Women's Balcony
The Women’s Balcony

By Elias Savada.

Twenty-seven years on, the Washington Jewish Film Festival remains a vibrant part of the Nation’s Capital scene. As the area’s largest Jewish cultural event, the 12-day program of documentary and narrative movies, running from May 17-28, will feature 63 features and 18 short films representing 25 countries. Screenings, related talks, a concert featuring traditional Yiddish music, and even a bar crawl will happen across the metropolitan area, including the AFI Silver Theatre (Silver Spring MD), Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema (Bethesda MD), Landmark E Street Cinema, the National Gallery of Art, and the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater at the Edlavitch DCJCC. Attendees from out of town using the Metrorail system should visit the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s SafeTrack website here, to see if any of the track work will impact their schedule.

This year’s event, again spearheaded by Festival Director Ilya Tovbis, is bookended by two English-subtitled entries. The Israeli box office smash The Women’s Balcony will be the Opening Night attraction at the AFI. Emil Ben-Shimon’s film (due for release in the United States through Menemsha Films) is a quasi-comedic look at the religious rifts that upends disparate politics with an Orthodox community. On May 28th, the French-Belgian Fanny’s Journey is director Lola Doillon’s look at a little-known episode featuring 11 children in World War II.

WJFF has three threads programmed. Mechanism of Extremism (11 films) looks at extremist governments, societies, and movements, while Laugh Track (12 titles) naturally is about all things funny, including such classics as Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be(1942, Happy 75th Anniversary!) and Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, her 1995 masterpiece (May 25th, with a Q+A with the director following the screening). The third strand is Rated LGBTQ (6 titles, including a 45th anniversary screening of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret), which focuses on queer cinema and is presented in partnership with GLOE – The Kurlander Program for GLBT Outreach & Engagement.

Most of the films are DC or Mid-Atlantic premieres. Some (Dad in Training, Let Yourself Go, A Jew Must Die, Murder in Polna, OMG, I’m a Robot and others) are the first screenings for East Coast, U.S., or North American audiences. There are three shorts programs, including a comic collection called Walk a Mile in My Shoes that has some wonderful examples of Jewish humor. The second screening (May 28th) of this program is paired with the festival’s back-by-popular-demand Two Jews Walk Into a Bar (and a Deli) pub crawl in Chinatown.

Among the Spotlight screenings this year are Dani Menken’s On the Map, a documentary about the 1977 Maccabee Tel-Aviv basketball squad which showcases the team’s David vs. Goliath efforts in toppling the four-time defending European champion Soviet club. Also check out Menashe, which won hearts at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals. This is a heartwarming story from director Joshua Z. Weinstein about a sad sack Hasidic Jew, a widower trying to raise a son. The boy is forced to live with his strict uncle, and poor Menashe is having issues as his religious community insists he re-marry. Another Spotlight entry is Radu Mihăileanu’s period saga The History of Love based on the bestseller by Nicole Krauss. Gemma Arterton, Derek Jacobi, and Elliott Gould are featured in the cast. The very romantic German comedy The Bloom of Yesterday from Chris Kraus is about a Holocaust researcher who reckons with a personal and professional crisis.

This year’s WJFF Visionary Award is being presented to Agnieszka Holland and Barry Levinson. Levinson, the Oscar-winning director of Rain Man and responsible for Diner, Bugsy, Avalon and other gems, will be honored on May 18th in conjunction with a screening of Liberty Heights. Holland, the great Polish director and screenwriter, will attend the award ceremony on May 27th and participate in a special Q+A. This event will also present Holland’s Academy-Award nominated film Angry Harvest (1985).

The good news is that nearly all the films have two screenings. There’s even on film (Angel Wagenstein: Art Is a Weapon) that you can see for free. This US/Bulgarian documentary is a look at the eponymous Bulgarian-Jewish filmmaker.

Dozens of directors, actors, and speakers will be on hand to introduce and talk about the films. For a complete schedule and ticket information (if you’re 30 or under, a festival pass is just $40; for those above the age threshold, it will run you $175; individual tickets start at $13) visit the Washington Jewish Film Festival website here.

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