Always a source for new and exciting documentaries, the National Center for Jewish Film’s Annual Film Festival (May 7-19; Museum of Fine Arts and Coolidge Corner Theatre) this year has included four films profiling five Jews who have played a major role in shaping modern culture and history.
During the Weimar period, jazz captivated Berlin teenagers Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. Both fled the Nazis for New York City, where Lion, joined later by Wolff, founded the shoestring Blue Note Records to celebrate the music they loved and which was inexplicably unappreciated by most Americans.
Directed by Eric Friedler and produced by Wim Wenders, “It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story” (2018; May 8 at 7:45 p.m., Coolidge; May 11 at 12:30 p.m., MFA) combines exquisite music from greats like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk with Wolff’s trademark black-and-white photographs and some uneven animation to show how the pair escaped persecution but only to be shocked to find African-Americans undergoing similar oppression in their adopted homeland.
The film argues convincingly that by supporting and recording these musicians Lion and Wolff preserved one of the country’s greatest original art forms and helped initiate the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s.
The subject of James Freedman’s “Carl Laemmle” (2018) immigrated to the United States as a teenager, in 1884. The film screens May 15 at 7:30 p.m. at the MFA. A question-and-answer session with Brandeis University professor Thomas Doherty, author of “Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939,” follows. A scrappy go-getter, Laemmle saw a future in the nascent movie business and by 1912 had formed Universal Pictures. The studio became famous for establishing the horror film genre with movies ranging from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923) and “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925) to the iconic “Frankenstein” (1931) and “Dracula” (1931).
Combining archival material and interviews with film scholars, colleagues, friends, and family members, Freedman presents an informative and incisive portrait of this cinema pioneer. He shows how as Laemmle exorcised the inner demons of the audience with his movie monsters he also battled monsters in the real world, rescuing more than 300 Jewish families from Nazi Germany at a time when the US government was turning them away.
The title photographer of Peter Kenneth Jones’s “Henri Dauman: Looking Up” (2018) survived the war in Nazi-occupied France. (The documentary screens May 19 at 1 p.m. at the MFA. A question-and-answer session with the director and the producer, Nicole Suerez, granddaughter of Henri Dauman, follows). His father was murdered in the camps, and his mother died the year after the war was over, when she was poisoned by medicine bought on the black market.
Undaunted, the 17-year-old orphan immigrated to the United States to pursue his calling as a photographer. By 1959 he was shooting pictures for Life and other publications, his subjects ranging from the Vietnam War to such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, and Jackie and John F. Kennedy.
Jones follows the 85-year-old photographer as he attends a Paris museum show that acknowledges his achievement of recording in striking and revealing images some of the key moments and personalities of the 20th century. Jones also accompanies Dauman while he revisits the places in France where he grew up, hiding in fear. Emotionally powerful and skillfully made, this is an illuminating tribute to an overlooked artist.
Unlike those in the other films, the subject of Dan Shadur’s “King Bibi: The Life and Performances of Benjamin Netanyahu” (2018; May 16 at 7:30 p.m., MFA; a question-and-answer session with the filmmaker follows) did not make his mark on the world through art, but politics.
He ran for the most powerful office in his land and held raucous rallies in which he stoked his base by demonizing the media, liberals, his opponents, and Arabs. He deflected attention from scandals and corruption by presenting himself as the victim of those who investigated and reported them. Two decades before Donald Trump utilized the same tactics in gaining and sustaining power, Netanyahu had perfected them and transformed Israeli democracy. Last month he won reelection, and this summer will surpass David Ben-Gurion as the country’s longest-serving prime minister.