In Philadelphia, an artist tries to deal with her 60-year-old father having a baby with his new wife and her own looming art project. In Jenkintown, a recently divorced poker player decides to go all out for a chance to rekindle an old flame. And in Bryn Mawr, an army internal affairs investigator takes extreme measures to discover the truth behind an officer’s brutal assault of a civilian.
The common thread running through these stories: They are all part of the 32nd annual Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival. It kicks off Nov. 3 with the opening night film at the Gershman Y, The Day I Saw Your Heart, a French movie about the artist described above. (The poker player is the lead character of the Spanish film, All In [La Suerte en Tus Manos], playing at the Hi-Way in Jenkintown; and the Israel Defense Forces investigator is the protagonist of the Israeli film, Room 514, playing at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.)
The festival, started by Archie Perlmutter and co-founded by Judy Golden in 1980, will feature 12 films from around the world during its two-week run. The program includes two American films: Hava Nagila, which tells the story behind everyone’s favorite life-cycle celebration folk song; and Downtown Express, which deals with the life-altering choices a Russian Jewish violinist must make before his big recital and the possible deportation of his father.
With so many choices, a strategy is necessary. Olivia Antsis, the festival’s director, offers a genre-specific plan. “If you want something light, a romantic comedy maybe,” she advises, “then go to opening night for The Day I Saw Your Heart. If you’re interested in human rights and activism and what’s going on in Israel, I recommend Circus Kids or Room 514. If you’re a fan of coming-of-age and period pieces, My Dad Is Baryshnikov is great. If you want to learn more about terrorism and counterterrorism, The Lying Game is your film.”
And if you want something to get you dancing in your seat, then Hava Nagila is for you. The documentary by Roberta Grossman traces the story of the song from its inception as a nigun for the congregation of Rabbi Yisroel Friedman’s Sadigora Chasidic community in what is now Ukraine in the late 19th century, to its migration and transcription by A.Z. Idelsohn in Palestine in 1915, to Idelsohn’s choir performing the first version of the melody with his Psalm-driven lyrics attached, to its leap to prominence in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, when the song entered the American mainstream in a big, big way. Grossman’s film includes jaw-dropping footage of Chubby Checker Twist-ifying the song; Celia Cruz applying Latin flavor, complete with salsa dancers; and Harry Belafonte explaining how it became his second-most popular song (after Day-O [The Banana Boat Song]).
Grossman knew the time was right to make the documentary. “I was finishing a documentary in 2008, Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, and my daughter said to me, ‘Mommy, please make a happy documentary next time.’ The light bulb went off: What is Hava Nagila? I realized that I didn’t know if it was 100 years old or 1,000 years old; was it a folk song? We fell into a remarkable story where you really could trace 150 years of culture, Jewish history and spirituality through this one song.”
Music takes center stage in another festival film, Downtown Express, directed by longtime National Museum of American Jewish History collaborator David Grubin, who is responsible for numerous films seen throughout the museum, including the multiscreen one at the entrance. The veteran documentarian, who counts the PBS series The Jewish Americans among his works, also came up with the story about the struggle of Sasha (played by real-life violinist and Grammy nominee Philippe Quint), who must decide whether he will follow his father’s dream of playing classical music at Carnegie Hall or commit himself to playing full-time in a Brooklyn band fronted by his pianist inamorata, Ramona (played by musician Nellie McKay).
Downtown Express is Grubin’s love letter to the New York music scene. There is so much ambient music in the film that there is no real soundtrack. “The idea was to not have a score, but to have all of the music come out of the story, for the music to drive the story,” he explains. To facilitate this, he employed the services of one of Philadelphia’s favorite musical sons, Michael Bacon. Grubin says that Bacon, who composes all of the music for his documentaries, “kneaded all of the music together for the film” — no easy task, considering all of the street musicians, classical players and live bands spotlighted during the movie.
For those who walk out of Downtown Express craving a live version of what was onscreen, Antsis recommends taking advantage of a new element of this year’s series — Film Connects. An “FC” indicated next to a film in the brochure means there’s something other than a post-film discussion. For example, Nellie McKay will be performing at World Cafe Live after the showing of Downtown Express and the Rock School of Dance will be performing a piece before My Dad Is Baryshnikov.