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San Diego Jewish Film Festival Launches 26th Year With South African Drama

The festival is a place for crowd-pleasers and conversation starters

Martin Landau and Christopher Plummer play two elderly Jewish men that decide...

Credit: A24

Above: Martin Landau and Christopher Plummer play two elderly Jewish men that decide to get revenge on the Nazi captain who executed their families in Atom Egoyan's film, "Remember."

KPBS film Critic Beth Accomando previews the 26th Annual San Diego Jewish Film Festival.

Transcript

The 26th Annual San Diego Jewish Film Festival opens Thursday night with the U.S. premiere of the South African drama "The Price of Sugar."

The film looks to a lesser known chapter in history in the Dutch colony Suriname during the 18th century. The colony, in the north coast of South America, had plantations where many of the slaves were Jews.

The San Diego Jewish Film Festival, more so than the other festivals in town, is a place to find films that are conversation starters and that challenge audiences to think about ideas.

"You have to be quite a bad ass to get locked up for your ideas" is how Timothy Leary is described in the opening of the documentary, "Dying to Know." Leary’s ideas often got him in trouble so it’s fitting that in his final days he takes the final opportunity to challenge taboos about death.

"We’re all gonna die, why not learn how to do it with class, and style, and friendship and as a climatic expression of a life," Leary says in the film.

The documentary focuses on the last months of Leary’s life as he and fellow counter-culture icon Ram Dass contemplate death and dying. It’s an emotional process but one free of the usual teary-eyed sentimentality.

An unexpected tone can also be found in "The Singing Abortionist."

"I used to sing to my patients while operating," explains Canadian pro-choice activist Henry Morgentaler in the documentary. He also reveals that he is willing to be a martyr for his cause or even take "an assassin's bullet" because that would at least give meaning to his life. The film took seven years to make and conveys a complicated man behind the public persona.

Famous women prove fascinating in documentaries such as "Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict."

The documentary uses Guggenheim's final interview with her biographer as the foundation for a comprehensive look at her life. It reveals that she opened a gallery in part because she was mulling over starting an art gallery or a publishing house and her friend said "an art gallery, it’s cheaper." So she opened one.

Art became Peggy Guggenheim’s passion but for Flory Jagoda it was music. The documentary "Flory’s Flame" looks to the 90-year-old singer, musician, and composer whose roots and music stretch back hundreds of years to Spain before the Jewish expulsion during the Inquisition in 1492.

Women are also the focus of narrative films such as the beautifully crafted "Mountain," in which a woman lives with her family in the Jewish cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. There’s a reason the door to her home sounds like a prison door slamming shut, it’s because she feels trapped in a mind numbing routine from which she seeks to escape.

Photo caption: Agam Ozalvo (center) plays thirteen-year-old Aharon Ninio, the only child of ...

Photo credit: Israeli Films

Agam Ozalvo (center) plays thirteen-year-old Aharon Ninio, the only child of parents who are unable to conceive again, and he is determined to win the honor of carrying the Torah scrolls on Simhat Torah in "Encirclements."

A young girl proves to be a catalyst for a teenage boy’s coming of age in "Natasha." And young boys coming of age are at the center of two powerfully acted and well-scripted features, "Encirclements" and "Valley." Three high school students become unlikely friends in "Valley," which explores, among many things, the cycle of violence within an abusive family.

The festival also programs accessible, crowd-pleasing films like "Dough" starring Jonathon Pryce. In this film, an old Jewish baker (Pryce) and a young Muslim boy (Jerome Holder) come together to redefine their community.

But perhaps the festival is best summed up by Atom Egoyan’s elegantly complex "Remember." Egoyan’s work ("The Sweet Hereafter," "Ararat," "Adoration") has been obsessed with ideas about history and how we remember things and people. His new film "Remember" casts Christopher Plummer as an elderly Jew with dementia who has been sent on a mission of revenge by Martin Landau's equally senior character. The film serves up a twist that makes us rethink all that came before, and that’s what the San Diego Jewish Film Festival excels at, making us re-examine things we thought we knew and to look at things with new eyes.

The San Diego Jewish Film Festival continues with a wealth of films through Feb. 14 at multiple venues including Reading Towne Square and Arclight La Jolla. Click here for the full schedule.

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