The 18th annual East Bay International Jewish Film Festival is preparing to serve local film buffs a smorgasbord of international award-winning dramas, family friendly features, documentaries with impact, musical masterpieces and the obligatory big bucket popcorn.

From March 9-17, at the festival's three venues at Pleasant Hill's CinéArts, the Orinda Theatre in Orinda, and Livermore's Vine Cinema, 18 documentaries and 22 feature films will screen.

Operating under the umbrella of the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay, festival director Riva Gambert says the 27-member volunteer selection committee reflects the festival's international flavor.

"Over half of the people were born outside of the U.S.," she explains. "We meet every two weeks for 6 months to review films, then every month for logistic planning."

Committee member selection is performed with the same careful scrutiny she applies to more than 100 films she previews each year.

"We make sure they like international films and have actual knowledge or are cinema lovers. One year, we had someone who didn't like subtitles, so that didn't work," she recalls.

In 2013, more of the committee screenings happen online, which Gambert says is difficult, especially when films are only available for 24-hour periods. And there will be no 35 mm films this year: digital is king.


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Instead of following a theme -- other than the festival's "See a film, see the world" motto -- Gambert says the films were chosen based on the importance of subject matter, quality of acting and cinematography, and for their "bridge-building potential."

Music might be considered the material for constructing sturdy connections in 2013.

"Hava Nagila," the iconic you-gotta-dance staple of Jewish celebrations, draws a spirited profile of the song's diverse history. "Orchestra of Exiles" shows violinist Bronislaw Huberman saving top Jewish musicians from Nazi obliteration and planting the seeds of the Israel Philharmonic in Palestine.

"Under African Skies" extends the legacy of Paul Simon's controversial 1986 album, documenting a 25th century concert and reinvigorating the dialogue surrounding South Africa's apartheid system.

Gambert says this year's musical thru-line was "a fluke," but admits, musical films are engaging.

"Our audience appreciates films that not only please the eye, but please the ears."

But rattling, possibly even jolting, film lovers brains isn't out of the question either. Gambert mentions "Melting Away," the closing film.

"It's the first film we've had that deals with transgender," she says. "And we're having a panel discussion following the screening because it's a significant topic and transgender issues aren't discussed enough."

Although the film's synopsis is sensational on the surface, the under layers are not. Buried in its mature themes, intended for adult audiences, are internal conflicts and grinding family relationships.

"My Dad is Baryshnikov" is a charming, comedic take on a young boy's efforts to pirouette and impress his peers with a lie. But it's also about family -- and a boy's desperate desire for a father.

And "The Inheritance," a film about an Israeli-Muslim family also examines life through a human, not political, lens.

"It's filled with work and love life struggles," Gambert says.

"Not every festival has as broad an understanding of what a Jewish film can be. Our films come from all over the world, and do not speak to one ethnicity or religion," she insists.

But they do reflect Jewish values, Gambert believes, and include fighting intolerance; making sure people are treated with dignity; and being inclusive of marginalized people.

Gambert says the festival costs approximately $90,000 to produce, with ticket sales covering just one-third of that amount. Sponsors and a large number of volunteers make renting the films, theater and equipment and promoting the festival a reality.

She has no doubt the effort is worth it.

"We're not a tourist destination, but we have an audience hungry for international films. We're building bridges through the art of film. "

If you go:
What: 18th annual East Bay International Jewish Film Festival
When: March 9-17
Where: CinéArts, 2314 Monument Blvd., Pleasant Hill; Orinda Theatre, 4 Orinda Square, Orinda; Vine Cinema, 1722 First St., Livermore
Tickets/information: www.eastbayjewishfilm.org