With a new artistic director, Amy Geller, at the helm, the Boston Jewish Film Festival kicks off its 24th year on Wednesday. The lineup puts a particular emphasis on young Israeli filmmakers, many presenting debut films at this year’s event.
“Israeli cinema is like the indie film scene of the 1990s,” says Geller. “First-time directors working with low budgets are turning out provocative and amazing films.”
One such director is Tamar Tal, who will be in attendance on opening night (7:30 p.m., Coolidge Corner Theatre) with the documentary “Life in Stills.” The film weaves past and present as the legacy and work of the late photographer Rudi Weissenstein is kept alive by his feisty 96-year-old wife, Miriam, and their grandson, Ben Peter, who will also attend the opening screening. Miriam Weissenstein still runs the Photo House in Tel Aviv, where 1 million negatives depicting Israel’s history are housed. Besides the fascinating images, “Life in Stills” offers a moving portrait of two generations bound by love, tragedy, respect for the past, and determination to preserve it for the future, despite the efforts of real estate developers who covet the Photo House site.
The BJFF screens 45 films from Israel, the United States, Germany, France, Argentina, Canada, and Nigeria at 10 locations in the Greater Boston area.
Geller says she’s particularly excited by the East Coast premiere of “We Are Not Alone” (Nov. 17, 9:15 p.m., Theatre 1 at the Revere Hotel), the debut feature from Israeli director Lior Har-Lev. Set in a shopping mall, it’s a quirky romantic comedy that’s been compared with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
Another young Israeli filmmaker, Sharon Bar-Ziv, will be at the festival with the thriller “Room 514” (Thursday, 7 p.m., Coolidge Corner). The psychological drama, which has been compared to “A Few Good Men,” is about a young female soldier (Asia Naifeld, nominated for an “Israeli Oscar” as this year’s best actress) who interrogates an officer accused of brutality against a Palestinian.
Established filmmakers will also be returning to the BJFF, providing continuity for them and for audiences. Roberta Grossman, director of “Blessed” (2008), returns with the festival’s final feature, “Hava Nagila” (Nov. 18, 6:30 p.m., MFA). The lively documentary takes a playful, poignant, and illuminating look at the ubiquitous song, a hit for performers as diverse as Connie Francis and Harry Belafonte. There will also be a musical performance on closing night (Nov. 19) by violinist Joe Kessler and accordionist Michael McLaughlin from Klezwoods.
Daniel Berman, whose past festival films include “Lost Embrace” (2004) and “Family Law” (2006), directs “All In” (Thursday, 9:30 p.m., Coolidge Corner), a romantic comedy from Argentina about a Jewish, poker-loving divorced father. It stars Jorge Drexler and the great Norma Aleandro (“Anita”).
Geller this year developed several specialty programs within the BJFF, such as Favorite Films From the Famous. Robert Brustein, founding director of the American Repertory Theatre, will present a new 35mm print of Mel Brooks’s 1968 comedy “The Producers” on Nov. 15 (7 p.m., Coolidge Corner). Also new this year is a series called Not a Doctor, Not a Lawyer, with films about alternative career paths. These include “The Art of Spiegelman” (Thursday, 7 p.m., West Newton Cinema), about the creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus,” the graphic novel about the Holocaust; “Dressing America: Tales From the Garment Center” (Nov. 11, 4 p.m., West Newton), a timely look at the era when a small section of Manhattan was the heart of a booming textile and manufacturing industry; and “Pretty Old,” a bittersweet documentary about the annual Ms. Senior Sweetheart Pageant in Fall River, produced and hosted by ageless local icon Lenny “Low Price” Kaplan. Kaplan and director Walter Matteson will attend the Nov. 11 screening (6 p.m., West Newton Cinema).
Geller, a producer whose credits include “For the Love of Movies” and “Love and Other Anxieties,” says her new post with the BJFF is a coming home of sorts. Her first job after graduating from Bates College in 1997 was as BJFF associate. “It was meaningful to me and connected me to a community,” recalls Geller, who watched some 200 films before culling the list to 45 for this year’s program. “Seeing good films was the easy part. It was hard to eliminate some that I liked,” she says. “Film is the primary piece but other components make the festival an event. It’s why people come back year after year; for music, discussions, and presenters. All of it adds to the experience of the festival. It’s about an environment and I was glad to be able to create that.”Continued...