Diversity takes a starring role at JFilm festival

Diversity takes a starring role at JFilm festival

Volunteer pilots who helped establish the Israeli air force in 1948 are the subject of “Above and Beyond,” a documentary produced by Nancy Spielberg.  (Photo provided by jfilmpgh.org)
Volunteer pilots who helped establish the Israeli air force in 1948 are the subject of “Above and Beyond,” a documentary produced by Nancy Spielberg. (Photo provided by jfilmpgh.org)

JFilm will open its 22nd annual festival on April 16 with the Pittsburgh premiere of “The Last Mentsch,” a whimsical film about a Holocaust survivor coming to terms with his past, and will continue through April 26, showcasing 19 additional Pittsburgh premieres, ranging from documentaries to romantic comedies.

The films were selected to ensure a diversity of themes and countries of origin, according to Kathryn Spitz Cohan, executive director of JFilm. Works from eight countries, including Bulgaria, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Hungary, the United Kingdom and the United States, will be showcased.

The Manor Theatre in Squirrel Hill continues to be the primary venue for the festival this year, but some showings will be held at the Carmike 10 at South Hills Village in Bethel Park; Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside; Seton Hill University in Greensburg; and Water-works Cinemas near Aspinwall.

Guest speakers will be featured following some of the films, including Nancy Spielberg, the producer of “Above and Beyond,” a documentary about the formation of the Israeli Air Force. Several films will be followed by panel discussions or small informal gatherings called Film Schmoozes.

One significant panel discussion, Spitz Cohan said, will follow the April 19 screening of “The Farewell Party,” a dark comedy about euthanasia that earned two Israeli Academy Awards. Experts, including Dr. Bob Arnold, a professor in the division of General Internal Medicine, Department of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and in the University of Pittsburgh Center for Bioethics and Health Law, will speak on end-of-life care.

Pittsburgh is home to several annual film festivals of different themes, and the directors of those festivals have been working together to raise the profile of independent film in the Steel City, said Spitz Cohan.

JFilm is clearly doing its part to raise that profile with its offerings this month. Reviews of three of the films follow. For a complete schedule and to view trailers, go to jfilmpgh.org.

‘Above and Beyond’

(87 minutes)

>> April 19, 7 p.m. at Rodef Shalom

>> April 20, 7 p.m. at The Manor

    for private Women’s Philanthropy Spring event

Producer Nancy Spielberg will speak following both screenings.

Producer Nancy Spielberg agrees that the now nonagenarians featured in her award-winning documentary about the genesis of the Israeli Air Force are most definitely heroes.

“But they are ordinary guys at the same time,” noted Spielberg, speaking from Phoenix, where she spent Passover with her family, including her brother, filmmaker Steven.

And it’s true. Spielberg’s interviews with the American pilots — who secretly smuggled planes out of the United States and trained behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia so that they could fly for Israel in its War of Independence — create a picture of a gang of guys who would have given their life for Israel, but liked to have a good time too. We not only hear about the daring aerial maneuvers and the near-miraculous victories over well-equipped Arab militias, but we also hear about the escapades of these men, the partying and their female conquests, in interviews that are equal parts entertainment and serious historic documentation.

Spielberg was inspired to make the film after reading an obituary for Al Schwimmer, a flight engineer for TWA who is credited with assembling the team of American World War II vets who established an air force for the fledgling Jewish state in 1948.

“Al Schwimmer told Ben-Gurion, if you don’t have an air force, you don’t have a shot,” Spielberg said. “The story just grabbed me.”

Once Spielberg decided to make the film, she knew she would have to get moving quickly to collect the oral histories, which her director, Roberta Grossman, called “endangered interviews.”

“We had to act fast,” Spielberg said. Because of the ages of their subjects, the filmmakers were concerned with the possibility of the men becoming sick, losing their memories or dying.

“We were chasing the grim reaper,” she said. “We had to get them while they could still be accurate.”

