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Central Florida Jewish Film Festival expands to three days

Enzian’s 15th annual celebration of Jewish films and culture expands its offerings




Saturday-Monday, Nov. 16-18 | Enzian Theater, 1300 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland | 407-629-0054 | | $10-$70

This year’s Central Florida Jewish Film Festival will be the largest and longest in the 15-year history of the event, screening five features instead of the usual four and opening on Saturday instead of Sunday – but just after sundown, to honor Sabbath restrictions. The event will also expand beyond Enzian Theater for the first time, to the Orlando Science Center.

“Science Center got involved because the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando got involved, and they’ve been doing quarterly screenings at the Science Center of recent Israeli films,” says Matthew Curtis, Enzian programming director. “We’d been talking about how we can expand, because obviously Enzian is a single screen and it’s challenging … to bump a Saturday-night show at Enzian … but going outside of the venue and doing it off-site was an inspired idea.”

Though the festival contains no shorts this time, all five features – whittled down from more than 60 potential films – are worth seeing.

“We’ve got a pretty wonderful balance of three narrative features [and] two doc features,” Curtis says. “We’ve got some lighter stuff and some heavier stuff, and we just thought … this is a nice mix.”

The food options are expanding this year, too. Although the themed menu will be available only inside the Enzian during screenings – not at Eden Bar or the Science Center – it’ll still be impressive enough to draw both Jewish and gentile foodies. There will be Hebrew National kosher hot dogs and homemade dishes such as potato knishes, latkes and apricot-raisin ice cream. For something a bit rarer, try tzimmes, a traditional stew of vegetables and dried fruit.

★★★ (out of 5 stars)

A road-trip movie unlike any you’ve seen before, Zaytoun (7:30 p.m. Saturday, Orlando Science Center) tells of the unlikely pairing of an Israeli pilot (Stephen Dorff) and an orphaned Palestinian refugee (Abdallah El Akal) during the 1982 war between Lebanon and Israel. The pilot has been shot down in Beirut, while the 12-year-old boy longs to return to his ancestral village in Israel, if only long enough to plant a zaytoun (Arabic for olive) tree that he and his father nurtured together. The two slowly realize that their journey will succeed only if they stick together.

A British-French-Israeli production directed by Eran Riklis (Lemon Tree) in English, Arabic and Hebrew, Zaytoun is noble in concept and tone but often lacks urgency. Shot well and with a lot to say about cooperation and humanity, it nevertheless isn’t as memorable as the festival’s other narrative features, perhaps because the pair’s journey from Beirut to Israel, though balanced fairly well between comedy and drama, feels too brief, too forgettable.

What does stick with you is the theme of the olive branch, which is extended between Jew and Arab both literally and metaphorically, making Zaytoun, despite its shortcomings, a worthy addition to the lineup.

When Comedy Went To School
★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Ever heard the one about the Jewish comedian who got his start in the Catskills? Chances are if you haven’t seen When Comedy Went to School (11 a.m. Sunday, Enzian), you haven’t heard the full story.

The lone American film among the five selections, this documentary offers a glimpse into the history of Jewish-American comedy, from the days of vaudeville to the transition to modern stand-up. It also reveals a bygone era, a more innocent time when the resorts of New York’s Catskill Mountains were the nation’s top summer travel destination and a training ground for comedians. And the best part is that this world is brought back to life by legends such as Jerry Lewis, Jerry Stiller, Sid Caesar and Jackie Mason, not to mention countless clips of everyone from Woody Allen to Rodney Dangerfield.

“You had to have a sense of humor, for Christ’s sake. That’s what got the Jews through it,” says Lewis. “It was our salvation, and it was our understanding that we’ll get through if it we’re not too terribly serious.”

Although simultaneously funny, touching and informative, the film too often plays like a TV special thanks to bad writing, an overbearing score, unnecessary re-enactments and heavy-handed narration by Robert Klein. Still, Comedy, though the weakest of the five movies, is a nice counterbalance to the more serious festival fare.

★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

The town of Jedwabne, Poland, kept a horrible secret for 60 years. Until Polish historian Jan Gross revealed the truth in his 2001 book, Neighbors, the townspeople were silent about their wartime past. As controversial as the book was, writer-director Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s Aftermath (1:30 p.m. Sunday, Enzian), which is getting its Southeast premiere at the festival, may be even more incendiary, as it introduces elements of fiction while turning the story into a tense, twisty thriller.

The film focuses on two fictional brothers, one who lived in the town his entire life and one who moved to America. The American brother has now returned to check up on his sibling, who has mysteriously become the village outcast.

Aftermath is better when you know little in advance, and you’ll get no spoilers here, other than to reveal that reaction to the movie has been so strong that Maciej Stuhr, who plays the Polish brother, has been subjected to the same racial abuse as his character. People have called him “a Jew, and not a Pole anymore,” and have even threatened his life. Intrigued? You should be, and you won’t be disappointed, as the film is the best of the festival.

So why not five stars for this year’s best? Well, the climax is slightly overdone, motivations are not always clear, and, like a lot of genre pieces, there’s a letdown on second viewing, after you’ve discovered the secret. In this respect, Aftermath is a bit of a one-note film – but what a note!

Hava Nagila: The Movie
★★★ (out of 5 stars)

If you think you’ve never heard the song Hava Nagila, you’re wrong. Maybe you’ve never been to a bar mitzvah or a Jewish wedding. Or perhaps you’ve been holed up in a gentile cave your entire life. Trust me: You’ve still heard the tune.

“What’s up with this song?” asks this simple but surprisingly entertaining and thoughtful documentary by Roberta Grossman. “So kitschy, yet so profound. Is Hava Nagila a hundred years old or a thousand? Did someone sit down to write it, or did it come down from Sinai? And what’s the deal with the chair?”

These and a multitude of other questions you never thought to ask are answered by this film, an American-Ukrainian-Israeli production filmed in English and featuring dozens of fascinating historical tidbits and celebrity interviews. Though the analysis of the song itself is intriguing, Hava Nagila: The Movie (4:30 p.m. Monday, Enzian) is at its best when it addresses broader issues such as the Jewish-American migration from the cities to the suburbs, the changing nature of Jewish culture and how, as Harry Belafonte puts it, music allows humanity to “find a place … to reside where there is no fear.”

The Attack
★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

It’s not often that a movie makes you rethink something as heinous as a civilian-targeted suicide bombing. Yet The Attack (6:45 p.m. Monday, Enzian) does just that by offering a unique glimpse into extremism.

A multinational production in Hebrew and Arabic, The Attack is the story of Amin (Ali Suliman), a Palestinian living in Israel. Despite his initial prejudices against Israelis, he has assimilated, thanks to his own tolerant nature and his job as a successful surgeon.

“And what you considered your enemy is now lying on your operating table,” Amin tells his colleagues. “Isn’t it the right time to re-examine your own certitudes?”

Yet those certitudes fall apart when his seemingly peace-loving wife is accused of blowing up a Tel Aviv restaurant. Not able to believe that she was capable of such horror, Amin begins a quest for the truth, a search that leads him back to the Palestinian territories and into the heart of terrorism.

As his quest drags on, so does the movie, which becomes a tad tedious. It’s as if the details of the bombing are simply a Hitchcock MacGuffin, a device to move the plot along while focusing on the real meaning, which in this case is the Arab-Israeli conflict and the themes of tolerance, revenge and dignity. Still, on that level, the film has profound moments.

The Attack, directed by Ziad Doueiri, never claims that terrorism is justified, but it does address the issue in an honest and often uncomfortable way – a way you’re unlikely to see elsewhere anytime soon.

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