Now in its fourth year, the Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival promises a list of thought-provoking films giving Santa Barbarans-Jews and Gentiles alike-an opportunity to view contemporary issues from a uniquely Jewish perspective. “We’re really focusing on daily life,” said Barbara Greenleaf, who has served as president of the festival since its inception. “What’s going on in contemporary Jewish life is the theme this year. The blockbuster [Israeli] TV series A Touch Away is a big part of that.” Aside from being a great community builder for Santa Barbara’s Jewish population, this festival has proven to have broad community appeal as well.
Greenleaf noted that Jewish film festivals are popping up all over the world, attracting viewers from a diverse array of backgrounds. “There are now Jewish film festivals in Berlin, Hong Kong, and Warsaw-places where there aren’t a whole lot of Jews around,” she said. “It’s exciting to be part of this movement.” Creating Santa Barbara’s festival is no easy task, either. During a period of months, Greenleaf and 26 other people assembled to review more than 100 films, selecting the seven movies and one television show for this year’s list.
As last year, 2008’s festival includes a youth screening of one of the films, held at the Plaza de Oro Theatre on Wednesday, May 28, and followed by a Q&A session led by Rabbi Steve Cohen-who was UCSB Hillel’s rabbi for 17 years-of Congregation B’nai B’rith. The film, Mechina: A Preparation, features a group of Israeli boys and girls living through the year between high school graduation and their mandatory army service. Since American youth are not required to serve in the army, no one in this country has to face anything like this, making for an interesting student discussion. “Rabbi Cohen is a born teacher and makes it very safe for students to ask questions,” said Greenleaf. “He’s not afraid to ask controversial questions.”
The festival itself will kick off with an opening gala today, Thursday, May 29, at 5:30 p.m. at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort, which will include dinner, klezmer music, and, to the delight of many patrons, no speeches. A screening of the first three episodes of A Touch Away-which tells the story of a secular Russian immigrant who moves next door to a beautiful Orthodox woman-will be shown afterward. In the Israeli Emmy Award-winning show, the two fall in love, creating an opportunity to explore the complex relationship between Israel’s secular and religious communities. An English-language version is currently being remade for HBO. (Episodes 4-8 of A Touch Away will be shown on Saturday afternoon at 1:30, at the Plaza de Oro Theatre, to be followed by a Q&A session with the show’s producer, Zafrir Kochanovsky.)
Friday’s festivities begin much earlier, at 1:15 p.m. at Plaza de Oro, where all of the screenings take place after opening night. After all, many viewers will want to get home on time for Shabbat dinner! As Seen Through These Eyes-a look at the art produced by Jews and Gypsies in Nazi camps during the Holocaust-will give those who choose to celebrate the Sabbath, and anyone else, plenty of inspiration and reason to be grateful. “The goals of these works were (a) survival, (b) escape, and (c) documentation,” said Hilary Helstein, the film’s creator. One of the artists whose work is examined is Dina Gottlieb-Babbitt, whose flawless renderings of Gypsy prisoners were considered by Nazi officials to be better than the images produced by the cameras of the day. “This shows that the human spirit will prevail under the worst conditions,” said Helstein. Later that same afternoon, the early days just before Israel’s independence will be touched upon in Exodus 1947, the story of the renegade ship that punched through a British Royal Navy blockade of Palestine.
Many people might not be aware that Jewish basketball players and coaches played a seminal role in the beginnings of professional basketball in the U.S. At 7:30 p.m. on Saturday evening, The First Basket-which follows that story-will be shown. The evening will conclude with a screening of an Academy Award-winning short musical called West Bank Story, a spoof about Arab-Israeli relations.
At 8 a.m. on Sunday, June 1, early risers will enjoy a full breakfast and talk about Israel’s TV and film industry by Kochanovsky at Congregation B’nai B’rith’s Sunday Morning Live! Lasting about two hours, the program will end just in time for people to scoot over to Plaza de Oro to see Making Trouble-a documentary about six legendary Jewish comediennes-at 10:30 a.m. Produced by the Jewish Women’s Archive, the film covers the extraordinary life stories of Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, and Wendy Wasserstein. “These women drew upon their Jewish identities and values to become successful, using their Jewishness as part of their public personas,” said Lauren Antler, the archive’s senior program manager and a stand-up comic in her own right. “They made a lot of sacrifices, and there’s a lot of inspiration to be had from the women who came before us.” The Last Greeks on Broome Street takes viewers on a trip to New York City’s Lower East Side to delve into the lives of the Romanites, who practice an archaic form of Judaism.
The last film of the festival-Three Mothers-will be shown at 2 p.m. on Sunday. When triplets are born into an affluent Jewish family in Egypt in the 1940s, Egypt’s King Farouk comes to bless the children. Fifty years later, these same women-who were forced, like so many other Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, to relocate to Israel during decades of armed conflict-have lives unlike any they could have possibly imagined.
The Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival runs Thursday, May 29, through Sunday, June 1. Passes are $100; individual tickets are $12 general, $8 for students. For more information, call 964-3377 or see .