by Maxine Fischbein
(AJNews) – After the Beth Tzedec Congregation Jewish Film Festival was forced online for three seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic, film lovers welcomed the return of in-person screenings during the twenty-third annual event, held November 4-19.
While the mood was muted in the aftermath of brutal October 7 attacks by Hamas and the continuing war in Israel and Gaza, hundreds of Calgarians found solace in gathering as a community and focusing on feature films, documentaries and special guests.
“While it was not a record-breaking year, our audience remained loyal,” said festival founder and director Harvey Cyngiser, adding that there was “great energy” throughout three weekends of the much-loved cultural event.
As always, audiences gained extraordinary insights into a diversity of Jewish experience in the Diaspora and in Israel.
Celebrated film director Avi Nesher – Israel’s Steven Spielberg – introduced his dramedy The Monkey House on opening night while touching upon the current situation in Israel.
“You have no idea how moved I am to be here and to see this wonderful Jewish community coming together at this difficult time for Israel,” Nesher said.
“When I was an officer in the Yom Kippur war…the return rate of Israeli reservists was 110 percent…Even people we didn’t need came anyways,” quipped Nesher, who said that Israelis are once again running toward rather than away from danger during the country’s time of need.
Nesher related the discomfort he felt leaving Israel in the wake of the October 7 attacks to speak at film festivals abroad. Then, at a screening in Santa Barbara California just prior to his arrival in Calgary, he realized “…how important it is to have screenings like this at times like this.”
“There’s a famous saying by Winston Churchill who refused to turn off the lights in cinemas and theatres in London during the blitz,” added Nesher. “He said if we do not continue to consume culture during the war, how could we know what we are fighting for.”
The Monkey House opened to great box office and critical acclaim one week before theatres went dark in Israel following the unprecedented Hamas attacks. But a short time later, Nesher was providing a much-needed diversion to Israelis – some of them bereaved – who had been evacuated from their homes and were requesting to see the film and hear from Nesher himself.
“I felt that I couldn’t do it. What can you tell people whose house burned down, whose children were burned…how can you talk about cinema?”
Nesher spoke to people who survived at Kibbutz Be’eri and Kibbutz Holit, where he said a shocking 50 percent of kibbutzniks were slaughtered by Hamas terrorists.
“You have no idea what to say,” said Nesher, who discovered that his film and presence created some light amid terrible loss and darkness.
“They said thank you for giving us two hours to forget real life, and if you don’t mind, stick around afterwards to talk about cinema,” he said. “It’s very, very important, you know, to see movies…and to celebrate life and to celebrate Israel.”
Nesher expressed concern at rising antisemitism in the Diaspora.
“I think it’s really extraordinary how the Jews in the Diaspora support Israel, and I’m doing my humble duty to come and offer you some hope because I’m telling you we are going to win this war, one way or another,” said Nesher, to thunderous applause.
A highlight of the the second weekend of the film festival was a Q and A with Tal Inbar, director of the documentary Closed Circuit. The film, produced by Nancy Spielberg, put the audience inside the 2016 terrorist attack at the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv thanks to footage from multiple security cameras that was, shockingly, provided to Inbar by the lawyer representing the terrorists.
Closed Circuit features interviews with both Jews and Arabs who speak to the trauma and loss they continue to endure years after the Sarona attack.
This and many other films selected for this year’s festival resonated with even more intensity given current events in the Middle East.
On a more uplifting note, Israeli humanitarianism was the focus of Hope Without Boundaries, a documentary by Israeli filmmaker Itay Vered about a field hospital established and operated by Israel in Ukraine in the midst of Russia’s continuing war of aggression. The remarkable story made this film a shoe-in for the 2023 Dr. Ralph Gurevitch Tikkun Olam screening.
Fittingly, the screening of the Australian documentary The Narrow Bridge was dedicated to Israeli peace activist Vivian Silver – originally from Winnipeg – who was, at the time, believed to have been among the hostages taken into captivity in Gaza by Hamas.
The Narrow Bridge explores the efforts of four bereaved Jews and Palestinians whose loved ones were killed due to acts of terror.
“False equivalencies are often made when discussing events in the Middle East, but the Jewish and Arab individuals we encounter in this film can truly claim equivalence.” said Cyngiser.
United in their urgency to prevent others from experiencing similar losses, they – together with others similarly bereaved – are turning their grief into activism in the hope of building communities that might one day live side-by- side in peace.
It is a tragic irony that just one day after the screening of The Narrow Bridge, Vivian Silver was confirmed as having been among those brutally murdered at Kibbutz Be’eri on what is now commonly referred to as Black Sabbath.
