JFilm will open its 23rd annual festival on April 7 with the Pittsburgh premiere of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” a candid look at the now nonagenarian who broke television barriers through his introduction of timeless characters and controversial topics in his sitcoms of the 1970s.
The festival will continue through April 17, showcasing 20 additional Pittsburgh premieres, ranging from a documentary about football in Israel to a comical farce about the Israel/Iran nuclear conflict.
The films come from around the world, including Poland, Israel, France and Morocco.
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; and Seton Hill University in Greensburg.
Guest speakers will be featured following some of the films, including the 2011 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic, Michael Solomonov, who grew up in Pittsburgh. Solomonov will speak following the April 13 screening of “In Search of Israeli Cuisine.”
Reviews of five of the films follow. For a complete schedule and to view trailers, go to jfilmpgh.org.
‘Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You’
April 7, 7 p.m. at The Manor
The Festival opens with this engaging documentary about the man who brought America such iconic and memorable characters as Archie Bunker and Kid Dyn-O-Mite and unabashedly brought to the fore issues such as racism, rape and abortion to a television audience ready to move beyond sitcoms about the upper-middle-class white American families in “Father Knows Best” and “Leave it to Beaver.”
While the documentary uses clips from several of Lear’s 1970s shows, including “The Jeffersons,” “Maude,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and, of course, “All in the Family,” the film is a tribute to Lear himself and a look at a man who came from humble Jewish roots but arguably opened the minds of an entire generation.
Lear is frank about the genesis of much of his work, including the creation of the character of Archie Bunker, based on his own father who was jailed for fraud when Lear was just 9 years old. Herman Lear, he explains, was a “man of supreme optimism” but who frequently told Lear’s mother to “stifle.”
The film examines many of the challenges Lear faced in producing his shows, including the need to convince Carroll O’Connor, who played Bunker, to commit to playing over-the-top bigotry, when O’Connor himself was a liberal.
Lear, still active and sharp into his 90s, reflects on his personal life and family, his early career as a writer working alongside Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, his work as an activist and founder of People for the American Way as well as his Jewishness and how that informed his creativity.
“To be a Jew was to be different,” he said, recalling hearing the brutal anti-Semitic remarks of Father Coughlin when he was just a child. “How… did I understand that? But I did. It never, ever left my mind.”
The film includes appearances by Lena Dunham, George Clooney, Amy Poehler and Jon Stewart.
— Toby Tabachnick
April 8, 5:30 p.m. at The Manor
It’s quite a premise: Zev, an old man with dementia who can barely remember that his wife is dead, is reminded by Max, a friend in his nursing home, that Zev promised her he would find the Nazi who murdered their families at Auschwitz and kill him. Max, who was also a prisoner in Auschwitz, lost his family at the hands of the same Nazi guard.
Armed with a detailed list of instructions prepared by Max, Zev heads out solo on a cross-country trek to find his target, now in his 90s — if he is even still alive — and living under an assumed name.
Christopher Plummer is outstanding in his portrayal of a man for whom loss of memory is perhaps a blessing, and Martin Landau adeptly handles the role of Max, confined to a wheelchair, yet in command of his faculties and driven toward revenge.
The film has a fable-like quality to it, as the idea of Zev being capable of successfully navigating visits to four different men throughout the country who may or may not be the Nazi for whom he is searching, seems far-fetched. The story becomes a sort of allegory for moral justice, though, colored by a pervasive anti-Semitism that remains in the heartland of America 70 years after the end of World War II.
But at its heart, “Remember” is a mystery thriller, leaving its viewers with an unexpected and startling conclusion and wondering if ever in life there are things that are best forgotten.
(81 minutes. In English and Hebrew with subtitles)
April 11, 7:15 p.m. at The Manor
>> A conversation with former Steeler Chris Hoke will follow the film.
This time football in Israel does not mean soccer. Over the past decade — largely through the support of the Kraft family (owners of the NFL’s New England Patriots) — the Israel Football League has grown. An offshoot of American Football in Israel (AFI) — a league that started in 1988 — the IFL has burgeoned from 25 players in Tel Aviv to over 600 players and 10 teams across the country.
‘Touchdown Israel’ chronicles this rise by interviewing those invested (physically, monetarily and emotionally) in the IFL. For the purposes of demonstrating the quality of play, the league’s success and the players’ commitment, snippets from Season 5 of the IFL are included.
