Contra Costa film fest spans the Jewish universe

Efi Lubliner helps choose films for the Contra Costa International Jewish Film Festival. He not only likes to keep a step ahead of other film festivals. He also tries to stay ahead of Netflix.

“It’s very tough to find good movies,” says Lubliner, a member of the festival’s film selection committee. “Tougher yet is to find some that are not available on DVD. You see it in a theater and three months later, boom, it’s in the stores. We have to do something different.”

“Something different” is the operative phrase for the 12th Annual Contra Costa International Jewish Film Festival, set to run from Feb. 24 to March 2 at various East Bay locations. The lineup this year includes award-winning features and documentaries from around the world.

The festival is a project of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay and the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center.

The stories span the Jewish universe: from the true story of the Mossad’s campaign of retribution following the 1972 Olympic massacre in Munich (“Code Name: Bayonet”) to a huckster helping Jews find long lost relatives in the Ukraine (“Roots: Families for Sale”) to a Jewish American club owner who entertained Hollywood celebrities in the ’50s (“Toots Shor: Bigger Than Life”).

“The first thing we want,” says festival director Riva Gambert, “is an engaging film that makes people walk out and say ‘I wish I could go to all the films on the line-up,’ films that grip you emotionally or open up a different viewpoint.”

Gambert believes festival audiences will find that this year. Among her favorites, the opening night offering “The First Time I Was Twenty,” a French film set in the early ’60s about a Jewish teen trying to join her high school’s jazz band. The Concord High jazz band will be serenading audiences as they walk into Concord’s Brendan Theater.

Another highlight is the 2005 documentary “Friendly Enemy Alien,” making its California premiere. It recounts the true story of the Dunera, a ship that left for Australia in 1940 filled with 2,500 German, Austrian and Italian internees, many of them Jewish professionals.

Among those internees was Rabbi Joseph Asher, who later came to San Francisco to serve at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El. His son, Rabbi Raphael Asher, today serves at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek. He will speak following the Feb. 25 screening.

Other highlights include short documentaries like “Hats of Jerusalem” (yes, that’s what it’s about) and “Beethoven’s Hair” (yes that’s what it’s about), as well as features such as the 2004 Israeli comedy “The Schwartz Dynasty” and “What a Wonderful Place,” a 2005 drama that won five Israeli Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

When pressed to pick his one “can’t miss” film on the schedule, Lubliner names “Before the Fall,” a gripping thriller set among the elites of Nazi Germany. “It’s not Jewish content,” says the Israeli-born Lubliner, “but what we call ‘of Jewish interest.’ In a film festival, you have to stretch the borders of what constitutes a Jewish movie.”

To better serve Contra Costa county’s growing Jewish community, festival organizers have expanded into three locations this year, including the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek, Concord’s Brenden Theatres and, for the first time in Livermore at the Vine Cinema.

And if sponsors are any sign of success, Gambert cites the many corporate entities on board as proof the festival has caught on. The include Peet’s Coffee, Diablo Magazine, the Consulate General of Israel, and even Auntie Annie’s Hand Rolled Soft Pretzels.

Gambert says these days the film festival is very much on the cultural calendar of people in Contra Costa County, but not them alone. “One woman from Ohio called me several months ago,” says Gambert, “and asked when the festival was happening this year. She has family in the area and wanted to schedule her vacation around the film festival.”

Film schedule

Date Theater Time Film
Saturday, Feb. 24 Brenden 7:00 p.m. The First Time I Was 20
Brenden 9:00 p.m. The Schwartz Dynasty
Sunday, Feb. 25 CCJCC 9:30 a.m. The Power of Good
CCJCC 12:00 p.m. Friendly, Enemy Aliens
Brenden 3:00 p.m. Roots
Brenden 6:00 p.m. Suzie Gold
Monday, Feb. 26 CCJCC 10:00 a.m. Beethoven's Hair
Brenden 7:30 p.m. What a Wonderful Place
Tuesday, Feb. 27 CCJCC 10:00 a.m. Code Name: Bayonet & Hats of Jerusalem
CCJCC 12:00 p.m. Like A Fish Out of Water
Brenden 7:30 p.m. Before the Fall
Vine Cinema 7:30 p.m. The First Time I Was 20
Wednesday, Feb. 28 CCJCC 10:00 a.m. A Love to Hide
Brenden 7:30 p.m. Only Human
Thursday, March 1 CCJCC 10:00 a.m. Toots Shor
Brenden 7:30 p.m. Three Mothers
Vine Cinema 7:30 p.m. Live & Become
Friday, March 2 CCJCC 10:00 a.m. Something Sweet

The Contra Costa International Jewish Film Festival runs from Feb. 24 through March 2. For more information, call (510) 839-2900 ext. 256, or online at www.jfed.org/filmfest07.

Dan Pine

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