Israeli expat brings international art films to East Bay

Blessed are the filmmakers, who create art and entertainment. And blessed are the audiences, whose experiences and enjoyment make it worthwhile.

But where would they — we — be without the passionate programmers and exhibitors who snare gems that otherwise would slip through the cracks?

Each January for many years, East Bay movie lover Efi Lubliner returned from the Palm Springs International Film Festival — which shows nearly every official submission for the Foreign-Language Oscar — touting a favorite title from a distant land. “When this movie comes, you must see it,” he would tell anyone who’d listen.

Efi Lubliner

Invariably, Lubliner recounts, the same scenario would occur. “[The movie] never comes,” he says with palpable frustration.

So Lubliner took matters into his own hands, joining fellow film buff Jo Alice Canterbury some five years ago to launch the International Film Showcase at the Orinda Theatre. Every month the duo books a recent foreign film without U.S. distribution for a one-week run. A recent pick, the epic Swedish comedy “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared,” proved so popular it ran for four weeks.

With an email list exceeding 3,000 people — consisting of anyone who has ever attended a show — the International Film Showcase has certainly been successful.

“We are the only ones in Contra Costa on a monthly basis showing fine international films that otherwise would never see the light of day in our area,” the effusive 66-year-old says. “I’m very, very proud of that.”

This month’s selection, “Closer to the Moon” (opening Friday, Aug. 14), wittily revisits the bizarre 1959 incident in which five middle-aged, disillusioned Romanian Jewish veterans of the anti-Nazi resistance robbed the national bank — in the guise of shooting a movie — as an act of political protest.

The Romanian secret police added to the absurdity by forcing the band of intellectual friends —who had been convicted in a show trial and given death sentences — to participate in a film re-enacting their raid. Mark Strong (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) and Vera Farmiga (“Bates Motel”) play the charismatic heads of the gang, while Harry Lloyd (“Game of Thrones”) plays a young waiter who becomes the lead cameraman for the “official” movie.

Romanian writer-director Nae Caranfil’s smart and stylish English-language film, which premiered in late 2013, adopts a bouncy, ironic tone with an undercurrent of pathos to convey the dilemma and frustration of Jewish patriots who were discriminated against and cast out by the anti-Semitic dictatorship.

Scene from “Closer to the Moon”

“I love movies that are based on true stories,” Lubliner says. “And not all true stories end up nicely.”

It’s rare for Lubliner and Canterbury to pick a movie of Jewish interest for the International Film Showcase. Lubliner typically saves those films for the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival, where he’s been a board member since its second year and plays a major programming role with festival director Riva Gambert.

But “Closer to the Moon” will be released on DVD before the next edition of the EBIJFF in March, hence Lubliner and Canterbury’s decision to include it in the Showcase, screening Aug. 14-20.

Lubliner left his native Israel to study film in California at age 21, having completed three years of military service. He couldn’t afford UCLA so he attended Cal State Northridge.

“I wanted to become a producer/director of movies,” he recalls. “I was never able to break into the industry. I did everything I could—I worked for Channel 11 [now the Fox affiliate in L.A.], I approached several name Israeli singers and musicians to perform in L.A. for the first time.”

A mass communications major, Lubliner hosted the “L’Chaim” program on Sunday mornings on a small college radio station in the San Fernando Valley for 10 years.

At the time, L.A.-based Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were major producers of action-exploitation movies. But that part of the business held no appeal for Lubliner.

“I wanted to make better movies than Golan and Globus,” he says. “In Israel, I grew up on Fellini, De Sica, Truffaut, Kurosawa. I saw ‘8½’ a dozen times in Israel.”

But Lubliner gave up his dream when he got married and started a family. He founded EDC Systems, an early retailer of computers, in 1983. (Israel still looms large in his life, for his son was a “lone soldier” who volunteered for the IDF.)

“EDC is what I do for a living, not for love,” Lubliner says. “For love, I do the Showcase. For love, I do the festival.”

Although his teenage passion for movies was kindled by European art films, Lubliner rarely recommends that type of movie for the EBIJFF.

“Our festival is different because I look for good, middle-of-the-road films,” he explains. “I’m not looking for a Fellini-type film. I look for films that will make people laugh, smile, cry, go and enjoy. You have to remember who your audience is, and make them want to come again and again.”

“Closer to the Moon” screens through Aug. 20 at the Orinda Theatre, 4 Orinda Theatre Square, $8.50-$11. www.lamorindatheatres.com/index_orinda.asp

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.