New Festival Takes a Reel Look at Jewish Culture

Guest writer

The Farewell Party, a new film from Israel, explores Jewish themes that surely would have sent a Gothic Halloween shiver up the back of the English novelist Mary Shelley. The film is one of six new films playing in the first annual Victoria International Jewish Film Festival (VIJFF.ca), which is coming to the Cineplex OdeonTheatre for three days, from November 7-9, 2015.

A black comedy about self-euthanasia, The Farewell Party is also a poignant exploration of the conflicts faced by a group of elderly friends confronting decline and death. They take divinity into their own hands, as Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein does, not to create hubristically but to kill mercifully. In mastering the intricacies of building a suicide machine—rather than the secrets of cobbling together a monster—they eventually realize that the mechanism is merely the least complicated aspect of loss and dying. The superbly acted film is suffused with Jewish-inflected themes of judgment, identity, and memory.

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This year’s inaugural VIJFF will screen three new documentaries and three narrative features hailing from Israel, the USA and the UK. The screenings are likely to be the only time Victoria audiences can see these films in a theatre.

Victoria has long needed a Jewish film festival, and now we have one. The Festival demonstrates why “ethnic” film festivals are relevant today. Only small festivals can afford to bring a diverse basket of outstanding yet off-beat films to cinemas where star-studded blockbusters are the typical unadventurous fare. Smaller festivals such as the VIJFF breathe new life into movie-going because they engage film aficionados in new and more culturally exploratory ways.

This year’s Festival also demonstrates the remarkable richness and diversity of Jewish-themed filmmaking. As the Festival’s film programmer, I was surprised at the long list of new films on Jewish topics submitted to us. Festival director Sandra Glass and I watched some fifty new films—far less than the number submitted—in order to winnow down the list to our six films. We hope to show more films next year if the Festival, which is sponsored by the Jewish Community Centre of Victoria and organized by a team of volunteers, is a hit with Victoria audiences.

Four of the six films in the Festival touch on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. This reflects the continuing urgency of that conflict and, for better or worse, its centrality for contemporary Jewish identity. One of these films is a remarkable documentary, Partner with the Enemy, that follows two women, a West Bank Palestinian and a Jewish Israeli, who together start an import-export business. We see their successes, struggles and growing awareness of how profoundly communal affiliation shapes their differing responses to events. The film is morally complex in the best sense: it raises questions that are neither theoretical nor abstract but that express the intense anxieties, sadness, longing and uncertainty in these women’s lives.

Peter the Third, another Festival film, is a romantic comedy about a klatch of retirees who spend their time gossiping and kvetching in a Tel Aviv café. These older men are abetted in changing their lives, just as in the 2012 hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, by an indomitable younger person. The acting is pitch-perfect and the film has moments of self-reflection that Marigold, despite its star-studded cast, never attained.

Jewish film festivals, sometimes jokingly called “secular Jewish High Holidays,” present a multifaceted vision of our culture. Three other films—Rock in the Red Zone, Of Many and Dough—confirm that the VIJFF aims at communal ingathering as much as cultural outreach.

Lincoln Z. Shlensky, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Victoria and an involved member of Victoria’s Jewish community.

You can read more articles from our interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking HERE

*This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, October 31 2015. 

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