Among the oldest and most influential Jewish film festivals worldwide, the 28th annual New York Jewish Film Festival (NYJFF) will take place January 9 to 22, 2019. Featuring new work as well as restored classics, the festival’s 2019 lineup includes 32 wide-ranging and exciting features and shorts from the iconic to the iconoclastic. Screenings are held at the Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street, NYC.
The NYJFF opens on Wednesday, January 9, with the New York premiere of Eric Barbier’s epic drama Promise at Dawn, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Pierre Niney. This riveting memoir chronicles the colorful life of infamous French author Romain Gary, from his childhood conning Polish high society with his mother to his years as a pilot in the Free French Air Forces.
The Closing Night film is the New York premiere of A Fortunate Man, directed by Academy Award–winner Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror). In it, a gifted but self-destructive young man leaves his suffocating Lutheran upbringing for metropolitan 1880s Copenhagen, where he’s welcomed into a wealthy Jewish family and strives to realize his grand ambitions.
The Centerpiece selection represents the first time an Israeli television series has been presented at the NYJFF with the three-and-a-half-hour miniseries Autonomies, to be presented all at once, binge-style, with a 20-minute intermission. Directed by Yehonatan Indursky, the dystopian drama is set in an alternate reality of present-day Israel, a nation divided by a wall into the secular “State of Israel,” with Tel Aviv as its capital, and the “Haredi Autonomy” in Jerusalem, run by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group. A globally relevant tale of identity, religion, politics, personal freedom, and love, this gripping story follows a custody battle that upends the fragile peace of the country, pushing it to the brink of civil war. Indursky will present a master class in conjunction with the screening of Autonomies.
New to the NYJFF this year is an annual initiative that highlights a film made by a woman filmmaker that deserves broader American recognition. Maria Victoria Menis’s Camera Obscura (2008) tells the story of an immigrant woman whose encounter with an itinerant photographer reveals a sense of self she never knew. The film was shot in the lush forests and lagoons of Buenos Aires province in a mélange of visual styles, including elements of hand-drawn animation, World War I archival footage, and early surrealist black-and-white films.
Filmmaker Amos Gitai returns to the 2019 NYJFF with the U.S. premiere of his thought-provoking new drama, A Tramway in Jerusalem. Gitai uses the tramway that runs through Jerusalem to connect a series of short vignettes, forming a mosaic of Jewish and Arab stories embodying life in the city.
The NYJFF will also present the U.S. premiere of Fig Tree by first-time director Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian. Set in Addis Ababa during the Ethiopian Civil War, the film concerns a young woman who plans to flee to Israel with her brother to reunite with their mother. But she is unwilling to leave her Christian boyfriend behind and hatches a scheme to save him from being drafted.
28th New York Jewish Film Festival Film Lineup
Promise at Dawn
France, 2017, 131 min.
French with English subtitles
The great Jewish novelist Romain Gary, also known by the pen name Emile Ajar, was one of France’s most prolific and popular writers of the mid-20th century, and the only person to win the Prix Goncourt twice. His autobiographical novel Promise at Dawn is a loose memoir, recounting his impoverished childhood in Poland, his time as a fighter pilot in World War II, early relationships in the south of France, and most of all the unyielding love between him and his single mother. The book’s drama and adventure lend themselves naturally to the big screen. This adaptation by Eric Barbier, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Pierre Niney, is a rollicking journey through a life richly lived.
Israel, 2018, 210 min. (presented with a 20-minute intermission)
Hebrew and Yiddish with English subtitles
Set in an alternate present where the state is brutally divided between the secular capital of Tel Aviv and a Jerusalem governed by an ultra-Orthodox “Haredi Autonomy,” this dystopian thriller tells the story of a wheeler-dealer who smuggles contraband between the two regions and a little girl at the center of a secular-Orthodox custody battle whom he is hired to kidnap. Israel is experiencing a golden age of episodic television, turning out some of the finest narrative storytelling in any medium, and we’ll screen all five episodes for a proper binge. Autonomies shows why the country is such fertile ground for powerful fiction: the series is a boiling cauldron of the issues of identity, religion, politics, and personal freedom that define life in contemporary Israel.
A Fortunate Man
Denmark, 2018, 162 min.
Danish with English subtitles
A gifted but self-destructive young man leaves his suffocating Lutheran upbringing in the country for the metropolitan Copenhagen of the 1880s. An engineer with progressive ideas, he is welcomed by a wealthy Jewish family and assimilates himself into their opulent milieu, embarking on a journey of personal and professional ambition that teeters on the razor’s edge between triumph and catastrophe. A sprawling story of grand scope and high romance from the Academy Award–winning director of Pelle the Conqueror, A Fortunate Man is a rare kind of film—beautifully realized, full of exceptional performances, and with a dramatic sweep on par with the great classics of cinema.
