Movie News & Reviews

A festival for forging connections

If your idea of Jewish cinema is limited to “Fiddler on the Roof,” think again.

According to Lauren Bandari, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of San Luis Obispo County, the genre can range from a documentary about World War II soldiers to a drama about Ethiopian immigrants in Israel.

“There are so many cross-cultural bridges everywhere,” Bandari said.

The San Luis Obispo Jewish Film Festival will explore those connections Saturday and Sunday with events aimed at celebrating Jewish filmmakers and exploring the Jewish experience on film.

“There’s a certain angle, a dynamic, a story that everyone can relate to,” said Bandari, one of the festival’s directors.

Diversity in mind

Bandari said she and co-director Muara Johnston created the two-day event with diversity in mind. They consulted with Wendy Eidson, executive director of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival, and looked at Jewish film festivals in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seattle and Sonoma County.

“We’re here to connect the Jewish population in San Luis Obispo County and bring Jewish culture to San Luis Obispo,” Bandari said, noting that the nonprofit Jewish Community Center is not a religious organization.

Hollywood producer Alexandra “Alex” Rose will receive the festival’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, honoring her work on such films as “Norma Rae,” “Frankie and Johnny” and “The Other Sister.”

Rose, who currently chairs the graduate film program at Chapman University in Orange, will appear Saturday at a filmmakers’ dinner followed by a screening of “Norma Rae.”

Rose remembers reading about the real-life inspiration for “Norma Rae,” North Carolina factory worker Crystal Lee Sutton, in The New York Times Magazine. Although inspired by the story of a widowed textile worker fighting against oppressive working conditions, she waited three years before tackling the project.

“I was very aware that the marketplace wouldn’t accept material like that,” she said. “There were no films being made with female protagonists. There were no films being made about working-class people.

“At that moment in time, Hollywood was in a very glitzy, glamorous phase.”

As audiences began to demand more realistic films, Rose got her chance.

Released in 1979, “Norma Rae” netted a Golden Globe Award for best picture. Sally Field won an Oscar for her turn as a strong-willed single mother.

“I’ve always looked more at how society functioned on a social level and an equality level,” Rose said, seeking films that “epitomize the times and the needs of the times.”

“The best films come from a filmmaker who has a particular point of view — one country, one class, one gender or another,” she said. “The main thing is to find one’s voice.”

Movies screening at the San Luis Obispo Jewish Film Festival evoke several voices in the Jewish community.

“About Face: The Story of the Jewish Refugee Soldiers of World War II” examines the thousands of immigrants who fled Nazicontrolled German and Austria only to return to fight their former oppressors as American and British troops. Director Steve Karras will conduct a question-and-answer session following Sunday’s screening.

Also screening Sunday is the drama “Live and Become,” about a young Ethiopian boy forced to leave his homeland due to civil war and famine. His Christian mother places him in the care of a Jewish woman, who names him “Schlomo.”

Sirak Sehbat, who plays the adult Schlomo, will speak about his experiences as one of 15,000 Ethiopian Jews brought to Israel as part of “Operation Solomon” in 1991.

According to Bandari, “Live and Become” “deals with different sides of Israeli society that you don’t (normally) get to see,” such as the tension between Jews of different races.

Other films screening at the San Luis Obispo Jewish Film Festival explore the time-honored art of Yiddish theatre and a tribe in northeastern India that follows Judaism.

Local filmmaker David Baumgarten will host an acting workshop Sunday for children age 5 to 12. After listening to a classic Jewish story, the young thespians will pick their parts, rehearse and perform in full costume and makeup.

Bandari said the resulting audition tape will be screened at a later date.

Thought-provoking cinema

Organizers have high hopes for the San Luis Obispo Jewish Film Festival, which falls in the middle of awards season.

“It’s a good time of year for movie watching,” Bandari said.

Although she and Johnston would like to keep the festival the same size in the future, she said, “We’d really like to see this grow in terms of the different films we bring in cutting-edge films.”

She and Rose cited 2009’s “A Serious Man” as an example of thought-provoking Jewish cinema.

Set in a Minneapolis suburb in the 1960s, Ethan and Joel Coen’s semi-autobiographical film follows a mild-mannered college professor who undergoes the biblical trials of Job.

“They bring a sensibility into their work that is cultural and speaks of their origins, as well as being (part of) a larger canvas,” Rose said of the Coen brothers.

Bandari agreed.

“There’s a certain perspective, a mindset, that is different from ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Avatar,’ ” she said.

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.

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