To understand what the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival is, you have to know what it's not. It's not a showcase of Holocaust-themed movies -- at least, not entirely. It's not a forum for discussion of the Middle East conflict -- well, not 100 percent of the time, anyway. What it is, simply, is a far-ranging salute to the Jewish experience in all its forms, as interpreted by filmmakers from various points on the globe and brought to audiences by co-presenters Enzian Theater and the Jewish Community Center of Central Florida.
"Within the context of a two-day program, we try to have as balanced a festival as possible," says Matthew Curtis, program director at Enzian. Curtis, whose expertise in procuring cinematic fare is vital to the festival's continued relevance, says that its area of inquiry is "issues of interest to Jewish people in America and film lovers in America."
This year brings enough "issues of interest" to keep both camps happy; for its fourth edition, the festival has found its best and most consistent lineup yet. Take the Academy Award-nominated documentary Promises, in which a handful of Israeli and Palestinian children try to make sense of the bitter disputes that grip their region. A million times more complex than its kids-say-the-darndest-prayers outline might suggest, the film "does a wonderful job of providing such a broad spectrum of ideas that these kids have in relation to this conflict," Curtis says. "It's a film every single person should see to understand what's going on over there."
Also an Oscar nominee, the narrative feature Divided We Fall personalizes the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, finding ample story material in one couple's brave decision to hide a member of the decimated Jewish business class. Actor Jaroslav Dusek's portrayal of a Nazi sympathizer typifies the movie's rich palette of soul-searching drama, suspense and even comedic buffoonery.
The laughs are even more pronounced in Dad on the Run (Cours Toujours), a French-made romp that shows a new father jumping through proverbial hoops to satisfy a tradition that compels him to bury his young son's foreskin within three days of circumcision. Not familiar with this odd little custom? Neither was Harriet Weiss, the executive producer of the Jewish Community Center's theater department, who aided in the film-selection process. In some avenues of Jewry, Weiss has since learned, "every part of the body is considered sacred and must be buried. And I never knew."
Both Weiss and Curtis, however, shy away from the idea that the festival should teach religious practice, and Weiss draws a distinction between the terms "religious" and "traditional."
"There are a lot of people in this community who have not been exposed to Jewish tradition, and it's nice to make them more aware," she says. But she feels that religious teaching should come from the synagogues: "We [the JCC] are a social-service agency."
The manipulation of the layman's finite scriptural knowledge, in fact, is the leitmotif of "Advice and Dissent," a funny short that casts the great Eli Wallach as a rabbi who is asked to sever an unhappy marriage -- in a literal, irrevocable manner. Director Leib Cohen will attend the screening (with "Dad on the Run"), answering questions of a less theological nature -- like how he secured top talent Wallach, Rebecca Pidgeon ("State and Main") and John Pankow (TV's Mad About You) to appear in his very first film.
Rabbinical influence casts a darker shadow in Time of Favor, a celebrated (six Israeli Oscars) drama that falls into the uncommon category of yarmulke-and-combat-boots cinema. As military brass look on in trepidation, members of an Orthodox army unit devour the teachings of a hard-line religious leader who appears to preach the violent recovery of Arab holy sites. While it probes the dangers of fanaticism, the film also charts a love triangle between the rabbi's daughter, his top student and the diligent young man's best friend.
The JCC's own war, it appears, is to make the festival better every time amid economic uncertainty. The center, a nonprofit undertaking, had to lay off 14 employees this year. Continued growth, Weiss believes, may depend largely on the securing of corporate sponsorships. But for this outing at least, she anticipates, "I kind of think we're going to be OK."