Each year, the Edward S. Finkelstein Harrisburg Jewish Film Festival seems to offer more and more diverse fare about the specifically Jewish and Israeli experience—but also, paradoxically, more representative of the human experience.
This year, the festival includes a documentary (“Bombshell”) about actress Hedy Lamarr. The film focuses not so much on her extraordinary beauty, uneven movie career and tumultuous personal life as on her accomplishments as an inventor.
According to filmmaker Alexandra Dean, acting was “secondary” for Lamarr, who, as a child, used to take things apart and put them back together.
“She’s an example of a woman not taken seriously despite her talent,” Dean said.
The concept that Lamarr was working on for the U.S. military during World War II—known as frequency hopping—eventually found its way into GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology, Dean said.
In another drama, “My Dear Children,” Feiga Shamis, a woman caught in the inter-war pogroms against the Jews in Russia, writes to explain her decision to place two of her 12 children in an orphanage to ensure their safety. By the time her children receive Shamis’s letter, they no longer know Yiddish, so its contents are inaccessible to them.
Through a strange coincidence, the story came to the attention of filmmakers LeeAnn Dance and Cliff Hackel, who created “My Dear Children,” their first independent cinematic production.
Steve Mason, a long-time friend of Dance and a descendant of Shamis, suggested the story would make a great documentary.
“I had never heard about the horrific violence from 1917 to 1921 in Russia,” Dance said. “I had to do a lot of research. I’m not Jewish, but found myself impacted by events 100 years ago. Feiga had a very compelling personality.”
There are other surprises in this year’s festival, said Julie Sherman, chairperson and long-time coordinator of the annual event.
One is the black-and-white film, “1945,” in which two Orthodox Jews arrive in a Hungarian town that ran all of its Jews out during the Nazi era.
“It’s astonishing,” Sherman said. “The film, which is a drama, not a documentary, takes place over the course of three or four hours. We really see the guilt and the shame of the townspeople. We don’t know why these men are there, but we sense the corrosive power of anti-Semitism.”
If romantic comedy is more your style, “Keep the Change” offers a twist on the genre. Created by Rachel Israel, who was named “Best New Narrative Director” at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, this love story between two young people with special needs is based on the real-life experience of Brandon Polansky, one of the stars.
Another romantic comedy, “The Wedding Plan,” is a “light and lovely Israeli film,” said Sherman. It’s about the mission of a young Orthodox woman to find a groom in time for her originally planned (and aborted) wedding day. “And Then She Arrived,” a contemporary love story, also from Israel, concerns a young man with anything but marriage on his mind.
A few of the films in the festival, including “The Origin of Violence” and “Monsieur Mayonnaise,” touch on the race against time that first- and second-generation offspring of Holocaust survivors and World War II resistance fighters feel to hear the stories, before it’s too late, of their often-reticent parents and grandparents, Sherman said.
Also included in the festival are two movies she called “our day-after” films—that is, “the time after” World War II and the Holocaust. Aside from “1945,” mentioned above, the other is “Bye Bye Germany,” a comic drama, which takes place at a displaced persons camp in Frankfurt.
Another Israel-based film in the festival is “Ha’har (Mountain),” a “real cinephile’s picture that takes place on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives and deals with an Orthodox woman who lives with her family on the edge of its cemetery,” Sherman said. And another is “The Cakemaker,” a German/Israeli film of yearning, in which a gay, Berlin-based baker travels to Israel, in disguise, to meet the wife of his dead lover and becomes part of her life.
“Festival attendance has grown significantly over the last few years, thanks largely to the Midtown Cinema, which has helped expand our audience well beyond the local Jewish community,” Sherman said. “People respond, because, while the pictures we show are Jewish-themed or Israeli-made, they are also, simply, excellent films—good stories well told.”
The Edward S. Finkelstein Harrisburg Jewish Film Festival opens at the Jewish Community Center, 3301 North Front St., with “Keep the Change” on Thursday, May 10. It continues through May 17 at the Midtown Cinema, 250 Reily St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.hbgjff.com or www.midtowncinema.com.
Tickets for the JCC opening event are $15 and may be purchased in advance at the JCC front desk or by phone at 717-236-9555.
The filmmakers of “My Dear Children” and “Bombshell” will introduce their films, as will the two stars of “Keep the Change.”