Washington DC’s Jewish Film Festival and Jewish Music Festival are joining forces to become JxJ, a multi-disciplinary cultural event encompassing the performing and visual arts that will take place from May 8-26, 2019 in the Nation’s Capital.
The Jewish Film Festival, now in its 29th year, has a great line-up of international films, with premieres, tributes, and events with filmmakers. I’m especially looking forward to 100 Faces, a British film with 100 Jews, one born in each year from 1917-2017.
Here the filmmaker explains the project:
The documentary about Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures and a major figure in the establishing of Hollywood.
Israel’s biggest box-office hit of 2016, “The Women’s Balcony,” is a warm-hearted film about a close-knit Orthodox community living in blissful harmony until their synagogue literally collapses in the middle of a bar mitzvah. The rabbi’s wife is critically injured and the rabbi becomes depressed and foggy-minded. The men of the congregation are grateful when a charismatic rabbinical student known as Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush), offers to help, bringing along his friends to conduct services and raise money to rebuild the temple. But he proves to be a very divisive figure when he urges the congregation to become more strictly observant, suggesting the men give their wives headscarves to cover their hair. The showdown comes when he tells the women that rebuilding the balcony, where the women sit separate from the men during services, will have to come after the creation of a new torah scroll. The women do not agree.
The details of the setting are fascinating, and while unfamiliar to many in American audiences, the elements of an Orthodox Jewish life are presented in a comfortable, respectful, natural manner. The film is immensely charming in its depiction of the quiet, gentle humanity of the community and the way their commitment to Judaism is reflected in every aspect of their lives. Evelin Hagoel is a stand-out as Etie, a grandmother who leads the rebellion and Yafit Asulin is radiant as a shy young woman who finds love. This is an endearing comedy with some thoughtful insights about the way we find and keep finding the sustaining force of grace in our lives.
Rama Burshtein (“Fill the Void”) is an observant Orthodox Jew who lives in Israel, but she reminds me in our interview that for more than half of her life, she was a secular Jew living in America. “I’m 50 years old. I became religious when I was 27 years old and still have lived more years secular than religious, still am. All my memories, all of who I am, this was not in a religious world.” That is an important part of what makes it possible for her to work with actors and crew who have different levels of religious observance and to relate to the audience for her films as well. While her new film, “The Wedding Plan,” like her first one concerns a young woman’s decision about who she will marry. But “Fill the Void” was set in a deeply religious ultra-Orthodox community, while “The Wedding Plan” characters, like Burshtein herself, are those who have chosen a more observant life as adults. So we see more variation in their practice, some uncertainty and inconsistency but more of a sense of intentionality.
The central character is Michel, played by Noa Koler in an award-winning performance of stunning intelligence and sensitivity in her first lead role. “This character is very, very complicated because she is supposed to make you laugh and cry at the same time, and it’s very complicated for any actress and… So it’s like you can’t discover anyone at that age so good but it’s not true, because Noa, she’s an actress in Israel, she played in the theatre. Everyone knows that she is talented. Nobody gave her a leading role. Ever. At the age of 35. And she’s like a genius. She is extremely talented, It’s like, I’m telling you there is no way to compare anything that she does in an audition than to other very professional actresses–good actresses. She has something that few people have in the world.” Burshtein said one of her most important roles as a director was to show Koler that she had confidence in her. “When I believed a hundred in her then she believed a hundred. But if I believed eighty, she would believe zero. Everyone around me didn’t think I’m doing right. Everyone was trying to convince me not to take her. Everyone knows that she is talented. People didn’t think that she could handle a role where all those nice guys want her. She is like the neighbour’s daughter, she’s not not Julia Roberts in ‘Notting Hill.’ You have to believe that Oz Zehavi, the guy that plays Yos, who is like a big star in Israel, that he would go for her. But I know that at the end when someone is so sincere and like the model of truth, this is what you fall in love with at the end. Even a rock star, that what you fall in love with, you don’t fall in love with a pretty face. We don’t fall in love with a pretty face, that was part of me saying that because today nobody is even asking that question. Nobody thinks that it’s unreal that he wants her.” Making that believable is very important because it helps Michal truly understand that she is lovable. “It’s like ‘La La Land,’ says Burshtein. “She brings this thing out and it suddenly all the actions are opened. She believes that the sky is the limit. It’s an energy shows in her and that brings a lot in.”
