by Maxine Fischbein
(AJNews) – The 21st annual Beth Tzedec Congregation Jewish Film Festival rolls out on November 6 – 21 with a virtual film lineup that promises to entertain, educate, and delight Alberta film lovers. Check out the centre spread of the October edition of Alberta Jewish News for a pull out festival program.
Despite the continuing challenges posed by COVID-19, filmmakers in Israel and around the world have turned out an astonishing body of work exploring Jewish themes and topics in remarkable feature films and documentaries. Some of the very best will be streamed online November 6 through November 21.
Given the soaring numbers of COVID-19 cases in Alberta, it is a good thing that film fest founder and director Harvey Cyngiser and his committee opted early to plan a virtual event for the second consecutive year.
“While we had hoped to celebrate the festival’s 21st year in the presence of sponsors and audience members who have made the Jewish Film Festival such a resounding success, we felt a huge responsibility to keep everyone safe,” says Cyngiser, who adds that the popularity of last year’s virtual film fest exceeded his wildest expectations.
“Our sponsors remained supportive and generous, and our first-ever virtual film festival was extraordinarily well attended,” says Cyngiser, adding that many individuals purchased tickets and festival passes for the first time and commented favourably on the ease and flexibility of viewing the films at home.
The new format helped the film festival to reach a wider demographic within Alberta than ever before, Cyngiser told AJNews, adding that the streaming will once again be geoblocked beyond the province’s borders.
For a second year, film stayers (we can’t call ourselves film goers at the moment!) can line up their favourite beverages and snacks, slip into something comfortable and watch films at their convenience since the window for viewing is once again more flexible than it would be at an in-person festival.
Those who have embraced binge watching during the pandemic will be excited to know that Cyngiser and his committee have selected two binge-worthy series.
One of them, The New Jew, is a four-episode Israeli production that takes a lighthearted romp through American Jewish life as perceived by Israelis. Calgarians—especially those affiliated with Temple B’nai Tikvah—will find that there is a fascinating local connection; former TBT congregational Rabbi Jamie Korngold and the unique Jewish niche she has carved out as the “Adventure Rabbi” in the mountains of Colorado is the subject of one segment in this fast-paced and humorous series featuring comedian Guri Alfi as host.
Labyrinth of Peace is a compelling and brilliantly acted six-part Swiss mini-series. The dramatic saga of one Swiss family—including their interactions with young Holocaust survivors temporarily given shelter in their midst—reveals a country struggling to come to terms with its less-than-neutral wartime record.
The surprising documentary Love It Was Not tells the story of a forbidden affair between a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz and her Nazi lover. Thanks to Calgary Jewish Federation, this film, part of the 2021 community Kristallnacht commemoration program, is open to the entire community free of charge.
Opening night will tug on your heartstrings with the breathtaking feature film Neighbours, based on the personal experiences of Kurdish director Mano Khalil. The movie explores the life of Sero, a young Kurdish boy who becomes confused and conflicted as his Syrian village suffers under the brutal Assad regime, which oppresses both the Kurds and their Jewish neighbours, disrupting the harmonious relationships they had previously shared. Khalil deftly balances the darkness caused by willing henchmen, like Sero’s rabidly anti-Zionist schoolteacher, with the gentleness and curiosity of a lovable child trying to navigate a world turned upside down by communal turmoil and personal tragedy.
“This is a rare opportunity to get some insight into Middle East politics through the eyes of another persecuted minority with which we as Jews can easily identify,” Cyngiser told AJNews.
“More than anything else, though, it is the poignant and universal story of this adorable little boy that captivates the audience and makes Neighbours an unforgettable film experience,” Cyngiser added.
As usual, the film festival boasts an impressive array of documentaries. High Maintenance explores the life and work of cantankerous and irrepressible Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan. The crusty nonagenarian doesn’t hold back as he curses the disrepair into which some of his world-famous art installations have fallen, a situation paralleled by his own failing health. Sadly, Karavan passed away just after the film was selected for this year’s festival. High Maintenance provides fascinating glimpses into his holistic integration of art and environment in Israel and around the world. Equally compelling is the artist’s “rage against the dying of the light” as his physical and mental decline keep pace with the decay of his oft-neglected yet still-sublime public art.
One does not have to be a soccer fan to enjoy another documentary, A Common Goal, as it explores the tensions surrounding an Israeli national soccer team in which close to half the players—including its captain—are Muslim. The loyalty of these players is called into question by some Jewish fans while they are viewed by some in the Muslim world as traitors to their own people. The story, a microcosm of the tension between Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens, offers a warming ray of hope in the close bonds forged between teammates who share a love for the game and hope for a better future.
Harvey Cyngiser has a knack for sourcing the big little films that would not otherwise be easily accessed by local film lovers. Having established warm relationships with many film producers and distributors over the years, Cyngiser is often able to bring movies to the Calgary Jewish Film Festival as premiere events or very shortly after their release. This year is no exception.
Closing night will feature the brilliantly-made documentary What if? Ehud Barak on War and Peace which will have its North American premiere just days before it is screened at the Jewish film fest. This rare glimpse into the life, philosophy and insights of Israel’s controversial former Prime Minister explores one overarching question: Do leaders define their eras or do the times make the man? This riveting documentary will close the Jewish film festival on a high note.
From the thrilling rescue of Ethiopian Jews, to the musings of Poles living in a neighbourhood built from the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, to a heartwarming relationship that transforms the lives of a young Israeli man and the middle-aged American journalist who sublets his Tel Aviv apartment, the 21st annual Calgary Jewish Film Festival has something for everyone.
The Beth Tzedec Congregation Jewish Film Festival runs November 6 through November 21.
Visit the festival website (www.CalgaryJewishFilmFestival.ca) for more information and to buy a festival pass or tickets to individual films. Sponsorship opportunities are available. For more information, contact Beth Tzedec Synagogue at email@example.com or 403-255-8688.
Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Alberta Jewish News.