In fact, two of the pilots who Spielberg captured on film, George Lichter and Coleman Goldstein, have died since the filming.

What Spielberg has created is a riveting tale of bravery, colored by some big personalities, and enhanced by special effects courtesy of Light & Magic, the special effects house founded by George Lucas.

Besides winning the Audience Award for Best Documentary at numerous film festivals around the country — including Atlanta, Palm Beach, Fla., and Philadelphia — Spielberg has received accolades from fans including former Vice President Walter Mondale and actor Kirk Douglas, as well as her famous brother.

“He’s so proud of me,” Spielberg said. “He keeps showing the film to people.”

‘The Farewell Party’

(90 minutes. In Hebrew with subtitles)

>> April 19, 3:30 p.m. at The Manor

A panel discussion on end-of-life care will follow the film.

A group of elderly residents in a retirement home in Jerusalem opt to take charge of both life and death in this sometimes humorous, but deeply sad Israeli film written and directed by Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit.

Amateur inventor Yehezkel and his friends, Max, Yana and Dr. Daniel, are offended by the indignities resulting from doctors’ efforts to keep the dying alive at all costs, and come up with a machine to allow those in despair to die on their own terms.

“They’re keeping him alive, as if dying is a crime,” says Yana of her husband, who has developed a debilitating illness, is suffering and only wants it to end.

After the friends assist Max in taking his own life, word gets out in their retirement community, and their services become sought after by others.

Yehezkel’s wife, Levana, is morally outraged. Afflicted with mild dementia that is progressing, she has some of the film’s most impactful lines. She speaks on the value of life, and its possibilities, even in the face of despair.

“Some people can only move a finger,” she observes, “and write books about the universe.”

Her attitude takes a turn, though, after she visits a care facility for those with dementia and realizes that she will be headed there before too long herself.

While the film boasts some very funny and unexpected scenes — such as the one where the friends try to make Levana feel less ashamed after she mindlessly enters the dining room naked — it also is effective in generating contemplation on the very nature of existence, not to mention the power of love.

‘Anywhere Else’

(87 minutes, with subtitles)

>> April 23, 9:15 p.m. at The Manor

Moviegoers might assume a film that follows a young Jewish woman from Berlin to Israel must necessarily incorporate themes of redemption.

In the case of “Anywhere Else” that assumption would be correct, but not for the reasons one might think.

This humorous drama, which has its Pittsburgh premiere on April 23 at The Manor, opens with grad student Noa (Neta Riskin) living with her German boyfriend, a trombonist named Jorg (Golo Euler), in an apartment in the capital of Germany while working on her thesis: an attempt to define words of various languages that are, simply put, indefinable.

But words begin to fail Noa as her thesis comes under criticism from her supervisors at the university, and things turn tense with Jorg. She begins to feel a longing for something that cannot be described, and heads back for a surprise visit to her dysfunctional family in Israel, which includes her controlling mother, critical sister, a brother that is having a hard time in the army, and a dear, dying bubbie.

When Noa calls Jorg and he asks where she is, she responds: “I’m home.”

No, he responds. I’m home, and you are not here.

Jorg shows up unannounced to visit Noa in Israel, and their relationship with each other and with themselves becomes even more complicated. His visit coincides with Yom HaZikaron and Yom Haat-zmaut, the two days when nationalism is at a peak in the Jewish state. While Jorg appears to want to embrace the Israeli culture of his girlfriend, he cannot seem to shake off the weight of German history.

Directed by Ester Amrami, herself an Israeli living in Berlin, the dialogue of the film switches from English to German to Hebrew to Yiddish, which is a clever ploy in a movie that focuses so much on the limitations of language.  Furthering that theme, Amrami also includes Noa’s filmed interviews with native speakers of languages ranging from Portuguese to Arabic discussing the words of their mother tongues that are untranslatable.

There’s a lot going on in this film. And although there are no laugh-out-loud scenes, ultimately, Amrami does treat viewers to a lighter yet thought-provoking look at cross-culturalism and belonging.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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