The influence of Jewish actors, filmmakers, exhibitors and studio chiefs on the movies is so extensive—and such an inextricable part of the DNA of the past century's cinema—that in some ways the idea of a Jewish film festival seems almost redundant. But good luck going to a mall cinema and finding a screening of Lost Islands, a comedy-drama about twin brothers in love with the same girl, even if it was a blockbuster pop entertainment in its native Israel. The same could be said for Holy Land Hardball, a crowd-pleasing doc about a Boston bakery owner who pursues his dream of bringing pro baseball to Israel.
But clearly an audience exists for films that treat Jewish life, humor and culture as a main course, not just seasoning in a mainstream soup. The most recent proof is in a little-movie-that-could called Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, which played briefly at Green Hills a month or so ago. Directed by Aviva Kempner, the film would seem to have almost every strike against it in the marketplace: It's a documentary about early radio and TV star Gertrude Berg, whose pioneering sitcom The Goldbergs has been eclipsed by the show that eventually took its nighttime slot, I Love Lucy.
Yet this week the film celebrated a milestone: It passed $1 million at the box office, on minimal advertising, good press and strong word of mouth. By Box Office Mojo standards, the gross is peanuts. By documentary standards, it's remarkable—so much so that its maker, director Aviva Kempner (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg), is now only the second woman in the history of movies to pass the million mark twice with docs in first-run release.
"That movie was so full of information," says Mandy McBroom, program director for the Nashville Jewish Film Festival, which screens Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg next week with Kempner in attendance as part of its ninth annual festivities. "That was a subject I knew nothing about, and it was such a great surprise."
Those are words McBroom, a familiar face as the Nashville Film Festival's longtime festival coordinator, and the NJFF's volunteers hope to hear a lot over the next week once the festival gets under way Saturday at The Belcourt. The good news for Nashville moviegoers, Jew or Gentile, is that the festival has by far the strongest lineup of films in its nine-year history. Initially a bighearted social event with incidental screenings, the NJFF has made a Hank Greenberg-sized step toward the big leagues with this year's edition, promising a showcase for worthy films Nashville audiences would otherwise miss. Not only is the festival's schedule better, it's broader, expanding its definition of "Jewish film" to encompass anything from period pieces to contemporary comedies.
So what makes a film Jewish, or sufficiently Jewish to win a berth in the NJFF? "You know it when you see it," jokes festival co-director Laurie Eskind. For example, the warm documentary Herb and Dorothy concerns lifetime art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel, who are Jewish. But that fact receives little if any attention in the film, Eskind says. As a result, the NJFF thought it made more sense to sponsor an early screening recently outside the festival dates. Eskind (who is Jewish) credits McBroom (who isn't) with getting the festival to make "tough calls" about its selections.
But the festival benefits greatly from the latitude shown to its opening-night film, Mary and Max, an unclassifiable stop-motion animated wonder that was one of the conversation pieces of Sundance 2009. Adapting some of the whimsy and stylized visuals of the Wallace & Gromit adventures to emotionally wrenching ends, Oscar-winning Australian animator Adam Elliot ("Harvie Krumpet") sketches the deepening friendship between a lonely grade schooler (voiced in later years by Toni Collette) and her 20-year pen pal, an obese, middle-aged New Yorker with Asperger's syndrome (voiced by an unrecognizable Philip Seymour Hoffman).
In live action, the supposedly fact-based story, not to mention the relationship, might come off as morbid, cloying or creepy. In Elliot's lovingly detailed animation—his hand-modeled New York skyline has a model-railroad fanatic's intricacy—the storybook stylization brings out the humor as well as the yearning in the characters' parallel obsessions. (As dire as the material sounds, the movie is blessedly very funny, with an amusing voice cameo for Eric Bana as Mary's iffy crush object.) That Max is Jewish explains the movie's inclusion in the NJFF, but its themes of the fragile bonds that brace people against the hazards of loss, aging and mortality are as universal as movies get.
Mary and Max has distribution, but for some of the films in the NJFF—such as Omri Givon's moody romantic thriller Seven Minutes in Heaven, in which an Israeli woman (Reymond Amsalem) tries to piece together the missing moments before a Jerusalem bus bombing—a stop at one of the country's numerous festivals for Jewish film is the likeliest way to reach a U.S. audience. With similar fests stretching from San Francisco to Washington—with points along the way in Austin, Philadelphia, Baton Rouge and Charlotte, N.C., to name a few—Eskind says the existence of the Nashville fest is a point of pride.
"People who come here from big cities are pleasantly surprised we even offer a Jewish film festival in Nashville," says Eskind, who co-founded the NJFF with the late Kathryn Gutow nine years ago. The challenge—as with the International Black Film Festival, another niche Nashville fest that's made steady inroads of late—is getting general Music City audiences to feel welcome. Considering that the fest typically gives off the vibe of a big hug, with lots of parties, comfort food and cheery socializing, Eskind and McBroom believe the energized NJFF will be a hard invitation to decline.
Despite all the ways Jewish culture has shaped the movies over the past century, Laurie Eskind notes with a laugh that the moguls who ran Golden Age Hollywood—the Mayers, the Goldwyns, the Warners—"did everything they could to look mainstream." With Jewish film festivals growing across the country, maybe the mainstream is getting a needed makeover. "[Studios] think that because the majority of people aren't Jewish, there's not a big enough audience for these films," McBroom says.
Oh yeah? Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!
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