Main Slate Films
Black Honey: The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutzkever
Israel, 2018, 76 min.
Hebrew, English, and Yiddish with English subtitles
Russian-born poet Avraham Sutzkever is, by many accounts, the greatest Yiddish writer of modern times. He wrote with wit, passion, and vitality through the darkness of the Holocaust, and led the Paper Brigade, an underground resistance group that hid a cache of Jewish cultural items to protect them from destruction by the Nazis. Sutzkever was saved by a special rescue plane sent for him by Stalin, and later testified in the Nuremberg trials against the Nazi who murdered his mother and son. Black Honey uncovers this extraordinary life through Sutzkever’s poetry and reveals how, amidst the darkest times, his poetry became a life-saving source of vitality and strength.
U.K., 2018, 8 min.
Using live action, animation, vintage artifacts, and photographs, director Katia Lom explores her family’s history—including their escape from Czechoslovakia in 1951.
Maria Victoria Menis
Argentina, 2008, 86 min.
Spanish and Yiddish with English subtitles
With Camera Obscura, we are thrilled to inaugurate an exciting new annual program at NYJFF highlighting films made by women that deserve broader American recognition. At the end of the 19th century, a baby girl is born on a ship of immigrants headed for Buenos Aires. Gertrudis grows up shy and self-conscious, cast as an “ugly duckling” in her community. She goes on to marry a wealthy Jewish rancher and settles into a life of homemaking, always meditating on the idea of beauty and feeling stripped of it herself. When a nomadic French photographer comes to visit, though, his images allow Gertrudis to see herself for the first time. Shot on location in the lush forests, lagoons, and rivers of Buenos Aires province, Camera Obscura is a wondrous mélange of visual styles, including elements of hand-drawn animation, World War I archival footage, and early surrealist black-and-white films.
USA/Canada/Israel/Poland, 2018, 78 min.
English and Polish with English subtitles
After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, artist Moshe Rynecki left his collection of more than 800 paintings and sculptures notable for portraying the everyday life of Polish Jews with friends around Warsaw for safekeeping. But after he was killed in Majdanek, the Rynecki family lost track of the vast majority of them, and they were dispersed among collections around the world. Decades later, his great-granddaughter Elizabeth enlists the help of historians, curators, and private collectors to uncover the extraordinary path of Moshe’s collection. Chasing Portraits is a rich and compelling documentary about one woman coming to terms with her family’s legacy and her place within it.
Israel, 2017, 74 min.
Hebrew, Czech, and English with English subtitles
Fredy Hirsch was a German Jew and openly gay man in Nazi Germany. The Nuremberg Laws were passed when he was 19 years old, and he fled to the Czech Republic where he became a sports teacher in a Jewish youth club. Upon his deportation to Ghetto Terezin, he was appointed head of the youth department, teaching and working with over 4,000 children. In his final days at Auschwitz, he set up a daycare center, where he was much admired and his sexuality was fully public in the community. Dear Fredy excavates this remarkable story and seeks to reveal the mystery of his death, which happened on the eve of a revolt that never came to pass.
Belgium, 2018, 7 min.
Dutch with English subtitles
The inner life of a Belgian Jewish set designer, whose survival in a Nazi transit camp was fueled by the power of the human imagination, is given animated form in this arresting and beautiful short.
Amikam Kovner & Assaf Snir
Israel, 2018, 98 min.
Hebrew with English subtitles
In this tenderly acted drama starring Yael Abecassis and Yoram Toledano (who both starred in the enormously popular Prisoners of War, the Israeli forerunner to Homeland), an engineer named Avner suspects his wife, Ella, is having an affair and begins recording her phone conversations. While he obsessively listens and tries to learn the lover’s identity, Ella tragically dies in a car crash. As Avner sinks deeper and deeper into his investigation, he grows more isolated from his friends and family, and his life begins to unravel. In the process, his attention is redirected from the mystery lover to his late wife; he realizes there were parts of her personality he never knew in her life, and the search turns into a reflection on himself and their relationship.
Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story
The Netherlands, 2017, 67 min.
