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Rutgers Jewish Film Festival celebrates ‘chai’ anniversary
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Rutgers Jewish Film Festival celebrates ‘chai’ anniversary

The Israeli-Austrian film “Testament” revolves around Yoel Halberstam, a historian leading a debate against Holocaust deniers and discovering that his survivor mother gave testimony that casts doubt on her own identity.
The Israeli-Austrian film “Testament” revolves around Yoel Halberstam, a historian leading a debate against Holocaust deniers and discovering that his survivor mother gave testimony that casts doubt on her own identity.

The Rutgers Jewish Film Festival is in its milestone “chai” year of bringing an eclectic mix of screenings to the movies-loving community. The 18th annual cinematic celebration — offering 16 films from around the world at 29 showings in three locations — will take place Oct. 29-Nov. 12. 

Among the panoply of works will be three documentaries about Israel; films focusing on the Holocaust; an exploration of the Jewish influence on Iraqi music; a modern retelling of the biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar; and two “family friendly” movies appropriate for young viewers.

As in other years, most screenings will be followed by a discussion led by the film’s director or actors or a recognized expert in the movie’s subject matter. 

In programming the festival, said Karen Small, associate director of Rutgers University’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life, which sponsors the festival, “what we really look for is new movies and high-quality films that tell different aspects of the Jewish experience. We also look for different genres. We have films that are historical; we have one about David Ben-Gurion and one about the settlers. We have dramas, documentaries, and romantic comedies.”

The three venues are Rutgers Business School, on the Livingston campus in Piscataway; AMC Loews New Brunswick 18; and the Princeton Garden Theatre.

The festival will open with “Harmonia,” a 2016 Israeli film that recreates the biblical love triangle with three members of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra standing in for the biblical characters. Like their namesakes, the orchestra’s conductor, Abraham, and his harpist wife, Sarah, are unable to have children. When a young horn player, Hagar, from east Jerusalem, joins the orchestra, she and Sarah develop a special friendship and reach a singular agreement. 

“Harmonia,” Small said, offers “a very clever way to tell the biblical story.”

In the film, echoing the biblical events, she said, Hagar “has a child for them, and then tensions ensue. We have this modern setting with this amazing music from the orchestra as the backdrop. The child grows up to be a musician.” 

Although it hasn’t yet been confirmed, one of the film’s actors has been invited to take part in a post-screening program.

Making its New Jersey premiere, “The Invisibles” is a “captivating” German docudrama focusing on four young Jews who survive the Holocaust by adopting different identities and living “in plain sight” among the population of Berlin. Set in 1943, the film weaves dramatic reenactments with interviews with the four survivors on whom the film is based.

“There were 7,000 Jews who went underground” during the war, said Small. “One young woman who was staying in someone’s home had nothing to do so she went to the movies every day. She was blonde and just blended in. Another man was a forger who created false documents. In exchange people gave him food coupons and helped him, and he just lived among the population.”

Also making its N.J. premiere, “Keep the Change” is an American film about two young New Yorkers, David and Sarah, who are both on the autism spectrum, both high functioning, who meet at a JCC support group and develop a romantic relationship. The film won Best Narrative Feature and Best New Narrative Director prizes at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

The director of the film, Rachel Israel, “actually met this young man and decided to make a movie with him,” said Small. “Many of the young actors are actually playing themselves in the film.”

Israel will appear at the screening.

“One of the most powerful films in the festival is called ‘1945,’” said Small. The Hungarian film takes place shortly after the end of the war, when two Jews get off a train in a rural town in Hungary.

“Everybody notices them,” said Small. “They have a big box and are looking for someone to take it to the village for them. Someone goes ahead to the village to tell them Jews are returning. This sends the villagers into a kind of panic. Are they there to reclaim property? 

“It brings out all the anti-Semitism and guilt among the villagers at the thought of these people coming back to potentially upset their new life. We see all their secrets coming out.”

The film, which is also having its N.J. premiere, is shot in black and white, which, Small said, is “very appropriate to the subject matter.” 

Director Ferenc Török, who adapted the movie from a short story by Gabor T. Szanto, is expected to appear.

The three documentaries from Israel are “Ben-Gurion: Epilogue,” featuring newly discovered interview footage from 1968 in which Israel’s first prime minister discusses life after politics; “Dimona Twist,” in which seven women share their stories of immigration to Israel in the 1950s and ’60s and their lives in the development town of Dimona; and “The Settlers,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and which traces the history and growth of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Yariv Mozer, director of the Ben-Gurion film, will appear.

The festival is also offering two movies suitable for families: “A Bag of Marbles,” a French film based on a true story and book of the same name, in which two young brothers must flee Paris in 1941 for the free zone, and “Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators,” an American documentary that follows Hans and Margret Rey on the eve of World War II as they escape Paris on bicycles with their manuscript that became the book that introduced the beloved children’s character Curious George. 

“It’s not often we get films appropriate for younger viewers, and we think these two are very special,” said Small. “They are both planned for Sunday afternoons to make it more convenient for families to attend.”

The festival will also hold a free screening of “A Bag of Marbles” for students, a joint program of the festival and Bildner’s Herbert and Leonard Littman Families Holocaust Resource Center. 

For information and a full schedule, go to bildnercenter.rutgers.edu/events/film.

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