This is an especially auspicious year for the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, which will screens 33 films at 10 venues in the city and the surrounding suburbs, starting Saturday through Nov. 19.
“It’s our 36th year, so it’s double chai,” said festival director Olivia Antsis. She's referring to the number 18 or chai (or chaya), which correlates to the word life in Hebrew and holds spiritual significance in Jewish numerology.
“We have tried to do something special this year,” said Antsis. That includes a return screening Sunday of the immensely popular drama The Last Mentsch, the film that won last year’s audience award.
New programs include two food-and-film events, screenings that will be followed by a specially catered meal. On Nov. 13, breakfast will be served for a screening of two docs, Café Nagler, about the famous 1920s eatery in Berlin, and The Last Blintz, about the recent closing of New York’s Cafe Edison.
On Nov. 17, Italian food will be provided for Israeli director Tamar Tal Anati’s doc Shalom Italia, about three Italian Jewish brothers who return to Tuscany decades after WWII to revisit the caves where they hid from Nazi troops.
Antsis said she was especially proud to welcome indie director Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Wiener-Dog), who will present a two-hour master class Nov. 18 in a program cosponsored by the University of Pennsylvania’s cinema studies department.
Here's what else should you see at this year's festival.
The fest will open with Israeli director Asaph Polonsky’s feature debut, an emotionally charged drama about a middle-aged couple who have to begin living again after the death of their 25-year-old son. Its mix of black comedy and tragedy earned the film accolades earlier this year at the Cannes and Jerusalem Film Festivals.
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, 300 S. Broad St.
An international sensation, this feature from American documentarians Sam Blair and Joseph Martin explores the controversial life of Hungarian politician Csanád Szegedi, a right-wing demagogue and Holocaust denier whose life took a radical turn when he learned his maternal grandmother was Jewish and a survivor of Auschwitz. The firebrand sought help from a local Orthodox rabbi, who took him in and gave him instruction in Judaism, despite protests from Jewish leaders across Hungary and Europe.
7:30 p.m. Monday, The Gershman Y, 401 S. Broad St.
How could anyone make jokes about the Holocaust? It seems many Jews turned to humor in the face of evil, forming cabarets in the ghettos and the death camps. That’s the starting point of this remarkable doc, directed by Wynnewood native Ferne Pearlstein, who cowrote the feature with her husband, Robert Edwards, who grew up in New Hope. The film explores the legacy of Jewish humor after the Holocaust through an in-depth profile of Holocaust survivors, including memoirist Renee Firestone as well as interviews with a stunning lineup of comics, including Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Rob Reiner, the late Joan Rivers, Louis C.K., Susie Essman, and Judy Gold.
“We talked with a lot of other Holocaust survivors on both sides … of the question," said Pearlstein, whose film was two decades in the making. "Some found gallows humor important. But others said it’s never appropriate to find humor in anything related to the Holocaust.”
7:30 p.m. Nov. 12, The Gershman Y.
Brooklyn filmmaker Eddie Rosenstein teamed up with Philly production company Pretty Damn Sweet for this engaging documentary that follows the campaign to legalize gay marriage.
Rosenstein, 53, makes immersive docs, including 2008’s The Greatest Tunnel Ever Built, in which he worked for a year with a mining crew in the tunnels below New York City. In a way, he was uniquely qualified to make the gay-rights film because he has known Evan Wolfson, who argued in favor of gay marriage before the Supreme Court, since both were toddlers in their Pittsburgh neighborhood. At the same time, because he's not gay, Rosenstein was able to maintain what he calls "an outsider's distance" from the events he captured on film.
7:30 p.m. Nov. 14, International House, 3701 Chestnut St.
Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, Saturday through Nov. 19, various venues. $13 (single tickets), $55-300 (festival pass), 215-545-4400.