The Jewish heart of the Jerusalem Film Festival

The 2018 Jerusalem Film Festival, which opens on July 26 and runs through August 5 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque and other venues around the city, has always featured movies that illuminate Jewish life and history.

The festival will open with a screening on Thursday night at the Sultan’s Pool Amphitheater of a new Israeli film about the founding of the Shas party in Jerusalem more than 30 years ago, Eliran Malka’s Unorthodox, starring Shuli Rand. The film is opening this week at theaters around Israel.

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The festival’s late founder and director, Lia van Leer, made sure that Jewish-themed films always had a central place in the festival lineup. Van Leer came to what was then Palestine from Romania (an area that is now Moldova) nearly 80 years ago and was here when she learned that most of her family had been murdered in the Holocaust. While she made the Jerusalem Film Festival into an important event on the world cinema scene, her very Jewish experiences and world view always informed the festival.

One of the most important categories is always The Jewish Experience. The Joan Sourasky-Constantiner Jewish & Holocaust Cinema Foundation and the Yad Vashem Visual Center presents awards in the Jewish Experience competition, one of which, the Lia Award for films dealing with Jewish heritage, is named for van Leer. There is also the Avner Shalev Yad Vashem Chairman’s Award, for artistic achievement in Holocaust-related film. Both of these awards are endowed by Michaela and Leon Constantiner, USA.

In addition to the opening-night film which deals with the political awakening of religious, Mizrahi Jews, several of the movies in the Haggiag competition for full-length Israeli feature films touch on explicitly Jewish themes and are included in the Jewish Experience category.

Among these is Tsivia Barkai’s Red Cow, which gives viewers a glimpse into an unusual world, that of messianic- minded national religious Jews. It tells the story of a teenage girl whose father is convinced that the calf he is raising is the legendary red heifer which he believes will bring the coming of the Messiah. His daughter finds herself sexually and romantically drawn to a young woman in the program where she studies and where her father teaches.

Yossi Madmony and Boaz Yehonatan Yacov’s Redemption looks at a rock musician who has become religious and how he is drawn back into the world of music to try to raise money for medical treatment for his daughter.

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The Jewish Experience section presents feature films from around the world. These include Eric Barbier’s Promise at Dawn, a dramatization of the life of the celebrated author Romain Gary, which stars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Pierre Niney.

Christian Petzold will attend the festival and be present at screenings of his latest film, Transit, a contemporary reworking of a novel about refugees fleeing the Nazis. One of his previous films, Phoenix, about a woman disfigured during the Holocaust who comes back to Germany to confront the husband who turned her in but who no longer recognizes her, will also be shown.

The section features some fascinating documentaries on a variety of topics. These include Uri Barbash’s Black Honey, The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutskever, about the man considered by many to be the greatest Yiddish poet of modern times. The film describes his amazing exploits, including how he led an underground movement to save Jewish manuscripts from the Nazis and survived World War II thanks to Stalin, who rescued him via private plane, before the poet immigrated to Israel in 1947.

One of the greatest Israeli movie directors of all time, comedian and actor Uri Zohar, left the entertainment scene abruptly in the late 1970s when he became an ultra-Orthodox rabbi. Dani Rosenberg and Yaniv Segalovich’s documentary, Zohar, the Return, is a portrait of this fascinating figure as he chooses to return to moviemaking with a religiously uplifting film.

The Interpreter, directed by Martin Šulík, is a documentary about an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor who reads a book by a former SS officer, realizes that this is the man who executed his parents and sets out to take revenge. After he locates the SS officer’s estranged son, the son joins him on his quest and becomes his interpreter.

Rüdiger Suchsland, the director of Hitler’s Hollywood, a documentary about the Nazi movie propaganda machine, will be present at the festival to talk about his movie.

For more details and to order tickets, go to the festival website at http://jff.org.il/en