Jewish Film Festival casts wide net for quality films

This year's selection includes films about an Orthodox baseball team and Hasidic Ecstasy smugglers

  • "Berlin '36" screens at the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival.
"Berlin '36" screens at the Baltimore Jewish… (Baltimore Sun )
March 24, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

"The Yankles" sounds like a ribald, adult hybrid of "The Bad News Bears" and "The Chosen." The opening-night film of the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival, it features "a washed-up former pro player" who is "sentenced to mandatory community service for a drunken-driving conviction" and "finds redemption by coaching an upstart Orthodox Jewish baseball team."

Jews and sports have long been a source of ethnic comedy. Jon Stewart exploits this supposed mismatch every baseball season on "The Daily Show."

But Jon Teter, film coordinator for the festival, said in an email this week, "'The Yankles' has its moments of comedy but also deals with some realistic issues that the team must face in order to compete."

Entertainment with enlightenment: That's the mix that Baltimore Jewish Film Festival subscribers have come to expect for 23 years.

The festival has a track record for showcasing films that move on to theatrical runs in Baltimore or gain increased exposure on television.

The new edition of the Jewish Film Festival contains another, very different Jewish sports film — "Berlin '36," the fact-based tale of a Jewish high jumper in Hitler's Germany who was a favorite to win a medal in the 1936 Summer Olympics.

With programs that range from baseball hijinks to literal leaps of faith, the festival has been able to achieve extraordinary breadth year every year.

Teter said the films its programmers select just have to be of Jewish interest, meaning having Jewish content or a significant Jewish presence. "We have considered films in the past that have had very little Jewish content but have featured major Jewish directors or actors," he said.

They come in from festivals and showcases around the world, but "we also accept new submissions and seek out films that may not have done the festival circuit yet. … This year we had over 100 submissions for consideration."

This year's lucky few include four Israeli or Israeli-European productions: "Naomi," the story of a middle-age professor's obsessive love for his young wife; "For My Father," the romance of a failed Palestinian suicide bomber and a beautiful Israeli who has left her Orthodox family; "The Matchmaker," the coming-of-age tale of a teenage boy in 1968 Haifa who goes to work for an enigmatic matchmaker; and "Five Hours from Paris," a character study of a cabdriver with a fear of flying.

"Traditionally, we have included one or two Israeli films each year," Teter said. "This year there was a large quantity of very well-made Israeli films." And these Israeli films, "often quite different from European or American films in their stylistic qualities," suit the festival audience's appetite for "a wide variety of topics and genres."

On Sunday, April 10, at 3 p.m., I'll be introducing an American film called "Holy Rollers," with the most offbeat subject so far this year: Hasidic Jews smuggling Ecstasy between Amsterdam and New York in the late 1990s. The festival ends with "As Seen Through These Eyes," a documentary about artists whose aesthetic passions helped them survive the Holocaust.

"We try to avoid weighing heavily on one topic, such as the Holocaust, when choosing which films to feature in the festival," Teter said. "It is easier to achieve this when you have a large number of high-quality films for the year."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

If you go

The Baltimore Jewish Film Festival runs Monday through April 14 at the Gordon Center, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave. in Owings Mills. Admission is $10. Go to baltimorejff.com.

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