A Jewish Journey

6 Movies to See at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival

The Jewish Film Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary with a terrific lineup.

By Bernard Ellouk March 12, 2015

Run Boy Run highlights the Seattle Jewish Film Festival lineup.

This year, the Seattle Jewish Film Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary. As the second oldest and largest film festival in Seattle (trailing only SIFF on both accounts), SJFF has been host to dozens of award-winning films, including several Oscar winners and nominees. Over the years it has provided a platform for Jewish identity, which SJFF director Pamela Lavitt says is “about a journey, and the festival serves as an entry point.” A fitting point given this year’s theme—Here, There and Everywhere—which attempts to capture the diaspora of Jewish people in strange places, while also trying to present a deeper understanding of the State of Israel. While the festival is billed as a one centered around Jewish Identity, its films transcend the cultural wrapping. With 32 films from 10 countries, it has no shortage of diversity. Here are six recommendations from this year’s impressive SJFF offerings.

Run Boy Run
SIFF Cinema Uptown
Wed, Mar 18 at 6:15

Academy Award winner Pepe Danquart directs a harrowing film based on the real life story of Yoram Fridman, who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto when he was eight years old. Disguising his Jewish identity by taking the name Jurek Srulik, Fridman must survive in the woods and avoid SS capture. Venturing out as a Polish Christian; Srulik is taken in numerous times by generous locals who risk their lives to protect him. The film’s visual composition is nothing short of incredible, capturing the magnificence and solitude of the Polish landscape. But even more strikingly, the camera preserves a proximity and vertical relationship with Fridman, maintaining for the audience his feelings of inferiority. Danquart is a master at expanding on that tension; keeping it alive in subtle, but distressing manner, where the viewer feels that at any moment Fridman might be found out. It breaks your heart and builds it up again.

Havana Curveball
AMC Pacific Place 11
Sun, Mar 15 at 11am 

“It’s about doing the right thing in a complicated adult world.” That’s how director Marcia Jarmel encapsulates Havana Curveball, a documentary she shot with her husband, Ken Schneider. When their son Mica decides to begin sending baseball equipment to Cuba, a cinematic chronicle of his endeavors soon adds layers about an isolated country with a strange relationship to a superpower. This coming-of-age documentary combines baseball, a story of growth, and social justice education. As Mica begins to see the barriers to doing good, he never falters. His journey takes him and his parents all the way to Cuba, where the cost of the embargo becomes apparent. He realizes that while doing something good is not always easy or simple, it is always worthwhile.

Holy Land
AMC Pacific Place 11
Sun, Mar 15 at 8:20

Objective empathy. If there’s a film that can reconcile those two seemingly contradictive terms, it’s Holy Land. Veteran New York documentarian Peter Cohn captures the lives and perspectives of six individuals on the two sides of the West Bank crisis. In the first 10 minutes Cohen takes us through his cast of characters as idyllic fields quickly become battlegrounds. Cohn is able to capture the tension of the West Bank, a place where the violence is a looming consequence of daily life. His subjects show a wide berth of opinions that add incredible depth and complexity to an already profound issue. To his credit, Cohn never settles on a position, but is constantly shifting his focus in order to empathize with the diverse sentiments of those most affected by Israeli’s settlement policy. It’s a film he says is meant “for the hopeless,” those who seem to think no peace can ever come to an area plagued by historical disagreement. Holy Land is a challenge worth taking.

Above and Beyond
Stroum Jewish Community Center, Mercer Island
Sun, Mar 22 at 1

Directed by Roberta Grossman and produced by Nancy Spielberg, Above and Beyond tells the story of the unknown World War II pilots that left their countries and families to form Israeli’s first Air Force to defend against the impending Arab invasion. Risking their lives and citizenships, pilots, and sympathizers shuttled planes and equipment across the globe in a grand scheme to bypass a U.S. arms embargo on Israel. Once organized, the poorly equipped Air Force managed to push back the five Arab armies. Using testimonials from the pilots themselves coupled seamlessly with archival footage, the Above and Beyond provides a thrilling snapshot of an unheralded story from a heavily surveyed period of history.

Mr. Kaplan
Stroum Jewish Community Center
Sun, Mar 22 at 5:40

A colorful and heartwarming film, Mr. Kaplan finds a 76-year-old man taking on the role of amateur detective when he begins to suspect that a German cafe owner is a former Nazi hiding out in Uruguay. Jacob Kaplan (Hector Noguera),with help from his sidekick Wilson Contreras (Nestor Guzzini), bases his would-be investigation on a series of irrelevant and circumstantial bits of evidence (kids call the suspect a Nazi because of his strict demeanor and penchant for serving frozen fish). A late-life crisis if there ever was one, Kaplan struggles with feelings of inferiority when he realizes he hasn’t achieved as much as Winston Churchill or Goethe. The film’s humor transcends its Spanish language boundaries thanks to fantastic acting from both Noguera and Guzzini.

Gay Gezunt! LGBTQ Short Film Series
AMC Pacific Place 11
Sun, Mar 15 at 3 

Facing Fear

A 2013 Academy Award nominee for the Best Documentary Short Subject category, Facing Fear is a brilliant portrayal of the complexities of forgiveness. At the age of 13, Matthew Boger was thrown out by his mother for being gay and forced to subsist on the boulevards of Hollywood, where he is nearly beaten to death by a group of skinheads. A quarter century later, Matthew works at a center for communicating forgiveness, where he finds himself on the phone with a reformed skinhead.  The two come to realize their shared connection to that night. Nearly three decades from the day Matthew reunites with Tim Zaal, one of the attackers that nearly killed him. The film explores their reconciliation and Tim’s transformation from skinhead to an advocate for forgiveness.

Committing to a short film is a commitment to precision. In this case, Director Jason Cohen leaves nothing on the table. It’s direct, uncompromising, and perfectly encapsulating. That’s not to say it’s a comfortable film. Cohen characterized it as more about “the process” than forgiveness, where you’ll have to reconcile with the “humanity of both victim and the perpetrator.” He does just that. Whether or not you want to forgive Tim, you’ll be forced to confront his repentance.

Other films to consider: A Borrowed Identity, Almost Friends, Write Down I’m an Arab, Little White Lie, Zazaland, and Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.  

Seattle Jewish Film Festival 2015
Mar 14–22, Various venues, single tickets $12–$20, festival pass $100–$250

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