For the past three decades, January in Palm Beach County has been synonymous with an international array of Jewish-themed movies. And beginning Sunday, the 29th annual Donald M. Ephraim Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival screens 33 such selections – many of them world, Florida or county premieres – at four venues over 21 days.
This will also be the sixth such event for festival director Ellen Wedner, who relocated locally after running the Miami Jewish Film Festival. “I think over this time, I’ve come to understand better what this audience wants,” she says. “The interesting thing is that’s not always the same throughout the county. When I’m programming morning films at Cinemark in Boynton Beach, say, I’m very cognizant that a certain kind of film would be more appropriate for there and for that time of day.
“A morning film might be a documentary that’s a little more uplifting. It can be hard to watch doom and gloom in the morning,” Wedner notes. “And I’ve learned not to program a string of documentaries all in one day. So now I look at not just the subject, but the length and the format.”
The festival screenings will be held at four Palm Beach County venues: Cinepolis in Jupiter, Cobb Theatres 16 in Palm Beach Gardens, AMC CityPlace 20 in West Palm Beach and Cinemark 14 in Boynton Beach. Tickets range from $8 to $18, with discounts for Film Society members. (For a complete list of this year’s films and schedule, go to www.palmbeachjewishfilm.org.)
Wedner feels certain that this year’s festival will be the best yet, buoyed by a major coup – the world premiere of Golda’s Balcony, a new filmed version of the Broadway biographical play about Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir – attended by its Tony Award-nominated star, Tovah Feldshuh.
“When the producer of the film reached out to me, I was very, very excited,” recalls Wedner. “He sent it to me and I was blown away. It’s very inspiring and emotional. With a four-camera shoot, you are so close that you get the nuance of her performance.
“I knew I would have the Florida premiere, I didn’t expect to have the world premiere. Other festivals turned it down because the play had been there (on tour). But I knew that our audience would want to see this powerful film.”
As usual, Wedner was particularly concerned over selecting opening and closing films, crucial choices which leave a lasting impression of the festival. But she feels certain she has found movies for those slots that will connect with the audience.
Sunday at 2 p.m. at AMC CityPlace, the festival kicks off with the Southeast premiere of Papa, inspired by the true story of an adopted son searching for his biological parents.
“‘Papa’ was a very easy choice. In Jewish film, you don’t often get a film with multiple big stars. This is a real ensemble. That intrigued me,” notes Wedner. The adoptive parents are played by Daryl Hannah and Frankie Avalon, with Paul Sorvino, Ann-Margret, Michael Madsen, Eric Roberts and Mischa Barton in support.
“Also the fact that it involved a Jewish family with some interesting interplay, that was a positive too. I played it for the screening committee and at the end of the film, they applauded, which is pretty rare. The Jewish sensibility is throughout, even when it’s not overt. It’s very upbeat and at the end Frankie Avalon sings. What can be better than that?”
For the closing matinee, the festival is thrilled to have acquired Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz, a documentary of a remarkable lawyer whose career highlights include being on the prosecution team at the Nuremberg trials and, later, agitating for the creation of the United Nation’s International Court of Justice.
“In the end, his efforts to establish a world court, his efforts to bring the guilty to justice, are very inspiring. He believes if you try people and hold them responsible, then you have an opportunity to stop genocide,” says Wedner. “He’s also given his fortune away that he’s made over the years to U.S. Holocaust museums, to encourage the education of people and the end of genocide.”
Ferencz, now 98, lives in Delray Beach and has indicated an interest in appearing at the festival, health permitting. “I’m hoping that he will be with us,” says Wedner, “but his son, who is also a human rights lawyer, will definitely be there.”
Prosecuting Evil is the closing first-run film, but there are two days of the festival after it. These are reserved for encore presentations – two a day at the AMC CityPlace – of some of the more popular festival selections that sold out their initial showings quickly.
This year they are Henri Dauman: Looking Up, about a Holocaust survivor who became one of the 20th century’s preeminent photographers, and Stockholm, a feature film on the death of a renowned economist and his friends who try to keep his demise secret, both on the afternoon of Feb. 11. On the 12th, the actual final day of the festival, the encore screenings are Above the Drowning Sea, a documentary on the Chinese consul in Vienna who defied the Gestapo to issue visas to European Jews on the eve of World War II, and Redemption, about a rock singer who struggles between his religious beliefs and his love of music.
Two of the most popular films from last year’s festival were biographies of Hollywood icons Hedy Lamarr and Sammy Davis, Jr. So while Wedner doesn’t usually seek out films with specific themes – preferring to select simply the best films she can find – she concedes that this year she went in search of more show business biopics. And she found them: Kirk Douglas, The Untameable, about one of the last living legends of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and Sam Spiegel: Conquering Hollywood, about one of the most enigmatic and controversial producers in the annals of film.
“Kirk is 102 years old and we have a very touching documentary about him,” says Wedner. “And Sam Spiegel, a survivor and a refugee of the Nazis, is the only producer with sole producing credit on three Best Picture Oscar winners” – On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.
In an effort to feature variety, the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival will screen Holocaust tales such as Murer: Anatomy of a Trial, about bringing the Austrian former SS officer known as the “Butcher of Vilnius” to justice, as well as humorous documentaries like The Land of Milk and Funny, about American stand-up comics touring Israel and commenting on what they see.
“And then I think the fun documentary beyond all others is ‘The Last Resort,’ a very South Florida movie,” says Wedner. It concerns “these two wonderful photographers, who work with such saturated color, they just jump off the screen. It’s about them realizing that this world that they grew up in was dying. It’s about the changes that occurred on Miami Beach as crime increased and the older people grew scared. When the screening committee finished that film, there was such an outpouring of stories about their grandparents. I think that’s what it will do to those who attend the festival screening too.”
Perhaps the target audience for the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival is an older demographic, but an effort is made to include something for everybody. Why should film fans seek them out? “Because many of these films are never seen outside of Jewish film festivals. Not even on Netflix,” says Wedner.
“If you love that experience of being in a film festival, whether the director is there or we have a talkback, you’ve got to come to have that experience with other film buffs. As I’ve said for years, ‘You don’t have to be Jewish, you just have to like good films.’ We’re offering you 21 days of great films.”
29TH ANNUAL DONALD M. EPHRAIM PALM BEACH JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL, Sunday, Jan. 20-Tuesday, Feb. 12. Call (877) 318-0071 or visit www.palmbeachjewishfilm.org.