Third Jewish Film Fest puts spotlight on ’Artists & Activists’

for The Brooklyn Paper
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"You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s," went a famous 1960s ad campaign for rye bread. Similarly, you don’t have to be Jewish to field an entry in the Brooklyn Jewish Film Festival.

"If we said, ’We’re making a festival and the criterion is that you have to be Jewish to participate,’ we would have a large part of the film industry," said the festival’s curator and co-director Paul Rothman with a chuckle. "Then there would be no point We go the other way and we’re dealing specifically with films about the Jewish experience, regardless of who makes them."

Still, further narrowing was needed to assemble the series’ 30 works, which include features and short subjects, fiction and non-fiction, premieres and revived classics. So the organizing theme for the third annual festival, running April 5-12 at BAM Rose Cinemas, is "Artists and Activists." The thread connecting most of the films is the overlap between the creative process and the quest for social justice, in art forms from photography and painting to dance and theatre, and in areas from the Holocaust to the Middle East conflict to the rights of the disabled.

For example, the new documentary "Robert Capa: In Love and War" (screening April 10) portrays the legendary photographer whose groundbreaking war images expressed his compassion and political commitment. The 2000 documentary "Keep on Walking" (April 9 and 12) profiles Joshua Nelson, an observant black Jew who is also an acclaimed gospel singer and relishes his position as a bridge between two worlds. ("I’m the Ku Klux Klan’s worst nightmare!" he exults, laughing.)

"Art and Remembrance: The Legacy of Felix Nussbaum" (1993), which screens April 6, remembers the artist murdered in Auschwitz long before his hidden cache of paintings on the Holocaust came to light and renown. [Five of Nussbaum’s works are on display as part of the "Art and Auschwitz" exhibit at The Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway at Washington Avenue, through June 15.]

Martin Ritt’s 1975 comedy-drama "The Front" (April 12) stars Woody Allen as a conduit for the work of blacklisted screenwriters in 1950s Hollywood. "The Front" is part of a sub-festival of three films that reflect the McCarthy era, the others being the 1996 version of Arthur Miller’s "The Crucible" (April 9), directed by Nicholas Hytner and a brand-new, 30th anniversary print of Sydney Pollack’s "The Way We Were" (April 11). The way Rothman describes it, this focus was inspired largely by the availability in New York City of key creative personnel. The once-blacklisted screenwriter of "The Front," Walter Bernstein, will be present for a Q & A session, as will "Way We Were" writer Arthur Laurents.

Rothman says such personal appearances are integral to the festival, which he and his colleagues see as "a forum where people can get together and not only be entertained and not only be informed, but can be stimulated to discussion Our only restriction in inviting people is that we don’t yet have the budget to bring in people from out of the city, usually. But we’re fortunate to be in New York City."

Other appearances will include veteran actress Barbara Sukowa, who plays the martyred revolutionary political theorist in the 1986 biodrama "Rosa Luxemburg" (April 10); choreographer Pearl Lang, with "The Possessed" (April 6), her 2001 dance version of "The Dybbuk," a classic Yiddish tale about a love that survives the grave; and a live gospel performance in English and Hebrew by Joshua Nelson and his 35-member choir after the closing-night screening of "Keep on Walking."

This packed lineup points to the growth of the Brooklyn Jewish Film Festival since it was founded in 2000 on the initiative of Rothman, his co-director Jackie Lew and Rabbi Gerald Weider, of Temple Beth Elohim in Park Slope.

"Brooklyn happens to be the home to the largest number of Jews in the world, outside the State of Israel," says Rothman. "So we felt there was a need and a desire among people to explore this culture, to explore their identity. And film is the most powerful medium we have today. Judging by the response of the community, [the festival] seems to have justified itself."

Beginning with 15 movies and a handful of guests, the event has already doubled in size, but is still "a grassroots festival that began and continues with people in Brooklyn who are interested in the idea," he says. "The whole festival is run by volunteers - nobody gets paid."

These festival personnel themselves exemplify the natural marriage between Judaism and activism on which this year’s edition is built.

"The search for social justice has been a long Jewish tradition," observes Rothman. "Jews have often been very involved in movements - the civil rights movement and revolutionary movements I think the main source of it comes from the Bible, from Isaiah and the other prophets. There’s an exhortation: ’Justice, justice, run after it!’

"There’s another concept in Jewish culture called tikkun olam, which means ’repairing the world.’ This concept is actually from the Kabbalah, the Jewish book of mysticism. It says that people have a mission to fix what’s wrong with the world that’s part of the purpose of our life."

"The Third Annual Brooklyn Jewish Film Festival: Artists and Activists" will run April 5-12 at BAM Rose Cinemas, 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene. Tickets are normally $10, and on weekdays, $7 for students and $6 for seniors and children under 12.

Tickets for the opening night party following the New York premiere of "Taking Wing," directed by Steve Suissa, on April 5 are $15. For reservations, call (718) 768-1860.

For schedule and other information, call (718) 636-4100 or log on to

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