In Israel and Europe, the film was called “Through the Wall.” Burshtein says, “It’s not ‘Behind the Wall,’ it’s not ‘Breaking the Wall,’ it’s not ‘Climbing the Wall,’ it’s ‘Through the Wall,’ which is something that you cannot actually do you know. A wall is a wall. You can’t go through it unless you have a door. But that’s what she is doing. She’s going through a wall.
Burshtein wants to deliver a message with this endearing romantic comedy premise of a young woman who hires a hall for the date of her wedding even though she does not have a groom. “There is a thing that I call ‘the imaginary option,’ It’s like you always think that there is someone a little bit better than what you will have sitting in front of you. You do not see what is in front of you because you have a picture of something else. From my research, the women that can fall in love with everyone are married.” She points out that when asked why she wants to be married, Michel gives almost every possible answer except for the most important one: to love. “I would sit with a girl and ask ‘What are you looking for?’ and she’s going to give me that list. And the whole list, which is very interesting, would be what he could give her. I never had girls writing down ‘I feel like I want I want to give. I want someone that I want to do for.'”
John Goldschmidt is the director and co-producer of the film “Dough,” a sweet comedy about an Orthodox Jewish baker (Jonathan Pryce) whose new assistant is a Muslim teenager from Darfur who has a side business dealing weed. The marijuana gets mixed up in the bread, and suddenly the bakery has a lot of new customers just as a predatory developer is trying to take it over and the baker’s son is trying to get him to retire.
In an interview, he told me that he made this film because he was looking for a project that had “something to say about the state of the world that’s particularly relevant but it will also entertain, in other words a film that will treat serious issues with a comedic like touch.” In a film like this one, he said, casting the lead “sets the standard for everything” and attracts the other performers. His casting director, Celestia Fox, called to tell him she had seen Pryce at a party and he had a beard, so he already looked the part. “Jonathan is one of the most celebrated theater actors in London. Once he’s involved, other people seem to say, ‘This is must be a good project.’ So Pauline Collins, who acted with Jonathan Pryce years ago at the National Theater loved the script, knew about me and got involved.
It was more of a challenge to find the young man to play the African immigrant. “I auditioned a lot of people and choose six of them along with Jonathan Pryce to see the chemistry between them.” Jerome Holder won the role. “I chose Darfur as the country for this Muslim boy to come from because I had seen George Clooney’s film about the persecution of the African Muslims in their villages by Arab horsemen. I thought the people looked so beautiful. I wanted to avoid the complexities of the Middle East. I wanted it to be unencumbered by that whole situation. We needed to get all that detail about Darfur and we needed to get Jerome to have an African accent. He’s from a Christian family, a church based family. He had to acquire an African accent for his dialogue. He did very well I thought because I didn’t want it to be too strong for people to be alienated by it and yet he couldn’t really talk like a London guy. I didn’t want him to have a dialogue coach because if you get too self-conscious about these things it can knock around with your head. I just wanted him to retain his naturalness because he’d never been in a movie before.”
Goldschmidt, whose favorite Jewish bakery treat is challah, said Pryce spent a week in a kosher bakery to play a man who has been baking for decades. They shot in Budapest, where they completely replicated the Jewish bakery in North London. “My producers say that a lot of the best films about America are being made by European directors who see America through fresh eyes,” he told me. His own background contributes to his tendency to appreciate cultural differences. “My family are classified as victims of Nazi persecution. I was born in London, I grew up in Vienna. Came to England to go to art school when I was 17. And so in a sense although everyone thinks of me as totally British, I do have a slightly different angle on things. I just liked this particular idea because it’s like the odd couple. It’s about two characters who are as different as possible could be. One is old the other is young. One is black, the other is white. One is Jewish the other is a Muslim. I wanted to make an entertaining, uplifting movie in the end. This is the story of a very unlikely friendship and I wanted to make a film in these dark times where people would leave the cinema with a smile on their face and yet at the same time I wanted to address the issues that I thought one has to deal with in this period that we are living in.”