Ann Arbor Jewish Film Festival and Cinetopia alliance brings Jewish films to more people this year.
By Suzanne Chessler
Two films specific to the times — one a documentary, the other a docudrama — are part of this year’s Ann Arbor Jewish Film Festival, which is showcasing nine full-length films and six short films.
The documentary, 93Queen, reflects the push for women’s rights in Brooklyn’s Chasidic community with the creation of the first all-female volunteer ambulance corps in New York City.
The docudrama, Shoelaces, delves into the growing awareness of relationships and opportunities faced by a man with a special-needs son.
The 18th annual festival, running May 12-16, this year is presented in connection with the Cinetopia Film Festival, which runs May 10-19. Cinetopia features some 60 international films in venues around the region, introduces a range of speakers and opens with the film Before You Know It, described as having Jewish sensibilities.
The opening film, listing a stellar cast, including Jewish entertainer Mandy Patinkin, will be joined by its co-writers, Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock, who appear in the comedy as sisters discovering the mother they thought was dead is actually alive and starring in a soap opera.
“Collaborating with Cinetopia is an exciting opportunity to share Jewish films with so many more people,” says Karen Freedland, director of Jewish cultural arts and education for the Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor and director of its film festival.
Another co-sponsored film is To Dust, about a cantor struggling to find religious solace in coping with his wife’s death and seeking help from a college biology professor.
Meryl Goldsmith, who grew up in Bloomfield Hills and produced the film Love, Gilda (about the late Jewish comedian Gilda Radner, also from Michigan), will be represented at Cinetopia because of production responsibilities for a very different documentary, Well Groomed, capturing the world of creative dog grooming.
Paula Eiselt directed 93Queen and is pleased the film has brought larger support — funding and participation — to the entry of religious women into emergency medical care, defined as part of the MeToo movement.
“I strived to make a film true to the community — a complex film, a nuanced film that neither demonized nor sanitized the community where it takes place,” explains Eiselt, an Orthodox woman who learned about the initiative through accessing a religion-based website.
What struck Eiselt was the idea that women had been banned by the existing ambulance corps and began opposing that stance in a way not typical for the culture. The filmmaker met with the woman at the helm, and that started a five-year production process.
“Funding is mostly based on private donations,” Eiselt says.
Since the film came out, there was a successful crowdfunding campaign that raised new funding from outside the Chasidic community. There also has been the development of additional groups doing the same kind of ambulance work in Long Island and Manhattan.
“They service anyone who calls — men or women,” the filmmaker says.
Eiselt wants to stress, through the film, that feminism does not mean that one size fits all.
“This is what feminism and women’s empowerment looks like in [this Chasidic community],” she says. “It’s not what feminism and women’s empowerment looks like in other parts of the world. There are different needs, and I see this as a story of women creating space for themselves and finding space where there wasn’t.
“There are women who have been too embarrassed to call for help and have died as a result, so this is a great model of change and progress and how communities change from the bottom up.”
Shoelaces, a film nominated for eight Israeli Academy Awards, was directed by Jacob Goldwasser. The story has to do with the efforts of a special-needs son trying to help his father, whose own special need is a kidney transplant.
“I hope audiences will be able to look into the eyes of people with special needs and see what they do have [instead of seeing] only what they don’t have,” Goldwasser says. “I hope audiences will learn to like Gadi and even his ability to fight for what he believes in his own way.”
Although the plot is based on a true event that happened to another family, Goldwasser entered the project knowing the characteristics, challenges and emotions because of personal experiences with his oldest son, who has special needs.
“My wife and our younger son, Itamar, who edited the film, were very supportive and cooperative all along the long development and making of Shoelaces,” he explains.
“It took me 12 years from the time I heard about the true event until I was convinced to make the film. I realized I could transform this tragedy into an optimistic story that would help improve the image of people with special needs in the eyes of a vast audience.”
For film descriptions and schedules, visit cinetopiafestival.org and film.jccannarbor.org. Individual tickets are $10 and $15.
Other Jewish Film Festival screenings:
• Budapest Noir is a murder mystery that takes place as Hungary is about to align with Hitler.
• The Unorthodox unfolds political initiatives taken by a member of the Sephardi community in Jerusalem.
• Why the Jews? recounts accomplishments by members of the Jewish faith.
• The Samuel Project connects an outcast teen with his grandfather.
• The Ancient Law, a silent film, follows the son of an Orthodox rabbi who wants to become an actor.
• Remember Baghdad delves into experiences of the Jews of Iraq.
• The Last Suit presents the journey of an aged clothier in search of the man who saved his life.