The outstanding Polish film Ida, a nominee for this year's foreign-language Oscar, seemed a lock for inclusion in the 2015 San Antonio Jewish Film Festival.
But then the selection committee (full disclosure: I served as a member) learned that Ida would run at a local commercial theater. Sponsored by Barshop Jewish Community Center of San Antonio, the nonprofit festival exists to showcase films that have never before been shown publicly in San Antonio. All offerings must also have something to do with Jewish history or culture, however loosely defined. And they must all possess significant artistic merit. The lineup for this year, the Festival's 14th, includes 10 remarkable features — fiction and nonfiction — from Argentina, France, Germany, Israel, United Kingdom and Venezuela. All are San Antonio premieres.
The Festival, which takes place at the Santikos Embassy 14, kicks off Saturday at 8 p.m. with a cinematic cream puff — an Israeli film called Cupcakes, about a pastry baker and friends who overcome official hostility and internal bickering to advance to an international song competition. It would be easy to dismiss the film, directed by Eytan Fox (Walk on Water), as a musical Rocky, except that most boxers would be pleased to break their training for such a sweet confection.
Directed by Roberta Grossman (Hava Nagila: The Movie), Above and Beyond, the first of three Sunday offerings, at 2 p.m., tells the astonishing story of the volunteer pilots from around the world who converged on the newly independent Israel to create a ragtag air force and defend the infant state from neighbors intent on destroying it. Next at 5 p.m. is The Best of Men, British director Tim Whitby's drama about Dr. Ludwig Guttman, a refugee from Germany who used athletics to rehabilitate his patients and pioneered the Paralympic Games. Sunday at 7:30 p.m. brings the festival's pièce de résistance, Big Bad Wolves. Some on the Festival committee did, in fact, resist it, as directors Aharon Kesheles and Navot Papushado crafted a hyperbolically dark comic thriller oozing with blood though sparkling with droll invention. The story of a renegade cop and a distraught father who abduct a suspected serial killer of little girls, it has echoes of Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino and current debates over child abuse and torture.
Monday offers a rare opportunity to view a fictional spy drama in tandem with a riveting documentary about the actual case on which the fiction was based — like seeing Milk and The Times of Harvey Milk one after the other. Yuval Adler's Bethlehem, at 5 p.m., follows the fraught relationship between a teenage Palestinian whose father is a leading terrorist and the Israeli agent who has cultivated the young man as an informant. With The Green Prince, at 7:30 p.m., Nadav Schirman recounts the actual evolution of Mosab Hassan Yousef, who grew disillusioned with the ruthless tactics of Hamas, which his father helped found, and agreed to spy for Israel's Shin Bet.
Tuesday's first offering, Alexandre Arcady's 24 Days, at 5 p.m., offers insight into the violent anti-Semitism that plagues contemporary France. It is a tense dramatization of how family and police responded to the kidnapping of Ilan Halimi, a young French Jew who was held for ransom by a gang of thugs who assumed that all Jews are rich. A rich historical melodrama, For a Woman, follows at 7:30 p.m. Director Diane Kurys (Entre Nous) drew on her own family secrets for an intricate, intimate story set in France immediately following World War II.
Wednesday, the Festival's final day, brings God's Slave at 5 p.m. Venezuelan director Joel Novoa's accomplished feature debut draws on events surrounding the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires to follow two men each fanatically devoted to an opposing cause. Ahmed is an Islamic terrorist assigned to execute a suicide attack on an Argentine synagogue, and David is an Israeli agent who single-mindedly does whatever he can to avert the attack. The final offering, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, adapts autobiographical writings by Sayed Keshua, Palestinian creator of the popular TV series Arab Labor, which makes a mockery of prejudices straining relations between Arabs and Jews — and is in effect Israel's All in the Family. Directed by Eran Riklis (Lemon Tree), Dancing Arabs tells the story of a talented boy from an Arab village who, after earning a scholarship to a prestigious Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem, finds himself torn between two worlds, at home in neither.
If I had to pick favorites, they would be: Big Bad Wolves, The Green Prince, 24 Days, and For a Woman. But, like an unheard bell, this Festival does not have a ringer.
$8 per film, $70 for a Festival Pack, Sat, Feb 7-Wed, Feb 11, Santikos Embassy 14, 13707 Embassy Row, (210) 302-6820, jccsanantonio.org/filmfestival
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