Film trailer: The People v Leo Frank

Ben Loeterman’s riveting documentary about
one of the most vexing criminal cases in history

The New York Times calls the film, “mesmerizingly recreated and explored” in a way that “even those already familiar with this piece of history are likely to find unsettling.”  Set against the backdrop of an American South struggling to shed its legacy of bigotry and xenophobia, the film is both a first-rate murder mystery and an insightful look at racial, religious, regional and class prejudices in the early years of the 20th century. Starring Will Janowitz (The Sopranos) and Seth Gilliam (The Wire).

October 18 at 7:30 at the Washington DCJCC.  More information here.

Women Rock Film Program

Women have been rockin’ the J’s film program lately!  First, Ruth Bader Ginsburg came to visit a couple of weeks ago.  It’s not every day that we have a Supreme Court justice here, on stage, for any reason.  Justice Ginsberg – most gracious, thoughtful and displaying a keen sense of humor – was part of a panel talking about Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, another award-winning film by our very own star filmmaker, Aviva Kempner.  The Justice appears in the film and came to share with the sold-out audience her thoughts and memories of the Goldbergs on radio and tv.  She recalled her own family and childhood growing up in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood.  The event was a special program and party to celebrate the DVD release of Aviva’s film, which is about yet another groundbreaking woman, Gertrude Berg.

One young woman in the audience, Robin Janofsky, was inspired after the Q&A to confess that she had “a life-changing moment” right in our theater!   Robin asked the Justice what advice she would give to young women today.  “Have confidence in yourself…work hard to make your dream come true,” Justice Ginsburg answered.  “There has not been a better time in history for young women than now.”

From the audience, CBS News reporter Dan Raviv asked if a program like the Goldbergs on radio and tv contributed to acceptance of Jews in the US.  Justice Ginsburg explained that she views the program as part of the universality of the immigrant experience.  “Italian and Irish families could also related as could all families coming to a new world…hoping their children could achieve and not lose their own identities.”

And we’re not done yet.  This week mother-and-business-woman-turned-filmmaker Vicki Abeles brought the DC premiere of her new film Race to Nowhere to our WJFF Year-Round screen.  The film is a powerful and provocative exploration of our pressure-cooker educational system and its too often destructive effect on children and families.

The discussion with Vicki after the film was serious, heartfelt and enlightening.  Parents asked how they can help their kids, even those as young as pre-school.  Speaking from the audience were principals of two alternative DC schools as well as teachers from DC, VA and MD – sharing their reactions to the film and their own experiences as educators.  Some had questions and some wanted to support Vicki’s call for grass-roots action to make changes in the US educational system.  One teacher, for example, expressed the desire to show the film to the as yet un-named new superintendent of the Montgomery County schools in the hope of helping the county schools move away from the emphasis on testing.  For those of you who missed it, Vicki and the film will be at the Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema again on Monday, October 4.

On last thing…if you want to see a lovely film, head to Nora’s Will which is going into an extended run at the Avalon.  The WJFF sponsored its screening at Filmfest DC last April.  The film won 7 Mexican Academy Awards including Best Picture, and now Michael O’Sullivan in the Washington Post called it “sweet, surprising and satisfying.”

Now it’s time for me to get back to planning the 21st Washington Jewish Film Festival.  Just wait until you hear what’s coming this December 2012!!  More news soon.  In the meantime, tickets are on sale for our next film program on October 18 – Sayed Kashua: Forever Scared plus one episode of this incredible author’s groundbreaking Israeli tv series, Arab Labor.

Susan Barocas, WJFF Director

Washington History: The Day the Earth Stood Still at the JCC

With apologies to Twentieth Century Fox, below is a re-cut, nine-minute version of the classic 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Why you ask? Because our CEO was watching the movie when she noticed a familiar sight, which comes onscreen just before the seven-minute mark. Along with some great shots of 1950s DC, is a vintage look at the corner of 16th and Q. Enjoy.

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Ajami’s Foreign Language Oscar Nomination for Israel: Can it win?

The first thing that needs to be said is, “Way to go Israel!” This is the third year in-a-row that an Israeli film is nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. In fact, Ajami  is Israel’s ninth candidate to make the final round of nominees–making Israel the country that has been nominated the most times without a win. They’re turning into the Susan Lucci of foreign films.

I wrote about Ajami back when we premiered the film in DC as part of the 20th Washington Jewish Film Festival. While I don’t think it is as strong a film as Israel’s two prior nominees (Beaufort and Waltz With Bashir), this category is particularly quirky and there are good reasons why this film could be the one to finally take home the golden statuette for Israel.

First, is the film’s subject which is a neighborhood mixed with Jews, Christians and Muslims in the city of Jaffa. It also deals with several characters who have snuck into Israel-proper from the West Bank and are working in Arab businesses illegally. The film provides real humanity to all of its characters without forcing you to choose sides. In this way it pulls off the neat trick of being a film about Arab-Jewish relations in Israel that isn’t chiefly concerned with the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Second, the production team behind the film reflects the mixture of peoples in Jaffa. The film is co-written, co-directed and co-produced by the Yaron Shani, “an Israeli Jew” and Scandar Copti “a Palestinian citizen of the Israeli state” according to their bios on the film’s website. Hollywood likes the warm fuzzies that come from collaborations like these — although the film is by no means warm and fuzzy.

