For 28 years – five of them under the direction of Ellen Wedner – The Donald M. Ephraim Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival has been bringing to the county an array of international movies that illuminate the Jewish experience. This year, as always, Wedner and her selection committee sought out the highest-quality films that fit that mission, without trying to feature a particular theme.
But from the opening and closing night films and several others in between, it is hard to miss the celebration of Jewish composers and performers who have enriched the culture far beyond the Jewish community.
The 2018 festival will run from Thursday, Jan. 18, through Sunday, Feb. 11, screening 35 international films from such countries as Germany, Japan, Poland, Hungary and Israel at six locations in Boca Raton, Delray Beach, West Palm Beach, Wellington and Palm Beach Gardens.
The opening film, at AMC CityPlace 20, is Body and Soul: An American Bridge, which focuses on the early performance history of the jazz standard, “Body and Soul.” Written by Jewish composer Johnny Green in 1929, the song was introduced on Broadway by Jewish torch singer Libby Holman and ushered into the jazz canon by Louis Armstrong the following year. The film, both entertaining and educational, explores the cross-cultural bridge between African-Americans and American Jews.
Finding the right film to kick off the festival is crucial to its success, says Wedner. “The key word is ‘upbeat.’ We show several Holocaust films during the festival, but I will not do one on opening night,” she adds. “I try to show something that will give food for thought but also be a really positive way to start things off. In this case, I think we found it. I went all the way back to the very first film (of the 200-300) I saw, the first film I showed the committee: ‘Body and Soul.’”
She was not looking for another music-based film to conclude the festival, but in September – relatively late in Wedner’s search process – Body and Soul’s distributor came to her with a new submission. As he put it, “There’s something I want you to see. It’s not even finished yet. It’s you.”
“Even before it was finished I knew that it was one of the cleverest documentaries I’ve ever seen,” recalls Wedner. “It’s ‘I’m Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas,’ how Jews really created the world of secular Christmas music. There’s some obvious songs – ‘Winter Wonderland,’ ‘White Christmas’ – and some I didn’t know came from Jews – ‘Little Drummer Boy,’ ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.’
“While the film is entertaining – and it’s really entertaining – it talks philosophically about what it was these Jews were creating, this perfect holiday that we didn’t celebrate. And what it looks like from the outside in. It’s so clever because it’s set in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day, and every time the songs come up, it becomes like a music video with the patrons and the waiter singing. So it’s really a documentary musical, the first one that I can think of,” says Wedner. “I think it’s really going to be a wonderful way to end the festival.”
Wait, there are more films infused with music. There’s the documentary Shalom Bollywood, about the Jewish connection to the popular musical film industry of India.
“Just when you think you knew everything about Jews in every country, something new comes up and that’s really exciting,” enthuses Wedner. “‘Shalom Bollywood’ is a perfect example. You’re going to learn a lot about the Jewish community, which is 2,000 years old in India. Who knew that? If you had told me that the biggest stars of the ’30s and ’40s (in India) were Jewish, I would say, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ But if you think Madonna and Marilyn Monroe were huge, these women were beyond that. They were icons.”
Speaking of musical icons, the Ephraim Jewish Film Festival also features Yes, I Can, a biographical tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. As Wedner puts it, “That’s just such a fun film, but I will tell you, I teared up at the moment when he talks about why he converted to Judaism. Because it’s very heartfelt.”
No, not all of this year’s films are lightweight, but Wedner concedes that she sensed this was a good time to ease up on the heavy dramas and docs. “People are in a crazy place now, so we were real careful when we picked the documentaries that they had some lightness to them,” she says. It wasn’t easy. “You would think with the history of Jewish comedy and great comic Jewish writers, but it’s really very difficult to find things that are light in nature.
“The dramas come almost naturally in a way. So this year, I was just shocked and happily pleased that we could have some rom-coms in the more traditional sense, that covered topics that were diverse and different,” says Wedner. “We have a zany screwball comedy from Italy, which is not a country we normally get films from. And we have a fun rom-com film from Israel that is also going to relieve the mood.”
Wedner is particularly high on a new biographical documentary called Bombshell that has already opened in New York and Los Angeles for Oscars consideration. Still, she was assured that it would not open locally before the festival so she would have the bragging rights to the “Palm Beach County premiere.” Its subtitle is The Hedy Lamarr Story and, yes, the Hollywood star of the ’40s and ’50s was Jewish, born Hedwig Eva Kiesler.
