In the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting at Tree of Life synagogue that left 11 dead, national attention has refocused on the rising rates of anti-Semitism.
Now more than ever, importance is being placed on education of the Jewish people. Most recently in Philadelphia, the Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza was unveiled at 16th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway to honor those murdered in the Holocaust.
On the heels of all of this ignited conversation is the upcoming Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival (GPJFF), running from Nov. 3-18.
“There is such a richness and beauty to Jewish culture and Jewish storytelling through cinema. What happens to us when we are gone? We turn into stories. Our whole lives becomes stories,” said Olivia Antsis, artistic director of the GPJFF. “If there is no one who cares to delve into that, and preserve that and put it out in some meaningful way, it’s like we’re done.”
Back in May 2018, the Gershman Y announced it would be moving out of its home of over 90 years and changing its name. Still transitioning out of the building owned by University of the Arts, the newly entitled GPJFF will focus entirely on its annual film festival and film programming.
Coming up on its 38th iteration, its first under the new rebrand, the Jewish Film Festival will take place over the course of 19 days, screening 39 films from 12 countries across 11 theaters.
“This year we are the Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival. As our own organization, we have a very clear focus,” said Antsis, who has been with the organization for 11 years. “It's film and film-related programs that speak to Jewish values and legacy.”
Upholding cinema as a form of oral tradition, highly valued in the Jewish faith, Antsis explained that films act as a passage of knowledge from one generation to the next.
Among the festival’s extensive lineup, some of the films dedicated to preserving the past include: Box for Life, a documentary about Holocaust survivor and journalist Noah Klieger (Nov. 4, Gershman Y) and Who Will Write Our History, a documentary about the Jewish intellectuals in the Warsaw Ghetto who secretly documented the atrocities of the Holocaust (Nov. 7, National Museum of American Jewish History).
But the curated films run the gamut of genres, ensuring that “there is something for everyone.”
“We try we strive to not only have serious issues explored in the festival or films about Jewish history or about the Holocaust or about the diaspora of Israel-Palestine,” explained Antsis on the aspirations of the nation’s second oldest Jewish film festival. “We definitely want to connect to a wide audience out there who just love movies.”
One of the films Antsis is excited for is the dark comedy To Dust. After the death of his wife, Shmuel, played by Géza Röhrig, a hasidic cantor is struck with overwhelming fears for his wife. While his sons think he is possessed by a dybbuk, or Jewish mythological demon, Shmuel seeks the help of a science professor named Albert (Matthew Broderick) to learn more about the decomposition process. Playing on Nov. 8 at the Ritz East, the event will also welcome the film’s director Shawn Snyder.
Another film Antsis recommended is Song of Back and Neck, playing at the Ritz East on Nov. 15. Director, writer and star of the film, Paul Lieberstein (known for his role as Toby Flenderson in The Office) plays Fred, a paralegal who “kvetches” about his chronic pain while being mistreated at work and in the doctor’s office. He then meets Regan, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, who introduces him to acupuncture, a holistic process that reveals a strange hidden talent of Fred’s. A oddball narrative, the movie takes an earnest look at debilitating pain, prescribing a heavy dose of comic relief along the way. The screening will be attended by Lieberstein and the film’s producer, Jennifer Prediger.
During a co-sponsored event with Penn Cinema and Media Studies, Lieberstein and Prediger will also host a free filmmaking master class on Nov. 16 at University of Pennsylvania. Both To Dust and Song of Back and Neck will include a post-film happy hour at Positano Coast.
Continually striving to expand the audience demographic, particularly among younger generations, the festival still remains true to itself by selecting films that educate and challenge its viewers — even if that means the content isn’t the easiest to watch.
This year’s centerpiece film is Working Woman, which deals with an Israeli woman Orna, played by Liron Ben-Shlush, who receives a job promotion as well as unwanted sexual advances from her boss. Directed by Michal Aviad,the movie will also include a post-film reception on Nov. 10 at the Gershman Y.
“We want everybody to be stirred up at this festival and learn something new...if you present films that are really palatable all the time and don't challenge then you're not going to create that vibrant community that you're looking for,” explained Antsis. “You want people to talk and discuss these films and you want these films to really hit a nerve with your audience.”
Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival | Nov. 3-18. Times, prices and locations vary. pjff.org/
Look out for these other GPJFF flicks
A few other films sure to spark conversation at this years Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, running Nov. 3-18.
When a translator looks for the Nazi responsible for the deaths of his parents, he instead finds his son Georg. While the two maintain butting personalities, Georg hires Ali to be his interpreter on his trip to Slovakia in order to understand more about his father’s dark history. Directed by Martin Šulík, The Interpreter is Slovakia’s submission for the 2019 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language. The opening night film will welcome the film’s star Peter Simonischek as well as include a post-film reception for sponsors and supporters. | Nov. 3. 7: 30pm. Philadelphia Film Center, 1412 Chestnut St. pjff.org/the-interpreter/
Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me
Considered one of the best entertainers in the world, this feature-length documentary examines the extraordinary, and at times controversial, life of Sammy Davis, Jr. Directed by Samuel D. Pollard learn about Davis’ upbringing as a childhood prodigy, civil rights activism, conversion to Judaism and illustrious career. With interviews with Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Norman Lear, see the singer, musician, dancer, actor and comedian in a new light beyond his Rat Pack affiliation. | Nov. 7. National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 S Independence Mall E. pjff.org/sammy-davis-jr-ive-gotta-be-me/
Instead of facing deportation, four young German Jews hide out in the public of “Jew free” Berlin. Under gentile guises, and among other Jews doing the same, the four Berliners tell their inspiring stories of survival in this poignant docudrama. From forgeries to encounters with high-up Nazi officials, this powerful account details the “invisible” Jewish resilience. | Nov. 11. 7pm. Gershman Y, 401 S Broad St. pjff.org/the-invisibles/
Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema
Did you know that some of Bollywood’s most famed actors during the silent era were Jewish? Directed by Danny Ben-Moshe, the documentary takes a look at the India’s 2,000-year-old Jewish community and the residents that helped shape the Bollywood industry. The screening will also be accompanied by live Bollywood dance performance by Swati Chaturvedi of the Community Bollywood Dance Project. | Nov. 12. 2pm. Gershman Y, 401 S Broad St. pjff.org/shalom-bollywood/
Heather Booth: Changing the World
A very timely portrait, activist and political organizer Heather Booth receives her long-overdue recognition for her revolutionary social works. Most notably, Booth founded of JANE, the underground organization that provided safe abortions pre-Roe vs. Wade. Booth and director Lilly Rivlin will be present at the screening. | Nov. 14, 7pm. National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 S Independence Mall E. pjff.org/heather-booth-changing-the-world/