According to Jewish tradition, a child comes of age once they turn 13. This is known as becoming a bar (or bat for girls) mitzvah, and it means that they're now mature enough to truly be considered a part of the community. And usually, their parents throw a big party to mark the occasion. It's a pretty sweet deal. Anyway, with that in mind, I'll say "mazel tov!" to The Rochester Jewish Film Festival for having reached its milestone 13th year. Headed by returning festival director Lori Michlin Harter, the RJFF is presenting a record 26 films this year, coming from all around the world.
What follows is a preview of just a few of the films being screened this year. Visit rjff.org for the complete schedule of films and ticket information. Tickets can also be purchased over the phone at 461-2000.
Renowned photographer Rudi Weissenstein chronicled the early history of Israel. For more than 40 years, the extensive archive of his photographs was housed in Pri-or Photohouse, a small shop in Tel Aviv run by Weissenstein's adorably curmudgeonly 96-year-old widow, Miriam, and her grandson, Ben. "Life In Stills" documents what happened when Miriam and Ben learned that the building where the shop resides is set to be demolished by the city in order to make way for new construction. Given that the Israeli institution was home to nearly 1 million negatives, moving was a nearly insurmountable task. What starts as a quest to save their family's legacy ultimately becomes a bittersweet and moving tribute to Ben and Miriam's bond. (Screens Sunday, July 21, 7:30 p.m., Dryden Theatre)
Among the many stories of courage and bravery amidst the horrors of World War II, that of Aristides de Sousa Mendes (Bernard Le Coq) is one of the more obscure. "Disobedience: The Sousa Mendes Story" admirably seeks to rectify this. The Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France, Mendes was instructed by his government to deny Jewish refugees and other "undesirables" visas that would allow them passage across the border. Instead, he defied the Nazis, as well as his own president, and went ahead and issued the visas anyway. In total, he issued nearly 30,000, saving countless lives in the process. Though the film forgoes some complexity and nuance, it tells a simple, but touching, story of heroism in the face of seemingly crushing odds. (Monday, July 22, 8:30 p.m., Dryden Theatre)
The absorbing biopic "Hannah Arendt" focuses on the period during which the titular philosopher and political theorist covered the 1961 trial of former Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker. The film is perhaps most gripping when we see Arendt -- herself a survivor of a French prison camp -- watching and scrutinizing Eichmann as he's questioned. Instead of the monster everyone expected, he was instead a bureaucratic "nobody" claiming that he was simply following orders. Barbara Sukowa gives a remarkable, Oscar-worthy performance as Arendt; she allows the audience to see a great mind at work, wrestling with the horrifying capability of humanity at its worst and uncovering "the banality of evil." (Thursday, July 25, 1 p.m., JCC Hart Theatre)
A young Russian violinist named Sasha (Philippe Quint, himself a Grammy-winning violinist) finds himself caught between the world of classical music and the more soulful music he sees performed on the streets of New York City in the amiable musical dramedy, "Downtown Express." Sasha's father dreams of his son becoming a successful classical musician, and with a scholarship to Juilliard, it seems his son is well on his way. But when Sasha sets eyes on a pretty busker named Ramona (singer-songwriter Nellie McKay) and her band, Downtown Express, he discovers a music that's more exciting to him than the kind heard in stuffy concert halls. The plot is somewhat formulaic and McKay comes across as overly stiff when she's not singing, but the story is skillfully told and director David Grubin's documentary background lends the film an appealing observational quality. Plus, the music is fantastic. (Saturday, July 27, 7:30 p.m., Dryden Theatre)
"Hava Nagila" is a musical staple at Jewish celebrations, so it's fitting that the bar-mitzvah-year installment of the festival comes to a close with "Hava Nagila: The Movie," a fun, frothy little documentary tracing the history and oddly murky origins of the song that's all but inseparable from Jewish culture. Director Roberta Grossman keeps things moving briskly, packing the film with relevant clips from all areas of pop culture, and interviews with everyone from Harry Belafonte to Leonard Nimoy. But be prepared: after watching, it's more than likely you'll have the tune stuck in your head until just around the time next year's festival rolls around. (Monday, July 29, 7 p.m., Dryden Theatre)