“(She) makes this amazing scientific discovery about codebreaking,” says Wedner, “but no one believed that it could be right, because of who she was, so they didn’t use it during the war. After World War II, they realized that it was revolutionary and could have stopped the war earlier. She was so amazingly beautiful, so no one would have thought her capable of this. And she went on to invent other things as well. There was this whole scientific bent to her.”
Frequently, with the more commercial art films, the festival is competing with the clock, trying to persuade distributors to hold off the local release to theaters until after the festival screenings. “We have a beautiful film from Hungary, ‘1945,’ and I was afraid that one would get released because it’s making a lot of buzz in New York. I kept saying, ‘Don’t release that now, because you won’t get the audience that you would if you waited for us.’ Sometimes that works. It worked for ‘1945.’”
1945 is a post-Holocaust film. “It’s the part that we don’t talk about, what happens if a Jew tries to go home, to a small village in Hungary. And it’s all done from the villager’s point of view, a very simple, very lyrical story, but very effective. They know that Jews are coming. They don’t know who, they don’t know how many, they know the train is to arrive at a certain time and the panic in the village, from the one that stole the furniture, that stole the house, stole the businesses or whatever.
“‘The Testament’ is actually a contemporary film, about a Holocaust researcher who’s trying to prevent a real estate company from building on what they think is the site of a huge massacre of Jews in Austria,” says Wedner. “This researcher is looking for the evidence, the testament, when he makes a shocking discovery.”
Well, you get the idea. The 28th Ephraim Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival is a diverse collection of Jewish-themed movies, something for every taste.
“If you love documentary films, we have such an assortment, you could come just for those. If you love the American Songbook, you’re going to love our opening and closing night films,” says Wedner. “How could you not? If you were a fan of the Rat Pack, how could you not come to see the Sammy Davis Jr. film?
“We don’t care if you’re Jewish. We care that you like good films. That you like to be engaged, that you want to learn something new. Nothing makes me feel better than to close up the theater and we still see people standing outside talking about the film. We know that we’ve engaged them.”
THE 28TH ANNUAL DONALD M. EPHRAIM PALM BEACH JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL. Jan. 20-26: Cinemark Palace 20, Boca Raton; Jan. 22-26: AMC CityPlace 20, West Palm Beach; Jan. 27-Feb. 3: PGA Arts Center, Palm Beach Gardens; Jan. 28-Feb. 2: Cobb Theatres, Palm Beach Gardens; Jan. 28-Feb. 2: Cobb Theatres, Palm Beach Gardens; Feb. 5-8: CMX Cinemas, Wellington; Feb. 4-10: Frank Theatres, Delray Beach. Tickets: 877-318-0071. Visit palmbeachjewishfilm.org for the full schedule.
Here are some of the movies on view during the Donald Ephraim Jewish Film Festival:
Let Yourself Go – Have you heard the one about the Italian-Jewish psychotherapist whose methodical, but dull, existence gets a new outlook when a young, spirited Spanish personal trainer comes into his life? So it goes in Lasciati Andare (Let Yourself Go), a lightweight, but amusing comedy from former documentary director Francesco Amato. Dr. Elia Venezia (Italian film fixture Toni Servillo in a white beard and glasses that make him a dead ringer for Sigmund Freud) has indeed let himself go. And when his doctor prescribes an exercise regimen at the local gym, the results prove seismic because of peppy Claudia (winsome Verónica Echegui) who attaches herself to this resolutely private guy.
Elia is separated from his wife Giovanna, even though she lives next door in the apartment building where he resides and sees his patients. The two of them spend much of their time trying to make the other jealous. The comedy grows more screwball with the introduction of a low-grade crook who implores Elia to hypnotize him into remembering where he stashed some stolen jewels. Little about the film is overtly Jewish, but its comic sensibilities are unmistakably of the tribe.
Jan. 24, 11 am, Cinemark 20; Jan. 25, 2:30 pm, AMC CityPlace 20; Jan. 28, 4 pm, Cobb Theatres; Feb. 4, 1:30 pm, Frank Theatres.
Bombshell, The Hedy Lamarr Story – Austrian-born Hedy Lamarr was a mainstay of Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, after a notorious breakthough performance in 1933’s Ecstasy, with some of the first nude scenes ever captured on film. But you probably did not know that Lamarr was Jewish (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) or that she was an avid inventor who devised “frequency-hopping” technology for use by torpedoes in World War II. The concept is applied today in Wi-Fi, GPS and cellphone systems, but was ignored by Pentagon brass during the war who felt Lamarr was too beautiful to be smart too.
