Jewish Film Festival brings the world to St. Louis
‘It’s a small world,’ reads the cover of the information packet for this year’s Jewish Film Festival. The familiar line brings back images of the Mexican dancers, French gondoliers, African drummers and Swiss yodelers along the gentle boat ride of one of Disney World’s most famous attractions. Though the ride evokes memories of long lines and stuck-in-your-head tunes, its 100 represented nations and five languages convey a message similar to that of this year’s Jewish Film Festival.
“When you see films from around the world, it does make your world smaller, so it kind of fits,” says Zelda Sparks, festival coordinator. The festival’s goal of creating a “smaller world” through exposure to many countries and languages found its jumping point with one of its opening day films. “The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story” (showing at 7 p.m. June 10) follows the story of the songwriters behind Disney classics such as “Mary Poppins" and “The Jungle Book,” the same genius minds that brought you “It’s A Small World (After All)” itself.
But the festival will highlight much more than Disney. With taglines such as, "Taut and harrowing," "Zany and sexy" and "Tearful and inspiring," the 15 featured films cross every genre, reach hundreds of years’ worth of history and touch on several cultural ideas, all with faith-based themes.
“We try to make our selections varied, and we try to get lots of different countries involved,” Sparks says. And this goal has clearly been realized – this year’s films come from eight countries, with languages such as Hebrew, English, French, German, Polish, and Yiddish. Twelve of them will have their St. Louis premiere at the Festival.
The festival is in its 17th year, having grown from a simple idea of expanding interest in Jewish culture from literature (the Jewish Book Festival is a 30-year long tradition) to the screen. After spending a couple years in the Kirkwood Theater, the Festival is held at the Landmark Cinema at Plaza Frontenac.
Supported by a network of other Jewish film festivals across the country, a committee of film selectors work year-round researching what other festivals and countries are creating and watching, and selecting from there. “We screen many, many, many more films than we show in our festival,” Sparks says, emphasizing that the team tries to make their selections varied, including documentaries, features, shorts, etc.
“We choose the films that are the best films,” she adds, saying the films focus mainly on “stories of discover and self-discovery.” Sparks is particularly excited about the screening of “Nicky’s Family” (8 p.m. June 14).
“Nicky’s Family" tells the story of the Kindertransport, an underground operation that saved the lives of hundreds of children in Nazi concentration camps during WW II. Sir Nicholas Winton, still alive at age 102, was a British stockbroker heading out on a ski trip when he became aware of the Jewish families that had been forced out of their homes and into concentration camps. He arranged Kindertransport, which placed the children of these families with families in England. The film is narrated by one of the children who was given a home in England, and traces the story of several children saved by Kindertransport.
Other films featured in this year’s festival include a romantic comedy riddled with conflicts over political ideologies (“ The Names of Love”), a documentary about famed Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem who is credited with creating Tevya of "Fiddler on the Roof”’ fame ("Sholom Aleichem – Laughing in the Darkness"), a drama following a 1960 immigration to Israel ("My Australia”) and a feature examining the 11-year-old son of an imam in his attempt to break faith barriers (“David: The Movie”).
The festival has sold out many of its shows in the past, but according to Sparks, the team is still trying to broaden its audience. The greatest fan-base has been among the Jewish community, but with the cultural and lingual diversity of this year’s films, the committee has begun to reach out to the Polish Catholic Church, language departments of local universities, and even music departments that might take interest in a documentary about a violinist, “God’s Fiddler: Jascha Heifetz”(5:30 p.m. June 14).
The money raised from ticket sales support the festival itself, though, Sparks says with a laugh, this is not nearly enough to cover the entire event. “We have very generous sponsors who help us get the funds together,” she says.
This year, the St. Louis Beacon has helpedsponsor a contest that coincides with the Festival. For the second year running, students in 6th-8th grades, 9th-12th grades, 18 and over, and professionals can compete in a short film competition. Each film can be no longer than five minutes and must be written, directed and produced by filmmakers in the specific age categories.
The theme of the competition is “Love your neighbor as yourself”; last year’s was “Repairing the World.” Says Sparks, “We want to chose a film that has a Jewish value, but it’s also a human value.”
As of late May, the competition had received 10 entries, twice as many as last year, and all the categories have submissions. The films are judged by three St. Louisans active in film and media production – Marci Rosenberg, Pier Marton and Jessica Brown. The winning entries will be shown on the opening afternoon of the festival.
“There are some great films out there that are quietly wonderful,” Sparks concludes. The festival’s mission to broaden cultural exposure and understanding, while making the world smaller and more accessible, is one from which all can benefit.
The festival begins on Sunday, June 10 and continues through June 14. Tickets can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com or 314-442-3179. For more information and a complete schedule, visit stljewishﬁlmfestival.org.