Film fest plays to all

March 23, 2006|By SAM SESSA | SAM SESSA,SUN REPORTER

They should move you, no matter who you are.

The documentary, drama and action movies featured in the William and Irene Weinberg Family Baltimore Jewish Film Festival are filled with political, social and cultural issues. Organizers hope the eight films will captivate and resonate with audiences of all backgrounds and ages.

"That's almost the mission of the film festival: To really bring people together, but people from everywhere -- not just Jewish people," said Claudine Davison, the assistant director for arts and culture at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore. "These films have interests beyond just [Jewish] aspects and that's why they are good films."

The festival starts Tuesday and runs through next month with screenings of eight movies and discussions with guest speakers. One of the first in the series is Isn't This a Time, a documentary of interviews with folk artists and a tribute concert at Carnegie Hall for famed promoter Harold Leventhal. Leventhal supported folk musicians such as the Weavers, Peter Paul and Mary and Arlo Guthrie through political movements and backlash.

In the '50s, the Weavers were falsely labeled as Communists and blacklisted, which denied them TV and live performances for years. The group disbanded but Leventhal persuaded them to play together again.

At this year's Grammys, the Weavers received a lifetime achievement award -- a source of great pride for guitarist and singer Fred Hellerman.

"If this award sends off any message at all, the message is that if you stay ... a course of honesty, a course of good sense -- a principled course, and not one of blind obstinacy, then you can outlast your enemies and still end up leaving your own honor and integrity intact," said Hellerman, who is in his late 70s.

Released last year, Isn't This a Time addresses the political side of the folk movement, including the Weavers' blacklisting. At the height of the country's anti-Communist fervor in the '50s, Hellerman said he would walk down the sidewalk and see friends who would cross the street to avoid being seen talking to him in public.

"People find that so hard to imagine," Hellerman said. "Today, it is hard to imagine. But it happened. Not just once, but time and time again. So that it's a whole era people have to be reminded of. It was an atmosphere -- an atmosphere that was very pervasive."

Events like the Jewish Film Festival are a way for films like Isn't This a Time to reach a wider audience, Davison said. Baltimoreans might not get the chance to see these films in theaters otherwise, she said. It's good to be reminded of our country's cultural and political movements such as the folk movement, Hellerman said.

"It's important for people to hear some of the things that were in play at the time," Hellerman said.

The festival was Davison's brainchild -- she helped put together the first one almost two decades ago. The selection process, which takes about a year, is both fun and frustrating, she said. Other films include Perlasca, Little Jerusalem, The Hungarian Servant, Turn Left at the End of the World, The Ritchie Boys and The Syrian Bride.

Each year, Davison plays detective and tracks down about 100 recently released films from around the world through filmmakers and distributors, she said.

"It can be very obscure, and it can be very difficult sometimes, but I keep track as well as I can of what's available," she said. "It's a very mysterious field -- the field of filmmaking -- and very complicated."

Davison narrows the list of 100 movies down to about 40 and hands it to 25 committee members. The committee meets two to three times a week to screen, discuss and take notes on the films. Then comes the tough part, when committee members vote which eight films will make the final pool.

"It can be very painful," Davison said. "It's a personal thing very often. Just as going to a movie is personal. Some people will hate the movie, some people will love the movie, some people will find an emotional link to a movie. Some people will befriend a movie, some people will attack a movie. It's all done in really good spirits and with the fun of it."

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

The William and Irene Weinberg Baltimore Jewish Film Festival starts Tuesday and runs through April 25 at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, at 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave. in Owings Mills. Tickets are $8 per film. For more information, call Claudine Davison at 410-542-4900 ext. 239 or visit baltimorejff.com.

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