When the Triangle Jewish Film Festival takes place on Sunday, May 21, the giant matzo ball in the room might be the transfiguration of the event itself. Since 1999, Durham’s Carolina Theatre sponsored and hosted the erstwhile N.C. Jewish Film Festival. However, mounting costs and stagnant attendance forced the theater to shutter the festival after its 2004 edition.
The dedicated volunteers who comprised the festival’s steering committee eventually reformed as a self-sustaining entity under a new name–the Triangle Jewish Film Festival Committee. After spending two years searching for a venue, the festival finally settled on the Galaxy Cinema in Cary.
Produced in partnership by the Raleigh-Cary and Durham-Chapel Hill Jewish Federations, what remains constant for this mainstay in the local film scene is the high quality of the programming. “Jewish influences on the cinema are an enduring part of American film history. The Triangle Jewish Film Festival celebrates this important legacy and explores themes of international Jewish life,” says Sydney Miller, the festival’s chair and longtime supporter.
This year, five feature films round out the schedule, together with a special showing of the locally-produced documentary Lasting Impressions, about the historic social and economic impact of the now-dwindling Jewish population in Robeson County. State Sen. David F. Weinstein will host a free Q&A session following the 11:15 a.m. screening.
The other five films will each be shown twice throughout the day. Take note of the schedule, because some careful planning will be necessary to see all the offerings.
The unofficial highlight of the festival is back-to-back screenings of A Cantor’s Tale (3 p.m. and 5:15 p.m.), a documentary that’s been a hit with audiences on the film festival circuit. It celebrates the tradition of hazzanut, or Jewish liturgical music, and cantor Jack Mendelson is the film’s colorful subject. A nostalgic return to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Mendelson’s youth spawns a joyous exploration and interviews with a variety of celebs, including Jackie Mason and Alan Dershowitz. Mendelson will be on hand to answer questions after each screening.
The can’t-miss, dramatic heartbeat of the festival may very well be Va, vis et deviens (Live and Become) (10:15 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.), an epic true tale of courage and self-discovery. In the wake of widespread famine in Africa, Israel and the United States initiated a joint project called “Operation Moses” in 1984 to transplant Ethiopian Jews to Israel. A Christian mother pushes her 9-year-old son Shlomo to declare himself a Jew in order to escape the poverty and pestilence of Ethiopia. Initially an orphan, then adopted by a family in Tel Aviv, the young man becomes an amalgam of several cultures and religions. Three actors–Moshe Agazai, Moshe Abebe and Sirak M. Sabahat–portray Schlomo at various stages in his physical, emotional and spiritual maturation.
A trio of comedies completes the program. The French film Le Grand Rôle (11 a.m. and 3:15 p.m.) is an uneven affair with a delightful setup and some subtle satire on a wide range of topics. When a famous Hollywood movie director (Peter Coyote in a high-gloss cameo) arrives in Paris to film an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice in Yiddish, Maurice (Stephane Freiss) futilely tries out for the role of Shylock. The frivolity of Maurice and his three pals, part of a motley Parisian acting troupe, switches tone when Maurice’s wife Perla (Berenice Bejo) learns she is gravely ill with cancer. In this update of O. Henry’s The Last Leaf, Maurice believes he must convince Perla that he landed the starring part in order to prolong her life.
From director Dani Levy and the producers of Good Bye Lenin! comes Go For Zucker (1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.), the self-described first German comedy about Jews since World War II. A huge hit in Deutschland, the film follows the exploits of a small-time hood from East Germany. Saddled by severe debt, he must choose between trying to win a European pool tournament or honoring his departed mother (and hopefully inheriting a portion of her fortune) by reconciling with his estranged brother, an Orthodox Jew from West Germany, and observing shivah. The film was important in Germany, where it was hailed as a palliative for Jews and non-Jews alike and won multiple statuettes at the German Film Awards.
Finally, Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi (1:15 p.m. and 7:45 p.m.) is a 3-year-old dramatic comedy about Shlomi, a 16-year-old boy dedicated to caring for his gonzo, dysfunctional family. A fortuitous school math test, in concert with a crush on a girl living next-door, fosters some much-needed self-discovery by Shlomi.
Along with the scheduled films, the all-day event will feature a kosher deli, a children’s art display and musical performances by Freylach Time, a klezmer dance band, and the local quartet Mishpacha.