A Critic's Guide to the Thought-Provoking Bests of the 2014 Jewish & Israeli Film Festival

When the Mayerson JCC Jewish & Israeli Film Festival kicks off Saturday at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion with a screening of The Yellow Ticket, the event will signal an immersive merging of old and new...

Feb 5, 2014 at 10:38 am
click to enlarge Besa: The Promise
Besa: The Promise

When the Mayerson JCC Jewish & Israeli Film Festival kicks off Saturday at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion with a screening of The Yellow Ticket, the event will signal an immersive merging of old and new — a silent film accompanied by a live, original score composed by Grammy Award winner and internationally renowned klezmer violinist/composer Alicia Svigals and Jazz pianist Marilyn Lerner. Svigals’ score incorporates various Eastern European folk traditions (including klezmer), classical composers like Béla Bartók and Ernest Bloch and contemporary improvisational elements, all of which highlight the boldly progressive socio-cultural stance of a film with a female protagonist confronting anti-Semitism, gender bias and human trafficking in Imperialist Russia. 

The idea of the live scoring of filmed features speaks to a forgotten conception and craft that demands as much from the audience as the performers. We must commit to and focus on what is happening in the moment; we must tune out the constant buzz of social media and embrace a convergence of the historic and the now. Such an event can occur within a particular gathering context that only a film festival can provide, where we can share such experiences and reflection guided by esteemed regional and international guest speakers. 

And that is just the beginning. For 2014, the festival (screening films through Feb. 27) covers not only a wide thematic spectrum of filmed and mixed-media content, but also carefully schedules events across four locations throughout the month of February, making the festival more accessible to the larger Cincinnati film community. 

Rather than aiming to overwhelm audiences with content, the purpose here seems to be one of targeted exposure, intent on engagement and enlightenment about the international Jewish and Israeli experience, both past and present, with an eye toward a global/shared future.

Highlights from the films, selected from a pool of more than 50, create a slate approaching a Best of the Fests. Eagles, from Israeli director Dror Sabo, was a 2012 Official Selection at the Toronto International Film Festival. Kaddish for a Friend earned the Audience Best Feature Film at the 2013 Miami Jewish Film Festival and the Grand Prix Award at the 2012 Warsaw Jewish Film Festival. The kid-friendly release The Zig Zag Kid took the Golden Elephant Award for Best Screenplay at the 2013 International Children’s Film Festival in India. On the documentary front, v was recognized as Best Documentary at the Washington Jewish Film Festival, the Seattle Jewish Film Festival and the Jewish Eye Film Festival, while The Ceremony claimed the Audience Award at the 2013 DocAviv. Ameer Got His Gun was an Israeli Academy Award nominee for 2012 and received Special Mention at the 2011 Jerusalem International Film Festival.

For the politically minded seeking a humanistic spin, Ameer Got His Gun takes the perspective of a young Arab-Israeli Muslim who voluntarily signs up for the Israeli Defense Forces believing that his induction will guarantee that he will be afforded equal citizenship. The conflicting dualities of Jewish and Palestinian societies impede Ameer’s journey toward personal and civic responsibility, but the documentary, while informing audiences about political realities in another part of the world, should force us to reflect on our own xenophobic responses to multi-cultural expressions of what it means to be American. 

The focus here is not on any particular agenda. Film festivals are celebrations of visual storytelling and the Mayerson JCC Jewish & Israeli Film Festival will end on a much more light-hearted note though the presentation of Cupcakes (Best Feature Award: Iris Prize, UK), a breezy story about a group of close friends blinking and drinking in the dizzying spotlight of attention as they parade through a surreal fantasy. 

The gleeful comedic screening comes thanks to a partnership with Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati and will feature a celebration of cupcakes following the film.

The MAYERSON JCC JEWISH & ISRAELI FILM FESTIVAL opens Saturday and continues through Feb. 27. For more information about general admission fees, festival passes, the festival schedule and screening locations, or if you would like to view trailers from featured films, visit mayersonjcc.org/filmfestival