Common to sports stories, a narrative of rivalry, commitment, sacrifice and glory is presented in this documentary. Playing to similar platitudes, director Paul Hirschberger posits football as a cultural melting pot. However, the bromide of brotherhood and team trumping nationality and belief is given its strongest challenge in a regionally appropriate scene where three players of different descent smoke hookah and discuss the meaning of hearing “Hatikvah” before a game.
While ‘Touchdown Israel’ offers moments of honest dialogue between players from differing backgrounds, these scenes are too often tackled by a larger portrayal of football in Israel.
Equally concerning is the lack of attention allocated to football related injuries. The contemporarily conscious viewer may feel deflated by an older generation’s nostalgic encouragement without ample education as to the game’s admitted effects.
‘Touchdown Israel’ is a fun look at a startup effort in a now established country. Though at points scrambling, the film will score with interested viewers.
>> Disclaimer: I played in the AFI in 2000-2001. I imagine there are no records to confirm this, as I was remarkably unremarkable.
‘In Search of Israeli Cuisine’
April 13, 7:30 p.m. at The Manor
>> A conversation with Michael Solomonov will follow the screening.
Israeli-born, Pittsburgh-raised chef Michael Solomonov travels throughout the Jewish state on a culinary adventure in this documentary sure to please those foodies with a passion for eclectic cuisine, as well as anyone interested in the cultural diversity of Israel.
The photography at the hands of director Roger Sherman is breathtaking, as Solomonov travels all over the country visiting restaurants as well as private homes, seeking to discover the defining essence of Israeli food.
Feeding his curiosity is a host of restaurateurs and chefs, as well as journalists and academics, weighing in on what exactly Israeli cuisine is in a country only 68 years old and made up of immigrants from a vast array of different cultures and backgrounds.
Solomonov, whose Philadelphia restaurant Zahav has been widely acclaimed, seems the perfect guide on this adventure, which proves that Israeli food is much more than hummus, falafel and grape leaves.
The film reaches beyond food, though, and gives a close-up look at the people who are making and eating that food. Viewers get a chance to visit those who are running vineyards, making cheese, baking artisanal bread and serving street food, as well as those in the kitchens of the fine restaurants of Tel Aviv.
Even food cannot escape the specter of politics in this region known for it volatility. There are some dishes, we learn, that the Palestinians have accused the Israelis of stealing, such as Israeli salad, and we hear of the challenges Palestinians have in getting a restaurant going in Israel that will attract Jewish customers.
We see how old world food is transformed for a more contemporary palate — like a raw white tuna take on traditional gefilte fish prepared by a chef of Turkish and Kurdish descent — in a country that is now looking at itself as a worldwide player in the field of trendy and high-quality cuisine.
Palestinian food, Ashkenazi food, Sephardic food, kosher food and nonkosher food—it is all Israeli in its own right, according to the findings of Solomonov.
— Toby Tabachnick
‘Plastic Man: The Artful Life of Jerry Ross Barrish’
(74 minutes. In English)
April 17, 12:30 p.m. at The Manor
>> Following the film, Jerry Barrish and producer Janis Plotkin join local artists Clayton Merrell and Carin Mincemoyer for a conversation about art.
Like the materials with which he works, Jerry Barrish is recycled. Initially a bail bondsman then a filmmaker and now a sculptor, Barrish embodies reinvention. Capturing the artist’s existence is the essence of “Plastic Man: The Artful Life of Jerry Ross Barrish.”
Throughout the film’s 74 minutes, Barrish shifts before viewers’ eyes. Initially, he appears a hapless hoarder — retrieving trash and returning it to his solitary home. Later, Barrish seems cogent and professionally adept, however, shortly thereafter on the brink of financial collapse.
Unable to be concretized by the viewer, Barrish keeps bending.
He remains committed to largely banished crafts, yet rationally cedes certain pursuits to adopt alternative activities.
Barrish’s mold forms as the film ensues and one wonders whether this constantly contorting man is truly tragic — someone whose pathos resembles the lifeless sculptures in his studio — or actually a champion of the human spirit pliantly ascending toward happiness.
Configuring Barrish will entertainingly occupy viewers. The documentary’s subject and star will appear at The Manor to answer questions after the show. Whether Jerry Barrish is the art or artist, only those fortunate enough to attend will know.
— Adam Reinherz