October 22, 2019

Varied explorations of Jewish culture, history at film festival

Santa Barbara is just 95 miles northwest of Los Angeles, and this month there’s a great reason to make the drive. The Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival (SBJFF) will take place March 23-27 at the New Vic Theatre, offering a five-day program of feature, documentary and short films representing myriad aspects of Jewish life.

Presented by the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara, the festival will offer selections from the United States, Israel, Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands, Romania and Italy.

“There’s a lot going on in the Jewish world outside of what we read in the paper and that is reflected in film,” festival co-chair Mashey Bernstein said. “We wanted to bring in films that reflect the wide variety of Jewish experience, not just Israel, not just Holocaust, but things that bring something new to the community, and to our understanding.”

A committee including Bernstein and co-chair Ron Zonen considered about 100 films before choosing the final selections. “It had to be unanimous. We didn’t want just ‘OK,’ ” Bernstein said. “We wanted films that educate and entertain, that bring something new to the table.”

The festival kicks off with the Dutch comedy “Moos” and ends on a similarly humorous note with the German entry “Time to Say Goodbye,” about a 12-year-old boy, his family, his crush (on a female rabbi) and his pre-bar mitzvah bris gone awry.

Other feature films include “The Women’s Balcony,” “AKA Nadia,” and “The Kind Words” from Israel, and Hungarian entry “1945,” in which the arrival of two Jews creates an uproar among townsfolk who were complicit — and profited from — the deportation of the town’s Jewish residents during the war.

The documentary selections range from the inspiring “On the Map,” about Israel’s underdog national basketball team, and “The Settlers,” exploring the hot-button issue of settling the West Bank (with a post-screening director Q-and-A) to “Germans and Jews,” in which second-generation Germans and Jews discuss sensitive questions of guilt, identity and redemption. “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?” is about a gay Israeli man dealing with an HIV diagnosis and his estranged family, and “There Are Jews Here” focuses on four dwindling American-Jewish communities.

“There Are Jews Here” documentarian Brad Lichtenstein visited more than a dozen towns around the United States before choosing Latrobe, Pa.; Butte, Mont.; Laredo, Texas; and Dothan, Ala., for their geographic diversity “and characters that stand out.”

An elderly congregant of a dying shul, a lay synagogue leader forced to give up her commitment because of health issues, and a young interfaith couple filled the bill, and so did a Los Angeles family that decided to move to Dothan to provide a strong Jewish identity for their daughter. And the $50,000 incentive didn’t hurt.

Yes, Dothan is actively recruiting Jews with cash, and it’s working. “Three or four new families moved in since we stopped filming,” Lichtenstein said. “It’s not just for the money, but for a truly vibrant community.”

The idea — and eventually, funding —for the film came from financier Michael Leven, who is involved with the Jewish Community Legacy Project, which “helps Jewish communities that are nearing the end of their life spans, and helps them figure out how to establish a legacy, preserve their assets and manage this sad process,” Lichtenstein said.

The Milwaukee-based director, who grew up attending Jewish schools in Atlanta, credits his young, non-Jewish producer and co-director Morgan Johnson with providing an objective perspective on the subject. They spent two years filming and another year editing the documentary, which has been in such demand at film festivals that its planned PBS broadcast has been delayed till 2018.

Meanwhile, Lichtenstein (“Ghosts of Attica”) is now working on two projects: a film about race and gun violence and a series about unsolved civil rights-era murders.

He is unable to attend the screening in Santa Barbara but hopes that audiences come away “understanding that there are Jewish communities that are shrinking and it’s really important to make sure their legacies are preserved.”

Among the festival’s short film selections, there’s “A Heartbeat Away,” following an Israeli heart surgeon who performs lifesaving operations on kids in Africa, and “Women in Sink,” in which Israeli-Jewish and Arab women discuss life and politics as they get their hair washed.

Three shorts offer a fresh perspective on the Holocaust. The documentaries “Memory Keepers” and “Our Hebrews” revisit Jewish communities that were wiped out in Romania and Italy, respectively, and the scripted “A Children’s Song” is set in Shanghai, which took in more than 20,000 Jewish refugees from 1933 and 1941.

“Wig Shop,” which will screen on opening night, is a slice-of-life story with a surprise ending that’s set in L.A.’s Orthodox community. Producer Jessica Neuman, who grew up in a Russian-Jewish Orthodox family, co-wrote the script with director Kat Coiro, who is not Jewish.

“I’m interested in very close, religious communities even though I don’t come from one. There’s something that always fascinated me,” Coiro said. “This story is so rich and deep and it’s a world we’ve never seen before, and I love that it’s a movie with all women. And while it’s not a true story, it has authenticity because it’s from Jessica’s cultural point of view.”

Through fortuitous connections, actress Emily Mortimer signed on to play the lead and Rachael Taylor was cast in a key supporting role. Neuman’s mother recorded all of Mortimer’s lines to help her nail the Russian accent, Coiro noted.

Coiro, a one-time actress who recently directed episodes of the TV series “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce” and “The Mick,” is considering making a feature-length version of “Wig Shop.” She plans to attend the SBJFF screening.

“It’s more than just the films; there’s so much more going on,” Mashey Bernstein said, mentioning a live concert performance after “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?,” a panel discussion with representatives from small Jewish communities after “There Are Jews Here,” and the opportunity to make new friends over coffee and bagels at the morning screenings.

“There’s a vibrant, exciting Jewish community here,” he said. “Come to one film or come to them all, and you’ll learn something new.”

For more info on the Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival, visit www.sbjewishfilmfestival.org.

Correction: the article initially misspelled the name of the film’s financier. It is Michael Leven, not Michael Evans.