Around the world in Jewish films: 17th annual East Bay festival opens next weekend

When choosing films for the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival, Riva Gambert and her selection committee use a personalized criterion for deciding what constitutes a Jewish film.

“A film is Jewish because the committee says it’s Jewish,” quips Gambert, the festival director. “We have a very liberal view. I would consider ‘Hotel Rwanda’ a Jewish film because genocide is an issue of Jewish importance.”

“Hotel Rwanda” won’t be in the lineup, but for this year’s 17th annual festival Gambert and her committee did select more than 40 films from Israel, the United States, Germany, France, South Africa and Poland, among other countries. All boast Jewish content or deal with issues of “Jewish importance,” Gambert says.

Israeli actors Zion Ashkenazi (left) and Tamar Alkan star in “Gei Oni,” a love story set in 19th-century Palestine. photos/courtesy of east bay jewish film festival

The festival runs March 10 to 18 at three Contra Costa County theaters: CinéArts in Pleasant Hill, Vine Cinema in Livermore and Orinda Theatre in Orinda.

Starting with opening night 7 p.m. at CinéArts, the festival will challenge audiences with “Le Concert,” a 2009 Franco-Russian co-production. It tells the story of a disgraced Soviet-era conductor, fired for hiring Jewish musicians, yet fatefully given a chance at redemption.

“Le Concert” is not the only music-centered story this year. Quite inadvertently, Gambert says, music became a pronounced theme for the festival.

“By coincidence a lot of films this year had a connection to composers and musicians,” she says. “It was just totally serendipity.”

Other music-oriented films include “Mahler on the Couch,” a 2010 Austrian-German feature about composer Gustav Mahler’s psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud, and “Wunderkinder,” a 2011 German drama about Jewish Ukrainian teens who keep their love of classical music alive during the depths of World War II.

“Mary Lou,” from acclaimed Israeli director Eytan Fox (“Yossi and Jagger”), is based on the songs of Israeli pop legend Svika Pick. The 2010 film is something of an Israeli version of “Mamma Mia” (and also has a cute plot about a gay man searching for his birth mother).

Striking a more somber note is “Wagner and Me,” a 2009 British documentary by and about actor Stephen Fry and his lifelong passion for the music of Richard Wagner (of “Der Ring” fame). One problem: Wagner was a vicious anti-Semite whose music inspired Hitler a generation or two later. How could Fry, a Jew, reconcile that?

“He loves [Wagner],” says Gambert, “but he also considers himself connected to his own religion and family, many of whom died in the Holocaust. So it’s a fascinating look into one man’s questioning.”

Making its Bay Area premiere is the award-winning 2009 Israeli film “Gei Oni” (Valley of Fortitude), by director Dan Wolman. Set in 19th-century Ottoman-ruled Palestine just as Jews began immigrating en masse, the film is a love story in the tradition of “Doctor Zhivago.” Only in Hebrew.

Scene from Eytan Fox’s feel-good “Mary Lou”

Wolman, who will be on hand March 11 to introduce the film and do a Q&A after, has traveled the world screening his movie (which captured China’s equivalent of the Oscar’s best film).

“What fascinated me about Shulamit Lapid’s novel ‘Gei Oni’ was first of all the heart of the story,” Wolman says.

“It is a classical story — a woman is more or less forced to get married to a man she does not know; she respects him and, as time goes by, learns to love him. But because of something in her past she cannot touch him and never allows him to touch her. Her secret fascinated me.

“Secondly and not less important is the historical context. I always admired the pioneers of the ‘First Aliyah’ — Jews, many of which were intellectuals, who came to Palestine to ‘work the land.’ I wanted to tell their story through my own eyes.”

To pull off an international film festival, it helps to have a broad world view — and among members of the film fest’s selection committee are East Bay residents originally from England, Israel, South America and Canada.

One of them, Linda Scotting, grew up just outside of London during the swinging ’60s. She brought her lifelong love of cinema with her to California when she moved here in 1978.

Now in her sixth year on the selection committee, Scotting says she loves the festival because it celebrates “international film. I hate Hollywood blockbusters,” she says.

As a screener of potential film festival offerings, she developed a reliable barometer for judging quality.

“When we [audition] a movie, we can tell in five minutes whether you’re going to get drawn in,” she explains. “If you’re sitting there criticizing the camera angles, the dialogue, the acting, or can’t immediately follow the story, you can tell then it’s not going to make it.”

Among her favorite films this year is “Le Chat du Rabbin,” an animated film from France about a feline philosopher in love with the nubile daughter of a rabbi. Cartoonish yes; for kids, no.

World figures profiled in festival documentaries include Winston Churchill, Adolf Eichmann and Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.

And for those who missed films that proved popular at previous Jewish film festivals in the Bay Area, here’s your chance to see the 2009 Israeli comedy “A Matter of Size,” the tense Israeli family drama “Mabul,” and the searing Polish political thriller “Little Rose.”

Whichever films attendees take in, Gambert is confident they will enjoy this year’s offerings.

“Audiences appreciate the depth of our films,” she says. “As we go forward, more films have intense layers of Jewish connection. The days of Neil Simon movies and Borscht Belt humor are slowly disappearing.”

East Bay International Jewish Film Festival
, March 10-18 at CinéArts in Pleasant Hill, Vine Cinema in Livermore and Orinda Theatre in Orinda. www.eastbayjewishfilm.org For more listings, see our Calendar

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.