Movies can be a feast for the eyes. And sometimes, for the ears.
The ability of music to transform people’s lives is one of the recurring themes in the 37 films to be featured at the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival, which kicks off its 22nd season next month.
How international? Eleven countries are represented in the lineup, including France, Germany, Greece, Poland and, of course, Israel and the United States.
The festival runs March 2-12 at the Century 16 Theatres in Pleasant Hill and March 2 and 5 at the Vine Cinema & Alehouse in Livermore.
The films may be in different languages, but the universal language of music indeed dominates several festival offerings.
“Joe’s Violin,” an Oscar-nominated documentary, traces a violin’s path from a Polish Holocaust survivor to a 12-year-old daughter of immigrants. “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” is a look at the singer-songwriter who died last year, while “East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem” chronicles Israeli guitarist-singer David Broza’s efforts to open dialogue among different cultures through music.
“Glories of Tango,” an Argentine film, details the saga of a Jewish psychiatrist who discovers a patient can express himself only through the lyrics of old tango songs. The film weaves in Argentina’s turbulent late-20th century history, which will be discussed at a March 9 post-screening Q&A with Rabbi Roberto Graetz, the former spiritual leader of Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah and a native Argentine.
The March 2 opening-night feature is “The Women’s Balcony,” a lighthearted film about women rallying for their rights at a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem. It was nominated for five Israeli Ophir Awards.
Though the festival offers plenty of other comedy — including a free March 4 afternoon screening of the 1979 classic “The Frisco Kid” starring Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford as Gold Rush-era characters — there also are serious examinations of subjects ranging from anti-Semitism in America (“Crossfire”) to the meaning of memory and forgiveness (“Past Life,” the festival’s closing film).
As always, guest speakers will drop in for some Q&As after selected screenings.
On March 5, Dutch journalist Hans Knoop will be on hand for the U.S. premiere of “The Menten Affair,” about Knoop’s 1970s probe of millionaire Pieter Menten, whom Knoop suspected was a war criminal.
“Joe’s Violin” will be shown March 4 accompanying “Avinu,” a crime drama making its East Bay premiere. The 24-minute story of the well-traveled violin, nominated for an Academy Award in the short documentary category, was described by Tablet magazine as “one of the most remarkable Jewish-themed films of the year.”
It details how a Holocaust survivor’s violin makes its way to a girl in the Bronx, New York. The instrument, which Joseph Feingold acquired in a displaced person’s camp in Germany after World War II, ends up in the hands of Brianna Perez, a Dominican American student at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls, after the 91-year-old native of Warsaw donates it to New York classical radio station WQXR.
Not only does a friendship develop between the two music lovers, but going forward the violin will provide a link to Feingold and his struggle to survive — it will be passed on to a different student at the Bronx institute every two years.
Director Riva Gambert says her festival has more corporate, municipal and Jewish community sponsors than ever, noting that “the city of Pleasant Hill realized the value of the film festival in building cultural bridges and expanding horizons.”
In an era when threats to cut or eliminate arts funding is part of the ongoing political conversation, Gambert believes events like the festival are more important than ever.
“We’ve had an increase in support,” she says. “We’ve been blessed.”