Enlightenment, entertainment and everything that can be squeezed in between, that’s the programming goal of the Savannah Jewish Film Festival, which celebrates its eighth year in 2011 with a broad palette of movies.
Co–sponsored by the Savannah Jewish Federation and the Jewish Educational Alliance, the festival has an impressive roster of hand–picked screenings, Jan. 29 through Feb. 6, at the JEA building on Abercorn Street.
The opening night feature, The Yankles, has a special significance for Savannah in that its co–writer and producer, Zev Brooks, was born here.
His father, Hershel Brooks, was the rabbi for Congregation Agudath Achim. Nine months after Zev was born, the family moved to North Carolina – where his brother David (co–writer and director of The Yankles) arrived.
The Brooks family eventually settled in Orange County, Cal., which is where Zev, an attorney, still practices. His brother is a graduate of the San Diego State film school, where he’d been named Best Director in his class.
The Yankles is a comedy about a baseball team consisting of yeshiva students – they’re young orthodox Jews who can’t fully grasp the concept of the game.
But they love to play.
According to Zev Brooks, the idea for the movie was hatched over Sabbath dinner at his parents’ home. The name is a play, of course, on Yankees.
“I kind of latched on to the project,” Brooks says. “I was practicing a lot and I thought hey, this would be neat; I know a lot about Jewish things. I thought it would be a fun project to get involved in from a creative point of view.”
The brothers formed a business partnership and got to work.
First up: OK, there’s a funny title, and the humorous image of a team wearing black and white yeshiva uniforms, curly peyos (side curls) dangling from beneath their black hats. Now what?
“My belief as producer is that any good film needs a good story,” Brooks explains. “You can have great cast, great scenes, whatever, if you don’t have a good story it could leave the audience hollow. That’s really the challenge.”
A story was developed about the Yankles’ reluctant coach, a disgraced professional player who must work with the yeshiva students as a form of community service.
Brooks explains that giving the students strong characters – each of them is a person, not a stereotype – was important.
And that the movie’s Jewish–ness didn’t ring false.
“My father grew up in an orthodox family, so we’re very familiar with that,” he says. “I have an uncle who’s one of the most prominent orthodox rabbis in the nation.
“Even though my brother and myself aren’t as observant, it was important for us to show Jewish life and Jewish values in a positive light. As opposed to making fun of it.”
However, they also needed to appeal to a wide audience.
“We wanted to make sure we made the movie entertaining and fun. Because when people think of the name The Yankles, they’re not expecting Schindler’s List. So we knew going in we couldn’t just have heavy drama – the movie has to have a comic element to it.
“So we had to walk this fine line. How do we write a story that’s going to be entertaining and funny, and at the same time not rely on cheap gags, or a play on stereotypes. Keep the characters interesting, and so on and so forth.”
The brothers are hoping to land a distribution deal for their independent film. Thus far, it’s been extremely well–received at festivals, both Jewish and otherwise.
“We’ve won six awards on this picture, and five of them have been from mainstream festivals,” says Brooks. “Not all Jewish festivals give out awards, but we did win the Los Angeles Jewish Festival; we got an audience rating of 4.83 out of 5. It was the highest–rated film there, and won for Best Comedy. That’s good, because L.A.’s got a huge Jewish community. It’s nice marquee value. As long as you’re getting good word of mouth, the film develops momentum.
“We’ve played this movie in Hong Kong, Brazil, London, and we’ll be playing it in Croatia and Switzerland.”
The Yankles scored the second–best attendance rating at Indianapolis’ Heartland Film Festival, out of 25 screened featured. More than a thousand people saw it at Heartland, Brooks explains.
“I’m sure Jews went to see it. My brother was there, and he said ‘Zev, the majority of the people weren’t Jewish. It was whatever it was.’ And that’s what we’re going for.”
Savannah Jewish Film Festival
Where: Jewish Educational Alliance, 5111 Abercorn St.
Festival pass (all screenings): $50 JEA members and seniors; $65 public
Individual screenings: $7 JEA members, seniors and students; $9 public
Information and advance tickets: savj.org
8 p.m., The Yankles
11 a.m., Blessed is the Match
1 p.m., The Worst Company in the World
3 p.m., Nora's Will
7 p.m., La Rafle
1:30 p.m., Letters For Jenny
7:30 p.m., Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray
1:30 p.m., Beau Jest
7:30 p.m., Ahead of Time
8 p.m., Where I Stand: The Hank Greenspun Story
12 p.m., The Holocaust Tourist and Orders of Love
12:30 p.m., Me & the Jewish Thing
1:30 p.m., Sabbath Entertainment (Oneg Shabbat)