-up comic obsessed with all things Orthodox. Then he stars in this movie, “Circumcise Me.”
Meanwhile “Quest for the Missing Piece” records the funny yet disconcerting ruminations of filmmaker Oded Lotan, who ponders, if many biblical commandments are routinely ignored, why is circumcision so vigorously observed? Could some timeless tribal bonding be at the heart of this tradition?
The Tucson Jewish Film Festival continues through Jan. 22 at the Jewish Community Center, with some supporting events at the Loft Cinema and in the Gallagher Theater at the University of Arizona. Additional screenings are scheduled for February and March.
IF YOU GO
What: 18th annual Tucson Jewish Film Festival
When: Various times Friday through Jan. 22, plus Feb. 15 and 22, March 1
Where: most events at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, 3800 E. River Road
Price: $9 adults, $7 students and senior citizens, most screenings: Opening Night and TJFF’s Chai Celebration with Bar Mitzvah Party, $18 adults, $15 students, senior citizens and JCC members
Info: 299-3000, www.tucsonjewishfilmfestival.org
2009 JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL SCHEDULE
7 p.m. – Kung Pao Kosher Comedy: Opening Night Celebration, Lisa Geduldig, comedy performance
7:30 – “Noodle” – At 37, Miri is a twice-widowed, El Al flight attendant. Her well-regulated existence is suddenly turned upside down by an abandoned Chinese boy whose migrant-worker mother has been summarily deported from Israel; directed by Ayelet Menahemi, (Israel, 2007); Hebrew with English subtitles; 100 mins.
9 – Chinese-themed reception/party
Embracing Special Needs Through the Arts Program
2 p.m. – special guest speakers: Dr. Lynn Nadel and Dr. Jamie Edgin, Down Syndrome Research Group, University of Arizona Psychology Deptartment.
2:15 – “Praying with Lior,” with director, Ilana Trachtman; documentary introduces Lior Liebling, also called “the little rebbe.” Lior has Down syndrome, and has spent his entire life praying with utter abandon. Is he a “spiritual genius” as many around him say? Or simply the vessel that contains everyone’s unfulfilled wishes and expectations? (US, 2007) English; 87 mins.
4-5:30 – The Council of Jewish Educational Directors (CEDs) presents a Special Needs Sensitivity Awareness Workshop, in the JCC Fine Art Gallery.
6 – Arts for All Adult Dance Ensemble performance
6:30 – Introductory remarks by director Ilana Trachtman
7 – double feature – “Leaving Paradise: The Jews of Jamaica” and “Praying with Lior.” “Leaving Paradise” explores a little known community that has existed in Kingston, Jamaica for over 350 years. Jewish traditions are interpreted through a diverse array of racial and ethnic backgrounds as this film offers a unique lens into issues of race, religion and cultural identity; directed by Melanie Levy; (US, 2007) English; 13 mins.
7 p.m. – “My Father, My Lord (Hofshat Kayitz)” – An intimate and deeply disturbing story of the conflict between a father’s love and his deep devotion to religion. A respected Orthodox rabbi dotes on his only son but his religious strictures leave an emotional gap between the impish child and the stern father. A dramatic retelling of the story of Abraham & Isaac with a devastating “twist”; directed by David Volach; (Israel, 2007) Hebrew with English subtitles; 72 mins.
6 p.m. – “Eyewitness, 60 Years” – Israel, as envisioned through the lens of the internationally acclaimed photographer David Rubinger, the laureate of the Israeli Award for Photography; written and Directed by Micha Shagrir; (Israel, 2008); Hebrew with English subtitles; 50 mins.
7:30 – “Love and Dance” – Chen is caught in the middle of the cultural conflict raging between his Russian-born mother and his Israeli father. One day he stumbles upon a ballroom dance class for young people and sees Natalie, a stunning young Russian girl with whom he immediately falls in love; a film by Eitan Anner; (Israel, 2006) Hebrew with English subtitles; 90 mins.
1 p.m. – Yiddish Film Matinee, “His Wife’s Lover (Zayn Vaybs Lubovnik)” – Stars the popular comedian of the Yiddish theatre Ludwig Satz in his only film performance. Billed as the “first Jewish musical comedy talking picture,” the film revels in its role reversals and love triangles; directed by Sidney M. Goldin; (USA, 1931); B&W, Yiddish with new English subtitles; 80 mins.
7 – double feature: “Torte Bluma” – Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp in 1942-43, enjoyed a most unusual relationship with the Jewish slave who cooked his meals. Teetering on the brink of insanity, their daily rituals were held together by a tenuous thread – until the cargo train brought a surprising arrival; directed by Benjamin Ross; (UK, 2005); English; 18 mins.
“Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh,” with director Roberta Grossman – Narrated by three-time Academy Award nominee Joan Allen, this is the first documentary about Hannah Senesh, the World War II-era poet and diarist who became a paratrooper, resistance fighter and modern-day Joan of Arc. Safe in Palestine in 1944, Senesh joined a mission to rescue Hungary’s Jews. Senesh parachuted behind enemy lines, was captured, tortured and ultimately executed by the Nazis; (USA, 2008); 85 mins.
