The Israel Film Festival sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey will celebrate its bar mitzvah this year.
The 13th annual fest, which runs from November 2 to November 19, will feature seven films shown in many locations.
It is different from many Jewish film festivals in that the movies selected must be produced in Israel. Typically other festivals consider films of Jewish interest, no matter where they are produced.
“We want to connect the northern New Jersey community with Israel in a different way, give them access to the country’s films, culture and language,” says Ethan Behling, director of JFNNJ’s Center for Israel Engagement.
Another difference is that this festival avoids politics, a reasonably difficult chore given the circumstances of life in the Mideast, and it has shown a marked preference for uplifting films. “Some Israeli films are not so uplifting,” Mr. Behling concedes, which is not so surprising given the circumstances of life … Well, you get the idea.
When the festival first began, screenings were held exclusively in synagogues. While some still are, most are shown in movie theaters and there’s even one you can watch at a YMCA. The change of venues has increased the number of attendees and skewed the average age down.
“Since we moved into these theaters, we’ve attracted a new crowd, people who aren’t necessarily comfortable walking into synagogues they don’t belong to,” Mr. Behling said. “We’re also getting younger people, who bring their children.”
The selection committee started with about 30 films, a number winnowed to seven full-length features plus a short. The two best known, “The Women’s Balcony” and “Wedding Plan,” are dramatically different in theme and provide a vivid demonstration of the breadth, variety and vitality of Israeli cinema.
In “The Women’s Balcony,” a bar mitzvah at an Orthodox Mizrahi synagogue in Jerusalem is interrupted when the women’s balcony collapses mid-service, leaving the rebbetzin in a coma, the elderly rabbi in shock, and the sanctuary in ruins.
A young and charismatic ultra-Orthodox rabbi volunteers to fill the void, an offer that the men in the congregation accept happily. But he subtly moves the congregation further right, insisting the women wear modest dress and cover their heads and ultimately shunting them off behind a mehitzah in the renovated synagogue.
The women rebel and yes, eventually there is a happy ending to this fable of female empowerment. The film already has played commercially in area theaters, but if you missed it, don’t do that again. It was the most enjoyable film out of Israel in the last year.
It will be shown at the Wayne YMCA (1 Pike Drive) on Wednesday, November 8, at 7:30 p.m.
If “The Women’s Balcony” is about the triumph of feminism, “Wedding Plan” is about female subjugation. The film’s writer-director, Rama Burshtein, was born in New York, raised in Israel, and became baala teshuva in her mid-20s.
She’s described herself as “feminine, not a feminist” and she believes that “if a man or woman is not loved by someone from the opposite sex they are not whole.”
In “Wedding Plan,” her fiancé dumps Michal, an Israeli Orthodox woman and the movie’s central character, a month before what was to be their wedding. She keeps the catering plans in place and instead of giving up is determined to find a replacement groom over the next four or so weeks.
In the process she goes out on many dates and manages to turn off even the most nebbishy of prospects. Yes, there’s the happy ending the JFNNJ likes, but the road to it is really sad for anyone rooted in the 21st century. It should be noted, however, that Ms. Burshtein won the Israeli Ophir for best screenplay, Noa Koler (Michal) won best actress, and Hava Levi Rozelsky won for best costume design.
“Wedding Plan” will be shown at the Teaneck Cinema (503 Cedar Lane) Monday, Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m.
Other films, all shown at 7:30, include:
“My Hero Brother”: A documentary that follows a group of young Israeli adults with Down syndrome as they set out on an arduous mountain-climbing trek in the Himalayas, each accompanied by a brother or sister. It will have two showings —on Thursday, November 2, Warner Ridgewood Theater (190 E. Ridgewood Ave.) with the film’s director, Yonaton Nir, in attendance, and on Wednesday, November 8, at the United Synagogue of Hoboken (115 Park Ave.).
A so-called double feature combines “An Israeli Love Story” with “The Little Dictator,” a 28-minute short. In “Israeli Love Story,” Eli and Margalit, living in pre-state Palestine, are torn between their love for one another and where they see their futures in the Jewish state: the theater world of Tel Aviv or on a kibbutz. Margalit finds the spotlight, while Eli is drawn deeper into the armed struggle for Jewish independence.
“The Little Dictator” is about a dull history professor who feels unappreciated both by his students and by his domineering wife. He comes to terms with his situation at a surreal 90th birthday party for his wife’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor.
Both films will be shown at the Teaneck Cinema on Tuesday, November 7.
“Mr. Predictable”: After a computer error causes boring, put-upon Adi to believe he doesn’t have long to live, a chance encounter with a stunning free spirit turns into a crash course on how to live life to the fullest. Now Adi must choose between a steady, dependable existence and a chance at genuine happiness.
Shown on Wednesday, November 15, at the Warner Ridgewood.
“Our Father”: Desperate to save his marriage, the cash-strapped Ovadia goes to work for a small-time mobster, collecting debts to pay for his wife’s expensive fertility treatments. His eventual attempt to break free from a life of violent crime will test his loyalties and force a difficult choice: does he protect his family or betray his friends? This film won two Israeli Academy Awards, including for best actor.
Shown on Thursday, November 16, at the Edgewater Multiplex Cinemas (339 River Road).
Finally, “Past Life”: Two Israeli sisters must unravel the mysteries of what their father did or did not do during World War II.
Producer David Milch will be the special guest on Sunday, November 19, during the festival’s closing presentation, at the Kaplan JCC on the Palisades, 411 E. Clinton Ave in Tenafly.