When is a Jewish movie a Jewish movie?
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When is a Jewish movie a Jewish movie?

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

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A still from “Let’s Go.”

I don’t quite get it.

The New York Jewish Film Festival opened on Wednesday, and it seems to me that about one third of the 47 films screened there are not Jewish movies. That doesn’t make much sense to me. When I go to see films at a Jewish film festival, I expect to see films that are in some way Jewish.

For me, a Jewish film is a movie about anything related to the Jewish experience. The 24th New York Jewish Film Festival is presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum. When I questioned Aviva Weintraub, who is the museum’s associate curator and the director of the festival, about the selection committee’s choices, she said, “Our goal is for the program as a whole to add up to more than the sum of the individual films. Each season, we strive to deepen the definition from the most obvious, evidently Jewish characters, Israel, and/or historical Jewish events to a broader perspective.”

Weintraub is one of the world’s best directors of Jewish film festivals, and over the years she has made the New York Jewish Film Festival a premier New York event; her selection committee also is outstanding. But I do not understand its thinking this year. I guess I am just frustrated that they do such a wonderful job, they house a world-class Lincoln Center event for two weeks, but they leave us short films that could be screened at any festival and that I think do not belong in a Jewish film festival.

Last year, the Jewish Film Festival celebrated German film director Wim Wenders and his landmark film, “Paris, Texas.” It asked him to select two more films to be screened at the festival. This year, as part of “Guest Selects,” Dallas-born Jewish filmmaker Jennie Livingston was invited to screen her important documentary about Harlem drag balls, “Paris Is Burning,” and to select two films that influenced her work. Livingston’s work is important, and it does deserve a film society’s attention and appreciation, but why highlight her work and screen this film at a Jewish film festival? Did I miss something? Why not use this “Guest Selects” concept to showcase the work of someone who produces Jewish work?

The answer seems to be that if someone is a Jew, her work is Jewish. If that is the case, why was Wim Winders chosen last year? I see this as missed opportunity. In addition, this year’s festival has “War Against War,” a compilation of antiwar films, and “New York Noir,” a tribute to film noir of the 1940s and ’50s. Both are made up of films that I would love to see, but do they really belong here?

The festival also is offering an opportunity to watch Ernst Lubitsch’s recently restored 1924 “Three Women,” another important film that deserves to be shown -but at a Jewish film festival? In Los Angeles, the Skirball Cultural Center is showcasing an exhibit on film noir and the impact that many Jewish émigrés – including Lubitsch – had on cinema, but there much attention is paid on how their Jewish background affected and changed the film form. That focus is completely missing here.

I express my frustration because what Ms. Weintraub and her selection committee do with the rest of the New York Jewish Film Festival is nothing short of amazing. Oh, if only all two weeks of it were filled with selections like those listed as main programs. At opening night, Israeli filmmakers Asaf Galay and Shaul Betser showed their film, “The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer,” where they dug into how the young and opinionated women who translated Singer’s work from Yiddish to English had a powerful affect on the Nobel Prize-winning author. The filmmakers provided a moving and insightful study into the man and the power of the translator. Other documentaries include the long-awaited world premiere of Joseph Dorman and Oren Rudavsky’s “The Zionist Idea,” which highlights broad ideological questions about the nature of Zionism. Dorman brought us “Arguing the World,” a fine work about four City College of New York-educated Jewish intellectuals of the 1930s, and “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness.” Rudavsky worked with Menachem Daum on “A Life Apart: Chasidism in America” and “Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust,” and now, working with Dorman, he gives us an excellent film; a panel discussion on the film will take place on January 25.

Another talented filmmaker, Roberta Grossman, whose previous works included “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh” and “Hava Nagila: The Movie” has a new film, “Above and Beyond,” produced by Nancy Spielberg, at the festival. It is about a group of Jewish American fighter pilots who helped mold Israel’s air force during the 1948 War of Independence; the film will be released theatrically in a few weeks and will be reviewed in an upcoming issue of the Jewish Standard.

In “Natan,” investigative documentarians David Cairns and Paul Duane provide a study of Bernard Natan, a Romanian Jew who became the head of the influential Pathé film studios, only to die forgotten during the Holocaust and almost erased from the history of French cinema. William Gazecki does a terrific job in looking at the life of the so-called “Queen of Vaudeville,” the theater, radio, and television icon Sophie Tucker, in “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker.”

Hilla Medalia opens a window into the rise and fall of Israeli film tycoon Menachem Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus, with “The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films.” German filmmaker Felix Moeller gives us a chance to take a deeper look at what remains of the 1,700 films produced in the Third Reich during World War II that are archived in “Forbidden Films.” Another documentary worth seeing is Erik Greenberg Anjou’s “The Deli Man,” about third-generation delicatessen man Ziggy Gruber. Anjou’s previous movies include “A Cantor’s Tale” and “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground.”

Several dramatic narrative films highlight the festival. A festival favorite, Argentine director Daniel Burman, returns with another comedy, “The Mystery of Happiness.” New Yorkers will have a chance to see Israel’s submission this year to the Oscars, “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”; the film, which is stunning, opens theatrically on February 13 and will be reviewed then. Acclaimed Israeli film director Amos Gitai’s “Tsili” is having its U.S. premiere at the festival. I admire Gitai’s work for his creative and avant-garde use of cinema stylistics, but I’m generally not fond of his films. “Tsili,” loosely based on an Aharon Appelfeld book, looks at the life of a young Jewish woman who survives the war by hiding in a forest. Breaking new ground in his extensive use of Yiddish, Gitai gives us a film that is visually stunning, with extended scenes that have little action, few words, and not much movement. It is classic Gitai – not for everyone!

German director Michael Verhoeven’s “Let’s Go,” about the daughter of concentration camp survivors who have chosen to stay in Germany, provides a commentary on postwar Germany and German Jews’ unique relationship with the country of their birth.

“Felix and Meira” will close the festival on January 29. By director Maxime Giroux, it is about an Orthodox Jewish wife and mother, marked by an undercurrent of rebelliousness, who meets Felix, a middle-aged atheist adrift without family ties. Set in the hipster Mile End neighborhood of Montreal, the film sets its sights on the social and religious boundaries that somehow constrict Meira. Actress Hadas Yaron was Shira in the acclaimed 2012 Israeli film about the chasidic world called “Fill the Void.” There, she was a devoted sister and daughter. This time, as Meira, she wants to break free. Like filmmakers before her, including Boaz Yakin with 1998’s “A Price Above Rubies” and Adam Vardy with his “Mendy” in 2003, Giroux is finding the exotic flavor of chasidic life provides a wonderful setting for movies about forbidden love.

As always, the New York Jewish Film Festival has an excellent mix of films. The festival, which began on Wednesday, January 14, continues through Thursday, January 29. I only wish that the selection committee would have placed more truly Jewish films at Lincoln Center during the two weeks of its run.

You can but tickets online or in person at the Film Society’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and Walter Reade Theater box offices at 144 and 165 West 65th Street. For more festival information, go to www.NYJFF.org.

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