At JCC, a film festival pushes boundaries

At JCC, a film festival pushes boundaries

‘Jewish’ means many things to organizers of annual showcase

A still from the documentary about War of Independence pilots, Above and Beyond, the final film of the 15th NJJFF, showing on Sunday, March 29.    
A still from the documentary about War of Independence pilots, Above and Beyond, the final film of the 15th NJJFF, showing on Sunday, March 29.    

If anyone thinks “Jewish” means narrow confines, the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival ending this weekend at the JCC in West Orange proves otherwise.

The upcoming films cover a range from the hilarious to the heartbreaking, and a combination of the two — as in the concluding movie, Above and Beyond, showing on Sunday evening.

It tells the story of Gideon “Giddy” Lichtman and a group of his fellow Jewish-American World War II fighter pilots, who snuck out of the United States in 1948 to train and fight in smuggled planes in an attempt to help Israel in its War of Independence. Lichtman, who grew up in this area, will be participating via Skype in the post-screening discussion. 

The films shown have dealt with everything from mayhem to mystery in fiction and true life, from contemporary Jewish identity to how a family deals with suicide, to a teen mitzva project in Cuba, and — my personal favorite — high fashion in the over-60 set.

With most, the Jewish connection is obvious; in others, it was more subtle. But, as happened at quite a few screenings, there were people on hand with a direct connection to the production to answer any queries about those connections.

In the case of Advanced Style, one of the five women most prominently featured in the film, the flamboyantly elegant Debra Rapoport, came to the March 18 screening. She answered questions, chatted afterwards with audience members, and then taught a class in how to create the ingeniously over-the-top jewelry that makes her look so distinctive.

What was so Jewish about this documentary?, one woman asked. 

“I’m not quite sure,” Rapoport answered. 

“Ari [Seth Cohen, whose obsession with older fashion mavens inspired the film based on his blog and book] is Jewish, and most of the women he features are Jewish!” an audience member called out.

“Yes, but why?” demanded another.

“I don’t think he deliberately chooses Jewish women,” Rappaport said, “but maybe there is something about the way we dress — something about our individuality.”

“And we know how to find the best shmattes!” declared another woman.

A committee selects the films each year, and while the Holocaust still features prominently, the choices have tended to cover an increasingly broader range of topics. Joni Cohen, who has chaired the festival for the past five years, said, “We continuously re-evaluate what a ‘Jewish’ film is. Whether the story has an overtly Jewish theme, or the cast and crew is Israeli, or the topic seems central to the Jewish experience, we have curated a diverse collection of films from all over the world to offer new perspectives and inspire conversation.” 

Some of the films this year, she said, “have inspired some interesting — and occasionally heated — dialogue.”

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