"Kaddish for a Friend" is about an unexpected friendship between… (Courtesy WJFF/ )
The 22nd annual Washington Jewish Film Festival, which runs from Thursday to Dec. 11, will present 47 films from 15 countries, including such perennial contributors as Israel, Germany, Britain and Argentina. But this year also has a strong local component: documentaries about an unsolved murder in Chevy Chase and noted former Washingtonian Henry Kissinger, as well as a retrospective of work by D.C. filmmaker Aviva Kempner, who will receive the 2011 WJFF Visionary Award.
Part of Kempner’s vision is the festival itself, which she and Miriam Morsel Nathan founded. “When I went to other festivals with my first film, ‘Partisans of Vilna,’ ” she says, “I realized that there was a whole body of Jewish-themed films being made internationally. A festival would be a great way to dialogue with creative people, and to bring films that oftentimes don’t get a theatrical release.”
The annual event began with just eight movies, notes Susan Barocas, the festival’s director for the past four years. Barocas, who is a documentary filmmaker, started as a volunteer in 1994. This year, the festival will use nine venues, including the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center, the Avalon and AFI Silver theaters, the Goethe-Institut and the Swiss and Italian embassies. (For a complete schedule, visit www.wjff.org.)
“A good film really does open people’s eyes and hearts,” Barocas says. “And I love bringing audiences and filmmakers together. We’re presenting guests with about half our films this year, which is quite a high percentage.”
The 2011 selection, she notes, features several on the theme of “Jews at Work” and more movies by women than ever before. “We have 16 women filmmakers out of 47 films. That’s 40 percent. ”
The festival opens with “Mabul,” a warm Israeli drama about a prickly family whose second son is about to celebrate his bar mitzvah. The boy’s tangled life is further complicated by the unexpected arrival of his autistic older brother, who has been living in an institution that shut down for lack of funds.
The closing-night film is the powerful “Remembrance,” a fictional drama inspired by an improbable but true event: A Polish resistance fighter nabs a German uniform and marches his Jewish girlfriend out of Auschwitz. They’re separated during their escape, and for decades each assumes the other is dead.
Another wrenching tale is “Kaddish for a Friend,” which plays out the Jewish-Arab conflict at a Berlin housing complex. A teenager who was born in a Palestinian refugee camp helps vandalize an elderly Jewish man’s apartment. When the teen is forced to undo the damage, he and his former victim become pals.
“We have films that make the political personal,” Barocas says. “When you get down to the personal, sometimes stereotypes get broken down.”
Among the comic entries is “Reuniting the Rubins,” a British movie that mingles drama with farce. It’s the tale of a man’s attempt to reconcile his four feuding adult children long enough for Passover dinner with their ailing grandmother. People of a certain age will be startled to learn that Granny is played by “Goldfinger” sexpot Honor Blackman, one of the most iconic Bond girls.
Argentinian director Daniel Burman, a WJFF favorite, usually makes comic dramas, earning him comparisons with Woody Allen. This year he contributes “36 Righteous Men,” an impressionistic documentary about Orthodox Jews on a pilgrimage to the Eastern European graves of tzadikim, or righteous men.
Another documentary, “Who Shot My Father? The Story of Joe Alon,” follows the truth-seeking campaign of the three daughters of an Israeli military attache who was shot outside his Chevy Chase home in 1973. Investigators have ruled out robbery, jealousy or terrorism as motivations for the never-explained act, which seems to leave only a conspiracy theory involving the U.S. and Israeli governments. (Two of Alon’s daughters, the director and the author of a book about the case will discuss the film next Tuesday and Wednesday.)
Henry Kissinger, an alleged player in the Alon story, is one of the subjects of “The Kissinger Saga: Walter and Henry Kissinger, Two Brothers From Feurth.” The makers of this German documentary persuaded the former secretary of state, usually reticent about personal issues, to discuss his childhood. But his younger brother Walter does more of the talking.
Three of the fest’s documentaries were made by Kempner, who will also present 20 minutes of her upcoming movie, “The Rosenwald Schools,” a study of the academies for African Americans founded almost a century ago by Booker T. Washington and Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. Her other festival offerings are “Partisans of Vilna,” which she produced, and two she directed: “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” and “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.”
“Washington is a great city to make films,” Kempner says. “The crews are great. It’s amazing how many people I can interview in the area, specifically for the new film. And all the archives are here, which is the basis of my work.”
“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” about the baseball star of the 1930s and ’40s, has attracted many non-Jewish fans, and Barocas notes that the festival also has broadened its audience over the years. She attributes the change to the fest’s offerings of “independent films from all over the world that mostly do not make it into theaters or onto broadcast. I think people want to know what film is like in Iran, or Sweden, or wherever our films are from. I think they’re hungry to know more about each other.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.