Celebrating its 34th year, the Boston Jewish Film Festival has built its reputation and following on thoughtfully curated programming that reflects the diversity of Jewish identity and experience.
The 16 features and two blocks of short films in this year’s festival target different audiences, says Lisa Gossels, the Wayland native and documentary filmmaker who became the BJFF’s artistic director earlier this year. “Viewers are going to find so much diversity in terms of subject matter and genre.”
Offering in-person screenings for the first time since 2019, the BJFF runs Nov. 2-9 at local venues including the Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, Museum of Fine Arts, and West Newton Cinema. Virtual screenings are available Nov. 10-13. Thirty filmmakers and subjects will participate in live and virtual post-screening discussions.
Renowned Israeli actor Sasson Gabay, best known for playing Lieutenant Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya in the 2007 film “The Band’s Visit,” a role he reprised in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, will be at the Coolidge Nov. 2 with the festival’s opening film, “Karaoke.” It’s the feature debut from writer-director Moshe Rosenthal who also joins the live post-screening discussion.
“Karaoke” blends humor and poignancy in its story of the late-middle-age blossoming and sexual reawakening of a long-married couple, Meir (Gabay) and Tova (played by another Israeli screen star, Rita Shukrun). They both become enchanted with Itzik (Lior Ashkenazi), the bon vivant living in the penthouse of their high-rise building in an upscale suburb of Tel Aviv.
The charming Itzik’s karaoke parties in his lavish lair signal the beginning of boundary pushing for Meir and Tova, who are both in a bit of a rut, together and separately. The reserved Meir is flattered when Itzik encourages him to try acting; Meir dyes his thinning hair jet black and auditions for a television commercial. The flamboyant Tova is rejuvenated by Itzik’s attention and dusts off her stilettos to grab her moment in the spotlight during a karaoke performance of a Balkan ballad. Both Gabay and Shukrun won best actor and best actress Ophir Awards (the Israeli Oscars) for these refreshingly mature leading characters who prove it’s never too late for transformation.
Gossels wanted to book “Karaoke” for the BJFF immediately upon seeing it at its world premiere in the Tribeca Film Festival. “I fell in love with the film. You might think it’s just a comedy, but it is deeply psychological. It’s a surprising and satisfying film that has stayed with me,” she said.
Another film that defies genre expectations is “Attachment” (Nov. 5 at the Brattle), a queer romance/horror/mother-daughter story steeped in Jewish mysticism and mythology. Denmark-based director Gabriel Bier Gislason will share a recorded “outro” after the screening.
The film starts with a meet-cute between Maja (Josephine Park), a once-famous Danish actress now performing for kids and Leah (Ellie Kendrick), a Jewish academic from London doing research in Denmark. Shortly after they become lovers, Leah has a mysterious, debilitating seizure. Maja accompanies Leah back to the Hasidic London neighborhood where she lives upstairs from her overly protective and very strange mother (Sofie Grabol). An outsider in the Jewish community, Maja visits the local bookstore where the owner (David Dencik) informs her about Jewish folklore, particularly the Dybbuk, said to be a human spirit that restlessly seeks refuge in the body of a living person. Gislason builds the suspense and paranoia in this original tale of possession and attachment.
Paranoia also escalates in the dystopian world of another genre-bender, “We Might As Well Be Dead” (Nov. 7, West Newton). In her feature debut, director Natalia Sinelnikova creates a chilling, absurdist world where Anna (Romanian actress Ioana Iacob), a Jewish security guard in an isolated private compound, screens applicants desperate to live there. When a beloved compound dog disappears, the community spirals into fear mongering and finger pointing. Anna’s daughter (Pola Geiger) goes into hiding, afraid her evil eye is responsible for the dog’s disappearance. The film is an assured satire about scapegoating, rich with Yiddish songs and dark humor in a trenchant morality tale. Sinelnikova, a Ukrainian Jewish émigré to Germany who wrote the film for her graduate thesis at Babelsberg Film University in Berlin, will appear via Zoom for a post-screening talk.
Acclaimed actor and Oscar nominee David Strathairn will be on hand for an in-person discussion following the screening of “Remember This” (Nov. 6, MFA), the BJFF’s Centerpiece screening. Joining Strathairn is the film’s director and co-writer, Boston native and Brookline High School graduate Derek Goldman; co-writer Clark Young; cinematographer Jeff Hutchens; and producer Eva Anisko. Strathairn delivers a one-man tour-de-force as World War II Polish underground resistance hero Jan Karski who risked his life to warn the Allies about the Holocaust as it was underway but whose pleas went unheeded. The film is adapted from Young and Goldman’s play “Remember This: The Lessons of Jan Karski,” which also starred Strathairn.
The timely documentary “Repairing the World: Stories from the Tree of Life” (Nov. 5, JCC Riemer-Goldstein Theater) traces the Pittsburgh community’s response over the three years following the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre that killed 11 people in 2018. The screening will be followed by an in-person conversation with director Patrice O’Neill and film subjects Allen and Lauren Mallinger.
For a complete schedule and more information go to bostonjfilm.org.