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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

It’s Our Film Fest’s Bar Mitzvah

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The 13th annual Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival launches April 25 with more than two dozen feature, documentary and short film selections celebrating Jewish experience, tradition and culture.

“It’s our bar mitzvah, and we want to celebrate it,” said the festival’s executive director, Hilary Helstein. “It’s extraordinary to see something we started 13 years ago become an anticipated annual event. With the support of community organizations, consulates, individuals, council members, family foundations and the Jewish Journal, we’re proud to have made it to 13 years.”

The festival will take place at 14 venues in and around the city, including theaters, synagogues and community centers. “We deliver films to every part of the community,” Helstein said. “People don’t have to go farther than their neighborhood.”

The opening-night gala features the Los Angeles premiere of the documentary “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” which will air on PBS’ “American Masters” later this year. “We wanted something uplifting for opening night, and nothing could be better than paying tribute to this iconic, legendary entertainer,” Helstein said. Davis’ son, Manny, and friends including producer George Schlatter and comedian Tom Dreesen will be in attendance. “Since it is a bar mitzvah, we want to have all these people do aliyahs and say something about Sammy.”

The festival has several themes. “For Israel’s 70th birthday, we have documentaries focused on what America has done for Israel,” Helstein said. In “The Land of Milk and Funny,” stand-up comic Avi Liberman takes fellow comedians to Israel to perform and see the sights, and Jewish Americans play baseball for Team Israel in “Heading Home.”

Audiences will get to see the first two episodes of the Israeli series “Kipat Barzel” (“Commandments”), about Charedi soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. “It addresses such a timely issue,” Helstein said. The series focuses on how secular Jews resent the ultra-Orthodox for not serving in the military, but when they do serve — against the wishes of the Charedi community — they’re not welcome. “It’s a really important show and will trigger a tremendous amount of discussion,” Helstein said.

Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa will moderate a Q-and-A after the screening and receive the Visionary Award for his contributions to the Jewish community.

Dolev Mesika and Roy Nik in “Commandments.” Photo courtesy of LAJFF.

Helstein emphasized the importance of including Holocaust-related films, and there are nine this year. “The Last Suit” is an Argentine feature about a Holocaust survivor on a mission to find the friend who saved his life in Poland. It’s paired with “The Driver Is Red,” an animated short about the manhunt for Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

The German feature film “The Last Supper,” a world premiere, takes place at the Glickstein family dinner in Berlin on the day Hitler comes to power. With the patriarch insisting the Fuhrer won’t last, and his equally misguided young son ready to join the Brown Shirts, the only voice of reason is the Palestine-bound daughter’s.

“Above the Drowning Sea” chronicles the experience of Jews who escaped Europe and found refuge in Shanghai, thanks to a Chinese diplomat. Each of the documentary shorts “Dieu Merci: The Story of Michele Rodri,” “116 Cameras” and “A Call to Remember” tells a personal story of survival and will be screened together, followed by a Q-and-A led by the latter’s producer, Michael Berenbaum.

The screening of “Reinventing Rosalee,” a world premiere documentary, in which Lillian Glass chronicles the remarkable life of her Holocaust-survivor mother, will feature a Q-and-A with both women.

The festival’s centerpiece program is “The Samuel Project,” about a teenager whose school project forces his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, to confront the past he hasn’t spoken about in 75 years. A world premiere, the family-friendly feature stars Hal Linden, who will receive the festival’s Martin Paige Hollywood Legacy Award.

Also this year, Helstein said, “We have a focus on women’s stories: feminism, activism, ageism, sexism — all very current themes.” The biographical documentaries “Heather Booth: Changing the World,” about a community organizer and activist, and “Seeing Allred,” about women’s rights lawyer Gloria Allred, address these issues. Allred and the filmmakers will participate in a post-screening Q-and-A session.

In conjunction with the Austrian consulate, the 1935 film version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be shown as a tribute to Jewish émigré and director-producer Max Reinhardt, commemorating the 75th anniversary of his death. “Rising Sons,” a documentary about efforts to break the cycle of rape and violence in the war-torn Congo, will be shown in association with Jewish World Watch, with a discussion to follow.

Other notable selections include the shorts “Stitchers: Tapestry of Spirit,” about a project to  re-create the entire Torah in  needlepoint; “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” which won the Oscar for best documentary short this year; and “Tzeva Adom: Color Red,” a tense story about a fateful encounter at the border between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian boy. Filmmakers and cast members will attend.

The festival’s closing-night presentation is “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” a lighthearted documentary featuring Carl Reiner and his nonagenarian and centenarian friends — Mel Brooks, Norman Lear and composer Alan Bergman among them — sharing their insights on life and longevity. A Q-and-A with Bergman and the filmmakers will follow.

“We’re paying homage to these Hollywood guys who are still working and vital and who have created so much in our L.A. community,” Helstein said. “It’s an uplifting, lovely film about keeping going through the aches and pains.”

The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival runs April 25-May 2. Visit lajfilmfest.org for the screening schedule and more information.

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