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A life onscreen

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The Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival puts the Jewish experience front and center

By MAX SPARBER

Jewish filmmakers can be strangely touchy about Jewish subjects. Although arguably the first film blockbuster was an explicitly Jewish story — 1927’s The Jazz Singer, about a cantor’s son — it’s surprising how often films have minimized or even suppressed Jewish content.

Jewish actors changed their names and passed themselves off as Italian. As an example, there was the star of the original Scarface, Paul Muni, who was born Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund and got his start in Yiddish theater.

The Women’s Balcony, a film about Orthodox Jewish women in Israel, screens as part of the TC Jewish Film Festival. (Photo: Pie Films)

Stories that had originated as Jewish somehow became decidedly non-Jewish in their transition to the screen, such as the novel City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder by Herman Wouk, which was made into a film titled Her First Romance, with the titular city boy not only losing his religion but also swapping gender; he was now played by Margaret O’Brien.

I don’t know why this is. Herman Wouk wrote another novel with scenes set at a Jewish summer camp, Marjorie Morningstar, which was made into a 1958 movie with its Judaism intact; there is even a Bar Mitzva scene. The film opened to impressive, if short-lived, sales and was nominated for an Oscar.

Thank goodness for programs like the Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival, which unapologetically puts the Jewish experience at the forefront. For 24 years, it has been making the case that Jewish stories are excellent fodder for cinema and Jewish characters are worth representing onscreen. As a result, the festival has allowed Jews to see themselves reflected back as complex and diverse.

This year’s festival, as an example, includes the film The Women’s Balcony (March 19 at the Sabes JCC), which has Sephardic  Orthodox Jewish women as its main characters — a group not usually represented in film. The movie, by Israeli filmmakers Shlomit Nehama and Emil Ben-Shimon, tells of a rift in a synagogue.

In the film, the balcony that held women worshippers has collapsed. Rather than repair it, a new ultra-Orthodox rabbi relegates women into a claustrophobic antechamber while at the same time insisting on outdated standards of modesty. The women rebel in comical ways, buoyed by the fact that they are largely played by female comedians.

The festival also includes the story of Bert Berns, who should be better-known. Berns was a songwriter with deep connections to the mob. The documentary, title Bang! The Bert Berns Story (March 25 at the St. Paul JCC), looks at this unfairly obscure hitmaker, whose songs included “Twist and Shout,” “Hang on Sloopy,” and “Under the Boardwalk.”

Documentarian Bob Sarles and Brett Berns (Bert’s son) retells the fascinating story of Berns, who survived childhood illness to become a powerhouse in the world of pop music, only to have his relationship with mobsters take a terrible toll on his life and health.

This year’s festival has several offerings that address the Holocaust, including their opening night film, The Zookeeper’s Wife (March 18 at Hopkins Cinema 6), which tells the true story of Antonina Żabińska (played by Jessica Chastain), who saved a number of Jews in Warsaw by hiding them in her family’s zoo. There is also The Children of Chance (March 19 at the Sabes JCC), set in a children’s hospital in Nazi-occupied France; and 1945 (March 19 at the Sabes JCC), in which a small European town fears a pair of Jewish interlopers may have come to demand the return of goods stolen during the war

In a related offering, the festival will also be screening Escape from Room 18 (March 23 at the St. Paul JCC), loosely inspired by the true story of a neo-Nazi who fled to Israel after his gang turns on him when they discover he is actually Jewish.

Visit tcjfilmfest.org or call 952-381-3499 for tickets and showtimes

(American Jewish World, 3.10.17)

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