Philadelphia Film Festival Offers Plenty of Options, Including Jewish-themed Stories

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Festival Artistic Director Michael Lerman and Executive Director J. Andrew Greenblatt at this year’s curators night on Oct. 7 at the Prince Theater.

Margot Robbie’s turn as divisive figure skater Tonya Harding in the highly-anticipated I, Tonya is already earning her Oscar buzz.

It’s also one of the films J. Andrew Greenblatt recommends seeing as part of the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival. Luckily, it’s the first flick of the festival.

The 26th annual fest kicks off Oct. 19 with screenings of I, Tonya at the Prince Theater and continues through Oct. 29.

“I am thrilled about the lineup,” said Greenblatt, executive director of the Philadelphia Film Society and festival director. “It’s really strong, it’s really diverse. We’ve got some of the most anticipated films of the year, but we’ve also got some of these great foreign films that are submitted for Best Foreign Oscar. … There’s just so much, it’s hard to be upset with anything in it.”

I, Tonya is one of the many films that stand out in this year’s lineup, which includes shorts and feature films like Darkest Hour, a World War II-era film starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, and foreign works such as Faces Places, a French film in which the co-directors, ages 89 and 34, create street murals in France.   

There is a long list of foreign films in this year’s 100-plus film festival, and Greenblatt, who attends Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, encourages viewers not to miss them.

“It does give you insight into different countries, different cultures, key issues that are presented before them,” he said. “It’s really important that we are able to provide people with those different views, different viewpoints, different opinions.

“A lot of these foreign films, they don’t get theatrical releases,” he added. “There’s so much content out there that to find them gets really difficult, so we have the job — the privilege, I guess — of being that curator that finds these films and brings them here and shines that spotlight on them as films that shouldn’t be missed.”

Among the foreign films are a few that were either filmed in Israel, made by Israeli directors or feature Jewish storylines and characters — from a biopic about Gilbert Gottfried to a documentary about a dancer who dropped out of college and moved to Israel to perform with Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company.

There’s also Bye Bye Germany, about a Holocaust survivor who, after being accused of collaborating with Nazis, must revisit his past as a prisoner at Auschwitz, where he was “recruited to play the clown at Nazi-filled parties, and eventually to tutor Hitler himself in the art of comic timing.”

Or One of Us, a documentary about three young individuals who decide to leave the “Orthodox community, their families and the practices of their faith behind.”

A still from One of Us, a documentary about three individuals who choose to leave new York’s Hasidic community.

“I don’t think people spend much time looking into that,” Greenblatt said, “and so it’s really going to be eye-opening to some people.”

One film that he is looking forward to is Scaffolding by Israeli director Matan Yair, which is based on elements of Yair’s own life. It follows high-schooler Asher, “a young man in constant battle with his emotions” who becomes drawn to literature against his father’s wishes.

“They’re all very different,” Greenblatt said of the films. “Something like Scaffolding is shot in Israel and Poland but it’s in Hebrew and it’s a personal and intimate film about life and family, and I imagine people will really enjoy it.”

Seeing a foreign film is a different cinematic experience in itself.

“You’re going to see something you haven’t seen before, most likely,” Greenblatt noted. “Maybe see a different filmmaker, a different style, a different topic. Something more challenging to you is always interesting, that’s what we like. We like these challenging films that don’t necessarily play the way an English-language film might play.”

For him, he just likes films. It’s what’s kept him going as he enters his ninth year as festival director.

As someone born and raised in Philadelphia, Greenblatt has also noticed the city’s lack of movie theaters.

That’s why the film festival is important.

“We don’t have a way to show these all year round,” he said, noting that PFS has acquired the Prince Theater and has a long-term lease of the Roxy Theater. “So we are able to do some of this year-round, which we’re really excited about. But we still don’t have enough capacity, so we use the festival as a way to make sure people see these films as best as possible.”

He’s also looking forward to distributing the second annual Lumière Award to noted actor Bruce Willis.

“The idea behind the award is to celebrate film, especially those filmmakers or actors, etc., who have a significant career and ideally who have a tie to Philadelphia in some level,” Greenblatt said, “and Bruce is great. He’s shot four or five films here at this point. … So he was kind of a no-brainer.”

It helps that notable filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan — the inaugural recipient — is now on the festival board and offered Willis as a suggestion. Shyamalan and Willis are both in town shooting the director’s new film, Glass. Shyamalan will present Willis with the award during an Oct. 23 ceremony.

Shyamalan has plenty of his own local film-centric connections, which made him an easy choice as the first recipient.

“Is there anyone more important to film in Philadelphia than Night? I can’t think of anyone,” Greenblatt said — before adding Sylvester Stallone for, of course, Rocky.

For Greenblatt, a highlight each year are the conversations the festival sparks.

“I love how people talk about films in line,” he said. “They buzz and they talk to people they don’t know and say, ‘What have you seen? What are you seeing? I saw that, it’s great, you should go see this.’ That happens in the lines and the lobbies, and that’s my favorite part. You really build this film community and it just perpetuates for 10, 11 days. It’s something we’d like to do for 365 days.”

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