JFilm opens its 25th annual festival on April 26 at the SouthSide Works Cinema with the Pittsburgh premiere of “Heading Home: A Tale of Team Israel,” a film about Jewish baseball players who travel to Israel together, many connecting with their heritage for the first time. The opening will be followed by a Q&A with Pittsburgh sports writer Jonathan Mayo, who traveled with the players to the Jewish state, and a pop-up after-party.
The festival will continue through May 6, showcasing 20 films — mostly Pittsburgh premieres — ranging from a documentary about the Oslo Accords to a drama about a German baker grieving the loss of his closeted Israeli lover.
The films come from around the world, including Germany, Israel, Argentina and Belguim.
Reviews of five of the films follow. For a complete schedule and to view trailers, go to filmpittsburgh.org/festivals/jfilm-festival/.
‘Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel’
April 26, 7 and 7:30 p.m. at Southside Works Cinema
Followed by a Q&A with Jonathan Mayo and a pop-up after-party across from the theater. OPENING NIGHT.
They really knocked it out of the park with this film’s title. “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” is a recounting of the 2017 World Baseball Classic and Team Israel’s historic run.
Prior to competition, ESPN lampooned the group’s chances and wrote, “If you aren’t familiar with Team Israel, it’s essentially the Mighty Ducks, Hickory High and the Jamaican bobsled team all rolled into one…Of the 16 nations represented in this year’s WBC, Israel was the very last one in and is the only participant not currently among the top 20 in the world rankings. (It’s No. 41, just behind baseball powerhouses such as Poland and the Ukraine.)”
Yet, as the documentary delightfully shares, Team Israel knocked off South Korea (ranked No. 3), Chinese Taipei (ranked No. 4), the Netherlands (ranked No. 9) and Cuba (ranked No. 5) before striking out against the Netherlands (in a subsequent matchup) and Japan (ranked No. 1).
That Team Israel mowed down more favored opponents and finished sixth overall should be celebrated, and this film does a wonderful job recording those statistics. Where the documentary misses is in delivering a message as pioneering as the players’ accomplishments.
The movie’s concluding moments field a voiceover from Ryan Lavarnway, a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, alongside a montage of highlights and “Hatikvah”: “Not everybody on this team believes in Judaism. Not everyone on this team was raised Jewish.
There’s a couple of players that are married to Jewish women or had a Jewish grandparent but that didn’t matter two generations ago when the Nazis were grabbing you up based on the way you were born or based on your affiliation,” said the catcher. “We have the right to exist and you can’t deny the Jewish people the way that people in the course of history have tried to.”
The stirring teamwork of voice, sight and sound makes for a save (perhaps with the panache of Dennis Eckersley), but the film’s most honest moments arrive earlier as the team, which The New York Times considered “filled with minor leaguers, former major leaguers and baseball misfires, all of them Americans with enough Jewish heritage to play for Team Israel,” reacted to a Jerusalem-based terrorist attack in which four people were killed.
The documentarians capture the scene as players sit on a bus, gathered around a cell phone, watching footage of a driver barrel into unsuspecting pedestrians. The players are silent, except for the utterances: “Oh. God. That’s a big truck.”
For viewers, the seemingly wordless reaction to captured violence brings the players home.
Unlike MLB reporter, Steel City native and film producer Jonathan Mayo, who steals each of his scenes (sometimes in silence) with a palpable appreciation and excitement for the project’s prospects, Team Israel’s showcased talking heads are more muted throughout the documentary.
Ultimately, “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” is a victory. Those seeking an enjoyable retelling of several global days at the park will revel as if peanuts and Cracker Jack were free.
For others desiring a deeper cut into the story of American players representing Israel and the implications of that symbolic stance, the cinematographers never go past the warning track and instead collect some singles and doubles. But, as the movie alludes, small ball wins a lot of games. PJC
— Adam Reinherz
April 28, 5:30 p.m. at SouthSide Works Cinema
April 29, 11:00 a.m. at SouthSide Works Cinema
Both screenings will be followed by a Q&A with Erich Bergen (Jersey Boys, Madam Secretary, Gossip Girl, Desperate Housewives and Person Of Interest) who stars in “Humor Me.” PITTSBURGH PREMIERE.
Sam Hoffman’s directorial debut resembles the aging process: The ending is basically known but the trek still offers some surprise. “Humor Me” begins at a New York playwright’s nadir: His wife ran off with a French billionaire, she took the kid, and the protagonist has basically no money and nowhere to live.
Reluctantly, the lead retreats to a pull-out couch in the guest room of his father’s home. Adding insult to injury, or achy bones to a broken heart, the dad’s residence is located in a New Jersey retirement community. Given the motorized carts, lunchtime gatherings and late night romances, the transpiring episodes are perfectly describable as “humorous.”
Although the heartwarming comedy follows a conventional path where punchlines and plot devices are largely predictable, the material never goes grey. If anything, at its conclusion, “Humor Me” with all its alte kacker anecdotes ends up possessing a nice silvery mane. PJC
— Adam Reinherz
‘In a Dark Wood’
April 30, 7:30 p.m. at SouthSide Works Cinema
Followed by a Q&A with director David Bernabo and composer Mathew Rosenblum. WORLD PREMIERE.
