LOOK, there’s always going to be a Holocaust movie.
The undeniable horror of Hitler’s genocide left an indelible scar on Jewish history, and its seemingly infinite tales of tragedy and survival will undoubtedly be a source of inspiration for filmmakers for generations.
The 17th Savannah Jewish Film Festival opens on Wednesday, January 25 with a dramatic homage to a little-known hero of that terrible time. “One Step to Freedom: The Grüninger File” is based on the brave actions of Swiss police captain Paul Grüninger, who helped smuggle thousands of Jews to safety under the noses of the Nazis and is honored in Israel as one of the Righteous Among Nations.
This true story becomes a suspenseful thriller through the skilled lens of director Alain Gsponer, and award-winning Swiss actor Stefan Kurt brings depth and dignity to the titular role.
As vital as it is to never forget the hideous intolerance that allowed it to happen, the Jewish narrative can hardly be defined—or confined—by the Holocaust. Film has been a medium for telling Jewish stories since it was invented, and the rest of the 10-day festival presents a line-up that is global, thoughtful, contemporary, funny and as multifarious as the tribe itself.
“One of the missions of the film festival is to reflect the variety of Jewish experience around the world,” says Adam Solender, Executive Director of the Jewish Educational Alliance.
“We try to do that every year, and every year I think we get better at it.”
Thursday’s features begin at lunchtime with the American drama “Indignation,” based on Philip Roth’s autobiographical novel and written and directed by James Schamus, the Academy-award winning producer of “Brokeback Mountain.” (Spoiler: Sexual repression and cultural disenfranchisement are big themes.)
The evening screening follows with “Bad Faith,” a French-subtitled rom-com about a Jewish-Arab couple dealing with their families’ opinions about their relationship.
The festival picks up again Saturday night for a weekend of diverse documentaries (the JEA is closed Friday evening to Saturday evening for Shabbat) including “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem.” Before he passed away in 2015 at 91, Bikel’s theater career spanned more than six decades on the stage, much of it as characters created by the Yiddish writer known as Sholom Aleichem, who lived a century before. Bikel’s big voiced-interpretation of Tevye in Aleichem’s “Fiddler on the Roof” made it one of the longest-running shows on Broadway, and the film finds the parallels in both men’s sharp wit and generous spirits.
Sunday evening brings quieter contemplation with “There Are Jews Here,” an exploration of four once-thriving, small town American Jewish communities that are struggling to maintain their existence.
It’s a poignant topic for Jewish people who grew up outside of New York, Los Angeles and other major urban centers and don’t want to see their community fall the way of Dothan, Alabama, which in 2008 famously offered to pay Jewish families to relocate to the Southern enclave.
“This film is particularly resonant because it reflects what Savannah could have been but isn’t,” says Solender, noting that the Savannah Jewish community has actually grown over the last decade as young families, professional singles and retirees have moved here to take advantage of economic opportunities and cultural offerings.
The Cohen family has been in Savannah for generations, and three-time Olympian and weightlifting Michael Cohen has represented Savannah and its Jewish community all over the world. He’ll lend his voice along with trainer Mary Vacala in an evening Q&A on Tuesday, Jan. 31 after the British drama “The Best of Men,” about the founder of the Paralympic Games.
Thursday, Feb. 2 is bound to be a meshuggeneh spectacle as attendees are invited to show their Trekkie colors for the showing of “For the Love of Spock,” the Leonard Nimoy biopic told through the lens of his son, Adam. Those who come in costume receive a dollar off admission, and word on the street is that one local rabbi may show up in full Enterprise regalia.
Also showing on Jan. 31 is “Censored Voices,” a revelation of soldier recordings after Israel’s Six Day War, and a showing of shorts on Feb. 2 includes “The Chop,” about a kosher butcher who pretends to be Muslim to get a job. The festival closes with more laughs on Feb. 4 with “Time to Say Good-bye,” a gigglefest of modern dysfunctional family fun.
Tickets are $10 for a single film and $100 for a festival pass, and JEA members receive a 20 percent discount.
Named after beloved local philanthropists who died in a car accident in 2001, the Joan and Murray Gefen Memorial Savannah Jewish Film Festival is as well-known for its breadth of subject matter as it is breaking bread.
Most of the films are preceded by a delicious kosher meal prepared by Chef Brian Graves, though reservations are recommended as tables fill fast. Lunch plus the film is $13, dinner plus the film is $24; the same member discounts apply.
“You get great food and a show for a good deal,” says JEA programming director Jacqui Drazen.
“And there’s comedies, shorts, thrillers, love stories, something to appeal to all ages.”
The diversity of the festival’s audience is as important to its organizers as the variation of the films. Just as the Holocaust doesn’t define the Jewish experience, there’s no single way to describe the moviegoers.
“We have 25 year-olds sitting with 75 year-olds, Jewish people, non-Jewish people, white, black, everybody,” says Solender.
“The ability of people to appreciate other people’s narratives and stories is what helps build the fabric of a community.”
2017 Joan and Murray Gefen Memorial Savannah Jewish Film Festival Schedule