Click the BIG ARROW for the Festival trailer: 'Rosemary's Bubbaleh'
Trying to encapsulate the Jewish experience in a single film is like pouring Lake Michigan into your bathtub. And it wouldn't be any easier with a dozen films. So you can forgive Hilary Helstein, the director of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (LAJFF), for wanting to make her event bigger.
"Last year, we had 20 films in eight venues," she recalled. "This year, we have 30 films in just five days, and we have a dozen venues."
The festival, which opens April 21, has also expanded geographically, Helstein noted.
"Last year, we were Valley-based out of the JCC at the Milken," she said. "This year, the Westside JCC came on board, we've partnered with the University of Judaism to use their auditorium and we have 11 synagogues in our partnership. We will be in the Valley and Beverly Hills. So it is now a truly citywide festival."
Last year was a learning experience for Helstein and her co-chairs, Kim Cavallo and Michele Kaufman. Several Los Angeles-based film festivals have come and gone over the years, in part, because of splashier events and films in this movie capital.
"We learned last year that we filled a need in the Jewish community," Helstein said emphatically. "The Jewish community was thirsty for something like this festival.
"We have a very successful Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles and, when we began planning, we looked at festivals around the country," she continued. "My instinct was that if you deliver films into the neighborhoods and show something people haven't seen before, they're going to come."
That instinct was correct, and Jewish organizations have jumped at the chance to participate in the rapidly growing film program. Consider just a couple of the special events dotting this year's schedule.
Opening night of this year's festival combines a film event with an awards ceremony sponsored by one of the LAJFF's new partners, the MorningStar Commission. As part of the opening night gala, the Marlene Adler Marks Woman of Inspiration Award, named for the late Jewish Journal columnist, will be presented to Joan Hyler, the organization's founder and one of the premier agents in the entertainment industry. The film, appropriately enough, focuses on the lives of two women who survived the Shoah through their artistic efforts. Coincidentally, the director of the film, "As Seen Through These Eyes," is festival director Helstein.
"I was initiated onto the MorningStar Commission board," she said with a slightly sheepish grin. "I've been working on the film for 10 years, and I had to take off my festival director hat in order to submit it."
Another highlight of the five-day event will be a program of short films hosted by Jason Reitman, director of last year's comedy hit, "Thank You for Smoking," and co-sponsored by ATID, the young professionals group at Sinai Temple. Reitman will conduct a dialogue with Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple and the filmmakers whose works will be on display, discussing storytelling as a part of Jewish tradition.
In addition to those higher-profile events, there will be family days at the two JCCs, showcasing films for both children and adolescents. Filmmakers will be present at most evening screenings.
As for the movies on offer, Helstein readily admitted that programming this year's festival was a bit more of a challenge, even if the mechanics are now easier.
"There weren't a whole lot of comedies out there, which is unfortunate," she remarked. "We are trying to touch on many different subjects, offering a cross-section of something for everyone, and that was more of a challenge than last year."
The paucity of comedy films on Jewish themes is something of an oddity in itself but is probably cyclical. At least one of the two comedies in this year's festival, "My Mexican Shivah," directed by Alejandro Springall, is genuinely, if intermittently, funny.
Like so many Jewish humorists, Springall is not only willing to show his characters in a bad light, he positively revels in doing so. Based on a story by Ilan Stavans, "Shivah" centers on the family of a distinguished gentleman who drops dead during a reunion of his old college theater group.
Springall doesn't hesitate to play almost everything that follows for laughs, with the deceased's wildly dysfunctional family dysfunctioning through the seven days that follow in usually unpredictable and frequently hilarious ways. The director manages to milk most of the situations for maximum comic value, but there is something rather hollow at the core of the film. Still, it is a very entertaining 98 minutes while it lasts, frantic in the manner of Billy Wilder.
If you can't show a comedy, then maybe an action film will do. "King of Beggars," a first feature by Israeli theater director Uri Paster, is an energetic, often effective swashbuckler, borrowing ever so lightly from its source material, Mendele Mocher Sforim's "Fishke the Lame," but converting the Yiddish master's crippled beggar into a master of self-discipline and martial arts.
Moving the original story back in time to the years of the marauding Black Hundreds, when Jewish villages were constantly being plundered and razed, Paster gives Fishke's story a whole different spin, yet he manages to avoid the obvious pitfall of turning his film into a paean to Jewish vigilantism. His Fishke manages to be both a forthright Torah scholar and a bad dude, sacrificing neither his probity nor his willingness to kick some anti-Semitic butt.
The result is surprisingly entertaining.
The two most impressive dramas in the festival are rather more sober affairs, but both represent impressive feature debuts by young Jewish writer- directors.
"Steel Toes" is the more difficult film in subject matter, a bleak but ultimately guardedly optimistic drama about a skinhead on trial for murder and his growing relationship with his Jewish attorney.
Adapted by co-director David Gow from his stage play, the film is essentially a two-hander, a superb showcase for electrifying performances from Andrew Walker as the defendant and David Strathairn as the lawyer. A dark film, aided immeasurably by the attention to visual detail by Gow and his co-director Mark Adam, who also shot and edited the film, "Steel Toes" is finally about the power of redemption and the terrible difficulty of standing up as a human being.
In a sense, the same themes could be said to run through "Brother's Shadow," directed and co-written by Todd S. Yellin. This time the troubles are homegrown. Jake (Scott Cohen in a breakout performance) is a parolee who returns to his native Brooklyn to close the book on his relationship with his brother and father (Judd Hirsch). But his brother is dead, leaving behind a wife (Susan Lloyd) who he once courted, and his father is still deeply bitter over the violent break in the family some 15 years earlier.
The vehicle that brings the family back together, reluctantly, is the custom furniture shop that all three men created.
Yellin has a nice eye for behavioral grace notes, and he resists the obvious pat endings available to him in favor of something more measured in tone.
Helstein isn't making any predictions for continued growth of the festival. Right now she's just hoping to get through the next week or so. But she is certain of one thing: "Last year taught us that this can be done. We worked with a group of laypeople who had their pulse on the finger of the community and got friends and family excited about the event. And they picked up right where they left off this year.
To order tickets by phone, call The Westside JCC at (323) 938-2531 or The JCC at Milken at (818) 464-3300. For more information, go to www.lajfilmfest.org.
For information and to order tickets for the April 25 program hosted by Jason Reitman and co-sponsored by ATID, go to www.atidla.com.