Arestored Yiddish classic, a gritty directorial debut, one documentary about a famous comedian, and another about a little-known French film producer — it’s all part of the diverse lineup of new and rediscovered films at Jewishfilm.2014, the annual film festival of the National Center for Jewish Film, at Brandeis University.
The NCJF may be best known for restoring and distributing historic Yiddish and silent films — it has done 100 restorations, so far — but for 17 years its festival has reminded audiences of the center’s work as well as provided a window onto Jewish culture, past and present.
Jewishfilm.2014 starts Thursday and runs through May 11. Venues include the Museum of Fine Arts, the Institute of Contemporary Art, the West Newton Cinema, and Suffolk University’s Modern Theatre.
The festival opens with the New England premiere of Dan Shadur’s personal documentary, “Before the Revolution,” at the MFA. It chronicles the vibrant Israeli community in Tehran in the 1960s and ’70s, before the Iranian revolution. It’s preceded by “Iran Street Scenes 1950-51,” a short film of rare archival footage restored by the NCJF.
Other notable documentaries shed new light on figures we think we know, and others we don’t know at all. “Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story” (Friday, MFA, and next Sunday, West Newton) looks at the rise of the well-known comedian, whose boldly Jewish humor and literate, affable manner landed him on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” couch more than 100 times as well as on Richard Nixon’s enemies list. This was before Steinberg turned to a second career, as director of film and television comedy.
Directors Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen will attend both screenings of “Joe Papp in Five Acts” (May 9, MFA, and May 10, Modern Theatre) about the legendary theater maverick (born Yosel Papirovski), founder of New York’s Public Theater. After the screening at the Modern Theatre, Holder and Thorsen will join in a conversation with American Repertory Theater founder Robert Brustein and Marilyn Plotkins, Modern Theatre artistic director.
“Natan” (May 4, West Newton), says Lisa Rivo, co-director of the NCJF, “is an unknown story that deserves to be better known.” It’s the tale of Bernard Natan, who acquired France’s renowned Pathé Studios and turned it into Pathé-Natan. During the ’20s and ’30s, he produced 65 films, including an epic version of “Les Misérables,” and helped revolutionize film technology. The documentary chronicles Natan’s life, his accomplishments erased from history by wartime anti-Semitism and legal woes. Thomas Doherty, Brandeis University professor and author of “Hollywood and Hitler,” leads a post-screening discussion. “Natan” is paired with the 1929 comic short, “Cohen on the Telephone,” in a new NCJF digital restoration.
Among the narrative features are several fictional versions of actual events. The Romanian black comedy “Closer to the Moon” (May 8, MFA) is an absurdist take on a group of high-ranking Jewish communists who robbed Romania’s National Bank in 1959 by pretending they were shooting a movie.
“Cupcakes” (Friday and May 7, MFA) is the latest from Israeli director Eytan Fox (“Yossi and Jagger”), a candy-colored confection with a pop soundtrack about a group of friends whose song is picked to represent Israel at an international musical competition.
French director Diane Kurys (“Entre Nous”) returns with the historical drama “For a Woman” (Thursday, MFA, and Saturday, ICA). Inspired by her own family history, the film is set in the French city of Lyon and alternates between 1947 and the 1980s.
“Rock the Casbah” (May 7, MFA) is director Yariv Horowitz’s debut, a harrowing account of four Israeli solders stationed on the roof of a Palestinian home in Gaza during the first intifadah, in 1989.
Rivo calls “Friends From France” (Saturday, MFA and May 11, West Newton) “a complex, riveting film that’s an interesting addition to the conversation” about the current strife in Ukraine. A political thriller set in the Soviet Union in 1979, it follows a young couple, Carole (singer-actress Soko) and Jérôme (Jérémie Lippmann), revealed to be French Jews on a dangerous mission to visit with refuseniks, Jews persecuted by the Soviet regime.
For a special Mother’s Day event on May 11 at West Newton, Rivo and Sharon Pucker Rivo, co-directors of NCJF, will introduce a 2:30 p.m. screening of the NCJF’s new restoration “Mamele,” a 1938 musical comedy drama starring the one and only Molly Picon, “Queen of the Yiddish Musical.” “Mamele” comes to Boston from sold-out screenings in Jerusalem, Stockholm, Melbourne, Miami, and New York. Also on the bill is “The Sturgeon Queens,” Julie Cohen’s short documentary about Russ and Daughters, purveyor of lox, caviar, and bagels on New York’s Lower East Side since 1914. It also screens Saturday at the MFA.
“The Sturgeon Queens” will be preceded by a 1910 silent short, “A Child of the Ghetto,” directed by D.W. Griffith, about a seamstress on the Lower East Side. The 15-minute film is an NCJF restoration and the US premiere of a new score by Swedish composer Alexander Freudenthal.
Go to www.jewishfilm.org.