The vice president of Los Angeles' premiere art house chain founded the festival four years ago, theorizing that if cities like Fresno and Buffalo have a Jewish festival festival, Los Angeles should have one, too. Hollywood is the seat of the film industry, after all.
But six months ago, Laemmle was ready to give up. It wasn't so much that the festival was losing a lot of money -- it wasn't. The problem was that coordinating the festival was overwhelming Laemmle and his company, "and the turnout didn't seem to make all the work worthwhile."
The change came last spring, when producer and publisher Phil Blazer walked into Laemmle's office above the Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles. Blazer, president of Jewish Life, a not-for-profit organization that underwrites Jewish cultural projects, had a proposal for Laemmle. "He said he shared my feeling that Hollywood should have the best Jewish film festival in the world," Laemmle recalls. "And he told me he could raise money and arrange publicity to make this a major event."
The result is the first International Jewish Film Festival and Conference, Nov. 2-18, which is bigger and better than past Jewish film festivals. Blazer secured director Arthur Hiller as the festival chair, and Arthur Cohn, the Oscar-winning producer of the Holocaust classic, "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" and the lauded "Central Station" as the honorary chair. Blazer is also amassing some $80,000 in funding, which far surpasses Laemmle's previous budget of $10,000. "I have at least that amount just to rent films," Laemmle says.
This year's 50 titles include classics such as "Schindler's List" and Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," plus more new features and foreign films than ever before. There will be more than half a dozen Los Angeles premieres, including "Kadosh," the controversial Israeli film about women in ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim; "Yidl in the Middle," a documentary about growing up Jewish in Iowa; and "Train of Life," Radu Mihaileanu's Sundance-winning Holocaust tragicomedy, the festival's opening night film at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The festival's premiere event will take place Nov. 3, also at the Academy, co-sponsored by State of Israel Bonds Holocaust Division. The event will feature a screening of "Gentleman's Agreement," the landmark 1947 film starring Gregory Peck as a Gentile journalist who poses as a Jew to experience bigotry. The film was a seminal screed against anti-Semitism at a time when Hollywood Jews were loathe to address Jewish concerns on camera.
The gala will also feature a screening of "Children of the Night," Cohn's documentary about children who died in the Holocaust; and excerpts from "The Last Days," the Oscar-winning documentary about the Hungarian-Jewish Holocaust. Peck will be honored, as will Renee Firestone, a survivor featured in "The Last Days." Temple Shalom for the Arts is supporting the event.
On Nov. 4, Joan Micklin Silver will be on hand for a screening of her new romantic comedy, "A Fish in the Bathtub"; she will also appear with Mihaileanu and other filmmakers at a festival conference that "hopefully will inspire young directors to make Jewish films," Laemmle says.
Other festival films will explore gay-Jewish themes (see sidebar), such as Jean-Jacques Zilbermann's French hit comedy, "Man is a Woman," which explores the relationship between a gay man and a Jewish heterosexual woman; and "Aimee & Jaguar," about a lesbian affair between a Jew and a German during World War II.
If there is a theme that dominates the festival, it is the Holocaust, Laemmle says; more than half the films touch upon the Shoah. It is, apparently, still the defining Jewish experience for many non-Israeli filmmakers. The recent films, however, do not confront the enormity of the Holocaust: "We're not seeing 'Shoah' or 'Night and Fog,' but very specific, personal stories," Laemmle says. In the documentary "Nothing's Changed," a survivor returns to the Ukraine; "Tak For Alt: Survival of a Human Spirit" profiles survivor and Civil Rights Activist Judy Meisel; and "Train of Life" (see review) is Mihaileanu's ode to his father's Romanian shtetl. &'009;
"Train of Life," he told The Journal, actually began with what the villagers called the Train of Death, a cattle car that drove in circles until its passengers died of thirst.
Mihaileanu remembered the ghost train at a Paris dinner party several years ago, when a historian described Russian villagers who supposedly evaded the Nazis by "deporting" themselves on a fake train. The director immediately realized the story could be told in a tragicomic way, a return to the Jewish tradition of utilizing humor to endure suffering. And he knew the film could help connect him to the shtetl world he never knew.
His father served as the consultant on the set, where he ecstatically helped recreate a fairy tale version of his shtetl. The elder Mihaileanu will be at hand when "Train of Life" premieres at the Academy next week. "It's my Hollywood dream, and my father has to be there," the director says.
The new International Jewish Film Festival is Laemmle's Hollywood dream. "My hope is that it can do for Jewish film what Sundance has done to promote the growth of independent film around the world," he says.
For general festival information, call (818) 786-4000. Tickets for the Academy events and invitations to the filmmakers' conference (you must have an invitation) are available at (818) 786-4000. For State of Israel Bonds Nov. 3 pre-gala reception and event, call (323) 939-3000 and ask for Brigitte Medvin.
Most festival screenings will take place at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Laemmle's Town Center in Encino. Tickets (excluding the special events) are $8, $4.50 (for a package of four) and $5 for senior citizens.