Now in its 33rd year, the annual Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival is this area’s most reliable annual presentation of quality world cinema. This year’s selection includes 12 films over the course of one week, most screened twice. The movies were produced in whole or part in countries as diverse as Denmark, Hungary, Sweden, Poland, Austria, Israel, and the United States.
I was able to pre-screen about half of the films to be shown, and if you asked me to pick a single title for the viewer who could only make it to one movie, I’d have to flip a coin: Everything I saw was equally strong.
Saturday night’s opening film, Harmonia, adapts the Old Testament story of Abraham and Sarah to modern day Jerusalem, though not so closely that you wouldn’t enjoy it if you’re not up on the Bible. The conductor of the Jerusalem Philharmonic Orchestra and his wife, the orchestra’s harpist, find their marriage tested by their inability to have children. Enter Hagar, a talented but undisciplined French horn player. Though her friendship with Sarah, she offers to become a surrogate for the couple, a decision that results in a family of mixed Jewish and Arab heritage.
Given its title and the presence of comedians like Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner, Carl Reiner, David Steinberg, Sarah Silverman, Judy Gold, and Gilbert Gottfried, the documentary The Last Laugh is likely to attract a sizeable audience. But while Jewish comedy is hardly an unusual topic, filmmaker Ferne Perlstein has a fresh take on it: How can humor exist, and what should it mean, in the shadow of historical calamities like 911 and Hitler’s death camps? Film footage of inmate-organized cabarets at the later offer a surprising perspective on the need for and use of laughter in even the worst of times.
Another documentary, Rosenwald, tells the genuinely inspirational story of Julius Rosenwald, a child of immigrants who became the president of Sears, Roebuck & Company and then one of America’s great philanthropists. Inspired by Booker T. Washington during the time of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, he focused on helping African-American communities in the south, putting up funds to help build more than 5300 schools. A modest man who regretted his own lack of education (in a newsreel speech, he says, “Don’t be fooled into thinking that because a man is rich that he is smart. There is ample evidence to the contrary”), Rosenwald was a man you will be happy to have met.
The only film in the festival to have previously played theatrically in Buffalo, Menashe is a Yiddish-language drama about a widower in Brooklyn’s ultra-orthodox Jewish community fighting for custody of his son after the death of his wife. Mixing actors with real Hasidim in the Brooklyn neighborhood where the film was made, director Joshua Z Weinstein explores without proselytizing. Some viewers may have trouble with the fact that Menashe doesn’t simply abandon this world that treats him with so little respect, but that’s precisely what makes the film so powerful.
The experiences of Jews during World War II and its aftermath may already have been the focus of innumerable movies, but just about every nation in Europe was home to stories that have yet to be told. Across the Waters recounts the efforts of Jews to escape Copenhagen for safety in Sweden when the Nazi’s hands-off policy toward Denmark is broken. Fever at Dawn recreates the true story of Hungarian writer-director Péter Gárdos’s parents, camp survivors who met through the mail in 1945 from Swedish displaced persons camps where they were suffering from illness brought on by the war.
All films will be screened at the Dipson Amherst Theater. Tickets are available at the theater box office and at bijff.com, which you can find a complete schedule and trailers of the films.