Although education has always been a big part of the mission of the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival, in recent years the event has increased its focus on informative documentary content, in some cases at the expense of art. The lineup for this year’s 19th edition included only one narrative feature film (Isaac Cherem’s “Leona,” from Mexico) along with a program of documentaries highlighting important people and events from Jewish culture and history. Those documentaries were generally enlightening, with varying levels of cinematic quality, and they serve the festival’s mission of community outreach, even if they aren’t always fascinating films.
Israeli director Dani Menkin came to the festival with two documentaries, and his film “Picture of His Life,” about wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum, was the most visually striking documentary film in the festival, following Nachoum in his efforts to capture a photograph of a polar bear swimming in the wild, the culmination of his long career getting close to dangerous animals in order to preserve gorgeous images of them. Fittingly for a movie about an artist with an impeccable visual sense, “Picture of His Life” is full of striking images of the natural world, and Menkin and co-director Yonatan Nir keep all of their interview subjects (aside from Nachoum and the people with him on his expedition) offscreen, pairing their voices with more of the film’s stunning imagery.
It was interesting to learn about the lives of foreign correspondent Ruth Gruber (in “Ahead of Time”) and civil rights leader Rabbi Joachim Prinz (in “I Shall Not Be Silent”), but those documentaries were both the standard talking-heads-and-archival-footage productions that are often only slightly more engaging than reading a Wikipedia entry (and both have been available for several years already). Looking backward was more successful in the screening of landmark Jewish LGBT documentary “Trembling Before G-d,” which played at the very first Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival in 2001. Director Sandi DuBowski returned to the festival after visiting for the original screening, offering an update on his film’s subjects and a preview of his upcoming new documentary “Rabbi” (about an Israeli drag queen/rabbi). “Trembling” is still powerful and stirring, even with all the progress that has been made toward tolerance within the Orthodox Jewish community since it was first released.
Forbidden romantic relationships in the Jewish faith were also the subject of “Leona,” which played in a lavish luxury theater at Maya Cinemas in North Las Vegas, a new venue for the festival this year (screenings were also held at the Adelson Educational Campus, the Windmill Library, Brenden Theaters at the Palms and the Century South Point). Isaac Cherem’s film focuses on the close-knit Mexico City community of Syrian Jews, who live an insular existence, refusing to allow anyone into their faith via conversion, and shunning anyone from the community who marries outside the very specific faith (even to Jews from other sects). Co-writer Naian González Norvind plays Ariela, a young woman who’s already testing the conservative community’s boundaries with her career as an artist, and becomes further alienated from her family and friends when she starts dating a non-Jewish man.
A lot of “Leona”’s plot beats are familiar from other star-crossed-lovers stories, but Cherem and Norvind add extra dimensions by depicting the movie’s unique cultural context, and Norvind’s lead performance is sensitive and layered. Rather than demonizing everything about Ariela’s community and idealizing her relationship with Ivan (Christian Vazquez), the movie portrays both with complexity, ending on an ambiguous note that doesn’t provide easy answers. It’s the kind of challenging artistic production that LVJFF should program more of, and it’s just as educational as the blander documentaries on the festival bill (especially thanks to the post-screening context provided by local Rabbi Felipe Goodman, a Mexico City native).
The festival always draws heavily from the Vegas Jewish community for support, and the closing world premiere screening of locally produced documentary shorts “A Promise to Our Fathers” and “Live to Bear Witness” brought out that community in full force, completely filling the large auditorium at the Adelson Educational Campus. Produced by Vegas media veteran Gene Greenberg, “A Promise to Our Fathers” tells the story of Greenberg’s parents, Holocaust survivors who emigrated from Poland to the United States, as well as the father of Greenberg’s childhood friend Larry Pollard, a World War II veteran who’s involved in education about the Holocaust. It’s a slickly produced tribute to both men’s families, with affecting firsthand accounts of how wartime experiences shaped Greenberg’s and Pollard’s parents, and in turn shaped the two men themselves.
LVJFF director Joshua Abbey directed “Live to Bear Witness” himself, and like his documentary from last year’s festival, “Balabustas” (about influential local Jewish women), it’s more valuable as community-building than as cinema. It’s a little more polished than Abbey’s previous film, and it takes on a heavier subject, with local Holocaust survivors asking questions of local high school and college students, gauging the younger generation’s knowledge and reactions. Both “A Promise to Our Fathers” and “Live to Bear Witness” will be valuable classroom tools, and if LVJFF is going to be primarily devoted to education, these projects show the festival accomplishing that agenda effectively.