Five Things to Look for at 37th Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival Opening Nov. 4

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Centerpiece film “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” shows a new side of the famous actress. | Photo provided

The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival is entering its 37th year when it opens on Nov. 4, and PJFF Director Olivia Antsis is particularly proud of its “strong, very diverse, exciting, fun” lineup.

“This season we’ve been the most successful [at] sharing really diverse stories that offer perspectives that are rarely presented in Hollywood commercial releases,” she said.

This year’s lineup features 35 films, with 15 narratives, 11 documentaries and nine shorts that will be played through Nov. 19 at 12 different venues around Philadelphia and beyond.

“It’s so sophisticated and contemporary, I hope folks can see the festival is very much capable of being progressive, contemporary and sophisticated,” PJFF and Gershman Y Director of Marketing and Public Relations Bill Chenevert said.

There will also be plenty of opportunities to expand beyond just the film screening and partake in activities. For instance, before seeing the romantic comedy Let Yourself Go on Nov. 16, you can take part in a Zumba class (“Once you see the film, you’ll know why there’s a Zumba class involved,” Antsis said).

Or learn about documentary filmmaking at a master class with Mr. Gaga filmmaker Barak Heymann.

Or attend a glamorous Old Hollywood party when you go see the centerpiece film, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.  

Here are five new and exciting things to look for this year.

Israeli Films

In anticipation of Israel’s upcoming 70th birthday and the citywide programming planned for it, the festival will kick things off with three days of Israeli films.

It begins with The Cakemaker, an LGBT romance between a German pastry chef and his Israeli lover and includes My Hero Brother, which follows 11 young people with Down syndrome and their siblings who embark on a lengthy journey through the Indian Himalayas.

Those interested in Israeli politics and history will want to check out Ben-Gurion, Epilogue, which Antsis described as a “beautifully executed and engrossing documentary about Israel’s first prime minister, his love for the country, his frustrations with certain shortcomings he noticed at the time, and his hopes for what the country would one day become.”

Simultaneous Screenings

Can’t make it to Center City to see a film? No problem.

For the first time, the festival is trying out simultaneous screenings in which two films will play at the same time in two different venues to better reach their audience.

For instance, My Hero Brother will screen at the Gershman Y at the same time that Ben-Gurion, Epilogue plays at Gratz College.

“This is something that many Jewish film festivals are now doing, having multiple screenings at the same time at different venues,” Antsis said, “but it’s a first for us and we’re hoping it’s very successful. … We’re just giving people different parts of Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs a chance to see the film in their own neighborhood.”

Young and Independent Film Series

In an effort to entice a younger audience, PJFF is offering a Young and Independent Pass, which will grant access to the four films that are part of the young and independent series.

One of those, Holy Air, Antsis likened to a Wes Anderson-type comedy. It follows a Christian Arab living in Nazareth who climbs Mount Precipice each day to bottle the air and sell it to tourists.

Fans of musician Johnny Flynn would enjoy Love is Thicker Than Water, which follows two lovers of different backgrounds á la Romeo and Juliet. The film is also preceded by a bagel brunch with a make-your-own bloody mary bar.

“We think that by having more films that connect with younger people in Philadelphia,” Antsis said, “we could really grow that population in the festival and have young people to play a major role in our audience.”

Repairing the World

Each year, the festival features films that showcase the value of tikkun olam. This year, it has its own category.

“One of the values we hold very dear is human rights and working to help repair the world in any way we can,” Antsis said. “The films that are selected for this category, they’re not only chosen on the basis of their artistic excellence but also for their role in bringing awareness to human rights issues that go beyond the Jewish community.”

This year’s selection, Little Stones, follows four female artists making a difference in their respective communities, whether it’s as a graffiti artist speaking out against domestic violence in the favelas of Brazil or an American fashion designer training and employing impoverished Kenyan women to sew high-end fashion clothing.

The films in this category don’t necessarily need to be made by a Jewish filmmaker — though this year’s do — or follow Jewish characters; the importance is the message.

“It’s about issues that go beyond the Jewish community,” Antsis said, “just to always care about different people’s stories and be open to other perspectives that aren’t necessarily your own.”

Diverse Stories

A big theme of this year’s festival is sharing diverse stories. One in particular is about those with disabilities, whose stories are not often shown on the big screen.

“Keep the Change” follows two people who start to fall for each other, and just happen to be on the spectrum. | Photo provided

Spotlight film Keep the Change follows two young people who fall in love — and happen to be on the autism spectrum.

“For anybody who has any experience even slightly with somebody that’s on the spectrum, it’s so heartrending to see not only their story told but told complexly,” Chenevert said.

My Hero Brother is one that Antsis recommends bringing tissues for, adding it’s “one of the most heartfelt and memorable films in the festival.”

There are narratives with LGBT-centered stories; interfaith stories; films about the Holocaust that are told from new perspectives, such as a child survivor; stories like Harmonia, which is a modern retelling of the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar; and many more.

“It’s really important to have this place where we can empathize with one another and learn about how others see the world,” Antsis said.

For a full lineup and ticket information, visit pjff.org or call 215-545-4400.

[email protected]; 215-832-0740