English and Hebrew with English subtitles
Israeli writer Etgar Keret is beloved and renowned for his surreal, delightful short stories and his Cannes-winning work as a director. In Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story, filmmakers Stephane Kaas and Rutger Lemm journey deep into the perpetually comic and off-kilter tone of his fiction and real-life stories to better understand how he became the writer that he is. The son of Holocaust survivors, Keret describes early experiences that shape his writing and inspire his prolificacy, in conversations with friends that include This American Life’s Ira Glass and writer Jonathan Safran Foer. In keeping with the surreal style of his work, the film employs mixed-media detours to round out this quirky portrait—reenactments of his anecdotes and animated versions of his stories.
Israel, 2017, 17 min.
Hebrew with English subtitles
A creative and quirky teenage girl in Jerusalem who loses her father in a terror attack attends a torch lighting ceremony at a local community center with her mother on Memorial Day, an event that becomes a poignant moment of self-discovery.
Amharic with English subtitles
Mina is 16 years old and has lived with her brother and grandmother in the midst of the Ethiopian Civil War her entire life, but they are planning to flee for Israel, where her mother awaits their reunion. So Mina is spending her last days in Addis Ababa with her Christian boyfriend Eli, who has ensconced himself in the woods to avoid being drafted into Mengistu Haile Mariam’s army. But Mina wants the best of both worlds and hatches a plan to rescue him. This coming-of-age film is tender and poignant, based on director Aalam-Warqe Davidian’s experience growing up during the Ethiopian Civil War.
A Thousand Kisses
Brazil/Ireland/Uruguay/USA, 2018, 16 min.
English and German with English subtitles
In this animated short, a young Jewish couple in 1933 Berlin must separate, so they make plans to reunite on the safe tropical shores of Brazil.
Happiness of the World
Poland, 2016, 98 min.
Polish with English subtitles
This entrancing film tells the story of an apartment building somewhere along the Polish-German border in the early twentieth century with an exceptionally colorful roster of tenants. The film centers on Rose, a beautiful young Jewish woman, who is being pursued by three aggressive suitors, a Pole, a Silesian, and a German. But her heart belongs to another: a fun-loving journalist who has recently arrived from Warsaw. The film follows Rose and the suitors through this delightfully dark comedy of manners as the encroaching war starts to cast their lives and romances in an ever more quixotic light.
Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People
USA, 2018, 85 min.
Joseph Pulitzer began as a penniless Jewish immigrant from Hungary and grew into one of America’s most admired and feared media figures. His New York newspaper The World spoke to an unprecedented number of readers and maintained powerful journalistic and artistic ideals through its ascent. In 1908, in a notable parallel to contemporary debates, for example, Teddy Roosevelt accused an elderly Pulitzer of libel for a piece that harshly criticized the Panama Canal, threatening imprisonment and sending his reputation reeling. Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People tells the rare story of the man behind the prize, who spoke of “fake news” and the importance of freedom of the press over a century ago. Narrated by Adam Driver, with the voice of Pulitzer performed by Liev Schreiber.
The Light of Hope
Spain, 2018, 96 min.
Spanish, Catalan, and French with English subtitles
The Light of Hope is based on the true story of Elisabeth Eidenbenz, the young Red Cross nurse who became director of the Elne maternity home in 1930s and 1040s France during the Spanish Civil War and afterwards. As hundreds of people flee Vichy camps and Franco’s regime, Eidenbenz and her female co-workers save the lives of 600 infants by providing humane conditions for pregnant women fleeing Vichy refugee camps and Franco’s regime in Spain. But just as the operation starts to thrive, threats from within and without take shape. As French authorities demand that she turn in all Jewish refugee and children, and Elisabeth’s deputy Victoria becomes heavily involved with La Résistance, Eidenbenz and her staff must risk their lives to keep the maternity home alive.
Mack the Knife – Brecht’s Threepenny Film
Germany, 2018, 130 min.
German with English subtitles
After the premiere of Bertolt Brecht, Elisabeth Hauptmann, and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera in 1928, the work seemed destined for the silver screen: Brecht wanted to make a film, and a studio was eager to capitalize. But Brecht clashed with producers over his desire to create a socially-conscious film, while the studio wanted a crowd-pleaser. After a court battle Brecht and Weill were forced off the project, which was released in 1931 with another director. Joachim Lang’s high-sheen dramatization of Brecht’s attempts to make the film is itself a frenzied satire, resplendent with historically accurate gems such as Brecht saying to his antagonists, “In the realm of art, you and your people have the mind of an oyster.”
Mohamed and Anna: In Plain Sight
Germany/Israel, 2017, 58 min.
