The cultural continuity of the Jewish people draws on a deep wellspring of collective memory that transcends national borders. Endlessly renewable, the energy of memory is the underlying theme of the second annual Victoria International Jewish Film Festival (VIJFF.ca), coming to the Cineplex Odeon Theater November 12-15.
This year’s Festival, building on the success of last year’s inaugural VIJFF, has even more screenings, including a program of sharply observed short films. All the films were produced during the past year. The Festival is sponsored by Victoria’s Jewish Community Centre and made possible through ticket sales, grants, volunteerism, and a partnership with Vancouver’s Jewish Film Centre.
The international scope of this year’s Festival is notable, with films from Israel, France, Morocco and the Netherlands. A volunteer jury assisted me and Festival director Sandra Glass in selecting from among more than a hundred films submitted. We aimed for a balance of genres, including drama, comedy and documentary.
One of my favorite movies in the Festival is Amir Wolf’s Fire Birds, an improbable combination of noirish thriller and black comedy set in the rapidly disappearing Holocaust survivor community in Israel. The question of who is a survivor lies at the heart of this self-consciously Shakespearean film. Its protagonist is an elderly con man who, denied entry into the ranks of recognized victims, swindles a series of widowed Jewish Holocaust survivors. Fire Birds shows why, with excellent acting and direction, the Israeli film industry is able to punch far above its weight.
Among the Festival’s excellent short films, award-winning Israeli comedy “The Little Dictator,” directed by Emanuel and Nurith Cohn, also touches on the topic of the Holocaust. It does so with a sly wink at Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 political comedy, The Great Dictator, one of the first Hollywood films to have openly assailed Hitler and Nazism. In the Cohns’ unexpectedly moving comedy, the rich history of German Jewish culture prior to the Holocaust is rescued from the oblivion of forgetting by a seemingly milquetoast professor of History.
Yuval Delshad’s Baba Joon, the first-ever Israeli feature to be made in Farsi with a cast of Iranian-Israeli actors, concerns the conflict between Persian Jewish immigrants to Israel and their native-born Israeli children. Shot in the harshly beautiful Negev desert, the film evokes the perplexity and pain of a poultry farmer whose son resists following him into the traditional family business.
Memories of loss pervade Jérôme Cohen-Olivar’s bittersweet comedy The Midnight Orchestra. This film explores the abrupt tear in Morocco’s multicultural social fabric that resulted from the exodus of its Jewish population in the wake of the 1973 Middle East War. In a series of picaresque escapades, a fictional Jewish musician’s son exposes the haunted psychology of Moroccan Jewish émigrés who left richly cultured Arab cities like Casablanca.
The Festival’s opening night film is Robert Sherman’s documentary, In Search of Israeli Cuisine, which makes global memories tangible (and almost tastable!) in an exploration of Israel’s diverse culinary palette. Another Festival film, Job Gosschalk’s sweet romantic-comedy Moos (a Dutch diminutive for “Moses”), tackles the theme of memory in a light sendup of society’s obsession with glamour. And Iris Zaki’s beautifully observed short documentary “Women in Sink” exposes the painful memories—yet also the surprising fluidity—of Jewish-Arab coexistence, as expressed by Jewish, Muslim and Christian patrons of a Palestinian-owned hair salon in Haifa.
In these and other films in this year’s Festival, memory is portrayed not as an automatic phenomenon so much as a means of creatively communing with others across time and space—a potent allegory, perhaps, of the act of movie-going itself.
Lincoln Z. Shlensky is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Victoria. He is the film programmer for the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival.
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*This article was published in the print edition of the Times Coloinist on Saturday, October 29 2016