Beginning Thursday, BAMcinematek, the BAM Rose Cinemas’ repertory program, will present the First Brooklyn Jewish Film Festival. Films old and new that explore Jewish history, and celebrate Jewish culture are included in the series, which runs through April 29.
The festival began as a mini-event at the Temple Beth Elohim in Park Slope. According to Paul Rothman, who has organized the film festival along with Jackie Lew, Rabbi Gerald Weider suggested a small festival of Jewish-themed films for the congregation.
Rothman and Lew’s result was so successful that they decided to spread the wealth. With BAM’s enthusiastic participation, along with unpaid volunteers from the community, Rothman and his selection committee have found films of various genres and time periods.
"Yes, we’ll show new releases," he said, "but in the spirit of the cinematheque, we’ll show diverse films and older films, on the big screen - as they’re meant to be seen."
Opening the festival on Thursday at 7:30 pm is "Kippur" (2000), Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai’s devastating look at war from the front lines.
Inspired by his own experiences during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the film follows the exploits of two soldiers who, unable to hook up with their own unit, wind up traveling through the battle-scarred landscape with a medical unit. There is a surreal atmosphere here, but also shocking realism that speaks not only to that particular war in that particular place and time, but also to the horrors of war in general.
War War II and the Holocaust are the subjects of a number of films in the festival. It can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to capture the enormity of the Holocaust in an artistic medium, but many films in the festival come close, and even succeed, among them Marcel Ophuls’ classic documentary, "The Sorrow and the Pity" (Saturday, April 28 at 2 pm) - required viewing for all. In this four-and-a-half hour 1971 doc, Ophuls deconstructs the myth of the Resistance and explores the complicity of many of the French - scandalous behavior that still has repercussions throughout that country.
Taking a long view of the Holocaust is Norwegian director Alexander Rosler’s "Mendel" (Sunday, April 29 at 7:30 pm), the story of a young emigre dealing with a new world. It is a provocative study of the second generation of survivors and their search for identity. This Norwegian film (subtitled in English) is part of the closing night presentation.
One of the best discoveries of the festival is "The Optimists" (Saturday, April 28 at 7 pm). Filmmakers Lisa and Jacky Comforti follow their family’s ordeal in Bulgaria during World War II, and in so doing tell the unknown story - at least to this viewer - of the Christian-Bulgarian population who supported their Jewish friends, defended the homes of their Jewish neighbors, hid them when necessary and literally saved Bulgaria’s Sephardic Jews from extermination.
The title "The Optimists" was the name of the filmmakers’ grandfather’s jazz group before the war, but it is also the perfect description of what turned out to be a country full of life-savers. (A Q&A with the filmmakers will follow the screening.) Interviews with family members and other survivors, along with family photos and archival footage put an incredibly personal perspective on this little-known event.
One of the survivors, now a rabbi in Israel, sums it up. "To be Bulgarian" he says, "is to be a mensch."
Other films look at the Jewish experience throughout the world.
Canadian sociologist and filmmaker Coleman Romalis’ documentary "Emma Goldman: The Anarchist Guest" (Friday, April 27 at 6:30 pm) has little bite to it, but it does manage to bring some of the spirit of this 20th-century radical to life, focusing on her years in Canada, where she lived after being thrown out of the United States. A Q&A with Romalis will follow the screening.
A special program - with a lot of bite to it - is dedicated to the work of Brooklyn-born filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt (Sunday, April 29 at 5:15 pm), whose short films take on universal and historical topics with a personal perspective.
Especially daring is "Human Remains," a half-hour long film that merges archival footage with messages from the graves of some of history’s more despicable creatures, including Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. There is an eerie quality to this, and hearing them talk about their general health and hobbies sends chills up one’s spine.
Rosenblatt’s newest work in the program is the short film "King of the Jews." With a dream-like visual style that has a confessional aspect to it, Rosenblatt considers his own youth, when he made the discovery that Jesus was a Jew. As a Jewish-American boy he tries to reconcile that with the anti-Semitism he saw all around him. His own home movies, showing him as a little boy, mix with Hollywood images of the crucifixion and give us a very personal perspective on his attempts to make sense of it all.
After the festival, Rothman, himself a filmmaker, hopes to have monthly screenings at BAM as well as a second edition of the festival next year.
Having grown from a grassroots effort in Brooklyn, and with a carefully considered balance of documentaries and feature films, the festival should have a widespread appeal and the organizers look to build an audience from event to event.
Based on the selections in this first festival, the future looks optimistic.
The Jewish Film Festival at the BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Ave.) takes place from April 26-29. For a complete schedule of films go to www.BAM.org or call the BAMcinematek hotline at (718) 636-4157. Tickets are $9, $6 students, seniors and BAM Cinema Club members. For tickets to the opening night reception in the Natman Lounge at 9:30 pm on April 26, contact Jackie Lew at (718) 768-1860.