Mohamed Helmy was an Egyptian doctor who traveled to Berlin to study medicine; there he eventually opened a practice in the decades before World War II. During that time, he met a Jewish girl named Anna Boros, whom he saved from capture by the Nazis by disguising her as a Muslim woman. This astounding documentary uncovers the many extraordinary maneuvers and deceptions he took to save her life, at great risk to his own. In 2013, Dr. Helmy posthumously became the first and only Arab recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by the state of Israel. Mohamed and Anna: In Plain Sight embodies the Talmudic precept “He who saves one life, saves an entire world,” while demonstrating how the human heart can bridge religions, cultures, and nationalities.
Five Years After the War
Samuel Albaric & Martin Wiklund
France, 2017, 17 min
French with English subtitles
This animated short brings to explosive, exuberant life the wild fantasies of a Parisian man, the son of an absent Iraqi father and a Jewish mother, who is confounded by the modern world and trying to find his place in it.
Pat Steir: Artist
Veronica Gonzalez Peña
USA, 2018, 74 min.
The groundbreaking artist Pat Steir, a leading light in the development of Conceptual Abstraction and a trailblazing feminist, has been on the forefront of American painting for half a century, and her professional and personal life have intersected with many of the most influential artists and poets of her generation—from Sol Lewitt to Agnes Martin to John Cage to Anne Waldman. This intimate, revelatory portrait by Steir’s friend, the novelist and filmmaker Veronica Gonzalez Peña, was shot over the course of three years primarily in Steir’s home and studio. Enlivened by a visually poetic style and the clear affection between filmmaker and subject, the film offers a profound look into the life of an artist.
Joseph Madmony & Boaz Yehonatan Yacov
Israel, 2018, 104 min.
Hebrew with English subtitles
Menachem used to be the front man of a popular rock band, but now he is deeply religious and the father of a six-year-old girl. When she is diagnosed with cancer, the treatments are too expensive for the poor widower, and he decides to get the band back together for a reunion tour. What he initially thought would be a practical solution turns into a soul-searching journey as he reopens old wounds and reconnects with his secular past. The title alludes to Menachem’s confrontation with these two major identities—only a renewed connection to his music will allow him to redeem himself, save his daughter, and move forward with a new life.
USA, 2018, 78 min.
English, French, Bulgarian, Hebrew, and Aramaic with English subtitles
Animator Nina Paley follows her 2008 hit Sita Sings the Blues with this wild and imaginative retelling of the Book of Exodus in musical form, starring Moses, Jesus, and Paley’s own father. Also heavily featured is the Great Mother, humankind’s original deity, who is resurrected in a tragic struggle against the forces of Patriarchy. The Burning Bush does a rendition of Louis Armstrong, a Pharaoh sings “I Will Survive,” and an unforgettable circumcision scene is choreographed à la Busby Berkeley. Variety calls it “a mix-tape musical that’s all-singing and all-dancing, with the Ten Plagues alone soundtracked by a roster of artists encompassing 78-rpm blues, hip-hop, punk, 1970s pop rock, Oingo Boingo, and the Beatles.”
Austria/Germany/Italy, 2018, 108 min.
German with English subtitles
Vienna under Nazi occupation is the setting for this ravishingly shot wartime drama about a young man and his unlikely friendship with Sigmund Freud, played by the extraordinary Bruno Ganz. Franz arrives in the city as a 17-year-old to apprentice at a tobacco shop, where the elderly psychoanalyst is a regular customer, and the two develop an immediate bond. When Franz falls desperately in love with a music hall dancer named Anezka, he turns to Freud for advice, who tells him the female sex remains as mysterious to him as it was when he was Franz’s age. As war approaches and the city descends into turmoil, the drama of this young man’s life are swept up into the larger events that are shaking the foundations of Europe and the world. Based on the international bestseller by Robert Seethaler.
Czech Republic/Slovakia, 2018, 145 min.
Czech with English subtitles
Zdenek Toman is a controversial and singular character in modern Czech politics. In the years following World War II, he served as the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, where he orchestrated the coup of 1948 and the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s rise to power. He was an unscrupulous careerist and an unsavory politician, blackmailing, exploiting, and intimidating his way to the top of the Communist food chain. But he has another unlikely other role in the history books—as a savior of Jews. Toman tells the story of the enigmatic man who organized the rescue of thousands of Eastern European Holocaust refugees by bringing them across Czechoslovak borders and setting the stage for their entry into Palestine.
A Tramway in Jerusalem
Israel/France, 2018, 94 min.