Those lucky enough to have heard Matthew Rosenblum’s “Lament/Witches Sabbath” when it was performed live last January at the University of Pittsburgh likely remember a room whose stunned attendees rose, shook, sobbed and rejoiced at the sheer force of the composer’s work.
With its coalescence of a narrated family history flooded with Holocaust hauntings alongside the wailings of antiquated Ukrainian laments all evenly layered by the brilliant blasts from Grammy-nominated David Krakauer’s clarinet, Rosenblum’s piece pried open the soul as much as any great art is able.
“In a Dark Wood” chronicles the genesis of concept to construct while treating viewers to performance viewings and explanations from those principally involved in the composing, playing and recording of Rosenblum’s work. Although the explanatory cutaways afford technical insight into a laboriously formed whole, one is subtly reminded of “The Salon of 1859” and 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire’s diatribe on photography: “If it is permissible to encroach on the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary, on all that is only worth because man adds to it his soul, then woe to us!”
Viewers, even apart from musicians and the cultural cognoscenti, will enjoy the accessibility afforded by “In a Dark Wood,” as it masterfully captures a story and a sound whose sublimity stirred the spirit. But experiencing art is predicated on experience, or more simply, even the most beautiful reproduction is subject to the wisdom of Coca Cola: “Can’t beat the real thing.” PJC
— Adam Reinherz
‘Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me’
April 29, 7:00 p.m., SouthSide Works Cinema
Following this screening, director Sam Pollard will join the audience for a Q&A.
May 3, 7:00 p.m., AMC Mt. Lebanon 6
This screening is sponsored by South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh.
When Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax declined to start the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, he became a source of pride among Jews around the world.
But just a few years earlier, another famous Jew, Sammy Davis, Jr., also refused to work on Yom Kippur — while he was under contract with Samuel Goldwyn to star in the movie “Porgy and Bess.”
The film was already exceeding production costs, so Goldwyn was pretty unhappy that, in Davis’ own words, “this little shvartze” was making him lose even more money. Davis, however, held his ground, reminding Goldwyn that it had been negotiated into his contract that he would not work on the High Holidays.
Davis is widely remembered as one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century, an embodiment of 1960s’ cool along with fellow Rat Pack members Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. But in this first major documentary exploring the life of the one-eyed Jewish African-American icon, “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” audiences are introduced to Davis the rebel, the activist and the survivor — a true original who lived life according to his own rules.
We see clips of Davis as an already captivating performer at the age of 3, and follow his rise to stardom despite segregation and endemic prejudice. But while he was often viewed as a trailblazer, blurring boundaries between race, many saw him as a sell-out — as one of the film’s commenters describes: “a black person seeking white approval.”
Through interviews with historians, writers and celebrities who knew Davis — including Kim Novak, with whom he had a romantic relationship that the studios forced them to end — the entertainer is revealed to be as controversial as he was charismatic. To the dismay of his liberal friends and fans, he was famously photographed embracing President Richard Nixon at a rally in 1972, with one critic noting, “There are moments he behaved as the house Negro.” And yet he broke barriers, such as being the first African American to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.
As cinematic arts scholar Todd Boyd says in the film: “There were things about him that would infuriate you, and things that would make you stand up and applaud him.” PJC
— Toby Tabachnick
‘An Act of Defiance’
May 6, 7:00 p.m. Southside Works Cinema
In “An Act of Defiance,” director Jean van de Velde draws attention to some of the lesser-known heroes in the well-known story of the movement that ended apartheid in South Africa.
Set in 1963, the film focuses on the early years of the African National Congress, the party that eventually came to power in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president in South Africa. At the time, the South African regime was continuing to enforce discrimination and racism, the ANC was banned and the underground movement was beginning to gain momentum.
The film begins when several leaders of the ANC are arrested after the police raid their headquarters and accuse them of attempting to overthrow the government. It tells the story of the Rivonia Trial, in which Mandela was famously quoted saying he is “prepared to die” for the “ideal of a democratic and free society.”
Bram Fischer, the lawyer who takes on the case of the ANC organizers — including five white, Jewish men — becomes the focal point of the movie. The viewer watches as Fischer continuously endangers himself, his career and his friends and family to work alongside the underground movement.
Though you know that Fischer is able to protect the defendants from the death penalty from the very beginning, the film is in no way an uplifting story of success and at times can be difficult to stomach. An unexpected plot twist at the end of the movie shows even further how much Fischer and other activists risked to be a part of the anti-apartheid movement.
Plan to read up on the history of apartheid, Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress before the screening so that you can keep up with the historical references.
And be prepared to discuss racism, activism and government control afterward, as the movie certainly gives you a lot to think about. PJC
— Lauren Rosenblatt
This article has been updated to remove an incorrect listing for a showing of “In the Dark Wood.” The Chronicle regrets this error.