7 p.m. – double feature: “Circumcise Me” – Yisrael Campbell looks more like a rabbi than a comedian, but don’t be fooled by the big black hat, frock coat and Hasidic side curls. Born Chris Campbell, the son of an ex-nun and a Catholic schoolteacher, he converted to Judaism not once, but three times: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. The film is a hilarious and moving story of one man’s quest for spiritual enlightenment against the bewildering backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; directed by David Blumenfeld and Matthew Kalman; (US, 2007); English; 48 mins.
“Quest for the Missing Piece” – A funny, disconcerting romp through the debate over circumcision, “the unkindest cut of all.” Using a gentle touch in a sensitive area, filmmaker Oded Lotan takes us on a bris tour: a Jewish baby, a Muslim 7-year-old, and an adult Russian-Israeli soldier. Lotan introduces us to his gay, goy lover (oy); to his mother, who endorses circumcision, but not gay love (oy yoy); and to a Tel Aviv anti-circumcision group dedicated to having “intact” Jewish children (oy yoy yoy!); directed by Lotan; (Israel, 2007) Hebrew, Russian, German with English subtitles; 52 mins.
1 p.m. – “At Home in Utopia,” with filmmaker Michal Goldman – In the 1920s, thousands of immigrant Jewish garment workers put a new spin on the American dream by building four big, beautiful, cooperatively owned apartment complexes in the Bronx. “At Home in Utopia” is the story of the struggle for equity and racial justice in the most radical of the houses – the United Workers Cooperative Colony, aka the Coops; (US, 2008) English and Yiddish with English subtitles; 57 mins.
Chai Celebration and Bar Mitzvah Party, featuring the Saul Kaye Band and Jewish Blues
7:30 p.m. – “Sixty Six” – Bernie Rubens can’t wait for his bar mitzvah day to arrive: For once he will be the center of attention. Who knew that on Bernie’s big day, in the summer of 1966, all of England would be consumed by soccer’s World Cup Final fever? directed by Paul Weiland; (UK, 2007); English; 95 mins.
Film followed by Special Dessert Reception and Dance Party with Saul Kaye Band
Holocaust Education Film Series
1 p.m. – double feature: “Paying for Justice” – A documentary dealing with the situation of the Holocaust survivors in Israel and around the world. The filmmakers follow the billions of dollars transferred from the German governments and other European governments as compensation for those who managed to live through the Nazi terror; directed by Guy Meroz and Orli Vilnai-Federbush; (Israel, 2007) Hebrew with English subtitles; 58 mins.
“The House on August Street” – Tells the unknown story of Beate Berger, a German Jew who single-handedly and with great resolve and vision rescued more than 100 children during the Holocaust, smuggling them from Berlin to Palestine in the 1930s; directed by Ayelet Bargur; (Israel, 2007); Hebrew and German with English subtitles; 63 mins.
4 – double feature: “Spielzeugland (Toyland)” – 1942: what happens when a German kid believes that his Jewish neighbors are going to Toyland? A beautiful and moving story about lies and guilt; directed by Jochen Alexander Freydank; (Germany, 2007) German with English subtitles; 13 mins.
“Swimming in Auschwitz,” with director Jon Kean – The interwoven stories of six women provide a glimpse into life, spirit and survival at the notorious concentration camp, Auschwitz; (US, 2007); English; 63 mins.
7 p.m. – Double Feature: “Jewish Women in American Sport: Settlement Houses to the Olympics” – Historian Linda Borish brings together three separate specializations: gender history, sports history and the history of ethnic groups – in an expertly conceived project; (US, 2007); English; 27 mins.
“The First Basket” – On Nov. 1, 1946, in the opening game of the fledgling Basketball Association of America, Ossie Schectman scored the opening basket for the New York Knickerbockers against the Toronto Huskies. Schectman’s shot is considered the first basket in the NBA. The film follows these Jewish basketball experiences, from ash cans placed on the stoops of brownstones, to the bright lights of Madison Square Garden; directed by David Vyorst; (US, 2008) English; 86 mins.
7 p.m. – “Refusenik” – The first retrospective film to chronicle the 30-year international movement to free Soviet Jews. Told through the eyes of activists on both sides of the Iron Curtain – many of whom survived punishment in Soviet Gulag labor camps – the film is a tapestry of first-person accounts of heroism, sacrifice, and ultimately, liberation; directed by Laura Bialis; (US, 2007); English, Russian and Hebrew with subtitles; 117 mins.
7 p.m. – “My Mexican Shivah” – Set in Polanco, a Jewish quarter of Mexico City, the film is a dramatic comedy about how the death of a man results in the celebration of his life. Which angel will win the battle for Moishe’s soul? If the shivah reveals anything, it’s that Moishe’s family and friends loved him with all his flaws and mystery – and most of all his spirit; directed by Alejandro Springall (based on a story by Ilán Stavans); (Mexico, 2007); Spanish, Yiddish and Hebrew with English subtitles; 98 mins.