Hebrew, Arabic, French, English, and German with English subtitles
The Light Rail Red Line of Jerusalem’s tramway connects the city from East to West, from the Palestinian neighborhoods of Shuafat and Beit Hanina to Mount Herzl—a journey that comprises the culturally complex makeup of the city. This humorous and touching film, whose cast includes Mathieu Amalric and Hana Laslo, hinges on a series of encounters along the line: simple, mundane interactions that reveal the diverse mosaic of humanity that exists in the spiritual center of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Beneath the clashes and grievances among its population that the world sees, Jerusalem is a city teeming with everyday life. The small conflicts and reconciliations depicted in A Tramway in Jerusalem offer a kernel of hope in a society torn by political strife.
Who Will Write Our History
Poland/USA, 2018, 95 min.
English, Polish, and Yiddish with English subtitles
In November 1940, after the Nazis sealed 450,000 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, a vital insurgency took root—not of the sword, but of the pen. A group of scholars, journalists, and community leaders led by the historian Emanuel Ringelblum formed a secret resistance, vowing to strike back at Nazi propaganda by documenting the truth. Codenamed Oyneg Shabes, the organization gathered thousands of testimonies from Warsaw natives and refugees from other localities. Retrieved after the war from metal boxes and milk cans buried beneath the ruins of the Ghetto, it is perhaps the most important collection of original material compiled by Jews during the Holocaust. This documentary mixes writings from the Ringelblum Archive with interviews, rarely seen footage, and stunning dramatizations to tell this story for the first time on film—a story of the fight for truth alongside the fight for survival.
The Ancient Law
Ewald André Dupont
Germany, 1923, 135 min.
Silent (with English intertitles)
The digital restoration of this lost gem from the silent era gets its NYC premiere at this year’s NYJFF, featuring a new score and live accompaniment by pianist Donald Sosin and klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals. In a shtetl in Galicia, the son of a rabbi gets a bug for acting and is swept into a cosmopolitan, glamorous lifestyle, much to the chagrin of his very traditional father. The son becomes the object of a Viennese archduchess’s affections, and, with a sweetheart waiting back home, he must decide between two divergent paths. The Ancient Law offers a nuanced depiction of both the shtetl and the Jewish ideals of the era, steering clear of caricature at every turn. The cinematography is spectacular, emulating the light and shadow of a Rembrandt etching.
Belgium, 1980, 80 min.
Yiddish and French with English subtitles
U.S. Premiere of the Restoration
In one of the first postwar films in Yiddish, director Samy Szlingerbaum excavates his childhood through his parents’ immigration to the “promised land” of Belgium after World War II and their subsequent failure to adjust. Weaving together haunting footage of postwar Brussels and astounding black and white photography, this film gestures at surrealist and avant-garde cinema to portray his—and his family’s—poignant longing for a sense of home, and, alongside that, European Jewry’s overwhelming isolation after the war.
The City Without Jews
Hans Karl Breslauer
Austria, 1924, 91 min.
Silent (with English Intertitles)
N.Y. Premiere of the Restoration
Recently restored and featuring a new soundtrack, The City Without Jews is one of few surviving Austrian Expressionist films, and the magnum opus of the great director H.K. Breslauer. Filmed in 1924, it can be seen as a chilling premonition of the Holocaust—the premise is the political rise of the Christian Social Party, which orders all Jews to evacuate Austria. In the ensuing months, the sober reality of a society without Jews sets in, as cultural institutions close and cafes are replaced with beer halls. Eventually, the economy declines and unemployment runs rampant. Based on the dystopian book by Hugo Bettauer and intended originally as political satire, it became the subject of controversy and censorship, especially in conjunction with the rise of Nazism.
Life According to Agfa
Israel, 1992, 100 min.
Hebrew with English subtitles
U.S. Premiere of the Restoration
In a small, all-night bar owned by two women (played by Irit Frank and the legendary Gila Almagor), a colorful assortment of Tel Aviv citizenry gathers—men and women, Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, kibbutzniks and city-dwellers, drug dealers and soldiers. As dramas among the patrons unfold over the course of the evening, tension mounts, culminating in a tragic denouement. Life According to Agfa was released to universal acclaim almost three decades ago and has since become a touchstone of Israeli cinema—a film of fully realized characters whose personal dramas reflect and then give way, in the bitter outcomes of small and increasingly large conflicts, to a broader national story about the fractures in Israeli society and the isolation and emotional devastation of modern life.
Travelogue Tel Aviv
Switzerland, 2017, 6 min.
A Swiss art student studying abroad captures Tel Aviv’s vitality and boldness in this vibrant, impressionistic animation.