Third, this just might be Israel’s year by sheer fact that they have had a nominated film for the last three years. Oscars are rarely about the quality of the actual films. Sometimes they are about what makes good TV — giving Ajami the Oscar could provide a memorable moment for a Jew and a Palestinian to stand at the podium making a plea for tolerance and communication. 

Finally, Israel can only be nominated so many times without winning before someone begins to cry foul.

This category is notoriously hard to predict, especially with traditional cinema powerhouses like Germany and France present. Ajami is also a difficult film to appreciate with a non-linear story-line, a host of characters to keep track of, and an ending that doesn’t send you out of the theater smiling.  But it is great for Israel to have it in the Oscar mix, and another reminder of what a filmmaking dynamo the state has become.

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Blue Like Me: Jewish Na’vi Women in Our Gallery

I saw Avatar this past weekend and was blown away by its visuals and lush immersive world, even if the plot was about a half-inch deep. I was thoroughly won over by the 3D experience, and frequently had to remind myself that these 12-foot tall blue aliens on Pandora called the Na’avi were not real.  So it was a bit of a shock to walk back into work on Monday and see a room full of Na’vi women (and Jewish to-boot) in our Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery (on view through January 29th).

Well, not exactly. But certainly the Omaticaya’s spiritual leader, Mo’at would not be entirely out of place amongst artist Siona Benjamin’s blue biblical women such as Miriam, Lilith and Tzipporah. Well before James Cameron was working with his CGI characters, Benjamin has been drawing inspiration from Hindu iconography to explore the challenges and contradictions of her own Indian Jewish (and American) identity. The accompanying guide to the exhibit states, “By reinventing and re-imagining various cultural icons of womanhood rooted in ancient and historical religious sources, Benjamin’s art opens up a new cultural and aesthetic space for the contemplation of diasporic realities including American popular culture, Hindu and Jewish beliefs, Middle Eastern politics and the strains of religious intolerance.” For Benjamin, blue skin is the symbol of being a Jewish woman of color.

I emailed Siona to ask if she has seen the movie yet.  I got a reply from India that she was travelling, but hoped to see it soon. I wonder how she’ll react to a planet filled with giant blue women?

For those who are fans of the movie, I also recommend reading “Blueface, Whitenoise” by Jared Gardner in the Huffington Post which makes, I think, a very apt comparison between the themes of Avatar and The Jazz Singer.

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The Washington Jewish Film Festival is Happening Now (and always)

by Susan H. Barocas, Director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival

Most people don’t know this, but as one Washington Jewish Film Festival ends, preparation for the next is already happening with films in production being “tracked,” filmmakers submitting new work and lots of thinking about a place for some of the many good films we just couldn’t find room for in the Festival wrapping up.  And now, unbelievably, last year’s “next” is almost “now”!

After watching someplace around 300 features, documentaries and shorts plus scouring the Jerusalem and Berlin film festivals – I know, tough job – the program is set, catalog out there in public, new website up and running AND tickets selling.  It’s so exciting to see that after just three days, over 800 tickets have already been sold!  In fact, Festival coordinator Josh Gardner commented today that checking the ticket sales numbers is like a new drug!  He’s right.  Watching the numbers, seeing what the favorites are during one of our many checks, guessing which film will sell out first…Okay, no betting money has changed hands yet, but we each have our favorites!

I do have to say that it’s so encouraging to know that the program is being received well.  This year we are showing more films than ever before – 62 films from 20 countries including perennial favorite sources Israel, France, Germany, Argentina, the US, Switzerland, Canada…as well as some more unusual film sources such as Tunisia, Slovakia, Russia, Ireland, Denmark and Kazakhstan.

Check out our opening night film, A Matter of Size, Israel’s award-winning romantic comedy about four very overweight guys ditching their diets in favor of becoming of sumo wrestling stars.  Just click below to see the film’s trailer.  But keep in mind that this film on December 3 with a matinee on the 4th and the closing night film on December 13, The Gift to Stalin, are both selling very well.  So take a look and then get busy and buy your tickets sooner than later by going to WJFF.ORG.  Lots of info about the schedule, venues, all the films, guests, special receptions and parties plus links to buy tickets. You can even sign up online to VOLUNTEER for the Festival.  Great fun, and that’s how I got started with the WJFF way back in 1994, but that’s another story….

LitFest ’09 Update: Jeff Goldblum’s German Accent for Your Viewing Pleasure

Internationally acclaimed and controversial film Adam Resurrected starring Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe premiers in Washington, DC at the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival.

Don’t miss the premier on Monday, October 19! Click here for more information and tickets.

Which Jeff do you prefer? Law&Order Jeff,  Jurassic Park Jeff,  The Fly Jeff or Independence Day Jeff? My personal favorite: Earth Girls Are Easy Jeff!

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