1 p.m. – Sephardic matinee, double feature with speakers David Graizbord, professor at the UA Center for Judaic Studies and Irving Senor, Holocaust survivor: “Leaving Paradise: The Jews of Jamaica”
“Salonica: Thessalonoki Stories” – What makes this northern Greek city historically unique is the fact that for 450 years it was mainly Jewish and the predominant language was Spanish. This is because Thessaloniki was populated by the Jews who were expelled from Catholic Spain in 1492 and who subsequently found refuge in the Ottoman Empire – up until their almost total annihilation by the Germans during the Shoah in 1943; Paolo Paolini; (Switzerland, 2008) Ladino with English subtitles; 87 mins.
7 – “Constantine’s Sword” – An astonishing exploration of the dark side of Christianity, following acclaimed author and former priest James Carroll on a journey of remembrance and reckoning. Carroll focuses on Christian anti-Semitism as the model for all religious hatred, exposing the cross as a symbol of a long history of violence against Jews (and, most recently, Muslims); directed by Oren Jacoby; (U.S., 2007); English; 95 min.
7 p.m. – double feature at The Loft Cinema: “Spielzeugland (Toyland)” and “A Secret (Un Secret)” – Adapted from Philippe Grimbert’s bestselling novel, “Un Secret” is a story of passion and guilt in troubled times, which unfolds as a young teenager uncovers the truth about his parents’ past; directed by Claude Miller; (France, 2007); French, Yiddish, German with English subtitles; 107 mins.
7 p.m. – “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (Ano em Que Meus Pais Saíram de Férias, O)” – A 12-year-old Brazilian boy who longs to see his team win out over Italy in the 1970 World Cup match finds his entire world turned upside down as his left-wing parents are forced into hiding and he is sent to live with his grandfather in São Paulo’s Bom Retiro district; a film by Cao Hamburger; (Brazil, 2008); Portugese with English subtitles; 110 mins.
Israeli Film Series at UA Gallagher Theater
Noon – “Someone to Run With” – Assaf, a shy, awkward 17-year-old, is yanked from his mundane summer job and given an impossible task: to track down the owner of a lost Labrador found wandering the streets of Jerusalem. The owner, Tamar, a gifted musician on a desperate quest, is ensnared in a seamy underworld that captivates Assaf; directed by Oded Davidoff; (Israel, 2006); Hebrew with English subtitles; 118 mins.
2:30 – “Noodle”
4:30 – “Between Two Notes” – Featuring oud master Yair Dalal, this film visits some of the centres of Arab music, including Egypt, Iraq and the Baka’a Valley in Lebanon and shows how Jewish influences have affected Arab music and how Arab influences have affected Jewish music; directed by Florence Strauss; (Canada/Israel/Syria, 2006); 52 mins.
Fabulous Faygeleh Film Festival (GLBT Film Series)
“Antarctica” – Like last year’s “The Bubble,” “Antarctica” follows the lives of a group of young people living in Tel Aviv but takes a very different and more upbeat approach. Instead of a politically astute tragedy, director Yair Hochner gives us a wacky comedy that ignores politics altogether while focusing on its characters’ domestic and romantic problems; Directed by Yair Hochner; (Israel, 2007); Hebrew with English subtitles
“Darling: The Story of Pieter Dirk Uys” – An inspiring portrait of South Africa’s outrageous, controversial and brilliant political satirist (and occasional drag entertainer) Pieter-Dirk Uys, who now uses humor and rage to combat HIV/AIDS; directed by Julian Shaw; New Zealand/South Africa/Australia, 2006; English; 54 mins.
“Jerusalem is Proud to Present” – In 2006, Jerusalem hosted the World Pride events, which were planned to culminate in a gay pride parade. Nitzan Gilady’s award-winning documentary weaves together the passions of gay rights activists and religious Jews, Muslims and Christians who oppose them; directed by Nitzan Gilady; (Israel, 2007; Hebrew with English subtitles; 82 mins.
“Mother, I Didn’t Kill Your Daughter” – Lior and Yuval are a couple; Lior is opinionated and Yuval is introverted. Both were born as women, but throughout their lives they identified as male. Yuval underwent gender transition years ago; Lior is just starting out on this journey. Lior turns a camera on himself, and his video diaries – raw and brave – capture the fear, doubts, hope and excitement that come with change. directed by Orna ben Dor; (Israel, 2007) Hebrew with English subtitles; 50 mins.
“The Secrets (Ha’Sodot)” – Naomi, the brilliant and pious daughter of an ultra-orthodox rabbi finds herself at a crossroads of life choices when her mother dies and she is expected to immediately marry her father’s prodigy. Distressed yet determined, she begs that her father allow her one year to study at a women’s religious seminary in Safed, the birthplace of the Kabalah. Her father relents and Naomi’s life begins to take an unexpected turn; directed by Avi Nesher; (France/Israel, 2007); English/French/Hebrew with English subtitles; 120 mins.