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San Diego's Jewish Film Festival Rebrands But Mission Stays The Same

"It Must Schwing: The Blue Note Story" looks to Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff who founded the legendary jazz label. The film opens this years San Diego International Jewish Film Festival.
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"It Must Schwing: The Blue Note Story" looks to Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff who founded the legendary jazz label. The film opens this years San Diego International Jewish Film Festival.

Festival continues through Feb. 17

San Diego's Jewish Film Festival Rebrands But Mission Stays The Same
GUESTS: Christina Fink, SDIJFF festival chair Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter Subscribe to the Midday Edition podcast on iTunes, Google Play or your favorite podcatcher.

The San Diego International Jewish Film Festival kicked off last week but still has seven days to go. The festival showcases features shorts and documentaries from around the globe. Festival chair Christina Fink spoke with KPBS Arts reporter Beth commando about what's still ahead in the festival. Christina one thing that's new about the Jewish Film Festival this year is you've kind of rebranded and are now the San Diego International Jewish Film Festival. Explain what was what the thought process was behind you. Thanks for catching that yes we've added the word international and we feel that it better brands our festival and really is more representative to the public of what we're all about because the films do come from across the world and though they have Israeli content and Jewish content the spectrum is so much broader that we felt that this would not just give a new spin to a 29 year old festival but really represent it better in this day and time as to what people could see at the film festival. Well I've been watching the festival since its early days and it's always been international So is this just a way to kind of highlight this for people who may not know that much about the stuff. So and I think it's fair to say we still deal with a perception that Jewish films are only Holocaust films and that is very very far from the truth. We've got themes on social activism romance religion LGBTQ plus issues Israeli Arab relations history ethics current events and we just felt that we needed to get away from a stigma of Holocaust films. There are a couple but the rest of the festival and the 32 feature films which were we are showcasing are much much broader and we felt it needed to be seen as such. Well you mentioned Holocaust films but one of the things about some of the films you've picked is it comes at the issue of the Holocaust from new and different ways. And one of those is Hitler versus Picasso and others which is a fascinating documentary. Somebody like Carl have a stock when he was arrested after the war. Quite plainly declared to the American soldiers. I didn't do anything wrong it was just normal business. I had commissions I had to find out for my clients clients with the biggest mass murderers in history. But when we show a Holocaust film one criteria is that it must come in the form of a new story narrative or new nugget of information. And although there is a lot written on Hitler and the art of that decade we felt that this film brought new information to us and to the public and I'm proud to tell you we're showcasing it down at the Museum of Photographic Arts which is the first time we've used that venue and the beautiful theater which they have there. Now one film you're excited about is your centerpiece film and this is who will write our history what is this film about. This is a beautiful film by Roberta Grossman and Nancy Spielberg. Roberta Grossman will actually be at the festival and we've got the San Diego premiere. The film is opening up nationwide in festivals and some public theaters. But Nancy Spellberg and Roberta have worked on this for several years. It is a nugget of World War 2 history that we did not know about. They learned about they literally grabbed their cameras and raced to Europe to grab the story and showcase it. It's just a jaw dropping nugget of history that we are proud to showcase. Does the world know about our suffering. Emmanuel Ringgold Blum understood that he had a story to tell and it was the most important story he would ever have to tell. Almost all the photography that we have was taken by the German propaganda unit while the Germans write our history. We write our history. I don't want to focus just on documentaries but another one that I had a chance to watch that I thoroughly enjoyed because I am a movie buff is the one on Carl Lemley who was the founder of Universal Studios when the Nazis came to power. Most of the world looked the other way but not call them we are not fighting for what is today. We are fighting fire existence. And he was willing to give everything up to save lives. And then for Don Lemon either disappeared in the Poland. Like a hell of a lot of other German Jews and never came back. He gave us make believe monsters and save people from a real one. For some reason there were a number of Hollywood documentaries that came out this year. And in looking at those that did we selected Carl Lemley because he's Jewish and he was what the Jews call a mensch. He was a good person who stood by his team tried to use his voice in film to showcase stories. These were of course during the time that he lived. But he is just somebody that if you are a film buff or if you're not you need to know about him and you need to know more than his name and more than the fact that there are theaters called Lemley theaters and more to Universal Studios than you ever imagined. And I think anyone would be better off seeing this film and learning about it well because I'm a movie buff I came at it from I knew what he had done with Universal Studios. But I did not realize all the work he did to help bring people over before World War 2 to rescue. Precisely so. And these are they again these are the Nuggets the stories that are valuable and really worthy of being in a film. And do you have any tips for people who might be attending the festival for the first time. What's a good way to attack a film festival. I think you have to do your homework. I think you need to study the brochure or the online listing of the festival and the films. See what is playing where and what I tell people who are not. Experience festers. Film festival attendees these films do not play all day everyday like at a regular cinema. You have to plan your life a little bit choose a time a date and place and get there on time and the crowds will be big. You do have to allow for parking. But I promise you it is all worth it in the end. To see these fabulous films and visit with the community meet friends. And that's what film festivals are all about. And you want to talk about what you have for closing night closing night is a beautiful film about a Zubin Mehta who was the conductor of the Israeli symphony orchestra. At one point and he did have a tour he did play and conduct in San Diego. So that's a local tie and I don't want to say too much we'll have some surprises in the evening and it'll be a beautiful beautiful film with a big crowd and some beautiful music and a few more things. And one of the things that a festival can offer that you can't get if you're watching films at home is you provide a lot of opportunities to speak with filmmakers and to kind of put a context to these films. No question. Every film is introduced and we provide even more information not to prolong the time in the theater but to really showcase what we have learned along the way and where we have we have local speakers who some professors who will add value with their commentary and also we've got some directors coming into town. So it goes beyond the film in all the cases and it just is a very rich experience. And that was Jewish Film Festival Chair Christina Fink speaking with K. PBS Arts reporter Beth commando the San Diego International Jewish Film Festival continues through February 17th. And Beth we'll be introducing two films today at the reading Claremont cinemas.