Even without her brainy side, Lamarr’s life would make a fascinating film. She used her beauty from an early age, marrying a succession of husbands, breaking into the movies in Europe, then attracting the attention of MGM’s Louis Mayer, who brought her to America to star in a slew of mediocre films that required little talent. Late in life, she remained obsessed with her looks, undergoing a series of destructive plastic surgeries, shoplifting and ultimately becoming a recluse.
Director Alexandra Dean tells Lamarr’s story through her own words, heard on interview recordings by Forbes magazine writer Fleming Meeks. Add in such talking heads as Mel Brooks, director-historian Peter Bogdanovich and TCM’s Robert Osborne and you have a film that should fascinate any movie fan, particularly those of an age who recall Lamarr’s Hollywood output.
Jan. 22, 2:30 pm, AMC CityPlace 20; Jan. 29, 3 pm, Cobb Theatres; Feb. 6, 2:30 pm, CMX Cinemas.
Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas – It is one thing to make a film about the Jewish composers who wrote our most enduring, albeit secular, Christmas songs. But what an inspiration for director Larry Weinstein to set it in a Chinese restaurant on Dec. 25, the day that Jews traditionally have the place to themselves. And as we learn the backstory of such ditties as “Winter Wonderland,” “Silver Bells” and especially “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the Asian waiters lift their voices in a succession of music videos.
Why did Jews such as Irving Berlin (“White Christmas”) gravitate to writing about a holiday they didn’t celebrate? It only makes good marketing sense to write for 97 percent of the public, rather than the ethnic 3 percent, right? Berlin in particular had his cake and ate it too, penning the most popular carol of all time, while “de-Christing” Christmas.
Following Berlin’s lead were such songwriters as Mel Tormé (yep, Jewish) whose “Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”) is a series of non-religious images of the season. Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker’s “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is a perennial carol that came into the world as a prayer for peace in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And Rudolph, an ostracized reindeer with a oversized proboscis, came into the world as a merchandising gimmick. As the film puts it in conclusion, “Christmas is my favorite Jewish holiday.”
Feb. 11, 7 pm, AMC CityPlace 20.
Body and Soul: An American Bridge: One of the most ubiquitous jazz pieces of the past 90 years, “Body and Soul” was written in 1929 by Jewish composer Johnny Green. In his entertaining and eye-opening documentary, Robert Philipson traces the song’s history, charting the singers and musicians who interpreted and recorded it, turning it into a cultural link between the Jewish and African-American communities.
The simplicity of the melody and the universality of its lyrics (by Edward Heyman, Robert Sour and Frank Eyton) have allowed the song to take on the signature sound of so many diverse performers such as Billie Holiday, Fanny Brice and Amy Winehouse, in the final recording before her death.
But it is the synergy between black and Jewish musicians that most interests filmmaker Philipson. He devotes a major section of this 58-minute film to trumpet great Louis Armstrong and his Jewish influences. And jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, who integrated and elevated his band by hiring young black pianist Teddy Wilson.
Philipson illustrates this crash course in the history of Green’s composition with fascinating archival photos and video clips, and, of course, plenty of music, making it an apt choice to lead off the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival.
Thursday, Jan. 18, at 7 p.m. AMC CityPlace 20.
Shelter: Veteran director Eran Riklis’s spy-vs.-spy tale is ostensibly an action thriller, but like most Israeli films it also has a political component. It begins in familiar territory, as inactive Mossad agent Naomi (Neta Riskin) is reeled back in for a “babysitting” job, guarding Mona (Golshifteh Farahani), the former wife of a Hezbollah leader with a price on her head. Given a new face and identity, Mona will be relocated to Canada from a safe house in Hamburg if – and it becomes a big if – Naomi can keep her alive for the next two weeks.
Fortunately, Riklis deepens the story into a character study as the two women, initially wary of each other, find they have much in common. Wrapped in bandages from plastic surgery, Farahani uses her dark, piercing eyes to express herself. Riskin’s risky assignment makes her a source of audience empathy, particularly after we learn she is taking fertilization injections to have the child she and her murdered husband were never able to. Riklis paces the film for maximum suspense and visual impact, despite being largely limited to the bunkered apartment.
Jan. 23, 7:30 p.m., Cinemark 20; Jan. 31, 7:30 p.m., Cobb Theatres; Feb. 8, 7:30 p.m., Frank Theatres