Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival Aims Beyond Traditional Themes in 2015

Lovers of indie and world cinema take note, the Donald M. Ephraim Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival returns this month screening 31 film premieres -- from shorts to features to documentaries. The fest is showing at five different venues countywide, with 71 screenings scheduled in total, it's trying to maximize viewing opportunities in its 25th year.

The festival is well known to include advance screenings and even some films that may never return to theaters. "Hopefully some of them open commercially," festival director and executive producer Ellen Wedner explains, "and some of them, some people will walk out saying, 'Can I get the Netflix? How do I buy the DVD? And we have to say, 'It's never coming to America. This is it.'"

It might seem easy to dismiss an event with a culturally narrow focus. But many gentiles will naturally love the flicks being screened, as well. Webner says, "If you are old enough to remember the Levy's rye bread advertising campaign, 'You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's' and I think that's true [for film]."

Wedner, who joined the festival in 2013 after spending 10 years prior directing the Miami Jewish Film Festival, says she would hate to think anyone might consider these screenings as exclusive to Jewish folks. She says, quite the contrary, the festival serves a purpose to reach out to others and connect with people outside the religion. "I think that as a JCC, a community center -- that's what the middle C is for -- it's our job to reach out to the greater community," says Wedner, "and I just keep saying to myself, now more than ever, we have a need to talk to each other."

Films of particular interest include a woman's perspective while serving the Israeli Defense Force, called Zero Motivation, which won the film critics award from Israel last year. Wedner describes it as a "hip, cool film" that she says is "based on the director's and writer's experience." It's screening at 9:15 to attract a younger audience. "It may be about the IDF and women's role in the IDF," says Wedner, "but hey, it's gonna speak to a lot of people. It just happens to be a film made in Israel. It could have been made in Brazil."

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Another movie sympathetic to the woman's perspective in Israel is Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, which has been nominated for a Golden Globe. Buzz around this film is so huge, advance tickets have sold out (if you get a fast pass, you might be able to get in). It's an intense drama about a woman seeking a divorce from her religious husband, but he refuses to give her one. The drama takes place solely in the courtroom in front of a rabbinic court, and still manages to be riveting.

There's also an adaptation of the classic French novel Belle and Sebastian (not about the Scottish band by the same name!), about a boy and his sheep dog left to fend for themselves as World War II unfolds around them. The festival will also screen a short documentary about the first-ever Hasidic alternative-rock girl band call "Bulletproof Stockings." The short precedes Esther Broner: A Weave of Women a documentary about a '70s era feminist. "She was also the founder of the women's Seder, so she was finding a way to be who she was as a feminist, as an activist, and a writer and also as a Jewish, observant woman," says Wedner. The film's director Lilly Rivlin will be present for a question and answer session after the movie.

That documentary is actually part of a trio of films that explore issues beyond the Jewish community that happen to involve Jewish figures. There's also Joachim Prinz: I Shall Not Be Silent a documentary about a rabbi who left Nazi Germany and came to America and later got involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He became a confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., Wedner says, and he was the last person to speak before MLK gave his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington. It's presented in conjunction with the Urban League of Palm Beach County and churches to encourage a diverse attendance. Prinz's daughter will be present for a discussion.

Finally, when Wedner saw the short documentary Of Many at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, she felt compelled to book it. "It's about two of the chaplains at New York University, the imam and the rabbi. They are both very young men with young families who are not particularly set in their ways but have begun to realize in the long aftermath of 9/11 that it's time to begin dialogue, so they have created a multi-faith program at NYU."

She says Rabbi Yehuda Sarna and Imam Khalid Latif have worked together on intense charity missions. For instance, they built homes in places like Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "When you work together," Wedner notes, "you learn to interact with each other and you start to see people as people." Sarna will be present for a discussion.

This all may sound heavy to some, but make no mistake, the festival offers something for everyone. Wedner has scheduled some major films that might be considered "crowd pleasers" to open and close the festival, plus a centerpiece event. They all feature high-profile guests and will take place at the Kravis Center and the Muvico Parisian at City Place.

Opening night features the Florida Premiere of Above And Beyond a documentary about a group of mostly American WWll pilots who volunteered for Israel as the country was being founded. Producer Nancy Spielberg, brother of Steven Spielberg, will be the evening's guest January 15 at 7 p.m. at the Kravis Center's Cohen Pavilion.

The festival returns to the Kravis Center on January 29 at 7:30 p.m. with a Jewish Film Tribute to Lainie Kazan, the actress famous for playing Bette Midler's mother in Beaches, among so many other roles. She will be there with her 2010 comedy Oy Vey! My Son Is Gay!! The festival then ends on February 8, at 2 p.m., with the audience awards ceremony and another Florida premiere, this time at the Muvico City Place with Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem. Based on Theodore Bikel's acclaimed stage play Sholom Aleichem: Laughter through Tears, Bikel will be in attendance.

Wedner says she has seen the Jewish film festival evolve over many years of following them. She says the concerns of the festival has grown far past its early years. "Obviously, 25 years ago, much of the Jewish films I'm imagining -- I wasn't here -- but just the 10 or 12 festivals that existed at that time, showed were probably about the Holocaust because it's an issue for so many people, Jewish and non, that was the subject you talked about, and if you didn't talk about that subject, well, then you weren't being responsible to something terrible that had happened, and while we still show and look for films about the Holocaust, additionally we look for films that speak to another facet, another topic, another issue that entertain in a different way."

Wedner says she would love to see people from all walks of life at the festival. "I think when you're a niche festival you have words in your title that make people think that it's only for that group, so the African-American Film Festival or the Black History Film Festival or the Brazilian Film Festival or the Jewish Film Festival, people think, 'That's going to be for them, and I'm not welcome, or it's not going to have anything that concerns me,' but so many of these films talk to you on so many levels."

Besides special screenings, the Donald M. Ephraim Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival takes place at the Cobb Theater January 17 to February 2, the Frank Theater January 25 to 31, and at the Cinemark Theater February 1 to 7. Visit palmbeachjewishfilm.org.

Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.

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