Live and Become, a word-of-mouth hit dramatizing the plight of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, has packed houses in college towns and enjoyed four- or five-month runs in upscale communities such as West Newton, Mass.
Today it finds the Baltimore home that you'd expect for any French/Israeli/Italian/Belgian co-production: the city artplex, the Charles Theatre. But a chosen few Baltimoreans got the first look at it a year ago at the William & Irene Weinberg Family Baltimore Jewish Film Festival. And they enjoyed a conversation with Mosche Abebe, one of three Ethiopian Jewish actors of different ages who play the movie's hero, a Christian-born Ethiopian who must pretend to be a Jew.
Claudine Davison founded the festival in 1988 and remains its guiding light. The assistant director of arts and culture at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, she considers Abebe's appearance a high point in the festival's history. For her audience, seeing Abebe step from the screen to the stage transformed Live and Become into a humanistic version of a 3-D experience. "He was so personable and sweet, and people loved him to death; weeks later they were still talking about it," says Davison.
But the Jewish Film Festival has boasted one coup after another over the course of its near-two-decade run. Based at the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts in Owings Mills, the festival kicks off its 19th season Thursday night with a sold-out screening of Steel Toes, starring David Strathairn as a Jewish lawyer assigned to defend a skinhead accused of committing homicide as a hate crime. Writer/co-director David Gow, who wrote the source play, Cherry Docs, is the guest speaker.
The early must-sees in the schedule include The Rape of Europa, a documentary based on Lynn H. Nicholas' award-winning book about artworks filched by the Third Reich. After the Gordon screening at 3 p.m. April 15, Walters Art Museum director Gary Vikan will host an additional screening at the Walters at 2 p.m. April 22.
Think of any Jewish-themed film of note and Davison's group is apt to have brought it to Baltimore. Agnieszka Holland's international critical sensation, Europa Europa (1990), about a Jewish boy who poses as a Hitler Youth, made its local debut at the festival in 1992. Davison scheduled repeat showings because "it was such a wonderful film, and no one else was playing it."
Davison and her selection committee are movie lovers, not just Jewish movie lovers. "These films have a Jewish interest," she says, "but they also have a universal interest. If they are good films, they are good films." She uses Pedro Almodovar's latest smash as an analogy: "Volver may have a special Spanish interest because it's a Spanish text, but it's also a wonderful film."
The festival has passed up some notable titles, such as the cutting-edge Israeli drama Late Marriage (2001), because they rubbed programmers the wrong way. But those occasions have been rare. Davison's organization reflects a community known for its variety of perspectives on everything from religious practice to politics. She and her committee echo "the larger world, but, we hope, with more know-how" about movies. They also balance pictures that aim for entertainment with those that aspire to be art. Davison says, "You don't want to screen too many Holocaust films or heavy dramas, but the first requirement is that a film be of high enough quality." More important, "You can't put people in one box, and you can't assume they will all agree."
What you can do is choose movies that elicit a spirited response as well as speakers able to open up their content for an audience. Davison and company pride themselves on selectivity. Scheduling eight or nine films per edition and spreading them out over a month, the festival presents what it considers the best Jewish films available from any source and any time, not merely the product of any single year.
Along with critical and popular favorites, the Jewish Film Festival has introduced Baltimoreans to rarely seen gems such as the haunting 1937 Polish version of Sholem Anski's play The Dybbuk, in 1990, and, in 1995, the late Czech filmmaker Jiri Weiss' piercing, tragicomic Martha and I (1991), about the perils of mixed marriage before and during the Holocaust.
Adhering to principle has won this festival an avid following. "We give people who go to our movies the satisfaction that builds loyalty and allows you to grow and reach out," Davison says. In addition to Steel Toes, three other films have sold out. Typically, by festival's end, every showing has sold out.
Davison created the Jewish Film Festival in partnership with the now-defunct Film Forum series of international movies at the Baltimore Museum of Art. She didn't know that Jewish film festivals had been going strong in other cities, like San Francisco. She just "thought it would be really cool to have a Jewish film festival, one that wouldn't have to be 'in-your-face-Jewish,' but would show films of Jewish interest that seemed to travel a one-way route and disappear into the sunset, like many of the films at the Film Forum."
Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator Theatre, and Bill Hewitt, its presentation guru, set top professional standards when Davison's operation traveled to the Gordon Center a dozen years ago. They provide projectionists and check print quality. They also accept prints on Friday night and Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, when festival workers can't. The result: The Gordon Center offers a movie-going experience that rivals the Senator's. Its 550 seats (spread out over 18 rows) boast unobstructed sight lines and generous leg room. The acoustics are pristine: A cannonade and a murmured prayer register with equal potency on the ear.
This venue provides intimacy and audiovisual grandeur. That combination is part of the festival's appeal, too. "We want to remain close to our audience," says Davison. In fact, when viewers subscribe to the series, they become known as festival "stars."
"After all," she says, laughing, "they're the ones who give us the most encouragement. They illuminate our firmament."
7:30 p.m. Thursday:
Steel Toes. Speaker: David Gow, co-director and playwright. Sold out.
9:15 p.m. April 14:
A Love to Hide. Speaker: Baltimore-based stage and film director Steve Yeager.
3 p.m. April 15:
The Rape of Europa.
2 p.m. April 22 at the Walters Art Museum:
The Rape of Europa. Speaker: Gary Vikan, director of the museum.
7:30 p.m. April 19:
What a Wonderful Place. Speaker: Rabbi Mark Loeb. Sold out.
9:15 p.m. April 21:
The Fury of the Entire World. Speaker: Jay Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen, artist and filmmaker.
7:30 p.m. April 24:
Out of Sight. Guest speaker: Pearl Gluck, author and filmmaker. Sold out.
7:30 p.m. April 26:
Nina's Home. Speaker: Valerie Steiker, Vogue culture editor and author of The Leopard Hat: A Daughter's Story. Sold out.
7:30 p.m. May 1:
The First Time I Was Twenty. Speaker: Nadine Epstein, editor/executive publisher, Moment magazine.
7 p.m. May 3 at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC:
A Cantor's Tale. Speaker: director Erik Greenberg Anjou.
All screenings are at the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynbrook Ave., Owings Mills, except where noted. For more information, go to baltimorejff.com.