Suggested SDIJFF viewing

"The 90-Minute War"


"Carl Laemmle"

"The Cousin"

"Hitler Versus Picasso and Others"

"The Impure"

"Inside Mossad"

"It Must Schwing"

"The No. 5 War"

"Rescue Bus 300"

"The Twinning Reaction"


"Who Will Write Our History"

Cinema Junkie Recommends SDIJFF

This year the San Diego Jewish Film Festival adds International to its title to emphasize its global perspective. The festival continues through Feb. 17 at multiple venues.

The re-branded San Diego International Jewish Film Festival (SDIJFF) kicks off its 29th year tonight at the Reading Clairemont Towne Square Theaters.

SDIJFF has always been international in flavor but now it adds the word to its name to make sure everyone realizes that fact. I have watched the festival grow since its first year in a gymnasium projecting 16mm films and it has always sought films from around the globe, even bravely adding films from Palestine as a means of providing alternate points of view and encouraging discussion.

This year once again the festival showcases dozens of features, documentaries, and shorts from around the world. The festival continues to pursue the stated goals of its sponsoring organization: "The mission of the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture is to offer an array of entertaining and enriching cultural, educational and artistic programming which brings the community together to connect with Jewish heritage, identity, experiences and values. CJC is committed to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for San Diego's entire community." The film festival is a key means of achieving this.

Festival chair Christina Fink said opening night features the documentary "It Must Schwing" about two Jewish émigrés and friends Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff who founded the legendary Blue Note jazz label.

"If anything it showcases a story of two men who came to the country with nothing and were able to excel, follow an interest, follow a love and built this label out of sheer determination but that’s what history does, it allows us to look back and learn and extrapolate their stories to make them something that inspires us today," Fink said.

This year's centerpiece film is “Who Will Write Our History,” produced by Nancy Spielberg and Roberta Grossman. Grossman is one of the Film Festival’s special guests and will be receiving its Directors Award. The film tells the story of a secret band of journalists, scholars and community leaders in the Warsaw Ghetto who vowed to defeat Nazi lies and propaganda with pen and paper.

The festival closes on Feb. 17 with “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds: Conductor Zubin Mehta”, a documentary about the music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

For a more unconventional night of film check out the festival's Brews & Views event and San Diego Connections films, an evening of five short films held at Project Bar & Grill in Hillcrest.

The festival excels at providing context for its films by bringing in filmmakers, guest speakers, community leaders and others to introduce the films and sometimes lead post-film Q&A's.

Fink noted that some people may have the misconception that the festival focuses on just Holocaust films and she said that is not true because the festival highlights a broad range of films across multiple genres, themes, and countries. She pointed out that if a film does deal with the Holocaust it has to reveal some "new nugget of information."

One fascinating film that covers familiar issues with some new insights and clever cinematic storytelling is "Hitler Versus Picasso and Others." Narrated by Italian actor Toni Servillo ("Il Divo"), the film explores how the Nazis stole art and how it was later rediscovered.

Another documentary worth checking out especially if you love movies is "Carl Laemmle," about the founder of Universal Studios. You might be familiar with his pioneering role in cinema but you might be surprised to discover the amazing amount of activism he engaged in and how many people he helped bring to America to escape Hitler's Germany.

Documentaries are a mainstay of the festival but this year there are a number of films that give a spin to the documentary format. In "Rescue Bus 300" real survivors of a 1984 hostage crisis in Tel Aviv are interviewed and their story is interwoven with cinema verite style re-enactments of events. Then "The 90-Minute War" serves up a mockumentary about a soccer game that is set up in order to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The film uses humor to serve up some insights and social commentary about a conflict that has gone on for decades without reaching any resolution.

One final documentary I want to mention is "The Twinning Reaction," a film that looks into how several families from New York had their lives impacted by the discovery that the Jewish adoption agency they used was covertly separating and studying twins. The film is a perfect compliment to last year's documentary "Three Identical Strangers," which looked to a set of triplets separated by this adoption agency.

SDIJFF continues at multiple venues through Feb. 17. You can find the complete schedule and theater locations online.

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