Sonomas Jewish film fest showcasing seven thoughtful movies

Amid the vineyards and wineries of Sonoma County, Jews will be toasting l’chaim this fall to the seven movies that make up the region’s Jewish Film Festival.

Every year since the mid-’90s, a tight-knit group of Sonoma County Jewish film enthusiasts has gathered to pre-screen dozens of Israeli and Jewish-themed movies.

After voting on their favorite films, the group whittles down their choices to a list of their top five to 10 movies, which then becomes the Sonoma County Jewish Film Festival’s lineup.

Though the festival is now in its 14th year, the event maintains its homegrown vibe, driven mainly by volunteers — and with the help of new program director Ellen Bluestein.

“Sonoma County is still a pretty rural area,” Bluestein says. “There’s a lot of agriculture and, of course, wine. This event only happened because a small group of people got together and said, ‘Let’s start a film festival.’ ”

Around 3,000 to 4,000 people attend the screenings each year, Bluestein adds.

The 2009 festival kicks off with the Canadian drama “Fugitive Pieces” screening Oct. 6 and 8, and closes with the British coming-of-age tale “Wondrous Oblivion” Dec. 1 and 3.

In between there will be screenings of “Advice and Dissent,” “Waves of Freedom,” “The Debt,” “Refusnik” and “Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh.”

The films in this year’s festival hail from England, Canada, the U.S. and Israel.

The group learns of possible movies through film distributors, word-of-mouth and one volunteer’s sister, who lives in Jerusalem and keeps the group apprised of what films are hot in Israel at the moment.

Bluestein says the volunteers began watching the 70 screeners they received this year around January and were finished by April. In addition to weekly Monday meetings to watch the films, volunteers also took some home to view.

Rade Sherbedgia (left) and Robbie Kay are featured in the Canadian drama “Fugitive Pieces,” playing Oct. 6 and 8. photo/n. nikolopoulos

She says the decision-making panel was particularly excited about both “Fugitive Pieces” and “The Debt.”

The latter is a dramatic Israeli thriller about three Mossad agents tracking and capturing an infamous Nazi war criminal. Miramax is currently in the process of remaking the award-nominated film in the U.S. with British actress Helen Mirren. Mirren reportedly learned Hebrew for the role, according to the Jerusalem Post.

“[Attendees] can come see the original film in the festival, and when the U.S. film premieres [they] will get to see what Hollywood does with an Israeli film,” Bluestein says.

“Fugitive Pieces” is a Canadian narrative piece chronicling the life of a young boy who flees to the Polish forest during WWII and is helped across country lines by a Greek archaeologist.

Bluestein says her favorite film in the festival is the American documentary “Waves of Freedom.” The film recounts the story of 27 Americans who helped 1,500 Holocaust survivors break the British blockade of pre-state Israel after World War II.

“This has been a really hard year for a lot of people,” Bluestein says. “We wanted people to feel good about being American.”

A local theater owner recommended the closing film, “Wondrous Oblivion,” to the festival volunteers. The uplifting, coming-of-age film, set in a 1960s London neighborhood, tells the story of a recently transplanted Jamaican family, a young Jewish boy obsessed with cricket and their intersecting lives.

“We really try to present a balanced program,” Bluestein says. “The advantages of our slow selection process is that we can reflect the taste and desires of the people who live here.”

The Sonoma County Jewish Film Festival takes place Sept. 29 through Dec. 3 at Boulevard Cinemas, 200 C St., Petaluma and Rialto Cinemas Lakeside, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. For details and a complete schedule, visit www.jccsoco.org.