The film festival season is here in the Twin Cities, and the first one to pull us out of winter hibernation and whet our appetite is The Sabes Foundation's Annual Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival. In its 18th year, the MJFF has assembled 17 features and a collection of shorts, all local premieres, that run over a 17-day schedule.
Although there is a good mix of fact and fiction in the Festival this year, it is the documentaries that seem the most urgent, timely and not-to-be-missed, as demonstrated in the subjects covered: larger than life biopics of the historically marginalized (Ahead of Time, Where I Stand: The Hank Greenspun Story, No. 4 Street of Our Lady, Grace Paley: Collected Shorts), cultural investigations from the fringes (Children of the Bible, These Are My Names), very real stories of hope and reconciliation (Precious Life, My So-Called Enemy) and, with the snow melting my the minute, the sport everyone is thinking about (Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story.)
One such doc, Precious Life (Sunday, April 3, 7pm) is a heartbreaking, and often frustrating, illustration of the impossible situation between the Palestinians and the Israelis and the urgent need for hope, represented in a baby who needs a bone marrow transplant. Mohammad is a four-month-old Palestinian born without an immune system in need of an expensive procedure that can only be done in an Israeli hospital. With the aid of humanitarian doctor and an earnest journalist (Shlomi Eldar, who is also the filmmaker), Mohammad receives an anonymous donation of $50,000 for the bone marrow transplant. But this is only the beginning. Finding a suitable donor means taking blood samples from relatives, all of who live in Gaza and are unable to come to the hospital. While the conflict boils in the Gaza Strip, Eldar and the committed people around him must first find a way to get blood samples from the relatives, and then get permission for the matching donor to come to Israel. This poignant documentary pummels you with conflicting personal politics set against the backdrop of a devastating and very tangible war. Although Mohammad's life may be saved, thanks to the dedication of many people, he may nonetheless grow up to be a suicide bomber, or he could just as easily be killed in a mortar attack when he returns home to Gaza. Director Eldar bravely forces not only himself, but also the audience, to confront these emotional and personal issues. No easy answers or simple solutions are offered in Precious Life, but in the end it is the small steps of humanity that make a difference—for all of us.
A documentary of a completely different tenor tackles the larger-than-life story of Hank Greenspun in Where I Stand: The Hank Geenspun Story (Saturday, March 26, 5pm, Sunday, March 27, 7pm and Saturday, April 9, 5pm). That perfunctory title doesn't even come close to capturing what this film offers in a well-designed biography of an incredible man. Watching this film makes me wonder why Greenspun is not a household hero, but it also makes me wonder why he was never included in my education. But then again, although Greenspun seemed to be intertwined with the headline news of his day, his face seems to be just outside of the frame. Most certainly a self-made man, Greenspun was best known as a newspaper man, but he had his hands in everything from helping arm Haganah in their fight to establish the nation of Israel in 1947 to vehemently discrediting Joseph McCarthy's fear mongering in 1952. Greenspun made a name for himself by standing up for what was right, which he voiced in his own newspaper, the Las Vegas Sun, from a column appropriately captioned "Where I Stand." The documentary, directed by Scott Goldstein, does not take its valiant subject for granted and builds a stylish talking-head biopic with good use of photo montages, original interviews, stock footage and dramatized narration by Anthony Hopkins. Goldstein will be on hand for the screenings on March 26 and 27 to introduce the film as well as take questions.
The MJFF supplements its well-rounded documentary selections with a handful of narrative features from all over the world, two of which open and close the festival. Anita, from Argentina, opens the Fest on March 24, 7pm at the Showplace ICON Theater in St Louis Park. Telling the story of a Down syndrome woman who suddenly loses her mother (both figuratively and literally), Anita was an award winner at the LA International Latino Film Festival and is sure to tug at everyone's heartstrings. Perhaps the most noteworthy film in the Festival is The Matchmaker by Avi Nesher, fresh from the Toronto Film Festival, closing out the MJFF on April 9, 9pm at the Sabes JCC. Told in flashback, The Matchmaker is set in 1968 Haifa when 16 year-old Arik makes an unlikely friend in a slightly shady but gentle matchmaker named Yankele Bride. Yankele hires Arik to spy on his clients to find out if they are truthful in their desire to find love or simply "looking for hanky panky." While Arik is searching for the meaning of love himself, he is also coming to realize the gravity of his father and Yankele's experience in WWII. Coded by words like "there" and "back then," the Holocaust hangs heavy over Yankele and his red district friends opening Arik's eyes to the curtain of fear that they all live behind. The Matchmaker is a perfect balance of coming-of-age charm and dramatic gravity by veteran director Nesher.
On a much lighter side, Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish (Saturday, April 2, 5:30pm) is a comedic treatment of Shakespeare's tragedy filtered through the lives of young ex-Orthodox slackers from Brooklyn. Ava solicits the help of three young Yiddish speakers to adapt Shakespeare's play (that they have, incidentally, never heard of) into a modern tale. The film mixes the drama—based on many of the actors' real lives—with the staging of Romeo and Juliet in hip modern Yiddish. A play within a play within a movie, it's a hilarious parody that makes plenty of jabs at American Jewish culture that no doubt has many more jokes for those savvy in Yiddish. The 'tragedy' puts a little bit of a damper on things and the acting wavers between over-the-top to apathetic, but overall it works for the staged setting. Another comedy on the schedule is Josh Appignanesi's The Infidel (Thursday, March 31, 5:30pm) from the UK. Mahmud, likened to Homer Simpson by the LA Times, is a Muslim who suddenly finds out he's Jewish.
The Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival opens Thursday. Information and schedule can be found on the MJFF website. Tickets can be purchased in advance online or there are a number of options for 5 or 10-film passes or a full festival pass getting you into everything. See you there.