Boston Jewish Film Festival celebrates its 20th season

Jody Feinberg

William Macy, Meg Ryan, and LL Cool J are stars you wouldn’t expect to see in the Boston Jewish Film Festival, which opens its 20th season Wednesday with the off-beat, humorous film "The Deal.''

 "We thought it would be fun to kick-off the festival with a film that has some big names and is a little lighter than we usually start with,'' said Sara Rubin, executive director.

 Challenging ideas of what to expect in a Jewish film festival, "The Deal'' is a comedy written by the actor Macy, where LL Cool J converts to Judaism and stars in a film about the 19th century Jewish Prime Minister of Britain, until it morphs into an action flick.

 But the festival, which presents 46 films at nine venues through Nov. 20, doesn’t rely on star power to draw audiences – even though another film, "Emotional Arithmetic,'' stars Susan Sarandon, Christopher Plummer and Max Von Sydow.

Rather, the festival draws thousands of filmgoers with its breadth, originality and relevance. You don’t need to be Jewish to appreciate stories that explore a younger generation’s search to understand their elders or that examine conflicts between religious groups.

 "These young directors explore age-old issues surrounding the worldwide Jewish community and offers surprising and fresh insights and angles,'' Rubin said.

 A forerunner when it started in 1998, this year’s festival continues its tradition of bringing to audiences the newest films from more than a dozen countries, as well as inviting directors and actors to speak with audiences. Nearly all films were released in 2008 and 2007, including three North American premieres and three U.S. premieres. However, the film "Avanti Popolo,'' is a classic Israeli anti-war film shown at the festival 19 years ago.

 "We looked at a lot of different ways to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the festival and decided sticking with a fresh perspective, but with a nod to the past, was the way to go,'' Rubin said.

 In the 20 years since the film festival premiered as only the second in the United States, Jewish film festivals have boomed, with nearly 100 held each year around the world, Rubin said. And the Boston festival has expanded into the suburbs, including Randolph, Framingham, Danvers, Newton and Arlington.

 "Emotional Arithmetic,'' at Showcase Cinemas Randolph Nov. 12, stars Susan Sarandon as a Canadian wife and mother whose life is unsettled by the arrival of two visitors from her childhood, which she spent in a transit camp outside Paris during World War II.

 "It’s an interesting story about how the past influences how we act and the strong pull it exerts on us,'' Rubin said.

 Showcase Cinemas in Randolph also is showing "Love and Dance'' on Nov. 11, a coming-of-age story about a boy who takes up ballroom dancing and finds himself in the midst of a cultural clash between his Israeli father and his Russian-born mother.

 "It shows how the Russian and Israeli communities interact,'' Rubin said. "It’s a very real movie, with sadness and hope.''

 A number of films deal with edgier subjects from the perspective of second- or third-generation Israelis.

 "You have a generation that asks what it means that their family experienced the Holocaust and that are concerned with the Arab-Israeli conflict,'' Rubin said. "The films have contemporary music and a faster pace and feel that comes from having grown up when they did.''

In "Bon-papa, a Man Under German Occupation,'' the director explores her dual heritage as the granddaughter of a man who aided the Nazis during the Vichy regime and a couple who were Holocaust victims. In another French film, "One Day You’ll Understand,'' star Jeanne Moreau is a Jewish mother whose son tries to persuade her to recount her wartime experiences while the 1987 trial of Gestapo leader Klaus Barbie grips the nation.

 "Strangers'' is a fictional story of love and politics when an Israeli and a Palestinian fall in love, while "Bridge Over Wadi'' is a documentary about cultural conflicts in a school that educates Israeli and Arab children together.

 Arab-Israeli relations are front and center in "Arab Labor,'' a popular Israeli television show about an Arab-Israeli trying to fit into Israeli society. Directed by a Jewish Israeli and written by an Arab-Israeli, it is shown in three sequences.

 Edgy films include "Three Times Divorced,'' an Israeli film about a Palestinian Muslim woman who struggles for custody of her children and the right to stay in a shelter for abused women. In "Citizen Nawi,'' a gay Jewish social activist and his Palestinian partner try to protect Palestinian villagers from Israeli bulldozers and settlers.

 One of the festival’s surprises is "Holy Land Hardball,'' a film about the start up in 2007 of Israel’s first professional baseball league, whose director of baseball operations was Dan Duquette, former general manager of the Boston Red Sox.

 For its closing film, the festival shows "Cycles,'' a dramatic comedy set in Paris about family dynamics and life’s passages.

 "It’s a lovely, sensitive film that we tried unsuccessfully to get last year, so we’re thrilled to have it,'' Rubin said.


What: Boston Jewish Film Festival

When: Through Nov. 20 5-16

Where: Showcase Cinemas Randolph, the Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Institute of Contemporary Art, the West Newton Cinema, AMC Framingham 16, Arlington Capitol Theatre, and Hollywood Hits Premiere Theatre in Danvers.

How much: General admission is $12 for each film or $10 for students, seniors and MFA, BJFF and WGBH members. Opening and closing night films are $25. Reduced prices with purchase of passes.

Tickets: Call 866-468-7619 or go to

More info: Go to