As the National Center for Jewish Film celebrates the 20th year of its annual film festival, it once again hosts a number of outstanding documentaries — not just about serious subjects like David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, but also about more light-hearted topics, like hummus and a multigenerational folk-rock group.
Those interested in learning about the origins of Israel or in finding wisdom and inspiration in the words of a legendary statesman will enjoy Yariv Mozer’s “Ben-Gurion, Epilogue” (screens Tuesday at 5 p.m. at the West Newton Cinema), a film made possible only through remarkably serendipitous circumstances.
As is explained in the film’s introduction, in 1968 a journalist interviewed the 82-year-old Ben-Gurion (he died in 1972) at his retirement retreat in the desert. The film vanished until a print without the soundtrack was found by the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive, and the soundtrack turned up at the Ben-Gurion Achives in Negev, Israel. The two were reunited, and Mozer selects highlights from the discussion along with fascinating archival footage.
That footage includes not just images of war and its aftermath but some unlikely juxtapositions. There’s Ben-Gurion meeting with Albert Einstein with their near-identical puffy white coifs; Ben-Gurion challenging Yehudi Menuhin to see who can stand on his head longest (Ben-Gurion wins); and Ben-Gurion serenaded at a birthday celebration by Ray Charles singing “Heaven Help Us All.”
When the new prime minister announced the independence of Israel in 1948, initiating a war with several Arab states, it became, as he comments, probably the only time in history when a country was founded and invaded by all of its neighbors on the same day. More wars were fought and won in 1956 and in the 1967 Six-Day War. Each war left Israel with conquered Arab territory and increasingly tenuous chances for reconciliation.
More circumspect than relieved or triumphant after these victories, Ben-Gurion insists that he would much prefer peace to land, and he worries that future leaders who might think otherwise could drift from the nation’s founding ideals. “I fear,” he says, “that we may be more successful at war than peace.”
Among the festival’s less weighty fare is Oren Rosenfeld’s “Hummus! The Movie” (Friday at 7 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts; May 16 at 5 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre), in which the conflict between Arab and Israeli is limited to a friendly rivalry between makers of the tasty title dish. Also worth a look and listen is Tal Barda and Noam Pinchas’s “The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev” (May 17 at 7 p.m. and May 21 at 12:30 p.m. at the MFA). Originally from Tajikistan, the musical Alaev clan emigrated to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union and regaled their adopted homeland through times of trouble and triumph.
For more information go to www.jewishfilm.org/filmfest/jewishfilm.2017/calendar.htm.
Fade to black
Back in the days when it was still part of the now defunct Yugoslavia, Serbian cinema gave birth to the so-called “Black Wave,” a group of renegade filmmakers including Dušan Makavejev and Zelimir Zilnik, who made subversive documentaries and features lacerating the status quo.
The latter firebrand is being celebrated in the Harvard Film Archive series “Zelimir Zilnik And the Black Wave” (April 30-May 21) featuring his signature, seminal documentary “Black Film” (1971) in which the filmmaker tackles the problem of poverty directly by bringing home a group of homeless men, much to his wife’s consternation. He concludes the film with a proclamation stating “the film is about the position of filmmakers and intellectuals, who, although they pretend that they are changing the society and helping people, are actually not doing anything but making films.”
Sounds as timely now as ever.
“Black Film” screens with an assortment of early Zilnik shorts on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Film Archive. The filmmaker will be present at the screening.
For more information go to hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2017marmay/zilnik.html.
Comes with soup
May is Asian Pacific American Month and in acknowledgment of that occasion the PBS World Channel offers a series of documentaries that probe problems and achievements from that community.
Among them is James Q. Chan’s “Forever, Chinatown” (Monday at 6 p.m.), a profile of the 81-year-old, unknown, self-taught artist Frank Wong, who is obsessed with recreating the San Francisco Chinatown of his youth with intricately detailed miniature models, an installation he plans to cremate along with himself at his demise.
Also in the series is Matthew Hashiguchi’s “America Reframed: Good Luck Soup” (Tuesday at 9 p.m.). It looks back at the filmmaker’s challenges as a half-Japanese boy growing up in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in Cleveland, where he received understanding and inspiration from his Japanese grandmother, one of the thousands of Japanese Americans detained in camps during World War II.
For more information go to worldchannel.org/programs/america-reframed.