The 20th annual New Jersey Jewish Film Festival had been scheduled to begin on March 19, 2020 at the JCC MetroWest in West Orange.
A certain virus had other plans, and a week before the opening the organizers “made the difficult decision to shut it down,” Sarah Diamond, the festival’s director, recalled last week.
Instead, after regrouping and figuring out how to run a virtual film festival, the JCC streamed films for six weeks in July and August.
Now it’s film festival time again, and for its 21st season, the Jewish Film Festival is going all in on the streaming.
The festival includes 15 feature films and several shorts — fewer than in a normal year, reflecting the different dynamics of making films available online, each for 48 hours, spread over a few weeks, rather than squeezing 20 features into a 10-day period in the theater.
Ms. Diamond acknowledges that it will be hard to replicate the community feeling that people get in the real-world film festivals, as they chat in the lobby after a screening. But the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival will try, with an open Zoom link every Monday afternoon “where people can talk about whatever film they like.”
One advantage of going virtual is that it’s easier to bring in people — often a film’s director — from around the country to talk to the audience. The festival has scheduled the question-and-answer section for a day or two after the film first becomes available.
“The only exception is the opening night,” Ms. Diamond said. “A Call to Spy” is the opening film of the festival, first screening on Sunday, February 28. Buying a ticket lets you watch it for 48 hours beginning at 8 a.m. on that day — all the films become available at 8 a.m. — and the film’s director, Lydia Dean Pilcher, and one of its actors, Samuel Roukin, will join a conversation on Zoom at 7 p.m. that evening.
Ms. Pilcher co-directed the film “Radium Girls.” “A Call to Spy” is a thriller based on the stories of women who spied in Nazi-occupied France during World War II.
On Monday morning, the second film, “An Army of Lovers in the Holy Land,” launches. It’s an Israeli-made documentary about “An Army of Lovers,” a 1980s Swedish disco trio whose front man, Jean-Pierre Barda, makes aliyah, leading to the group’s first concert in Israel. In 1991 the band’s song “Crucified” reached number one on the Belgian charts. The group’s 1993 song “Israelism” featured the Hebrew song “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” alongside lyrics such as “Like Aunt Golda high on Zion/Milk and honey are my drugs.”
Mr. Barda and filmmaker Asaf Galay will have a live Q&A on Zoom at noon on Thursday, March 4.
On Tuesday, March 2, “Liberation Heroes: The Last Eyewitnesses” is a serious look at the American soldiers who liberated the Nazi concentration camps. “It’s a mixture of talking heads footage” — from Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive interviews — “and footage the soldiers took when they were liberating the camps,” Ms. Diamond said.
Ms. Diamond describes “The Crossing,” starting on Thursday, March 4, as “a beautiful story.” It’s a Norwegian film about Christian children rescuing Jewish children from the Nazis and getting them across the border into neutral Sweden.
On Friday, March 5, “Here We Are” has its New Jersey premiere at the festival. It’s an Israeli Hebrew-language film that swept Israel’s 2020 academy awards (for best director, best screenplay, best actor, and best supporting actor) about a father who has devoted his life to raising his autistic son, who is now in his twenties. The mother is divorced from the father and has arranged for the son to move to a group home. The father insists the son is not ready. An adventure ensues. “It’s a really, really nice film,” Ms. Diamond says.
The next week, an Israeli documentary, “Leaving Paradise,” begins on Monday, March 8. Filmmaker Ofer Freiman will join a Zoom Q&A session on Tuesday, March 9, at noon. In the film, a Brazilian Jewish family moves from the big city to establish a communal farm. Then some of the children decide to move to Israel, upsetting their parents.
Another South American film also will be shown beginning on March 9. “The House at Wannsee Street” is about filmmaker Poli Mart’nez Kaplun’s family. “The family moved to Argentina from Germany in 1936,” Ms. Diamond said. “Her family really pulled away from being Jewish. We see the exploration of their Jewish identity. The filmmaker’s son decides he wants to be bar mitzvahed, even though they’re secular. We see the filmmaker and her mother going through old boxes the mother had no interest in going through. They learn about the family’s life in Germany before the Nazis, why they left, and about their Jewish identity in Argentina.” There will be a Zoom session with Poli Martinez Kaplun at 1:15 p.m. on Wednesday, March 10.
That Wednesday also will mark the New Jersey premiere of “The Prophet,” a documentary about Rabbi Meir Kahane. The director, Ilan Rubin Fields, will take questions on Thursday, March 11, at noon.
“The Sign Painter” begins screening on Thursday, March 11. It’s a Latvian tragicomedy about a young artist amid his country’s post-World War II upheavals.
“It was a unanimous decision we had to show this film. They all loved it,” Ms. Diamond said of the committee that previewed a hundred films to draw up the festival’s roster.
“Sublet,” which begins on Friday, March 12, won the audience award for best narrative feature at the 2020 Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival. It is the latest offering from Israeli director Eytan Fox, perhaps best known for his 2002 “Yossi & Jagger” and his 1994 “The Song of the Siren.” The new film has been described as “a lively look at contemporary life in Tel Aviv and Israel.” Mr. Fox will take questions on Zoom on Monday, March 15, at noon.
“Mayor,” which begins screening on Sunday, March 14, is about Musa Hadid, the mayor of the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank.
“It follows the mayor around,” Ms. Diamond said. “At the beginning, they’re trying to work on their marketing campaign. What should Ramallah’s slogan be to attract tourists?”
“On Broadway” is a 2019 documentary about musical theater by filmmaker Oren Jacoby. Like several other films, it will be preceded by a short, in this case the animated film “The Fiddle.” The two begin streaming on Monday, March 15.
On Wednesday, March 17, three short films (total run time only 60 minutes) will air, including one that’s very close to home. “Stranger/Sister” is about two New Jersey women, Sheryl Olitzky of North Brunswick and Atiya Aftab of South Brunswick, and how they founded the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a network of grassroots Jewish-Muslim interfaith groups. The two women and the filmmaker will take questions on Thursday, March 18 at 7 p.m. Among the films being streamed with “Stranger/Sister” is “Bounty: The Woman Who Heard Too Much.”
“It’s a video collage that alters a scene with Doris Day from Hitchcock’s ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much” to tell the story of a Jewish mother overcome by emotion at a live performance of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” Ms. Diamond said.
“Code Name: Ayalon” is a documentary about a secret underground bullet factory where the Haganah illegally made ammunition before Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. It begins showing on Thursday, March 18. “It’s a mixture of interviews of people who worked there then and reenactments,” Ms. Diamond said.
The closing film is “A Starry Sky Above the Roman Ghetto,” an Italian drama. Released just last month, it streams beginning Friday, March 19.
“It’s about a high school student who finds a suitcase in her attic,” Ms. Diamond said. “In it is a letter and a picture of a girl, Sarah Cohen. The movie is about her quest to find this Sarah Cohen and find out her story.”
Giulio Base, who wrote and directed the film and also acted in it, will join the festival for a Zoom conversation on Sunday, March 21, at 10 a.m.
Tickets are $12 per film; sponsors, beginning at $300 donations, get access to all the films. For more information to purchase tickets, visit jccmetrowest.org.