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The National Center for Jewish Film festival turns 21

im Kalkhof in the 2017 film “The Cakemaker.”
Courtesy of the National Center for Jewish Film
Tim Kalkhof in the 2017 film “The Cakemaker.”

Past and present converge as the National Center for Jewish Film’s 21st annual film festival, running May 2-13 at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Coolidge Corner Theatre, presents a program of classics, rediscoveries, and new independent films from eight different countries that explore Jewish history, culture, and identity.

The festival’s official opening night selection on May 3 at the MFA is, aptly, “The Museum,” director Ran Tal’s irrepressible and illuminating look behind the scenes at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (“RBG,” a documentary about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, screens May 2 in a special sneak preview.) Tal, whose “Children of the Sun” not only celebrates the museum’s collection of 500,000 objects (including the Dead Sea Scrolls) but also the people, from curators to guards, who contribute to its vitality. It’s a work of art about art. Tal will be on hand for a post-screening talk with James Snyder, director emeritus of the museum.

One of the highlights in this year’s lineup is “The Cakemaker” (May 5 and 11, MFA), the feature debut of director Ofir Raul Graizer. It’s a drama about a gay German baker (Tim Kalkhof) who moves from Berlin to Jerusalem and befriends the widow (Sarah Adler) of the man they both loved (Roy Miller). The film weaves together themes of loneliness, love, family, and identity.

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The gem of the festival is the new digital restoration of “The Dybbuk” (1937), one of the classics of Yiddish cinema, directed by Michal Waszynski and shot in Poland. Originally restored by the NCJF in 1986, the digital restoration enhances visual clarity and sound; and improves the English subtitles translated from Yiddish language.

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Based on a 1914 play by S. Ansky, who did his research in the shetls of Russia and Ukraine, “The Dybbuk” (1937) draws on Hasidic folklore in its story of a young woman possessed on her wedding eve by a malicious spirit believed to be the displaced soul of a dead person. The wedding scene, shot in the style of German Expressionism, is regarded as a seminal one by film historians.

“It’s a tremendous benchmark piece,” says Lisa Rivo who with NCJF co-director Sharon Pucker Rivo will discuss the two-year restoration effort following the May 6 showing at the MFA.

It’s a happy coincidence that the festival is also presenting the New England premiere of “The Prince ant the Dybbuk” (May 6, MFA), a documentary that deepens the backstory of “The Dybbuk,” as it profiles its director, Michal Waszynski. Born Moshe Waks to a poor Ukrainian Jewish blacksmith, Waszynski became known to friends and colleagues as “The Polish Prince.” He lived like an aristocrat; hobnobbed with Hollywood royalty; and made numerous films, first in Poland and later in Italy, as well as working on the 1964 Hollywood epic “The Fall of the Roman Empire.” Directors Piotr Rosolowski and Elwira Niewiera worked closely with the NCJF on archival footage including scenes from “The Dybbuk.”

Several films this year offer fresh takes on historical events. “Across the Waters” (May 5, MFA; May 8, Coolidge) is a drama based on true events about a family of Danish Jews who flee Nazi-occupied Denmark for Sweden via fishing boats. Director Nicolo Donato’s grandfather was one of the ferrymen.

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Filmmaker Claus Raefle uses a hybrid of documentary and scripted drama for “The Invisibles” (May 6, Coolidge; May 10, MFA) which depicts several young people, called “U-Boats” or “submarines,” who managed to evade capture and were among the thousands of Jews who lived in hiding or under false identities in Berlin as late as 1943.

The historical drama/political thriller “An Act of Defiance” (May 9, Coolidge; May 11, MFA) revisits the 1963 Rivonia Trial in apartheid South Africa, when Nelson Mandela and nine black and Jewish colleagues faced possible death sentences for conspiracy to commit sabotage and treason. They were defended by Afrikaner lawyer Bram Fischer (Peter Paul Muller), who hid his own ties to the resistance.

On the lighter side is Argentine filmmaker Pablo Solarz’s road movie, “The Last Suit” (May 6, MFA), about a Jewish tailor (Miguel Ángel Solá) who defies his children after they sell his Buenos Aires house and pressure him into a retirement home. He sets off on an adventure halfway around the world.

Go to www.filmfest.jewishfilm.org.

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.