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Charlotte Jewish Film Festival comes of age

by Michael J. Solender

February 23, 2012

8th season showcases powerful dramas, perseverance

Charlotte Jewish Film Festival Feb. 25 – March 11

Film festivals are grand experiments for curators and audiences alike. Organizers look for connections among films that relate to each other and an overarching theme that, however tenuously, ties the films together. Filmgoers look to festivals as an opportunity to dive deeper into a particular genre, take advantage of particular films as catalysts for discussion, and experience supplemental film programming while exploring back stories from those with specialized expertise. For both, the festival is an opportunity to realize the promise of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

Charlotte’s Jewish Film Festival, now launching its eighth season, delivers on this count, coming into its own in as a fixture in Charlotte’s spring calendar. The CJFF is maturing as a regional film event that offers attendees the opportunity to tie into significant cultural offerings, participate in interfaith discussions, gain insight into filmmaking from experts, and explore iconic popular culture.

Festival chair Jeff Turk said the selection committee works hard each year to select not only films that illuminate the Jewish expertise, but also those that reach broadly across religious lines and speak to the human experience.

“We know from our surveys that festival attendance from non-Jews and secular audience has grown annually,” said Turk. “I believe this is because of the universal appeal in the story lines of the films we present and the overall quality of the films we screen.”

Whereas last year’s festival was documentary-heavy, this year’s festival is the year of the drama. Seven of the 10 films presented are dramas. The other three are documentaries and for the first time in several years, the festival will not feature a full-length comedy as part of its offerings.

A special guest writer

Those with a proclivity for humor will not be shortchanged as one of the brightest programming spots over the two-week series is an in-depth conversation with Mike Reiss, the longtime writer/producer of the Emmy winning Fox animated television series The Simpsons.

Reiss will host “Jews in Toons: An animated evening of entertainment” at the Levine JCC in Shalom Park on the closing evening of the festival - Sunday, March 11, at 7 p.m. He will share rare clips and inside stories from one of TV’s longest running animated series.

No stranger to film festivals, Reiss appeared at last year’s Jewish Film Festival in San Francisco where he brought down the sold-out house. As the former editor for both the Harvard Lampoon and National Lampoon, Reiss’ talk wields his own brand of sarcastic and occasionally adults-only humor in enlightening audiences about the nuances of “The Simpsons and Other Jewish Families.”

Emotional investment 

It is in the dramas, however, where this year’s festival will undoubtedly make its most lasting impression. No film more so than opening night’s La Rafle (The Round Up). This French war drama, made in 2010, captures the harrowing story of the 1942 Nazi roundup of more than 13,000 French Jews as told through the eyes of one Jewish child. Known historically as the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup, named so for the the Paris bicycle racetrack and stadium which served as the departure point for the arrested Jews being sent to concentration camps, this black page in French history is depicted through both the horror and the courage that arose in defiance.

Holocaust-oriented films are seldom the deliberate first choice among viewers. There must be a reason to see a film that tells, graphically and personally, stories of human depravity, cruelty, and criminal activity beyond what most of us can comprehend. For today’s filmmaker capturing the Shoah, the Jewish Holocaust of 6 million killed, some new insight or perspective must be brought to bear for today’s audiences to invest emotionally in experiencing a film such as La Rafle.

Writer, director, and producer Rose Bosch has managed to find not only a story that has been all but overlooked in most historical accounts, but a perspective and voice that grabs hold of viewer in the first scene and doesn’t let go until long after the credits have finished rolling.

Parisian Melanie Laurent (one of the stars of Inglorious Bastards) as Nurse Monod gives an Oscar-worthy performance as one of a handful of caregivers providing aid to the thousands of displaced French Jews who were housed like cattle in the Velodrome awaiting their disposition. She serves as the film’s conscience and gives a face to the countless French partisans and resistance fighters who called upon their government to do the right thing only to be ignored.

La Rafle is an important film that should be seen. It will screen on Saturday, Feb. 25, at 7:30 p.m. at Regal Ballantyne Village Stadium Five.

Another dramatic festival highlight is the Argentine drama Anita. This film also depicts tragic consequences of politically inspired violence, yet leaves viewers inspired and joyous at the triumphs of the eponymous special needs character played deftly by Alejandro Manzo, a Down syndrome sufferer. This film screens at Regal Ballantyne Village Stadium Five on Sunday, Feb. 26, at 2 p.m.

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness is a very recent (2011) U.S. documentary on the literary genius behind Fiddler on the Roof and countless other humorous tales of Jewish life at the turn of the century. Sholem Aleichem was widely known as the “Jewish Mark Twain” and this comprehensive biography details his rollercoaster ride to success as well as the story of an entire generation of immigrants discovering America and making their mark. This wonderful film will be shown on Saturday, March 3 at Temple Israel, Shalom Park at 7:30 p.m.

In what has been a steady and deliberate effort to secure the best films and programming available, the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival after eight years is clearly coming of age.

 

For more information on tickets, complete schedule and programming visit the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival website.

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