For 35 years, the William & Irene Weinberg Family Baltimore Jewish Film Festival has been showing Jewish movies from all over the world, touching on different experiences of the Jewish community in a variety of genres and mediums.
This year, their anniversary coincides with another very significant event: the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding, with Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations at the JCC of Greater Baltimore starting on April 25.
The festival’s opening event will be a special in-person screening and concert from Ethiopian-Israeli singer-songwriter Aveva Dese, also known as AvevA, on Yom Ha’atzmaut to mark the occasion. “Exodus 91,” the Israeli docudrama set to be shown on Israel’s Independence Day, focuses on Operation Solomon, the diplomatic and military mission to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel during Ethiopia’s civil war. Four of the eight films being featured, including “Exodus 91,” are Israeli productions.
“In addition to being the festival’s opening night, the ‘Exodus 91’ screening is one of the featured events being held by the JCC in celebration of Israel’s milestone,” said Sara Qureshi, the Gordon Center’s film program director. Qureshi works with a large film selection committee to decide on the movies that are screened each year, in a process that starts almost immediately after the previous year’s Jewish film festival draws to a close.
The opening ceremony makes this year the first time the film festival has been a hybrid event, as the other films are being screened virtually. The Jewish film festival was solely an online event for the past few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the opening event, the first block of films runs from May 1 through 14 and features the Israeli drama “Barren;” the comedy “Matchmaking;” the family drama “More than I Deserve” and the French war film “Coeurs Valiants,” or “Valiant Hearts.” The second block runs from May 15 through 28 and will see more screenings of “Matchmaking,” along with three new films: the Polish “March 1968;” the Italian “L’Ombra del Giorno,” or “The Shadow of the Day;” and the documentary “Reckonings.”
This year’s offerings range from dramas to comedies to documentaries, with some focusing on Holocaust-era discrimination and antisemitism while others are more lighthearted romps centering on Jewish family life.
“Barren” specifically centers on an Orthodox couple who cannot have children. While the husband travels to pray for a child, the wife encounters a mysterious stranger who claims to be the prophet Elijah and says that he can fix her problems, only to take advantage of her instead.
“Barren” director and screenwriter Mordechai Vardi said the film is based on a true story of a Jewish woman during the 18th century who had a similar experience and the conflict that resulted.
“In Jewish law, if a woman has a relationship with another man, the couple has to divorce,” Vardi explained. “So there was a question of if that should happen in the case of a rape, or only in a consenting relationship. Women didn’t have the free choice to say no to such a high authority at the time [during the 18th century], and definitely not to a man claiming to be Eliyahu Hanavi.”
Vardi said he made the film to spotlight ritual abuse in the Jewish community, and he said he hopes that he can spark a conversation about the trust people place in rabbis and the power they hold. But he notes that abuse is a pervasive issue in many religious communities.
“I saw that people can identify with the film even if they are not Jewish, because ritual abuse is unfortunately present in all cultures,” he said of past screenings of “Barren,” which have been held across the world. “It’s not only Jewish people who are affected; everyone can identify with the conflict and how the woman [in the film] and her husband struggle to deal with it.”
The sole documentary on the film festival lineup is “Reckonings,” an American film about the Jewish people’s efforts to seek reparations from Germany after the Holocaust. The documentary chronicles the efforts of the Claims Conference, a group of Jewish negotiators, and the members of the German government they worked with to reach an agreement. The Claims Conference and the German Finance Ministry collaborated on the film, which was directed by Roberta Grossman.
The film’s screening at the film festival is timely, as one of its key subjects recently passed away.
“Key to the making of the film was an in-depth interview with Ben Ferencz, a giant of spirit and action who died [on April 7] at the age of 103. Ben was the last living survivor of the negotiating teams that met in an old castle in the Netherlands in an effort to come to an agreement for reparations for survivors of the Holocaust,” Grossman said. “Ben’s crystal-clear and still emotionally charged memories of that historic event made it possible for viewers to imagine the spiritual, ethical and legal challenges, only seven years after the end of WWII, experienced by representatives of the Jewish people who sat across the table from a German delegation, representatives of the inheritors of the vast and incomprehensible crimes of Nazi Germany.
“After watching ‘Reckonings,’ I hope people take away some hope that even the most intractable problems can find resolution, however imperfect, if the parties involved agree to sit together in a room and talk,” she added.
In addition to screenings, the film festival will also feature virtual Q&As with the filmmakers behind the submitted movies. Viewers will have the opportunity to directly communicate with the directors and writers behind the films.
“This is a celebration of the art of film,” Qureshi said. “I hope people can understand the depth and richness that a shared viewing experience, whether it’s in-person or virtual, can bring.”