Doc Talk

Women are empowered in Boston Jewish Film Festival line-up

A scene from the 2017 documentary film “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.”
Boston Jewish Film Festival
A scene from the 2017 documentary film “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.”

With the volume turned up on discussions about condemning abuse and demanding rights for women and minorities, the Boston Jewish Film Festival (Nov. 8-20) presents several documentaries that will inspire and support those causes.

Few film subjects better embody the concept of female empowerment than the woman at the center of “Heather Booth: Changing the World,” directed by Lilly Rivlin. (It screens at West Newton on Nov. 13 at 7 p.m.; a discussion with the director and the subject moderated by Judith Rosenbaum, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, follows the screening.) As one of the interviewees says onscreen, Booth is like the Zelig of progressive activism, having participated in just about every campaign from the civil rights movement on. For her, passion is not enough — change requires organization, hard work, and a strategy.

Alexandra Dean’s “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” finds an unlikely feminist hero in the Hollywood sex symbol of the title. It screens at Coolidge Corner on Nov. 15 at 6:30 p.m., followed by a discussion with the director, actress Judith Kalaora, and Globe film editor Janice Page. It also screens at the Coolidge on Nov. 16 at 1 p.m. and at Orchard Cove in Canton on Nov. 19 at 1 p.m.


Lamarr was the star of such tawdry hits as “White Cargo” (1942) and “Samson and Delilah” (1949), not to mention the notorious “Ecstasy” (1933) in which she performed a nude scene. As a Jewish native of Vienna, eager to help with the Allied cause, she raised millions in Liberty Bonds.

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She also developed, with musician George Anthiel, an unbreakable code for sending radio messages. But the Navy was dismissive of their spread-spectrum and frequency-hopping technology. Years later, that innovation would be the basis of practically every 21st century digital communications device. Though Lamarr would eventually be credited, she never received a cent.

Unlikely feminist role models are also at the center of Vanessa Stockley’s “The Genius and the Opera Singer” (at the Brattle, Nov. 16 at 9:15 p.m.). There’s Jessica, the caustically witty “genius,” and her mother, the 90-year-old Ruth, who is the opera singer of the title. They constantly argue and insult one another. It’s a codependent relationship that’s been going on for 50 years and yet somehow it works, at least when the two sing along to Frank Sinatra records.

A more tragic family drama unfolds in Hope Litoff’s “32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide” (at the Brattle, Nov. 16 at 6:30 p.m.; a discussion with the director follows the screening). Though her idolized, artistically accomplished sister Ruth committed suicide in 2008 after a long struggle with mental illness, Litoff still has not reconciled herself with the loss. To do so, and perhaps to unravel the mystery of her sister’s motives, Hope opens the storage room where all of Ruth’s belongings have been locked since her death. Inside, she finds diaries, photographs, an unfulfilled plan for an exhibition — and hundreds of pill bottles (lined up in rows on a long table organized by year, they form a kind of macabre art installation). As the exploration continues and the anguish mounts, Hope’s own hard-won years of sobriety seem increasingly at risk.

The subject of “Big Sonia” (Nov. 15 at 1 p.m. at Coolidge Corner; Nov. 19 at 3:30 p.m. at West Newton) is co-director (with Todd Soliday) Leah Warshawski’s grandmother, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor. She is also one of the last tenants in a vast, deserted Kansas shopping mall where she runs the tailor shop started by her late husband, also a Holocaust survivor. The place keeps her busy, distancing her from some of her horrific memories, including when, at 17, she watched her mother being led off to the gas chamber.


But the mall is closing down. And Sonia has become appalled by the recent upsurge in neo-Nazi groups and Holocaust deniers. She decides it is time to tell her story, which she takes to at-risk students and prison inmates, rekindling their commitment to a life with her memories of death, survival, and the persistence of love.

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Peter Keough can be reached at