In media interviews, Silver’s son reiterated the family’s resolve to honour his mother’s legacy as a peacemaker. Among Vivian Silver’s mourners is her brother, Calgarian Neil Silver, who, together with his wife Jemmie, is a long-time supporter of the Calgary Jewish Film Festival.
Murdered and missing Israelis were never far from the thoughts and prayers of those at the film festival, where a front row section of seats draped with Israeli flags formed a visual reminder of solidarity with the approximately 240 captives (a large number of whom had not been released by Hamas prior to press time). Images and names of the hostages remain front and centre in the lobby of Beth Tzedec with updates provided as the captives are released or, tragically, confirmed dead.
In the midst of grief for the obliterated and concern for those still languishing in Gaza, stories of great courage continue to be told. Two screenings at Film Festival reinforced the importance of resistance, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
On November 9, a special community-wide Kristallnacht screening of Four Winters: A Story of Jewish Partisan Resistance and Bravery in World War II – co-sponsored by the Calgary Jewish Federation – saw aged Holocaust survivors recounting in their own words their remarkable resourcefulness, courage and sheer will in resisting the Nazi beast in the forests of Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Belarus.
During a Q and A with Calgary Jewish Federation Holocaust and Human Rights Remembrance and Education Co-Chairs Marnie Bondar and Dahlia Libin, American director Julia Mintz shed further light on the remarkable bravery and resilience of the women and men depicted in her beautifully filmed documentary.
Sadly, many stories about resistance have gone untold and even supressed. Fortunately, in recent years, much has come to light about the roles played by women in resisting the Nazis and their collaborators.
Such is the case in Sabotage, a hybrid film in which animation is used to vivify the diary entries of Anna Wajcblum Heilman who, at great personal risk, documented the roles played by four women, including her sister Estusia, in smuggling gunpowder to the men of the Sonderkommando (Jewish prisoners forced to work in the crematoria). The men staged a 1944 rebellion in Crematorium 4 at Auschwitz, rendering it unusable until the time the death camp was liberated on January 27, 1945.
It is ironic that the rebellion took place on October 7, exactly 79 years before the savage Hamas attacks in Southern Israel, where stories of brave resistance by Israeli civilians continue to emerge.
Fortunately, there was some emotional respite at this year’s film fest, including lighthearted feature films and a special family screening of Something from Nothing, adapted from a much loved children’s classic by author Phoebe Gillman, itself based on a Jewish folk tale.
Some 150 kids, parents and grandparents attended the screening which was co-sponsored by Calgary Jewish Federation and PJ Library and included a craft activity where kids tried their own hands at creating something from nothing.
“We were excited that so many young families came out for this program,” said Harvey Cyngiser. “The future of the Jewish Film Festival depends on our ability to attract new generations of film lovers.”
Just as important is the continuing generosity of a growing list of film festival sponsors, including some who this year made significant gifts in memory of Cyngiser’s father Sidney, OBM, who passed away in June. It was a fitting memorial given Sid Cyngiser’s delight in the vast range of Jewish experience explored annually at the film festival. He and his widow Bronia created an endowment many years ago that will continue to support the festival in perpetuity.
The 2023 annual Jewish film festival ended on a high note with the screening of Without Precedent: The Supreme Life of Rosalie Abella, this year’s Dr. Martha Cohen Memorial Screening. Insightful and entertaining, Without Precedent recounts Abella’s birth in a Stuttgart, Germany Displaced Persons camp, her family life, her distinguished career as a lawyer, her glass-ceiling-shattering appointments to the bench – including the Supreme Court of Canada – and her whimsical and joyful personal style.
The breathtaking diversity of Jewish life is the cornerstone of the Beth Tzedec Congregation Jewish Film Festival. This year was no exception, even with the challenges facing Israel and Diaspora Jewry, as Harvey Cyngiser underscored in his opening night welcome:
“… to curtail Jewish cultural or educational activities, to put our Jewish communal life on hold, would be to surrender and hand a victory to terrorism and evil,” said Cyngiser.
“By coming together here tonight, and throughout the festival, we affirm our commitment to our people, and we affirm that our Jewish community, Jewish values, Jewish culture, Jewish life as a whole – that we as a people – are alive, and enduring, and resilient, and in the face of adversity, we – and our beloved State of Israel – will prevail.”
The sentiment applies equally in times of oy and times of joy. Cyngiser and his committee have their sights set on record-breaking crowds in 2024. As long as Jewish Calgarians continue to cherish the film festival and support it through ticket purchases and sponsorships, the future will be bright for Jewish Calgary’s best-loved cultural and entertainment event.
For more information about the Beth Tzedec Congregation Jewish Film Festival, go to CalgaryJewishFilmFestival.com. To find out more about sponsorship opportunities, please contact Beth Tzedec at email@example.com or 403-255-8688.
Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.