Movie-loving Pittsburghers may want to clear their calendars for the last two weeks of March, as the big screen lineup rolled out by the JFilm Festival promises to deliver a smorgasbord of films that probably should not be missed.
From the first-ever Israeli horror film, to episodes of the acclaimed Israeli version of the sitcom “Friends,” to a documentary exposing sexual abuse in the modern Orthodox community of Baltimore, this year’s 20 offerings look to be eclectic, moving and, above all, entertaining.
“This year’s films blew us out of the water,” said Kathryn Spitz Cohan, executive director of JFilm Pittsburgh. “They are all significant.”
The festival will open Thursday, March 15, at the SouthSide Works Cinema, with “Prima Primavera,” a road-trip movie with Hungarian subtitles, exploring the relationship between an unlikely pair of traveling companions, fleeing bank robbers through the Bulgarian and Serbian countryside.
“I think it will have a wide appeal,” Spitz Cohan said of the film, which her committee of 50 enthusiastically chose to open the festival. “It’s a little quirky, it’s charming, it’s tongue-in-cheek. And it has a very nice message.”
A reception will follow the film, with live music by Dennis Kurzawski on clarinet and Douglas Levine on keyboard.
In addition to screening films, JFilm, in collaboration with various community partners, will bring in several relevant speakers and host a range of discussions.
In partnership with the University of Pittsburgh, JFilm is bringing director and concert pianist Lincoln Mayorga to speak and play after the Pittsburgh premiere of “A Suitcase Full of Chocolate.” The documentary, which will be screened at the Frick Fine Arts Building on the Pitt campus, tells the story of Sofia Cosma, a child prodigy born in Latvia, who won renown in a Viennese piano competition in 1933. After witnessing Hitler’s invasion of Austria in 1938, she was forced to spend seven years in a Soviet prison. Remarkably, after the war, she went on to resume her career as a celebrated concert pianist.
Also in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh, JFilm will continue its popular Film Schmooze events, at which experts lead small group discussions at a coffee shop following the screening of a film. Film Schmooze will be offered for a few films this year, including “Connected,” a funny documentary about our love/hate relationship with technology, and “Mabul (The Flood),” an award-winning drama in which the flood of the Torah becomes an allegory for the events befalling a dysfunctional Israeli family.
The Festival will also be showing two episodes of “Srugim,” the popular Israeli television series that follows the lives of a group of 30-something modern Orthodox singles as they navigate their lives in contemporary Jerusalem. The groundbreaking show has been compared to the U.S. sitcom “Friends.” The series’ creator and director, Eliezer Shapiro, will speak following the screening.
“This show took Israel by storm,” Spitz Cohan said. “It is extremely popular. I’ve known about the director since JFilm showed ‘Eicha,’ his student film [at a kickoff party for the 2003 festival]. I’ve been interested in bringing him to Pittsburgh since that time. We’ve been following his career.”
Also on the slate is the Pittsburgh premiere of “Rabies,” Israel’s first horror film, featuring a cast of Israel’s most popular actors. The film will be followed by “Can you Say Texas Chainsaw Massacre in Yiddish?: Thinking about Jewish Horror,” a discussion with Jeremy Dauber of Columbia University, and Adam Lowenstein, of the University of Pittsburgh.
While several lighter films are scheduled, JFilm’s selections this year are weighted toward dramas and documentaries, said Iris Samson, chair of JFilm.
“It’s a little bit less comedy, and a little bit more dramatic,” Samson said. “The filmmakers are going less for yuks, and more for serious subjects.”
One of the more solemn topics examined in this year’s lineup is sexual abuse in an Orthodox community in Baltimore.
“Standing Silent” follows Phil Jacobs, a longtime writer for the Baltimore Jewish Times, as he reports on sexual abuse in an observant community of which he is a member. Jacobs names the names of the accused perpetrators of sexual abuse, and they include some well-respected rabbis.
“We can’t pretend these things don’t exist,” Samson said. “No community is immune. If we pretend it (sexual abuse) doesn’t exist, we disempower the victims, and allow the perpetrators to win. The community doesn’t have to be ashamed of it, but it has to face it.”
“We are not showing the film to point any fingers,” Spitz Cohan added, “but to expose a very important issue that must be talked about. After the film, a panel will talk about what we are doing in Pittsburgh to help survivors [of abuse], and discuss whether we are taking any steps to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
The festival will conclude with “Circus Kids,” which will be free to the public, thanks to underwriting by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh in celebration of its centennial anniversary.
“Circus Kids” is a documentary following a youth circus troupe from St. Louis to Pittsburgh’s sister city of Karmiel/Misgav to work with the Galilee Circus, a group made up of Israeli and Arab youth from the region. The film shows the teens learning to embrace each other’s similarities and differences while working and performing together.
“ ‘Circus Kids’ is a wonderful convergence of coincidence,” said Spitz Cohan, noting that the federation will be taking its Partnership mission to see the Galilee Circus this summer.
While admission to “Circus Kids” is free, reservations are required because seating is limited.
With its varied selection of films, the appeal of this year’s festival should be wide.
“It’s just a great lineup,” Samson said. “I’m really excited about it. You don’t have to be Jewish to come to the Jewish Film Festival.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)