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Jewish film festival has strong lineup, points of view

National Center for Jewish Film

Two major international films, one from Israel and one from Germany, are among the highlights of the National Center for Jewish Film’s 18th annual film festival running April 30-May 15 at the Museum of Fine Arts, West Newton Cinema, and Kendall Square Cinema.

A strong lineup of 16 fiction features and documentaries is anchored by the New England premiere of “The Kindergarten Teacher” (May 10 at the West Newton and May 15 at the MFA). Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s follows up his debut film, “The Policeman,” with a stylish study of Tel Aviv kindergarten teacher Nira (Sarit Larry) who becomes obsessed with 5-year-old Yoav (Avi Shnaidman) and his otherworldly gift for speaking his own perfectly formed poems on love and loss. Indiewire picked the film as one of “7 Hidden Gems” from the recent New Directors/New Films festival at Lincoln Center.

German director Christian Petzold’s latest, “Phoenix” (May 3, West Newton), intriguingly blends Hitchcock and film noir in its story of Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a Jewish concentration-camp survivor who, with her face altered by surgery, searches for her husband in the rubble of postwar Berlin.


But the festival is not all serious drama. You won’t want to miss the Boston premiere of the highly entertaining documentary “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker” (May 2, MFA; May 10, West Newton), with producers Sue and Lloyd Ecker in attendance for the latter screening. Bette Midler may be known for imitating Tucker’s bawdy jokes but there’s no one quite like the original “Last of the Red Hot Mamas” — Tucker ruled Vaudeville, Broadway, radio, and TV in the first half of the 20th century.

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The combined tales of writer Sholom Aleichem, whose stories became the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” and actor Theodore Bikel, who’s played Tevye more times than anyone, are woven together in the documentary “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem.” It screens May 3 at West Newton with the film’s composer, Hankus Netsky, on hand for a post-screening discussion.

The film festival notwithstanding, NCJF’s priority is the preservation and restoration of rare and endangered films. To date, the center has restored more than 100 movies that document Jewish culture, including 44 works in Yiddish. This year’s festival screens the 35mm restoration of the 1931 comedy “His Wife’s Lover” (May 10, West Newton), starring popular Yiddish comedian Ludwig Satz, directed by Sidney Goldin from a script by Sheyne Rokhl Simkoff.

Many of the festival’s selections illuminate how new generations deal with the consequences of World War II and the Holocaust. Local audiences won’t want to miss the New England premiere of “Raise the Roof” (May 14, MFA) with father-son Boston directors Cary and Yari Wolinsky in attendance. Their documentary follows MassArt professors Rick and Laura Brown as they engage 300 artisans and students to build a replica — using only period tools and techniques — of one of the 200 wooden, mural-covered 18th-century synagogues of Poland, all of which were destroyed by the Nazis.

In the drama “A La Vie” (May 7, MFA; May 11, Kendall), Auschwitz survivor Hélène (Julie Depardieu) and her friends Lily and Rose (Johanna ter Steege, Suzanne Clément) find solace on a seaside vacation together. French writer-director Jean-Jacques Zilbermann based the film on his own mother and her annual vacation with the friends she made in the camps.


“The Art Dealer” (April 30, West Newton; May 9, MFA) is French director François Margolin’s thriller set in the murky world of Nazi-looted art. The black comedy “Mr. Kaplan” (May 1, MFA; May 10, West Newton) is about irascible Jacob Kaplan who, like many of his Jewish friends, fled Europe for South America during World War II. Now 76 and restless, Kaplan begins to suspect that a mysterious beach bar owner might be a runaway Nazi. Director Álvaro Brechner’s film was Uruguay’s 2014 Academy Award entry for best foreign language film.

For a complete schedule and more information, go to

Say yes to ‘Dress’

Veteran filmmaker and longtime Arlington resident Alice Bouvrie will attend the world premiere of her new documentary “A Chance to Dress” April 29 at 7 p.m. in the Alfond Auditorium at the Museum of Fine Arts. Bouvrie’s 40-minute film is a portrait of John Southard, 76, a world-renowned geologist, professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an open cross-dresser. Southard will attend the screening with his wife, Jean Southard, a retired Presbyterian minister, and join Bouvrie in the post-screening discussion. Bouvrie met the Southards, who live in Mansfield, nearly 12 years ago and planned to include them in what became her 2011 film, “Thy Will Be Done.” That film follows male-to-female transsexual Sara Herwig in her journey to ordination in the Presbyterian Church, where Jean Southard served as a mentor. “I was going to weave both stories [into one film] but then I realized they needed to be separate films,” says Bouvrie, whose interest in subcultures has long figured into her documentaries. Education and understanding is the goal of “A Chance to Dress,” she says. “Transvestites are such a misunderstood group,” she says. “There’s so little out there that’s not sensational.”

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China’s animators

Boston audiences can get a first look at the animated short films of the award-winning, young Chinese filmmaker Lei Lei and other animation artists based in China on April 24 at 7 p.m. when the Institute of Contemporary Art presents “Expanded Animation: New Directions in Chinese Animation.” The 75-minute program and discussion is a showcase for a mix of young visual artists, filmmakers, and independent/experimental animators working in stop-motion, print-making, handmade collage, ink, painting, graphic design and digital algorithm. Lei Lei has five short films in the program; seven other filmmakers each have one, including Chai Mi, who joins Lei Lei in person for a post-screening talk.

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Loren King can be reached at