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San Diego Jewish Film Festival Features Diversity, A Few Surprises

Sammy Davis, Jr. and the Rat Pack.

Credit: Courtesy still

Above: Sammy Davis, Jr. and the Rat Pack.

— Diversity and a few surprises mark this year’s 28th annual San Diego Jewish Film Festival. Spread across venues from the Edwards Cinema in Mira Mesa to several screens in La Jolla, this year’s festival offers an impressive spread of feature films, and documentaries as well as a very strong section of shorts.

In a nod to Black History month, the SDJFF opens Thursday with a warm and far-reaching biography of the talented and complicated Sammy Davis, Jr, who converted to Judaism mid-career. “I Gotta Be Me” is a dynamic look at the singer who overcame considerable racial and religious prejudice to become one of America’s favorite entertainers.

Entertainment and history figure prominently in the features.

"A Bag of Marbles,” in its San Diego premiere, traces the story of two young Jewish brothers who must make it through the Occupation and find their family again. Based on French Jewish author Joseph Joffo’s autobiographical novel, the film features fine performances from its two young protagonists as well as beautifully shot vignettes of Paris and the brothers’ voyage toward Nice.

On a related note, the well-reviewed “The Invisibles” makes its Southern California premiere as well. “The Invisibles” explores the almost unthinkable — how 1,000 Jews survived World War II — in Berlin, with remarkable re-enactments and stunning cinematography.

Lighter films abound in this year’s festival, among them the standouts “Let Yourself Go” and “Humor Me."

“Let Yourself Go” stars the charming, versatile Italian actor Toni Servillo (“Il Divo,” “A Great Beauty”) as an older, uptight Jewish psychoanalyst whose worldview gets a workout with his new, much younger personal trainer.

If you like father-and-son comedies, “Humor Me” should fit the bill. Starring some of the best funny people in the business (Elliot Gould, Bebe Neuwirth and Jermaine Clement) this comedy takes the idea of the kids moving back “home,” in this case a retirement community, and gives it a new spin.

Several films look at the often uneasy nexus between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. “Between Worlds,” a San Diego premiere, starts with an attack and finishes with an unexpected friendship. Bina (Maya Gasner), an Orthodox woman, visits her secular son in the hospital as he recovers from a stabbing. There she meets Amal (rising Arab-Israeli actress Maria Zreik), a young Palestinian woman visiting a relative in the same hospital. Or is she? As Bina gets to know Amal, she slowly learns Amal’s secret that connects the two women and Bina’s son.

“In Between” has earned Arab Israeli-director director Maysaloun Hamoud rave reviews and a fatwa, or Islamic religious sanction, for its depiction of nightclubs and liberal discussions about sex, society and sexual orientation. The film has played well both in and outside of Israel, with Hamoud winning an award for women directors in Cannes. “In Between,” set in Tel Aviv, Hamoud’s debut feature takes modern life head-on, challenging stereotypes and patriarchal expectations through the eyes of a lesbian Christian DJ, an independent lawyer and a young, hijab-wearing college student, all 20-somethings sharing an apartment.

Women are in the forefront this year and the SDJFF has no shortage of good films looking at women’s issues. Two of the more unusual ones are documentaries.

"Bombshell" was one word used to describe actress Hedy Lamarr, but a better description might have been one of the best minds of her generation. Gorgeous on screen and brilliant off, Lamarr’s inventions laid the foundations for the technology that drives our lives today, as the documentary, “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” shows.

Big on Bollywood? You might be surprised to know that pioneering stars of Indian cinema were Indian Jews, many from the centuries-old Bene Israeli tribe. Catch their story in “Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema.”

Local filmmaking is also spotlighted in this year’s festival. Local director Isaac Artenstein (“A Day Without a Mexican,” “Tijuana Jews”) is hosting the world premiere of his documentary, “To the Ends of the Earth: A Portrait of Jewish San Diego.” Artenstein will be present for both screenings. “To the Ends of the Earth” looks at the little-known history of a community that stretches back to the 1850s. Artenstein explores the shifts in the local Jewish community from its roots in Old Town to some of its newest arrivals.

Another documentary featuring someone with local connections is about Robert Shaw, chorale director extraordinaire and beloved conductor and guest conductor of the San Diego Symphony, among others. “Robert Shaw: Man of Many Voices” looks at Shaw’s extraordinarily prolific career that included 16 Grammies, countless popular arrangements and a passion for music that spanned genres.

In a time when various rights are coming under siege, the story of Eugene Debs, a precursor to the likes of Bernie Sanders, might be instructive. Local director and musician Yael Strom takes a close look at a man who stood for president five times and tirelessly fought for labor rights and economic equality. “American Socialist: the Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs” may be about an historic figure, but also has a message for our times. Strom will be on hand for both screenings.

Not to miss is the shorts programming, screening Monday, at The Lot in La Jolla. The richly diverse programming features pieces such as the animated short “Chika, the Dog in the Ghetto,” about a young boy and a forbidden pet, an unusual conversation between an IDF soldier and an Orthodox man (“Acheinu”), the story of Adam, whose ancestors’ photos come to life to talk him out of marriage to a non-Jew (“Killing the Fiddler”), and a short about the Japanese diplomat who saved 6,000 Jews from the Nazis (“Sugihara Survivors: Jewish and Japanese, Past and Future.”

The San Diego Jewish Film Festival runs through Februar.y 18, at several locations. See The San Diego Jewish Film Festival for times, locations, and ticket information.

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