If there's one thing to celebrate at the 19th Annual East Bay International Jewish Film Festival, it's pain-free travel.
Ensconced in Pleasant Hill's cushy Century 16 Theatres, or sipping Concannon cabernet at the Vine Cinema & Alehouse in Livermore, or marveling at the Art Deco wonder of the Orinda Theatre, film buffs will visit Jerusalem's serpentine streets, the Ukraine (70 feet underground) and San Francisco of 1848 through early 20th century, among other locales.
Presented by The Jewish Federation and The Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay, this year's films arrive from nine different countries. A groundswell of cinematic energy -- partially due to the ease of accomplishment offered by rapidly improving digital technology -- means the Israeli submissions are particularly notable, according to festival Director Riva Gambert.
"Indeed there is a film for everyone's taste and sensibility," she writes in the program notes.
A season pass provides access to more than 40 feature-length films, audience talk-backs and -- new this year -- "Short Bites," scheduled between morning and afternoon films. The short features, mostly 5 to 15 minutes in length, are complete miniature snapshots made by seasoned filmmakers and up-and-coming mavericks. Festival-goers who prefer real bites may use the time to visit nearby restaurants and local attractions (the festival website provides links to websites listing both). As always, individual tickets can be ordered online, or purchased (with a $1 surcharge) at the door. A visit to http://eastbayjewishfilm.org/14/lineup.html makes perusing the lineup simple and (especially for film-goers planning to bring their children) the perfect way to prescreen the offerings.
Although the festival was set to begin Friday, March 7 (the Sabbath, with no films after sunset), the official kickoff begins Saturday, the 8th, with the opening night's Bay Area Premiere of director Avi Nesher's "The Wonders." Underwritten by the family of Carole Chaiken, an avid film lover who passed away in 2013, the memorial screening will be far from a somber affair. With jocular jousting between a graffiti-tagging bartender and a moody, menacing detective -- slapsticked against international hip-hop group HaDag Nachash's score -- film-induced laughter will pay tribute to Chaiken's life.
The film noir's edgy-cheerful charm, reminiscent of Coen Brothers or Woody Allen films, will also address festival-goers' appetite for more comedies. "We have three documentaries this year which tell the story of 'ha ha' men, and several dramas with a light touch," Gambert said. "Cupcakes," a film screening twice during the festival, she called, "a frothy cinematic treat." Another treat, "When Comedy Went to School," features humorous answers to the question, "Why are so many comedians Jewish?" Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Larry King, Jerry Stiller and others provide the laughs and lingering reminiscences.
But there's also meat in the festival's muscle, with investigations into societal pressures within the Jewish community. "Fill the Void," loaded with seven Israeli Oscars and a Venice Film Festival "Best Actress" award for Hadas Yaron, tells the searing story of an Orthodox Hassidic family in Tel Aviv. A death during childbirth has presented a young woman with an (at first) unspoken ultimatum: disregard her mother's pressure to wed her brother-in-law, or flee to pursue her dreams.
Ken Blady, an author and lecturer on faculty at a number of Bay Area colleges, will appear as guest speaker for the screenings of "Fill the Void" and another film, "Lone Samaritan." A leading expert on Jewish themes, Blady will unpack the arguably explosive elements distinguishing Samaritans from ultraorthodox Jews and speak to local Jewish history.
Balanced between lighter fare and bold explorations of controversial subjects, are films like a documentary screened in honor of longtime film festival volunteer Barney Sherman. "Glickman" follows the fascinating life of sports broadcaster Marty Glickman.
From Olympic track star to his career as the HBO announcer who coined the terms "the lane" and "swish," his story travels from drama on a global scale (World War II and Hitler) to compelling action on America's professional sports courts and fields.
"People request the dates of our festival a year in advance," Gambert said. Perhaps that is because the festival's broad sweep offers painless escape, education and entertainment to all.