Here we are, nearly four months into 2006, and as a movie critic and entertainment writer something has been bugging me: the downright lack of good movies. Although I haven't compared the studios' output to the same period last year, I can't help but think that there has been far less in the way of solid entertainment that I'd seriously recommend to anyone who likes a good movie. Even now, as I sit in my office writing this piece, only a handful of titles come to mind. Luckily for film fans in Vancouver, there is a constant stream of alternative film programming for those who want more than just a Hollywood blockbuster. Moving Pictures: The Canadian Film Festival has already occurred, as well as a Masters of Horror program and Shaw Brothers retrospective. Now, from March 30th through April 9th, we have the 18th Annual Vancouver Jewish Film Festival.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival first came to my attention a couple years back after reading about it in the Georgia Straight, where I learned that they were set to screen The Hebrew Hammer, a film which received a very limited release in the U.S. The movie, funded by Comedy Central, was a Jewsploitation film in the vein of Shaft, with Adam Goldberg trying to stop Andy Dick from running the holiday season. For some reason, this sounded extremely funny to me, and I had been on the lookout for it to hit video or through some fluke a theatrical screen ever since I saw Goldberg on one of the late night talk shows. Although I never made it out to that screening and was disappointed when I finally did manage to catch the film in question, I applauded the festival for booking such a film in amongst a bunch of more serious documentary and historical fare. That trend continues this year, with another bold programming choice, but more on that in a moment.
This year's festival, the 18th annual, runs for 11 days throughout the city of Vancouver and even stretches beyond the mainland with screenings in Victoria. Locally, the screenings will be taking place at five Vancouver venues including the Oakridge Cinemas – which will hold the opening and closing gala films, the Norman Rothstien Theatre, as well as two new venues for this year, the Fifth Avenue Cinemas and the Vancity Theatre. Over in Victoria, the screenings will be taking place at the Roxy Cinegog, which according to my Victoria-based friends is a haven to alternative programming on the island.
As was the case in past years, programming this time around is an eclectic mix of documentaries – both short subject and feature length, acclaimed foreign films – both historical and fictional, and a one of the year's funniest, and as of writing unseen by local Vancouver audiences, performance film. Opening up the festival on March 30th is the French film The First Time I Was 20 by filmmaker Loraine Levy, a story about a young Jewish girl who is thrown into a hostile environment when she is selected for her school's Jazz Band. Starring Marilou Berry, who cinephiles will know from Agnes Joui's Look at Me, this is an strong choice for the festival opener. Other highlights in the feature film section of the festival include the Oscar-nominated Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, which is screening ahead of its limited Canadian release from Mongrel Media. Sophie Scholl tells the true story of Germany's anti-Nazi heroine, a young college student turned activist in 1943. Natalie Portman headlines in Free Zone, an Isreali film about an American who catches a ride with a taxi driver (Hanna Laslo, Cannes award winner) on her way to the free zone to pick up money for her husband. The film, directed by Amos Gitai, details the tension between the two women as differences in their religion cause them to struggle to reach common ground.
If dramatic features aren't of interest to you, the festival has also programmed a number of interesting and informative documentaries ranging from 39 Pounds to Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School to Edward G Ullmer: The Man Off Screen. 39 Pounds chronicles the life of muscular dystrophy survivor Ami Ankilewitz and his struggle through life with only the use of one finger. Throughout director Dani Menkin's feature, audience members are introduced to a man who has overcome tremendous odds to live out his dream of riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle and work as a computer animator in Tele Aviv. Hineni: Coming Out in a Jewish High School details the personal struggle a young Jewish girl faces when she decided to come out as a lesbian in her traditional Jewish school. Not content to just be an out lesbian, she also fought for a Gay Straight Alliance Club at her high school, despite the obstacles presented to her by the staff, the students, and the parents at the New Jewish High School. The truly inspiring and uplifting story is told through interviews with all those involved.
In one of the festival's boldest programming moves, they have programmed the comedy concert film Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic. This film was the highlight of my visit to the Toronto International Film Festival this past fall, and it's been something I've been wanting to see again ever since. For some reason, the film was not programmed at the Vancouver fest, and has since been shown at the Victoria Film Festival, but not locally. Simply put, this is one of the funniest, most off-the-wall pieces of comedic genius to hit the silver screen in some time. Silverman, probably best known to mainstream audiences from her appearances on the Jimmy Kimmel Show and a memorable moment in the adult comedy documentary The Aristocrats, is in fine form here. Her humour, which isn't for everyone, is told with such a deadpan style that it's hard not to laugh at the always-controversial material. Topics include 9/11, the Holocaust, sex, slavery, and everything in between. It's often offensive, even to the most liberal viewers, however if you can get past that you'll be in for one funny ride – and oh, did I mention she sings!?
Other programming at the festival includes a screening of Deepa Mehtas's early film Sam and Me. Mehta's recent film, Water, was the first Canadian feature picked up by U.S. distributor Fox Searchlight, has enjoyed a long run at Canadian theatres, and will debut later this month in New York and Los Angeles. Returning after successful showings at the Vancouver International Film Festival are Go for Zucker and Live and Become. Lastly, and for something completely different, you can check out "Making the Movies: Directing", a panel discussion featuring local filmmakers Bonnie Sher Klien, David Paperny, and Nicholas Racz, moderated by Vancouver Province film writer David Spaner.
This year's Vancouver Jewish Film Festival promises to be another interesting and informative time at the movies with something for everyone. Not only do you get an advance look at some highly-acclaimed foreign films before their Vancouver theatrical release, but there are also plenty of unseen gems waiting to be discovered amongst this varied lineup. Keep your eyes peeled for more coverage of the VJFF here at MovieContests.com. For more information about tickets, venues, and showtimes, be sure to head over to www.vjff.org, and until then, I'll see you at the movies.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.