Updated: Mar 8, 2019
Still from 'Working Woman'
As the longest-running film festival in Nevada, the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival has years of history and a vibrant, supportive community to draw on, which allowed festival founder and director Joshua Abbey to make every screening at this year’s festival free to attend. Although the festival program has slimmed down in recent years (this year’s schedule had only eight feature films, spread out over nearly three weeks), Abbey still has impeccable taste, and he’s developed an impressive ability to program challenging and innovative films that also cater to the interests of the festival’s sponsors.
At LVJFF, that means there will always be movies about the Holocaust, and this year was no exception. But documentary “Who Will Write Our History,” which has been collecting accolades at multiple film festivals over the last few months, has more to offer than some of the drily educational documentaries that LVJFF has programmed in the past. Not that it isn’t educational, but it’s more than just a collection of talking heads and archival footage, and it focuses on an aspect of Holocaust history that hasn’t already been picked over in dozens of other movies.
Namely, that’s the preservation project led by Emanuel Ringelblum in the Warsaw Ghetto, documenting everyday lives of Polish Jews during the Nazi occupation. Director Roberta Grossman mingles the traditional scholar interviews with narration taken directly from eyewitness accounts and re-enactments of the events they describe. Those re-enactments can be a little stiff, but they give the story greater urgency, and enlisting a couple of talented, well-known actors (Adrien Brody and Joan Allen) as the main narrators lends a bit of sophistication to the presentation.
Of the eight features in this year’s festival, seven were documentaries, and providing a bit of information about a lesser-known part of Jewish culture or history is a reliable way for the festival to entice patrons. That was the function of the amusing (but frustratingly superficial) documentary “Shalom Bollywood,” about Jewish performers in the early days of India’s film industry, but I preferred the more oblique approach of opening-night film “The Museum,” an impressionistic portrait of the Israel Museum directed by Ran Tal. Tal strings together vignettes about various exhibits and employees at the massive history and art museum in Jerusalem, turning what could have been a bland promotional video into a lyrical meditation on Israeli and Jewish identity.
Director Alan Berliner also takes an impressionistic approach to his 2012 documentary “First Cousin Once Removed,” which showed at a program sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association of Southern Nevada. A record of the declining years in the life of Berliner’s cousin, renowned poet Edwin Honig, “First Cousin” is an often heartbreaking chronicle of Alzheimer’s, but Berliner’s use of non-linear editing and elliptical meditations built around Honig’s own decaying recollections ensure that the movie is a personal artistic statement rather than a tearjerking public service announcement.
Moment from 'The Museum'
The only narrative film in this year’s festival, the Israeli sexual harassment drama “Working Woman,” occasionally comes close to public service announcement territory, and the trajectory of its main character, a wife and mother heading back to work to support her family while her husband opens a restaurant, is fairly predictable as soon as she starts working for an overly familiar older man. Even if the progression from inappropriate comments to full-on sexual assault is easy to see coming, director Michal Aviad handles the subject with sensitivity and takes the time to build fully realized lead characters (including the harasser himself), and star Liron Ben-Shlush makes for a sympathetic, assertive protagonist.
The festival closed with the hourlong documentary “Balabustas,” directed by Abbey himself, which is set to be available soon for free on YouTube. The collection of interviews with various influential Jewish women in Las Vegas is more valuable as local history than as cinema, chronicling the growth of the city alongside the growth of its (initially tiny) Jewish community. Originally shot in 2005, the interviews themselves are fairly rudimentary, interspersed with some vintage photos, and there isn’t much connecting material to unite the film as a whole. Still, the packed screening was a rallying point for the local Jewish community, and after 18 years, the festival itself serves the same purpose, providing a welcome showcase of Jewish culture for anyone interested in exploring it.