SINCE THE FALL, the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival (NJJFF) has been giving the community gifts to celebrate its 20 years as a major cultural event — free screenings of “fan favorites” from festivals past, presented on the 20th day of the last several months.
It’s all been a lead-in to the main event — the landmark 20th annual JCC MetroWest NJJFF, which will take place Thursday-Sunday, March 19-29, at (with a couple of exceptions) the JCC MetroWest in West Orange. The 10-day festival will feature two dozen-plus new cinematic works, with a roster that includes daytime and evening showings of narratives and documentaries, dramas and comedies, shorts and features from Israel, America, France, Hungary, and other countries, many of them N.J. premieres, many award-winning, and many followed by discussions led by filmmakers and experts.
“Incitement,” which will open the festival on Thursday evening, March 19, has garnered wide acclaim — including Best Picture honors at Israel’s Ophir Awards. The feature film follows Yigal Amir, the zealous ultranationalist and devout Orthodox Jew, as he prepares to channel his rage over the Oslo Peace Accords. Convinced he must stop the signing of the treaty and bring salvation to his people, he sets his sights on his target: Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Viewers will find a few prominent New Jersey connections among the offerings.
One of the works in the lineup of the festival’s first-ever Afternoon of Shorts, on Sunday, March 22, is a true homegrown film. “Broken Bird” is a narrative about Birdie, a biracial girl living in suburban Jersey and her struggles with her dual identities as she prepares to become bat mitzvah. The filmmaker, Rachel Harrison Gordon, grew up in Millburn and set and shot virtually all of her semi-autobiographical work on her home turf, including at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange. She and Christopher King, director of “Flour & Water: A Baker’s Peace” — a documentary about three bakers of different faiths together creating loaves of peace — will address the audience after the program of seven short films.
Two documentaries spotlight native New Jerseyans. “Aulcie,” to be shown on Monday, March 23, explores the life of star black athlete Aulcie Perry of Newark, who helped drive the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team to historic heights. Conversion, Israeli citizenship, and his new country’s adulation were followed by a self-destructive turn — and determined steps toward redemption. Famed Israeli director Dani Menkin will join in a discussion via Skype.
The festival’s Centerpiece Film is a documentary, on March 25, that offers a revealing look at “The Spy Behind Home Plate” — Morris “Moe” Berg, who also started out in Newark, played 15 seasons in the Major Leagues, and led a secret life in espionage during World War II. Award-winning director Aviva Kempner will take part in a post-screening discussion.
The final movie, on Sunday, March 29, is the Israeli feature “Crescendo.” When a world-famous conductor is tasked with establishing an Israeli-Palestinian youth orchestra, he must overcome the dissonance and mistrust rampant among the young musicians and find a way to bring them together in harmony.
Opening and closing nights will include dessert receptions.
In between, films will offer a host of subjects, including: “Fiddler on the Roof” and its universal appeal; an Arab couple in Jaffa who provide shelter for three orphans from the West Bank as tensions mount outside their door; the unlikely friendship between a struggling young comedian and an eccentric alcoholic (played by Billy Crystal); a slacker production assistant on a popular Palestinian soap opera finds unexpected success when he pilfers plot points from an imaginative Israeli border guard; and a Latvian worker who risks his life to rescue Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
Among the festival speakers will be Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Joe Palazzolo and Michael Rothfeld, coauthors of “The Fixers”; Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor in chief of New York Jewish Week; and Dr. Gary Rendsburg, chair of Jewish history at Rutgers University.
Festival director Sarah Diamond credits a “stellar” corps of committee members, JCC staff, and volunteers for ensuring that this year’s festival will be a “fitting cap to 20 years of excellence and an outstanding launch for future runs of this community cultural touchstone.”
“The range of outstanding films is a testament to our commitment to meeting the demands of our discerning audiences,” she said, and encouraged patrons to purchase tickets, since some screenings do sell out.
Committee members Caren and Herb Ford of Livingston founded the NJJFF in 2000. This year’s cochairs are Andrea Bergman, Joni Cohen, and Abby Meth Kanter; Vicky Jacobs is festival curator; and Jennica Carmona is administrator.
Sponsored by JCC MetroWest’s Gaelen Center for the Arts, the festival receives support from the NJ State Council on the Arts and from more than two dozen community and corporate sponsors. Sponsorships are available.
If you go
What: New Jersey Jewish Film Festival
When: Thursday-Sunday, March 19-29
Where: JCC MetroWest, West Orange (and other venues)
Tickets: $12-$20; all-festival pass, $350
Contact: Sarah Diamond at email@example.com or 973-530-3417 or visit jccmetrowest.org/njjff or Facebook.com/NJJFF